Oncoming Autumn

September seems to have slammed the door on summer like a toddler experimenting with the door to her room. This morning when Shannon headed out for her day o’ presidenting, it was about 75 degrees F with 95% relative humidity. At about 10:30 or 11:00, the temperature dropped more than 15 degrees, and – I think – fall began. Not only the weather suggested this. For their morning snack, the girls and I went to the downtown coffeeshop, where a group of middle-aged women at the next table oohed and aahed over them (partly because Vivi wouldn’t take off her sunglasses) and then mentioned that they were celebrating-slash-mourning that they had just sent the last of their girls off to college. Traipsing around town and then playing at the park after snack, we crunched through plenty of fallen leaves. We got home just in time to catch Julia’s favorite PBS.kids show (Dragontales), which is on at a new time for the school year. At 3:30, I drove to an appointment and passed a score of high schoolers running (or, actually, walking) through their cross-country practice. After the girls went to bed, I headed out for a run that was pleasantly chilly and that ended in the dark (even though it was only 8:20!). Friday is Julia’s first day back at preschool! It should be a great autumn…

Ark de Triumphe

I’ve been working for the past couple weeks with a prof at Carleton who is engaged in a big project on a film called Russian Ark, an unabashed “art film” which is well known, in cinephile circles, for having been made in one continuous 90-minute shot that moves through much of the world-famous Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

That achievement – possible only thanks to current “film” (really, digital video) technology – has brought considerable acclaim to the film’s director, Alexander Sokurov, and though I’m not an expert in any aspect of film history, much less filmmaking, I was duly impressed by the way this unbroken-shot technique created a swirling, first-person perspective that was, after just a few scenes, impossible for me to distinguish from my own perspective. More than once, I found myself shifting in my seat or craning my neck to try and see around someone in front of me on the screen – as if I was standing there along the edge of, say, a colossal royal ball, not just watching a meticulous reconstruction of one.

Even more than the incredible feat of a single sustained feature film-length shot, though, I loved the movie’s arc. As some pissy reviewers have noted, Russian Ark has no true plot and very few guides that the viewer can use to decipher the action. But you don’t need much knowledge of Russian history to enjoy the spectacle of the scenes (any of the royal balls, or the incredible sequence in which an aging Catherine the Great insists on venturing into the frigid courtyard), to get wrapped up in the testy but partial conversation between the one main character and the unseen narrator, or – best of all – to enjoy trying to solve the puzzle of exactly what, if anything, is going on. (Try to track Pushkin and his wife through the movie, for instance, or to figure out why there are only one or two scenes set in communist-era Russia and none [as far as I could tell] after 1989.) If, ultimately, that “what” turns out to be “nothing and everything all at once,” then I think the movie has only succeeded in summarizing Russia’s – and everyone’s – history.

Extra: ten minutes of the film, including a few of the amazing strolls through incredible Hermitage corridors…

Call Me, Cineplex Moguls

I have a million-dollar idea for you. (I mean it’ll cost you a million dollars to buy it from me, not that you’ll earn a million from it. You’ll clear a million in the first ten minutes of using it.)

Take your average cineplex lobby. Rearrange things so that I can walk up to the box office and not only purchase a couple tickets to Clone Wars II: We Try to Break Even, but also buy the “family” popcorn deal or the nacho-like chips or a crate of Junior Mints or whatnot, all in one transaction. Ka-chung ka-chung, the tickets print up and on them appears an order number. I stroll around the corner and there awaits my order, all ready except maybe for a jot of butter (no less than three tbsp) and some salt. The kid behind the counter checks my order number against his screen to make sure I’m not taking fare paid for my the Dewy-Eyed Teenagers, and I’m off to my seat for a few thousand pre-movie calories.

This would be much better than the current arrangement in every theatre I’ve visited in the last five years, where you have to make two transactions (for tickets, for refreshments) and wait in long lines to do both. Maybe you put drive-in style menu boards up outside the box office so that the ravening hordes can decide how to stuff their gullets while they wait in the queue. That’s up to you. You’re the one who own the cineplexes, after all.

You’re welcome.


I’m smitten by the British-English convention of using the suffix “-side” to denote locations. I first noticed this construction when I was doing dissertation research on shipbuilding, and read about the world-famous shipyards of Tyneside in northern England, but there are lots of other examples, such as Cheapside in London Now that the Olympics are over, I think the world is ready for a broader use of the convention. Forthwith, a few options for my little slice of the eastern edge of Northfield:

  • Woodleyside
  • Cornside
  • Soybeanside
  • Manureside
  • Mcmansionside
  • Retentionpondside
  • Turbineside
  • Windyside

Gustaving Your Cake and Eating It Too

I dunno if, as some bloggers have alleged, that God is a Democrat. (The only thing that will prove to me that James Dobson’s on the wrong side of the Almighty is seeing live CNN coverage of Satan emerging from a smoking chasm outside Colorado Springs and intoning, “Jimmy, I appreciate all you’ve done for my cause, but it’s time for you to come home.”)

