Friday, July 31, 2009

Safety dance

Today's post about the final round of a month-long knock-down drag-out is at Toxophily.

All week long, while Archer's been at language camp, I've been putting notes in his lunch with questions for him to answer and blanks to write in his response. Since he had promised on Wednesday as we were walking home that he would dance the polka with me "this weekend when I have more time," I wrote the following in yesterday's lunch note:
Can you tell me the steps for doing the polka?
Step 1: ____________________
Step 2:____________________
Step 3:____________________
Step 4: ____________________
When I fished the note out of his lunchbox last night before packing his lunch for today, I found this response:
Step 1: Find a partner.
Step 2: Turn on music.
Step 3: Hold hands.
Step 4: Twirl!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

To the moon

I was less than three years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. That's some time before my earliest memory, so I have no direct recollection of the event. But like all Americans, my parents were riveted by the historic Apollo 11 mission. They took a picture of their TV screen showing the American flag being planted on the moon:

Maybe if I spent some time delving deeply into my past, I could find the connection between the space craze of my toddler years and my own obsession with science fiction a decade later. Whatever the reason, I bought deeply into the romance of the space program and fervently believed in the need for innovative missions and manned interplanetary flight.

A few weeks ago I read Buzz Aldrin's intriguing memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon, and all those feelings came rushing back. I recognize that the whole endeavor is far more complex and problematic than it must have seemed in the heroic Apollo days. Yet I feel that humanity would be diminished if we let anything get in the way of exploration beyond the atmosphere.

My review of the book went up on the A.V. Club site today. If I do say so myself, I think it captures some of the hidden emotional facets of our love affair with NASA. It's by no means a masterpiece, yet some of its evident problems, frustrations, and difficulties as a work of autobiography reveal much about Aldrin's conflicted attitude toward the program that gave him an unparalleled opportunity on the final frontier. I'd be interested to know whether readers from other generations and backgrounds, those with a different personal history and different feelings -- or none -- about space travel, feel the same way about Magnificent Desolation.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

If we cantaloupe, lettuce marry

Today's post revealing the world's softest and purplest sweater is at Toxophily.

And to double your pleasure, and because I spend so much time per week thinking about NewsRadio yet rarely share those thoughts with you, the readers of this blog, here's my post about the unexpected duo of episodes this week, one of which features the dubious acting talents of one Jon Stewart.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On the cusp

It's that weird moment at the end of the summer, with the new semester in sight, where I want to be starting something new without the guilt of not finishing what I'm working on now.

The moment is manifesting itself in my summer work. I'm tired of the three-month project that our strategic plan has become, even though we're within a few days of being done. I'd rather start teaching my new class on process theology than finish the syllabus and courseware construction.

And there's evidence at home, too. July is almost over, and yet my Lettuce Coat, Archer's fish hat, and my PAs' coffee sleeves sit at the same state of thirty-more-minutes-work-each where they were a month ago. Instead of finishing them, I've been dreaming about the next two years or so of projects, putting yarn and patterns lovingly in bags marked with special codes, and cross-referencing everything in my queue and stash. I'd like to start about a dozen new items all at once, and the devil take the hindmost.

Yet at the same time I eye the approaching fall semester with the usual apprehension. Once thrown into that maelstrom, I know I won't see consecutive hours of leisure for months. Now is the time to clear the decks and prepare for the landing of dozens of projects I don't necessarily get to choose.

I know exactly what's happening. The pressure wave of the oncoming semester has not yet hit. I imagine that it will become an irresistible force around the end of next week, and I will be unable to do anything but obsessively clear decks at that point. (And worry about the decks that other people are supposed to be clearing, but that's a less adaptive neurosis.)

The question is whether my urge to start new things will turn out to be helpful or hurtful? Will those new things simply languish in states of unfinishedness, mocking me and failing to satisfy next month's desire for novelty? Or could they become refuges where I can retreat when the neverending deadlines get me down, moments I can steal away to make progress on something just for me?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Modern inconveniences

Noel wrote a blog post on the A.V. Club decrying an annoyance no futurist, no matter how visionary, could ever have foreseen: Shuffle fail. Specifically, this is when you hear "Abacab" on your iPod and realize that it's not shuffling but playing all your music in alphabetical order.

I frequently find myself drawing back from the edge of frustration by reminding myself that in an earlier era, I wouldn't have had the convenience that is now creating my anger by not working as planned. In this I attempt to follow the wisdom of Louis C.K.: It's going to space. Give it a second.

Here are my modern inconveniences. What are yours?
  • Going to the washer to transfer its load to the dryer, only to find that I forgot to shut the lid and therefore the spin cycle didn't happen.
  • Having to go inside of the gas station to pay because the credit card reader on the pump is out of order (or, heaven forbid, absent entirely).
  • Not being able to connect to the hard drive attached to our wireless network.
  • Local programs or events for which no information is available on the web.
  • Yahoo! Shopping.
  • Books with no "Look Inside" feature on Amazon. (Less annoying because of the novelty factor, but on the rise: Newly published books with no Kindle edition.)
  • Songs for which the same incorrect lyrics are posted on every lyric site on the web.
  • Convenience stores that aren't open seven days a week. (Similarly: Fast food outlets that are closed on holidays.)
  • People with no Facebook profile picture, network, or location information, making them hard to eliminate when you're trying to find that one particular John Q. Smith you went to high school with.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Amazingly, there are only three weeks left in the summer. After that, school starts up for three of us, and Noel gets his home office back full time. Here's what I'm looking forward to in the meantime:
  • Funny People. I know that early reviews indicate this Judd Apatow film might lose its way in the third act, but I've been looking forward to it ever since the first trailer. Practically all my favorite people in comedy right now on screen at the same time, and the return of dramatic Adam Sandler, who was so wonderful in Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Finalizing just one syllabus. I only teach two classes, but for the past eight years I've been coordinating the team-taught freshman course, which means putting together a complicated syllabus for 120 students and eight instructors. This semester that duty has been passed to another, which means I'm only responsible for myself and my one seminar. Really takes the pressure off.

