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Monday, December 24, 2007

Defending "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

For quite a while now (a matter of years, really), I have considered the bloggers at Lawyers, Guns and Money, particularly the original triumvirate of exceptionally lame song sung by mostly third-rate British pop stars that is also an unfortunate combination of self-congratulatory charity project and egregious racist condescensionegregious racist condescension, and are probably a Ron Paul supporter to boot. But whatever--to call "Do They Know" egregiously racist as well is, I think, to utterly miss the subtle yet unmistakable angry irony woven into this particular bit of condescension. Consider its most obvious analogue: the meretricious "We Are The World" by USA for Africa:

We can't go on pretending day by day
That someone, somehow will soon make a change
We're all a part of God's great big family
And the truth - you know love is all we need

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me

Excuse me? I'm sorry, but this is not merely "banal," Tim; this is the lamest, most muddle-headed kind of dismissive pseudo-spiritual feel-goodism imaginable. I mean, c'mon: "we're saving our own lives"? Well, how about that? God has made us one with starving children in Africa! Giving of ourselves to these sad little losers in life's lottery will make us more human! Folks, don't you see: loving Africans by giving them money is win-win! Bleargh; excuse me while I vomit. If I'm going to be guilted into doing something, I want that liberal guilt to come honestly, to hit me where I actually live and hide my heartstrings, not to disguise what's happening with fake karmic oneness. And that, incidentally, describes "Do They Know" extremely well. Everyone goes after the ignorance of the title and refrain from the chorus (yes, yes, we get it, hardly anyone in Ethiopia celebrates Christian holidays anyway, so sure, score one for the critics), but have you thought about the rest of it?

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it's hard, but when you're having fun
There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging
chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you...

(Here's to you) raise a glass for everyone
(Here's to them) underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

A simplistic reading would tell you that this is a bunch contented revelers taking the time to toss some cheap sentiments towards a bunch of folks they'd never thought of before. But that completely misses the actual target of the song--not sappy thinkers liable to be lured into some easy guilt, but the busy rank and file who are wrongly content with their own wealth. "While you're having fun" is balanced against "dread and fear" and "the bitter sting of tears" and "the clinging chimes of doom"; a contrast is made between raising a glass and suffering under a drought; and the scream "thank God it's them" is the guilty admission of all of us, liberal or otherwise, when faced with suffering. In short, the whole song is a pretty damn honest challenge, and a harsh one too, addressed with unapologetic and unwavering intensity to exactly the sort of people what are making the record and who they knew would buy the record: the white middle and upper-classes who would have thought nothing of just running down to the market and blowing 50 pounds on some useless nonsense, 50 pounds that could have fed a starving child. If anything, this is class warfare, not racism.

Actually, I think the underlying frustration animating this song, however clumsily it may come out, probably has a lot of similarity with the Kinks' "Father Christmas":

Father Christmas, give us some money
Don't mess around with those silly toys.
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
We want your bread so don't make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys...

But give my daddy a job cause he needs one
He's got lots of mouths to feed
But if you've got one, I'll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids down the street

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin'
While you're drinkin' down your wine

Not nearly as good at raising charity as "Do They Know," but it's got a better bass line, that's for certain. And I guess you could claim the Kinks were making a comprehensive critique of the economy rather than just trying to guilt some dollars out of their listeners. But in the context of Christmas in our wealthy Western homelands, a sharp kick to the gut to prompt some charitable feeling isn't always the wrong way to go. And so I've got to defend "Do They Know It's Christmas" from its detractors. It's not a great song; not worth the passion I've dumped into the effort here, I know. But giving a dollar to the Salvation Army ringer--whether out of guilt or any other motivation--isn't a great passionate act either, yet it's got as much to do with Christmas as most any other act of charity available to us moderns...and I say any song that encourages a little bit more of that, especially if it has at least of modicum of honesty and wit about it, deserves better than to be dismissed as crap, especially when more appropriate candidates are plentiful.

Well, I'm going to go outside to play with the kids in the snow. Enjoy your holiday, and listen to whatever music you like. To those whose cool sensibilities and critical taste I may have attacked, my apologies; maybe I'm just exorcising old resentments. Not the best of pastimes on Christmas Eve, but what can I say? I just like Paul Young, I guess. Merry Christmas, everyone. "Throw your arms around the world" and all that.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Time Passages"

Well, this hasn't been anything like the regular weekly feature I once imagined it would be, but I'm still going to keep at it, when the muse strikes me.

The Christmas season is often a part of the year when I, like a lot of other people, get caught up in all sorts of memories and traditions. But those memories rarely seem to take a nostalgic or melancholic form; mostly, they're outwardly directed, not meditative. Still, lately--perhaps because of all that's been going on around here over the past couple of weeks--I've found myself in a genuinely sentimental mood, getting all wistful about things for reasons that are pretty hard to articulate. I'm not morose or anything, just a little distracted.

There's never been a better pop song, to my knowledge, at expressing this kind of nostalgic or melancholic distraction than Al Stewart's "Time Passages." His album of the same name was the very first piece of commercial music I ever bought with my own money; I picked it up in cassette form at a grocery store sometime in 1978. (In a very early flicker of critical consciousness, I can remember comparing Al Stewart's music quite favorably with the then-ubiquitous Bee Gees and their Saturday Night Fever recordings.) I played that cassette tape over and over, and then eventually grew out of that music and stopped playing it. It was years before I came back to the song (having long since lost the cassette) and rediscovered Al Stewart; I'd never known before about his folkie, literate side, or that this album was a lucky combination Stewart's lyrical sense and Alan Parson's jazzy production. I'd certainly never known that Stewart himself didn't ever care for the easy-listening pop feeling the song (he apparently sometimes plays it in concerts today as an acoustic Irish jig). But not that any of that matters insofar as this tune is concerned. I bet it probably seems too slight for most pop listeners today, but I'd say that's their loss; the song itself remains a thoughtful, well-crafted gem.

It was late in December
The sky turned to snow
All round the day was going down slow
Night like a river beginning to flow
I felt the beat of my mind
Go drifting into time passages
Years go falling in the fading light
Time passages
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight

Well, I'm not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short and the days too fast
The things you lean on
Are the things that don't last
Well, it's just now
And then my line gets cast into these
Time passages
There's something back here that you left behind
Oh, time passages
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight

Hear the echoes and feel yourself starting to turn
Don't know why you should feel
That there's something to learn
It's just a game that you play

Well, the picture is changing
Now you're part of a crowd
They're laughing at something
And the music's loud
A girl comes towards you
You once used to know
You reach out your hand
But you're all alone
In those time passages
I know you're in there
You're just out of sight
Oh, time passages
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Update on my Brain

Several people--old friends, blog friends, and lurkers alike--asked to be kept up to date on my heath/hearing/everything situation as described previously. Yesterday I met with our doctor to talk about my MRI results, so we have some news.

The good news: there doesn't appear to be anything wrong with my ear--the preliminary MRI reading shows no lesions of any sort in my internal auditory canal. So, auditory neuroma and similar related conditions are out as far as an explanations for my hearing/balance problems are concerned.

The bad news: there does appear to be some "abnormalities" with my brain. These are all preliminary judgments, my doctor assured me, but still, it's what we have to go on for the moment. First, there's an area on the lower left side of my brain about 3 centimeters by 1.5 centimeters that they're worried about. They describe it as a likely "venous infarction," which means it could be an area of current or past hemorrhage, scar tissue from some long-forgotten head and/or brain trauma or a never-even-noticed stroke, or a twisted or malformed or clotted blood vessel. Then again, it could be a "glioma": a low-grade brain tumor. Apparently, the location where they saw the abnormality (I'm going to stick with that language, as the MRI reader and my doctor can't be certain at this point that they're even looking at a distinct mass; it may well be just a bunch of viscous clotted blood) is close to one of the brain's motor function areas, and the doctor's initial guess is that this is where my problem with balance and hence nausea is coming from. (And the hearing? His best guess is that once you have one problem originating with a physical abnormality with the brain, you're likely to have a cascade effect, and soon your hearing and/or vision and/or other things could become seriously affected as well.)

Finally, the MRI also suggested that there is some exposure of "white matter" across another part of my brain, meaning that something (possibly related to the other conditions, possibly not) seems to have eaten away some of the "myelin sheath" (basically the protective fatty tissue) up there. This, according to my doctor, could be the result of a bacterial or viral infection, in which case the tissue could grow back. But it could also be a sign of the onset of multiple sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), though my symptoms aren't consistent with either of those conditions.

