Monday, June 30, 2008

Day to day

Today on NPR I heard a snippet of an interview with David Morneau, who has composed at least 60 seconds of music every day for the past year.

A couple of days ago I finished reading Haruki Murikami's brief memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in which he recalls Somerset Maugham once writing that in each shave lies a philosophy.

If you do something regularly enough, long enough, it becomes not an action directed at an outcome but an opportunity for deepened self-knowledge, for meditation on the process, for a journey with no destination.

I write every day in this blog. All of you have something you do every day, whether it's your commute or your cappuccino. What philosophy lies therein?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

So rare as a day in June

After relatively gentle thunderstorms most of the day on Saturday -- the rain on the roof made my morning to sleep in even more restful than usual -- today is spectacularly bright, cool and breezy. Here in Arkansas we don't get many summer days under ninety degrees. I wish I could have just sat at the park and worked on my Clapotis all afternoon, but the kids were running out of things to do at the playground and we had to bring them home.

June is about over, and that means there are about seven more weeks of summer vacation to go. We've done pretty well so far keeping the kids occupied, but the hardest slog -- July -- is still to come. Cady Gray is in day care three days a week, Archer has therapy on Monday and Wednesday, but there are still many long hours that both kids are at home while Dad's trying to get his New York film openings reviewed and his Popless tracks listened to.

I think we're going to enroll Archer in two weeks of language camp starting mid-July. There's a week of Spanish camp and a week of French camp for kids in grades 1-4, separated into two age groups. I don't know how Archer will do, but he seems enthusiastic about the idea. The price is right. And most importantly, it will give his days structure, keep his social skills sharp, and involve him with something other than the TV, computer, or magnadoodle.

I read a few days ago that one of the special school districts here in Arkansas had ended an experiment with an extended school year that was not quite year-round school (month-long breaks in midwinter, midspring, and late summer), but close. Parents didn't like it because it restricted their summer vacations to a relatively short period of time. Students didn't like it for obvious reasons. The school board didn't like it because it cost quite a bit more money.

Nobody asked me, but I'd be all for it. The long, tedious summer break may be a tradition in American culture, but it's counter-productive in almost every way. There's no reason we can't get our relaxation in less concentrated bursts, and I'm willing to bet that students and parents would be all the better for it. And after it became widespread, it wouldn't cost any more, assuming that you live in an area where the schools are already air-conditioned.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Robot dreams

Tonight Noel and I are going to see WALL-E, a movie we've been anticipating ever since we saw the teaser trailers last year. The fact that it's turned out to be the best reviewed movie of 2008 is no surprise to us, just a confirmation of Pixar's ability to make something amazing out of an unlikely premise, a bold conception, and the best technology in the business.

We're unabashed fans of Pixar, the studio that both invented and perfected the computer-animated film. This week we co-authored an introduction to the Pixar body of work for the A.V. Club's Primer series. Rarely is it possible to witness such a string of success building upon success as Pixar has put together since the release of Toy Story in 1995. And it warms our geeky hearts that the way John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Brad Bird have done it is by caring far more about the timeless elements of moviemaking -- character and story -- than the high-tech bells and whistles.

There are still a few folks out there -- I hear from them both in real life and on the net -- who think animation is all kid's stuff, not worth serious consideration. It's a common example of a much more general problem: the notion that there are subjects that are just beneath attention. A.V. Club commenters chastise us for writing about Disney Channel movies or reality shows. They have some kind of division in mind between the stuff that bears thinking about and the stuff that simply does not. I don't agree. There's something of interest nearly everywhere you look, and cultural phenomena that don't happen to be aimed at your demographic don't, therefore, become unworthy of notice.

In the case of Pixar, though, the dismissal is even more misguided. These are not just good animated films or good children's films. They are great movies, the Wizard of Oz and Casablanca and Star Wars of our time. Like the greatest art, they transcend their genre and should be cherished by anyone who cares about quality and the unique, miraculous conditions that produce it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Look, up in the sky

Today Archer completed Super Kids camp, a science and math day camp for first through third graders. One year ago when he finished his first weeklong stint there, we attended the closing ceremony and watched him stand with about 50 other kids and sing (or not sing, more often) five songs. I wrote about it here.

During this year's closing ceremony, Archer sang the same five songs -- and sang a lot more of them. His attention was much better, although it wandered during the last couple of songs, when he was unsure of the words. (I was prepared for this because when he sang me all the songs yesterday, after writing each song's total time on his magnadoodle, he mumbled his way through the later ones.)

But as the kids sang the last song, "You've Got A Friend In Me," you could see him gathering himself for a big moment. He kept glancing at the children on either side of him. Then it happened: the students put their arms around each other's shoulders and swayed. Last year Archer also clearly enjoyed that moment, although he could not bring himself to actually touch those kids; he held his arms straight out to the sides and swayed along. This year he enthusiastically threw his arms around the girls on either side, a huge smile on his face. This was the moment he'd been waiting for.

