28 November 2007

November Reading

Saturday I finished The Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon. Simply put, it was wonderful, striking all the right chords with me. In some ways, it's a genre tale of medieval adventure, which is alright by me in and of itself. Yet Chabon does wonderful things that extend the genre. First, even as a genre tale, it reaches beyond many conceits while embracing others. It's medieval, but it's a different location -- the multicultural crossroads along the Volga river near the Caspian Sea. The protagonists are familiar, yet original. A scarecrow of a Frank partnered with a stout African evokes comparisons to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in many ways, yet the fact that they are both Jews puts an interesting twist on the pair and their adventures. (Chabon admits in the afterword that the working title of the book was Jews with Swords). So it's an interesting take on the adventure tale in it's setting and characters alone. But what really makes it stand apart is the language. Generally, I am all for economy of words. I love Hemingway. Sometimes it's best not to tell the reader every last detail of every last meal (here is where a lot of genre fiction, particularly serial fantasy, falls very short y being too damn long). Though the book is fairly short, less that 200 pages, Chabon spins these sentences that are simply wonderful. He knows when to give us details -- usually in decribing a scene that reveals a lot about a character. He also knows when to not to say things and just have the protagonists acting against or within events. There are battles and massacres, but those are never described, just related as background as the protagonists move on.

I love Chabon's langauge in this book so much I will quote it at length (again). This is a couple of sentences from the book's climax, when the protagonists are figuring out a way to restore Filaq, the lost prince (who is actually a princess) to her throne: "Filaq remembered ho her brother looked on the summer day she last saw him, tall and gangly, speaking tenderly to the falcon on his arm, as he rode to hunt amid the plane trees and the cicadas and the wild surge to the grapevines in the hills. She looked away so they would not see her tears, and notices, on its carved and gilded stand, the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent, out there beyond the margins of her life, along the roads and in the kingdoms." (167)

Wonderful!

24 November 2007

Thanksgiving Weekend

Apparently I have been in a turkey coma for two days, because I just never got around to doing the rest of my Thanksgiving updates.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of all I am thankful for my great wife and amazing daughter. They make all the problems bearable and all the joys sweeter. I am also thankful for my extended family. Dad, Teresa, and Andrew drove all the way from Knoxville to eat with us, then drove back. I have many other wonderful family members who were in our thoughts if not at our table -- Andre, Heidi, and Harley; Roger and Marilyn, Leanna and Bobby, Jen, Robert, and Mikayla; Mom, Grandma, and Lauren. We are just blessed with a great family.

The turkey turned out well, although I think last year's was better. That may be just colored by memory, because this year's was good.

Yesterday, we just played with Eleanor and watched football. Sarah and Eleanor did not even leave the house. I would not have gone anywhere, either, except that I got a craving for some chips and dip, so I ran to the store for that and picked up some Shiner Bock for Sarah to drink while watching the A&M game.

It was a good game, but even the win reaffirms Coach Fran's suckitude. If McGee can throw like that, then why spend two entire seasons running the option (and hurting your quarterback's development in the process). I was also happy Arkansas won. I am all for a Kansas/West Virginia national championship game.

Not much more on tap for today. More football and I am going to try and grade some papers.

21 November 2007

Thanksgiving -- Prep

This year marks the second year in a row Sarah and I have hosted Thanksgiving for family. Last year Sarah's parents and sister came. This year my dad, Teresa, and Andrew are coming for the big meal. Prep has begun. My turkey is brining. I tried this technique last year, using a recipe from the newspaper, of all places, and the bird turned out wonderfully. Now, our all-natural turkey is in a cooler full of ice, soaking in a bath of salt water, garlic, onion, chili powder, and honey. It will sit there until tomorrow when we take it out and put it in the oven.

I've relinquished the kitchen to Sarah, who even as we speak is making a pumpkin pie. Mmmm. . . pie.

I like Thanksgiving a lot, especially when Sarah and I can cook. Planning and executing a big meal like this is really fun for me. I think I enjoy it so much because it engages both sides of my brain. The left side gets the creative cooking aspect, while the right side gets the planning and scheduling of cooking times to do. It's whole brain goodness.