But I would wager the Republicans are looking up and mouthing “thank you” for Gustav. First, by keeping Bush and Cheney from making it to St. Paul, the storm allows McCain-Palin to avoid any photos of McCain alongside Bush or Cheney or a speech by Bush – embarrassing to Republicans and useful to Democrats. Second, the hurricane now gives them the pretext for scaling back the ridiculous convention activities and appear to be taking the high road:

Senator John McCain called a halt on Sunday afternoon to all but the most essential activities for the Republican National Convention on Monday, declaring that it was time for members of his party to “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats” as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Gulf Coast.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to now seek redemption in their response to the third major hurricane to hit New Orleans in three years IF THEY HADN’T SCREWED UP HANDLING THE OTHER TWO!

Just watch them get a free pass from the press on this one…

Evidence that Vivi Is An Unfit Mother

  1. She often picks up her baby (doll) by grabbing the back of her shirt, with two hands around her neck, or by the foot.
  2. When feeding the baby, she often “misses” the baby’s mouth and pokes the baby in the eye, nose, or forehead with the spoon, bottle, or bit of food.
  3. She frequently comforts the baby by picking it up, cooing softly in her ear, and then shrieking loudly and shaking the baby.
  4. She makes little or no effort to communicate clearly, preferring instead a bizarre pidgin of poorly enunciated words, letters, and numbers, along with a healthy number of regular old yells, grunts, and shrieks (see (3) above).
  5. When it’s time for the baby’s nap, she closes her eyes by manually pressing the eyelids shut.
  6. She often uses a beat-up toy grocery cart as a stroller, sometimes without first removing the food in it.
  7. Nobody’s ever seen her change a diaper.
  8. She herself is still wearing diapers.
  9. She frequently covers the baby’s head with her swaddling blanket.
  10. When she tires of playing with her, she drops the doll face-first on the floor.

Sarah Palin

From “The Caucus” blog of the NY Times, more than you could ever want to know about reactions to Sarah Palin, the GOP vice-presidential candidate. The clincher for me (not that I needed one):

“I’m so hot and sweaty, because we’ve been jumping around and hugging,” Lori Viars, a social conservative activist in Lebanon, Ohio, who had been a staunch Mike Huckabee supporter and had previously struggled to muster enthusiasm for Mr. McCain, told our colleague Michael Luo. “It is too good to be true,” she added, after attending the announcement rally in Dayton. “This is better than we could have ever expected.”

From a different Times article, a snort-inducing lede:

Senator John McCain spent the summer arguing that a 40-something candidate with four years in statewide office and no significant foreign policy experience was not ready to be president. And then on Friday he picked as his running mate a 40-something candidate with two years in statewide office and no significant foreign policy experience.

Owning It

Great stuff:

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is – you’re on your own.  Out of work?  Tough luck.  No health care?  The market will fix it.  Born into poverty?  Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – even if you don’t have boots.  You’re on your own.  Well, it’s time for them to own their failure.  It’s time for us to change America.

Sympathy for the Vivi

Vivi, Vivi, Vivi. She loves doors, doorknobs, locks, keys – all that stuff. Today, in a necessary advancement of her portal-related skills, she locked herself in the bathroom. Shannon immediately called me, but managed to jimmy the door open just after I picked up.

That’s the least of her trubs right now, though. Bedtime is the worst, for everyone. I can feel my heart rate increase around seven, when we start giving her the ten- and five-minute warnings about bedtime, and even Julia often gets edgy. Usually, nowadays, Vivi holds it together pretty well for most of the routine. She says night-night to her mom and sister, sits quietly in my lap for a story or two (not even asking, much, anymore, for a third or fourth or nth story), and then asks for her two nighttime songs: “Doo-Doo Uppa Ba Ba,” which translates into English as “Twinkle Twinkle” (the “uppa ba ba” part is her attempt to say her favorite line, “Up above the world so high”), and “Ba Be Bee Bee,” a.k.a., “Rockabye Baby.”

After hearing those in my mellifluous falsetto, she snuggles into her pile of stuffed animals – including, most importantly, the quartet of Ung, Dub-Ya, Biggie, and Munnie (her silky, her bear, Piggie, and Bunny), and asks for “dewwow” and “ink,” her yellow and pink blankets. I put those over her, and then head for the door. Roundabout the time my hand touches the knob, she starts the screaming, and doesn’t let up for the next ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. As Shannon might have said, lo those many days ago when she still blogged, “Not. Pleasant.”

Today, though, things were worse than usual because, first, she threw her stuffed-animal friends out of bed, and then, after I retrieved them, refused to lie down, saying over and over, “Bet! Bet! Bet!” I was mystified, until, disgusted with me, she patted her bottom and shrieked it at me – she was saying “Wet! Wet!” She’s increasingly interested in potty training, and now suddenly can’t stand to be wet. So while Julia crawled into her own bed, I changed Vivi’s diaper and settled her into her crib again. Five minutes later, she was out.

