Thursday, February 28, 2008


Tomorrow I will attempt not to blog, it being Leap Day and the Blog365 Day of Rest.

But if somebody doesn't jump on these movie quotes, I may be reduced to blogging. Please do not make me do that. I have a headache. I want to go to bed early. I have laundry to fold.

I admit that my favorite movies may not be stuff that most of America has watched in the last five years. So I will give you some hints. Here goes.

Hint #1: All these movies are in my top 15 movies of all time. If you have any vague idea of what my favorite movies are, especially my favorite movie ever (#1) which by the way I mention on the first day of every class I teach, you should be able to do some matching.

Hint #2: In my opinion, the hardest nut to crack on this list is #9. The IMDB quotes for this movie were not very memorable or condensable. I went with the best of a bad lot. So I'm going to give you a huuuuuge hint: It's a Hitchcock film.

Hint #3: I referenced movie #3 in the title and body of another post this month.

Hint #4: I deliberately didn't choose the obvious quote for #8 -- a famous line that involves the moon and the stars.

The others are eminently doable if you've seen the movies and/or know of my love for them. We've got to get us some Scott Tobias in here -- he can probably run through every single one and give Paul a run for his money.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Caffeine withdrawal

Aren't you glad you all get to go through it with me? Tomorrow I'll try to counter it by drinking chai sometime during the day, but today it was all juice, chocolate milk, and flavored water.

Symptom #1: Memes! I've been studiously ignoring those who have tagged me, but today I surrender to Doc Thelma.

1. Pick 10 of your favorite movies.
2. Go to IMDb and find a quote from each movie.
3. Post them here for everyone to guess.
4. Strike it out when someone guesses correctly, and post the answer along with who guessed it.
5. No Googling or using IMDb search functions. You're on your honor.
6. One movie guess at a time. Give people a chance to guess before you steal all of the glory. (I'm looking at you, Paul, aka Oscar pool winner)

1. The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts. Paul shoots and scores. Lawrence of Arabia. C'mon, y'all -- I know it wasn't the easiest quote, but everybody I've ever met more than twice knows that's my favorite movie. That's a gimme.

2. Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you. Paul again, with Days Of Heaven. Are the rest of you going to just sit around and let him pick these off one by one?

3. She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat. Victor roars in to take this one -- Singin' In The Rain.

4. If you've got the bond the bond is always there, and if you have to lie occasionally you're not going to interfere with the bond. Paul rounds out the contest by getting this quote from Defending Your Life, which Noel and I quote often -- and bonus points for explaining why it's a classic Albert Brooks comedic trope.

5. Well if they are, they're cracking. It's a sure sign. Nobody starts to fight foul until he sees he can't win any other way. Victor again -- The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp.

6. Congress is composed of five hundred and thirty-five individuals. Two hundred and eighty-eight are lawyers. Paul strikes again. This is Nashville, one of my favorite soundbites blared out from Hal Phillip Walker's campaign van.

7. Now the stated U.S. policy is to aid those black ants opposing the red ants in hopes of restoring democracy, and to impede the red ants from assisting their red ant comrades in neighboring ant colonies. Victor for the trifecta: Barcelona. I would have used Chris Eigeman's subsequent line, "Those red ants were bad news," but it wasn't on the IMDB.

8. I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born either. It was a calamity on both sides. A struggle to the death has emerged between Victor and Paul -- and Victor gets this one. Now, Voyager (on reflection, I should have given the famous line "Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars," since that might have allowed some non-professionals to play along.

9. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue. Paul may have known this before the hint (didja, Paul?). It's Notorious.

10. I don't know what the church's official position is on fornication and adultery these days, and I felt really hypocritical not saying anything to you about it before, but... what is the official position these days? Paul nails it -- You Can Count On Me. (Even Noel didn't get this one until I fed him the next line: "Well ... it's a sin.")

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Radical change

About a year ago, I decided to live according to the No-S Diet. Since my image-conscious teenage years, I've never been one to follow any kind of diet; low-carb completely passed me by, for example. But I got intrigued by the No-S Diet when Mark Pittilo linked to it in his 2007 Archies list.

I've always had a sweet tooth, and thanks to my dad's similar cravings, no meal at our house was ever complete without cookies, cake, or ice cream, alone or in combination. When I read about the diet, I thought it might be worth a try to rid myself of the habit of eating big desserts after every meal.

With few exceptions, I've stuck to the rules. No sweets except on the weekend. (Although I start the weekend after dinner on Friday, like Orthodox Jews.) Seconds and snacks have never been my besetting sins, so I didn't have much trouble adhering to those strictures. Now I look forward to my dark chocolate indulgences on Saturday and Sunday, and miss the sugary stuff much less the other four and a half days of the week.

