Friday, August 31, 2007

Football nation

America is gearing up for football season in ways large and small. The NFL is back on TV, college and high school teams are looking forward to their first games, and the sports pages run glowing profiles of the star athletes who are going to lead their squads to victory.

So it's an appropriate time of year to be watching Friday Night Lights, the acclaimed NBC series based on the 2004 movie, which was itself based on H.G. Bissinger's nonfiction book about the Permian Panthers, perennial champs based out of Odessa, Texas. We had caught up with a few episodes of the series in reruns months back, but since it's a serial, it made a lot more sense once we starting watching the season DVD set from the beginning.

What's arresting -- and endlessly fascinating -- about the show is its rootedness in the rituals of football culture. The way the coach interprets his job to be as much about inspiration as technical skill -- a kind of highly concentrated vision of the complete leader. The influence of the depth chart on social position. The orbiting rings of support groups that encircle the team -- boosters buttonholing the coach in the diner, rally girls making homemade treats for their assigned players, parents putting up big signs in their front yards announcing their sons' numbers and positions.

And something about the quasi-documentary style serves the material well. Football may take place on identical measured grids, but it's outdoors, and the quality of light along with the frequent out-the-car-window establishing shots make the Texas location absolutely indelible. It's a whole nother country, as they say, and appropriately enough, this show doesn't look or feel like anything else on television.

The new fall schedule may look bleak right now, and some of us are still mourning favorites canceled in the last few years. But looking at Friday Night Lights, it's easy to believe that we're still in that new golden age of television.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Aliens among us

Last night I started reading Shattered Dreams, the memoir of a woman who grew up in the forties in a polygamous Mormon sect and married into a polygamous relationship. At age 14, several chapters in, her story already has me shaking my head in amazement. The centerpiece of the religion into which her community indoctrinated her was "The Principle," a term familiar to Big Love viewers. The "people of the covenant" -- those who rejected the LDS repudiation of polygamy in 1904 -- see their task in the world as "living The Principle," marrying as often as possible (because only through "brethren" husbands can wives be "pulled through the veil," attaining goddesshood after death and ruling over their own worlds after death beside their husbands) and having as many children as possible (because their worlds will be populated by their spirit-children, and because pre-existing "noble spirits" await bodily "tabernacles" so that they too can achieve godhood).

I know all these Mormon doctrines from my own reading and training. But what poleaxes me is how thoroughly and viscerally a group of twentieth-century women can believe it. The memoir makes it clear that most people living this way are far from happy. Ever-burgeoning families mean no escape from scarcity. Men are pulled apart by the demands of wives for space, resources and time; women are made to be complicit in their own marginalization by the requirement to recruit new wives to the family. Given the unsustainability of this life and its failure to bring fulfillment to any of its participants, it's hard to imagine continuing to make it the centerpiece of faith and practice generation after generation.

But the writer presents a familiar rationalization: suffer now, or suffer later. Nobody said living The Principle was easy. In fact, Brigham Young said that plural marriage would damn more than it saved. But they believe that they're called to the difficult way, the higher way, the all but impossible way. Marry for love now ... try to keep a man for yourself alone ... and eternity is lost. Worse, the covenant of which you are a child is betrayed. Your obligation isn't just to your own salvation, but to those who passed down this opportunity to you, and to those to whom you could pass it on.

I can imagine my students reading this book gaping with incredulity at the things these people believed. But it's not what they believed, but how it pulled them into relationships with each other -- not necessarily relationships of happiness, but those of persecution, secrecy, and intimate understanding that no one outside could share. In the end, that's what the vast majority of religions do. They don't necessarily make people happy, they don't necessarily make people ethical, they don't necessarily give people a larger perspective on the common good. They are beliefs and practices, absolute nonsense from outside, unbelievable except in very specific contexts of mutual enabling, that put people in relationship to each other. And it's those bonds that are make them so hard for adherents to put in perspective, even in the face of despair, violence, massive social disapproval, persecution, and the failure of their ideals.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pinpointing art

Today at Toxophily: Cady Gray's first handknit.

I picked up Archer at school yesterday because Noel had a phone interview that conflicted with his normal kid-ferrying responsibilities. Here's the conversation I had while we were driving home -- Archer's in the back seat, I'm driving.

Me: Archer, what special class did you have today?
Archer: Art!
Me: And what did you make in art class?
Archer: I made a goodie bag ... for the football team.
Me: (bemused) Oh, that sounds like fun. What did you draw on it?
Archer: I wrote the words "WAMPUS CATS GO TEAM. WIN!" Because Mrs. Collum wants them to win.
That's right, they should win.
Archer: Mom, remember: Art is everywhere. (makes large encircling motion)
Me: It is everywhere.
Archer: (with passion and another encircling gesture) It is all over the world!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Centuries of wisdom agrees with the findings of social science: It's important to have friends. Those who have a support system in times of trouble, those who are able to share deep feelings or difficult decisions with others, are better able to negotiate life's pitfalls than those who don't. And of course, intimate relationships of mutual trust and enrichment are part of what makes human life worth living, as anyone who's had a close friend can attest.

I've never felt very good at making friends. In school I had very close friends with whom I was thrown together by the winds of fortune; feeling excluded from more conventional circles of interest, popularity, or ability, we formed our tight geek bonds. Those friends from elementary school (like Cheryl, who recently and to my great delight commented on this blog) and high school (like Margaret, Louise and Vickie) and college (like Celina and Scott) still make up the bulk of the very best friends I feel I will ever have.

But I don't feel that any particular facility of mine at the art of friendship is responsible for our relationships. I was a loner throughout most of my adolescence, firm in my belief that I could do as well or better on my own than in company with anyone, certain that relationships were simply opportunities to be embarrassed or to disappoint someone. The close friendships I had in my youth seem to me more flukes than accomplishments -- the exception that proves the rules of my antisocial tendencies.

I started changing in graduate school. For whatever reason I began to enjoy the spotlight -- I liked being the center of a group of friends, and I felt comfortable spending time (and lots of it) hanging out with people who liked me. And anyone who meets me now probably wouldn't believe that I was once a confirmed introvert; I'm an effusive, shameless loudmouth who is constantly hugging on people and exhibiting oversized emotions. I like the company of others and enjoy socializing. Sure, I still enjoy retreating into my books and blogs and knitting, and look forward to conference travel where I can overdose on solitude when I choose. But I'm not a loner by nature anymore. The social me is the real me, not a front.