Vivi, Vivi, Vivi. She is a handful – or two, or four – but I feel for her. Her reach so exceeds her grasp, she can’t help but be mad at the world, and most of us in it.

First Book

As Julia edges toward being able to read on her own, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own reading history. In an IM conversation the other day with a friend whose son – both bookish and newly bespectacled, so you have to like him – read the first Harry Potter in one day – I suddenly remembered reading my first Hardy Boys book in what must have been the first week of Mrs. Bauer’s second grade class.

I had been disappointed in Mrs. Lesperance’s first grade class when I could only choose books from a certain section in the library (I’d read all the Richard Scarry books already: the Man was keeping me down even then), and I had really wanted to read the books that my friend Mark’s older brothers were reading, like the Hardy Boys. So when, early in second grade, the librarian said we could choose any book we wanted, I zoomed over to the long shelf of blue-and-black Hardy Boys books. I checked out The Secret of the Lost Tunnel, perhaps because it was the first one I saw, perhaps because I liked the cover art, perhaps because I was mildly obsessed with a weird little root-cellar thing we had at our house, or perhaps because I had an early love of the double entendre.

Secret of the Lost Tunnel
Secret of the Lost Tunnel

I read the book in the time it took to wait for the bus, ride the bus home, and walk up the driveway. It was a long bus ride, and a long driveway, but still – I had that shit down: I remember being able to correctly finish sentences that my dad read out from the book.

God. Nowadays I can barely remember to read a book, much less what I read.

That being so, the aforementioned friend (he of the readery son) and I are engaged in a little parallel-reading exercise that might interest certain readers of this blog – mostly the literate ones, but also lovers of Victorian fiction who may or may not be red-haired. We’re making our way, three chapters a week, through G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, available in a snazzy Vintage paperback ($8.95) or at Bartleby.com. The book is described as “a zany mystery story filled with often surreal twists that turn more traditional thrillers on their ear,” and it’s certainly that, so far. (One of the main characters has red hair, Rob!) You’re welcome to pick up the book and read along with us, perhaps making a comment of two. You can find our amateur lit-crit at The Blog Who Was Thursday.

Having It

In reply to my lovely wife’s plea…

Though this summer has not been the very best one of my life, I’m glad to have lived it, and looking forward to the fall and winter. During these last few golden sunny months, people I know have been diagnosed with cancer but are facing it with enormous strength and will and humor; have been burglarized and horribly sick but, again (what is it with our tough friends?), are dealing with it with laughter and fortitude; have faced unexpected surgery but – that’s right – have persevered.

Sure, China spent billions of dollars on facilities that were used for 14 days of sports competition, in a city where babies die every day in poverty, but great powers have always done stupid things to impress each other, and at least this one didn’t involve killing anyone. Gas and grocery prices have increased astronomically, and while they’re not coming down much, they have generated – I think – some real thinking about how to get America out of our terrible growth-at-all-costs morass. The health care crisis in this country continues to spiral out of control, and might spell doom for my children’s generation (truly, even for my own) if it goes unchecked – but, again, there finally seems to be a modicum of political will to figure out some way to provide here what every other citizen of an advanced society already has.

My draining second job will go on a one-term hiatus between January and May, but then pick up right where it left off in June. Over that time, we can tap our small but big-enough savings account, and I should see a nicely-sized raise at my regular job. I have just as much faith in humankind as I ever did, what with seeing my wife work hard alongside other volunteers to skillfully and rapidly solve an ugly situation at the preschool where my daughter goes. My nieces and nephew are poor minority children with no father and multiple medical and mental-health conditions, but they are better off than many kids in their shoes because they’ve got at least two families – my parents-in-law and my siblings-in-law – who are there for them, literally and figuratively. Economic disparity is everywhere I look, not least here in Northfield, but I’m hopeful that by putting a smart man in the White House this fall, we can start to close the gulf between the have-too-muches and the have-too-littles.

And sure, people buy and build ridiculous houses right around the corner from our place, but those houses don’t necessarily make them happier, and certainly don’t make me unhappy – just amused. It’s all a bit depressing, but I fall back on what I know about history and think about how glad I am that it’s not 1938, or 1908, or 1808, or 1508. Those were some tough times, and I’ll bet the summers of those years sucked a lot more for a lot more people than this one did for us.

And but so what makes me happy these days? My wife, even as she hunts for the clouds behind the silver linings, and especially my two girls. Hearing the younger count impeccably to ten in her squeaky little toddler voice is as wonderful as it is a challenge to tactfully answer the older’s question about where mean people go when they die. I’m also cheered by the wonderful weather, by the promise of a snowy winter, by the return of my favorite sports, by my regular job, by hot coffee… Too many things to list, really, but they sum up every day to making everything worthwhile.