Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Treats tricked, or tricks treated

Cady Gray among her costumed classmates (how many characters can you name?).

Ever notice how jack-o-lanterns look like their creators?

More irrefutable evidence.

Even before the sugar high, Halloween is the best thing that's ever happened to us.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Missing person

You know your routine has taken over your life when you can't remember whether you blogged yesterday. I wrote a whole entry about how I forgot to blog yesterday because I was so absorbed with showing a movie at school and then doing my TV Club blog when I got home. Can't believe I forgot! I wrote. But I was really busy! I wrote. I'll never do it again! I wrote.

And then I published and Noel turned to me and said: "You did blog yesterday. It was the whole inoculation thing."

Oh yeah. I started that entry yesterday afternoon before dinner, then finished it at school before the screening. Not my usual blogging time. But how could I be so sure I hadn't blogged that I didn't even check the site?

Wow. I need a vacation.

And so on to tonight's entry -- at Toxophily! Gifts from the Pacific Northwest, more secrets, and ruminations on the rejuvenating power of handknits. See you there!

Monday, October 29, 2007

One, two, three, pinch

In angry defiance of the anti-immunization hysteria of our times, we took the kids to get their flu shots this afternoon. A recent letter to the editor in our state paper (10/24/07) stated that the flu vaccine contains mercury, "a dangerous neurotoxin." "A week of the flu is miserable, but it only lasts a week," the letter opined. "Mercury buildup in the body can last a lifetime and has been implicated in numerous disorders. Please think twice before allowing this substance to be injected into those you love."

As a person working at a university, where rumors proliferate like weeds and kids will seize on the flimsiest excuses for not taking proper care of themselves, I'm infuriated that the autism-vaccine theory has now expanded its conspiracy theory to include flu shots. For the children this letter writer wants to protect from consequences no reputable medical study has ever confirmed, "a week of the flu" can be more than miserable; it can kill. Children under age 2 who get influenza are at a high risk for hospitalization. Children under 6 who get influenza require more visits to clinics and the emergency room. Infants under 6 months are at extremely high risk of serious complications or even death, and they can't get vaccinated -- so those around them (family and caregivers) should.

And even though the college kids I work around, who always tell me old wives' tales about the shot giving them the flu as a reason not to get vaccinated, aren't likely to die from influenza, for most of them missing a week of class is almost as dire a fate. I have no sympathy for flu sufferers who miss class and are unable to maintain their GPA, if they didn't get the flu shot. For my students, a bad case of the flu can cost them their scholarships and therefore their undergraduate career.

Weigh those consequences -- real ones -- against the purely theoretical risks from thimerosal, the ethylmercury preservative in some flu vaccines. The exposure from flu shots is far less than the threshold set by the EPA for environmental safety, even cumulatively. No large-scale, well-conducted study has found harm from thimerosal. Yet the letter writer would rather see parents risk their children's health from influenza, an actual disease that kills thousands around the world every year and costs millions in health care resources and lost productivity, than get a vaccine that has an ingredient no one's ever proven to be dangerous in this context at these levels.

When Robert Kennedy, Jr. spoke here in September, an audience member asked him about autism and thimerosal during the Q&A. He talked expansively about the dangers, and pulled out a dramatic statistic. Since thimerosal was introduced into childhood vaccines (I believe he mentioned the sixties, although the preservative has been in use in vaccines since the 1930's), autism rates have risen from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 250 children. There were audible gasps and murmurs around the auditorium at this. I wanted to stand up and shout, "Correlation does not imply causation!" I could claim that since Sputnik was launched, the same rise in autism incidence has occurred; or that since cereals began to be enriched with vitamins, autism rates have soared (to mention something that is kid-specific and ingested). Without studies showing an actual linkage, it's just misdirection and snake oil. And opportunities for comparative studies are not lacking; some Scandinavian countries changed their vaccine manufacturing years ago to eliminate thimerosal, but rates of autism remain at the same levels as the rest of the developed world. Heck, thimerosal was phased out of most of the U.S. vaccine supply starting in 1999, but is the autism rate decreasing?

I'm no blind believer in science. But when it comes down to hysterical "common sense" that weighs unknown risks higher than known ones, vs. medical professionals who've answered the question the only way they know how -- with data, I'll go with the best knowledge we have now. It might turn out to be wrong, but if so, medical science will discover the error, not lobbyists and demagogues.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A small but perfect window

My dad has long said that his favorite season is fall, and although my preferences vary according to the phase of the moon and what I had for dinner the night before, I agree with him more often than not. Today was what people mean when they say they love fall: a high of about 67 degrees, brilliant sunshine tempered by a freshening cool breeze, and the yellow-orange of the occasional maple in th mass of still-green oaks standing out like a shocking non-conformist.

While Noel tried to get interviews transcribed for one of his Hollywood Reporter stories, I took the kids to the playground, where (as usual in the spring, summer, and fall months) a birthday party was underway. Here's what I learned about kids today from listening to the chatter coming from them and their parents:
  • Their names are "Madison, come ON!" and "Sierra! Sierra NICOLE!"
  • The hot ditty of the moment is an irreverent send-up of R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" in the spirit of "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells." As rendered by an eight-year-old over and over on the swings: "I believe I can flyyyyy! I got shot by the FBIiiiiiiy!"
  • If circumstantial evidence can be believed, at least one ten-year-old girl in Conway is smoking without apparent parental disapproval. (I base this conclusion on said girl's pile of possessions left on the ground as she swung, and collected by her after she finished and headed back to the party where her folks were waiting: a tumbler of tea, a lighter, and a pack of Marlboros.)
Next week I get on a flight bound for Denver (direct, mercifully) for two days and three nights at the National Collegiate Honors Council meeting. The forecast is for cold weather, with snow flurries possible. I hope that there will still be some autumn left when I get home.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Weekend update

Updates on matters of recent discussion:

During the pumpkin patch field trip, Cady Gray sat near members of the gourd family ...

... and stuck her head in a two-dimensional facsimile of one.

All are happy with their Halloween costumes, from the spiders ...

... to the space commanders. (The mustache is left over from a pirate-themed birthday party earlier in the afternoon. I think it gives him a science-fiction Errol Flynnish air.)

We felt like embracing the whole world ...

... and heading off to the stars.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Goose egg

  • I got a call from someone in the principal's office at Archer's school today -- never a good sign. Turns out he whopped his head on something during recess. Given his communication difficulties (the more urgent the direct questions, the more Archer refuses to address them), we were never able to determine what happened, but it seems pretty likely that he ran into something forehead first. Could be the pavement, but there's absolutely no scrape, so it might be a piece of playground equipment. I'm glad Noel was on the case to go check him out at school, because I didn't have to see the bump on its head at its full flower. By the time I got home, it was down to about the size of one of those superballs you can get out of gum machines at all-you-can-eat buffets, and that was painful enough to see. Archer's main concern through the whole episode was whether he'd get to return to his school routine (take away his set schedule, and he's adrift in a cold, uncertain world) and whether he'd get a Good As Gold sticker for not having any discipline problems all week. (Things were already somewhat dicey since Archer's teacher was out with a sick son yesterday and today, leading to anxious uncertainty about whether the extra Good As Golds would be given out.) It'll get better before our first Halloween party tomorrow night, but he's still going to look like a junior astronaut who got clocked by a slowly rotating arm of the international space station.

