Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fine Arts Fun

Pip volunteered to do a 10-minute slot at the Fine Arts fair at his school this week. We worked up a couple pieces, with Mia joining in on percussion. I thought he did a great job.

He is reading a lead sheet for the first song, I Take You For Granted, a composition of mine from some years ago. (I hear it now and think it sounds like a cross between an American Jazz standard and a Sesame Street song some muppet would sing).

video

The second song, St. Thomas, he just knows in his head, and the second time through he's just improvising over the changes. I think it's great because his solo has some real musical shape. That's not something you can teach. The boy's just got it.

video

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Moose Kitsch

Since we moved into the new house a few months ago, I have indulged a few lady-of-the-house impulses, such as planting window boxes, buying new dishes, and painting the four-season porch a new color. ("Terrapin green," if you must know. I had to look up what "terrapin" means. Apparently it's a type of turtle.)

This little nesting frenzy has taken me into some frightening thickets of unfamiliar objects and terms. For instance, I had to learn the difference between a chandelier, a pendant, and a sconce. I know how to measure seat height and overall width and depth. I've noted that, should one wish to do so, one could purchase a new kitchen faucet that looks exactly like the one in my grandmother's 1930s kitchen. I've even gotten brazen enough to enter the Pottery Barn store at the mall and to look through their catalog--just for ideas, of course. By the way, once you get past the initial lifestyle lust, home decor catalogs suggest that designers must be imagining very strange lives for the people who are supposed to inhabit their designs. Check out this site if you're not sure what I mean.

Despite being entirely overwhelmed by home-improvement-and-decor world, I am beginning to develop strong opinions about what I like and don't like. I have discovered, for example, a latent tendency in myself toward--I hesitate to confess this--moose kitsch.

I noticed this emerging condition when I could not resist these placemats on mega sale.


Aren't they cute? Come on! They have buttons! When I brought them home, the whole family made fun of me and started calling them "the Sarah Palin placemats." But they have NOTHING to do with Sarah Palin, I tell you! I refuse to be associated with Sarah Palin, and she does NOT get a copyright on everything moose-related. Or grizzly-related for that matter. These placemats commemorate the beauty of northern Michigan. And I enjoy them ironically. Yeah. Ironically.

Well, these days we're thinking about replacing the light above the dining room table, and out of revenge for the scorn I have endured over the placemats, I have threatened Ron with some intriguing possibilities from the good people at the Vaxcel Lighting company. They have a full line of fabulous, no kidding, woodsy-cabin designs.

For instance, here is the "Yellowstone" chandelier:


You've got to admit: that's cool. Not rustic enough for you? Well how about this one, the "Lodge"?

Nothing says "please enjoy the slab of venison on your plate" like a substructure of polymer deer antlers capped with 15 faux-frontier-stitched mini-shades.

For now, I have promised Ron that, in the future, I will limit my Michigan cabin kitsch weakness to small items in the little bathroom. Maybe a beaver soap dispenser or a birch-branch towel rack. Please do not refer to me as a "Mama grizzly." I just like pine trees, OK?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alexi Lalas for President

Forgive me for another swooning post about the World Cup. No, I'm not even going to gush about the US win over Algeria yesterday. Although I could. And I'm not ruling out a little love later on.

But meanwhile, I'm here to confess: I have a fan-crush on Alexi Lalas. This is not because he's "hott" or something juvenile like that. After all, he's five years younger than me, married, and has two kids. Not that I've been checking Wikipedia for his personal information or anything.

No, I just think he's very very good at what he does. Game after game after game--and they are adding up now, aren't they? how many games have we watched?? [rubbing bleary eyes with fists]--as I was saying, game after game, Lalas comes on camera with incisive, witty, compelling analysis.

He's frank and funny:
When commenting on the horrible theatrics an Ivory Coast player pulled to get Kaka a second yellow card, Lalas remarked scornfully: "He should know that when you get elbowed in the ribs and then you put your hands to your face, everyone can see that it's a dive, and it wasn't even a good dive!"