I haven't lost any weight, but that was never my goal with the diet. To lose weight, I tend to exercise rather than restricting my food intake. And keeping up with a regular exercise plan has been difficult this year. I have a class scheduled at my usual gym time this semester, and it's taken all I've got just to get there once a week the past two weeks. I just haven't been able to figure out how to make it fit without sacrificing what I need to be doing at home, not to mention the tendency of crises at work to cut into my best intentions. But I haven't gained any weight either, and given my exercise inconsistency, I suppose that's a victory.

But now comes more news about the role of diet soda in weight management. Now those of you who know me are aware that I've gradually increased the role of diet soda in my life, dating from the introduction of Diet Coke when I was sixteen and continuing to the present day, when I drink very little else. But I was startled by the phrase "abdominal obesity" (also known as central obesity) in news reports about the latest study. I've been accumulating belly fat since my pregnancies, and it's not just love handles, folks -- it's a gut. My center of gravity has changed.

My main goal in starting to exercise again after Archer was born was to get rid of it, but although I powered through plateau after plateau in my workout, the belly fat stayed. And then after Cady Gray was born, it was that much more. What I used to be able to dismiss as postpartum flabbiness is now a full-fledged distended abdomen. It's not loose and floppy. You could thump it like a ripe watermelon. It's stuffed with fat.

Can I add another S to my No-S Diet -- no soda? I've been wanting to cut back on my intake (to limit damage to my teeth, help my calcium absorption, and reduce my caffeine consumption). And here's another reason -- if this research is correct, it could keep me from getting fatter. Maybe what I need is not a general resolve to cut back, but a system to define what "cutting back" means -- like "only on the weekend." That's the genius of the No-S Diet.

I'm getting thirsty just thinking about it, actually. But I'm going to mull over a switch to water, fruit juice, and chai. Surely if I can stay away from chocolate 9/14 of the time, I can work up the willpower to avoid aspertame, too.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Getting what you pay for

I've been interested in the open courseware movement for a few years now. What are the implications of giving away organized knowledge, the very thing that most folks probably consider the product that universities try to sell?

Today in class I tried out a hypothesis, based on the idea that universities are not in fact selling knowledge but expertise. See what you think about this:

If what you are paying for is the knowledge your professors can give you, then every second that a student is talking instead of the professor, you are wasting your money. But the fact that universities are giving away the knowledge their professors have and generate is an indication that you're not paying for that.

The open courseware movement operates under the assumption that the valuable aspects of the university education are access to the professors, and the credentialing authority of the institution. If that is the case, then the value of the professor is her availability as a resource and the time she spends with students in mentoring. This is an apprenticeship model; students attach themselves to masters who are experts in their fields, with the goal of attaining the status of competent practitioner in that field.

If so, what you are paying for is the time the professor spends supervising and guiding your practice. And if that is the case, then every second that the professor is the one doing, while the student is passively receiving -- not doing -- is a waste of your money.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's a wonderful night for Oscar

Today's post, exploring the thrill of seeing the light at the end of the sweater knitting tunnel combined with the agony of not being that close to finishing, is at Toxophily. Tune in to Noel's Oscar-blogging tonight (his picks are already up), while I try to decide if I'm going to stay up until the wee hours to get the Breaking Bad TV Club entry up without missing any of the Hollywood excitement. (Probably not, but I do feel bad about pushing it back to Monday for the second time in three weeks, so there's a minuscule chance that guilt might overwhelm common sense and the desire for sleep.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oscar! Oscar!

While Noel was out playing poker with the boys last night, I caught up with a couple of 2007 movies, in preparation for Oscar night tomorrow. Eastern Promises was too melodramatic by half in its plotting -- the dead Russian girl narrating her own diary was a particularly eye-rolling touch -- but there's no doubt that Viggo Mortenson was a powerful presence onscreen, and Naomi Watts really gained gravitas as the story went on. Not my cup of tea, really, but I see the quality there.

By contrast, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is so much my cup of tea, it could have been brewed from my DNA. An intense but easy focus on particulars and specifics, ordinary people acting under stress like ordinary people might act, a structure that deepens particular moments by backtracking and putting them in a richer contest -- right in my sweet spot.

Noel will be liveblogging the Oscars here tomorrow. I still haven't filled out my ballot, and since I pay no attention to awards handicapping and conventional wisdom, I'm probably going to commit some real howlers. As long as my number one movie of the year, Ratatouille, wins Best Animated Feature, I'll be happy. That's a lock, right?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mr. James K. Polk, our eleventh president

Archer was out of school for Presidents Day on Monday, but the holiday was apparently big part of the curriculum this week nevertheless. On Wednesday he regaled us with about fifteen minutes of made-up songs he described as coming from a "Presidents Day CD" with forty tracks. The songs had various rhythms and tempi, but contained a few basic facts: (1) The first president was George Washington; (2) His birthday is on February 22; (3) The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln; (4) His birthday is on February 12; (5) The 35th president was our youngest president; (5) He was 43; (6) He was born in 1917. (Notice how every fact has a number in it.)