  • Today I saw a flier at school for a special night at the local roller rink, billed as "Old School 80's Skate." Excuse me -- the terms "old school" and "skate" do not match with "80's." Are these people under the impression that Flock of Seagulls featured a lot of roller disco in their videos? I can only suspect that the proprietors were trying to combine skating with something that this college audience finds attractive -- eighties music -- but the combination just reeked of Doctor Moreau to me.

  • There's a writing center in Archer's classroom, and periodically he sits at the table and composes something. A couple of weeks ago, he came home with a "Topic List" that his teacher had assigned to him, which he had filled out with items like "My timer," and apparently it meant a lot to him. (He went through a brief phase where he was giving us thank you notes for everything, and he wrote one to his teacher thanking her for his topic list.) Whenever he comes home with an inexplicable piece of writing, I try to reconstruct what prompt was given to him. Sometimes, as with the following list, my imagination fails me. A book about himself, maybe? About his self-portrait? Sentences that begin with "I"? In any case, if it had been the work of anyone but my little boy, I'd suspect a horrible performance anxiety lay behind it -- but since it's Archer, I know it's just the parameters of his identity.

The Picture
Pg. 1 I do good behavior.
2 I have a good job.
3 I do a great job.
4 I earn good-as-golds.
5 I listen.
6 I have great behavior.
7 I carve pumpkins on Oct. 31.
8 I can be pride.
9 I do a good job.
10 I have a birthday on Aug. 19.
11 I have happy boxes.
12 I do good choices.
13 I do things correct.
14 I follow directions.
15 I praticipate.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I live to shop

Not really. But I blog to live, and on a night with two other writing assignments due, it's time to reach for the ol' meme standby. I've been tagged by a couple of people, but Nancy (in my comments) was first.

1. What are you proud of?
I took a step toward cleaning out my bookcases -- a very distant step, one that requires a lot of other steps -- by getting a couple of packages of padded envelopes for sending mooched books.

2. What are you embarrassed by?
The $1 USA coloring book I picked up on a whim for Cady Gray. Not real embarrassing objectively, but I'm bourgeois enough to be faintly ashamed when I buy something really cheap.

3. What do you think you couldn't live without?
The spiral bow that I got to put on a gift bag for a three-year old, who couldn't have cared less whether the gift was nicely packaged or wrapped in the comics pages.

4. What did you most enjoy purchasing?
The envelopes gave me the most satisfaction. I always feel good when I purchase something in pursuit of some plan that I think will make me a better person. Frequently those items end up languishing unused because I never develop the determination to carry out the plan. But right now I'm sending and receiving books regularly, so the envelopes are working out.

5. What were you most tempted by? (This last one may or may not be an actual purchase!)
It was Wal-Mart ... a place that doesn't feel much like temptation. I did want a chocolate bar at checkout, and I think I would have actually bought one if I had been in a lane where they were at impulse eye level. My sweet tooth was acting up this week; I was craving dessert and I didn't want to wait for my No-S-Diet-Approved weekend allowance. Luckily the Wal-Mart design team didn't put my will power to too much of a test.

Hey, if you need a blog post or you'd like to examine your relationship to consumerism, feel free to grab this one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I had a busy day planned -- a review to write, student work to catch up on, an important chat to be had with my boss -- and I left the house this morning in some trepidation that wet weather would ruin Cady Gray's field trip to the pumpkin patch. As I hustled across the street that separates our neighborhood from the campus, marveling at the periwinkle blue of the clearing sky, I realized that everything was going to be fine. I was wearing handknit socks.

That sense of retro robustness has characterized the last few days, actually, as I dived into the third Gasoline Alley collection from Drawn and Quarterly. I fell in love with Frank King's original strip when the sublimely beautiful first volume came out a couple of years ago. And ever since, I've been trying to figure out what it is about this 1920s comic strip that has such a hold over me.

Walt and Skeezix: The Complete Daily Strips, 1925-1926 sees the alley bunch (a group of men who own garages and are always puttering around automobiles) go in together on a seaside hotel investment scheme; Skeezix, now four or five years old, in danger of once again being snatched by the haughty opera star Mme. Octave; and most notably, our hero Walt finally getting up enough pluck to propose to Phyllis Blossom. It's Walt who carries the emotional load of the comic. A broadly drawn fat man with a tiny pin head and an open-book face, he's transparently anxious, joyful, and wistful by turns as he takes care of the orphan Skeezix who was left on his doorstep as a baby. Skeezik's trusting, uncomplicated expressions -- often communicated through the limp arch of his little body slung over Walt's broad shoulder -- offer a poignant counterpart to Walt's clumsy but well-meaning efforts at parenting.

The result is about as far from our stereotype of simplistic, crude, overstylized, or self-consciously artistic early strips as can be imagined. Gasoline Alley occupies a crucial niche in the history of the powerful, compact comic strip that would peak in the 1960s with Peanuts.

More than a historical curiosity, though, these visions of men, women, children, technology, money, and relationships from the twenties tug at my heart and imagination. I worry about Walt, enjoy Skeezik's altogether boyish play, fume a little at the way Phyllis plays with Walt's affections, and get frustrated at the secrets she and Mme. Octave keep from Walt and reader alike. Even the supporting cast, much more like the broad types that we expect to populate strips of the time, have wormed their way into my affection; Avery, the skinflint who nevertheless falls for every crazy snake oil salesman who walks down the alley, makes me laugh out loud. In five cumulatively absurd panels, King can send him halfway around the county to get ten cents he's owed, spending ten dollars in the process.

I'm sure that it's no accident I fell in love with Gasoline Alley when my own children were small. But there's also the timing of the publishing projects that are bringing these pieces of history into the twenty-first century. There is something larger than me and my personal obsessions to Gasoline Alley's hold on my affections. It's emblematic of an appreciation of the past's complexity -- not just our debt to it in the creative accomplishments it made possible, but also the unique value and integrity of the moment itself. It's a kind of miracle, a quirk of historical eras, that we can connect to the world of eighty years ago through these pen and ink lines.