Most charmingly, he failed to read the social cues of the group when Dr. Cooper, the Super Kids director, asked them all whether he would stop being a super kid if he did something wrong or had a problem. "Noooooooooo," answered all the kids in unison. But Archer didn't stop there. Pointing emphatically, he continued after everyone else had fallen quiet. "You will still be a super kid," he assured Dr. Cooper.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Information flow

You may remember that I'm a big fan of the Amazon Kindle. Noel had the bright idea a few days ago to request a Kindle for review, and sure enough, it came in the mail today, already loaded with Noel's Amazon account (all his recommendations were listed right there on the home page). I'm pretty sure I'll be getting one this fall, maybe in time to take with me on my conference trip to Aarhus, Denmark.

In a world where the end of fossil fuels is in sight, there's nothing that makes less sense that shipping information around the world in the form of physical objects. Sure, there will always be a need and a desire for beautiful books. But how many books are essentially information -- bits, easily represented by 0's and 1's and completely susceptible to being transmitted electronically rather than on trucks and planes? And I think it's a given that music and movies have outgrown the plastic discs on which we encode them in order to get them from place to place. Yes, we all remember when albums had nice big surfaces for cover art. But the market downsized those covers to CD size without blanching, and I think the fact that we don't really miss them proves that the packaging is quite incidental, and the music is the product. And that product is simply information, most efficiently delivered over the airwaves and not over the roads.

The desire to create, own, and proliferate physical objects that hold information still exists. We all love our books and our album collections. But can't we all recognize that preference as mostly nostalgia? Why should material resources be expended to deliver information, just because that's what we're all used to?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In print part 2

In this post I talked about the transporting, illuminating power of language. There is a postscript to that short discussion that I left for another day, however -- today, as it turns out.

It seems to me that the quality of writing to re-enchant the world, to fill it with significance as if lit from within and reorder its chaos into a cosmos, is contingent on a certain willingness to accept the world as ultimately valuable and meaningful. I well remember the taken-for-grantedness of this attitude in the books I voraciously consumed as a child, and how untethered and free it made me feel. And I still get that sense, that spiritual, truth-telling sense, from great writing that takes the natural and human worlds as its subjects.

So I suppose I'm fundamentally oriented against any cultural efforts to establish a transcendent realm as more real, more significant, more important than this one we inhabit. That always seemed stifling to me, a lesson that your elders and your betters tried to get you to take at their word. I know that everyone who regards themselves as "just a-passin' through" this world, and tries to pass on that message about their ultimate home "somewhere beyond the blue" is not an enemy of free thought. But the notion that the wonders of our own experience, especially as they can be revealed and enhanced by language, art, architecture, and other human works, are to be disparaged by right-thinking folks as secondary and potentially idolatrous -- it has always seemed like a denial of the power that is so obviously right in front of us to be grasped, used, and appreciated.

I know many people for whom every work that fails to acknowledge the supremacy of the transcendent realm is of trivial worth at best, and is dangerous at worst. I understand their point of view because it was to some extent the way I was brought up. But I was seduced early on by the limitless horizons revealed to me by those very works. Far from finding them flawed or hobbled, I grew to find the works that hewed to the "correct" order of value stunted and blinkered. I can't say that my bias is in the better direction -- I can only say that it is my bias, brought on by early experience and a deep sense that I cannot deny about where freedom is to be found.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Secret identity

Last summer, when Cady Gray had a sunny yellow dress covered with bright red apples, I dubbed her Apple Girl and made up a song celebrating her prowess. This year she has a green dress covered with strawberries, but she has suddenly embraced the Apple Girl persona.

Exactly where she absorbed the conventions of superherodom, I don't know. But she claims to have a cape (with apples on it) as she dashes around the house (with sound effects) going on "missions." I have been named "Second Apple Girl" and sometimes I am addressed by pretend walkie-talkie: "Second Apple Girl! Come in! Over!" When you ask her for an apple, she extends her hands dramatically as if there were lightning bolts coming from her palms, sending the apple to you.

The delight she takes in this particular pretense is unmistakeable; her eyes light up and her whole body gets into the act. If you send her on a mission, she says, "Ooooh-kay!" in a plucky can-do voice, and when she's completed the task, she comes running back to accept the accolades of her adoring public.

It touches me that she has claimed her first alternate identity with such joy. I know the comfort and thrill of feeling yourself to have special powers. On at least half of my walks to work, I look forward to my day in the persona of a medieval scholar or a fantasy heroine. Everything and everyone around me become props for my roleplay; all the world's a stage. A rich inner life can transform your world, your place in it, and ultimately, your self. Perhaps because Archer's ability to pretend has been slow to emerge, I'm moved by Cady Gray's easy engagement with her own imagination, and her excitement about exercising it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How football and baseball are different

George Carlin was one of the fringe figures of my youth, relegated to furtive moments away from home. I remember sharing headphones with my friends on a glee club trip, listening to Carlin do his "place to put your stuff" routine, cackling and repeating the best lines.

He's been a part of my children's lives through his participation in Thomas The Tank Engine and Cars. I suppose it's a part of an entertainer's career evolution to take on these different kinds of roles late in life -- even ones that are diametrically opposed to his previous image. In time, transgressiveness mellows into nostalgia.