So, that's where things stand. The next step is to meet with a neurosurgeon and get his expert take on the matter; that's been scheduled for January 3rd. Neurologists are busy people, it appears, so we're just going to have to wait. But after that, we should be in a better position to find out if more scans are needed, or what other treatments are recommended at this point.

I find I'm not really scared or worried--I don't really know enough at this point to get freaked out about what's going on upstairs, or what my prognosis is. It's not that I'm perfectly confident or anything; just reserving judgment for the moment. No doubt a major reason for my lack of concern is related to the same factors I mentioned before: I don't feel ill, and the last two weeks have been pretty good, with my usual symptoms barely manifesting themselves (no headaches, nausea, or anything else really; even the buzzing in my ears has been minimal). Still, insofar as family peace of mind goes, Christmastime and finals time is definitely not the best possible season for all this to be happen during, especially with shopping still to be done and tests and papers still to be graded. But...what can I say? Oh, well; we don't get to choose when our bodies launch a sneak attack on us.

Thanks for the many kind comments, thoughts and prayers; I'll definitely continue this saga when there's more to say. Until then, back to blogging.

Friday, December 07, 2007

And Now...My Take

So, on Wednesday, I tried to come up with something I would say if I were in Romney's shoes. Which is an impossibility, I know--but still, it was an interesting thought experiment. Now, with Romney's speech more than 24 hours in the past, and everyone having already said their piece and moved on, let me belatedly say what I--a socially conservative, economically progressive, generally left-voting Mormon political philosopher--think about Romney actually said.

First, there was his comment--following immediately after his thoughtful reference to John Adams's completely accurate words about the U.S. Constitution presuming a "moral and religious people"--that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." But "freedom" in such a general sense wasn't what Adams was talking about; he was talking about the particular sort of classical republican assumptions which underlie our constitutional order. Now, if I was to think that Romney was in some way or another aspiring to resurrect in a serious way those assumptions about civic virtue, I'd be fascinated, but since he also doesn't seem at all interested in pursuing classical republican social and economic reforms (regarding work, suffrage, land ownership, and so forth), I think we can safely assume that striving to resurrect an 18th-century, primarily agrarian, basically Jeffersonian America is an aspiration that at most dwells in his rhetoric, rather than his actual plans for the country. This leaves the likely alternative that Romney means this sentence to be a purely anodyne bit of patriotic piety--either that, or as a bone thrown to the theoconservatives. There's actually something to be said for the latter, though admittedly slight, possibility: the only kind of "freedom" that truly requires religion is that kind of positive, covenanted, Christian freedom that John Winthrop and other Puritans spoke of; namely, "moral liberty," or the liberty to do good. This Puritan inheritance echoed a long ways down the years in American thought and speech (greatly influencing different varieties of republicanism along the way), and it would be, well, interesting to see a presidential candidate who rejected the individualistic "natural liberty" that has been long accepted as basic to American pluralism in favor of a sectarian natural law. But, as I've noted before, even the theocons seem in some sense implicated in the liberal world, wanting not so much to contest modernity as to moralize and baptize it pretty much as it is, and that's a morass that I'd rather not assume to lay on Romney's shoulders.

Next, there was his reference to John F. Kennedy and his big speech on religion nearly 50 years ago. He tied himself to JFK's speech more explicitly than I either expected him to or thought he needed to. I didn't expect him to go in that direction because to overplay the supposedly clear and easy way to distinguish between church and state in America (which JFK did, presenting religious faith as an incidental thing, whereas the duties of state were presented as central to both his responsibilities as a citizen and the office he was aspiring to) would presumably alienate at least some of the Christian right that he is appealing to; but then again, perhaps the fact that he can so blithely proclaim that "church affairs" and "affairs of the nation" absolutely do not overlap can simply be taken as another bit of evidence that the American people, including all except a handful of radically committed Christian conservatives, really are (philosophical) liberals after all. And I didn't think he needed to go in that direction because I would like to believe that this is an opportunity for someone to talk about the ways in which religion--and not just the "political religion" of Lincoln (which really was just a secular reverence for the laws of the land, and not something that can or should be made analogous to public religious piety), but real sectarian Christian religion--has an inherently contentious but all the same productive role to play in the America's pluralistic civil order.

What do I mean by that? I mean that, while I seriously doubt that anything like a majority of the immediate participants in the founding actually believed what they were doing was fulfilling any kind sectarian Christian theology, I think that a proper understanding of what American-style secularism is all about has to take into consideration that the 18th and 19th-century growth of democracy was both populism and religious, and that the "civic religion" which scholars suggest was thoroughly in place by the mid-19th century, and remained in place for the next century as well, was the result of (and continued to be the result of) a turbulent exchange between and amongst different sectarian Christian faiths. (My friend Nate Oman talks a little bit about this in the context of Romney's speech here.) But that turbulence has long since been moderated to the simple level of "conscience," with the attendant consequence of mainline Christian engagements with the public square coming to dominate (and, not coincidentally, also coming to lose or compromise on most of their battles to the point of extinction), while religious beliefs that have a real and living connection to robust notions of community and authority--notions which individual conscience must necessarily contest with--became marginalized. Kennedy's speech, frankly, played no small role in that transformation. Mormon concepts of community and authority, however, remain robust, if mostly latent, and the occasion of a serious Mormon candidate for president would seem a precipitous one for referring to them, if only obliquely. But Romney apparently was determined to say nothing that could be remotely understood as an invitation to theology (except, of course, the soteriological stuff that is perfectly amenable to the theology of the evangelical Protestant base he wishes to woo).

I don't blame him for this; he's a politician trying to win, and as I said before, theology has nothing to do with being president. Well, actually, let me state that more carefully: I believe that being willing to engage with, to affirm or reject, to judge and articulate and discriminate, theological and sectarian claims is an important part of America's whole civic identity, but I agree that such matters are irrelevant to the actual work of governing in America. Still, having come to the point of defining, if even just for himself, the way in which a Mormon negotiates the liberal order, it was disappointing to see him go the route of simple conscience, one which can choose between or indeed combine the many goods of many different faiths (though, as Matthew Ygelsias notes, it actually was a pretty lame and condescending list of goods just the same). Not that I would want him to throw out, or believe that Mormon candidates are obliged to throw out, a (one would hope slightly more nuanced and detailed) laundry list of broad, ecumenical moral goods, including tolerance, piety, equality, and charity--not at all! It is there, after all, that most Mormon citizens, like most citizens of all or any faith, actually live their ethical lives and find meaning in the ordinary decisions they have to make (like deciding who to vote for, for one). No, I've got no complaint at all with everyday humane liberalism, even if I take my political-theological communitarianism too seriously to grasp such on the level of philosophy. I just mourn for the fact that we have candidates--and (let's spread the blame equally here) a style of political campaigning and a level of public discourse--that feel it necessary or make it necessary for not just believers but their churches as well (as comes out in some interesting comments between Damon Linker and Richard Bushman on a radio interview yesterday) to take the easiest escape hatch, when challenged, towards the full-fledged post-Kennedy American explanation of pluralism: individual conscience above all.

Well, this is going too deep. Rest assured, there were many things I liked about the speech. He was forthright in proclaiming his Mormon faith to be a deep part of his heritage and identity, and not being a matter of convenience; I liked that. I liked how he linked together the two great contemporary alternatives to a robust religious liberty--either establishment churches that whither away, or angry faiths that turn violently against the de facto secularism which follows. (Neither of which are really anything like the full story, but there's enough truth to both that I'll cut the man a break.) And admittedly, the Sam Adams story at the end was fantastic.

That's it from me. Want to more about what a whole range of Mormon believers--most of them far less philosophical and far more orthodox than myself--said about the speech? Check out this Times and Seasons thread--so far, 180 comments and growing. But for now, for me, I'm done.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What I'd Say If I Were Romney...

...or, more accurately, what Romney would say if Romney were me.

I can't pretend to be Romney; we share the same religion, but really that's about it. He's a technocrat and some kind of conservative (business oriented, in favor of small government but mostly pragmatic, on board--for the moment--with some culturally and morally conservative causes but not reflecting any kind of real thought about how and in what way his random grabs at the social conservative bandwagon come together with his membership in the globalized financial elite of America); whereas I'm a professional parasite on the American economy academic and some kind twisted Christian socialist, equal parts socially conservative and economically progressive. If there's any Republican candidate I have any real liking for it's Mike Huckabee, and his crusade against the income tax in favor of a supposedly fairer but actually less progressive national sales tax gives him a mighty deep whole to climb out of, in my opinion. (More about Huckabee in a later post.)