Yet I have no more close friends than I've ever had, for all that I hang out and feel comfortable with a wider variety of people. There are individuals who are adept at inviting people into their lives and making intimacy comfortable; I've known them and I'm grateful for them. But I'm not one of those people. I have to be invited -- I feel false doing the inviting.

We heard from Archer's teacher a few days ago that he was unintentionally overlooked when it came time to claim rewards for having a perfect behavior record for the week. For Archer, the whole world hangs on predictability and routine -- that schedules are followed, that promises are kept, that cause leads to effect. I can only imagine the fracture in his autistic psyche if what he is owed, what he is expecting, doesn't come to pass. Everything falls apart if he can't use what he knows to predict what will happen -- it's the crux of the way he's laboriously learned to deal with this strange alien world.

Luckily for Archer, he has a friend -- or as close a version as a socially-impaired six-year-old like him can have. Savannah, a girl who was in kindergarten with him, has decided to take care of him; she leads him around in the cafeteria and draws him into games at recess. She took matters into her own hands and brought him up to the teacher after he wasn't called up to get his reward, and the matter was rectified -- not before Archer's fragile sense of order started to crumble, but everything was eventually set right.

What friendship will mean for Archer as he grows older, I don't know. For now, it's enough that he knows that there is someone who takes care of him, someone who will seek him out for whatever reason. He barely speaks to other children or meets their eyes, although the light in his face when other children speak to him is overwhelming. I hope he will have friends, though I'm pretty certain he'll never have dozens. In my experience, a few are enough, if they're the right ones, and if you can keep them.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Race night

Dish Rag Tagging, a day earlier than expected, over at Toxophily.

ObKidQuote: One of the joys of having kids is inducing them to utter non-sequiturs or odd pop cultural references they have no way of understanding. While riding in the back of the car with her father, Cady Gray has learned that if she shouts, "Tarzana Nights!" she will elicit a reliable hearty laugh from Dad.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What is it about the start of school ...

... that makes me fixate on my kids? Is it the sudden leaps of cognition that become apparent when they bring work home that you didn't see them create -- work that it's hard for you to imagine them laboring over and perfecting? Or is it just the transition from state to state, from kindergartener to first-grader or nursery to preschool, that makes every detail of their lives seem fleeting and precious?

Today's kidblog moment is brought to you by the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas.

Archer: (walking away from the altar after communion) Dad, I ate my church bread with church dip.

(More tonight at Toxophily, where I anxiously await my turn in a cross-country knitting relay race. Yes, I know, knitting makes you crazy -- or maybe crazy makes you knit.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Archer tells a story

Note: The toe of a new sock today at Toxophily.

For his birthday, Archer received this rather awesome toy which allows you to illustrate your own four-page story and record narration for it. Yesterday he drew this one. Click the captions below each picture to hear the brief text he recorded for each page.

The saga begins innocently enough.

Still very little suspense here.

A stunning surprise twist!

And a graceful denouement.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A perfect fit

As the away-from-home parent, I get all the clingyness from my little girl when I do show up at the end of the day. Often I am dragged into Archer's room and tucked into his bed, where I can drowse while Cady Gray shoots her squishy soccer ball into the Nerf hoop hanging over Archer's closet door. (In a little more than a week of this behavior, she's developed a formidable baseball-pass-style set shot. It is hard to pretend-sleep when she's winging that ball off the closet door in a repeated series of rather loud thumps.)

When Archer tries to come into his own room, Cady Gray shoos him off with "No, Archer. This is only for two people," or "This is only for girls." Sometimes when I'm unavailable for bed duty, Noel subs for me, although Cady Gray is dissatisfied with the way he fits onto Archer's twin mattress; he is "too big," while I'm deemed "a perfect fit."

Her other favorite game, on the cusp of age three, is to play cat or dog. Actually, she usually wants me to play cat or dog, but I'm often able to reverse it so I get to stay human. She's a very quiet but insistent pet, often woofing out surprisingly cogent answers to questions put to her in English, bringing over books to be read in her little paws, and despite the lack of articulation in her extremities, pointing to where she wants her owner to go.

Tonight she was playing cat before dinner, meowing gently to beat the band. To everyone's relief, she reverted back to a little girl midway through the meal ("Mom ... I'm Cady Gray again"), but not before Archer observed:

"Dad, meow is the music of cats. And hello is the music of people."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rich in time

Grandparents are on their way back to Virginia. Kids are in school and daycare. Classes have begun, thrusting me back into the realm of individual effort (my classes, my students) rather than the teamwork of the summer (our conference, our policies).

And that means a sudden increase in the amount of time I have to spend on the projects on my plate. A whole evening to watch TV and knit, not just the time after we're done with our Rummikub game. Two hours in the office (with students coming by occasionally) to monkey with the syllabus and assignment info I'm putting up online. Even half an hour to write a long e-mail to Jane about the summer.

Looked at from the right angle, an hour spent in a training lecture is a few good ideas and four inches of the lace pattern on my ELBS. A none-too-exciting thesis presentation is a me-myself-and-I brainstorming session for the mission statement we've been hashing out. I can multitask in most situations -- the only exceptions being in class and in one-on-one meetings with students.

What's often missing is a long enough block of time to play around with something, to follow a train of thought, to work through a problem from issue to solution. I had stretches this summer where that was the norm, because nobody was in the office but me -- but I also didn't have immediate tasks demanding my attention that focused me. Now I have both tasks and time. Strange that I have that feeling on the first day of classes, the moment where one expects the schedule to get unmanageable.

My biggest task for the night is to decide what sock pattern to cast on next. It won't last, but a moment to breathe is as welcome as the flowers in spring.

Next week: Dinner at work two nights out of five! Wait, what was this entry about?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

All About Archer

On his first day of first grade, Archer brought home a stapled booklet in which he had drawn pictures according to prompts written in by his teacher. The opus was entitled: "All About Me."

I think this is just a head-and-shoulders view. The red marker Archer was using to color in the big open grins he tends to draw sort of spilled over to color his whole head.

I can't tell who's who in this picture, but I'm charmed that he drew us with differently-shaped heads, various heights, and in a range of colors.

No idea what this is. It's not his usual smile shape, although the coloring gives a face-like illusion to the thing. It resembles a plate of grapes with a slice of cantaloupe.