But of course Carlin had a mainstream appeal even during his edgiest days, appearing regularly on network television. It was his singular genius to remain committed to speaking frankly and not pulling punches, even as he became such a cultural fixture that just about anything funny that gets passed around via e-mail eventually gets his name attached to it.

Noel had the chance to interview him a couple of years ago. People often ask Noel whom he's interviewed lately, and while many of those names don't ring a bell with people over or under a certain age, when Noel mentioned Carlin everybody was impressed.

By the way, football is rigidly timed. Baseball -- we don't know when it's going to end! Maybe we'll have extra innings!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Curbside pickup

Today's post, featuring hot lace for your hands, is at Toxophily.

I picked up this awesome easel through Freecycle today. The kids immediately set to work tutoring each other (and me).

Archer created a pictorial crossword puzzle for Cady Gray. (Some of the clues had to be altered as he realized that the words weren't going to intersect correctly -- for example, that cap on 1 Down was originally a hat.) I especially liked his representations of the runes that the kids quested for on their recent vacation. Shown here, left to right: Lightning Rune and Freezing Power Rune!

Cady Gray gave me a spelling test. I'm trying to make it through "person."

Here's the story problem Archer wrote for me. The last line is: "Did this problem X 5 [multiply by 5] ?"

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Senses of humor: A study in contrasts

Cady Gray: Mom, I'm going to tell you a joke. Knock knock!

Me: Who's there?

CG: Bunny shoes!

Me: Bunny shoes who?

CG: Bunny shoes that are the biggest you've ever seen ... and the bunnies wear them ... and then monsters come and all break up the world ... and it's all broken up and that's the funniest joke ever!

Archer: Now I will tell you a joke. Knock knock!

Me: Who's there?

Archer: Savannah.

Me: Savannah who?

Archer: Savannah Wertz.

Friday, June 20, 2008

In print and in "print"

My office re-entry this morning yielded a couple of items for the year-end performance review:
I'm especially happy with the latter item because it's available for all of you who've wondered what my academic work is like. (C'mon, admit it.) Since it originated as a presentation and not a journal article, it's citation-light and (I flatter myself) highly readable. The one footnote is a quotation from Nathan Rabin, for crying out loud!

There's so much text in the world and it's so overwhelmingly available (even thrust upon one unasked-for) that it's hard to remember how miraculous writing is, and how noble the calling of the writer should be considered. I tend to reconnect with that magic at lunchtime on weekdays, when I go get a Tropical Smoothie chicken habernero wrap and read whatever I'm currently reviewing.

Today it was Jamie James' nonfiction book The Snake Charmer: A Life And Death In Pursuit Of Knowledge. As I read about Joe Slowinski's fanatic love of naturalism and herpetology, culminating in a (surprisingly rare) science-related snakebite in the wilds of Burma, I frequently glance up and out the window, at the cloud-chased sky and the passing cars and the McDonald's across the street. Good writing -- illuminating, revealing, humane writing -- enchants the world.

Every time I feel like my dailyblogging, my blogs and reviews for the A.V. Club, my academic work, my administrative memos and handbooks and policies and so forth, are all Byzantine wheelspinning, far removed from anything that actually matters a damn ... I read something that lights up the world like stained glass, and I remember that language turns the chaos of experience into a cosmos that can be communicated. And that's a power not to be disparaged. Indeed, it may be the fundamental power of consciousness.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What I learned about the twenty-something sitting behind me on the plane ...

... while she was chatting with her polite and tolerant seatmate.*
  1. Her parents got divorced when she was thirteen, and her dad took up with a woman named Charmin [note: spelling not provided].
  2. Once her whole family was getting together for some event, and her mom stormed out with her kids in tow after Charmin served her a beer.
  3. Her sister is gay, "but sporty gay."
  4. She worked on her tan all week (although she hastens to add that she "SPFed up"), but didn't get as dark as she wanted.
  5. On the Sex and the City weekend she had with her girlfriends, Jeannette was totally making out with that guy.
  6. Charmin's one to talk about the responsibilities of parents -- her son dropped out of high school when he was 16.
  7. She's dating a black guy, but she told her mom to think of him as just very tan. [Note: Polite and tolerant seatmate is older black woman.]
*Translation: We're back home after two more on-time flights (what are the odds?), and very happy to be so. More details, pictures, YouTubes, etc. from our trip in the days to come.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lessons from Jamestown

  1. Cady Gray would have been a great Powhatan Indian maiden.  She absolutely adored grinding corn in hollowed-out logs with a big wooden pestle.  Whenever I managed to pry her away from one hut and move her along, she would skip forward exclaiming, "I want to smash more corn!"
  2. The colonists must have had a hard time figuring out on which side their cornbread was buttered when Oliver Cromwell briefly took over the British government.
  3. We may feel like cattle on airplanes today, but I think we would prefer it to being stuck on a 500-square-foot 'tween deck with 53 other passengers for months.
  4. Archer will sit through a 24 minute movie if it is liberally interspersed with dates.
  5. If you see a rope going down through a grate on a replica ship, do not haul on it.
  6. It's hard for children to recognize animals from their skins hanging limply on a hook.
  7. To my disappointment, none of the re-enactors called the Indians "the Naturals" the way Christopher Plummer did in The New World.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Another hot one in the Commonwealth meant that we spent our day cooling off in the waterpark yet again.  And the rewards were great.  Cady Gray was enthusiastic about the kiddie slides.  Archer, who started his water experience quite tentatively yesterday, spent an hour reconnoitering the "cub" pool, getting out at each depth and jumping in to see where it came up to on his body.  