  • Shopping for school supplies. Oh, how I love the boxes of pencils, markers, composition pads, folders, and the specialized holders to contain it all. I wanted to get started this weekend, but Noel informed me that school-supply season doesn't begin until August 1.

  • The kids' birthday party. Well, technically this isn't until August 22, and technically I'm not looking forward to it, since I'm already feeling guilt about the slacker route we're taking. But if I can get a second to think about Mario-themed activities, I'm sure I'll start getting excited.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Today's post with details of my stunning victory over the blanket menace is at Toxophily. I'm busy hoisting my glittery oversized belt over my head and roaring to the crowd. See you at the afterparty!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Challenges and opportunities

A colleague sent me an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of weeks ago, titled "Autism As Academic Paradigm" (behind a subscriber wall, sorry). The author makes the interesting argument that if autism represents a different -- not "disordered" -- way of configuring cognitive processes, then academia is in large part engaged in the effort to teach exactly those cognitive processes to neurotypical students.

The kind of things autistic individuals tend to be naturally good at -- paying close attention to facts and figures, following orderly steps, working solo, ignoring the messiness outside the lines -- are the skills that people in many fields have to acquire to succeed in higher education. If we could revise our view of autism to appreciate the strengths of the autistic orientation (tough to do when it's been defined as a disease to be cured), then we might be better at recognizing the traits present in that orientation that turn out to be highly adaptive in particular settings.

I'm a bit torn about the whole "autistic/neurotypical" dichotomy that is championed by a certain segment of the autistic community. While I appreciate its focus on the unique and valuable way autistic people configure their world, taken too far it tends to minimize the serious challenges they have in negotiating parts of our world that weren't built for them. You might say that we ought to make the world more autistic-friendly -- the equivalent of building wheelchair ramps to make society autistic-accessible -- but that's not the point. We value -- rightly -- parts of human interaction and artistic expression that autistic people have trouble understanding. I don't think there's anything wrong with calling that a deficit. Given the way the overwhelming majority of human beings interact, a blockage in that area is going to cause problems for the person affected.

But I'm in full agreement about the importance of recognizing the strengths of autistic individuals -- strengths we often envy in more functional individuals, strengths we might go to great lengths to acquire. Noel and I often say to each other that we don't want the attempt to "cure" Archer (an orientation that seems to go along with diagnosing and labeling him) to destroy what's special about him. He's amazing, as those of you who read this blog regularly know. And I do see those around him -- some teachers and some of his fellow students, especially -- appreciating what he can do that they struggle with. I don't want that to be lost in the shuffle as he continues through the "special needs" gauntlet.

What really gives me hope is watching the way Archer learns to connect his deficiencies to his strengths. Playing Mario games has opened up a whole world of role-playing to him -- it's been like going from 10 mph to 60 mph in the blink of an eye. It's the limited storylines and focused task orientation of the computer game and the computer character that have given him the framework he needs to imagine in narrative form. I see the door opening, and I think: There's a way into writing, perhaps. There's a way into literature, someday.

Most of us are so adept at the processes needed to navigate the world that we may not even recognize as valuable the things that we don't have a way into. It's a problem that we academics see all the time -- the hurdle of even caring about what doesn't come naturally. Maybe autistic people have the advantage of being told from an early age that what doesn't come naturally is worth acquiring the skills to appreciate and perform. If we can balance that with a celebration of the skills they have, then their maturation and development are the building of bridges, not the correction of faults.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

God and the net

Tomorrow I am looking forward to spending time with Tripp Fuller, an energetic graduate student at the Claremont School of Theology. Earlier this spring I was out in Claremont at the Transforming Theology conference, and Tripp filmed a bunch of us answering questions that had been submitted by interested parties around the country. Now he's invited me to be a guest on his popular podcast Homebrewed Christianity -- quite an honor considering the company I'll be keeping: Phillis Tickle, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Rohr ... Tripp gets the big ones.

The topic is theology and the internet, and Tripp was kind enough to post a copy of the paper I presented on the subject at the Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Theology and Energy this past February.

If you'd like to read the paper, ask a question, or both, hop on over to the announcement post and leave a comment. Podcasts need fuel, and your ideas are our energy source!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Brilliant but canceled

These days it's hard to even get one's dander up when an interesting, entertaining, and singular television show gets the ax before it's had time to build an audience. I still can't believe Better Off Ted got renewed; part of me believes that there has to have been a glitch in the originality-destroying mandate of network TV.

So if I didn't shed a tear when The Middleman got canceled by ABC Family after twelve episodes, it's not because I didn't love the show. I did -- oh, how I did. It's just that it truly felt too good to be true. My only hope was that a low-profile network like ABC Family trying to raise the stakes by investing in original content would hold on to the show simply because there weren't twenty other shows jockeying in the wings for its timeslot. But no, the pattern held true. This funny, sweet sci-fi comedy show with a firmly outsider point of view became yet another victim of the ratings juggernaut.