I assume that we're living near the end of our historical epoch, the Industrial Age, the Technological Age, the Age of the Internal Combustion Engine. At some point the paradigm will change -- and both Walt's 1925 alley and our 2007 subdivision will seem equally as far away to the denizens of the next world as the American Revolution and the Civil War, those bookends of American pastoralism, seem equally far away to us.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Embarrassing Moments: Food Edition

Proactive Bridesmaid's tale of mistaken breakfast buffet identity made me laugh out loud last night. It also reminded me of one of the funniest stories my friend Mike ever told in my presence.

Seems that Mike was at a buffet with friends, and on one of his trips to the steam tables he encounters a vat of yellow, fluffy, mousse-like material that he can't identify. So he scoops up a spoonful and glops it onto his plate. Back at the table, he starts eating it, remarking to his dining companions that he still can't figure out what it is. It's sweet, but it's not pudding, and it's not any recognizable flavor. One of his friends gives him a strange look. "Mike," he says. "That's butter."

Two food-related embarrassments spring to my mind, although neither of them involves a buffet. When I was a kid, my mom made shrimp cocktail for some fancy dinner party she was hosting (it was the seventies, when people served shrimp cocktail at home on sufficiently elegant occasions). I really enjoyed it, gnawing away at the kids' table in the breakfast nook. When Mom came to clear away the plates, she looked at my clean one. "Where are the shells?" she asked. I had eaten the entire shrimp, shell, tails, and all.

The other one also involves fancy food. On a visit to Miami, I went out with my former employer and bandmate Ben Lahey to a South Beach restaurant. The dish I order had a garnish of wasabi paste, which I had never seen before. In all innocence I scooped up a bit on my fork. "Careful, it's really hot," said Ben, but of course I thought: how hot can it be? I spent the next several minutes insisting that it wasn't really all that bad, and of course I'd had it before and knew what I was doing, while trying to dab away the tears from my eyes and casually get ice water refills.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pumpkin heads

It's finally getting chilly in our neck of the woods -- from a high in the mid-80s yesterday to a high of 60 degrees tomorrow -- and not a moment too soon. It's time for the traditional preschool field trip to the pumpkin patch. Yes, Noel will have the privilege of eating sorghum-smeared crackers and drinking raw apple cider, riding on hay bales, and listening to the story of Spookley the Square Pumpkin (who just doesn't fit in, despite being genetically engineered to pack more tightly in a tractor-trailor). After a respite last year due to Archer's graduation from preschool, the standard field trips are back with a vengeance for Cady Gray. And we can look forward to 2008 and 2009 versions before she moves on to elementary school and more academic pursuits.

(The other fall-themed field trip, apple picking, was canceled this year due to last spring's late frost decimating the Arkansas apple crop. So really, hon, you're getting off easy.)

Pumpkin patch visitation kicks off the preschool celebration of Halloween, culminating in trick-or-treating around the offices in the College of Education. Meanwhile, in elementary school, it's time for the annual anti-drug emphasis week, featuring theme days (wear crazy socks! dress up like a career you want to pursue!) and red ribbons.

But Halloween creeps into the curriculum in other ways. Today Archer told me that he learned about bones in P.E., which I have to think is connected to scary Halloween skeletons. He's most interested in the idea that kids have more bones that adults. "I have 300 bones," he informed me. "And you have 206 bones. Now two of them just grew together, and you have 205 bones!" (This is in keeping with Archer's general belief that whatever processes are happening now will continue happening throughout life; if bones fuse as one grows, decreasing the total number, then the older a person is the fewer bones she will have. The canonical example of this principle is that people keep getting taller and heavier throughout life, so that Archer plans to be ten feet tall and 300 pounds by the time he's our age.)

Other assertions that I had no way of checking out at the time: I have 54 bones in each hand, but Archer has 60 bones. (It seems that he was remembering the total number of bones in both hands -- each adult hand has 27 bones.) The longest bone in the body is "the thigh bone, or femur" (true).

It all puts me in mind of the Schoolhouse Rock song about bones, featuring the x-ray view of the barbershop quartet -- I always love the short squat skeleton of the oddball member. "Bones are heard of but seldom seen/'Cept each year 'round Halloween," as the song goes. I'm not sure why I'm never home when the kids are watching Science Rock these days; it always seems to be America Rock (which features the slambang song about women's suffrage but also the lame and frighteningly chaotic song about inventions). When Archer talked about his skull and knocked his knuckles against his head, I couldn't be sure whether the gesture came from the discussion in P.E., or from Schoolhouse Rock.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Halloween preparations

After last year's unprecedented (and never to be repeated) homemade Halloween costume for Archer, we've reverted to our costume norm: whatever appropriately-sized dress-up clothes come close enough to our greedy hands to be snagged.

We've managed to convince Cady Gray that she really wants to be a spider. What necessitated such brainwashing? A local Freecycler offered a 3T-4T sized spider costume for giveaway.

Archer was tougher, since he's unlikely to come up with any character ideas on his own, and since we didn't come across any likely cast-offs hanging over the edge of nearby dumpsters. Finally Noel took him to a Halloween shop that's opened up in empty retail space across town, and they settled on an astronaut jumpsuit.

On the same trip, Noel picked up a rubber dog mask for himself. We're going to a Halloween party thrown by friends next weekend, and these are friends who take Halloween very seriously. Adults who show up without costumes are forced to wear whatever is offered them when they walk in the door; last year Noel and I ended up with Thing 1 and Thing 2 wigs. The dog mask is an attempt to head the hosts off at the pass. I have neither spare energy nor shopping time to do likewise. Probably that is legally equivalent to consent to be photographed in a Viking helmet with attached Nordic braids, or whatever my punishment will be for not playing along.

I can't remember having many definite ideas for Halloween costumes when I was a kid. Thanks to various costumes produced for school plays, I was a dinosaur once (my tail, which was tied around my waist under the costume, attached through slits in the back, got stepped on and ripped off) and a witch more than once (when you've got the big hat, it's secure fallback position). My older brother tended to wear his PeeWee football uniform for a no-effort costume. A store-bought Casper The Friendly Ghost mask topped many a sheet, many a year. I'm probably blocking out some hugely elaborate outfit my mom spent hours and hours on, but my memory is that I'm carrying on the family tradition when I worry as little as possible about what the kids are going to wear on Halloween.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The art of conversation

In the car on the way to the library:

Cady Gray: (whining) Mom, you need to talk to me!
Mom: We're all talking to each other, Cady Gray. Archer, and Dad, and me, we can all talk to you.
Archer: (shouldering his responsibilities) Sooooo, Cady Gray ... sure is good in the car!

Today at Toxophily: accomplishments and plans, secrets and lies. (No lies.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Anti-packrat behavior

I have never denied that I am a packrat of the first order. My house, garage, and areas adjacent are stacked with cardboard boxes that might become useful again someday (if they weren't biodegrading), leftover pasteboard and screws from do-it-yourself furniture kits, toys and tools for which key parts (like the battery charger) are lost, and perhaps worst of all, books and DVDs and CDs that we don't want to keep but can't bear to just toss. Surely there is a special circle in hell reserved for those who put books in the garbage.