By the time we repaired to the outdoor pool midmorning, the kids were ready to try new things.  Archer continued what he called "pacing practice," walking to different depths and then getting out.  His sense of accomplishment even made him receptive to other kinds of "practice" -- sitting practice (sitting on the bottom of the pool in shallow water), floating practice (sticking his toes up above the water surface), even a little bit of swimming practice (kicking his legs behind him).

I gently pushed Cady Gray to try some floating and swimming, and almost came to regret it -- she refused to stop, meaning that I had to support her in each position.  Even when I guided her to where the water was only inches deep, she wouldn't stop kicking her legs and padding her arms.  I showed her how to dip her mouth in the water and blow bubbles, and by the time we broke for lunch, she was insisting on doing this while swimming.  I got a hint of her independence as we practiced her jumping from the side of the pool into my arms -- she said a couple of times, "Don't catch me jumping.  I want to do it myself."  

I even got in some knitting-by-the-pool-with-fruity-drink time during the kids' naps.  At bedtime Mom and Dad kindly stayed with the kids while we scooted down to the waterpark to ride the thrill rides, bruise the everliving heck out of my coccyx on the thrilliest of said thrill rides, and nurse our wounds in the hot tub.  Great Wolf Lodge, you've earned your keep today.

Tomorrow we're going to Jamestown in the morning for a stab at shoving some history down the throats of the seven sensation-happy children in our party.  And then no doubt we'll be back at the waterpark one last time before our last night in the bunk beds that Archer and Cady Gray carefully swap between naptime and bedtime to ensure a just distribution of the top bunk.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A dream come true

Today at the insanely packed Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, we:
  • went down water slides
  • played mini-golf
  • went on quests with a magic wand
  • ate burgers beside a lagoon (along with some of the best lemonade I've ever had)
  • met up with all the cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.
But the greatest thing that happened to Archer was when he was selected to help the girl calling bingo numbers.  He was only supposed to turn the cage and hand her the balls, but he couldn't resist taking on more responsibility.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The power of prayer

Not only were the flights on time, they both left a few minutes early.

Not only were the flights not overbooked, but all standbys were accommodated.

Not only did we make our connection, our arrival and departure were only five gates apart.

I know Mom was praying for us not to have a repeat of the Christmas travel disaster, and it could be that her faith has done the trick.  Tomorrow I'm going to let her know she needs to start praying for Thursday's return trip immediately.

If you want to know where we are, check this out.  It's theme park craziness in hotel form.  I'll fill you in on the indoor waterpark tomorrow.  Meanwhile the kids are sacked out on their bunk beds in the "Kid Kamp" room of our suite, with the Golf Channel lulling them to sleep.  Nighty night!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Taking to the air

Today's post, celebrating the somewhat early arrival of Baby Kate, is at Toxophily. What follows is nothing more than petty whining about living too far away from where we have to be tomorrow; please do not read.

With a great deal of trepidation, we are committing ourselves once again into the hands of the airlines in order to join the rest of my family in Williamsburg, Virginia to celebrate my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary.

I seriously considered driving across the eastern half of the country to make this trip, after what we endured at Christmastime combined with the massive cutbacks and other trouble in the industry at the current time. But finally I just couldn't face four full days on the road in order to spend three days at our destination, and I gave in to the air option.

Delta was good to us at Christmas, getting us home on the same day we left St. Simons. Nevertheless, our two 50-minute layovers in Atlanta do not inspire confidence, given the seeming chronic lateness of all flights. I'm planning for an enforced night in Atlanta and hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Tune in tomorrow for the results.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Brace yourself

On May 23, 2008, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette printed the following provocative letter about the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel:

Anniversary also tragic

While Israel celebrates its 60 th birthday and American leaders glad-hand it with childish glee, I lament the almost complete refusal by American media and government to acknowledge the tragedy that is synonymous with Israel's creation. For Palestinians, this is the 60th birthday of Al Nakba (the catastrophe). Sixty years ago, over three-quarters of a million Palestinians were forcibly and permanently removed from their homes. Over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed, depopulated or occupied by the victorious Israelis.