So, anyway, I'm not a Republican and not a Romney supporter. But every good American Mormon has an interest in what Romney will say tomorrow, the big speech on religion which is getting so much attention. So the best I can do is pretend that I, somehow, was a Republican candidate for president, dealing with fair amount of both outright and subtle anti-Mormon prejudice, all while attempting to run a campaign that expresses my Christian bona fides to other serious Christian conservatives while not saying anything (for the sake of my own dignity and soul) reductive or duplicitous about my own Mormon faith. So here goes (note: this and other suggestions about what Romney should or could say can also be found here at Times and Seasons):

There are two stories which many different Americans, for many different reasons, tell themselves about the United States which are relevant to my campaign. The first is that we are a Christian country, deeply bound to the principles and history of Christianity; the second is that we are a secular country, deeply committed to eschewing any formal ties between church and state. I believe both of these stories are correct, but are often misunderstood. Are we a Christian country? The answer is "yes" if you mean "are our laws, informal norms, holiday traditions, civic rituals, sense of history, and so forth shaped by generally Christian expectations?" But the answer is "no" if you mean "does being a citizen of the United States entail, even implicitly, a set of theologically Christian beliefs?" For what we are not is a sectarian country, committed to the inculcation of a particular metaphysics, whether Catholic or Presbyterian or Southern Baptist. And that response should properly shape one's response to the second story. "Secularism" is much broader and much more complicated than the reductive, simplistic antisectarianism that some atheists preach, an antisectarianism that assumes everything religious is ultimately sectarian, part of a program to move the world in the direction of some very specific God or dogma. This is not the case. The secularism that properly adheres to the American character--a secularism which involves civility, toleration, human decency and human rights--is not a secularism that ever did or ever should launch crusades against sects, whether they be Catholic or Presbyterian or Southern Baptist, assuming those organizations break no democratically-determined laws; it is a secularism that rather emerged alongside a broadly Christian understanding of what the plurality of sects means for a society.

I acknowledge that maintaining that very liberal--in the classic sense--sensibility about the place and role of Christianity in our pluralistic society is hard to maintain, with many failures of understanding having occurred along the way, and we can expect more in the future. Mormons like myself live with a bright memory of that time--generations past now, but still vivid in our rituals and practices and beliefs--when we were both the cause and the occasion of such a failure. I have no intention of going over all that contributed to that failure, on both sides: I'm neither a historian nor a scholar of my own religion. I am just a believer. But as a believer, I would insist upon this: that those who are critical of the Mormon faith, and express that criticism in ways that suggest that Mormonism is too outlandish, too authoritarian, too this or too that, to be a credible belief system for a candidate for president, are playing a game which presumes the sort of cramped relationship between Christianity and secularism which I have just denied. Nothing--no single thing--that drives some to be suspicious or dismissive of a Mormon candidate for president has anything to do with the form of Christian thought actually relevant to this nation and my campaign to lead it. Instead, all such criticisms have to do with sectarian matters, involving this book of scripture or that ecclesiastical routine or this doctrine or that way of dressing or speaking or who knows what else. These are matters that can only be understood--that can only be taken seriously--if one gets into high theology, which I am not qualified to do and have no more need to do than John F. Kennedy had a need to explain the sacraments to his mostly Protestant audience. This is not, this should not be, where the political argument lies.

I want to emphasize that I think it is perfectly possible to legitimately vote against a candidate on the basis of their religion; I know that, even in the simple and straightforward ways in which my daily beliefs have shaped my life, there is ground for criticism and doubt. And some, of course, for reasons both good and bad, are hostile to any acknowledgment and defense of the kind of Christianity which I think is key to America's civil society, or at least may be hostile to the ways in which Mormons like myself have done so. But I take the American people seriously enough to believe that they will recognize and respond to an expression of faith which is Christian first and foremost, and sectarian second. Not that I don't have my particular beliefs; I do. But the Mormon faith has, over the past century, embraced America and its civil order, and consequently while we may argue amongst ourselves over this or that particular matter and what it does or should mean for politics, and we may even argue about this interpretation or that with others, we know that in terms of governing America, the Mormon faith can provide everything that Catholicism and Presbyterianism and Southern Baptism can provide. And that, I think, is more than enough.

(Two points to the reader who can guess, on the basis of the above, which just-published work of philosophy I'm working my way through right now...)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why I've Been So Slow, Part 3: Harry Has Sucked Me In

Well, of the two reasons I've considered thus far to account for my blogging slowdown, the first was entirely beyond my control (mysterious ear ailments usually are), while the second, though not entirely beyond my control, really made it truly difficult for me to adequately focus on the actual work I'm supposed to be doing, much less on hobbies like blogging. But the third major cause...well, it's not as though I've been so physically out of it and so buried under that I haven't had anytime to devote to the funner uses a computer can be put to. On the contrary, I've been able to find the occasional hour here and there regularly enough. And what I have been spending those hours on? Oh, lots of different things, to be sure. But honesty demands that I 'fess up to a relatively new and, in recent months, quite significant additional obsession of mine.

I've been reading fan fiction. Specifically, Harry Potter fan fiction.

Let's be plain here: I'm a geek. Not an absolute, stereotypical, completely-useless-for-real-life geek, but I do have my obsessions. Long ago it was comic books, though I haven't followed any titles for many years now. Dungeons and Dragons has also played a big role in my life, though now it's mostly a once-a-year thing. And there have been others. Mostly, these days, I get into various types of world-creation literature: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so forth, but even there I'm not the obsessive reader that I once was. (Though I have flashbacks: a few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out to me that somebody, in defiance of who knows how many trademark laws, had posted the entire collected works of H.P. Lovecraft online, and for about three weeks between every class I would run back to my office, close the door, and consume another tale about the Elder Gods.) But Harry Potter though...well, anyone who has hung around this blog at all over the past few years knows all about my preoccupation with Rowling's oeuvre. I honestly thought after Deathly Hallows I'd be able to walk away from it all. But, even as Alan and Tim and Ross and I and others were conducting our postmortems on the series, ideas started creeping into my brain, ideas I couldn't shake. I've never before--honestly, never!--been the sort of person interested in rewriting or extending extent works of fiction; the most my imagination ever seemed comfortable doing was putting me--the actual, unadapted, ordinary me--into stories and movies and books as a kind of sardonic, all-knowing narrator. But this was different: I needed to read what other people were doing and saying about these plot holes and loose ends that I seemed to feel all around me, begging for elaboration and resolution. So I started checking out The Sugar Quill and Checkmated and other Harry Potter fan fiction sites. And I started reading. And reading. And reading. And...

I should note that I have nothing against fan fiction; on the contrary, thanks the terrific and thoughtful comments of professional editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden (particularly here and here; the estimable John Holbo once referred to that first post as having spawned "the greatest thread ever," but really you can find commentary like this all over her and her husband Patrick's wonderful site) I've long recognized that fan fiction is a perfectly organic response to the present-day, commercially and legally convoluted (and often unreasonably so) world of publishing, particularly genre publishing. Actually, I think I kind of knew this already, having grown up reading fantasy magazines and comic books that would frequently play fast-and-loose with popular culture (didn't Chris Claremont once write an X-Men story where Storm and the New Mutants met the cast from Remington Steele on a Greek island somewhere?); but I'd never really gone anywhere with it. I've long had some fiction writing aspirations of my own, which I've kept telling myself I'll get around to after I get tenure somewhere, but those ideas were never derivative, at least not in a fan-ficky sense. (They are, if you must know, a plan for a series of short stories taking place in a kind of Christian fantasy world, but despite having kicked these ideas around for close to 20 years, all I've got there is a main character, some vague plots, and a bunch of titles; and--more prestigiously--a mental outline for a big post-apocalyptic/historical fantasy-type opus that I've been thinking about for 15 years or so (the initial inspiration occurred around the same time as the 1994 midterm elections; one of the main characters is clearly a parody of Newt Gingrich), which has become extremely detailed in my head, but which I'll probably never write, as it's gone in some sort of Lord of the Rings/Canticle for Leibowitz/Thus Sprach Zarathustra-type direction and is becoming more a fantastic philosophy of history then anything that would be, you know, actually fun to read.) But anyway, the point is, once I saw how people were playing with, fixing up, tearing apart, and generally having fun with Rowling's creation, my resistance to letting my own ideas get going melted away. And so, for many weeks now, when I could be producing wonderful works of scholarship, I've been obsessing over how I can get Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood out of that Chinese wizard's dungeon they'd been thrown into.