He's entirely fair-minded, but cheerfully biased when occasion demands:
When asked to "put a period" on the French after they had flushed themselves down the group-play toilet, Lalas replied: "Period?! Au revoir! Bye bye!"

He can see several sides to an issue:
When South Africa failed to qualify, he mused: "As for my human side, I would have liked to see South Africa go through, but in my soccer heart, I know this is the right thing. And I can't WAIT to see Mexico play Argentina."

[Pardon the quotes-from-memory here; perfect accuracy not guaranteed.]

Most of all, he's always right. His comments are acute, interesting, helpful, and bold. He's an advocate for the game at its best, and he's not afraid to tell it like it is. *contented sigh*

In fact, all of us over here chez Rienstra have been impressed with ESPN's coverage of the World Cup overall. The super-fab, Africa-groovy graphics; the totally professional camera work; the refreshing lack of overwrought human-interest drama pieces (*cough cough* Olympics *cough cough*); and the excellent analysis--nicely done, people. Thanks for having the good sense to hire a couple British-accented play-by-play callers, understated and elegant. And thanks for the well chosen, rotating, international group of "studio analysts": Jurgen Klinsmann (German) serves beautifully as the wise, fatherly voice. Ruud Gullit (Dutch) called the US-England draw and gets extra credit for introducing everyone to "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." Roberto Martinez (Spanish) is good, Shaun Bartlett (South African) is good. Even the two regular-guy anchors, Bob Ley and Mike Tirico, do all right. They stay out of the way and get right down to the actual game. All these guys--and yes, they're all guys, but I'll fuss about that some other time--handle themselves well and deliver good content about soccer. Thank you, gentlemen, for not stating the obvious, blathering on self-indulgently, or acting as if every dramatic moment constitutes the apocalypse and/or the climax of human history. Most of all, thanks for not being boring.

But back to Alexi Lalas. After that incredible win over Algeria--in which our boys nearly killed us with anxiety and tortured us with about 25 variations on almost, then finally put that glorious goal away in the 91st minute--after it was all over, you could hear the emotion in Lalas's voiceover as he summed up the game. He praised Altidore and DeMerit lest they become unsung heroes in the wake of Donovan's well-deserved glory train. And then, when the producers shifted camera from post-game hooplah to a shot of Lalas and what's-his-name in the press box, you could see: Lalas's gingery locks a little mussed, his eyes a little red-rimmed. Awwwww....

Other reasons to love Lalas:
  • He's from Michigan! Yup, played high school soccer and hockey in Birmingham.
  • His mom is a writer and poet.
  • He went to Rutgers and played soccer and hockey there (during my own grad school years there, no less--if only I'd known!).
  • He was a defender, which tends to dissolve any diva tendencies a player might have, even though Lalas did score some crucial goals in his days.
  • He is a pleasant-enough looking fellow, but no pretty boy. In fact, as this photo of him as an MLS player demonstrates, at one stage in his life at least, he might accurately have been described as "a total goober."



Sorry I can't identify exactly when this photo was taken; I got it from some blog. Photos of Lalas during his wild ginger days turn up on the internet on a few "weird soccer hair" listings. Just last fall, in fact, The Sun ran a photo of Lalas from who-knows-when as no. 1 in their "Top Ten Football Beards" feature.

But having survived a goober period is all in his favor, in my view.

So, Alexi, here's to the beautiful linguistic art of sports commentary, done very well. And never mind the part about running for President. True, I'd love to hear you lay into Congress. But no. Please stay right where you are.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

HD: An Appreciation


More than once in the past few days, Ron and I have turned to each other and swooned: "I love HD!" This is the first World Cup we have watched in high def, and I have to admit, soccer is even better when you can see every blade of grass and every thread in the net.