Archer has drawn himself as a very happy stick figure playing basketball with a big orange backstop. Now Archer couldn't care less about basketball. When asked about himself, he tends to confabulate. He doesn't really have the internal resources to talk extensively about his internal processes or about his desires beyond the immediately present. So he appropriates some idea from the environment and asserts it as his own. It's something we often have to correct when someone asks him a quesiton about himself; he'll confidently say that he has a hamster or three sisters, and he's not trying to lie, boast, or even simply be a part of the larger conversation. He's just being pressed for an answer, and has no motivation to do the work necessary to connect memory with speech in order to formulate an accurate answer. As far as he's concerned, it's just conversation, and what you do in conversation is just make a response -- any response will do.

That said, his teachers seem to understand that when he does participate in a verbal exchange "normally" -- using memory and initiative to come up with an informative contribution -- he should be rewarded. Today he proudly told us that he got a "Good As Gold" sticker because "in P.E., I raised my hand and said to Ms. Miller, 'Three strikes and you're out.'" I'm assuming that he actually answered a question posed by the teacher, and I'm very happy that the teacher found this significant enough to praise him for it -- because it's truly a major accomplishment.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Be the change

In a quiet way, we're trying to change a few things about our lives. Noel's on a personal no-HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) kick, trading his Cokes for natural sodas. He's been making us delicious simple dinners without as many processed ingredients. And slowly, as schedules and kids make it possible, we're hoping to start shopping for local produce at the farmer's market.

I'm going to turn my latest obsession -- knitting -- to that cause. I was struck by a debate I heard on the Diane Rehm show about plastic grocery bags, in which one participant opined that it should be illegal for stores to give them away. They are without a doubt a menace, and I feel terrible every time I bring another batch home -- it's pure waste. So I'm knitting reusable market bags for Noel. The full story, and a picture of the current work-in-progress, at Toxophily today.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I get my socks at Kmart, definitely Kmart

Today's dailyblogging: the epic account of my first pair of knitted socks over at Toxophily.

In other news: Be sure to read Noel's perceptive essay on rewatching Rain Man, on the A.V. Club blog. Today was Archer's first day of first grade, and it's on days like this that we remember our journey with autism so far. Trust Noel to connect it up to most people's image of autism -- Dustin Hoffman counting cards at the blackjack table -- and to remind us all of truer, less sensational moments in that flawed film: Hoffman's conversational framework, his reliance on routine for structure, and his retreat into comforting autistic behaviors when things get out of hand.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Manual labor weekend

I feel like I've been pummeled with rubber hoses. After wrestling cardboard boxes Friday night, wrangling party guests on Saturday, and hauling mini-fridges this morning, I'm ready to head back to my Aeron chair. Twice I've been playing with Cady Gray in Archer's room -- she likes to tuck me into bed while she shoots baskets at his Nerf hoop -- and have almost fallen asleep.

But there'll be no rest for the weary tomorrow: Opening Convocation at 9:30 in full academic regalia, luncheon at noon with a Title VI grant oversight committee, and then the first meeting with the incoming crop of Honors students at 1:30. The latter is likely to be something of a performance, and I've got to make sure I've got all my handouts and Keynote slides (mmmm ... iWork '08) in a row. Let's see -- I still need 120 more copies of the small group rosters, 170 copies of the first page of the syllabus, and another 170 copies of the instructions for registering on HCOL, the Honors online community.

That means I've got to get cracking early tomorrow morning to get all that underway before I throw on my robe and head across to the auditorium to impress all the freshmen with the majesty of academia. Granny Lou and Papa arrived today, and they'll be walking Archer to school in the morning for his first day of first grade. August 20: the day summer ends. Brief blogging is likely for the next several days while the 'rents are here; I'll try to get some pictures of FOs and WIPs for Ravelry and Toxophily to fill in the gaps. Happy fall semester, all you academics (offer not valid for those on the quarter system). Everybody else -- carry on.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Legends of the Backyard Temple: A guided tour

1. Survey the temple with its many rooms and passageways.

2. You're looking for a pendant of life hidden somewhere inside this ancient Mayan ruin.

3. When Kirk Fogg gives the signal, enter the temple and choose your pathway.

4. The choices are yours, and yours alone!

5. Some rooms, like this Ancient Mayan Voting Booth, may contain pendants of life -- be sure to explore thoroughly!

6. Don't get stuck in the Quicksand Bog -- keep moving!

7. You may stop briefly to enjoy the scenic views along the way.

8. You've found the pendant in the Shrine of the Silver Monkey! All the doors of the temple are now open!

9. Crawl quickly through the Ledges and ...

10. ... Sprint for home!

Brought to you by Skechers ... it's the S!

Party accomplished

My fellow Americans, major party operations have ended.

We're going to space camp!

Party Hour Zero

7 furniture boxes
6 moving boxes
30 Mr. McGroovy's box rivets
2 rolls of duct tape
84 ancient Aztec symbols (should be Mayan, but you take what you can get)
24 guests
12 kids
2 birthdays
4 Temple team t-shirts

All party systems are go ... We are go for party.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Into the night

6:30-8:30 pm: Assembled crawl-through cardboard tunnel -- 40 feet long! -- in the backyard.

8:30-9:30: Hung Mayan symbols and blue, purple, green and orange crepe paper throughout the house while Noel wrestled with plastic sheeting to cover the tunnel in case it rains tonight (30% chance).

9:30: So very thirsty -- went to Sonic for a Route 44 soda. Had to stop and get gas on the way. Accidentally opened the trunk while trying to open the gas tank.

9:45: Wrapped extra books for Book Swap while watching last night's Colbert. Andrew Keen -- sheesh.

10:00 pm: Wrote blog. In the absence of interesting content, tried to build anticipation for the photos of the Hidden Temple party (featuring the Great Backyard Temple Run) that I'll post tomorrow.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Growing up: The next phase

Role reversal can be an odd, vertiginous process. But live long enough, and it will happen to you: The child becomes the adult, the apprentice becomes the master. And the former adult, the old master, now finds himself in the subordinate role. It's uncomfortable for both parties -- neither one knows quite how to act. Both feel like imposters. It's a common enough experience for people taking care of their parents, but that doesn't make it any less wrenching.

I'm lucky that my parents are still vigorously taking care of themselves -- and taking care of me, quite frankly, in many ways. I'm not in the least ready for those roles to shift. But I experienced a tiny moment of role reversal with my mentor today. I had to give him advice. That's not our relationship -- he's supposed to teach me and lead me. Taking the reins to tell him something he might not want to hear was profoundly disturbing and difficult for me.