Yeah, it's mostly about the grown-up Neville and Luna. I'm not sure why. I think, if my genealogy of my own imagination is at all accurate, it began with wondering where Luna might have been during the epilogue scene at King's Cross at the end of DH, all those years later, and somehow I decided she'd probably be in California, maybe at UC-Santa Cruz or the wizarding equivalent, lecturing about various magical beasties. Crazy? Um, yes, but not unreasonably so; I've always kind of envisioned (and reading fan fiction has led me to conclude that I'm not alone here) Luna as a brilliant, creative, but basically self-enclosed and self-taught individual, who was going to end up going the guru-route after Hogwarts: kind of hippie-ish, all flower child and free love and so forth, that is when she isn't off on adventures looking for invisible carnivorous fairies in the jungle or amongst the fjords. She'd be a hit in the Bay Area, I figured. And this fit in with the vibes that Rowling herself sent us about Luna, and the Luna/Neville ship. (Yes, "ship." I've absorbed fandom's jargon, I can't deny it.) First she said they'd never be able to make it as a couple, then she drops some big hints to focus our attention elsewhere, then all of sudden she admits to having thought they'd get together after all while actually writing DH, and then she tells us Neville and Hannah Abbott get married. (No, I'm not going to link to all this; go find it yourself.) In time, my thoughts solidified: clearly, Neville and Luna--already pretty good friends--would have grown very tight during the year they and Ginny managed a guerrilla resistance at Hogwarts, and Luna's interest in magical zoology (confirmed as her likely career choice in a later Rowling interview) would coincide perfectly with his expertise in herbology, and so no doubt any likely future stories for them would have to tell the tale of their joined passions and the--given Luna's headstrong nature--mad situations those plans and expeditions would land them in, not to mention getting some humorous mileage out of the inevitable distaste Neville would feel for Luna's crazy personal hygiene and general lack of modesty when they go tramping across Brazil. But there was a problem. Seeing as how I basically accepted the idea that Neville and Luna just weren't meant for each other, how to keep them from becoming in an even de facto way another post-Hogwarts couple? The difference in their temperaments? No, I felt; in a world in which Rowling can stick such complete opposites as Ron and Hermione together (and in which the fan-fickers have kept them together, in ever position imaginable, I assure you), that excuse wouldn't fly. For a while, I was thinking Neville would be gay, and I thought that would make for some interesting twists and turns, but I confess it sometimes came in my head to seem like some terrible mash-up between Will & Grace and The Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Then fortunately Rowling revealed that Neville turns out to be an ordinary domesticated member of the married wizarding bourgeoisie, which would work even better with what I foresee. (Neville getting religion, among other things.)

Wait a minute...what I foresee? Do I actually plan on writing any of this down, do I imagine that it'll be read and perhaps be absorbed into the Harry Potter fanon (yep, that's more jargon there), do I dream that Rowling will take up the story again and in any sense think the same thoughts that I think? Well, in order: maybe, no, and definitely no. But having spent as much time on it as I have, I can't just write it all off as some weakness of mind; there may be no money, minimal prestige, a lot of potential embarrassment, and a heavy cost in terms of time involved in actually writing a story that takes place in someone else's word, but hey--others may enjoy it, and I'd at least learn something from it, so it's not complete geekery. Or maybe it is, but it's not necessarily bad geekery. Consider it practice to later effectively expand my writing repertoire. That'd be worth doing, assuming I can actually straighten out my life enough to stop letting this most recent obsession of mine interfere with real-world journal articles and book reviews I've committed to writing. And blogging, of course; that's the real world too. Sort of.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Why I've Been So Slow, Part 2: The Kansas State Department of Education Hates Me

From 2001 to 2006, I had one-year positions, from Mississippi to Arkansas to Illinois. There were, to say the least, some pretty significant disadvantages to lacking any sort of permanence in my academic career, but there was one undeniable advantage: I was rarely given any kind of significant committee work to do. Since coming to Friends University in the fall of 2006, however, those five years of freedom have quickly been made up for. Friends in some ways aspires to a kind of classic, teacher-student-focused liberal arts college model; in other ways, it does what it does simply for a lack of funds. Either way, this means that regular faculty--which now includes me--are heavily involved in advising students, registering students, and all sorts of committee and secretarial work. (I'm the college secretary right now, for example.) All well and good; I was happy, for the most part, to get thrown into all this mostly uncompensated work, because it made me feel more connected to the university community as a whole. So, when it turned out that the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) was going to be following up on a years-old assessment it made of our numerous teaching education programs, and the person who had been responsible for preparing for their review of History and Government Education said she was sick and tired of the whole thing, and the only other candidate besides myself was plainly incapable and uninterested in taking it on, I said, hey, sure, toss it at me.

All you experienced professional educators and academics can stop laughing now. I know. Believe me, I know.

Beginning last spring, I started attending education board meetings and trying to pick up their, to me, highly confusing jargon: rubrics for this, indicators for that, data that demonstrates the learning of content knowledge (as opposed to pedagogical knowledge) via measurable assessments that reflect the state standards in particularly subject areas. And on, and on. The individual previously responsible for it all dumped upon me hundreds of pages of tests, worksheets and grading records, which somehow spoke to Friends University's effective teaching of the basics of history and government education...or more importantly, spoke to how Friends University was giving, and would continue to give, the Department of Education proof that we were following the standards in ways that would effectively and measurably reveal the degree to which we taught the basics of history and government education. What are these standards? Things like (and the wording is important...oh, how I have learned that the wording is important!) "The teacher of U.S. history and U.S. government and world history has knowledge and understanding of significant individuals, groups, ideas, events, eras, and developments in the history of the United States, and is able to utilize essential analytical and research skills" and "The teacher of U.S. history and U.S. government and world history has knowledge and understanding and can create learning experiences around historical concepts and their interrelationships." There are 10 such standards, ranging over history and political science, obviously, but also sociology, economics, geography, and cultural anthropology, to say nothing of pedagogy. For every one of them, indicators need to be discerned that can guide developing assignments which will test levels of mastery relevant to the specific particulars of each standard. And, of course, these tests must be rigorously objective and consistent, meaning that reliable rubrics can be developed for them that can be submitted to the state, and will show who has taken these tests, how they've done on different portions of them, and what that reveals about the level and quality of teaching taking place at Friends in regards to specific elements in each of the standards, thus enabling the state to make a responsible judgment about whether the student teachers we're turning out really can intelligently teach history and government (and economics and geography and anthropology) in Kansas's junior highs and high schools, and thus whether we deserve to continue to be licensed in this area.

By summer, I was going mad. Mostly because I'd gotten myself into something I hated: for--again!--reasons that are probably grounded in equal parts philosophy and laziness, I have always detested the sort of mentality which assumes all good things are to be reported, assessed, analyzed, and thus must needs be expressed in terms of rubrics and schedules and graphs and proficiency charts demonstrating empirical progress towards this or that or the other thing. I'm a lover of the subjective, the intuitive, the big picture; the more I must fine-tune a thing (and things sent to bureaucracies must always be fine-tuned, turned into a content that can be transformed into systematic judgments), the less I enjoy it. God, I frequently like to tell my students, actually isn't in the details. Or at least so I wish to believe. But leaving all those "grow-up-and-deal-with-it"-type of complaints aside, also was also being driven mad because our particular situation here. We're a small program at a small school. Many of these classes are taught, and have been taught for years, primarily by half-time adjuncts. Even when it comes to the bulk of the fundamentals of history and government education, I'm lacking in usable data, because political science was handled for the two years prior to my arrival by a sad case of a professor who left abruptly when his previously hidden drug problems became known, and before that was handled by an Indian professor who, in his 35 years here, steadfastly refused to provide anything consistent to the education people, just on principle, I guess (which I admit I kind of admire). And then there's the fact that history and government, at least, is overloaded to bursting with requirements; the education requirements alone take up massive amounts of time, and then we have to somehow make sure they take American government and comparative politics and basic economics and cultural anthropology and on and on. Most students end up having to cut deals allowing them take classes as individual study courses, or they take them over the summer at other institutions, and either way, the result is requirements fulfilled without much or the right kind of data which can be plugged into our existing methodologies.