Enter BookMooch. Similar to but more comprehensive than the venerable PaperBack Swap, this site gives you points for shipping books to other members ("moochers") that can be redeemed one-for-one for a book you want someone to ship to you.

Now the reason this works better for me than PaperBack Swap is that I don't really have a lot of paperbacks. We get review copies in hardback, and while there are lots of those that meant enough to me to earn a place on my shelf, there are plenty that I'll just never use or didn't love.

I signed up yesterday, and got started today with the stack of review copies that I've had towering over my desk at work (I tend to bring books to the office to complete my reviews, then just leave them there). You earn 1/10 of a point just for entering a book into your inventory. If someone requests it and you agree to send it, one of their points is transferred to you -- a point you can turn around and give to another member who's got a book you want. International shipping costs/pays two points, but you don't have to make your inventory available internationally. If you do, chances are better you'll get rid of some stuff, but at the price of shipping that costs quite a bit more than twice the domestic postal rates (for only twice the purchasing power added to your account).

There's a whole eBay-like social networking system built in -- feedback and stats for members that show how often they give and receive books and how often something goes wrong. Some serious BookMoochers maintain topic-indexed lists of their inventory on their own websites and proudly display their feedback rating in their e-mail signatures.

Of course, the downside to all of this is that you have to pack the books up and get them to the post office. As long as I can maintain a supply of padded envelopes here at home and at work, I should be able to ship them on my way to and from the office, since there's a post office inside the Student Center on campus. (And since most of the books we get for review are shipped in padded envelopes, there can be some recycling going on there ... although saving padded envelopes is a bit packratty, which could conceivably cause backsliding.)

I entered maybe 15 books this morning, and this afternoon I sent out 6. In return I claimed 3 from other people's lists. If you don't want to take as much as you give, you can donate your points to charity. I look forward to filling my shelves with books I want to read rather than the books I've already read.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cool or weird?

Cool things about having kids in school:

  • Professional photographers come and take their pictures twice a year without your having to make any arrangements -- perfect for parents who never get around to making those Olan Mills appointments.
  • They come home with neat facts ("Christopher Columbus is 501 years old!") and even neater conclusions they've drawn from facts ("A whale is an ocean mammal. A fish is not a mammal. A fish is just an ocean reptile").
  • They are happy to teach you all about fire safety and the dangers of drugs -- again, perfect for slacker parents.

Weird things about having kids in school:

  • They run a whole mile in PE at age 6. This seems more like Spartan education than the first grade I remember.
  • Their assignments either tell you stuff about them that you didn't know, or maybe stuff about another student -- impossible to tell. Is Archer actually afraid of snakes, as the picture he drew in response to the prompt "something you are scared of" indicates, or did he borrow ophidiophobia from one of his classmates because he couldn't come up with an idea of his own?
  • They're like little celebrities -- teachers stop you in the hall to ask if you're Archer's parents, and other kids point and whisper excitedly. Is this because they are famous or notorious?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fall break

A few years ago, the academic calendar at UCA was revised. After ballooning up to 16 weeks, the semester was pared back to 14 weeks, a Labor Day holiday was added, and the long slog between September and Thanksgiving was broken up with a two-day break around midterm.

That break is here. The last two weeks have been non-stop pressure, starting with the posting of the spring curriculum and ending with the deadline for the HASTAC Knowledge-Networking award on Monday. I've taken on a couple more writing assignments for the last months of the year -- an additional encyclopedia entry (on top of a few others I'm dreadfully late with already), a journal article -- and I desperately need a few hours to get them started. To make progress on the projects that I have ongoing, like my encyclopedia editorship and my work on the AAR board, I have to put aside an afternoon every couple of weeks, refuse all appointments, and just plow through the stuff that's piled up.

I've had trouble doing what it takes to maintain momentum on these longterm projects, because I tend to let other work encroach on that time. It's hard not to. Administration is a matter of reacting to a thousand things that pop up like whack-a-moles. You can't keep them down in their holes by clearing out space on your calendar. And these longterm projects are exactly the kinds of assignments that have fuzzy deadlines far in the future, work that has waited until now and could, in a pinch, wait some more.

This isn't a complaint -- heck, I've got two days without classes or meetings scheduled. If I can maintain a sense of urgency and avoid the usual procrastination that afflicts me when I have unscheduled time, I should be able to get notes taken for those encyclopedia entries, outline my journal article, update the spreadsheet for the C entries I'm editing, and develop an abstract for a scholarly project I'm trying to get funded.

Of course, tomorrow morning is already booked. I've got to get my TV Club entry for Viva Laughlin up by 10, when I'm going to an information session about our new health care benefits. Then it's lunch with Noel. Tomorrow afternoon, though, it's all about the encyclopedia and the journal. Expect the next blog entry to be aglow with the quiet satisfaction of hard work. That is, unless it's enslimed with the shame of having scrolled through all 1000+ blog posts Google Reader currently has collected for me. (Thank goodness it doesn't post any numbers bigger than "1000+.")

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


My maternal grandmother lived near my family all of my life. In my earliest memories of her, she's a petite figure with whitening reddish hair and a lilting brogue, living in a little white house situated somewhere in a cul-de-sac of winding streets a couple of miles from us. As I got older, I would sometimes ride my bike across Germantown Road, past our church, all the way down into the little valley near the creek where she lived. Later still, she moved into an apartment downtown, far from our suburban home, and then finally into a nursing home a few miles away from the farm where I spent my teenage years. It was a longer haul, but I was still able to ride my bike over to see her when I was home from college.

Gradually I absorbed more information about her life -- how she immigrated from Scotland as a teenager, married and divorced, taught art at a local Christian college. She died at the age of 99, and my daughter is named after her. For as long as I live, there will always be certain things I associate with Mary Gray Jorges, the grandmother I called Mamie:

  • The Hershey bars she gave us as snacks when my brother and I visited her apartment.
  • The Cokes in twelve-ounce glass bottles she would get from the vending machine in the basement storage area for us.
  • A square flexidisc of bird songs that came in a book on birds she kept at her house, which I would put on her portable record player and watch go round and round -- or square and square, as it were.
  • Chicken pot pies, dumped upside down on a plate and cut to pieces, the default meal at the little white house.
  • The plaque in her apartment kitchen that read "All I want is a little peace and quiet."
  • Rust and yellow shag carpet, on behalf of which she would cackle "Don't feed the floor!" if we dropped something at dinner.
  • Flannel, like the backings of the flannelgraph Bible figures and backdrops that she painted in oils.
  • Reader's Digest condensed books.
  • The tropical fish food that she used to let me shake into the tank.
  • Frozen Pepperidge Farm devil's food cake.
  • Chocolate icebox dessert, a classic from the fifties and still one of my favorite sweets: chocolate wafers layered with whipped cream and softened in the fridge.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pop culture evolution

Courtesy of my old high school bud Doc Thelma, it's ...