On the other hand, maybe it's not over. The DVD of the complete series is out, and creator Javier Grillo-Marxauch says (in this A.V. Club interview with Noel) that he and lots of other folks are keeping The Middleman alive in as many media as possible, so that if the momentum builds, they'll be ready to hop right back into production.

If you never saw The Middleman, do yourself a favor and Netflix the complete series. If you did see it, buy the DVD set and pass it around to your friends. Things might just have changed enough in the media industry business model that brilliant doesn't always have to be past tense.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cold air what now?

Archer and I were playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 this afternoon when I suddenly heard the city's emergency sirens going off. That usually means a tornado, but the storms of earlier in the day had passed through hours before, and there was sun peeking through the clouds out of our front window.

I hopped online to try to find out what was going on. Our weather radio hadn't sounded any alarm, and the Weather Channel didn't show any warnings for our zip code. Yet the local newspaper's Twitter feed claimed that there was a tornado a few miles away from our location.

Pretty soon the phone rang -- the crisis notification system at the university telling us to take shelter. It still looked perfectly normal out of our windows, birds singing and sun shining.

After about fifteen minutes, LCDOnline posted that the fire department couldn't find any damage, and that their staff photographer saw no evidence of touchdown at the site of the reports. A reader sent in a photograph of the "tornado." But the weatherman down in Little Rock debunked the whole notion, saying that what everyone saw was not a tornado but a "cold air funnel."

I like being informed, and I'm glad I have multiple sources of information whenever something perplexing goes down. But I dislike being placed on high alert too frequently. I wonder what the procedure is for sounding the emergency sirens in town? Does any report of a funnel cloud do it, or normally is the National Weather Service involved? Presumably the university alert system was simply following the city's lead -- which again raises the question of what threshold of credibility a threat has to meet in order to activate the whoop-whooping and the take-cover-immediately-ing?

It's not that I'm mad about the sirens and the calls this afternoon. I'd just like some confidence that I'm not going to be called into fight-or-flight mode everytime somebody sees something they think is a tornado. There's got to be a point where "better safe than sorry" changes into "the boy who cried wolf."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why does the sun really shine?

Comes news that They Might Be Giants are continuing their series of children's albums -- No!, Here Come The ABCs, and Here Come The 123s -- with Here Comes Science.

Now like all self-respecting geeks, we love TMBG in this house. I was actually a little too old to be in their demographic heyday, but I made up for it in grad school. Many of their songs have made their way into the soundtrack of my life, especially the more sublime John Linnell-penned tunes. When I got my iPhone a couple of weeks ago, "I Can Hear You" ran through my head non-stop for days.

I've been delighted that TMBG have come into the kids' lives through these new albums and DVDs. And the magic is still there: "There's Only One Everything" and "Pictures Of Pandas Painting" are plenty catchy and fascinating for the parents of those kids at whom 123s and ABCs are directed. Parents like me, who sing along under their breath, and who can't wait to learn a little bit about photosynthesis in hummable form.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Big church

A couple of months back, Archer decided that he was more interested in keeping track of the liturgy than in the activities provided for children during Sunday morning services. At the same time, Cady Gray proclaimed that she didn't like children's church and wanted to stay with us.

So for several weeks they've been sitting through the regular church service -- what I used to call "big church" when I was a kid. Archer enjoys tracking the activities on the program, moving from hymnal to prayer book to printed inserts, numbering and recording the time each one begins and providing whispered commentary to us on the duration of prayers and the estimated time the service might take.

Cady Gray reads comic books. In a development that has warmed both her of parents' hearts, she's embraced Peanuts and Archie and just about every other bit of sequential art we've tucked into her bookshelf for her to find: Cul de Sac, Richie Rich, Calvin & Hobbes, Mutts, Little Lulu, even an old Doonesbury collection that got mixed in there by mistake.

As she sits crosslegged in the pew, intent on the Fawcett collection of Snoopy strips passed down from her dad, I feel an intense tug of memory. How many of those double-sided Peanuts collections -- the ones where there was one book starting at one end, and another upside down starting from the other -- did I check out of the church library and devour during services?

I think Mom and Dad were more forgiving of comics reading during Sunday and Wednesday evenings than Sunday mornings; at the most important worship of the week, I usually had to content myself with studying the underutilized Old Testament books or contemplating the mesmerizing curves of those hip line drawings in my Good News Bible. But I memorized the output of Charles Schulz from those readings and rereadings -- during church, in the back of the station wagon during long trips, anytime one of those paperbacks was within reach.

And perhaps it won't be taken amiss if I suggest that it's possible I learned almost as much about what matters in the world from Charlie Brown and Linus as from the sermons I was supposed to be listening to.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The curse

Even though there's a significant number of male knitters, the knitting world is still quite gynocentric. And its female denizens have perpetuated a legend called "The Sweater Curse." If you knit your significant other a sweater before the proper threshold of permanence has been crossed in your relationship, the curse will get you -- the sweater will precipitate a breakup.

After twelve years of marriage (but only three of knitting), I hope I'm past the point where the curse applies. And when I saw this beautiful sweater vest in the latest issue of Twist Collective, I knew it would be the first sweater-like object I would knit for Noel. He wears a sweater vest quite well, if I do say so myself, and used to do so quite often when he taught the occasional class in my university department.