That sounds like zombie Thanksgiving. Mmmmm. . . whole brain goodness. . .

20 November 2007

Hooray! and Boo!

The family is back, so yeah! Sarah and Eleanor went to visit Sarah's sister and family in Baltimore (and got to see Sarah's parents while they were there). The returned last night. I am glad they are back. I didn't even mind getting up twice to help feed Eleanor. Hooray Family!

The booo! is I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Thanksgiving is coming up, so we have that to prepare for. I have lots of papers to grade at work. My office is a wreck. I've got a couple of other research projects I need to get rolling on. Then there are some lingering home issues I need to take care of, some other work things, we have to figure out what we are doing for Chiristmas . . . aacck!! Boo busyness!

18 November 2007

A great first sentence

"For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the African with such foulness and verve."

Great stuff from Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, which I picked up last Sunday.

16 November 2007

A few fun links from Wil Wheaton

Not all of you are geeky enough to follow Wil Wheaton's blog, so I thought I'd share a couple of things he posted recently.

First, the writers of the Daily Show explain the writer's strike:


Funny stuff. I wonder when TV will run out of new material. It doesn't seem like some of the shows I watch regularly (Pardon the Interruption and Jeopardy) will be affected, but I could be wrong.

The other is a book review site, The Compulsive Reader. I will admit my first reaction to the site was "This is a little low rent." But I am not sure if that says more about me or the site. Am I a book snob?

Anyone got any other links (especially book review/literary links) to share?

14 November 2007

The glories of the grid

I sometimes wonder why I keep a notebook AND a blog. It seems a little redundant. Granted, I can write things in a notebook I don't want to put out into the world. A notebook is portable (although I could twitter from my phone if I really wanted to). But one of the big reasons, I think, is that the notebook inspires me in ways the blog does not.

I started a new notebook today after filling up my Moleskin Pocket notebook last week. I've had this new one for awhile, ever since my 29th birthday/dissertation defense party. It was a gift, but I am sorry to say I forget from whom (the Moleskin was a gift, too. I think I received four notebooks/journals at that party. All of which have been used). This new notebook is thick, perhaps 200 pages, with a leather cover that is flexible and soft. It reminds me of the black King James Bible that seemed a staple of the churches I attended in my youth. In what is a first for me, it's neither lined nor blank; it's gridded.

The fact that I have a notebook full of graph paper leads me to think it was a gift from one of my gaming group friends. I remember someone saying "Hey, graph paper! You can use it to plan some D&D adventures."

I am not sure a page full of tiny squares has significance to any group of people the way it does to those of us who grew up in the 1980's playing Dungeons and Dragons. graph paper meant dungeons (hex paper meant wilderness). I bought, collected, and hoarded graph paper. It was necessary equipment, like 50 ft of rope or a large sack. I had so many dungeons I needed to draw, I could never have enough graph paper. I'd ask for an extra sheet in algebra class, then take it to my dad's office after school and make copies, storing them in a red folder on the shelf with my D&D books. But this copied graph paper was always inferior to the green or blue lined paper you could buy. I preferred the green lines. That was the good stuff, because your pencil lines always showed up easier on the green paper. It was harder for me to get a hold of, so I was very pleased when my cousin gave me a big pad of green graph paper and a nice automatic pencil for my birthday. She worked at a bookstore and was well acquainted with my love for D&D. I immediately wrote on the front of this pad, in a 13 year old's feeble attempt at medieval script: "You are now in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons!", thus marking the pad for its designated purpose. It was for drawing dungeons.

