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.

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.

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.

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.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

But Mom, It's Educational!

We’re four weeks into summer now, and the kids have been sleeping in, lounging, loafing, and otherwise gleefully wasting time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Mia and Jacob have been running with the cross country team most mornings. Mia has a part-time nannying job. Jacob and Philip have been practicing their instruments. And they’ve all been helping to walk the dog and clean up around the house. Of course, since they’re around the house more, there’s a lot more to clean up.

But when they’re not doing their duties with admirably moderate resistance, they are practicing the fine art of goofing off. As intermittently conscientious parents, we have initiated earnest conversations with the kids about using their time well because these are formative years and their minds are full of potential etc., etc., blah blah blah. As a result, the children have taken to figuring out how to justify as wholesome and edifying whatever amusement they currently favor.

Such as watching a cheesy, Arthurian soap opera.

You’ve never heard of cheesy, Arthurian soap operas? Well, obviously you are a cretin American . The Brits, always on the vanguard, have enjoyed the television show Merlin for an entire season already, whereas the show only began airing in the U.S. about two weeks ago.

Not to worry. It is possible (if you know how to navigate the deep web) to obtain the 13 episodes that have aired in Britain. For educational purposes. Of course. Because anything about King Arthur involving actors with British accents must be educational.

The premise of the show is that Merlin, the great wizard of Arthurian lore, was not always a great wizard. No, at one time, he was a nerdy but handsome teenager who worked as a servant for the young Prince Arthur all the while keeping his magical powers poignantly secret. Curiously enough, the main female players in Arthurian legend, Guinevere and Morgana, were also teenagers at the very same time in the very same castle. At least according to the show.

I can tell you as a professor of British literature with some actual knowledge of Arthurian legends: this is all very silly. The show has barely anything to do with the real source texts for Arthurian legend. I mean, the producers of the new Star Trek movie are fastidious scholars by comparison, having based their “reboot” of the ST “legend” on painstaking research into their canonical sources. The Merlin folks, on the other hand, use phrases like “loosely based” and “reimagining.”

But who cares? Four remarkably attractive young people in period costumes getting into all kinds of perilous mischief right under the nose of grumpy old King Uther, who is only trying to run a decent, magic-free kingdom—this is a formula for some deliciously decadent, strangely addictive entertainment.

Speaking of formulas, we've seen all the episodes now, and let's just say one can recognize some well-established... patterns. It is entirely possible to sum up the whole season with one composite episode. So here it is, our loving tribute to our new TV crush. Consider this your free sample.

Merlin: An All-Purpose Episode

Establishing shot of Camelot castle in Wales, which the French have thoughtfully preserved for the show somewhere in their country.

Cut to Medium shot of evil sorcerer-type person engaged in evil sorceror-type scheme—poisoning the water supply, kidnapping innocent townspeople, sending zombie undead knights into Camelot, etc. Dramatic music. Perhaps some cackly laughter.

Merlin is doing little servant chores about the castle. Gwen bursts onto the scene with furrowed brow and a water jug on her hip.

Oh dear oh dear! Something has gone terribly wrong!

What is it?

Camelot is under threat! We are out of water/missing townspeople/experiencing a creepy disease/helpless against zombies and/or griffins! Also, I have a secret crush on you and we never get to have a decent conversation, what with all the evil villains around here!

They run off.

(Uther’s throne, by the way, suspiciously resembles the coronation chair on display at Westminster Abbey. Wait. Has anyone checked lately to see that it’s still there?)

A terrible problem is threatening the kingdom!

Gaius, you’re the stock wizened, bookish character: what do you make of it?

I’m afraid, sir, that this surely involves sorcery.

Aha! Well! Never mind asking further questions to ascertain the scope or nature of the problem. I shall have to take immediate draconian measures. Because I hate magic. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I shall execute someone! By morning!

Morgana floats into the throne room in a gauzy, flowing, jewel-toned gown. Close up shot of Morgana’s furrowed brow, panning to her fetching bosom.

Oh king, you must approach this problem with wisdom, caution, and noble judgement!

And ruin the episode? Certainly not! I have a responsibility to protect this kingdom and to maintain dramatic tension. You are my ward and the obvious hottie of the show, therefore I expect you to obey me reluctantly and go flouncing out of the room.

Morgana throws a glance at the hunky, chain-mail-clad Prince Arthur, who is brooding and pacing about, chin on fist, in the corner. She flounces out, reluctantly obedient.

Arthur, you must solve this problem for me so that I can stand around in leather gloves, appearing stern and kingly. Go out there and prove how princely you are by doing something dangerous and useless!