Today Archer brought home his schoolwork for the week, which contained a booklet he'd filled out about being president. Here's what he wrote in answer to the question:

If I were president of the United State for one day, I would ...

be 35 years old for 1 more day. I would have a birthday on 8/19/2001. Now it is 8/18/2001.

Birthday Name President #
09/30/2007 Prenti 03295027
11/30/1809 Mane 00000000
01/30/1111 G. Mouse 17050201
06/22/2000 Bramble 00152706
12/06/1637 1620 Ed 6/25 for #063
2/29/1992 Berris' '90s Berris:07467

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Good stuff to read

No, no, not this post! Check out this essay by Josh Levin in Slate, explaining how the Jason Kidd trade somehow managed to involve paying $4 million to a player who's already retired, thanks to the once well-intentioned NBA salary cap.

Then settle in to read one of my favorite New Yorker pieces of the past ten years, a profile of A&R man Jason Flom by the masterful John Seabrook, which provided me with a quotation I whip out at least once a month: "Anybody can make a record, but only a major label can make a really expensive record."

If you've read something recently that gave you a peek into a surprising or bewildering world, share it in the comments.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In the moment

I woke up this morning thinking: three deadlines. Today without fail I had to accomplish three tasks.

  1. An NIH grant on which one of our faculty members is a co-investigator had to be approved (which entailed reading through an extensive amount of paperwork online), so it could move on to the next signatory and eventually be submitted by the deadline.
  2. I needed to turn in my review of Matter (short version: ahhhhh, so wonderful) to Tasha so it can run online next week, near the book's release date.
  3. Proposals were due today for presentations at the NCHC annual meeting in San Antonio, and I had promised to pull together two panels involving folks in my department as well as friends at Western Kentucky University.
I entered my office ready for action, and just a teensy bit afraid that the day was oversubscribed. But lo and behold, all three were done by my noon class, with thirty minutes left over for class prep (and notice, please, how I left that off the "must be done" list; this is the sad picture of the professor too confident by half in her ability to wing it).

On another day I would have taken my productivity under fire as an excuse to get very little done in the afternoon, using the excuse that I hadn't planned to get anything else done anyway. But observe the motivational power of obligating yourself publicly to other people. I promised my freshmen and my teaching assistant that I would mark three papers per night in order to get all of them returned within a week of the due date. I never seriously considered not marking today's three papers, despite the full schedule of deadlines, so the open afternoon was an opportunity to finish that task -- which I had previously assumed I would have to work on tonight at home.

Now, if I told you that I were using my unexpectedly free evening to make further progress on our taxes, you would have reason to be impressed. Put down the bouquets and hush up with the cries of "Brava!" I am giving myself a night to live in the moment after today's calvacade of accomplishments. I will work on my beautiful sweater while critiquing the top 12 females on American Idol.

And I will smile secretly in the knowledge that last year's Tony-winning revival of Company will be TiVoing on PBS. Raul Esparza, whom it is my latest ambition to see perform in person before either one of my dies, will be waiting in the playlist for some special night in the future. You may have seen him singing "Being Alive" on the Tonies last year; or maybe you remember him from his appearances on Pushing Daisies as a pie-diner patron besotted with Kristin Chenoweth; or maybe you'll click on this amateur video of a Kennedy Center presentation of one of my favorite Sondheim obscurities, "Franklin Shepard Inc.," also to be found in the dictionary under "Performance."

The taxes will still be there, undone, tomorrow. But a few hours living in the moment, without advancing any important projects, surely can be spared.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The drift

I've been speeding through my next book for review -- Hats And Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair With Gambling, by Martha Frankel. The bulk of it is a breezy memoir about growing up a precocious math whiz with an extended family that played the ponies (and less reputable games), getting interested in poker while doing research on a screenplay, and becoming a successful home game and card room player. But at the end it takes a dark turn, with the author becoming addicted to internet poker and losing a small fortune.

While reading it during lunch, I was blindsided by a scene that left me blinking back tears at the cafe table. In the grip of online madness, unable to tell anyone about her failures, Frankel neglects her loved ones and loses her grasp on normal relationships. Several months into the episode, in 1999, her mother calls her up, causing her to lose her dialup connection to Paradise Poker. Because she'd told her family and friends to stop calling her at work for this very reason, Frankel snatched up the phone and snapped at the caller. But when she heard the desperate voice of her mother, one of the women who taught her to love gambling, on the line, she became frightened. Her mother sounded on the verge of a breakdown. Frankel was afraid that she was ill, that there had been an accident, that some tragedy had occurred.