The yarn I'm using has been backordered since early June, but it finally arrived today. (It's the same yarn and color featured in the magazine photo.) And now that I'm finally faced with the prospect of knitting Noel something other than an accessory, I find that it's a daunting prospect. Maybe the curse does not apply, but the pressure toward success is still notched up a bit from the garments I might knit for myself -- or even the scarves and gloves knit for others.

I'm going to take my time with this one, since there are a lot of other projects I need to finish and several more I need to start in order to be timely with various obligations. But I'm hoping that it will be under the tree at Christmastime. And that its very existence doesn't bring down the wrath of the relationship gods upon us, as the legend warns.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Audience and obligation

This week's AVQ&A question generated an interesting range of disagreement among the A.V. Club staff. A reader asked what poetry readings and music we did (or would like to) include in our e weddings.

The divide appeared between the respondents who suggested personalizing the ceremony through the choice of music and readings that had personal resonance, and those who advocated a more traditional approach. I was firmly on the side of the latter. And maybe I should explain that I've seen wedding planning from both sides now -- from the side of the couple to be wed, and the side of the officiant. (OK, there are probably other sides too. Mother of the bride comes to mind. I can wait on that.)

I didn't really have a philosophy about ceremony components when I was getting married. I was only too happy to let my mother handle most details about the program. But now I'm pretty sure that weddings are not expressions of personal style, but rites of passage with cultural significance.

Some writers also made the point that weddings with any kind of guest list at all imply an responsibility to those in attendance. Foisting off oddball songs, poetry, or ceremonial elements on them; insisting that the music for the reception be drawn exclusively from artists and albums that meet your aesthetic approval; and generally assuming that their support of your nuptials implies an obligation to "respect" your particular taste in entertainment or quirks of spiritual practice; all constitute, in my opinion, a failure of hospitality.

I understand why people want their beliefs and playlists to take center stage at a wedding ceremony. It's billed as your one shot at the spotlight, and it's hard not to want to take advantage of it by staking your pop-culture flag. But it's really not all about you. It's about the generations that are passing the torch to you -- respect for what a wedding means to them is much appreciated, and doesn't represent a compromise of your values. And it's about appreciation for those who witness and celebrate the moment. Give 'em a mix CD as a reception favor if you really want them to know what music means the most to you. Otherwise, make the ceremony short and stick to the general area around the classics, then throw a party everyone can enjoy -- you and everyone who did you the honor of accepting your invitation.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mario adventures

Reading the instruction booklet for Super Mario Galaxy has led Archer to take an interest in the storyline of the Mario games. Tonight he told us that he had a nine DVD set of Mario Adventures. At Cady Gray's urging, he told us three of them. Since I happened to have my computer open, I made a transcription.

The first installment follows the instruction book backstory almost word-for-word, with a big leap at the end to provide some sort of closure. The others are a bit more indicative of Archer's attempts to tell stories about the events, conflicts, and milestones he personally finds most compelling. Lately he's been devouring the information in his book of sports rules, and his pretend games have been consumed with penalties, even to the exclusion of the game itself; he pitted me against someone named "Cathy" in soccer yesterday, but we never scored goals, only got red and yellow cards (tallied on a Magnadoodle chart). You'll see that particular obsession reflected in his narratives below.

Mario And The Galaxies

One night, Mario received a letter. It said: "Dear Mario, I'll be waiting for you at the castle on the night of the star festival. I'll be so glad to see you. Love, Peach." With invitation in his hand, Mario hurried to the Mushroom Kingdom as the star festival was getting into full swing. Mario was looking forward to the night's festivities. But then something happened. Someone sent Mario to the galaxies. As the years went by, Mario just went around collecting star bits, avoiding Megaleg controlled by Bowser Jr., and getting Grand Stars.

When Mario visited all the galaxies, it was then the year of the next festival. I hope Bowser won't ruin it this time!

The end.

Mario Racing

Mario was going along to all the circuits and races in a bus with Luigi. But then when they arrived, they went over to the practice station to practice all the courses. When they reached Mario Circuit, Peach arrived. And then Mario pushed Luigi out of his kart and then hoped Peach would play games with Mario at her castle. Then when it was time for the games to start, Mario beat all the others, including Bowser, and he also beat Bowser in N64 Bowser's Castle. He quietly went on, but when Mario used his red shell, it hit Luigi and Luigi fell off the course. Then some helpful girl returned him back on the course. But even if he would return on the course, he got last place. Mario even raced in DK Summit and guess what place he got: First! Even Bowser couldn't get in first place. But he sometimes falls off the course and Mario wants on the gold trophy for that big 150 VS race.

The end.

[Cady Gray: Who was that helpful girl in the story? Archer: She picks up karts by riding on a lightning cloud. CG: Well, what is her name, do you know? Archer: I don't know what her name really is. Next episode!]

Mario And the Olympics

Mario suddenly received an invitation to compete against his friends in the annual Olympics. He ran the 400 meters but when he ran the 400 meter hurdles, he knocked over 3 hurdles so he disqualified. I'm sure at the next Olympics, he won't knock over any. Actually, at the next Olympics, a counterweight will keep the hurdles from falling.

Then, on the shorter hurdles, the boys and girls were separated. Boys race 110 meters, and girls race 100 meters. Mario saw a hurdle at every 10 meters. He only knocked over one hurdle. Then, when he was at the seventh hurdle, he pushed Luigi, so Mario disqualified again.

[Me: Why does he always push Luigi? CG: Because Mario doesn't like him.]

But then when Mario did the high jump, he knocked over Luigi and disqualified again. When he done the pole vault, Mario ran into the bar and disqualified. And Peach vaulted without the pole, so her results didn't count.