Gaius is twiddling randomly with sciency-looking gadgets, usually involving candles, beakers, and string. Maybe beetles.

What shall we do about the terrible problem besetting Camelot this week?

We must solve the problem with science. Or perhaps by whacking it with sticks. Sometimes that works in the middle ages. Whatever we do, you musn’t reveal that you have magical powers. The king hates magic. Hates it, hates it, hates—

Yes, but Arthur is now about to do something pointless and very dangerous.

Oh yes. Right. Merlin, your destiny is linked with Arthur’s. You have no choice. If you do not use magic, then Arthur will surely perish! And probably everyone else, too!

But you just said…

Just promise me you’ll be careful.

Um. OK.

Merlin, having puzzled for a while over this problem, decides to use his lifeline.

Merlin strides along passageway, which opens out into a large, CGI cavern. A large, CGI dragon flaps into view.
I need your advice. What shall I do?

Every time I give you a straight answer, you ignore my advice. Therefore, I will say something mystical in my Shakespearean-actor voice. Here goes. The answer lies in the golden woods. Only the sword of emeralds dipped in unicorn poo can save you now. Make haste, or Arthur will die and you will not fulfill your destiny!

Always with the destiny. But where am I going to get… oh never mind.

Merlin is doing something slavish such as polishing Arthur's boots.

You know, Merlin, I’m feeling a little angsty about this dangerous and pointless task my father has given me. Too bad you’re too witless and clumsy to help me. Ha ha. [He claps Merlin on the back.] Still, I guess I appreciate our moments of awkwardly expressed brotherly affection. It takes my mind off Morgana’s cleavage.

Uh. Yeah. Ha ha.

Merlin is practicing magic words, but nothing is happening. Gwen bursts in.

Merlin, what are we going to do?

Do you mean about the fact that you are the only non-white regular cast member in the show, and therefore must appear undefinably multiracial in order to cover all the bases?

No, I mean about the problem besetting Camelot this week.

Oh. That. Well…

Morgana bursts in (different gauzy gown this time).

Yes, what are we going to do?

Let’s make a plan that involves breaking all the castle rules, since we are naughty teenagers. But don’t tell Arthur. He’s the prince and has to appear responsible.

Arthur bursts in.

What are you doing? Is it something against the rules? Because if so, I want in.

But… your father!

Haven’t you people ever heard of Freud?


Never mind.

Well, I’m going to go break some rules.

Well, we’re coming with you.

No you’re not! It’s too dangerous!

The four naughty teenagers then argue about who’s coming with whom to do what, whether or not Arthur should actually do the useless and dangerous task, who should fool the adults with a haplessly planned distraction, who gets to be the noble sacrifical hero taking the heat for the others, etc. Arthur and Morgana alternate between sniping at each other and flirting. In the next few scenes, Merlin sneaks about the castle. Or perhaps all four teenagers sneak about the castle, the girls inexplicably wearing flowing, hooded capes that create large shadows and trail behind them around every corner.

Arthur is busy hacking away with a broadsword at the weekly guest actor dressed up as an evil minion/creepy druid/rotten brigand/zombie knight.


Why are we having this sword fight? CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!

Because every episode has a sword fight! CLANG, CLANG, CLANG! It’s an Arthurian convention! CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!

I don’t suppose I get to win, do I? CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!

Nope. I’m the one in the opening credits. CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!

At this point, it’s time for the show’s climax. This might involve the teenagers getting caught sneaking about the castle, OR the sword fight saving the day. Alternatively, we might need Merlin to go tramping about a woodsy soundstage in his rustic leather jacket, conversing with low-budget special effects. Whatever it is, at some point, Merlin will whisper magical words.

Close up of Merlin, hiding behind a tree or farm cart, his hand outstretched over or toward some object.

(in a vaguely Welsh accent): whusha whusha whusha whusha whusha whusha

***Something dramatic happens.
Music swells appropriately, beginning with throaty, lush lower strings and concluding with cymbal clashes and french horn blasts. ***


Druid/zombie keels over. Arthur flips off the bucket he is wearing as a helmet. He sweats handsomely into the camera.

Lots of straw and animals and burlap-clad people strewn about.

Hooray! We have no idea that Merlin just used magic to save the day! We’ll give the credit to Prince Arthur instead! We are happy random townspeople again!

[Sweating] There, Daddy. You see I’ve saved the day. Again.

Yes, son. Yes, I suppose you have. And it’s a good thing you’ve rid the kingdom of magic once again. Because I hate magic. Hate it, hate it, hate it.