Of course, mainstream American media and no doubt [your] Editorial page would rather wallow in journalistic complicity than dare to acknowledge the systematic dehumanization of an entire population by America's favorite European colony. All the while good Zionist Christians give the infallible state of Israel a pat on the back whilst "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets dangle callously upon their wrists. Now Israel celebrates its sham democracy by continuously appropriating Palestinian land and resources for Jewish settlers. Farms in the West Bank are either confiscated for Jews or destroyed to deter an Arab family's viability on the land. Israel continues to construct the unimaginably huge separation wall, built upon and cutting deep into Palestinian land. This wall will no doubt demarcate the area's new geographic reality when Israel unilaterally declares its final borders. Finally, thousands of Palestinian civilians (spare me your "human shield" drivel) have died at the hands of bloodthirsty Israeli and Christian Falangist soldiers. Here's to 60 years of getting away with murder.


Now I think Meredith Oakley, the editor of the Voices page, is a sharp cookie with her heart in the right place. So I'd like to think that she chose to print the following for the purpose of reminding us that shockingly hateful people like the letter-writer exist among us -- and not because the paper carries its hands-off letters-to-the-editor policy to ridiculous extremes.

With that said, it's ...

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Letter Of The Week!

From the June 13, 2008 final edition:

Soldiers are prepared

In a previous letter, Amjad Saleh Faur expressed his disgust with “bloodthirsty” Israeli and Christian Falangist soldiers while he lamented so-called Palestinian victims. Hold onto your head wrap, camel jockey.

I will not waste time exposing the distortions that I believe saturated Faur’s hate-filled diatribe against the free world. . . . What is an American-hating terrorist sympathizer doing in Arkansas? Does he have something planned?

If he wants to kill Americans, he is free to join his comrades in Iraq. But there’s something he should understand. Our soldiers in Iraq are not unarmed civilians sitting unexpectedly at their desks. They are armed, ready and willing. So, Mr. Faur, what are you waiting for? Quit complaining and go join the killing.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Embracing the disreputable

I'm just back from the presentation to the incoming Honors students, and we had an excellent (if inconclusive) conversation about how to assess film quality. I'm too bushed to write much about it, but I just want to note that the strongest reaction was to "The Start Of Something New" from High School Musical -- and it was a huge groan as soon as it came on the screen, followed by a chorus of "no" to my question "is this good?" after it was over.

I remember what it was like to be 18 -- liking the right things and disliking the right things was a matter of life and death. It was almost impossible to have taste of your own. You borrowed your taste from other people -- at that age, from peers that you looked up to. And clearly, despising Zach Efron and Disney tweener culture is de rigeur among those who have recently left the target demographic. I'm not denying that people genuinely dislike High School Musical, but I sincerely doubt that the unanimity and public vehemence of the reaction spring entirely from individuals making their own independent judgments.

More and more, I want to push students to look for quality in unexpected places. I know it's embarrassing for academics to mount serious classes on popular culture -- "The Semiotics of Madonna" and all that. But if academia does nothing but reinforce the ironclad distinctions between high and low culture that are so real to students at their age, then we haven't helped them develop taste at all -- we've simply become the new place from which they borrow.

If a student made a good argument for the quality of something I've dismissed -- Adam Sandler movies, Alan Jackson songs, Rob Liefeld comics -- I'd consider that the definitive proof that the message had gotten through. But at this age, all you can do is plant the idea that the line between what's worth experiencing and what's not might not be as bright as they thought -- that the imperative to expand one's taste goes in both directions, higher and lower.

And then you get to work helping them to appreciate what's already widely accepted as having quality, which is the main line of work for a couple of years, at least. These smart, ambitious students at least accept the premise that there's something to high culture, that they should know about it and be able to analyze it, that it's not all an elitist conspiracy to keep people from having any fun. That makes it easier. (Well -- at least until they become sophomores.) I think it might be possible to get back to the idea of embracing the disreputable in their final semesters, and I'd dearly love them to go out into the world with that spirit. I hope that when they write their seminal defense of the music of Britney Spears, they send me a copy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Apparently with Cory Doctorow, you either love him or you hate him.

Or maybe you don't know who he is (raise your hands out there). If you don't read Boing Boing, one of the biggest multi-author blogs on the web, or if you don't follow science fiction, you may never have run across him.

But for those who do, he inspires wildly disparate reactions. Mention him on the internet in a positive light, and watch the vitriol come out of the woodwork. Whole blogs are powered by animus toward his love of Disneyana, his dedicated self-promotion, his steampunk obsession, his copyfighting free-information advocacy. My good friend Adam Villani, on the whole a positive, easy-going guy, has been known to devote posts to how mad Cory makes him.

Today the A.V. Club ran Tasha's long interview with Doctorow (not related to E.L. Doctorow as far as the Ragtime author knows, by the way), and in an effort to pre-emptively calm the storm, Tasha posted about how pleasant and knowledgable he was, and how much she liked his latest book Little Brother (although she's been lukewarm on some of his past novels). Her comment probably deflected some of the more hateful insults, but nevertheless the discussion became a referendum on Cory's "internet persona" and writing talent (or lack thereof).

For the record, while I find Doctorow's particular hobbyhorses occasionally tiresome, I share his optimism about technology sparking creativity and revitalizing traditional media, and his dread of government and corporate co-option of technology for surveillance and unreasonable search-and-seizure. I'm not a Disney or steampunk fanatic, but I enjoy some of the links he highlights on Boing Boing related to those topics -- and those I don't are easily skipped over.