Then, when Mario done drag racing, he wrecked Bowser's drag racer and Bowser was sent to the pit row to fix it. Peach was argumentive with Luigi so Peach was deducted ten seconds. That's actually a penalty of ten seconds. When Mario finishes final lap first, he found out that Peach got lost because of her deducted ten seconds. Luigi got second place, even if he got sent to the pit row.

[CG: Remember, Archer, you actually said Bowser was sent to the pit row. Archer: Also Luigi was sent because when Bowser's vehicle was fixed, Bowser wrecked Luigi's vehicle with his spikes. CG: Yes, Bowser is really spiky. I really think he's a dinosaur.]

Then it was time for the ski slalom. Peach just kept going straight and got a time of two minutes and forty-five seconds. Her penalty was 1 minute and 43 seconds, and she got last place again. During the 4x400 meter relay race, Mario dropped the baton so he disqualified.

[CG: Mario keeps disqualifying!]

And Mario also twirled the baton to Luigi so he gone to the back.

[CG: What is the back anyway? Archer: It probably means he gets behind the last place player.]

But Mario still got first place. As Mario showed, Mario's team -- Mario, Luigi, and even Bowser is also on Mario's team -- and his team won the gold medal.

The end.

[CG: Yeah, but Mario was bad to all his teammates so he disqualified some of them!]

The fourth episode will be Mario's Super Slugger, and the fifth episode will be Super Mario and His Brothers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pulp fiction

The A.V. Club staff is discussing Charles Willeford's The Woman Chaser as the Wrapped Up In Books selection this month. It's the first Willeford I've ever read apart from an excerpt I assigned my film class (alongside Elmore Leonard) when we watched Reservoir Dogs. He's more famous around these parts than he might be elsewhere, given that he was born in Little Rock. I was glad to have an excuse to read one of his novels.

And what a knockout it was. Bold, disturbing, complex, and a total page-turner. I catalog my reactions here, but in short: Wow. Give me more.

The book didn't sit that way with a lot of our readers, though, judging from the comments on earlier posts in this week's series. It makes me wonder whether my attraction to this kind of material is something more personal and less aesthetically defensible.

If you want to join our discussion tomorrow, tune in at 5 pm Eastern, 4 Central. The book is short and snappy enough that you could get a good sense of the flavor if you start tonight -- and it's available for free at Munseys.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blogging elsewhere

Tonight I took over as Noel's replacement on the TV Club blog for the marvelous Better Off Ted. (Seriously, don't let the goofy name fool you -- this was the best new show on television last year, and by some crazy miracle it got renewed at the last minute. The half-season that got filmed but not shown when the network put it on hiatus is now airing over the summer.)

So I think I'll let that count as my blog for tonight. I'm watching the All-Star Game, finishing up my post on The Woman Chaser for this week's "Wrapped Up In Books" discussion, and trying to use my waning few hours alone at home to get a little further on my organizational tasks. Tomorrow Noel and the kids will return, and I'll be glad to see them even though I've kept up too manic a pace here to feel the pain of missing them too badly. Bring on the weekend!

Monday, July 13, 2009

A poem as lovely

In summer, Arkansas bakes like crisp sugar cookies. The sun beats down and the miasmic heat rises up in humid waves.

Yet when I turn into my neighborhood on my walk home, the temperature suddenly drops ten degrees. There's a breeze where there was none before. I'm walking under the shade of deciduous trees several decades old.

My town isn't rich in trees. Growing as fast as it has, most homes are in subdivisions less than ten years old. They lawns are dotted by spindly saplings. The roofs of even modest ranch houses tower over the few planting in their lawns. For those of us lucky enough to live in neighborhoods built in the fifties or sixties, however, our houses are dwarfed by the tall trees all around. Block after block basks under an unbroken canopy.

Trees have their downsides. It's hard to grow a lawn underneath them (which gives me an excuse for not even trying). They sometimes blow over during the fierce storms that barrel through in spring. One of our new neighbors with a corner lot down the street cut down five huge trees on her property as soon as she moved in, replacing them with grass and foliage beds and weeping willow plantings that look too sad to grow past three feet in height.

I love to look out our bay window any time of day and see dappled shadow as far as my sight reaches. I love to live under the outspread arms of oak and elm.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The plot thickens

Today's post, about how I will probably spend most of my time while Noel and the kids are away, is at Toxophily. And if you're interested in my sermon for today, here's the text.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Preach it

A few times a year, I have the privilege of preaching at my church. Tomorrow is one of those days. One of the reasons my vicar asks me is because there are some congregants in this college town who appreciate an academic approach to the material; they'll show up whenever I teach a class for adult Christian education, or when I preach. When the vicar is out of town, we can actually draw a slightly larger crowd by having me preach than we would be having morning prayer with a prepared sermon read by one of the liturgical ministers. Or that's the theory, anyway.

Tomorrow marks the second time in a year that my theme is more about what's missing in the lectionary than what's there -- what the excerpts skip over. I'm not sure if it's a blessing or a curse that the Old Testament text for this Sunday is 2 Samuel 6, which includes the story of Uzzah being struck down after taking hold of the Ark of the Covenant when it was jostled on an oxcart. That's a fascinating story, one that's hard to extract a simple moral lesson from -- which is, of course, what makes it interesting.