And so, in the end, I went into my usual furious panic mode, which usually involves me refusing to be sucked into any previously dug trenches, convinced that such is simply going to result in wandering down paths that will require even more work from me. Instead, once school started again in the fall, as the deadline closed in, I went through all the syllabi and exams I could, trying to identify straightforward assignments that I could write descriptions for which would suggest their relevance to specific standards, and then collected all the data I could addressing history and government education majors' performance on those particular assessments. Final grade data was easy to obtain; specific data on test performance, particularly from the last three or four years (which is all the KSDE cared about) was far more difficult. So I threw together a narrative which tried to take all this into account, checked it and double-checked it with the education folk downstairs (who really, I must assure anyone thinking of attending Friends, are fantastic people: generous with their time, funny, and absolutely devoted to education; they helped me out enormously, and only mocked my ignorance of how to best develop a grading rubric for lesson plans very slightly), and sent it off. The whole thing occupied I don't know how many hours of my time; I know that there were whole weeks during which I was just basically paralyzed by the entire thing.

Last week, the reports came back. Every single education program at Friends was found insufficient in one way or another. For history and government, they rejected every single one of the assessment plans I'd submitted; we didn't qualify under a single standard. I suppose I should be optimistic--everybody fails these things to one degree or another regularly, or so I'm told. And it's not like we don't have the chance to write a rejoinder and get it all fixed up; I'll be meeting with the education folks tomorrow to begin the process of figuring out what they didn't like about the narratives and assignments and data I compiled, and how I can fix it. But I can't deny feeling pretty low about it; I spent more time on this than any other single project for the past several months, and blew it. When our university president got all us program heads together to express his disappointment (which was significant, but not cruelly done), I felt it pretty deep.

I suppose I could draw from this some sort of larger argument about No Child Left Behind and the current obsessions with "performance" and "improvement" and "measurement" that haunt our educational establishment, but I really don't have the will to do so. Professional educators and academics--at least, those of us at small enough schools where we don't get to play experts capable of outsourcing all the bureaucratic stuff to some hired hands--know the way the system works these days; if it's not an obsession with proving to state boards that one's teaching is up to snuff both in terms of content and pedagogy, then it would be an obsession with something else. And the thing is, in principle, I don't entirely object to such obsessions; rote teaching is often a pretty important and relevant tool for creating certain egalitarian and civic goods through the schools, especially marginalized or impoverished ones, and supplying data is a good way to force us rambunctious faculty to discipline our own teaching to at least a few core matters. But must it be done in accordance with such frequently arcane methodologies, with such strained and complicated expectations? If you end up designing all your assignments in a comparative government class so to make them easy to turn into clearly measurable data on how the students perform in demonstrating their skill at designing "learning experiences," exactly how much time will you have left to focus on--and how creatively will you be able to encourage their tested work on--you know...actually comparing different governments?

Oh well. I know, I wanted this career, and now I've got it. And I still love it. When all is said and done, I still want to be the program head, too; at least then I'm deciding what counts for what (within my minimal space for altering content expectations, that is, aside from what the education standards dictate), and not someone else. My main hope at this point is 1) that I can get the rewrite done by Christmas, and 2) that I'll be organized enough to actually keep track of what I'm learning, so I don't have to start all over again when KSDE comes back in a few years. Oh, and 3) I hope I'll be able to get past this and spend time on fun things again, like blogging. But I seem to be making some progress on that goal just fine right now.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why I've Been So Slow, Part 1: There's Something Wrong With My Head

It appears I've written only three blog posts since July, only two since August, and none since October. I've never been a particularly attentive blogger, but really, I've never been this slack before. So what gives? The way I see it, while there's been the usual assortment of often unexpected demands on my time, the real causes of my blogging slowdown are basically three. So maybe if I blog about them I can do a bit of cyber-exorcism.

For months (or maybe even longer; one of my big regrets as I've repeatedly gone to see a doctor is that I simply don't have good sense of how long things have been going on--I just don't pay very much attention to my own health, more about which later) I've been getting headaches. Now I've always gotten headaches, pretty bad ones too; it was something I had lived with for years, beginning when I was in elementary school. I figured I'd inherited them from my father, who suffered from migraine headaches for years. Still, it'd been many years since I'd gotten headaches so regularly, so predictably (they'd hit at about 3pm, like clockwork). And gradually, other specifics began to emerge: there would be a ringing in my ears (or a hum, or a dull roar) that would interfere with my hearing, and there'd be a haze or a place I couldn't focus properly haunting my eyesight, and--worst of all--I'd find myself nauseous, woozy, unable to maintain my balance. (Why was that the worst? Because I depend upon my bicycle for commuting to work, of course.) These symptoms would build up, and then then fade away, sometimes abruptly, only to come back without warning weeks or months later. I didn't finally go to see a doctor about it all until last July. The assumption was that I had some sort of ear infection, probably allergy related, that was throwing the mechanics of my inner ear for a loop, resulting in headaches and vertigo and nausea. I took some medicine, and that was that. I'm not sure if the problems ever really went away, but they were minimized to the extent that I could forget about them. But looking back on it now, I can see the evidence of their effects was all around me: I was getting little done, I was finding it hard to concentrate, I was often exhausted in the evenings, which used to be some of my most productive times.

Anyway, October rolls around and it was back again, with a vengeance. I went to see a different doctor, who came to the same conclusion (and checked and said he didn't see anything of concern going on with my eyes), prescribed a different set of anti-biotics, and sent me on my way, with instructions to get back in touch with me if conditions persist. And they did persist, but only sort of. Sometimes they'd seem to be going away, and I figured I was on my way to health: at least, it was enough for me to, once more, try to forget about it for a while. But then I'd have a bad time hearing my students in the classroom, or I'd nearly fall off my bike while making a turn, and I'd be reminded all over again. Just this past Wednesday I woke up with the room spinning and my head aching; I couldn't function at all. Going back the same doctor again, he this time concluded that this might not be allergy related at all: maybe something's gone wrong inside my head, particularly in the region of my inner ear (my eyesight problems haven't been very pronounced lately, though they're still lurking around). He mentioned acoustic neuroma as well some other possible conditions, and scheduled me for an MRI next week.

I've since spoken with a couple of people who have dealt with this and other related causes of tinnitus; the consensus seems to be that it's a tough break, but nothing catastrophic--the tumors involved are basically benign, after all. I have to admit, however, that it was the MRI that freaked me out the most. Good grief, I though to myself, does he suspect I have some sort of cancer? Which, really, gets at my own ignorance mentioned above: I know a fair amount about health policy, but I've never really known--never wanted to know--much about my own health. When I'm feeling poorly, and I can't just tough my way through it, I just take some aspirin and lay down until I can get through. When I was a teen-ager I broke my collarbone (just a hairline fracture, but that's just an after-the-fact assumption; I don't really know) in an accident while my family was on vacation; rather than seriously trying to articulate exactly what kind of and how much pain I was in to my parents, I just sat in the back of the mobile home and tried not to move too much and whined when appropriate. (The result is that the bones healed over the weeks to come in such a way that one of my shoulders is nearly an inch taller than the other.) Part of this is, or at least as I've grown has become, almost philosophical in its grounding; I can cite all sorts of arguments against the medical establishment from Ivan Illich, for example. But in truth, it's probably more of an almost stereotypical laziness: I mean, I just want my car to run, too; I don't want to have to think about properly attending to its engine. And so what has apparently become a staple of modern medicine was wholly beyond me; when I got back to my classes and mentioned recent events to my students, I was stunned to discover that about two-thirds of them have had MRIs, sometimes multiple MRIs, for all sorts of perfectly ordinary things. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but this really struck me: maybe I shouldn't assume that the doctor is assuming he's going to discover the worst about me after all.

Well, so anyway, that's more than any of you would have ever cared to know about what's happening inside my head. Who knows? Maybe my inner ear is fine, and the ringing and the headaches and wooziness are being caused by some kind of infection after all. Then again, maybe I have a brain tumor. I should find out, or at least begin a serious effort to finally find out (something I should have done months and months ago) next Monday. All I know is that I'd like to be able to start hearing music without the annoying, fuzzy, echo effect in my head, I'd like to never again feel like I'm going to fall over while climbing the stairs to my office, and I'd like to have the focus and energy to get back to blogging again. So maybe I should take the fact that I actually managed to get all this down as a sign of hope.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "If I Had A Million Dollars"

Back to blogging, and back to my silly little once-a-week exercises in pop music pedantry.

So, how old was I when I first heard this song? Around late 1992, I think, when the Barenaked Ladies's Gordon was released; at least it started showing up on alternative radio stations in Utah sometime around then. All the hip people loved it, of course. What is it with this ridiculously simple song? It's a love song, sort of, though not really; nor is really just a joke song, because of the really rather humble and honest message behind all the whimsy....even though, well, of course it is a joke song, only that and more. Maybe it's just the quintessentially Canadian song: not quite this, and not quite that, but pretty damn funny and decent all the same, in a low key sort of way. Fifteen years after first hearing it, it still cracks me up when Steven Page, in one of the innumerable versions of this song, starts going on about fancy ketchups, and laughs at himself, in spite of the lyric.

