Monday, December 26, 2005


I am off to the Modern Language Association Conference tomorrow. At present, my paper on Njal's sagais still a page too long, but my PowerPoint presentation is just about ready.

While in DC, I'll be staying at the pop art Hotel Helix which, Mike Rhode tells me, is quite new, part of the dressing up of downtown. It's probably good to be a little way away from the main conference hotels--there is no anxiety quite like the job hunt anxieties at MLA. Think of it: thousands of people competing for hundreds of jobs, all trying to shine as brightly as they can for days on end. Having been on both sides of the table, I know it's an exhausting process for everyone.

Say, isn't there a good used bookstore in DuPont Circle...?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Today is the shortest day of the year. Is it any wonder that in these darkest days cultures around the world celebrate festivals of light? We all need reassurance that the light will return and with it hope. My best hopes for you all this season; may the coming year bring much joy and many useful challenges.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Medieval Traditions

We had our largest ever graduation at UHD. It's funny to see everyone in these costumes that haven't changed all that much from the twelfth century or so. Many other things have changed, however, when the medieval universities were explicitly Christian and almost exclusively male. I had to read out the names of the graduates of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, so I had an anxious time preparing to read monikers which come from all over the globe and show the wonderful diversity of our campus life. I'm just glad I didn't know I was going to end up on TV, too! Yikes -- our departmental administrative assistant, Ruby Brown-Hogan, told me she saw me on the news. Am I destined only to be photographed in funny hats?

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Thanks to all my pals for remembering my natal day. I suppose I wasn't surprised to see a big Sanrio bag on the table this morning :-) and I've already been out for breakfast. Tonight is the medieval music concert with Collegium Mysterium and then dinner at Collina's. Here's a faboo card from my pal, the fabulously talented Elena Steier:

Friday, December 16, 2005

Can You Read This?

If so you may be in a minority!

A new study published by the Department of Education reports (and reported in the New York Times and other newspapers) that literacy has fallen significantly for recent college graduates, as well as alarmingly amongst Latinos. Working at an open admissions university, I have seen this trend first hand. It is one of the challenges of working here to balance a classroom with a wide array of student preparedness.

What the study highlights is not this problem, one educators know well, but the overall impact of the failure of education in this country. The study reports that only 13% of the population achieves the level designated "Proficient." This is the top level of measurement, mere proficiency, which they define as:

• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences

• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents

• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Only 13% of the population? What percentage of the population graduates from some college? Surely more than 13%! Yet so many are apparently incapable of the skills required to pass my Freshman Composition course. Clearly, we are falling down on the job. It's easy to see why: education has no value, but it has prestige. As John Gardner wrote,

We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Here's to honoring excellence!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Kong is King

We went by the theater early and saw no line, so we went off to dinner. When we got back the line had formed. A guy went up and down the line as it lengthened warning folks to get rid of any cell phones with cameras as they would not be allowed in. Gene was without his Treo and felt naked, but we complied. They frisked purses and gave us all a going over with the wand (ahhh, should I rephrase that?), plus had staff with night goggles checking out the audience for surreptitious filming. Very serious.

From the very first frames, Jackson cues us that this is loving tribute to the original, from the art deco credits to the loving evocation of 1930s New York (as reconstructed in New Zealand). Yet he gives the film an edge of modern sensibilities in reconfiguring the characters and the arc of the story. Over all that may be the biggest problem, the uncomfortable mismatch between 1930s sensibilities and those of the 21st century, especially when it comes to problematic things like racial portrayals and what you might call moments of "movie magic," i.e. things that happen because they need to do so. However, that's really a quibble for post-viewing discussion over drinks with friends (and in large part due to Jackson's faithfulness to the original story). And occasionally he lingers just a little too long on the faces of Watts and Kong; the film could be cut without major sacrifice, but --

In short, it was a fantastic ride and I loved it.

Naomi Watts is luminously filmed and made up so she glows like a vintage Hollywood star. She brings a surprising new sensibility to the role (including her comic work) that makes her more appealing to modern temperaments without discarding the traditional feel of the part. Jack Black is reined in somewhat from his bombast, although he is supposed to be a bit of a hustler and manages to make the director who will get his film done at any cost both sympathetic and eventually, suspect (one can't help seeing a little self-criticism from Jackson). While the on-board fate of the writer played by Brody may be a little too on the nose, he does admirable work in making us believe his role, as does the more comic turn by the "hero" Kyle Chandler. Terrific supporting cast including Andy Serkis, Thomas Kreschmann as the captain and Evan Parke as Hayes. A good number of in-jokes (most horror related) sprinkle the opening half hour, at which Gene and I were about the only ones laughing.

Oh, wait -- you want to know about the ape, right? Well, I've never been big on monkeys and apes (apart from Hanuman and Gene, the monkey man whom I love for reasons unexplained), but I may have been won over. Looks good. Which is to say, believable, moving, real -- scarred, emotive, authentic. An animal, not a human in monkey skin -- one of the most affecting things is that his non-human (but intelligent) nature comes through. The island and all its amazing creatures look good -- and terrifying in most cases. Jackson does a terrific job of giving the audience stunning moments of awe, then jerking you painfully into terror (one of the most beautiful and sweet versions of this comes near the end).