Likewise, Boing Boing helpfully thumbtacks the cover art to Cory's books onto every post he makes about his readings or con appearances or the like, and I skim right by them in Google Reader with hardly a break in my consumption of Boing Boing's other "wonderful things."

I understand why he rubs a lot of people the wrong way, I think. He's an enthusiast and he's highly visible, and unlike his fellow Boing Boingers he seems to encase every link he throws up in a Jello mold of his own personality. That kind of idiosyncratic filter can make him come off as a person who is mystified by other interests and dissenting views. But he's never bothered me. And after reading his interview -- which probably represents him better than the brief screenbytes in which his "internet persona" is commonly displayed -- I find him a far more congenial thinker than I had previously imagined, even with all our shared perspectives. It certainly makes me want to read Little Brother.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My media summer

I posted my first "TV Club Classic" Newsradio blog this morning, and the response is extremely gratifying. Writing for the TV Club is somewhat nervewracking. There's more exposure than for book reviews (which are the lowest-rated items on the site, probably). People have fierce opinions about television -- it's a true mass medium, and everybody's a critic. I feel a lot of pressure to say something interesting and something funny to kick off the conversation.

On the other hand, in some ways it doesn't matter what I write. A lot of commenters pay little or no attention to the actual post -- it just provides a space for them to write about what they want to write about. And that trend became clear in the TV Club very quickly, such that many of the more popular blogs (like Noel's massive Lost blog) became the centers of communities with their own energy, obsessions, and interrelationships. One can only be grateful that these people have chosen to gather with you, week after week, to do whatever it is they want to do.

On the Newsradio blog, people are gleefully posting their favorite lines and bits from the show and arguing about the merits of various episodes and characters ... all of which might be construed as getting ahead of ourselves, or stealing the thunder from future blog posts. But as much as I'd like to be the one to remind the group about that hilarious moment or hideous costume, I have to remember that I still have a privileged position, and when the time comes, it's what I choose to highlight that will carry the initial weight, at least.

For now it's just exciting that the first installment has gotten 200 comments in seven hours. Those are good numbers for a pilot, so to speak. Now my job is to carry the momentum forward -- and no matter who reads or who doesn't read or why they come, I still feel the responsibility of creating a place where they will continue to come.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Later this week, eighty of our incoming Honors students are coming to campus for summer orientation and registration. We always do some kind of academic presentation for them on the first evening. For the last few years, I've talked about movies -- specifically, about making judgments about the quality of movies.

I ask them: What makes a movie good? They invariably come back with criteria about plot and character. Realistic stories, characters you can relate to, believable dialogue. Then I start hitting 'em with clips from movies that don't fit those criteria -- musicals, mostly. I ask if they're good, and those who think they are have to explain how they can be good despite their lack of realism, outsized characters, and stylized dialogue. Gradually I lead them away from human stories altogether, ending up with animation, art films, and the avant-garde. All the while, we keep asking the question: is this good? And we try to figure out along the way what we would need to know to fully answer that question -- about genre, about the filmmakers' histories, about references or allusions the film makes to other pieces of culture or films, about the intentions behind the movie. The aim is to complicate the notion of quality in popular culture, and to show how deep and wide the field can be, rewarding lifetimes of study and humbling our snap judgments.

I've used a pretty stable rotation of film clips for this interactive presentation: Moulin Rouge (to illustrate high stylization and mashup culture), High School Musical (reexamining the disreputable), Singin' In The Rain (the elements of traditional style), Dancer In The Dark (the effect of untraditional methods), Lagaan (how does the wider culture affect the presentation?), Fantasia 2000 (the "Pines of Rome" sequence -- mingling abstraction with character), Gerry (breaking almost all the rules about story and character, not to mention editing and music), Eye Myth (the Brakhage short -- almost completely abstract).

I might add Sweeney Todd this year, since we have a copy -- right after Singin' In The Rain, to talk about the Broadway pedigree of the film musical form and how changes in that parent genre affect how to understand current film.

But I'm always looking for ways to update this presentation and make it new, fresh, and interesting. So movie nerds (and other gentle readers), I ask you: If it were your job to bust up these teenagers' assumptions about hallmarks of film quality, what movies would you be tempted to show?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Despised and rejected

The remarkable thing about the Bible is that over and over again, it tells the story of how God chose people completely upside-down from how their societies viewed them. The childless man becomes the ancestor of two great nations. The youngest son prevails over his brothers. The shepherd boy, so insignificant as to be left out in the fields when the prophet summoned the clan, becomes the king. The exiled remnant become the foundation of new prosperity. The crazy hermit is closer to the truth than the mighty warrior. Prostitutes and collaborators get to sup with God's chosen one, while the righteous and the rich are ignored.

According to the Bible, then, who are God's chosen people -- who are the elect? It seems to me that there's a consistent strain in the Biblical narratives that says that the elect are those despised by their societies. The elect are the people that the comfortable, well-off, well-positioned, upper middle class of any particular community don't want to associate with. (For it's precisely the middle class, you know, who are most concerned about who they associate with -- they have the most to gain by playing the game of class and morality correctly, and the most to lose by hanging with the wrong crowd.) The Bible says that to find out whom God values, look to see whom people value -- and then go to the other end of the spectrum.