ESPN's camera people seem to be reveling in the possibilities of HD, too. I mean, the headers and tackles and goals are wonderful in the moment, but then, but THEN: the replays! Oh, here they come! First, a couple slo-mo replays from different angles: left, right, low angle, maybe even overhead. Then, we find the camera that caught extreme impact. Remember when England striker Emile Heskey plowed into Tim Howard? Yeah, well, thanks to HD and slo-mo replay, we witnessed every delicious bit: blades of grass and clumps of dirt scattering as Heskey's cleats tore through the sod, Howard's right arm, then his shoulder whumping against the ground, his left arm buckling against his body, the light glinting off studs as Heskey's boot crunched into Howard's hand and then his--oh ouch!--we could see the flesh on Howard's chest reverberate with the impact. I swear I could hear ribs cracking. Oops, I mean bruising. Yeah, bruising! He's fine! Really! He's fine to play on Friday! We don't need X-rays! We can just have the U.S. team doctor poke gingerly at his chest! There, see? He's totally fit!

And then there was that tragedy-in-the-box in the Netherlands-Denmark game, when poor Simon Poulsen tried to clear a cross from Netherlands' van Persie and the ball rolled off his head onto Agger's back and--oh man! Own goal! It was so awful, Poulsen just laughed. I mean, talk about the fates against you. But THEN, we got to see the replays. There was one camera shot--it took the producers a couple minutes to find it--in which we watched the ball move into the frame, then boing dramatically onto Poulsen's skull, releasing this explosion of sweat in every direction. Trace the trajectory of each sweat bead outward... outward... there--see each one evaporate? I forgot all about the goal and started thinking about the miracle of the water cycle.

So thanks to the ESPN camera people and producers for capturing the facial grimaces, the crunched ankles, the ball squashing on impact and re-expanding, every glorious visual detail, and broadcasting it right into my living room so that I can lie here on my couch and marvel.

And I hope they realize that if Howard tries to wear a steel chest plate on Friday, we are definitely going to catch the telltale outline under his shirt.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Jane Eyre: Check!

Moby Dick: twice.
Ulysses: twice, sort of.
Vanity Fair: twice, though I don't remember any of it.
Brothers Karamazov: of course.
Madame Bovary: yup.
Anna Karenina: check.
Middlemarch: I'm afraid so.
David Copperfield: why, indeed.

One would expect--wouldn't one?--that a person with an English degree would be quite accomplished in the gigantic classic novel department. And I suppose I can consider myself somewhat well read, although at this point a note of ritual modesty is in order. A lady of accomplishment always demurs when her interlocutors attempt to flatter.

Nevertheless, until this past week I had never read Charlotte Bronte's famous novel Jane Eyre. I was compelled on two unfortunate occasions in high school and college to read Emily Bronte's horrible Wuthering Heights, and perhaps that put me off. I did not wish to subject myself further to characters running about on stormy heaths and moors, suffering from inexplicable romantic entanglements.

I'm happy to report that Jane Eyre is an entirely different work, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The many loyal Jane Eyre fans out there now have my permission to pronounce a smug "I told you so." Be my guest.



A good 450-page Victorian novel is a nice way to start the summer. I had my nose in the book most of the past weekend, and Ron kept requesting periodic updates: "How's Jane doing?" he would ask. "Well!" I would reply...

She's languishing at a terrible boarding school!
She's working as a governess!
Oh! It looks like she could possibly marry above her station!
But wait! The gentleman has a terrible secret!
She must preserve her honor!
Ah! She has long-lost relatives!
With money!
And someone died! And left her a bunch!
She must endure a grueling carriage ride in order to seek her kindred spirit!
Now she's running out of exclamation points!

I don't want to give away the ending, just in case I was not, in fact, the last English-speaking person on earth to read the book. Suffice to say, Bronte hit all the Victorian novel cliches. But never mind: I loved every minute of it. Jane is a cool chick who came up with an impassioned speech as a kid about character over class, then recycled the same speech later when occasion demanded. She also kept her head when some idiot tried to talk her into marrying him by claiming it was the will of God and hinting darkly that she might go to hell if she didn't. And she can speak French and draw. All in all, not bad.