Ed Robertson: If I had a million dollars
(Steven Page: If I had a million dollars)
I'd buy you a house
(I would buy you a house)
If I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
I'd buy you furniture for your house
(Maybe a nice chesterfield or an ottoman)
And if I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you a K-Car
(A nice Reliant automobile)
If I had a million dollars I'd buy your love

If I had a million dollars
(I'd build a tree fort in our yard)
If I had million dollars
(You could help, it wouldn't be that hard)
If I had million dollars
(Maybe we could put like a little tiny fridge in there somewhere)
[You know, we could just go up there and hang out...
Like open the fridge and stuff...
There would already be laid out foods for us...
Like little pre-wrapped sausages and things--
They have pre-wrapped sausages but they don't have pre-wrapped bacon.
Well, can you blame 'em?
Uh, yeah!]

If I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you a fur coat
(But not a real fur coat that's cruel)
And if I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you an exotic pet
(Yep, like a llama or an emu)
And if I had a million dollars
(If I had a a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you John Merrick's remains
(Ooh, all them crazy elephant bones)
And If I had a million dollars I'd buy your love

If I had a million dollars
(We wouldn't have to walk to the store)
If I had a million dollars
(Now, we'd take a limousine 'cause it costs more)
If I had a million dollars
(We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner)
[But we would eat Kraft Dinner
Of course we would, we’d just eat more
And buy really expensive ketchups with it
That’s right, all the fanciest ke... dijon ketchups!
Mmmmmm, Mmmm-Hmmm]

If I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you a green dress
(But not a real green dress, that's cruel)
And if I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you some art
(A Picasso or a Garfunkel)
If I had a million dollars
(If I had a million dollars)
Well, I'd buy you a monkey
(Haven't you always wanted a monkey)
If I had a million dollars
I’d buy your love

If I had a million dollars
If I had a million dollars
If I had a million dollars
If I had a million dollars
If I had a million dollars
I'd be rich

Treasured Geek Traditions Passed on to the Next Generation

Yikes. More than two months since my last post. That's about as long a break as I've ever taken, excepting the time last year when I figured I was going to have to give up the blog entirely. Anyway, not that I imagine there are many people out there who have pined away for my musings, but in case there are any such, my apologies.

Late as it may be, I need to talk about our family reunion last August, as I promised several people I would, it having been such a momentous occasion and all. As the Fox family grows ever-larger, gatherings where all of us--siblings, spouses, nieces and nephews--can be in one place at one time is pretty momentous all by itself, but it wasn't that mere fact of the vacation, not all the things we did and old friends we saw, that made it memorable. No, for all my geek brothers and I, what really made it cool was this:

If you have eyes to see, then you've already figured it out. Yes, that is a Dungeon Masters screen on the table in front of my oldest daughter Megan (she's the red-head with glasses pointing) in the first photo. And yes, that same table is littered with scribbled-on paper and dice in the second photo. After years of listening to me and my brothers reminisce about our Dungeons and Dragons days, Megan decided she wanted in on the action. So she organized an adventure with as many of her cousins as she could line up--and as you can see, she managed to line up quite a few. They played for hours, spread out over a couple of days. I couldn't possibly be more proud.

There were limits to whom she was able to drag into the game. The three oldest cousins (all well into their teenage years now) opted out, preferring to hang around the pool and the volleyball courts and talk about boys. And there were plenty of younger cousins that wanted to be cool and get in on the adventure, but were denied permission by parents, if only because we knew how late at night these games are liable to run. Still, that left just about every cousin in the extended family between the ages of eight and twelve participating. Megan came up with the adventure, helped everyone design their characters, taught everyone the rules, and generally played ringmaster to a bunch of kids getting their first introduction to role-playing. And, mind you, this was a authentic, old-school, paper-and-pencil, straight-out-of-junior-high-role-playing-game (all the rule books she used were Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, if you must know). We wouldn't have had it any other way.

When did the Fox brothers themselves become initiated to D&D? (And in our various campaigns over the years, it always was the Fox brothers, for better or worse; our sisters never participated, either by their own choice or our exclusion of them or some combination thereof. In this sense, Fox Family D&D: The Next Generation is already an improvement over the The Original Gang, as they've a got a nice gender mix of 5 nieces to 3 nephews, in contrast to anywhere from 2 to 5 brothers hanging out while eating donuts.) The original seed, way back when, was planted by a goofy uncle of mine, a computer nerd back in those benighted days being a computer nerd had no immediate cultural or financial upside to it (so, say, around 1980 or so). He'd been taught to play D&D at college, and he shared it with us, his nephews sometime soon after. Back then I was already a budding weirdo, the sort of sixth-grader that spent recesses walking along the outer perimeter of school fences avoiding bullies and composing what I have long since come to recognize as primitive fan fiction stories in my head. I was instantly attracted to this strange new kind of intellectual play (indulge your fantasies by pretending you're someone else, while also subjecting yourself to hundreds of pages of complicated rules! brilliant!), and became even more convinced it was the game for me once I started hearing all the rumors about it which were so common back in the early 1980s. (My mother was partially convinced that we would be sucked into a fantasy world and would run off and live in a sewer somewhere, obeying the bizarre voices in our heads, just like that one crazy kid supposedly did, the one who became the basis for an early Tom Hanks movie.) We started with that wonderful old beginner's set, the one with the dragon on the cover, but soon graduated to the classic AD&D First Edition rule books, and those kept us going for years. Mainly it was my older brother Daniel and I, with my younger brother Stuart occasionally joining it (when we let him; we were pretty tight, Daniel and I were--I was always the Dungeon Master, and he would play up to six characters at a time). But in time, with only a few interruptions along the way, all of the Fox brothers became players with one version of the game or another. Of course, all that ended when we went our separate ways to college and missions and jobs and marriages. The one thing we never managed to do, through all those years, was all play an adventure together. That came later.

Our first attempt to resurrect D&D with the whole bunch of us together took place about ten years ago; most of us were married by then, and some of us had kids, and the time seemed right to attempt to get together time at an upcoming family reunion and see what we could pull off. It worked okay, for a while. But some of us were still busy with trying to get careers off the ground or finish an education or settle down with someone, and after a few attempts it came to a halt. I was partly to blame for that; after having spent a decade or so away from a game I'd played for all of the 1980s, I was fired up by the prospect of re-engineering a whole world, and went into DM overdrive, creating all sorts of complicated scenarios. Bad move, especially when you're talking about a bunch of players that are only able to get together once a year or so. So that fell apart....but then, about three years ago, two of my brothers (who live near each other in Salt Lake City and for a long time worked together as well, and thus had plenty of time to talk), came up with a new plan for putting together a campaign, and they were (with not too much effort!) able to pull me in. Our goal was to pick single-shot adventures, high-level stuff that we'd never worked our way up to before and which we thought to we could get into with little backstory or campaign preparation. We decided to go for Against the Giants, a classic set of modules that we had at one time owned in their original versions, but never played. We tracked them down on eBay, and started getting organized. In 2006 we managed the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and this past summer (in the photo you see above; I'm the one DMing in the hat at the table in back, and, yes, two of our brothers had to bow out of the final night's session) we managed the Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, which turned out to be one of best gaming experiences I've ever had. Of course, this means the Hall of the Fire Giant King is waiting for us next year. After that, who knows?

Now as I was pulling stuff together for this year's gathering, Megan started pouring over my 2nd Edition books, asking all sorts of questions. I gave her pointers on designing an adventure, and bought her one of the new beginner's sets they have floating around. (I have to say that as snazzy as they look, I'm not sold on Third Edition, which is why we decided not to bother with an upgrade. Is it true they're going to be releasing a Fourth Edition now?) She started reaching out to her cousins, beginning with Daniel's daughter Cambri, who had absorbed tons of this stuff from her dad, as Megan had from me. (She's the dark-haired girl wearing a red shirt and smiling at the camera in the second photo.) After they decided they were going to have their own adventure at this past summer, they started e-mailing a bunch of other cousins, getting their respective dad's to initiate them into the mysteries of D&D. (Why did none of us marry anyone who had interest in role-playing games? I have no idea. Maybe it has something to do with D&D being, for all us brothers on some level, a male bonding experience. In any case, thankfully, the last couple of times we've done this wives have been mostly understanding, so long as we confine our adventuring to sometime between 8:30pm and dawn.) By the time the reunion rolled around this past August, Megan was ready to crack the whip and get their show on the road.