It was all for the best, but muscling those roles around 180 degrees was hard work, and it was a relief to have it over with and everyone back in their places. The older I get, though, the more I'm not going to be able to relax and occupy that role of assistant, learner, apprentice, child. I barely feel like an adult most of the time, at my best. It's sobering to think that more days like today are approaching, and someday that will be all there is -- nobody to take care of me, only me, taking care of everybody. The thought makes me want to let it all go and become a hermit or something -- relinquish ambition altogether.

Too late for that, though. There are already people depending on me, and not only is nobody going to take them off my hands, but more are going to be arriving. I'd better hope my mentors and other parental figures stick around long enough for me to adjust to the process and steel myself for the reality. In my opinion, they can take as long as they like.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Time's growing short before school starts, and in the halls of administration, tempers are growing short, too. Stuff that should have been done weeks ago hasn't gotten done, and everyone's more interested in talking about whose fault it is than figuring out how to fix it. Finding out how the sausage is made isn't all it's cracked up to be.

But luckily I still get to bask in the blissful naivete of the other side of the fence when I put my kids in somebody else's school. No doubt there are just as many administrative headaches -- probably a lot more, considering the number of fingers in the pot and the relative transparency to taxpayers -- but they're largely invisible to me. I just show up with my children on the appointed day, and there are teachers ready to teach them, desks for them to sit at, schedules that tell them when to go to music and art and P.E.

Archer goes to his orientation evening for first grade tomorrow evening. In a telling reminder of the sludgy bureaucracy that's he's become a part of, we got a postcard today -- just like before the kindergarten orientation event last year -- addressed to "Archur Murray." Somewhere in the school records, that "u" resists eradication; even though his kindergarten teacher corrected it in her classroom, it persists deep in the bowels of the system.

Last year on the first day of school, parents of kindergarteners got to take their little darlings to the classroom personally and kiss them goodbye, then retire to the cafeteria for special refreshments and complimentary souvenir mini-packets of Kleenex. This year, parents of first-graders drive up to the door, shove their kids out of the car, and peel out like Michael Andretti. It's all supposed to be routine at this point. I know Noel can't wait to have someone else in charge of Archer every weekday (and a different someone else in charge of Cady Gray Monday and Wednesday mornings), and there's no doubt we'll get used to it very quickly. But it's amazing how fast "so great to get away from the kids" becomes "man, I miss the kids."

Next summer, I swear we're going to test that theory with a parents-only vacation. Nothing makes your children's smiles brighter and their voices sweeter than a little time away. And I speak as someone whose children's smiles are clinically proven to be 30% brighter than the national average.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Note: Dishcloth knitting today on Toxophily.

I'm blogging to you tonight from a brand new wireless network at the Bowman-Murray household. The Archery, our venerable "snow" Airport base station, has stepped down to spend more time with its family. Filling its circular footprint: Archery Extreme, the network powered by our new (square) Airport Extreme, henceforth to be known as Station 12. (It's hard thinking up clever names for all this stuff. Gimme a break.)

Both the base station and its most important accessory, a LaCie 320 GB hard drive and USB hub, arrived today, and I spent a blissful hour alternating setting them up and trying to entertain a whiny Cady Gray. (Sample dialogue: "Mommy, stop working.") A few software installations later, we're sitting on our living room couches connected to a hard drive that's plugged directly into the wireless base station. You can also plug a USB printer into it (or, in our case, into the USB hub on the back of the hard drive). Share a hard drive and a printer over the entire network without having them directly attached to any of the network's computers.

The impetus for this upgrade was Noel's desire to access his huge iTunes library no matter where he's working in the house. Right now it's stored on a 120 GB Firewire drive that rests between the sections of our couch. For most people it might not be a big deal to have to plug in a drive to get at your music. But Noel's iTunes library is his livelihood. He rips dozens of discs to it every week, listening to them over time, queuing up some subset of them to be reviewed (entailing more listens) and another larger segment to be cherrypicked of their best tracks, discarding the dross. If there's only the one chair where he can work with his music, a chair where the wires sticking out left and right from the laptop essentially buckle him in for the duration, he can't be hopping up to help the kids, answer the phone, find the lost toy, and do all the million little things a stay-at-home dad has to do.

So with this new network, we're trying to unwire ourselves even more than we were before. I'm hoping to back up my data (especially my priceless digital photos) more often with a huge hard drive always sitting there on the network. And of course, I'm hoping that these elegant little boxes (stacked perfectly on top of each other, since the LaCie drive was made to the dimensions of a Mac Mini and so was the Airport Extreme) will lessen my frustration with their seamless integration into our technology, and give me joy with their user-centered sense of design.

Next up in our program of Self Improvement Through Electronic Boxes: TiVo HD. If I never have to watch Noel laboriously adding programs to our cable-company tuner-DVR because "season pass" doesn't work, or deleting all the million-and-one repeats of something on Bravo because the DVR doesn't have a "first-run only" option, or risk losing a program forever because of a quick trigger finger on the delete button and no "recently deleted" folder where shows can be archived for a few days -- that'd make a fine birthday present to myself.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A peek into the future

Tim Page, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome until he was an adult. But as he writes in the current issue of the New Yorker, his peculiarities started frustrating his teachers from an early age.

I was struck by the familiar ring of a second-grade essay Page composed after a field trip to Boston. Except for one sentence in which he mentions that they saw things "like the Boston Massacre," there is no mention of museums or historic sites. Instead, he chronicles the exact time the bus left. He notes the number of the bus, which is the same as the number of one of the schoolbus routes that travels on this particular street, and that one, and that one, where a classmate lives. He lists the interstates on which they traveled to Boston. Then he concludes with an account of the exact time they returned.

Fast-forward Archer a year into the future, and I find it hard to imagine that he won't be writing that exact essay. After all, most of his conversation consists of information about the temperature, the time, various street addresses where important people in his life reside, dates when crucial events will take place, and the relationship between all those numbers -- which collectively makes up the framework on which his happiness depends.

I tend to think that Archer's autistic communication reflects his obsession with numbers -- and so it does. But Page's account of his early life reminds me that there's another meaning to it. He can't separate relevant details from irrelevant ones. It's what makes social interactions so difficult and laborious to achieve. Normal conversation depend on reading the important cues and knowing what's appropriate based on them. That, in effect, means knowing how to dismiss or ignore trivial details.

It's that ability to intuitively discriminate among the various facts, objects, and symbols in our environment that makes it possible to share a common world with people in communication. And it's exactly that that autistic individuals have to learn step by step, rather than understanding through the usual socialization processes. Until they do, the world that makes sense to them is going to be made up of stuff that doesn't make sense to us, and vice versa. In the final analysis, that's the difference that keeps autistic people locked in their own world -- the trait that gave them their name, from the Greek for "self."