By bringing up what's missing, what's hard to fit in, naturally I'm running a risk. It doesn't necessarily make for the neatest, most uplifting sermon. I think that the people who go out of their way to hear me preach appreciate that I talk about the problems that the text presents. But in case I'm wrong, I'll leave a copy of my sermon for the vicar. She invited me back after the last time I concentrated on the ellipsis in the lectionary, so my hope is that this approach isn't taboo. Next time, Teri, I promise that you'll hear more about the content of the readings than the verses that got skipped over.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The tranquility of solitude

Both kids are camp-free next week, one of the few occasions this summer that's true. And Noel has decided to use the opportunity to take them to visit his parents in Nashville, Tennessee for a few days.

I'll be staying behind here in Conway. And I know Noel won't take it amiss if I confess that I'm looking forward to the quiet, empty house. He looks forward to the same thing every day when the kids go off to school or activities. And we're pretty good about giving each other time to ourselves by trading off taking the kids to the playground or some such.

So really, Noel is giving me three and a half days to myself. When you're a parent, that sounds impossibly luxurious. Never mind that I have three half-day meetings to attend at work during that time, a dentist appointment, three writing assignments, and two church services at which I'm preaching. Nothing of that kind can diminish the indulgence of a home where your time is completely your own.

What am I planning to do with it? There's much knitting and stash organizing to be accomplished, of course. Noel would appreciate it if I tackled something on the home improvement list, and maybe I'll try to take a half-day off of work (if I can find a half-day amongst all those meetings) to make at least a start. I've got a big stack of books to read. I'd like to play some video games.

Putting it all down, it sound rather a lot to try to pack into three-and-a-half days, especially when work at the office continues apace. But I have no doubt that even if I don't get my fill of being temporarily and contingently single and fancy-free, I'll be ready to welcome my wonderful, sweet, shockingly entertaining children back into my life before their little vacation is over.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Public profile

Last Monday I finished my review of Alice Hoffman's The Story Sisters and turned it in to my editor. It was a glowing review of a book that moved me deepBlogger: Union, Trueheart, and Courtesy - Create Postly.

Later that day, Noel asked me, "Did you know that she attacked a critic on Twitter?"

The whole story was revealed on Gawker. I'm glad that I didn't know about the incident before I turned in my review -- wonderfully relieved, actually. Even though it doesn't change how much I enjoyed the book, knowing that an author has taken personal umbrage at a review can't help but affect one's mindset.

I agree with the gist of the lesson Gawker drew from the incident:
For all the criticisms that exist about writing on the internet, this situation is a bright, shining example of one of the best things about writing on the internet—After a while it thickens your skin to the point where you're easily able to easily differentiate between valid criticism and hateful venom-spewing. At some point, the hateful venom-spewing fails to even faze you any longer, while the valid criticisms are accepted and processed rationally and learned from. Too bad Alice Hoffman never had a blog to help her overcome her hypersensitive ego. She'd be a better writer because of it.
Now I don't get casual readers of this blog in large enough numbers to generate negative comments, but I certainly get them on pieces I write for the A.V. Club. And while I'm small-time enough that I still sometimes fall into the mistake of taking them personally (even when they're just hateful venom-spewing), my skin has definitely thickened over the years. I do tend to think that's a good thing; it's not only part of adapting to the environment of the internet, but it's part of learning to interact with an audience whose opinions you'll never be able to control. It's an exercise in the death of the author and an opportunity to distinguish between valid criticism and, well, personal vendettas or ad hominem attacks.

There's a lesson in there for my students, if I can figure out how to apply it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A shift in perspective

Our perceptive local critic and professional associate Phillip Martin wrote a feature about a Kindle Amazon gave him for a ten-day trial. (Can't give you a link, unfortunately; it's behind a subscriber wall.) I read it with interest as a Kindle convert.

And what I found was that it's very hard to evaluate the impact a Kindle will have on your reading habits unless you become a Kindle user. Ten days isn't going to cut it, because in ten days you don't reshape your expectations and your behaviors. You don't download a month's or a year's worth of reading material, because you don't have a month or a year. You don't download any books at all that you have to pay for. You don't go to the trouble of grabbing free books as text files off Project Gutenberg and sending them to your Kindle's free conversion e-mail address. You don't do any of this because you've only got the thing for ten days. There's no sense making any investment at all -- in time or money -- to make the thing, you know, actually useful. There's no sense in putting more content on the machine than you could read in a few sittings.

So what you do is evaluate the interface. How does the text look? How do the controls work? How does the experience of using it feel?

Only you're not actually using it. You've got it at arm's length. You're not going to become a Kindle person -- you're keeping your journalistic objectivity. And I know how this sounds, but the Kindle can only be measured by how it changes you as a reader once you've begun using it for your reading.

I got a massive thousand-page book in the mail a few days ago. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to read it. But when I packed my briefcase this morning, struggling to turn that concrete block of a book in some direction so it would fit, I wished it were on my Kindle, right alongside the other book I need to read for next week. Why am I carrying huge tomes of information around as separate physical objects when their contents could so easily be combined with hundreds of others on one device?

I'm not really trying to heap scorn on those who "don't get it." Heck, I just joined the majority of people in the world by getting a cell phone; clearly I didn't get it for almost two decades. But I know that now that I have one, I'm going to have a different relationship to telephony, connectivity, and information than I did before. I couldn't know who that person would be by trying out a phone for ten days. Only by committing to become cellular-enabled Donna -- at least provisionally -- can I know whether that's a person I would want to be.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Working out

In the middle of my second 30-Day Challenge on EA Sports Active (this time on the Hard intensity level -- oof), our resistance band has finally shredded into pieces. Noel had to go pick up a new one at the big box store so I could complete my workout tonight.