The Pharyngula mutating genre meme

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
  • You can leave them exactly as is.
  • You can delete any one question.
  • You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…" to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is…", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is…", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…".
  • You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…".
You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My parent is: Doc Thelma.

1. The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…

The End of Eternity (Isaac Asimov)

2. The best romantic movie in historical fiction is…

The Age of Innocence

3. The best tragic love song in rock is…

"The River" (Bruce Springsteen)

Be fruitful and multiply, little meme!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sibling cooperation

When all four of us are in the car together, Cady Gray demands to talk to me and Archer responds by claiming Noel for his conversation partner. This often leads to frustratingly circular conversations ("Hey Mo-om!" "Yes, sweetie?" ".... You need to talk to me."). A lot of our parental time is spent sorting out who's talking to whom about what, and making sure fights don't break out over perceived conversational slights.

This afternoon Cady Gray had a library book in the back seat that was a little above her reading level. She asked Archer to read the first page, and he obliged. But then he didn't want to play along for the whole book:

Cady Gray: Archer, you need to read this page to me.
Archer: You can read it. You're smart!

Quite a bit more pleasant, as rejections go, than his usual "Leave me alone!" or "Don't bother me!" Yes, we've reached the stage of sibling resentment. And yet they can spend hours playing together -- or at least the Archer version, which consists of him briefly entering her reality whenever she approaches him with some personal game in mind. "Here you go!" she'll announce brightly, giving him a slice of wooden apple. He'll respond by momentarily breaking off whatever private running-around-humming-and-signing-numbers activity he was absorbed in. "Oh-kay. Mmmm!" he'll say enthusiastically, before returning to his personal obsessions.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Beginnings and endings

  • I ran for Faculty Senate in a special election to replace an at-large representative who declined the position, and ended up in a run-off with a former Faculty Senate president from the College of Liberal Arts. Although the faculty who do not have designated representatives on the Senate -- library, those who teach transitional courses, residential colleges, and the Honors College -- voted as a bloc for me, the other guy won. Not that I really wanted to take on the responsibilities of Faculty Senate, but the fact that these faculty are considered "unaffiliated" (that is, with one of the six colleges who are represented) and are considered by some faculty a problem to be solved due to our position outside those disciplinary boundaries makes me want to get in there and stick up for our unique and indispensable missions. Better luck next time, I guess.

  • On the plus side, I was either not hated enough or not loved enough, depending on your point of view, to win (lose?) the donation jar competition at our Family Day today. The prize? Getting a pie in the face. Now I volunteered to get a pie in the face last year. This year I was ready for somebody else to take the hit, and I wasn't above stuffing money in that other person's jar to keep the whipped cream out of my hair. (I came in second.) You have no idea how exhilerating it is to be pie-free at the conclusion of a pie-in-the-face contest. It's like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk.

  • What we knitters affectionately call my LYS (local yarn store) is closing. The owner has a sick family member that has kept her from keeping the store open much at all since spring, and now she says it's time to sell and devote herself to personal matters. I went by almost as soon as I got the news and picked up seven skeins of silk blend and three balls of sparkly carry-along yarn to use for my very first knitted sweater, the Simple Knitted Bodice. Come November 1, it's time to cast on for National Knit a Sweater Month. As you may recall, it was a similar "hey I don't want to write a novel so what other workaholic challenge can I take on in November?" group that led to my dailyblogging in the first place. I don't expect to be knitting a sweater every day for the rest of my life (the way I expect to be writing), but I'm hoping this will get me off the sidelines and into the garment game.

  • Yesterday was our 11th wedding anniversary (traditional present: steel!). How could I have known on that beautiful day in 1996, at Elsworth-by-the-Sea on St. Simons Island, that I would have this job, these children, these students, this home, these passions and hobbies and pleasures and dreams? None of it would have happened without Noel and the person he's made me. Happy anniversary, darling -- I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

  • A couple of nights ago, tucking Archer into bed:

Archer: Mom, there are moon and stars up in the sky!
Me: That's right, there are.
Archer: The world outside is full of light.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Looking for comedy

With the grant approved and on its way, I was able to turn my attention yesterday and today to a no less vexing assignment. Tomorrow is our annual Family Day for Honors students, alumni, and their families. We gather for coffee and browse the photos and memorabilia of students who studied abroad or did internships this summer. Then there's a program of entertainment.

That's where the trouble comes, for me. Inevitably I think of some great idea for a funny sketch to do with another faculty member. (Jane and I were the team while she was here; now I'm hoping Phil will be my new partner.) Then I have to write it.

I'm not all that funny. I don't think anyone who knows me would describe me as a comedian. Fairly outgoing, sure. A person who enjoys a good joke, absolutely. But funny? Nope. I'm not known as the person who cracks everybody else up. If anything, Noel is better at that than me -- and his written work proves it. I craft a laugh line that I'm proud of maybe one in four times I'm trying to write something funny. Noel can make me laugh just about every time he tries.

And delivering the comedy? Also not my strong suit. I'm no actor -- I'm just a ham. About the best than can be said for me on stage is that I'm loud and don't suffer from stage fright.

So I stared at my screen for about three total hours yesterday and today to come up with a couple of pages of lame comedy about the two Honors residence halls, Farris and New, engaged in a dialogue based on the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads. About 20 minutes of that time was spent lamenting that I couldn't simply shoehorn in my greatest comedy triumph: the line "I could totally make a bong out of that." Cheap laughs, but they were long and loud. I doubt my awkward evocation of the trouble Farris Hall residents have with flaking paint on their walls will be as well received.

My only hope with that Phil, whom I know for a fact is much funnier than me, will punch up my tired stabs at jokes before we deliver this thing, unrehearsed, tomorrow morning. If I win (or is it lose?) the pie-in-the-face charity penny jar competition, then at least I'll get one reliable laugh when the cream hits me on the schnoz.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Purling Daisies

I was unconvinced by the bemused British narrator and bright swirly music featured in the promos for Pushing Daisies, the much-hyped Barry Sonnenfeld comedy on ABC. And after the charming pilot, I was concerned that the clever premise was all there was to it. What would they do week after week with a piemaker who can bring dead things back to life temporarily, the lumpy private eye who sees an opportunity in that unique talent, and the childhood sweetheart whom the piemaker refuses to send off into the great beyond?

Now I think I'm finally won over. The second episode revealed a show more interested in telling interesting stories than in the premise that enables them to be told. Whether the tone and energy can be sustained within devolving into shrill self-parody remains to be seen, but the odds are tilting in the show's favor.

Two elements of Episode 2 seemed especially designed to woo me. The marvelous Kristin Chenoweth belted out "Hopelessly Devoted" in a show-stopping (and occasionally interrupted) musical number. And Chi McBride's PI is a secret knitter, specializing in gun cozies.