I would like to claim that I am now off to study German or put on my bonnet and take a walk about the estate grounds. But in fact, I should probably do e-mail. And I think I'll add a movie version of Jane Eyre to my Netflix queue.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Miracles and the Heavenly Org Chart




And now, time for some lousy theology.

On Pentecost, of all things.

I've been noticing tiny miracles lately, things like finding a parking space when you really need one, or coming across just the quotation you were looking for, or hearing a kind word from someone who doesn't know that you're feeling bummed and discouraged.

How does this work? I mean, I believe in Providence with a capital P, and I'm happy to put some things down to random coincidence. But what about that broad expanse between Grand Divine Plan and all the insignificant whatevers? Jesus remarked that the hairs on our heads are numbered, but who exactly is doing the accounting?

My answer: angels. Staff. Underlings. Minions.

Who knows? Really, I have no idea. But it amuses me to imagine that God's intimate knowledge and care, as attested in biblical passages such as Psalm 139, are duly supported with several layers of errand-running staffers. We used to love the fabulous children's book, What a Truly Cool World, which features a character called "Shaniqua, the Angel in Charge of Everybody's Business." That's what I'm talking about. Shaniqua surely must have a staff.

So based on some events of the last few weeks, I herein make some guesses about what sorts of job categories branch out under Shaniqua in the heavenly org chart:

Kindred Spirit Encounters
It's been a month now since the Festival of Faith and Writing, and I might still have a bit of a hangover from the high. This was my first time at the Festival as a member of the organizing committee, and I felt like someone giving a fabulously successful party. You invite the guests, you set out the platters and cups, and then... you cannot be sure what will happen.

I suppose when you get 2000 book-loving people in the same place for a few days, the laws of probability suggest that amiable connections will occur. Even so, it all felt vaguely miraculous. Student volunteers, assigned to shepherd around authors they previously knew nothing about, developed "author crushes" on people like Kate di Camillo or Donna Freitas. People who had never read Richard Rodriguez swooned over his plenary lecture and rushed to buy his books. One of my favorite moments was after Rodriguez's interview, when he was greeting people in the chapel. Here comes Thomas Lynch for his interview in the next session. The two recognized each other, though they had never met before, and rushed to shake hands. "Oh I'm so glad to meet you! I love your work!" they both declared. I got to meet numerous authors whom we had invited on the strength of their work only to discover that they are lovely people, too.

As miracles go, the Festival is carefully engineered--it requires two years of planning and a savvy and hard-working staff. But now that I've seen behind the scenes, as it were, I know that our engineering does not fully explain the wonders that transpire.

(Photo credit: Laura Cebulski)

Last-Second Baskets, Hail-Mary Passes, and other Sports Miracles
Angels in the outfield, yes, yes, I'm sure there are. I'm more interested in the soccer pitch, where I have witnessed barely perceptible but effective forcefields around the goal box, strangely curving corner kicks, and mysterious bursts of footskills at crucial moments. Just a couple weeks ago, after Mia had endured a deeply discouraging week, she scored a winning goal in sudden-death overtime. Stuff like that is not random.

Pleasant Holiday Celebrations
I believe this is one of the less efficient and reliable departments--poor history of customer satisfaction, intermittent colossal breakdowns, etc. However, once in a while, you get, say, an Easter weekend with Edenic weather, good church, decent food, and nicely behaved relatives.

Children in Cheery Moods
This department is evidently sorely understaffed. No doubt my children would say the same for Parents in Cheery Moods. It's a busy and stressful time of year; Shaniqua could look into some seasonal hiring.

Terrific Shopping Finds
The other day I was planning to go to Costco to buy supplies for a little get-together, and instead, at the last second, I turned into Meijer. I happened to wander through the patio furniture department and--hey! I found the perfect little chair-and-table set for my new deck, all at a bargain price. Thanks, shopping angels!