Archer's making great progress, but I get most excited when he's able to connect what other people are talking about (or a story in a book) to something that's already slotted into meaning in his life. He may not be focusing on the piece of information that's significant in my world, but he's attending enough to my world to want to build a bridge between the two. And he's got to start where he is -- with his numbers, times, mazes, and complicated processes for transforming them into each other -- and find a way to translate. When that happens, I see his joy. Another piece has fallen into place for him, and he loves more than anything that sense of the world organizing itself from chaos to meaning. My greatest hope for him is that he finds a way to live in the details he loves, like Page has done with his music. I have confidence that he can negotiate enough of our world to make his way into and out of those details as required, but I'd rather that he be able to work inside the world that makes the most sense to him, and not have to spend most of his waking hours translating in a foreign land.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Recent accomplishments

  • Box score. On the way back from lunch on Saturday, I drove by the back parking lot of Archer's school and happened to glance at the recycling area. To my excitement, it was overflowing with cardboard boxes, and as far as I could tell from my vantage point 75 yards away, some of them appeared to be large furniture boxes. Because of an upcoming party which is threatening to become somewhat medium-key, I find myself in need of large cardboard boxes. Why? Here's the story. Back when we got our new media storage cabinets, I had the pack-rattish idea that the refrigerator-sized boxes would make good play equipment one of these days. Then the Legends of the Hidden Temple craze hit our kids in earnest, and at least in Archer's case, has never let up. I realized that those boxes could become a temple layout, and a cardboard fort series on Thingamababy (along with the availability of this facilitating hardware) sealed the deal. That's why I was breaking down Virco boxes and loading them in the Subaru in the 100-degree heat yesterday noon. Despite the manual labor, I was inordinately excited to snag so many big boxes. The temple tunnel I was planning instantly grew from three rooms to ... a lot more than three rooms. I didn't keep track of how many I was grabbing beyond "just one more."

  • Rip it. After literally months of dithering, I took the plunge (emboldened by the presence of the Secret Knitter) to unravel the crochet straps on Cady Gray's jumper, which I originally made way too long and didn't attach to the front ribbing very well. In a night (should I be so productive) I could get them redone, better, faster, stronger. I have a sudden image of CG wearing the dress to her first day of school. Then I get something in my eye and have to find a tissue.

  • Cursed. No, No, Nanette is a baseball trivia answer (and an inaccurate one at that). But it's also the highly-attenuated show-within-a-movie in Tea For Two, a frothy Doris Day/Gordon MacRae musical we watched during the kids' naps this afternoon. I realized anew that I'd rather be Eve Arden than Doris Day. One hopes that if there is an afterlife, this choice will be offered.

  • Natural living. After I made a solo trip to the playground with both kids on Saturday morning, an outing which entailed some creative toileting arrangements, Cady Gray announced to her father later that afternoon: "Daddy, a tree is a kind of potty."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Small town, small world

Conway is a town of nearly 60,000 souls -- not exactly a bustling metropolis, but not a one-horse main street either. You'd think that I could spend a quiet afternoon in a yarn store and a cafe without running into a steady stream of students, colleagues, and friends-of-friends. But you, my beloved reader, would be wrong.

In a parade seemingly organized to make the Secret Knitter (visiting since Thursday) think that I engineered it purposefully -- to make myself look like a person with a life, presumably -- I met, in the space of four hours:

  • the mother of a former student;
  • a staffer at a nearby university with whom I have several friends in common;
  • a friend on the faculty at my institution, whose class I visited as a guest speaking last semester;
  • a favorite former student back in town to finish her degree;
  • and a current student with whom I have just a nodding acquaintance.
I could spend a whole week out and about in Conway without so much as seeing a single person I know, but this afternoon, every time I turned around there was a familiar face. The impression it gave to the SK was that I am a well-connected citizen with a wide range of friends among the beautiful people. How did this terrible lie become plausible?

Whatever the tragic misconceptions with which the SK will return to his Secret Location (SL), I've had a lot of fun squiring him around Central Arkansas. Selfishly, I made his vacation my vacation -- taking off work, going to my favorite places, running up the credit cards. He's been a very easy guest, right at home whether wandering through the Clinton Library, sitting next to Cady Gray at library story time, or holding down his end of the sectional sofa during the Braves game. I hope his trip to Arkansas has been a source of renewal first and foremost, with perhaps a little education about our fair state thrown in for free.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Treading water

Increasingly we hear that a college degree is the new high school diploma -- that, in other words, it's the minimum required to have a shot at a decent career and the American dream. And certainly, the population that expects to go to college has drastically expanded since World War II, for many interesting reasons (including the increase in university capacity prompted by the influx of G.I. Billers).

But here at UCA, we're reminded by the university president at every graduation how far we are from making bachelor's degrees the new normal. At last count (just a week ago), 19% of Arkansas adults older than 25 have a college degree, placing the state 49th in the nation in this measure, ahead of only West Virginia (at nearly 16%).

It's hard to imagine that collegiate education could be considered the new baseline in a state where 80% of adults past the traditional college age are making do with a high school education. And it's a sobering reminder of how far from the mainstream higher education is in this state, a fact that counsels vigilance in the fight to position the state's colleges as a funding priority. Although over 60% of high school graduates in the state now go to college, a rate that has shown a marked and continuous increase in the past decade and now is about equivalent to the nationwide measure, it's easy to see how many of them are first-generation college students -- and therefore how much more difficult it is going to be for them to succeed, not having been raised in a culture where higher education is taken for granted. I know that many of those students on the margins are the ones who enter under a remedial program and find themselves out of school before they know it, their few semesters of tuition having long since disappeared into the maw of the billing office.

Congratulations to the summer 2007 graduates of UCA, whose commencement ceremony I just attended. They deserve it. An undergraduate degree in this state still constitutes bucking the odds.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The game of hooky

I took the afternoon off -- and all tomorrow too -- in order to drive at my leisure around Central Arkansas showing off the sites to my visitor. And while driving over the bridge at Toad Suck Ferry Locks and Dam, on our way to Perryville, I was seized with the joy of independent mobility.

It's been a long time since I learned to drive at 16 and first got that intoxicating whiff of freedom that comes from being able to go from point A to point B under your own power. Even better than getting to point B, of course, was to decide mid-journey that you wanted to go to point C instead. The sense of autonomy is almost overwhelming. One is suddenly an independent agent in the world, and the vast network of roads are all possibilities.