It's been a few months since we started working out with Wii Fit and EA Sports Active on a daily basis -- about 30 minutes a day, at least. When Noel posted about Wii Fit on the A.V. Blog, some commenters carried on an interesting discussion about whether such workouts could do any good, given how minimal a commitment to exercise they represent.

I tend to take the view that anything is preferable to nothing. The workouts on both games can be challenging. After playing one for awhile, I tend to find doing the other one unexpectedly difficult. They're working different muscles, different endurance capacities.

I'm not losing any weight. But I think I've built some muscle -- that is, if my ability to perform some of the exercises is any indication. And whenever I don't overindulgence in artificial sweetener or big meals, it's clear that my body shape is changing.

When I do overindulgence -- as I did this past weekend, compounded by skipping two days of workouts -- I can tell the difference immediately. My belly pooches out and I feel sloppy and bloated. The only cure is a tough workout. Those blissful evening hours of knitting and watching television must be earned.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Life tracking

One of the aspects of social networking that tends to befuddle non-adopters is the sharing of personal life lists. Since I started blogging several years ago, I've kept lists of movies seen and books read in a given year. At a certain point I moved those lists to, where I also keep private lists of work-related data that I know I'll need for year-end reviews (as well as packing lists, top ten drafts, etc.).

But since I joined, I've stopped keeping up with the "books read" list on listography. (And the "movies seen" list is languishing, too, as you may have noticed if you clicked the link above.) Because the queueing system in Goodreads is so useful (you can keep track of books you want or plan to read, as well as those currently in progress and those completed), but most importantly because the social aspect encourages me to keep my profile current, I find it much easier to keep track of my reading there. It's kind of effortless, actually; when a book review of mine goes up, I'm usually reminded to hop over to Goodreads and link to it in the "my review" box, simultaneously marking it completed, and that's when I update my shelves to include the next book or two in my pile.

Because I'm not keeping a list of what I have read as much as making available to friends a view of my bedside table -- what I'm reading now -- I don't think of Goodreads in the same way as the "books read" post I used to keep on my blog. Yet behind the scenes, while I'm doing the social networking thing, the site is compiling that very same list for me. When I need it, voila -- there it is.

So now it bugs me that I'm still trying to keep my master list of "films seen in 2009" on listography. Why isn't there a social networking tool that would make compiling that list as effortless as it is on Goodreads? Why can't I invite my friends to see what I'm planning to watch, and what I've seen recently (or back in the mists of time)? Being in the pop culture media means being asked these exact questions all the time.

My former student Holly recommended the site; it's where she keeps her books-read list, but you can also collect films, iPhone apps, ski slopes, albums, TV shows, and beers there. I'm leery of the kitchen-sink approach, and of course I'm not interested in abandoning Goodreads. Is this the best place to stash my film updates? Or are there any more film-centric sites out there that will aggregate my viewing, motivate me to update, and allow me to share?

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Today's post, in which I raise the championship belt above my head after illegally swatting the referee with a folding chair, is at Toxophily.

Tomorrow is the university's day off for the July 4 holiday. I'll be celebrating by helping take the kids to the dentist, watching NewsRadio, and writing a book review. Hope your holiday was freedom-filled!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bonding time

Because Archer doesn't care for movies while Cady Gray loves them, Noel periodically take Cady Gray to whatever kids' flick might be playing at the theaters. When he does, I get to have time with Archer.

It's sometimes a challenge to think of something Archer would like to do with his mom. But today as we were driving home from lunch, he caught sight of the local bowling alley. "Um, the Conway Family Bowl is open July the fourth," he told us rather urgently, reading off the sign. "It's hot outside but 68 degrees inside." "Would you like to go bowling this afternoon?" I asked. "I would like to do that," he answered in his odd, formal way.

I knew he would. There would be electronic scoring and some arcade games to play afterwards. So while Cady Gray and Dad went to see Ice Age 3, we went bowling.

It was a little painful to see him struggling with the eight-pound ball, the lightest we could find, thudding it onto the alley to roll slowly toward the pins and bump off the raised alley bumpers. But he worked very hard at putting the right fingers in the holes and swinging his arm back in a pendulum motion, although he tended not to let go in the middle of flinging his arm forward as if pushing away a playground bully.

As for me, it took a while for me to remember the motions. So many of my first balls went into the gutter that Archer won the first game 84-81. But I rallied to score three strikes and two spares in the second game, winning handily. Then we played air hockey, which Archer won to his delight, and played a video driving game.

In the car I asked him where he wanted to go get ice cream, and he chose Dairy Queen. We ordered an Oreo and hot fudge Blizzard. As we were walking to our table with the treat, Archer grasped my hand briefly. "A pretend lollipop for you," he announced with an excited smile on his face.

We ate, with Archer announcing that he needed two bites whenever I took a bite too close to his side of the cup. I realized as we sat there companionably that he was truly enjoying himself -- feeling, in his way, the specialness of the occasion. As I gathered our empty cup and utensils and stood up to go, he began waving his hand strangely.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's a pretend toy plane, bringing you a pretend letter." He landed his hand and pressed empty air into mine. His eyes were alight, and I realized he was trying to convey to me his understanding that this was a special occasion.

"What does it say?"

"Dear Donna," he began, standing up and twirling a bit in his exuberance. "Thank you for the bowling game. I really enjoyed it. Love, Archer."