All that to say that there is autumnal knitting content today at Toxophily, in honor of our first day of sub-80 weather in a month. Please enjoy in moderation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How I spent the first day of the rest of my life

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The answer to life, the universe, and everything

On this day in history (according to Wikipedia):
  • Louis XII of France married Mary Tudor. (1514)
  • Roger Williams is banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony after speaking out against punishments for religious offenses and giving away Native American land. (1635)
  • John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism. (1845)
  • The Great Chicago Fire was brought under control. (1871)
  • The Washington Monument was officially opened to the public. (1888)
  • The Cincinnati Reds "won" the Black Sox series. (1919)
  • Che Guevara was executed for inciting revolution in Bolivia. (1967)
  • Capital punishment was abolished in France. (1981)
  • Camille Saint-Saens, Alfred Dreyfus, Freddie Young, Jacques Tati, Johnny Stompanato, Prince Edward, John Lennon, Joe Pepitone, Jackson Browne, Bobby Flay, Guillermo del Toro, and Fyvush Finkel were born. (various years)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bowman welcomed their second child, a daughter, into the world. (1965)

Monday, October 8, 2007

I'll give you something to cry about

Noel was a couple of minutes late to pick up Archer the other day. Normally that wouldn't matter, because the teacher who supervises the bus riders brings him out when one of us arrives and asks for him. But on this particular day, the teacher thought she saw Noel and mistakenly brought out Archer, only to find no dad there to collect him. When Noel did get there, Archer had the big liquid eyes and turned-down mouth that signals he was on the verge of tears. When Archer climbed into the car where Cady Gray was already sitting, the following exchange took place:

CG: Archer, why are you crying? Did somebody bite you?
Archer: No.
CG: (still concerned) ... Did somebody push you?

It's conversations like this that make a parent wonder what's happening behind the closed doors of the various preschools and daycares to which we've entrusted our daughter. Such definite ideas of what leads to crying can only come hard experience at the school of hard knocks. Or else from running experiments on other kids to see what makes them cry, I now realize to my dismay.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

I believe ...

Anonymous asks:
I am struck with the number of people in so called main line denominations who recite the Apostles Creed every Sunday, with vigor, and yet a lot of those same people question the Bible's authenticity in matters of doctrine. Do they speak a lie every week? Is it just a tradition like going to church on Sunday, or are they just confused?
Some are lying. Some are following tradition. Some are confused. I have no doubt that among the untold millions of Christians who recite an ancient creed each Sunday (Apostolic or Nicene), there are those who fall into the above three categories.

But there are many who do not. There are many who are speaking the truth when they claim in the words of the creed to believe in this (Father), that (Son), and the other (Holy Spirit), yet at the same time do not hold to the infallibility or plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture. How is this possible?

Because the creed, like the Bible, is an ancient document full of ancient ideas. Many of these ideas depend upon philosophical constructs that almost no Christian still uses. It is full of cryptic language, anti-heresy slogans, and dense, telegraphic claims about extremely complex theological matters. And all of it, like the Bible, has to be interpreted. Those black boxes of meaning contained in words like "Son of God," "eternally begotten," "God from God," "begotten not made," "of one being" (to take a series of phrases from only a couple of lines of the Nicene creed) have to be unpacked. They are not clear, plain English like "Here is the red apple." They are profoundly odd. And people in the pews each Sunday interpret it in bewilderingly diverse ways, yet can connect their interpretations back to the mirror of the creed.

Creeds originated as instruments of thought control, designed to root out wrongthinkers and bind everyone to a standardized set of concepts and relationships. But given the esoteric nature of most of the theological debates that led to the credal language, it's not surprising that most people in the pews just made up their own minds about what the words meant. By the Middle Ages, that had led to elaborate folk cosmologies, christologies, soteriologies, and ecclesiologies passed down from layperson to layperson, or thought up anew when an existing explanation proved insufficient. The creeds do not come packaged with a manual explaining their meaning -- and even if they did, the system of concepts that are behind those meanings -- Platonic and Aristotelian, anti-Docetist and anti-Arian -- would be bewildering to any lay person, let alone to those centuries removed from the debates and worldviews that led to the language. Read Ginzburg's The Cheese And The Worms: The Cosmos Of A Sixteenth-Century Miller to get a sense of the wacky ideas -- combinations of interpretations of Church teaching and what passed for peasant common sense -- that the Roman Catholic Inquisition found once it started digging. The ideas were so strange that the Inquisition felt they had to be due to demon possession or some powerful and malicious heretical conspiracy. Yet it's clear to us that it's just people doing what people do when asked to sign on to some cryptic system of rituals and beliefs. They figure out as best they can what's going on, and that's what they believe. We still do that -- we have to. The creeds do not interpret themselves. Somehow their ancient phrases and assertions have to be translated into our world and harmonized with what we already know and cannot put aside.

I'll never forget a student of mine some years ago who was a devout evangelical Christian. Sitting in my office one day, we began talking about the Trinity, and I asked her what she thought the Holy Spirit was. Well, she explained, the Holy Spirit is a messenger created by God to be with us here on earth. Created, I asked? So the Holy Spirit is not God? Oh no, she said. The Holy Spirit is not as important as God or Jesus. The Holy Spirit serves God and Jesus.

She got somewhat upset with me when I told her that she was a heretic, according to the orthodox Christian views defined at Nicaea. Naturally so -- she heard me telling her that she wasn't a Christian. She has every right to hold heterodox opinions about the Holy Spirit, of course, and I told her so. But she thought that she was holding orthodox ones, and was dismayed -- even incredulous -- to be told otherwise. And I think we can all understand her reaction. She had made what seemed to her perfect sense of the way she heard her tradition talking about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Put an alien from Mars in her church for a year with a translation device, and he'd come up with something similar (if not weirder). What I was saying were the "correct" beliefs seemed to her to be nonsense. And I'll wager that not one churchgoer in a hundred thousand holds orthodox opinions on the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, or sacramental theology, according to their own traditions.

Because these doctrines are strange. They are mysteries, by most orthodox theologians' own admission. Yet we are asked to subscribe to them verbally week after week. Of course we are telling the truth, but we are telling a truth (more or less self-consciously) that differs substantially from the truth the writers of the creed were telling. How can it be otherwise? We are removed from those writers in culture, worldview, philosophy, science, religious practice and religious understanding. A phrase as common in our churches as "forgiveness of sins" relies on a host of other ideas -- what are sins, why do they need to be forgiven, how does this forgiveness take place, what does it all have to do with baptism (to which it is connected in the creed) -- none of which are obvious from the words of the creed, all of which have probably been explained to us through metaphors and comparisons with our own experience as well as references to Scripture, and which we've had to put in some kind of relationship with other beliefs and knowledge we hold.

