Top 25

I teach a class called “Introduction to Fine Arts.”  It’s a survey-type course, designed as the standard arts-appreciation component of a university’s core curriculum.  In addition to critical theory, we cover painting, photography, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, drama, film, and TV/video all in one semester.  When I inherited the course from the previous professor, the assignment for the unit on film asked students to watch and comment on any Oscar-winning movie.  Because the Academy Awards can sometimes be based on political or sentimental motivations, rather than on purely artistic merit, I decided to change the requirement.  Now students are asked to select a movie from among the top 25 films on the American Film Institute’s list known as “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies,” which was updated in 2007 from the original list created by the AFI in 1988 to celebrate one hundred years of film-making.  While this list is far from perfect, I believe it more adequately presents a collection of films that were either ground-breaking in some way or exemplified the best  of a particular genre or format.

Over the years, my students have responded very positively to this assignment, and I have enjoyed reading their thoughts and critiques concerning the films on the list.  However, with the closing of Blockbuster and other movie-rental outlets, the proliferation of Redbox kiosks, and the increased dependence of many on streaming video services like Netflix, I discovered that many students had difficulty in locating some of the older films on the list.  So last year I invested in ownership of all twenty-five movies in DVD format so that I could lend them to my students for this assignment.  I already owned six of the movies on the list, and I purchased the remaining DVDs from Movies Unlimited, an online supplier with good prices and an enormous catalog.

After compiling my collection, I realized that I had not ever seen ten of these films, and there were several others that I had viewed so long ago that I could barely remember them.  If I was going to ask my students to watch these movies, shouldn’t I be familiar with them all?  That was the impetus for this new project.  I plan to watch all 25 movies in descending order, starting this summer, and then write about each one.  If I view one film a week, I should be finished with this plan in mid-November.  But knowing that there will be some weekends filled with other activities, I hope to accomplish this goal by the end of 2012.

I established this blog with great intentions a few years ago, but I’ve let it slide recently.  This project will, I hope, encourage me to keep it more current and to use it as per my original intention.  Wish me luck!!

too old to rock and roll

Yesterday (Sunday) was an interesting day for me.  While getting ready for church on Sunday morning, I always watch CBS Sunday Morning, a wonderful news-magazine show that features human interest stories, profiles of artists and musicians, music and movie reviews, and commentaries from people like Ben Stein and Mo Rocca.  Yesterday’s features were as excellent as always – a profile of Michael Buble (YUM!), an article about the full moon and its supposed effects on human behavior, interviews with people involved in the polygamist cult in El Dorado.  There was also a review of a new film documentary, called Young@Heart about folks in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, who sing arrangements of rock’n’roll songs and travel around performing at various functions.  Here’s a link to the review.  It was ironic that I saw this particular item on the day that I made my “rock” debut.

My church has a praise band that has been in existence for two or three years now.  When it was first formed, there was a general invitation for interested musicians and singers to join up.  At the time, I felt that I was too old for something like that – I worried that they wouldn’t want somebody as old as me associated with the group.  Not that the founders were teenagers or anything, mind you – the organizer, Richard, is in his mid-forties.  The other singers and musicians varied in age, from a teenaged drummer to a lead guitarist who is just one or two years younger than I.  It was my own perception of my age that was holding me back – that, and the idea that maybe this was just a flash-in-the-pan group that would surge then fade away.  I didn’t think I wanted to be associated with that, and I didn’t think I had the time.

But over the years, I’ve become good friends with several of the members of the praise band.  The musicians play along with the worship team on regular Sundays, and on one Sunday per month the band with its singers leads worship alone.  They also have performed at a couple of outside functions.  As my friendship with the praise band members grew, I began to regret my decision to not be involved.  They were having fun, growing as friends, and enjoying the opportunity to make music together.  I wanted in. 

So I started hinting around that maybe I could help out on keyboards.  They haven’t had a consistent keyboard player, although the church pianist used to play with them sometimes.  A few weeks ago, after our monthly Angel Food distribution, I “jammed” with the guitarists, just for fun.  I realize now that the jam session was a sort of informal tryout.  The guys wanted to see what I could do, if I could pick up the music quickly, and if I could play in a style that would help rather than hinder.  After all, I’m the church organist – not a prime candidate for playing the type of light rock favored by the praise band members.