Witty banter between Arthur and Merlin. In the background, Morgana looks lovely in yet another gauzy gown while Gwen appears puzzled, but happy.


So. You can see how we could become enamored of such a show. I’m a little worried that my students will start watching it, because if they do, they will like it much much better than the real stuff I teach in my courses. And we will be forced to lament once again the sad deprivations suffered by people in the medieval period, when they had only rhyme and meter to entertain them rather than BBC television.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Pitter Patter of... Oh, That's Just Disgusting

A little postcard from the vacation Ron and I recently took in Boyne City, Michigan

We've hiked in the Rocky Mountains, we've hiked in the Yorkshire Moors, we've hiked in Zion Canyon. So you would think that hiking in the northern Michigan woods might seem dull and unremarkable by comparison. But if you think that, as we foolishly did, you would not have counted on...

Night of the Living Caterpillars... mwah ha ha ha ha!

Actually, it was the afternoon. We hopped out of the car at the trailhead to hike the Jordan River Pathway, a pleasant little wind through the East Jordan River watershed that was recommended to us by the nice lady behind the desk at the lodge. As we started down the trail, we heard an odd popping noise. "I wonder what that is?" I remarked cheerfully to Ron, our junior naturalist curiosity fully engaged. Then, we saw a charming little caterpillar on the trail. Awwww... isn't that cute?

Then we saw more, hanging out on some low-growing leaves. Well, there sure are some caterpillars around! And look at all those caterpillar tents in the trees! Golly!

We hiked on.

Then we realized, as we hiked deeper in, that caterpillars were everywhere. On the leaves, on the trail, even hanging over the trail from little silken threads. They were writhing in large moving groups on branches crossing the trail. They were congregating slimily on certain trees, heading from one place to another on a caterpillar parkway. And from up above they were... they were dropping on us! Gross! Could that be what that plopping noise is?! Caterpillars falling onto the forest floor? Eeeuuuw!

We hiked faster. We hiked very very fast. I kept my hooded sweatshirt over my head in order to prevent ploppage in my hair. When we stopped for lunch, I did not sit down. I would have sat on caterpillars. I would have had them in my shorts.

We managed to survive about a seven-mile, extremely brisk hike. Before we got into the car, we performed one last inspection for unwelcome stowaways.

When we got back to the condo, we showered thoroughly (eesh!) and then, in true junior naturalist style, we googled "tent caterpillars" on the web.

Guess what. Yeah, apparently northern Michigan is in the midst of a huge forest tent caterpillar infestation. These outbreaks occur every 10-15 years and last 2-5 seasons. Not only that, but we hit the woods (of course) just as the little buggers were finishing their eating cycle, just as they were about as big and busy and numerous as they could possibly be. Next week will be better as all 3.5 trillion caterpillars--that's my personal estimate on the population--will be turning into moths. (Note to self: no hiking at night with flashlights until the first frost.)

There's more. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that plopping sound we heard was not what we thought it was...

"Anyone who has been in the woods during a FTC [forest tent caterpillar] outbreak knows not to eat an open faced peanut butter sandwich there. It might sound like rain but it's really insect frass."

You don't know what the word "frass" means? Neither did we. You know, English is an amazing language. We have a special word for caterpillar excrement!

That's right. We spent our afternoon hiking through the woods during a once-in-a-decade caterpillar poop storm.

The good news: "This frass serves as fertilizer just like any other manure." Oh yay. Caterpillar poop helps the ecosystem. It's the circle of life. That totally makes up for the nightmares I'm going to have this week.

We spent the rest of our vacation lounging by the condo pool. We decided we like our nature better on TV.

UPDATE: A little entymological etymology on the word "frass."

Monday, June 08, 2009


Ah, the month of June. When the raging rapids of the school year's end give way to calm pools of summer serenity ... or something like that. We did manage to make it, as a family, through exams and final grading and all those end-of-year extra things like trips to Cedar Point (Jacob) and soccer team parties (Mia) and exasperated math teachers who want that homework NOW (Philip).

But this year we've also been coping with some bigger-than-normal transitions. Jacob has successively graduated from middle school and seems poised gracefully for the start of high school in the fall.

As parents, we've learned that this transition is easier on the parents the second time around. We don't feel quite so instantly aged this time. (But no, that's not us - that's Ron's parents and Jacob, looking sharp in a colorful tie)

Mia has been transitioning into a girl with a driver's license. This transition, we've discovered, is scarier and more awkward than we imagined.