Aha Moments
Yesterday, Calvin graduated another 950 young people into the world. I realized, watching quite a bevy of English majors stride down that aisle, mortarboards bobbing and robes swirling, that we are losing a very strong class this year. And I marveled again at the thousands of fruitful conversations, in person and in writing, that I get to have with lively young people every semester. Several of these good folks were in three of my classes over their four years, which means they probably know more of my quirks than I wish. Then again, I know theirs, too. I hope it makes us all fond of each other and grateful for the intensity of college life. We all need a rest from that intensity now, but at its best, college is a wonderful place where "aha moments" pop up like tulips in April. Now let's hope that the angels of resumes, interviews, and job placement will swoop into position and take over.

Traffic Safety
How would parents sleep at all without this department? With my second teenager about to start driver's training in a few weeks, not to mention my aging parents still tooling around town, I maintain a state of intimate conversation with the traffic safety staffers. Every safe trip to a soccer game or back from a friend's house late at night feels like a minor triumph to me.

I know I have had a tendency in the past few years to see failure and focus on disappointment. These days I'm trying to recognize abundance in the everyday miracles.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Awesome Week

This past week was AWESOME! Well, for Pip at least it was. At Evergreen, a 'balanced calendar' school, Pip had spring break for two weeks in April. But since the parental units had only one week of break, Philip and four of his friends cooked up an awesome idea: all the boys would spend one day a week at each others' homes. Each family unit would then have responsibility for one days' worth of activities. The boys came up with the moniker for this vacation-substitute: awesome week. The already sky-high awesomeness got ramped up, though, when the parents began to compete to see who would offer the most awesome activities for the boys. No one was declared winner of that competition, but the boys all agreed it ended up being the best spring break week EVAR.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

And You Thought The Earth's Tilt Caused Spring

The ancient world had its explanatory myths for the seasons, but in our house, it's all down to facial hair. Yep, Ron's facial hair. Facial hair and liturgical seasons.

All right, that requires some explanation. Here's what I mean. At the beginning of Advent, Ron lets his beard grow. All through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent, I'm married to a hirsute husband.

Then, on Easter Eve, he gets a haircut and shaves his beard. Next thing you know, I have a brand new husband... and spring arrives!

I realize this fuzzy-liturgical mythology can only fully be appreciated by worship wonks, particularly those who are not sensitive about male-pattern balding.

(For the brave, here is an animated gif, going back-and-forth between these two pictures. Ron wanted to put it in the post itself; I overruled that impulse. You can thank me later.)
*****

In more important news, we would like to announce something wonderful: the faculty at Western Seminary voted last week to recommend to the Board that Ron be given a regular faculty appointment as Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship Arts.

We have hoped and waited for this since, well, since before we went to California, not even knowing exactly what we were hoping and waiting for.

This Easter, we are celebrating new beginnings, and new possibilities.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Old Are You on the Inside?

Lately I suspect I'm annoying people with my increasingly frequent references to feeling old. People older than me naturally scoff at such remarks, and younger people cringe--they do not care to be reminded of mortality. So after this post, I will attempt to curtail futher references to aging until I turn the corner on some significant birthday. Not sure which one yet. Oh, but I do reserve the right to observe our annual "ailment night" this summer with my fellow Theologigglers. You know who you are.

The truth is, I don't always feel old. Most of the time, I still imagine that I'm 27. This makes having teenage children hard to explain, but there ya go. Ron and I occasionally ask friends how old they are "on the inside." I always say 27, Ron always says 24. Friends say all kinds of interesting things. One woman, freshly turned 30, told me she felt 45. I put that down to reading too much theology and not watching enough trashy television.

This past week, we've had occasions to feel more than normally confused about how far along we have traveled on life's path. So now, a list of Things That Made Me Feel Old accompanied by a list of Things That Made Me Feel Young.


Old:
Attending, for the first time, a wedding in which our connection to the bridal couple was as friends of the bride's parents.

Young:
At the rehearsal dinner, sitting with the bride's sister and brother and sister's fiance at the "fun table."