I'm that middle class person. I've got a comfortable life, a good education, a high-status job. I've been outwardly blessed with a devoted husband, beautiful children, the respect of my peers, good friends and a good living.

It's pretty clear to me that according to the Bible, I'm not God's elect.

That's important because all of us look for God in the signs and signifiers of our societies. Who is it that has God's favor? Who should we follow here on earth? Where is the image of God most clearly to be seen?

Throughout history, human beings have always looked for God in the mainstream of their societies -- in mainstream morality, majority values, high-status lifestyles. But the Bible says that God deliberately chooses to be found as far away from that as possible.

My temptation is to look for God inside myself. Where in my life is God working? What am I doing that Jesus would do?

But the Bible says that my neighborhood, my class, my upbringing, my values, my religion are not where God is likely to be found. "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me." According to the Bible, I'll find God amongst the people I shun, in the lifestyles my society disparages, in the classes and age groups and values that threaten people like me, and against which people like me spend so much of our energy working and lobbying and bringing ballot initiatives and proposing zoning ordinances.

The least of these. We middle-class Christians work hard to put ourselves into that category by talking about the blackness of our sin and the wonder of grace. But the Bible talks about the least of these in pretty concrete, publicly-available terms -- economic power, job status, demographic desirability, affiliation with favored or patriotic groups, religious majority, moral purity in practice.

I'm not the least -- not in America, not in Arkansas, not in Conway. I'm not the most, either, but I'm a lot closer to that end. If I'm looking for God, and I'm taking the Bible seriously, I'd better be looking in the neighborhoods where people like me don't go.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

And down the stretch they come

I was a typical horse-crazy teenager once upon a time. When Affirmed and Alydar battled it out over the course of the three Triple Crown races and Affirmed came out victorious, I was twelve years old. The Triple Crown and the tennis Grand Slam events were probably the most closely watched sporting contests in our house.

Now my kids have developed a keen interest in racing of all kinds -- mostly for the opportunity to have a rooting interest in one competitor, and for Archer, the chance to keep track of the running order at all times. While the race is being run, there's much shouting, cheering, and as Archer puts it, "pretending to be a horse race."

For this year's Belmont shocker, Cady Gray picked number 6 to be her horse -- and then ended up with the longshot winner. Archer picked number 3, but was happy to be the track announcer for Cady Gray's win. Noel picked Denis of Cork and got the place. I went with the sure thing, Big Brown, and like everyone else, I was stunned at the result.

Given Archer's fascination with the numerical aspects of all kinds of sports, we experimented with watching the Indy 500 and the French Open this year. Sports are governed by sequence -- cause and effect, periods of play, batting order, game-set-match -- and Archer bombards us with questions until he gets that sequence straight in his head. Although horseracing affords him an opportunity to watch the numbers of the competitors change order, it doesn't have the intricate scores-within-scores-within-scores of tennis, or the complex pitch count and base progression of baseball. Looking through his eyes, I can see the appeal of both the simple sport of racing and the intricate path to victory involved in something like tennis. In recounting when things happens and how a certain outcome was reached, Archer is "storytelling" in his own way, and it's clear that it gives him great satisfaction.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Digerating in the flatness

Item! We almost have a new bathroom floor. Installers from Home Depot laid tile and grouted in the kids' bathroom yesterday and today. (They used the wrong kind of mud under the tile, and Noel says that he has rarely heard such swearing as when the supervisor found out. Due to the mistake, they had to let it dry for an entire day before they could come back and do the grout.) We have to clean it and seal it tomorrow, and then the plumbers will come and reinstall the toilet on Monday.

Item! Archer is developing a new interest in traffic signals. He spends every car trip talking about how many lights are on each signal, and what that means for what each light represents, and what the lights facing the cars going the other directions are doing. I can see the fascination -- it's a pattern wherein one can deduce what one can't observe directly, and the pattern changes in coordination with other parts of the pattern.

Item! The subject line is what Cady Gray said she was doing while spinning around on Noel's office chair. She called the chair adjustment lever her "digerater" and pumped it a few times before returning to her spinning. I think my first album is going to be called Digerating in the Flatness.

Item! I've finally achieved my dream job: watching one of my all-time favorite sitcoms every week. I'll be covering Newsradio this summer for "TV Club Classic," the A.V. Club feature that fills time between seasons by revisiting past shows episode by episode. Noel has the premiere spot -- he's watching Buffy for the first time, and has brought his legions of Lost-blog followers along for the ride. I'm also hoping to check out a few current summer shows, and maybe even blog their entire runs. Secret Life of an American Teenager, here I come!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Who's on first

Lately when I play games with Archer and Cady Gray, I've been doing the old "guess how many fingers I've got behind my back" routine to decide who goes first. In actuality, I rig the game to make sure that Cady Gray always wins, because she crumples into a weeping, quivering mass if she doesn't get to go first. It's the appearance of fairness that keeps Archer satisfied with the outcome.