It was hilarious and nostalgic to watch them play. They didn't really know how, which is what made it so creative and crazy and fun. How much does the DM lead the players in their decisions, how many do-overs do the players get? They would get all hung up on the thrill and drama and stress of what to pack in one's saddlebags. ("Do we have enough rope?!?" C'mon, you know you wasted a good half-hour on that question when you first played, don't deny it.) They would argue for twenty minutes about whether or not they'd done everything to check a door for traps. (Usually, nope. Megan is a mean DM.) Rather than falling into conventional and tried and true patters of heroic playing, they'd delight us all with doing stupid stuff that, hey, if you can roll your dexterity, it might just work! (My favorite was my nephew Clark, whose character was a thief, and who during fights would choose to climb the walls, then the ceilings, and then drop his sword on monsters. Fabulous! I doubt I was that creative when I was in fifth grade and just starting to get this stuff down.)

Abraham, Clark's dad, actually gave us a call a week or so after the reunion, thanking me for my part in getting Megan and the rest of The Next Generation going; on the way home, he and Clark talked and talked and talked about adventures and encounters and monsters--sure, just fantasy stuff you say, but when your subject is a somewhat introverted kid, anything that makes it possible for parents and children to share and connect with one another is a good thing, especially when it opens up the possibility of deeper, more engaged topics of conversation. Which is what it was done with all of us, as well, over the years; my dad has sometimes speculated that it was the shared experience of D&D as much as anything else which has kept seven brothers such good friends (a surprising conclusion on his part, considering that he'd once banned it temporarily from the house). Megan and I have, I think, a pretty good father-daughter relationship, but being invited into her imaginary world, as an adviser and old hand and co-conspirator in planning fabulous plots, and seeing that help pay off as she presents something so fun and fulfilling to her cousins, creating another little circle within the larger family right there...well, it was a source of tremendous joy.

I hope they'll keep it up. If they lose interest and go on to other things (or worse, start playing solely on the computer or over the internet....yeech), well, I'll survive; it's hardly the one true form of geek/intellectual entertainment out there. (We can always watch The Lord of the Rings together.) But this summer, at least, we saw a bunch of our treasured kids have a blast with something we used to have a blast with (and sometimes, when the conditions are right, still do). And that made us feel old, and young, at the same time. Which, I suppose, part of what having traditions, and passing them along, is all about.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Out of Town

Not that any reader of this blog couldn't guess, but I'm off on another one of my periodic breaks. I've actually had a bit a spare blogging time of late, but let's just say that Potter geekery pretty much absorbed all of that. No seriously, the discussions I've been fortunate enough to host and be included in over the past couple of weeks have been spectacular. To all my fellow Potterites, my thanks.

And now, it's family vacation time--this time out to the mountains of Utah for a family reunion. We'll be there over our oldest daughter's birthday (August 9th--her 11th), anniversary (August 13th--our 14th), as well as the Perseid meteor shower, which is supposed to be fantastic this year. And with us being in the Wasatch mountains when they hit their peak...well, it'll sure beat anything our girls would have been able to experience here in Kansas. And, of course, they're excited to see all their cousins too. All around, should be a good trip, assuming we survive the drive. I'll be back in late August; PSTSS and whatever else I can come up with will return then. Have a good last few weeks of summer!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday PSTSS: "Mr. Kennedy"

The story behind me and this song....

About ten years ago, my friend Scott starting sending me music by Robyn Hitchcock, someone whom prior to that point I'd never listened to. I was attracted to many of his tunes (I loved "Viva Sea-Tac!" especially), but I couldn't say that I became a major fan. Then, in 2001, Hitchcock reunited with some members of his old band The Soft Boys, and they hit the road, including a gig in Washington DC, where we were living at the time. Scott bought Melissa and I tickets to the show, as a gift, and we went--and unfortunately were underwhelmed. Not a terrible show, but not one we could get into; it seemed to us as though Hitchcock and Kimberly Rew wanted to play like they were still 20-something punks, and we didn't care for it. Were we showing our age? I suppose. Anyway, that kind of put a damper on future encounters with Hitchcock's work. Fast forward to 2005 or so, when I was compiling a bunch of music which Scott had sent me over the years onto a single cd. While doing so, I listened to "Mr. Kennedy," a tune Hitchcock had written and recorded for the 2002 Soft Boys album Nextdoorland which came out of that aforementioned tour. I was absolutely transfixed. This is, I thought then and still think, a simply brilliant song--much of the power comes from Hitchcock's and Rew's guitar work, plainly, but still, the lyrics were stunning: a rock and roller, in the midst of a bus tour, talking with the driver (the titular "Mr. Kennedy"; Hitchcock discusses the song's origin here), and discovering a particular kind of quotidian grace and mystery in the everydayness of their life on the road. As a mixture of the profound and artistic in the midst of the banality of touring, it does everything Jackson Browne's "The Load-Out/Stay" does, and more.

Here's the thing: I'd listened to this song before, probably several times, without it really ever impacting me. In fact, I'd heard the song live at that DC concert; Scott actually tracked down a bootleg of it for me, which is awesome (both his tracking it down and the recording itself). Funny how it is something can wash right over you at one point of your life, and at another seem like a tremendous work of art, isn't it? But maybe that's the mystique of pop music right there.

Coming into Harrisburg
Never seen a body look so tense
Tell me Mr. Kennedy
Have you ever seen the clouds so dense?

Coming into Cleveland
Riding in the van with Sebadoh
Tell me Mr. Kennedy
Have you ever seen the clouds so low?

Maybe it'll rain
Maybe it'll rain tonight
Maybe it'll rain
Maybe it'll rain tonight

Coming into Paradise
Thinking that I must have been here once
Me and Mr. Kennedy
Haven't seen a blade of grass in months

Maybe it'll rain
Maybe it'll rain tonight
Maybe it'll rain
Maybe it'll rain tonight

Here it comes
Here it comes again
Here she comes here she comes here she comes

Coming into Pittsburgh
Dreaming of a thousand open shops
Me and Mr. Kennedy
Stretching out to catch the first few drops

Tell me Mr. Kennedy
Can you make it rain?
Can you make it rain tonight?
Maybe it'll rain
Maybe it'll rain tonight
Maybe it'll rain
Maybe it'll rain

Sunday, July 22, 2007

It Ends

That's a pretty pretentious title for a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, isn't it? Yes, it is--but then, all of us got at least a little pretentious in regards to the Harry Potter books, didn't we? Sometimes? Alan? Tim? Or maybe it was just me. And maybe all that pretentiousness was generated by my head, never the books themselves. Because I must admit it--I finished Deathly Hallows at about 9:45am Saturday morning (got home from the bookstore at about 1am, read until 4am, tried to sleep for an hour, then got back up and read until I was done), and the very first coherent judgment I could come to was "Huh. A children's story after all."

[From this point on, spoilers abound. You've been warned.]

Please note: I am not saying "children's story" with anything like a sneering or condescending tone; I am not saying that Deathly Hallows reveals the story of Harry Potter to be simplistic or childish or immature. Far from it! But I am saying that, somehow or another, over the last two years--led along, I suppose, by my own outrageously detailed predictions, which of course proved to be almost entirely wrong--I talked myself into seeing these books...differently than I had any right to. I read too much that was epic into them, too much that was mythological and psychological, too much that was adult. I wrote before, both here on my blog and on many comments on many others' posts over the months, that if Deathly Hallows turned out to be a book in which Harry and friends have to run through one more puzzle, figure out one more trick, reveal one more twist in Snape's character, learn one more lesson, all to find Dumbledore proudly waiting for them one more time at the end--in others words, if it turned out to be one more step in a long bildungsroman, a bildungsroman that I was convinced had come to an end in the last book--then I would be immensely disappointed. And...well, it did turn out to be a story with new puzzles for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to solve (figuring out the mysterious gifts left for them by Dumbledore), another trick for them to negotiate (the mystery and temptation posed by the Deathly Hallows), one more surprise revelation about Snape (though admittedly this was the biggest of them all), one more difficult lesson taught (Harry's realization that he had to die), and yes, it even had Dumbledore: not just--as we learn at the end--having orchestrated the recovery of the Sword of Gryffindor and much more via Snape from his half-life in his portrait in the headmaster's office, but even showing up for a heart-to-heart with Harry in the afterlife! And yet...I'm not disappointed at all. In fact, I loved it, and turned the last page aching for more.