The parishioners at my church are not lying when they recite the creed, although those I've taught in Sunday school classes include little inerrancy among their diversity of views about Scripture, and many would consider the Bible to be only one among many books of sacred wisdom. I was hesitant about reciting the creed for a time, especially certain parts of it to whose traditional understanding I could not accede. But I've embraced the necessity, and therefore the imperative, of interpretation (especially in the Anglican tradition, whose genius is to conform us in practice without attempting to conform us in doctrine beyond the ancient formulae). What we must do, we have freedom to do according to conscience. We exercise that freedom together, in fear and trembling but in solidarity. And in that we are bound together more strongly than any technique of doctrinal conformity can ever hope to achieve.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The risks of progress

A couple of students invited me to speak to the Mid-South Conference of the Left, a series of meetings and workshops being held on campus this weekend bringing together various leftist and progressive organizations. The topic I was assigned: "Religion and Progressivism: Contradiction In Terms?"

Naturally (these provocative titles are almost almost destined to be answered in the negative) I argued that they are not, that rightly understood, religion challenges every status quo. My audience ranged from those who have already allied with mainstream denominations for social action, to those who have abandoned or reinterpreted their religious upbringing because of its association with social conservatism, to those who have embraced scientism or militant atheism.

Now I'm on record as agreeing with much of the reasoning of the latter group, the ones who oppose religion per se. Yes, religion tends to lose its prophetic voice when allied with temporal power. Yes, belief in absolute supernatural authority cannot be safeguarded from violence in that authority's name.

But there are two reasons I can't follow Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett et al. to what they feel is their logical conclusion.

1. Exactly how is the vacuum of values creation and meaning generation to be filled once religion has been swept into the dustbin of history? Science has done a pretty poor job at that necessary transition from is to ought, as forcibly impressed on previous generations by eugenics, trench warfare, the atomic bomb, The Bell Curve, etc. Yet that's clearly what Dawkins, at least, would have us install as the sole source of data for human thought.

2. The Enlightenment thought this problem had been solved. Reveal the natural history of religion, its superstitions and foibles and ignominious heritage, and it would wither away as the human race matured past the stage of needing such a crutch. Obviously, they couldn't have been more wrong. What should we learn from religion's refusal to die? Perhaps that we need to remain connected with our heritage, our traditions, our communities past and present. Perhaps that the values that religion has fostered, nurtured and proclaimed are deep in the selves and in the cultures that formed ourselves. Perhaps that cutting ourselves off from what gave us birth, proclaiming emancipation and divorce, is neither healthy nor sustainable. Why not try to find a way to live with this part of ourselves instead of expending all our energy fighting it? Siggie Freud, have you taught us nothing?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Minimum dosage

Nick of A Streetcar Named MacGyver asked me during an e-mail exchange: "I'm interested to hear what you think the bare minumum would be for a belief system to be thought of as Christian. I tend to think it would at least involve a belief in the divine nature of Jesus, SOME duality in the afterlife (otherwise, what is Jesus providing salvation FROM?), and an objective system of right and wrong (even if we can't entirely know it)."

It's a question that comes up a lot from students. And most assume similarly that the divinity of Jesus would be a dealbreaker.

But that's the revelation of research into the earliest generations of Christians. There were a bewildering variety of perspectives on this very basic point. The gospels themselves show a range. Among the synoptics, Mark has an adoptionist perspective (the baptism is the moment at which Jesus is anointed as a special messenger of God), while Luke and Matthew give him somewhat more developed superheroic characteristics (like a miraculous birth). All three agree, however, that Jesus is the Messiah -- a special human being given a divine mission to restore Israel to prominence. They give him the title "Son of God," which is the title of the Davidic line of kings, not an equivalence with God. Jesus calls himself "son of man" in the synoptics, which could mean simply human (the Hebrew word for man is 'adam, so he'd be saying "son of Adam") or could be a reference (as Matthew takes it to be, and has Jesus say in before the Sanhedrin) to Daniel's vision of "one like a son of man coming in glory." None of this goes so far as claiming divine status for Jesus, though, and apparently neither did the communities that produced those gospels.

John's gospel and Paul's letters do claim a divine origin and pre-existence for Jesus, attesting that this strain of thinking about who Jesus is co-existed and competed with the "messianic human" view in the earliest strata of Christian records. And we know plenty of other views were bubbling in the near vicinity -- the ones with whom Paul contended early on, the Gnostic view recorded in the first-century Gospel of Thomas, and more and more proliferating around the beginning of the second century and persisting until Constantine sponsored the Council of Nicea and put the stamp of approval on the full divinity of Jesus and his equality with God.

So if you think that you have to believe Jesus to be divine to be called Christian, then the majority of the earliest followers of Jesus who passed down the traditions we have today don't qualify.

Similarly with the afterlife. I'm not sure why Americans focus so strongly on this point -- again, students asked to define a minimum Christian doctrine set always mention life after death. Perhaps Nick hits it when he defines hell as what Jesus is saving us from. That's the Pauline view, certainly, but it's not in the synoptics. Moreover, it reflects a Hellenistic body-soul dualism, combined with a Zoroastrian God-Devil dualism, that is completely absent from the Hebrew scriptures -- the idea that one's soul has an eternal destination that renders earthly life merely prelude. Even Paul, who is to some extent fixated on Jesus' salvation from sin, death, and the devil (in the traditional formulation), regards the afterlife as something that will happen after the resurrection, at the end of time -- not your next stop after death. In any case, it seems that Jesus does have something to save us from other than death -- sin! I'd argue that this aspect of salvation is far more significant than immortality, but our culture seems fixated on the eternal reward stuff rather than the liberation from present bondage.

And while I have less of a gripe with a requirement to accept a heteronomous moral system, I wonder why it's identified as peculiarly Christian. After all, Jesus didn't give us a bunch of laws or moral precepts. His teachings, dare I say, were relative -- couched in relation to the interpretation of the law practiced by his opponents. Again, other than John's references to 'alethia, "Truth" (a Greek vision of an objective, transcendent ultimate reality), I don't see that a strict and knowable system of right and wrong, one that can be couched in commands and prohibitions, to be the dominant message of the gospels and the Pauline correspondence.

So what's the minimum? Very little, I'd say. Some central role for Jesus -- that's pretty much it. Anything more than that, and again, most of the early Christians are going to be excluded. That's how diverse the movement was from the first moment we gain sight of it in about 50 C.E., and in our search for a standard by which to measure our list of requirements, farther back than that we cannot go. We are stuck with diversity and we are stuck with a fuzzy, broad definition -- unless you'd like to put the starting point at Nicea instead, ignoring altogether the Jewish Christians who gave birth to the variety of Jesus movements, ceding the field to the Greeks and their philosophical formulations of Christ's divinity.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Eternally revising

Today I got a book in the mail that I've had on order at Amazon for weeks. It's How To Read The Bible: A Guide To Scripture, Then And Now by James Kugel. This massive volume attempts to tell two simultaneous stories: the discovery by modern scholarship of the Bible's composition, authorship, and historical background; and the formation of standard interpretations of the Bible in the centuries around the beginning of the common era, by scholars under intense pressure to find relevance in these ancient texts that would make sense of their turbulent times.