The interstate used to feel that way to me -- I felt like a faux-adult guiding my Buick Skyhawk down I-24 whenever I got to drive home by myself from high school -- but now wide, access-controlled highways feel constraining. The scenery rarely changes, and the sweeping gentle turns and topology-blasting straightaways make me feel that the interstate is driving me, rather than the other way around.

No, what feels like freedom now is the two-lane state highway, where the cruise control is not an option. Turns can be sharp, and you have to plan ahead for them. Sudden dips in the road can make your stomach drop if taken at full speed. The roadside is so close, and changes so often, and speeds by so fast that you feel like you're really going someplace even though your velocity is less than on an interstate.

In other words, this is an arena where one feels more alive, less like a traffic blip on somebody's robot-controlled radar. The choices have returned -- the freedom is palpable. Put me on a state highway, and I'm ready to take off and go until I run out of gas, just to see where I might get to.

I've resisted being assigned to many recruiting trips more than an hour away from Conway, using as my excuse that I need to stay near home in order to have regular hours with my family. But the powerful abandon I've begun to feel on these roads makes me think I might accept some farther-flung appointments, just to experience that rush of freedom, adulthood, the vast panorama of possibilities a few more times.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

My life: A visitor's guide

Some things the Secret Knitter ought to know before he arrives tomorrow:
  • No need to fire up the stove or even pack your griddle. Eggs will fry right on the 104-degree sidewalk.

  • The house that you will see tomorrow is the clean version, all appearances to the contrary.

  • Usually we bow and offer blood sacrifices to our HD plasma television before retiring, but we are suspending those services in deference to your anticipated sensibilities.

  • The dozens of small, hard rubber balls scattered at strategic locations underfoot are not actually intended to cause injury; they are "pretend Easter eggs."

  • There are ginormous mutant moths plastered on the outside of the house:

    Polyphemus silkworm moth, about 5.5 inch wingspan

    We do not think they will try to mate with humans.

  • Noel will transform random bits of TV dialogue and commercial jingles into similar-sounding popular songs, with or without requests.

  • Cady Gray has underpants. Please be advised: Cady Gray has underpants.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Yamming what you yam

Noel watched check discs of the new Popeye cartoons DVD set last weekend, and while the cartoons aren't by and large my cup of tea, the DVD package Warner Brothers has put together is enough to make a fan -- or at least an intrigued student -- out of any viewer. These are the Fleischer Popeyes, the first 60 cartoons made, and they differ radically from the muscle-bound sailor's later incarnations for Hanna-Barbara and A.A.P.

In some ways, they're less sophisticated. One of the many scholars, fans, and collectors who provide commentary tracks on selected episodes mentions the rather Neanderthal personality Popeye exhibited in the first few years. He solves all problems with his fist, and the one thing guaranteed to make him blow his top is a challenge to his masculinity.

He also exhibits some weird recurring gags; one of the oddest and most intermittently disturbing is his tendency to blast a large object into smaller versions of the same object with a punch. At one point he whomps an Indian chief and turns him into Gandhi!

But even if the cartoons haven't aged well -- or maybe it's that the times have past them by -- the thoroughness with which Warner Home Video has packaged them with context-setting material makes them one of the must-have animation items for any enthusiast. The documentaries take the history of Popeye all the way through its modern incarnations, and don't pull any punches about the mistakes made as the property bounced from studio to studio. And unlike many DVD with extensive featurettes, the commentary tracks do not simply repeat the information provided elsewhere on the disc. There's an interesting variety of voices featured on the commentaries, from bemused British academic to "Oh, man, did you see that?!" cackling fanboys. Jerry Beck, animation historian and advocate extraordinaire, provides a track.

There's so much to be learned from these cartoon styles from another era, and even though they might not provide instantly-pleasurable entertainment for those with modern tastes, it's fascinating to step into the shoes of a 1930s audience and erase three-quarters of a century of animation, film, and humor development. And making that journey in the company of such knowledgeable and congenial companions as the contributors to this magnificent set -- that's a pleasure in itself.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Connect the dots

  • This and this came in the mail today, destined to be worn by a couple of birthday children at their Legends of the Hidden Temple party. I can confidently predict that the two of them are going to flip out.

  • Over the weekend I gorged myself on my favorite Matt Groening production ever: the Will and Abe Life In Hell strips. Noel just reviewed the recent collection -- Will And Abe's Guide To The Universe -- in the latest wildly popular edition of the biweekly "Comics Panel" on the A.V. Club. Although I read Life In Hell fitfully during its heyday in the eighties and early nineties (basically whenever I picked up a copy of Creative Loafing), I didn't see most of the Will and Abe strips until I read the collections some time later. Will and Abe are Matt's sons, two years apart, and periodically he would record his conversations with them or have them explain some cultural phenomenon like bullies or cartoons. They came thickest and fastest around 1993-1994, when Will was six and Abe was four. Abe wears a cape (pretending to be Dracula), and Will doesn't like being drawn as a bunny. There's something about the surreal coherence of their confident assessment of everything in their world that is inimitable. Tellingly, I loved these strips long before I became a parent; I think their humor and perspective achieve something close to universality.

  • Speaking of comics, it's comics week on the A.V. Club, and that means comics content! Despite the protests of dozens of readers that the newspaper comic strip is a dead medium, worthy of absolutely no digital ink being spilled discussing it, Noel, Tasha and I put together an inventory of memorable comic strip deaths -- inspired, of course, by the impending demise of Funky Winkerbean's Jessica, from cancer. I wrote the entries on Mary Gold (the first death of a major comic strip character, in The Gumps circa 1929), Mort (in Ruby Park), Daddy Warbucks (in Little Orphan Annie, of course, although he was "resurrected" once his arch-enemy FDR left the scene), and the Anonymous Corpse frequently seen in Kudzu funeral strips.

  • For my money, the not-to-be-surpassed highlight of comics week is Noel's interview with Achewood mastermind Chris Onstad, probably pound for pound the funniest person on the internet. Noel links to a selection of Achewood greatest hits, including his personal favorite "SaniTaco," so be sure to follow all the clickables.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Submerged in yarn

  • I'm hip-deep getting my Ravelry notebook up to speed, after having gotten my long-awaited invitation to be a beta tester today. Full story over at Toxophily.