However, of the three or four keyboardists at our church, I’m probably the one most uniquely qualified to fill this role.  The reason goes back to my days in high school.  In 1970, my youth minister started a coffee house ministry as a way to reach out to young people.  The church owned a rickety old frame house that stood on the edge of property purchased for building a parking lot.  We gutted the interior of the house, built a stage in one corner of the main area, painted the walls flat black then painted Christian graffiti-style messages around the perimeter in day-glo paints.  The small kitchen was remodelled so that a counter area could be used for serving coffee and cold drinks, and a small bedroom was turned into a prayer chapel.  The youth director held auditions and formed a “folk group” to play in the coffee house every Friday night.  The coffee house was dubbed “The House of the Risen Son” (get it?) and the band was called “The Residents.”  I was a member of that original group.  I sang and played the Fender-Rhodes electric piano.  Most of the songs we sang were covers of popular folk music songs, and then we would finish each set with a couple of Christian songs and a brief testimony.  This was way before the days of the Christian music industry – there were very few original pop-style Christian songs to choose from.  As keyboard player, I had to learn how to read chord charts and play by ear while singing. 

Although those skills are a bit rusty, they’re still with me thirty-five or so years later.  And those are the skills that are needed to support my current church’s praise band.  As I was getting dressed and putting on my makeup yesterday morning, I was anticipating my first public performance with the band.  Then the CBS Sunday Morning review came on, showing clips of senior citizens singing rock’n’roll with obvious joy.  The reviewer was quick to point out that the Rolling Stones are nearing their seventies themselves.  So the music that was once considered to be in the strict province of the young – don’t trust anyone over thirty, etc. – is not so anymore.  Still, as I left the house and headed for church, I wondered if I was going to be able to pull this off.  At least I could hide behind the keyboard, I thought – I wasn’t going to be standing out in front with the other singers.

When we started playing the music, all concerns about age faded away in the rush of excitement I felt in being a part of the band.  Making music with other people is an extraordinarily satisfying experience.  Even though we had some minor gaffs (as usual), I felt that the music went well, and that the congregation was given the opportunity to worship with us as we sang and played.  The whole point of church music is to express corporate worship, after all.  We weren’t on the stage to perform, but to lead and provide opportunities for the church members to experience worship.  But we wanted to play well, and I think we did.  After all, as I have said many times, if you “mess up” – if you play the wrong note or chord or sing the wrong word – that brings the congregation’s attention to you.  If you play well, you become transparent, and the people in the pews are freed to sing along and participate in making music that lifts them up, and that allows them to sing praises to God.  But the average person in the pew needs to feel confident in the music in order to be able to really let go, forget their inhibitions, and sing.  So it’s important that the musicians convey that confidence.  I think we did pretty well for the most part.  And I have to say that it was one of the most purely enjoyable experiences I have had lately.  I don’t care how old I get, I will always treasure the gift of music.


Scrabble ClassicI love to play the game of Scrabble.  I have always enjoyed it, from childhood on, and I enjoy playing in a variety of formats.  My recent obsession began with my association with the DBU Writing Center.  My office is located on the floor above the Writing Center (UWC for short), and there is an elevator just outside my door.  For a variety of reasons (unimportant in this context), I prefer going down to the basement to use the restroom, instead of walking across the library to use the restroom on my own floor.  Sometimes I stop by the UWC on my way to or from a bathroom break, and visit with the staff there, who have become my good friends.  Their former director bought a classic Scrabble game to keep on hand, as a way to encourage language development.  About a year or more ago, we started playing Scrabble on occasion during the lunch hour.  Of course, we have more opportunities to get together for a game during the summer months or (as we have this week) during a break.  The usual players include the staff and student workers of the UWC, myself, and some members of the English faculty – although we’ve had other guests as well. 

The game brings out different qualities in each of us.  Some are more competitive than others.  Some tend to carry a defeatist attitude at times – and in truth, it’s really hard to beat Dr. Rose Johnson unless she has terrible tiles.  She’s very clever and very competitive, and she knows how to play defensively as well.  Personally, I don’t really care if I win or not, although it’s fun when I do win.  But sometimes my pleasure in winning is diminished by feeling sorry for the other players if they’ve had bad luck.  Mostly I play because I love words.  I get a real charge out of making a great play, especially if the play involves an unusual or esoteric word – regardless of how many points I can make.  Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy making points as much as anyone else, and I try to play strategically.  But the fun for me is in the challenge and the camaraderie.  We have terrific conversations while we play.  Sometimes we laugh until our sides and faces hurt; other times we discuss really serious matters, both personal and professional.  One always popular topic of conversation involves how difficult our jobs are – in other words, we enjoy venting frustration.  No matter who wins or loses, or what topics may be discussed, I always come away feeling renewed and refreshed.  It’s a great way to break from office routine.