If you want to know nothing at all before you see the film, stop here. If you don't mind knowing the arc of the story (which is much the same as the original) without any important spoilers, continue:

You know Kong fights a dinosaur. You have NO idea. Absolutely amazing.

You know there are big bugs. You have NO idea. I was squirming in my seat.

Joey: the bats! You will love them.

You know we end up on the Empire State Building. I have a terrible fear of heights and vertigo. I was near collapse by the end and sweat was pouring off my hands as my knees went weak. One of the interesting choices was all the long shots of Kong atop the building, making him look so tiny in the big city, so lost.

In resisting the desire to completely anthropomorphize Kong, the ending seems even more bitterly cruel. Watts is our conduit to Kong throughout and the face of our grief, our empathy, and she does an incredible job of conveying thoughts and emotions without any words -- as does the face of Kong, both familiar and alien. Like us, but not us.

In the end, it's a movie about a giant ape. Some might find that silly. It is silly. But it works -- it is spectacle. And Jackson's humor and thoughtfulness make it work. Unexpected turns keep the action lively (and yeah, sometimes quite funny), and the familiar story takes on new resonance. It may be a touch of nostalgia, but it delivers. I laughed, I cried -- I was totally absorbed. It was really cathartic.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Twenty Five Years

That night I was driving back from my late night shift at Toys R Us, pleased to hear cuts from Double Fantasy on the radio, until I heard the announcement that cut so sharply.

I don't like to dwell on death days: I'd rather remember the beginnings, the creations, the wonder. I turn away from television programs that glorify the fifteen minutes of fame awarded a mentally-deranged gun nut because he killed someone famous. And as always, I turn to funny things to make me laugh.

Of late, there's the appearance of John Lennon on "Not Only...But Also..." which recently came my way. It's got John playing a men's room attendant and also performing in one of the In His Own Write pieces. The great book of the Beatles' connection to British humor has yet to be written. Think of it: George with the Pythons and Rutles (and pre-Python Rutland Weekend Television, singing the Pirate song and playing "Pirate Bob") or all the Beatles on Morecambe and Wise (which at least we have audio now on the Anthology). What made them a success from the start? Their charm -- a large part of which was due to their shared sense of humor and the absurd. It was always there -- sometimes hidden away in the fan club Christmas messages, sometimes more directly in the songs and in the films.

Today, let us always remember that "It's a laugh a line with Lennon!"

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Ritual and Response

I attended a meeting today for graduation. I will be a marshal (yet, I get no badge -- how is that fair?), so there are additional duties I needed to know about. Graduation is already a step back in time to the medieval universities and their rituals and robes. Now I have additional complex steps within the ritual. Some marshals are banner-bearers, some student-herders; I will be a name-caller. The unpleasant scrutiny that "fame" brings (in this case, a faculty award is all the fame it needed), also carries extra duties and responsibilities. I will be visible in a public ritual, something I have usually sought to avoid. Middle child syndrome: always hungering for the spotlight, but inevitably uncomfortable in it.

I was struck by the gravity of the ritual, and yet the reluctant recognition that it could not be controlled. "Try to get the students to stay" was the theme, whether it was to get them in line for the procession or in their seats after the walk across the platform. And then there's the arena itself--keep off the grass! Minute Maid Park has to be maintained in game shape. What to do when rituals collide? No victory laps for the graduates; decorum must be maintained!

Sunday, December 04, 2005


I have been immersing myself since this summer in British comedy, mostly vintage, but not exclusively. Some of it has come via trips to England, some via Ebay, some via friends (thanks Brad! and James). It's odd how much of this is resurrected from my teens. Why is that someone raised in Mid-Michigan was exposed to so much British comedy? Curious, eh?

I can't recall for sure the exact order of things. I know that around the same time our local PBS channel at MSU was showing Monty Python, their sister NPR station was playing not only the Goon Show but also I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Just about the time I had got hooked on the shows, they also began to broadcast The Goodies. Then there was finding A Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Stick (probably in Wazoo Records or FBC in East Lansing), the first of many Amnesty International comedy benefits. This introduced me at last to the genius that is Peter Cook.

Well, I think that was the chain. It all seemed to happen at once. Maybe I actually found the Beyond the Fringe LPs before that. I can't really tell anymore. As Gene has noted recently, when I get obsessed with something (or re-obsessed in this case), I go all out. Between the long awaited release of many of these shows on DVD and the wonders of the internet in making available recordings no longer available (thank to things like the BBC wiping tapes -- ayiiii!), I am reveling once more in this terrific comedy. Things I never thought I'd see, like At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set have actually been released here (and yes, I have them).

Best of all? The humor stands the test of time. While the occasional timely joke falls flat, most of the humor remains fairly timeless. Unfortunately, there will always be pompous idiots, craven politicians, misguided wars and hypocrites. And perhaps, too, there will always be some kind of C. P. Snow, ravens who must be taught to swim and, somewhere warm, four Yorkshiremen who reflect on life as it used to be.