Old:
Visiting Pella, Iowa, where we lived from 1992 to 1996, and counting up the years (that wasn't that long ago, right?) only to realize that we first moved there 18 years ago.

Young:
Seeing people we knew during those years who still look exactly the same. (However, it is entirely possible that time passes more slowly in Pella.) And check out this exciting event soon to take place during Tulip Time.


Old:
Realizing, as I explain to people how to find our new house, that the most effective method is to have them turn south at Zaagman's--thus making a funeral home the primary landmark of my life.

Young:
Scheming and plotting all the little decorating changes we'd like to make to our new house, assuming that we have decades to complete them.


Old:
Hearing my students explain that they had a hard time following a chapter about Richard Nixon in a book we read for class, while I remember Watergate rather vividly.

Young:
At least I can still remember things vividly.

Old:
Spending the bulk of my spring break grading, which at least affords me "life of grinding responsibility" points.

Young:
Feeling slightly envious of students who are spending their spring break on a road trip to the sunny South. I don't fancy the all-night car rides anymore (I've always been a complete wussy wimp about losing sleep, actually), but a little bikini-clad ray-soaking still sounds pretty sweet. I'm not ready for bus tours or early bird dinner specials yet.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Where Have You Been All My Life?

Yes, I know. Six months' hiatus. Very bad. Long enough for a well-justified "delete" from the RSS feeds of family members, not to mention the three friends who occasionally tolerated our blog.

But...we're back.

No need to write a long catch-up post. Here's the summary: Finally sold old house. Bought new house. Moved during the one time of year that we swore was the only time we truly could not manage a move--end of January. But we did it. Love the new house. Everyone fine.

OK, and now back to random topics. Today: products to change your life. Or at least my life.

Moving into a new house means, among other things, installing a large spigot on one's bank account and cranking the thing all the way to "full bore." Hear that sound? Yeah, that's the sound of money gushing out like water over the Hoover Dam.

But at least for us, some of that money has gone toward the purchase of some pretty nifty achievements of a consumer-driven economy. These are the sorts of products that, after you buy one, you smack your forehead and say: "Why did I not have one of these years ago?!"
For instance...


The plastic cereal storage container--with easy-open spout.


For years we've been coping with those intractable wax-paper bags that cereal comes in. You tear the thing open, carefully so as to avoid an oatmeal-square explosion, and then you try to pour cereal into the bowl over that stupid ragged-edged opening. Well, no more. A moment of bold risk-taking in the food storage aisle at Kohl's, and now we have fresh cereal gracefully cascading out of this little beauty. The non-spouty versions work very well for flour, sugar, and other baking staples, too.




Certain Dri anti-perspirant.

When I teach, I sweat. This is not the wholesome, all-over-body, honest-day's-work sweat of an active athlete. This is the wienie, underarm-only, nervous sweat of the basically introverted public speaker. Over the years, I have ruined many garments this way. In fact, there are certain lovely fabrics I have refused to buy because I know I will corrode the armpits in three-and-a-half class periods. However, at last, I have discovered an unglamorous but effective anti-perspirant. It's cheap, you only use it three times a week at night, and by golly if it doesn't shut down those sweat glands. Maybe eventually I'll turn green from chemical poisoning (doubtful, since the active ingredient is similar to regular anti-perspirant), but at least meanwhile I'll be armpit-circle free.


The Toastmaster electric mug warmer.


Prayer and Scripture reading is a sanity-stabilizing morning ritual, but tea drinking is almost as necessary. The trouble is, if you drink a cup of tea over the course of about twenty minutes (the only proper way), by the time you're halfway into the cup, you are drinking cold tea, which is almost as icky as dirty dishwater. And you can't keep jumping up and zapping your cup in the microwave. Not classy. Well, Ron got me an electric mug-warmer for Christmas, and I must say, I'm impressed. In fact, I'm so impressed, I ordered a second one, so I can have one at home and one at the office. Every time I lift the cup and take that last swig, discovering to my surprise yet again that it's still nice and hot, I feel a little moment of triumph over the sinister forces of thermodynamics.