When her mother finally blurted out what was wrong, between sobs, she said, "What have I done to hurt you?"

Frankel's short temper, her refusal to come visit as she used to and her distant demeanor when she did, her anger and depression and coldness toward her mother -- as toward all of her family and friends -- had caused her mother to conclude that she had wronged her daughter somehow, without knowing it. After months of suffering, she finally worked herself up to the humiliation of asking how she could fix it.

Something about the mother's tragically mistaken read of the situation moved me deeply. I see parents and children in the process of estrangement all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Heck, I was estranged from my parents for a few years after college, and I know it hurt them terribly. The worst part must be the powerlessness to fix it, the inability to repair the relationship. And in this case, when the mother blamed herself, at least in the way Frankel told it, there was no martyr attitude to the move, no claiming of the moral high ground of victimhood -- just a naked plea to be allowed to apologize and make it right.

The saddest thing about Frankel's story is that she can't confess to her mother, even then. She turns off the computer, drives home, and spends the rest of the day talking to her mother on the phone, weaving a system of false explanations and reassurances. And then next day she turned on the computer and lost another three hundred dollars.

There's an extremity to the situations I sometimes see between my students and their parents, as there was on a smaller scale with my family at one time. Boxed in by the press and weight of the obligations they've taken on, oppressed by the looming expectations they feel from their families, students sometimes light out for the territories, burning their bridges behind them. I can empathize with the attractiveness of that kind of escape. The problem is that life goes on, the relationships do not dissolve, and at some point the consequences of running will be added to all the other consequences being run away from. And that particular tragic arc hits me right where I live.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Divided loyalty

I spent the bulk of my work time today trying to figure out how to manage admissions for our program for fall 2008. Last year we instituted a wildly successful new procedure that set an application deadline for the first time, and grouped applicants who made it past the first cut into several on-campus all-day information and interview sessions. Because it was brand new, we had no idea how it would affect our application numbers or quality, or whether we should admit a percentage of the freshman class after each session rather than wait until all candidates were interviewed.

We learned a few things flying by the seat of our pants last year, but here we are smack dab in the middle of year 2, and we've changed the variables such that we can't really use the lessons we learned -- moving the deadline up, changing the spacing of the interview days around the deadline. Here we are with a group of interviewed students, and another big stack of applications of those yet to be interviewed who met the deadline. How many of the first group should we admit? If we don't admit any (in the name of fairness, letting everybody compete against the entire pool), we risk losing highly desirable students as they continue to shop around -- a scholarship offer in hand, as you may remember from your own college admission, counts for a lot as you're weighing other possibilities.

The question becomes even more difficult when you're looking at students you've met and spent time with -- and in many cases developed an affection for that leads to advocacy on their behalf -- versus a stack of paper applications that have not yet been attached to a face and an enthusiastic attitude. It's natural to want to secure a spot for the former group, even as you are aware that every spot taken leads to increased competition for a reduced number of seats among the group still to come. Should folks who completed their applications before the deadline be given preference, even though no policy about early admissions was published? How should we draw the line between the students we want so much we will make immediate offers to, and the students we know are good material for our program but who should wait for a final decision until the entire pool of applicants is in view as context?

Much of the issue revolves around where one's loyalty should lie -- to the individual applicant (advocacy) or to the fairness of the system (justice). It seems right that there should be a place for both stances in a selective admissions environment. Representatives of the institution who interacted with the student should be expected to advocate for them. Those who oversee the entire process can take such advocacy into account, but reserve their loyalty for the process as a whole.

That realization helps me understand what administration is about, and why it's so problematic. It seems the height of bureaucratic inhumanity to pledge loyalty to a system rather than to human beings. Yet the administrator must build as fair a system as possible and avoid circumventing it for the benefit of select individuals, in the belief that a fair process will allow more of the deserving to attain the goods they seek.

The administrator building and overseeing the process will not always do what the advocates want -- nor will the process always come out in the best interests of the individual. That's what's painful about it. But will more deserving interests be served than would be possible if each decision were made ad hoc? We trust this is so. And so we administer the process, with fear and trembling, with an eye on the big picture and a dread of forever losing sight of the human scale.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Eternally returning

For the last few years, I've been reading as fast as I can to keep up with the influx of new books to review. Because of review assignments, there's no doubt I've read a lot more books than I probably would have for pleasure. Just this week I finished Iain Banks' Matter, an astounding science fiction adventure for which I never would have found time if it hadn't been part of my job. (Rule #1 for happiness: Take what you enjoy doing, and make it your job if you can -- or at least find some way to obligate yourself to others for doing it.)