Friday, July 3, 2009

What a difference a year (or two) makes

Archer "graduated" from my university's summer program for first, second, and third-graders this afternoon. Having seen this same closing ceremony three years running, I'm fascinated by the way it encapsulates Archer's growth. I wrote about the first ceremony, the summer he was about to turn six, here. Last year's ceremony (one month short of nine) is blogged here.

What happened this year? The birth of Archer The Ham. His singing was right on cue. As he did the hand movements, he stole glances at his hands and smiled secretly -- the hands that make private number signs when he needs comfort. And most strikingly, he looked confidently out at the audience and performed. The setting and what it demanded were quite evidently clear to him. And every time a song ended, he cut his eyes sideways to see how his family reacted. I held up my hands while applauding, and his face could only be described as beaming.

In fact, only one moment might have tipped off the audience that he's autistic: After he received his certificate (holding it up proudly for our benefit), the next song began. He didn't know what to do with the paper. The girl next to him tried to tell him to prop it up on the chalkboard behind him. But it's like he didn't hear or didn't know he was being addressed. In a bubble of his own, he didn't think to attend to his neighbors or look to see what they did. He dropped the certificate to the floor just as the singing began.

I wish I had video to share, but in the rush to get over to campus, Noel couldn't find the camera. So you'll have to take my word for it. His progress is stunning. Yet his challenges are still there, in the unscripted moments. This morning he insisted on reciting the entire day's schedule to me, including the order of songs and events at the closing ceremony. Secure in the routine and well-versed in the expectations, he positively reveled in the chance to perform. I'd go so far as to say he displayed showmanship. It's the improvisation that's required in everyday life that still trips him up, and of course that's required of most of us many time daily. Nonetheless, what I'll take away from today is how adroitly and gleefully he can play the role of "ordinary kid."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Not getting it

My wonderful friend and colleague Scott Tobias wrote a quick news item on the A.V. Club today about the announcement that Neil Patrick Harris has been tapped to host this year's Emmy award ceremony.

I'm a great admirer of NPH. Although I never watched Doogie Howser, I have deep respect for his star turns on Broadway (in Stephen Sondheim's sublime Assassins, no less!) and masterful comic gusto in films like Starship Troopers and television shows like How I Met Your Mother. His performance hosting the Tony awards a few weeks back can best be described as "gleeful," and the song he belted out over the credits was sheer, unadultered delight.

But I admit that I fixated on a particular thread in the ensuing comments where readers confessed -- no, perhaps the right word is "boasted" -- about how they've never found HIMYM funny. It's a recurring theme on our boards in relation to any show whose cult status is not yet established, whose hip credentials might be suspect, which has a fervent advocate on the A.V. Club staff. The same thread occurred in a news item where Noel alerted readers that the strange and wonderful ABC comedy Better Off Ted was returning to the air this summer. Commenters speculated about whether the show was actually any good, described their ambivalent reactions to what little (if any) they'd seen -- sometimes just to the ABC promos -- and simultaneously declared that no show could ever be described as funny after Arrested Development and angrily attacked anyone who dared suggest a comparison to Arrested Development.

It's undeniable that you have to be open to a certain type of comedy and perhaps train yourself into a certain frame of mind to enjoy some shows. For that reason, it's dangerous to praise them to your friends, since inevitably they'll tune in for a sample and just not see what you see. That said, there are moments or even whole episodes that are so perfectly brilliant, in a way that transcends the feel or tone that gives context to the show's humor, that I really can't imagine someone claiming not to get it. The little singing exchange between Ted and Linda on this week's Better Off Ted ("Are you reaaady? Yes I'm reaaady!" "Is your report reaaady?" "No it's not reaaady!" "Maybe you should have your fish wriiiite it!" "He can only write Mooooe-Moe!"); the list of celebrities, collectibles, and Canadian sex acts from the "Old King Clancy" episode of HIMYM -- these are not just funny if you've matched your brain waves to the show's vibe. They're funny, full stop.

I understand that not everyone is going to be able to take traditional sitcoms seriously, nor will they take the time necessarily to allow a quirky comedy to find the sweet spot. But denying that the shows could ever be funny -- or that anyone who claims to find them funny could be telling the truth? Folks, we're laughing over here because we're enjoying ourselves. And if you'll let us find the right clip, we'll show you how you can join us.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Riiiiide the Comet!

I'm not in any way a pinball geek. I know real pinball geeks, and they're in a whole 'nother league.

But I enjoy my pinball very much. When I was a teenager, my dad rented old pinball machines from a local amusements company, swapping out for a different one every year or so. They were all of the analog, low-scoring variety; you did well on Four Million B.C. to crack fifty thousand.

The pinball collection in the game room at UGA's Tate Student Center, where I whiled away many an unproductive afternoon plugging quarters into various machines, was absolutely stellar. Elvira, the Addams Family -- lots of classics. But I favored the inventive, family-friendly Williams games, especially Comet and its sequel (my all-time favorite) Cyclone. Pinbot and Taxi also had their place in that row of machines against the north wall where players would frequently be interrupted by stray ping-pong balls from the tables just to their right.

Noel bought a Wii disc of classic Williams pinball layouts on impulse the other day. It's unimpressive as video gamery, but completely awesome as a recreation of some of those games. The feel of the bumper rattle through your controllers and the heft of the ball floating and zipping around the layout is remarkably realistic. I was put in a reverie as I played, forgetting that it was all bits and bytes and electronic screens. For a moment I was back in the Tate, listening to Gorbachev demand to be picked up and hoping to riiiiide the Ferris wheel.