  • The Arkansas summer heat has finally hit with the month of August -- 95-98 by early afternoon, and not much of a respite in the morning either. So we made our first visit of the year to Playworld, the last resort of parents in the dog days of summer. We're held out until now, but eventually we all give in and pay $12 to let the kids slide and jump in ball pits for a couple of hours. It was worth it this time, though, and not just for the air conditioning (partially offset, it must be noted, by the replacement of classic-rock Musak by -- urgh -- Radio Disney). Archer entered the giant maze -- only two ways in and out, lots of tubes to crawl through and things to climb over and obstacles to negotiate -- and emerged safely. Not once, not twice, but three times. This is huge. The last time I pushed him to climb farther in there than the ball pit right at the back entrance, he had to be helped out by big kids, weeping and scared. Going all the way through the Playworld maze is independence and adventurousness that I didn't expect of him for years yet. I'm bursting with pride.

  • I'm looking forward to two opportunities to entertain in the next two weeks. First, the Secret Knitter will be visiting for a few days, starting Thursday, and I'll get to squire him around Central Arkansas. Second, preparations have begun (and the invitations have been sent) to the Archer-Cady Gray combo birthday party. I have big plans for my Legends of the Hidden Temple theme -- a tunnel in the backyard made of big cardboard boxes, uh ... a cake, definitely a cake ... well, my plans still need more help. But I am still excited about thinking up ideas and scavenging supplies. It's possible -- just possible -- that these two pleasant occasions could merge. Will the Secret Knitter be coming up with Mayan games and pagan decorations? Or will he simply be helping me schlep tiki masks from the party store? Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The five Jewish people you meet in heaven

After a lunch powwow with his buddies, Noel came home with a question for me: According to general evangelical principles, are Moses and Daniel in heaven?

You see, one of the group was describing a funeral he recently attended, at which the evangelical pastor presiding opined that the recently, tragically deceased was asking Moses all those questions he'd always wondered about, or getting a first-hand description of the lion's den from Daniel.

This puzzled Noel, given that these heroes were not believers in the saving blood of Jesus Christ, for the simple reason that they died centuries before his birth.

There is a robust lack of specific teachings on such matters in many evangelical groups (including the Southern Baptists in which I was raised). The priesthood of every believer, and the freedom of every person to interpret scripture and receive the leading of the Holy Spirit on her own, mean that such groups have resisted (historically speaking) codifications of doctrine on any matters more narrow than revelation, Trinitarianism, and a very bare-bones Christology.

Naturally, the lack of official church teachings on other matters has not stopped evangelicals from being led by various influential pastors and historical positions to more or less endorsed positions on them. The question of the eternal destination of the Old Testament patriarchs is one that is informed more by the process of elimination than any positive theological construction.

The Protestant Reformation attempted, with varying degrees of thoroughness, to do away with doctrines and practices that could not be justified biblically. Catholics, of course, had gone to great links to sort all souls into appropriate afterlife bins, as anyone who has read Dante can attest. But the forbears of today's evangelicals, especially those in the Radical Reformation movements, pared the postmortem map down to two diametrically-opposed kingdoms: heaven and hell. These same groups insisted on adult confession of belief in Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for a heavenly mansion.

So what was to be done about the patriarchs? To my knowledge, the question was not given serious consideration among Protestants until the Victorian age, when English culture (and its American outposts) reimagined the afterlife as a place of joyful family reunions. Previously, heaven was seen as a venue for the glorification of God, not an extension of individual preoccupations; some writers even suggested that the dead will not recognize each other, since the resulting remnants of earthly ties would only detract from their exclusive focus on the deity.

But in the nineteenth century, with volumes being written, sermons being preached, and sentimental poetry and art being produced that portrayed heaven in more earthly terms -- a place where one enjoyed the company of friends and pursued individual interests -- people began to look forward to the conversations they'd have with the towering figures of biblical literature.

Would those heroes be present in heaven, though, to be interrogated? Fairness seemed to dictate that they would, and so a vague version of the Catholic tradition of Christ's descent into the realm of the dead and rescue of the faithful Jewish forbears held sway. Or an inchoate reliance upon God's foreknowledge might be the answer: God knew who had died believing in the eventual coming of the Messiah, and counted that as "belief in Christ" proleptically.

These matters only become a problem when the idea of a soul taking leave of the body and immediately going to heaven or hell takes hold. As most biblical scholars and classicists will tell you, this is not an Old Testament concept at all; a reading of accounts of death in the Hebrew Bible clearly shows that at most there is a "land of shades" where the dead lead a ghostly existence, not a compensatory afterlife of rewards and punishments, until the more highly-developed systems of Greek and Persian thought begin to influence the biblical writers.

It's not even clear in the New Testament that the separability of the soul from the body is accepted; aside from a couple of references to immediate destinations (Jesus' words to the thief on the cross, Paul's assertion that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lofd"), the focus is exclusively on resurrection. That is, the reanimation of the person, body and spirit together, which in Jewish thought is the only existence possible. Indeed, before the Victorian conception of the afterlife took hold, Christian thinkers often held that the life of the individual is suspended until the end of time, when resurrection allows that life to resume. If that is not the case, as in the currently popular assumption that the body is irrelevant to the afterlife, then it's hard to know what to make of Paul's constant harping on resurrection.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A life in patterns

Program note: New knitting at Toxophily.

From the moment he could sit up and manipulate objects, Archer has been lining things up. Along with the number-shapes he forms with his hands at great speed, it's the most persistent of his autistic behaviors. But as he has matured, he's transferred his interest in linearity to patterns, and to connecting objects through some similar characteristic.

That's why I came home today to this:

The word "joker" in lower-case Leapfrog fridge magnet letter, topped by a joker from a star-shaped playing card set

And this:

Number blocks topped by corresponding playing cards

The capital A, K, Q, and J fridge magnets were also sitting on the sofa, wearing little ace, king, queen, and jack playing card hats.

But for all the obsessive ordering of his life, Archer at nearly six years old is also capable of the leaps of imagination that come from combining disparate items -- leaps that delight me just as much in him as they do in his sister, whose sense of juxtaposition is more developmentally typically. Here's another of his fridge magnet creations from today, this one actually on the fridge:

"The house has gone to sleep," he explained.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The words will make you out and out

Conway's an Arkansas town. That means that for the most part, we're pretty set in our ways. When people come in with newfangled ideas, implying that the way we've been doing things isn't necessarily the best, that gets our back up a little bit. We're liable to say some pretty heated things in defense of a status quo we never liked that much until somebody had the gall to suggest it could be improved.