But the need to stay ahead of the curve in new books means giving up the opportunity to go back and reread favorites. I still manage to reread The Deed Of Paksenarrion, my favorite book and a source of continuous inspiration, every year. But other books -- not to mention series -- sit on the library shelves, and every once in a while I envy those encountering them for the first time and vow to return to them someday, before I die.

Chief among those pleasures for which I long is Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. How I wish I could immerse myself in its dense jargon for a month or so, never coming up for air! Similarly, Jane Austen's collected works form an encompassing atmosphere of diction and emotion that I would gladly breathe exclusively for as long as it lasted.

I wish, too, that I could go back to the books I reread obsessively as a child -- Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit Of St. Louis, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, the autobiography of Agatha Christie (one source of my enduring Anglophilia). Or the books that blew my mind in college -- The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, Into The Heart by Kenneth Good.

As long as the stack of review copies teeters by my bedside, though, I'll be putting off those trips. Not forever, though, I hope. I imagine that if I get myself a Kindle, I'll manage to dip into my list of perennials much more often. Meanwhile, is there some way to make a job out of returning to old favorites, I wonder?

What books do you most want to reread?

Saturday, February 16, 2008


As we were driving home from lunch on this rainy Saturday, Noel told me about something that had happened on Friday when he and Cady Gray were in the car together.

They were stopped at an intersection near the university, and on the cross street a car was backing out of a parking lot into the road. There were three cars already sitting on the cross street being blocked from proceeding on their green light by the car backing out. Yet the driver backed partway out and just sat there, as if waiting for the three cars behind him to retreat further and let him all the way into the road.

Noel wasn't involved in the situation at all, since he was on the other street with a red light. But his keen sense of automotive injustice -- and the fact that none of the affected cars seemed to have any idea what to do -- led him to lay on the horn to try to get the problem driver's attention. After his blast, the car coming from the parking lot put it in drive and moved into traffic, freeing up the jam.

Which led to this exchange:

Cady Gray: Why'd you do that?

Noel: Because that car was acting crazy.

Cady Gray: (decisively) That car was crazy, and our car was mad at it!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bowling alone

I walk to school most days, but one or two days a week I like to drive so that I can get off campus for lunch or to run errands. I usually eat lunch at a Tropical Smoothie Cafe about a mile and a half away from the office (they ring up my usual chicken mango habernero wrap with pretzels and a large soda as soon as I walk in the door).

My route to the lunch spot takes me past Archer's school, and if it's warm enough and dry enough, his class will be out playing on the playground after his lunch period when I drive by. I always crane my neck while driving through the school zone, looking for him in the swirling morass of first-graders running around in the yard. And usually I see him.

It's what I see when I see him that haunts me.

Today, for example, he was standing all alone on one of the railroad ties that border the swingset area, not another child within twenty feet of him. A week ago, I saw a couple of other kids tugging at his coat -- I couldn't tell in the five-second view I got whether they were playing with him, teasing him, or worse.

Early this semester we got an e-mail from his teacher that two boys in his class had taken advantage of Archer during recess, telling him to say "dick." (When he told his teacher about it, he said they had been trying to make him say "ditch.") His teacher was livid, and the boys had to go see the principal.

As heartened as I am on a daily basis by Archer's accomplishments, both social and academic, I live in fear that he will be taken advantage of by cruel kids. He doesn't understand the intricacies of social life -- he's inordinately excited by any attention paid to him by another child, although he doesn't have the skills to hold up his end -- and that makes him vulnerable to those who want to use him as a pawn in their own games.

On the other end of the spectrum, I worry that his classmates, singlemindedly pursuing their own projects, will just ignore him. Even though he doesn't seem to mind it -- he'll just go into autism mode, humming and flapping his hands as he spins in circles -- the fact that he knows to be impressed and grateful when others do reach out to him makes me think that underneath the self-absorbed behaviors, he's lonely.

Or maybe I'm just projecting. The image of my serious little boy, clad in a slightly-too-big black jacket, doing his private, obsessive dance all alone on the playground, tugs at my heart. I know it's not what he's doing all day. But what I saw in that instant as I drove by, catching a glimpse of his slightly furrowed brow and unfocused gaze, made me feel all alone in the world, too -- isolated from the normal comforts of friendship and anxieties of dislocation, trapped in a universe of mysterious particles whose interaction with me can neither be understood nor managed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


My love knows that I love pajamas. I get into pajamas just as soon as humanly possible every night, often well before sundown.

So my love got me pajamas for Valentine's Day.

They're monogrammed, in case I forget who I am. (Name shown for illustration purposes only. I am not Michelle, nor do my Valentine pajamas imply that I am.)

Ahhhhhhh ... Valentine's Day.