Tonight Cady Gray announced that she wanted to play "twiddlywinks" with me. "Do you want to go first?" I asked.

"No," she announced, "the person who guesses the number closest to the number behind my back gets to go first."

I was amused. "OK, I'll guess four."

"I'll guess ... ten," she said. Then she pulled her hands out from behind her back. "It was ten! I'll go first."

Fast forward to the next game.

CG: Guess the number to go first.

Me: OK, this time I'll guess nine.

CG: I'll guess ten.

(pulls closed fists from behind back, laboriously raises nine fingers)

CG: The number was nine!

(I smile at her magnanimous gesture of fairness, but --)

CG: I go first. Again.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Carry my water

In keeping with my "step down from soda" plan, I'm just about ready to ditch my flavored waters in favor of straight aqua. And that means I'm ready to say goodbye to evil bottled water with its enormous price markup and nefarious waste of petroleum and landfill clutter.

Part of the joy of making a lifestyle change is shopping for the accessories. Following a lead from Cool Tools, I'm considering a Sigg aluminum water bottle instead of the plastic kind you can pick up at your local big-box. Pros: no toxins leaching from the plastic, stylish, able to hold juices and carbonated drinks as well. Cons: well, it's pricey for a water bottle, but not so much for a positive life alteration.

Before I buy, I thought I'd solicit suggestions from you, the UTC reader. Do you carry a water bottle? What lessons do you have for me, and what products and practices would you suggest?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mysterious messages from another planet

First grade is over, and Archer has brought home all his notebooks and folders and stray pieces of work. Here's a selection of the strange and sometimes profound thoughts he recorded in his journal (in between pages packed with scores, weather reports, and numbers that appear random to us but probably have hidden meaning):
  • He is him and she is her. My time travel takes some time off my timer. A journal is my tool. I'm halfway there. This is my story. The End.

  • Directions Yesterday. Number 32 - Get books. Number 715 - put up books. Line up - no talking.

  • My dad tells what I'm thankful for on Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for church.

  • Q: Why should the pigeon NOT drive the bus? [upside down] A: Because he is an animal.

  • Let's go Camping! (1 of 2) There once were campers. I am also a camper. I'm that in Conway, Arkansas 72034. I go camping in my room at 7:30oo PM. 'Cause i'm

  • Camp Song [musical notation] I will re-jest I'm free! and I am safe!

  • PE Rules. 1. Have fun!!! 2. Be quiet. 3. Say 'Yes.' 4. Use kind words and actions. 5. Wear tennis shoes for PE. 6. Stop -- 'And Stop.'

  • Hayden, go change your card. Macy, go bring me a ticket. Sending ... Sent sucessfully.

  • The 10 Sides. 10 Sides are at 9 others. 8 are good. 7 are bad. 6 are small. 5 are big. 4 ARE WILD. 3 are tiny. 2 plus 1 equals 3.

  • Apple Computers work at 3 p.m. They last working for 900 hours. they aren't at 7 p.m.
And my favorite, on the back of a cut-and-staple coloring booklet about Thanksgiving:
  • Our feet. 90% free. Our hands. 10% free!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Squint to see

I first found out that I was nearsighted in fourth grade. My assigned seat was in the second-to-last row of the class, and I was constantly peering at the fuzzy words on the board and getting up for a better look.

When I got my first pair of glasses, I couldn't believe that normal people walked around every day seeing the world like this. I didn't have the analogy back then, of course, but it was exactly like the difference between HDTV and the normal broadcast standard. Everything was so clearly delineated, as if outlined with sharp boundaries. The distinction in the environment was a shock to me. Things separated themselves from each other with lines of light and color completely alien to the watercolor washes and impressionistic blurs I had always lived with.

In the eighth grade I got contact lenses, and became perversely proud of how poor my vision was. My relatively good right eye was 20/100. My almost useless left eye was off the chart; the eye doctor's report didn't even use numbers for it. "Four fingers," it said, indicating that I could distinguish four fingers held up against the light, even though I couldn't make out any of the letters or numbers.

Things haven't gotten much worse in the ensuing decades. I went to the doctor today and got a slight uptick in my prescription. The one consolation of nearsightedness is that it delays the onset of presbyoptera, apparently; I've yet to experience problems at reading distance. But for the rest of my life I'll be completely dependent on these little concavities of plastic, and the various cases and solutions that keep them wearable.

I'll always be grateful for that moment of clarity when I saw the world for the first time the way people with normal sight see it every day. Even though I've spent nearly every waking hour since with lenses that give me that experience, that distinctiveness still feels artificial to me -- as if someone is projecting a sharper, hyperfocused version of the world upon my brain.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

She's got the hat

Today's post, about yarn pots, is at Toxophily.

ObKidContent: Cady Gray "graduated" from one of her many preschools on Friday night. She was given a mortarboard crafted out of felt, complete with tassel, in which to receive her certificate.

The sad thing? She thinks that now that she's got the headgear, she can come to graduation with me at the end of every semester.