My favorite recent example of this was a proposed sign ordinance primarily impacting Oak Street, the road that goes through our picturesque downtown and then devolves into fast-food tattoo-parlor shopping strip territory for the next half mile until it hits the freeway. Business owners, looking for the most effective (and that often means obtrusive) way to get passersby's attention, naturally opposed the ordinance. When push came to shove at the City Council meeting where the ordinance was debated, and the city planning director gestured at a photograph of the wires and signs and LEDs littering Oak Street with the comment, "That's ugly," a businessman stood up for a different aesthetic viewpoint. "That's not ugly," he retorted. "That's beautiful. I think that's beautiful."

We've got a new round of changes coming to our little town -- the kind you drive around. The first roundabout on a major thoroughfare in the city opened last year at the intersection of Tyler and Washington streets, hard by Hendrix College. The city's official website promises that more roundabouts are on the way, and they ain't lying. Road construction on Prince Street and Western Avenue, just north of Conway High School and next to the west end of Laurel Park, has progressed far enough to be identifiable as a roundabout.

Now I love roundabouts. I was thrilled when the Washington Street roundabout opened, and I now take every opportunity to drive through there. I've never seen more than momentary confusion or hesitation from drivers navigating the roundabout, even when it was first completed, and I haven't seen anything but absolutely smooth sailing for months (I drive through it 3-4 times a week).

I admit that the concept is something we're not used to. The city felt it might be helpful to include links to educational videos on the subject of roundabout etiquette on its homepage. But it's only one lane and four entrances, people. I think even the oldest stick-in-the-muds here in town should be able to figure it out.

Yet a few months after the Washington Street roundabout was completed, a letter to the editor appeared in the paper from someone apoplectic about the prospect of having more of these abominations constructed. He claimed to have seen daily examples of near-crashes, cars stopping in the middle of the roundabout in utter confusion, and even folks backing up when they missed their exit the first time around. Dire predictions of the apocalypse followed, should the city be foolish enough to expand its roundabout experiment. In fact, the letter writer has the resigned, exasperated tone of those who are certain disaster is right around the corner, but that people with their minds set on absolute stupidity cannot be stopped by plain common sense.

Needless to say, the roundabout of progress kept churning despite the writer's intimations of doom. And ironically, I doubt that his mind has been changed by the failure of fatal accidents (or any accidents that I know about) to materialize at Washington and Tyler. I can't wait to see a fresh round of outrage at the change of traffic pattern on Prince Street, which will fade unremarked and unremembered when we become used to the changes and no longer feel inclined to call ugliness beauty, safety danger, and a circle a square.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

American Inventor

Noel has blogged about AI frequently in his Weekly Summer Reality Roundups on the A.V. Club blog. But I haven't weighed in at length on why I feel more of a rooting interest in this reality competition than I do anywhere else outside of The Amazing Race.

Now nearing the end of its second season, the format has been changed this year -- nearly all for the better, in my opinion. Audition rounds have been extended and segmented, so that for each city in which auditions are held, several semi-finalists are selected, with only one person declared that city's winner and eligible to receive $50,000 in development funds to use in preparation for the finals.

It's obvious why the show emphasizes auditions more than last year -- auditions, with their ample supply of trainwrecks, cluelessness, and sob stories, make great teaser fodder. American Idol has proven that the audience can't get enough of audition rounds, the more excruciating for the judges, the better.

But the change in the post-audition structure has an interesting consequence. The judges are still free to pass as many people as they like "through to the next round" -- to Hollywood, as it were -- but then, with no further contestant participation, they must pick only one to be that city's winner. Last year there was an additional pitch by all semi-finalists before the money-winners were selected, and without any further product development, that was just redundant.

There are two things I like about the audition rounds of Inventor, one of which applies just as well to the whole show. First, the show editors and producers have a pretty good sense of humor. They cut together disastrous pitches to fairly funny effect, seen recently in their condensed version of the 40-minute cooking demonstration by the guy with the "foolproof" steak toaster. Second, as Noel reported in one of his blog installments, the show rewards people who've got their stuff together. (Replace "stuff" with stronger language, if you want the direct quote.) I like rooting for competent people. I like that people who prepare, put some thought into their presentation, have anticipated objections and questions, and have thought about the market. And those are the people who tend to get rewarded on this show -- as opposed to many shows where raw talent, luck, or even the refusal to act professional get rewarded.

That being said, the final six (one from each audition city) made their pitches with their improved products this past week. Three were eliminated on the basis of those pitches. And I am not ashamed to say that I pumped my fist and gave out a few woo-hoo's and darn tootin's while watching. The wrap-dispenser guys had a horrible pitch and got canned. And you know, I didn't like their invention from the start. My mother had one of these multi-bin wrap storage thingies sitting on her counter thirty years ago -- how is this innovative?

The fireman, with his "save the kids" pitch for the Christmas tree fire extinguisher, got through, and I question that a bit. Did they ask him how much this huge, heavy system would cost? Whether it's rechargeable or reusable? And it only worked on the fourth trial.

I was disappointed that the guys with the vertical bicycle storage system didn't make it, because I loved their ramblin' wreck personae along with the fact that they actually engineered something! The judges underestimated, in my view, the need for an easy and secure hanging solution, and there were a few unfortunate hiccups in their pitch. What you hope is that their great idea has gotten exposure from this show, and that even though they're out of the running, somebody's going to contact them to get this thing on the market.

My favorite guy ever since I first laid eyes on him is the high school teacher who invented HT Racers. I love his idea: papercraft RC models. The kit has an engine and software; you use the software to custom-design your vehicle, print it out, fold it up, put the engine in, and radio-control it all over your cul-de-sac. And the inventor took the $50,000 and really put it to use. He developed three different levels of kits: for younger kids, a pop-up truck is already constructed in the package; for older kids, pre-punched paper is included for the custom-printed design; and for hobbyists (his real target market, I think), it's full customization. Boats and planes were added to the vehicle options. In my limited experience, this is fantastic stuff -- innovative, current (papercraft is huge), and really exciting.

But how the heck is he supposed to win when the fireman comes on and talks about saving lives while the faux-Backdraft music plays in the background? Because here's the real Achilles heel of American Inventor: Like its fellow AI reality competition and all its ilk, it passes the final decision on to America. And I don't trust America to recognize how cool the papercraft racers are, not when they get a weepy story about saving lives right next to it. Never mind that we have no idea how practical this invention is, whether it's really marketable, whether it can be made to work consistently enough to trust. I expect Guardian Angel to win. At least I can hope that there's a toy magnate or venture capitalist out there ready to pounce on HT Racers. Because I totally want to buy one.