So we'll move on to another transition: moving to a different house. When we moved into our house in 1996, we were a couple with a three-year-old and a baby. Now that we are a family of larger people with more stuff, we all dream of a little more space. So we spent the winter working hard to make our house market-ready--so hard, in fact, that I now have a chronic case of tennis elbow from scrubbing and painting. Our charming, sparkling Alger Heights home officially went on the market in April. And now, we wait, and hope, and more than anything else: clean. Over and over.

Meanwhile, my department is moving this week out of the Fine Arts Center at Calvin, which will be undergoing major reconstruction over the next 16 months. So last week I packed my books into boxes and said goodbye to the little office where I have labored for 12 years. This was a happy moment, I must say, because even in our temporary digs I will have a much nicer space: much more room and a window (finally!). We will be waaaaaay across the Beltline from campus, though. Theme for the year: hiking.

So it feels as if we are living out of boxes for the moment, camping out right in the midst of our regular lives. I struggle to be comfortable with transitions, but I'm trying to think of a time in my life that wasn't full of them. Well, it's been a long time, let's just say that. These are all transitions full of hopeful possibility, though, and for that we are grateful.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The next wave in music-making

This is seriously one of the coolest things ever. Well, computer-wise, anyway.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Orb of Happiness

Today was a beautiful, sunny, proto-spring day. It took us a while, though, to recall the name of that bright yellow thing in the sky. Here in Michigan, we haven't seen much of it in the last five months. The sun! Oh yeah, that's what it's called.

Lack of sunlight tends to depress one's spirits, a fact we Michiganders deal with as best we can through indoor sports, or quiet wintry hobbies like knitting, or burying ourselves in our work, or perhaps less healthy strategies such as retail therapy, yelling at the children, or self-medicating with chocolate.

At our house, Jacob and I have been indulging in old episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Sometimes the episodes are full of the best in good old-fashioned sci-fi: cool gadgety pseudo-science, explosions, Klingon battles, and regular characters amusingly possessed by aliens. Those episodes are silly. Well, sillier. Other times we're reduced to groaning at Ferengi love triangles. Ugh.

But perhaps DS9 has inspired my latest coping strategy for the late winter blahs: light therapy. One of the DS9 ethnic groups - the Bajorans - have these orb thingies that are supposed to create divinely-inspired, dreamy experiences when you open their little casings and look at them. They've got the orb of wisdom, the orb of prophecy and change, the orb of time, and so on. (The curious or similarly geeky can learn all about it here).

So when, at a friend's recommendation, Ron bought me light therapy lamps for Valentine's Day, I decided we should call them the "Orbs of Happiness."

See how happy I look? These little boxes blast you with full-spectrum light and are supposed to put your skewed body clock and your sunlight deprived, mood-controlling body chemicals back in balance. The brand name is actually "HappyLite." And I think they might really work. We'll give it a few more months and see if the intially promising effects continue.

Meanwhile, may I suggest to the manufacturers that they offer the Deluxe DS9 version, complete with nifty Bajoran casing? I would buy one in a minute, and I bet I'm not the only hopeless geek who would....

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Papa always told me...

"... If you marry that good-for-nothing bum, you won't have a pot to pee in."

Papa wasn't thinking of home improvement projects, but there it is.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Promise of Spring, sort of

In early December we got a bit of a snowstorm, that came somewhat unexpectedly, and buried Mia's car, parked in front of the house:

Yesterday, after a month of typically Michiganian grey skies and persistent snowfall, we dug that Hawaiian-blue Cabriolet convertible out of the snow as a form of both protest and plea:

Spring IS coming, isn't it? Eventually?

Friday, January 02, 2009


In the black-shadowed pines
on the shore
beyond the pond
owl was sitting.
When he saw me
his eyes flared like matches
and he did his big loose hunch,
stirring up the bronze of his shoulders,

and hissed,
and seemed about to fly away.
Who knows why he didn't but instead
clamped his orange feet down
on the black limb
and stared into my face, though not my eyes--
had I been mouse or squirrel
I would have cried

for my life. And thus we stayed
for a long time. I would have given
a great deal
to have invoked some connection
eye to eye
to know what he thought of me

here in the world -- his world --
his gauzy and furzy acres,
sour, weedy, lush,
But except for the hiss, he did not make
the least sound, simply stared

as though if he wanted to he could lift me
and carry me away --
one orange knife for each shoulder, and I,
aloft in the air, under his great wings, shouting
praise, praise, praise as I cried
for my life.

-- Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early: New Poems