I hope someone you love got you something just as perfect.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Story time

I've been a mom for six and a half years now, but because Archer has been slow to pick up an interest in narrative, plot, and character, I have not been called upon to make up stories during that time. Thanks to an overzealous babysitter last weekend, though, my free ride is over. Apparently Susannah told Cady Gray a story before bedtime, and tonight, she demanded "a no-pages story that you say."

So here's my first-ever story for Cady Gray, composed on the spur of the moment ten minutes ago.

Once upon a time there was a frog named CG. [At this point Cady Gray forgot her "solemn promise" to be quiet during the story and blurted out, "Just like that's my name!"]

The frog had two best friends, a dog and a bear. What the frog loved to do best was read books all about different kinds of animals. He wished he could meet all the animals that he read about in his books.

One day the frog happened to hop into a place called a zoo. There he found all the animals in his books! He saw lions and tigers and snakes; he saw big animals and small animals, fast animals and slow animals. It was the most wonderful place he'd ever seen.

When he got home, he told his friends the dog and the bear all about the animals he'd met at the zoo. They told him, "You should write your own book about frogs!" And that is exactly what he did.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Would you buy this album?

I got such a good result from this meme (courtesy of Amanda), I couldn't resist passing it along.

1. The first title on this page is the name of your band.

2. The last four words of the very last quote is the title of your album.

3. The third picture on this page will be your album cover.

You then take the photo and add your band name and the album title to it, then post your picture. Please don’t forget to give credit.

Photo: "The sulphur crater" by anitr
Band name: This song

I think the CD inside this case sounds like Nada Surf with a big ProTools polish. My greatest hope is that some indie rebel on this season's American Idol will bust out the title track during Hollywood Week.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Make it simple to last the whole night long

Today in my writing class, we looked at YouTube clips the students picked out to demonstrate how humor works on television. It so happened that one student chose a song from a Flight of the Conchords special -- "It's Business Time."

I've never seen Flight of the Conchords -- yeah, I know, but we don't have HBO; now that it's on DVD, we're all over it -- and I thought this was hilarious. It got me thinking (and the class talking) about musical humor. To me, this is something that's so impressive when it's done well, but is transparently all too easy to do poorly. Bad musical humor: That folk musician at the local acoustic cafe with his self-congratulatory bemusement over the direction America's taking these days. Good musical humor: Spinal Tap, "(Listen To The) Flower People."

Bad musical humor: Mark Russell (as memorably satirized by Phil Hartman on Newsradio). Good musical humor: Tom Lehrer, "The Vatican Rag."

What makes musical humor so transcendent and wonderful when it works is that it marries exacting preparation with the appearance of pure exuberant spontaneity (or, in the case of the Spinal Tap song above, carefully calculated market research). There's already the potential for delight when harmonies kick in, or the chorus hits its mark, and when you combine that kind of happiness with a well-timed joke, the laughter gets an extra jolt of energy from the musical form.

What are your favorite examples of musical humor, or humorous music?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

He failed to alert me of the recent downturn in the economy

It took months, but The Movie finally came to our town, and I finally saw it tonight. And even though our dinner at the new hot place in town, Michaelangelo's, wasn't exactly a knockout -- stuck in a corner, no drinks until midway through the entree, no bread until dinner was over, food lovely but service basically a whole lotta no -- an instant American classic does very well for a nightcap.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Making the cut

I was exhausted Friday, as I always am after one of our on-campus recruiting days. Last year the Honors College instituted a new interview procedure to go along with our revamped application. Now students are selected to be interviewed according to a combination of standardized test scores, high school record, two essays (one in response to an included text on critical thinking), and recommendations. Those who make the cut are invited to come to campus for a full day of orientation and academic evaluation.

On those days I come straight from teaching my freshman seminar to give a thirty-minute lecture to the assembled applicants. They complete an on-site writing exercise in response. Then I spend an hour with four or five of them in a discussion session. If it's one of larger days -- with up to 60 applicants attending -- I go right into another discussion session with another four of five students.

What amounts to four hours of non-stop teaching usually wears me out. But it's also an exhilarating day. Who else in higher education gets to select their own students? The opportunity to demonstrate what we're all about, both by word and deed, then to welcome the best equipped, best fitting, and most promising students into our community is rare and precious indeed.