I wish I could start my sophomore class over and install this book as the central text. We're using Kugel's The Bible As It Was, a book I've admired and consulted for years. It compiles scores of interpretive strands from the ancient literature, showing how they tried to make sense of texts they found cryptic yet absolutely crucial. But Kugel's new book not only shows how the interpreted-Bible, the one that all of us grew up with as the "plain meaning" of the text, came to be, but it also juxtaposes that familiar (yet utterly odd) book with the unfamiliar (yet distinctly human) mosaic revealed by scientific investigations of various kinds. It's the synthesis I've been groping toward in my class, and here it is in one magisterial package. I gulped down the introduction and part of chapter one before dinner, and I just want to take the rest of the semester off and savor it.

Next semester I'm reprising my class on pop culture criticism. I've learned a little bit about the balance between reading and writing assignments, and about how to manage in-class experiences with pop culture. I'm happy with two of my central texts -- Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Understanding Comics. But I feel like I need a book on the special properties of electronic media, so we can see how it matters that pop culture is mass culture. (Maybe those are two separate topics.) Last time I used a book called Digital McLuhan by Paul Levinson, and it was okay -- a little academic, a little theoretical. So I'm taking suggestions for another book that will help my students get some distance on this all-consuming deluge of media, maybe let them see how it developed, let them poke at the gears to see how it works. Any ideas?

I know for sure that I want to start the class with the title essay from George Saunders' new collection, The Braindead Megaphone. As he describes the overwhelming and despair-inducing power of poorly-thought-out ideas, soundbites, talking points, short attention span theater, simplistic propaganda, and meaningless tabloid sleaze in our culture, he calls for small acts of resistance. Every sentence revised, he says, is a blow against the massing hordes. Every paragraph carefully crafted is a light kindled against the rising dark. Amen, brother George.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

We regret the error

Today one of my colleagues gave an excellent lecture on the ecological view of the human self. She was really humming along, connecting the ecological insight to its key influences and themes, when one of her slides brought me up short.

In the middle of discussing the contribution of genetic and evolutionary knowledge to what she was calling "ecological wisdom," she showed a color version of this drawing showing the bone structure of a bat wing, whale flipper, horse leg, and human hand. The label was "Convergent Evolution."

My colleague went on to say that ecology draws from evolution the message that life often solves the same problem in the same way -- that many different life forms have evolved the same solution to the same problem.

Suddenly it all came flooding back to me. I had seen a previous version of this slideshow the last time the course was taught, and this slide was present. At the time I felt a shiver of dread. The label and description were wrong. The bone structures of mammalian forelimbs are an example of homology -- the reconfiguration of a common skeletal formation into several different shapes by lengthening, shortening, and changing the angle of the bones. Although the flipper and the hand, for example, look very different, underneath it's the same number and configuration of bones.

Convergent evolution, what my colleague was describing, would be better illustrated by a slide of a bat wing and a bird wing. Mammals and birds evolved flight separately, and both independently developed the wing structure to achieve it.

When I saw the slide last year, I made a mental note to speak about it to another of my colleagues, one who specializes in scientific scholarship. And I did, later that same day. "We need to let Mutual Colleague know that she's not using that slide correctly," I said, and he agreed.

Obviously we failed. Neither of us ever mentioned it to her, and here was the slide again and the accompanying narration again (it appears twice in the presentation to my increasing distress).

Why didn't we say something? Why have I still not said something, having seen the mistake repeated? Because it's hard to correct a colleague. When you're up at the podium giving a lecture with several other professors in attendance, the pressure to be accurate and insightful is enormous. You feel a gnawing fear that your notes are riddled with errors, that every improvised aside is a potential misstep, that the fact or interpretation you just dredged up from the muck of some lecture you yourself heard years ago was discredited last week with great fanfare, and no one told you.

It's a vulnerable position. And I hesitate to undermine a colleague's authority, even in private. Plus, correcting her feels painfully close to criticizing her. It's an elevation of my knowledge over hers in a field that is far away from my expertise and closer to hers. It's just a very uncomfortable thing to do.

Yet my failure to do it means that the incorrect slide and the incorrect information went out to another 150 students today. Some of them probably knew -- or suspected -- that it wasn't right. Maybe they wrote it off as an honest mistake (though given the repeated explanation, it's hard to see it as anything but incorrect understanding). Maybe they looked at the rest of her presentation with more skepticism given this fundamental error. And maybe the rest of them, the ones who didn't know better, now have a muddled set of terms and images in their heads that I can never eradicate.

Or maybe nobody was paying that close attention and it's no big deal. But I can't help feeling anxiety about it -- both about the error, and about my failure to prevent its repeat dissemination. I'm sure I make lots of errors in my lectures, and I don't want -- but I need -- people who know better to correct me. How to do it without doing damage to already-fragile relationships, though, is beyond me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Seasonal work

Time once again to peek inside Archer's life at school, courtesy of the work he brings home in his backpack. Today's assignment:

First up: Spring!

Straight lines of rain, a tree, random circle near the eastern border, and prominently portrayed at top right, our recurring theme for this series of drawings: a round thermometer pointing between 60 and 80 (I think).

A cheery yellow sun and full leafy tree signal summer. The upside-down stick figure is not, as it may appear, suffering a massive head injury, but is actually diving into a pool.

Fall is the time leaves turn brown, foreshortened dumbbells get stuck in trees, and houses are built with the letters "SE" to the left of the door and "HOU" to the right.

Bare branches, a snowman, and 30-degree weather -- that's winter in Arkansas. (Except for the snowman, which derives from Yankee propaganda.)

Finally, time to answer the closing question in game-show-host clue-giving mode:

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stocking up

If I have to go shopping, by golly, I'm going to do it in one fell swoop. No piecemeal visits to a dozen stores for me. My goal is to spend $150 for 75% of what the kids are going to need until March.

Mission accomplished. I think I ended up with 30+ garments (many of them sets) and a grab bag of toys. Now I'll be trying to make the mercury drop with my mind so the kids can wear long pants and sleeves again. Nothing better than new old clothes, twice a year. Thanks, semi-annual consignment sale!

I'll have to let my How I Met Your Mother TV Club entry speak for me tonight. 137-minute film at school, 22-minute episode at home, 60 minutes writing a blog destined to go up about an hour late -- that pretty much eats up my night. See you tomorrow for our normally scheduled kid homework review.