The Hoover Platinum Series vacuum.


Red-blooded American men love their chain saws and power washers, but ladies, I'm telling you, it's possible to perform a useful, non-destructive task and still wield some serious power. With its understated silver design and its sci-fi-blue headlight, this vacuum makes cleaning feel like conquest. The motor takes a moment to rev up--subtle suggestion of jet engine, there--and then it creates a deeply satisfying pull on that carpet. Best of all--and I'm quivering with the thrill here--the vacuum comes with a separate, portable attachment vac for dry floors, upholstery, and dusting. You sling the thing over your shoulder like a carry-on bag and start poking the telescoping (telescoping!) pole, with your choice of end-cap, into every dust-crusted corner of your house. I haven't tried it on the dog yet, but I'm tempted.

So three cheers for product-development people who get a smart idea and follow it through. I salute you.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What I Did This Summer

Not much.

I moved into my new office at work and puttered around happily in there, working on this or that project. And we spent a beautiful week with our dear Theologiggle friends at Lake Michigan. And we drove the children around. And around and around.

We did do a lot of cleaning. We cleaned the house over and over for the various anonymous people who came through to look at it. Alas, still no buyer, though we’ve come close a couple times. And that’s about it. No elaborate vacations, no trips across the country (thank goodness), no major family events. This all seemed restful at the time, but now I look back and wonder what on earth I accomplished, besides a very clean kitchen sink.

Therefore, in an attempt to feel as if three months of my life has not floated by uselessly, I present:

Bite-Size Reviews.

It turns out that between car trips and scrubbing, I did wind up reading quite a bit and watching a few movies.

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
Jill Bolte Taylor

A brain scientist has a stroke at age 37 (caused by a blood clot) and records the whole experience in scientific detail. Her left brain seriously damaged, she entered a kind of pure right-brain experience, which resembles nirvana or similar religious ecstasies. Six years later, she had at last regained full function, but also become a more peaceful person by learning to “turn off” her left-brain at will (sort of). Her story is fascinating in its portrayal of brain function, but annoying in its exhortations to the reader. Her bottom line: you can enter bliss whenever you wish by training your brain.

On the other hand…

The Female Brain
Louann Brizendine

This book uses neuroscience and hormone research to explain hormonal influence on various stages of female experience. Very intriguing, but depressing. Her bottom line: Sure, you have free will and all, but frankly your female hormones powerfully influence everything you think and do, and they are pretty likely to drive you to madness at various semi-predictable intervals.

After reading both these books, I can’t decide whether I am helpless against my hormonal surges or hopeless in my inability to enter bliss by sheer will.

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives
Wayne Muller

My pastor friend Dawn was right when she recommended this as a wise, balanced treatment of Sabbath. I found it inspiring. The one problem with Sabbath-keeping that Muller does not much address, though, is dealing with the other people in your household. One cannot rest very well unilaterally. And persuading the others in your household to alter their Sabbath practices—just the thought of it exhausts me. Yes, Rienstras, I’m talking about you.

The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd

I read this because we wanted to invite the author to Festival. Turns out she can’t make it, but I don’t regret reading the novel—a page-turner and an understandable bestseller. The portrayal of a nurturing, feminine community could have been an eye-roller, but the bee-keeping motif saves it. I’m not a big expert on Southern writers, but what is up with all these adolescent female protagonists with a tragic mother and a mean daddy? Is that some sort of genre convention or something?

Gods in Alabama
Joshilyn Jackson

Wooooo-doggie, is this a tale! I flew through this book, which is part murder mystery, part romance novel, part comedy of manners. Jackson is a Southern writer with a cracklin sense of humor. The novel is wonderfully constructed to reveal outrageous past events piece by piece, throwing repeated surprises that will cause the reader to emit audible gasps (at least this reader). Lots of frank sexual content here, so not recommended for young, innocent readers. Jackson will be coming to the Festival next spring.