Surprisingly enough, I should have let the movies call me to my senses. When Melissa and I went to see "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" the Friday before last (just last week! how the past day and a half have seemed to stretch time...), we walked out of theater thrilled. No, of course it's not some cinematic masterpiece, but it is a great, exciting, affecting fantasy film, and we delighted in rehearsing our favorite scenes. But then, just as quickly we were talking about all the great scenes they left out, all the ways in which they failed to "properly" advance the story, all the misfires in their adaptation. ("As usual, they aren't providing what the story requires to make sense of Snape!"--that sort of thing.) As I turned it over in my head, I could only see more and more holes. But then I wondered: if it, like the other films, had manifestly failed, why did I like it so much? Low expectations? No...it is genuinely a good film on its own terms. And that's when it struck me. What are its own terms? Why, the story of Harry, of course--the Boy Who Lived, the boy who is blessed and cursed and destined to love and fight and lead. A hero, in other words. A boy hero, who must grow to be a man. "Order of the Phoenix" gave us a rousing, powerful, heroic final (yet we know far from truly final) temptation and battle, with everything resting on Harry; it was fantastic. The filmmakers (under J.K. Rowling's watchful eye, perhaps?) have never forgotten, whatever their other mistakes, that this is Harry's story. Me...well, let's say that I probably sometimes let that slip my mind.

And so, of course Harry would live; of course he would go beyond but then come right back again. He's the young hero, the one who by being willing to accept his own death, by growing up, surprisingly (or is it, really?) undoes the last sure magic keeping Voldemort, the enemy of all life, himself alive! No tragic, overarching, transhistorical doom here--Harry is not Frodo, a man who must unknowingly ruin himself for the sake of something larger than himself. Neither is Dumbledore Gandalf, an awesomely powerful agent of those larger things, who is nonetheless himself also in the thick of the battle. No, Dumbledore is the father figure who plans and hopes and risks the best way he knows how, the teacher who must plot and trick and sacrifice so his students can learn what they may and then teach themselves the rest. But also unlike Gandalf, Dumbledore is like an ordinary father and teacher in other ways: a man whose knowledge is limited, who is haunted by his own past, his own failures, his own pre-occupations, who is, at best, only guessing (though his guesses are usually good!). Gandalf could never have a brother like Aberforth, and why would he need one? J.R.R. Tolkien was charting the passing of an age; such stories do not require wizards with existential dimensions. But Rowling has charted the arc of a boy as he grew to become a prophesied hero. His most proper parallel (and this has been noted by many, though never, I think, to my embarrassment, by me) is Taran, from Lloyd Alexander's classic Prydain stories. A boy in love, a boy who doubts, a boy with confused yet fiery ambitions, a boy destined to be high king....but only if he can grow and learn the lessons and accept the help and show the courage he must. Which he did (of course he did; it's a bildungsroman, after all!)--and so did Harry, thus doing exactly the growing up which the books had intended of him all along.

Does that forgive all? Not at all. The comparison with Alexander's compact, tight Prydain novels is a good one: if we were not, in the end, to be led to an epic clash of the best and worst of the wizarding and Muggle worlds and the resulting transformations (and while that door remains open, there is nothing in the final chapter or the epilogue of Deathly Hallows to suggest that much is fundamentally going to change--twenty years later they're still sorting people into houses and inspiring rivalries at Hogwarts, for heaven's sake!), but rather, to be led to a concluding series of tests and choices in the life of the Chosen One, and the hard-won victory which follows, then Rowling really could have and should have written shorter (dare I say less "pretentious"?) books! Yet I bite my tongue in even saying that...because if Rowling is anything, she's a charmer of Dickensian proportions. Her scenes, her characters...gosh I wanted more! I wanted to see Ron and Hermionie abruptly decide to get married while on the run with Harry (dude, if you're living practically alone in a tent for weeks and weeks...). I wanted Regulus Black himself to pop up, somehow or somewhere. I wanted Harry to twist the Resurrection Stone one more time, and have that final (necessary, I insist, necessary!) face to face with Snape, in the presence of the ghosts of Snape's greatest enemies and his only love. I wanted to see Horace Slughorn lay it on the line to the Slytherin students, shut Pansy Parkinson up, and demonstrate (as Phineas Nigellus insisted) that there's a real reason for Slytherin House after all. So, ultimately, Rowling the author puts my thinking at cross-purposes: she has given me a work of fiction that in its themes and intentions are really much simpler (though no less worthy and powerful on their own terms for all that) than all the plots and points of view she has loaded her books up with implied, with imbalanced results...and yet contained within all that pretentiousness was stuff and more stuff, not one bit of which I'd want to lose.

Okay, enough with all my ruminations on the big themes. How about my predictions? Well, I was totally wrong about Harry and Snape and Luna and Viktor Krum and Azkaban and the Order of the Phoenix and the Malfoys and Hogwarts, 99% wrong about Percy and Peter Pettigrew and Slughorn and pretty much everything else. I suppose I could claim a few small, small accuracies here and there, but let's face it: I completely blew it. Oh well, no future in teaching Divination for me. How about the good bits in the book? Well, there are no less than three truly spectacular set pieces: the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, the gloriously wild break-in to (and break-out of) Gringotts, and of course the Battle of Hogwarts--which blew every previous battle in the book away, and intentionally so, as this was Rowling's big chance to bring everyone on for a final bow. (Yes! Percy and Charlie Weasley! The old Quidditch crowd, Angelina Johnson and Oliver Wood! Neville's grandmother! Sir Cadagon! Bane! Buckbeak! Firenze! Kreacher leading an army of house elves! The Molly Weasley-Bellatrix Lestrange showdown, complete with a hat-tip to Sigourney Weaver in Aliens! And Colin Creevy....damn, why did poor Colin's death hit me like fist to the stomach? To say nothing of Fred, Remus, and Tonks!) And that leaves out the escapes from Malfoy Manor (Dobby! You were a free elf, indeed!) and from Nagini at Godric's Hollow. And if battles aren't your thing...well, the departure and return of Ron in chapters 15 and 19, climaxing with Ron's emotionally shattering confrontation with the Horcrux (the only time in reading Deathly Hallows when I did not merely sniffle and tear up, but truly wept), not only provided a payoff to all those who had speculated that, before the end, the one member of the Big Three to whom Rowling had given truly ordinary fears and weaknesses would be forced by Voldemort to face them openly, but also proved to me that if she ever decides to try her hand at adult dramatic or romantic fiction, she definitely has the chops. And how about the comedy? Not much in the middle and latter parts of the book, but the wedding, before everything went to hell, was as witty as all get out (I loved George's suggestion that he teach their new veela cousins "English customs"). And as for quiet pathos, only the hardest heart could fail to be moved, I think, by Rowling's description of the meeting of Harry and Neville before Harry left Hogwarts to meet Voldemort and his death. ("We're all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?") So yes--leaving aside what kind of book it was, and whether it should have been or could have been a different book, what it was, was...well, not perfect. But very, very, very fine.

And what next for all of us who gulped down Deathly Hallows madly, desperate to find out how it ends, and now find ourselves satisfied yet sad, wondering about what might have been and making our peace with a story now done? I wandered a bit around the house Saturday morning, exhausted and elated and a little empty--and then into my head popped the final lines of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, a youth fiction classic that reflects upon deep truths as powerfully as...well, as Alexander's Prydain and now Rowling's Potter books do, too. Milo, the book's young hero, having had a wonderful, dangerous adventure just the day before, rushes home from school to take another trip through the Tollbooth which had mysterious appeared in his bedroom--but instead finds:

[I]n its place was [a] bright blue envelope, which was addressed simply: "FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY."
He opened it quickly and read:

Dear Milo,
You have now completed your trip, courtesy of the Phantom Tollbooth. We trust that everything was satisfactory, and hope you understand why we had to come and collect it. You see, there are so many other boys and girls waiting to use it, too.
It's true that there are many lands you've still to visit (some of which are not even on the map) and wonderful things to see (that no one has yet imagined), but we're quite sure that if you really want to, you'll find a way to reach them all by yourself.
Yours truly,

The signature was blurred and couldn't be read.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for showing us the way to, if not the best place ever, then at least a very, very good place indeed. And now that you've taken us all the way to the end, well, we've got seven hardback novels on our shelves (and Megan has a bunch of paperback novels of her own!), to help us get back there on our own--though you know, if you ever decide to come back and add a little more to the world you've made, please don't let this benediction stand in your way!