Dungeoncrafting was some sort of esoteric science that was part art, a mixture of alchemy and cartography. There was a special vocabulary of symbols to master, special signs for secret doors, doors that opened only one way, pit traps, crossbow traps, stairs that went up, stairs that went down, and stairs that collapsed on the unwary adventurer. There was always a compass rose, so you'd know that "the corridor stretches 50 feet to the north before ending in a stout looking wooden door." As a dungeon master, I'd do my best to communicate these directions, dimensions, and secrets to the players who, armed with their own graph paper (hopefully with green lines), would attempt to map the dungeon. This never, ever worked. Invariably, something went awry. Corridors didn't match up. Stairs ran into rooms. Dimensions didn't make sense ("uh, it's a magical room!"). So we'd spend what seemed like hours pouring over the player's map, trying to figure out if they had added 10 feet to a corridor or I'd forgotten to mention the side passage halfway down.

In high school, my friends and I played in a game set in Undermountain -- a giant, giant dungeon under a city. I cheated and didn't make it all up. I just bought the $25.00 boxed set with the four poster sized maps and the two books that detailed the place. I had the pre-made posters, which I copied in sections so I could keep them hidden behind my DM's screen, but I made the players draw their own map. It really didn't take that much convincing. They started with a 10x10 room at the center of a sheet of the green lined paper -- the well in the common room of the Yawning Portal Inn -- and expanded from there. Soon, the dungeon ran off the edge of that first sheet of paper, so they'd add others, labeling each new sheet "A, B, C" and so on. I think we got to K by the time I went to college. These guys would tape the new sheets to the old ones, being careful to allow enough room between the pages so that they could be folded and put away. At the beginning of each new session, they would take out the map and carefully unfold it, laying it gently on the green felt of the pool table that served as our gaming table. (We ruined that table for pool, by the way, with our pencil marks, drink spills, and tears in the felt). The group would tell me which unfinished corridor they wanted to explore next, and off we'd go, lanterns at the ready, carefully marking of 10 foot increments of stony corridor on a little grid of green lines.

We were exploring the unknown, fighting the evil that threatened to plunge the city above into chaos. The graph paper helped us keep track of it all. Otherwise, we would have been lost.

09 November 2007

Saved by Shuffle

Let me be clear about this: today was a big pile of suck. I screwed up at work -- twice -- in a pretty big and public way. I faced up to it, did my best to fix it, and so hopefully it won't be one of those things that lingers (over me) for a long time.

I have trouble letting stuff like this go. While I was in a better mood by the time I got home and an even better mood after seeing my great wife and amazing daughter, the stuff still lingered in my head, a tape playing again and again.

Sarah went to babysit. Eleanor and I hung out for a bit before I put her to bed. I turned on iTunes to listen to a Blue Merle song that was stuck in my brain for some reason. I forgot it was on shuffle.

I started unloading the dishwasher. Blue Merle gave way to REM. I felt the loop inside my head giving way a bit. The REM gave way to The Shins ("New Slang", to be precise) and that loop stopped altogether. I felt better. To make sure it was all gone, Ryan Adams followed The Shins.

Sure, there were other songs that could have perhaps made me feel better. But there were more songs that probably would not have helped -- the Pink Floyd that is playing now, for example. But I can't have picked four better songs to lift my mood.

Thanks, shuffle.

08 November 2007

Stuff I've Been Watching

We've been back on the Netflix train recently. After holding on to movies for weeks at a time, we've been through three in a week. Well, two movies and a comedy special, to be technical.

Transformers was utterly, completely, and totally bad. Bad, Bad, Bad. I want to take Michael Bay out to the airport and repeatedly slam his head in a closing airplane canopy while vaguely inspirational music plays in the background and we are perpetually backlit by a setting sun. I want to go all Jules Winfield on him, misquoting the Bible while threating to beat him with a copy of Apocalypse Now: "It's called story structure, you ass! Can you see it! How can you make Turoturo into a bad actor?! Why does the f#$@^& army decided to take the McGuffin into the middle of a city?!! JESUS MAN, ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS SHOW ROBOTS FIGHTING AND YOU WOULD HAVE HAD A PILE OF AWESOME BUT YOU STILL MANAGE TO SCREW IT UP!!!!"