After interviewing applicants to Honors for nine years, and going through five of these Inform and Interview (I-Squared) days in the last 14 months, I've seen a lot of hopefuls. They fall into a few general types:
  1. The Budding Intellectual. Our hearts go out to these applicants in a special way. Their eyes light up and they can barely restrain their excitement when someone's talking about ideas. A student came up to me like a groupie after my lecture on Friday and gushed about how wonderful it all was -- and she wasn't grubbing for points, either (after years in the business, you can easily tell the difference). She was thrilled to be in a place where these kind of discussions take place. Sometimes you forget what high school is like for kids of this type -- but they remind you every time they thank you effusively for spending half an hour on substantive topics.
  2. The Resume Builder. These polished kids have always been at the top of everything. They want to get the most prestigious education because it would never occur to them to settle for second best. Often they're discomfited by being asked to talk about difficult ideas without clear resolutions. Academic activity without quantitative outcomes and obvious cash value sometimes confuses them. They can't figure out whether they want to do something like Honors or not -- it's the best, everyone says, but it seems a lot of trouble to go through just to stay on top.
  3. The Rebel. This student knows what he thinks already, and he can't wait to tell you. He's chomping at the bit to let you know how far he's come, and how much he's unlike the drones all around him. There's a place in our program for him, if he can shut up long enough to find out that there might be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in his philosophy.
  4. The Lost Boy. There's always a few who don't yet know who they are or what they want. They don't feel good enough to jump in with the Intellectuals and the Rebels, and they're not as confident and poised as the Builders. They hang back until directly addressed. You can see the uncertainty on their faces and hear it in their voices. Do they really belong in this group, all seemingly so eager and accomplished?
In large measure, that's who appears at our interview days -- along with the occasional student who is clearly disinterested, who applied and showed up only because her parents insisted. Did you fit into one of these categories, at age 18? Or were you a type of student that I normally don't get to choose from?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Cady Gray's top ten roleplaying scenarios

  1. I'll be a kitty cat, and you be a Mommy.
  2. You be a horse, and I'll be Cady Gray.
  3. I like being a cow, and you be a person called Cady Gray.
  4. I'll be a monster, and you be a person called Thomas. That's a train friend.
  5. Can I be a friendly monster, and you be a dog?
  6. Can we be kitty cat friends?
  7. I'll be the teacher, and you be the monster music students.
  8. You need to be Cady Gray, and I'll be a doggy.
  9. I'll be the Valentines man, and you go to sleep, and when you wake up, I'll give you a Valentine [actually a penny].
  10. The perennial favorite: I'll be Mommy, and you be Cady Gray.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Nothing to see here

Today's post, wondering if half a sweater can change my fundamental psychology, is at Toxophily.

And now back to knitting that sweater.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

We the media

Once again this semester, my students are maintaining blogs for their class writing. This time I've taken my pop culture writing class into the Writing department, where a few upper-division students have joined me for a cozy seminar on criticism.

Why not visit one or two of their blogs, and leave comments? The whole idea of blogging is so they are writing not for their instructor, not for an academic setting at all, but for a vast, unseen audience. Nothing like a stranger stopping by and responding to make that point terrifyingly real.

Here's what they're up to:

Grr is fond of Watchmen, was inspired by They Might Be Giants, and currently watches Frisky Dingo on Adult Swim.

Capt. Marvel is fond of Abraham Verghese, was inspired by Robert Frost, and currently watches Lost.

The Overanalyzer is fond of On The Road, was inspired by Eddie Rabbit, and currently watches Nip/Tuck.

Arizonasky was inspired by the musical Chicago, and also currently watches Lost. (We don't yet know her favorite book.)

Hamibord was inspired by polaroid photographs. (We don't yet know his favorite book or what he's watching.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Thoughts on church and state

John McCain: "I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?' ... I admire the Islam. There's a lot of good principles in it. I think one of the great tragedies of the 21st century is that these forces of evil have perverted what's basically an honorable religion. But, no, I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles.... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith. But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president. I don't say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just would--I just feel that that's an important part of our qualifications to lead. ... I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."

Mike Huckabee: "[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."

James Madison: "If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another. ... What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance."

Monday, February 4, 2008

What has happened to the youth of today

Here's the thing. Professors like me try to connect with our students on the level of the mass culture with which they are presumably in tune, and with which we occasionally come into glancing contact. We like to throw the odd pop culture reference in there to show that we have not completely retreated to our ivory towers.

And when we talk about the culture in which we believe our students to be immersed, we talk about TV. Because the kids watch TV all the time, unlike us. That is what defines the difference between our generation and theirs.

But here's the thing. College students don't watch TV.

We should know this. Did we watch TV when we were in college? No, we did not. There was no time. We didn't spend our evenings in the lounge (or these days, in our dorm rooms) absorbing show after show. We were out doing stuff, socializing, going to parties, studying, working. TV is a home thing. It's not a dorm thing.

And so every time I ask students about the TV they watch, I get the same response: "I used to watch a lot of TV, but I don't anymore." This just after I've made some intended-to-be-current reference to 24 or Project Runway. Blank looks.

Today I asked my writing class who watched the Super Bowl. 20% watched it. 40% watched a few minutes here and there. 40% didn't watch any at all because they were at their jobs.

The Super Bowl. The one television event when even people who don't watch television, watch television. And college students don't watch it.