The Pine Island Paradox
Kathleen Dean Moore

A philosopher with hiking boots and a backpack. Moore is a philosophy professor at Oregon State, as well as a nature writer. She was recommended to me by some nature-writer friends, and it looks like she’ll be at Festival, too. I appreciate her clear, elegant writing and her interesting digressions into philosophical musings. Nature writing traditionally involves a kind of lonely, rugged, individual human voice, but Moore self-consciously connects her love for the wild with her love for family. Her concern for humans in community with each other and the natural world makes her work fresh and relevant.

Interloper
L. S. Klatt

A volume of poems by my colleague at Calvin, whom we know as Lew. I loved reading this because it felt to me that I was exercising different parts of my brain. I’m used to reading poetry that requires a lot of intellectual puzzle-solving, but Lew’s poems make sense through sound and image-play. I found this, as well as the overarching metaphor of poet as interloper, quite delightful.

And now, some movies…

Star Trek (the new movie)
Loved it. Love the young Kirk and Spock, in fact I like them far better than the originals. Great character work from all the actors, reflecting careful research into canonical ST. Not impressed with the villain, though. So you turned to evil in response to the murder of your young wife and baby, and now your plan is revenge. That old routine? Really? And I was thoroughly disappointed by the ridiculous reliance on “red matter” to propel the plot. Visually striking, but it reminded me of those huge red balls outside Target, and I kept expecting to see product placement. Also, am I getting old, or were some of those frames so full of exploding debris as to be indecipherable by the human brain? Good thing I didn’t see it in IMAX. Despite my complaints, a fun movie ride.

Up
I came out of the theater with this thought: that was the most unpredictable story I have ever seen on screen. I found the first thirty minutes poignant and moving, of course, but felt less and less emotionally connected as the story rumbled along. Still, “Let go of that old dream, for heaven’s sake, and move on to something new and real” is hardly a stock message these days. So points for that.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Yeah, I can see what all the fuss was about. The whole ships-passing-in-the-time-space-continuum premise pleased my sci-fi-loving side, but I mostly enjoyed the historical backdrops and even the sets. That New Orleans old folks home itself may have been my favorite character. And yes, the acting was wonderful yada yada yada.

Charlie Bartlett
One of those artsy films, but don’t let that put you off. The premise is that a high school kid, stuck in yet another new school, tries to gain popularity by blackmarketing psychopharmaceuticals out of the boys’ bathroom, and ends up serving as the unofficial psychologist for a lot of messed up teens. The story could have taken a lurid dive, but it focuses on character and stays sweet and quirky and very witty. The kid’s mother all by herself is worth a spot in the Netflix queue.

Into the Wild
This one was recommended to me by many male students after discussing literary tragedy a few semesters ago. I’m not sure it connects to classical tragedy, but I can see why my students love the film: it is saturated with young adult male restlessness. A bright, sensitive fellow runs away after college, determined to live deliberately a la Thoreau. He travels the country meeting other free spirits until he achieves the solitude he craves in the Alaskan wild. And then… well, I won’t give away the ending. This beautiful film was directed by—what??!—Sean Penn, and I thought it was well put together with subtle character work and gorgeous cinematography. I wished I were watching it on a big screen instead of my little pre-HD, pre-flat-screen contraption.

Wit
Emma Thompson is a goddess. Every project she takes on, from Beatrice (Much Ado about Nothing) to Margaret Wilcox (Howard’s End) to Professor Trelawney (various Harry Potter movies) to Vivian Bearing (Wit), she accomplishes with breathtaking excellence. For this beautiful film version of the off-Broadway play about an English professor dying of cancer, Thompson helped write the screenplay and played the starring role—to perfection. She is my paradigm for the woman with the most admirably flawless career record (closely followed by Cokie Roberts).


So now the summer’s over, and it’s back to Beowulf and sonnets. At least I have the new season of Lost and some more Merlin to look forward to when I've had enough of the heavy-duty stuff.