Knocked Up, however, was really good. It had crudity, humor, and almost painful honestly at times in equal measure. I laughed hysterically at times (Seth Rogan's message to the obstetrician, the bouncer's confession to the sister). I said to myself "I've had that fight with my wife" at least twice. And it made Sarah and I talk about having another kid, which won't happen anytime soon but it was nice to think about anyway. Apatow certainly has an uncanny ability to blend truth and humor.

We also watched Dimitri Martin: Person last night. Funny stuff. I especially like the flip chart. I also discovered I only have about a 45 minute span for stand-up. I nodded off at the very end. But it was some musical number about how his jokes spread into the universe, so I don't think I missed much.

07 November 2007

1:00 AM Update

1:16 to be precise. The Pope family has been stricken with some cold bug. Eleanor is stuffy and sounds like Darth Vader breathing over the monitor; I just got her back to sleep. Sarah has a sore throat. She just took some Advil and went back to bed. I have a runny nose, but am pretty awake at this point, so I am giving an update.

Saturday was my 10 year college reunion. I guess that makes me old, but I don't particularly feel it. We traveled back to Furman for the day. We didn't do any official reunion activities. In fact, the only real homecoming activity we participated in was the philosophy department drop in. I was especially glad to see Jim Edwards, my undergrad mentor. He was seriously ill for awhile, but seemed to be in good shape now. It was neat and more than a little odd to be speaking to Jim and David Shaner as a fellow professor, when it just seems a short time ago those guys were Dr. Edwards and Dr. Shaner and I was asking about paper extensions or the relationship between Buddhism and existentialism.

After the drop in, we cruised by the fraternity tailgate. I didn't seen anyone I knew. I thought better of using the secret handshake to get us some free bar-b-que and so we just walked around campus some more, taking photos with Eleanor in the Rose Garden and by the lake. We then headed downtown so I could show Sarah the new park by the Reedy falls, ate an early dinner at Barley's, and were back in Rock Hill by 7:30. Our friends Jeannie and Jason came over for a bit that night, but we were too tired to play Apples to Apples like we had planned.

The night before we got to hang out for a bit with Josh and Jessica, two former students. Josh is in his internship, so he'll be graduating with his Master's in December and was giving us all the details of his initial foray into teaching high school English.

Sunday was typical -- church, some football on TV, and trying to rest.

It's 1:30 now, hopefully I can get back to sleep soon.

01 November 2007

Closing some Loops

For the past two or three days, I was in a bit of a funk. Nothing really wrong, everything going okay, but something not quite right. I wanted to sleep more, was easily distracted, and just not feeling right. Some of it may or is physical. There are all kinds of cold germs floating around the university now and I am no doubt fighting them off. But there seemed to be something else. I think what was happening was there were a lot of open loops, to use a phrase from Getting Things Done, -- things that I had not completed and had not written down to complete. Two loops got closed recently that have made me feel better. There's a third thing that I need to close soon, but is a bit harder.

Those loops:
1. A number of financial things have been stressing me out lately. Sarah did a big breakdown of all our finances and came up with a solid "this is all we get to spend every month" number. That number is not very big, but it makes me feel good to have that set in stone to work from. It's much easier to NOT EAT OUT when you see how that stupid combo meal from Taco Bueno is taking away from your ability to do other things, like buy books or put gas in the car.
2. I picked the texts for my graduate course next semester. I didn't realize this was bugging me until I turned in the forms today and instantly felt better. I am trying to get my students to read some primary stuff that also dovetails with my research interests. We will be reading: Experience and Education (Dewey), School and Society (a quasi-textbook on social theory and education), the Ethics of Teaching (another quasi-textbook), Tinkering Toward Utopia (Tyack and Cuban), and The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom). It's pretty ambitious, but I think it will work out.

The third thing is I need a book to read. I've been floundering a bit on the reading side of things the past two weeks, ever since finishing The Lions of al-Rassan, which was very, very good. I just can't decide what I want to read now. The financial side of things suggests getting a book from the library, but I kinda want a graphic novel or something rather escapist. I think I'll feel better once I figure out something to put my nose in.