Exactly what mass media phenomena am I supposed to reference to connect with the kids these days?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

An immaculate recipe

Sister Corita Kent, of the Art Department at Immaculate Heart College, drew up a list of rules for her classes. I'd like to tattoo these on the backs of my students' hands.
  1. Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.
  2. General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher, pull everything out of your fellow students.
  3. General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.
  4. Consider everything an experiment.
  5. Be self-disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
  6. Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail. There is only make.
  7. The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
  8. Don’t try to create and analyse at the same time. They’re different processes.
  9. Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
  10. “We’re breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” - John Cage.

Helpful hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything always. Go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully often. Save everything, it might come in handy later.

There should be new rules next week.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

I've got a room at the top of the world tonight

Tomorrow Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform the halftime show at the Super Bowl. After last year's Prince show, I thought we all understood that the Super Bowl halftime show is the official mainstream signal that an artist has completed a successful comeback into the good graces of the critical campaign and the mass media. It is the moment where the musician ceases to be an iconoclast, a hermit, a misanthrope, publicity-averse, a druggie dropout on the downward swing of the Behind the Music sine wave, and returns to being a person we all feel proud to enjoy.

But I've heard some disturbing rumbles of Petty hatred in my social circles since the news broke. It baffles me. Haven't these people gotten the memo? Petty has always been great, and now he's back and willing to perform for us. We've realized that he was not part of some embarrassing fad or some corporate sellout, and now we can appreciate the music he's never stopped making. Petty is officially a rock icon.

And I'm not just talking about some kind of NFL-controlled beatification process. I'm saying that, as a Petty fan from way back, I'm ready to welcome the rest of you with open arms, only to see some folks still turning up their noses. Sometimes it takes a long time for the cognoscenti to accept hitmakers as artists worthy of serious consideration. But it's been long enough for Tom Petty.

Noel put together an inventory of classic Petty opening lines a year and a half ago, and every single one of them made me want to hear the whole song. I know it's hard to sift his unique qualities from the classic rock sludge -- a fate that has befallen a whole generation or two of rockers who've gotten stuck in that ghetto, cheek by jowl with Foghat and Flock Of Seagulls -- but even a playlist of Petty's hits, let alone the choice album cuts and the post-superstar work, would reveal something special. The rootsy growl, the ringing Byrdesque 12-strings, the spacious sound and the unpretentious songwriting, as if down deep it should really be all so simple. The vacillation between minimalism and swirling complexity, each facet making the other sparkle. Above all, the sharp, smooth mix of swamp burble and Southern California light at magic hour, a kind of through-the-looking-glass Americana that might have happened if rural and urban, East and West bent all the way through the fourth dimension and touched shores.

I count myself a fawning slavering fan of only a few acts, all of them part of some crucial stage in my maturation. ELO because of my older brother (thanks, Dwayne). The Beatles because of my friend Cheryl (thanks, pal). Todd Rundgren in college by the grace of God. And Tom Petty thanks to a run of incredible luck during a summer spent in Nashville when I won concert tickets on KDF twice in two months, took my fellow intern Leah to the Southern Accents show, causing her to return the favor when she won a trip to L.A. to spend New Year's Eve with the Heartbreakers. The other concert, by the way, was Don Henley, and while I still harbor affection for many tracks off Building The Perfect Beast, it didn't make me a lifelong Henley fan. At some point, the quality and significance of the body of work tips the scales.

The Super Bowl halftime show isn't exactly a showcase at Carnegie Hall, I know -- not the best venue for demonstrating greatness. But it should be, for Petty, a validation. There's nobody like him, and I feel privileged to have shaken his hand on New Year's Eve, 1986 -- but even more privileged to have listened to his powerful, beautiful music for three decades.

Friday, February 1, 2008

My dear fellow, that was agreed, wasn't it?

I was flabbergasted by this Associated Press story in the paper today, headlined "Cyberdrill threw multiple disasters at U.S." The opening anecdote was the brilliant framing device in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp come to life:

In the middle of the biggest-ever “Cyber Storm” war game to test the nation’s hacker defenses, someone quietly targeted the very computers used to conduct the exercise.
The surprising culprit? The players themselves, the same government and corporate experts responsible for detecting and fending off attacks against vital computer systems, according to hundreds of pages of heavily censored files obtained by The Associated Press. Perplexed organizers sent everyone an urgent e-mail marked “IMPORTANT!” instructing them not to probe or attack the game’s control computers.
“Anytime you get a group of [information technology] experts together, there’s always a desire, ‘Let’s show them what we can do,”’ said George Foresman, a former senior Homeland Security Department official. “Whether its intent was embarrassment or a prank, we had to temper the enthusiasm of the players.”
But you damned young idiot, war starts at midnight! Haven't you been told?