Less enjoyable, but still pleasant, are the online Scrabble games I play.  Right now, I have four games going in facebook, using the Scrabulous application, but I’ve had as many as six before.  I also play online via email using a website called Pixie Pit.  I’ve only managed to keep two games going simultaneously in that format.  But a couple of weeks ago I was participating in 7 different games between those two venues.  I didn’t even pay attention to the scores – I just enjoyed keeping the games going, finding new ways to play my tiles.  But at one point, it seemed that the Scrabble gods were definitely against me.  In each of my seven games, I had only vowels, no consonants, in each hand.  Seven games, no consonants at ALL. 

Although I had played the game as a kid, I really learned to appreciate it and play for strategy when I was a young newlywed.  I had been an elementary music teacher, but when I got married we moved too far away from my school, so I quit that job and looked for another position closer to my new home.  However, I started the interview process too late in the summer (after the wedding and honeymoon and spending time setting up housekeeping) and I couldn’t find a job when school started that fall.  So I got a job in a big insurance company – John L. Wortham Insurance agency near downtown Houston.  The office manager was an older woman who took a motherly interest in me.  She found out that I enjoyed playing Scrabble, and so she brought her game to the office and she and I would play in her cubicle during our lunch periods.  She was a masterful player, and I lost game after game.  But as I lost, I also watched, and I began to pick up some of her strategies and tricks.  The job itself was pretty boring, so our lunchtime games quickly became the highlight of my workday. 

As I sit here in my living room, I look up to the top of my bookshelves, where I can see four boxed Scrabble games.  That may seem like a lot until you consider my dear friend Ka.  I don’t know how many versions of the game she has, but there are at least 7 or 8 Scrabble games in the Writing Center, and she probably has more at home.  She also owns lots of Scrabble paraphernalia – mugs and notecards and soup bowls and all kinds of things sporting the Scrabble logo.  There are literally thousands of such items available in today’s marketplace – Ka gets most of hers through eBay, but you can buy Scrabble items through retail stores as well.  So what makes Scrabble such a popular and lasting game?  It’s really more of a phenomenon than most people realize.  What is the attraction?

Scrabble doesn’t sport any fancy bells and whistles.  It’s a simple game based on crossword puzzle logic that depends on equal parts of luck and skill.  Players must be good spellers and possess a wide vocabulary in order to be successful.  It’s not a particularly exciting game – it’s not fast-moving or dramatic in any way.  And yet hundreds of thousands of people are addicted to the game.  There is a Scrabble tournament sub-culture that is fanatic and fascinating.  (The documentary film Word Wars follows several top-ranked tournament players as they prepare to compete in the annual world contest held in Las Vegas.)  Movies like The Wedding Planner and The Thomas Crown Affair (the original, not the re-make) and Return to Me feature Scrabble players, clubs, and contests in their plots.  Obviously, there’s something to this game!

If I really wanted to, I could spend the next several minutes in some light research and harvest interesting facts and figures about Scrabble from the internet.  But this blog is supposed to be fun for me, not taxing and difficult like real school work, so I’m going to forego that endeavor and just let any readers who are interested find their own facts.  Share them if you’d like by commenting on this post!  For my part, I will close by saying that the facts and statistics don’t really matter that much to me.  I would enjoy playing the game no matter how popular or unpopular it might be.  I find it infinitely engaging and challenging, and I hope to be able to play Scrabble for the rest of my life.

Geekiness: a confession

Tonight I have been organizing my new account.  I uploaded almost 400 links from my favorites list on my work computer, and I realized that a lot of them I had never looked at more than once.  I spent the greater part of the last two days paring the list down and checking links, although I haven’t managed to check them all yet.  But the interesting part of this, to me at least, is that I would spend that much time doing something like that.  I diligently plowed through hundreds of links, changing tags, deleting links that either didn’t work or that I thought weren’t interesting, and carefully combing the list to make sure that everything was consistent and true.  Why?  I have only the vaguest idea.

It’s the same compulsion that affects me at home.  I have over 400 DVDs, and they are organized alphabetically on shelves in my living room.  Not only that, but I have an excel spreadsheet that lists not only the movie titles in my DVD collection, but also the directors, actors, actresses, dates of release, and genres for each movie.  I have really agonized over the genres sometimes – for example, I have a lot of musicals that are also romantic comedies, so I give them both designations.  But what about the musical Chicago?  It’s a musical, but what else?  A satire?  A drama?  Sometimes I’m just not sure. 

My mind just works that way.  Everything is subconsciously alphabetized in my brain.  A lot of times I will try unsuccessfully to remember somebody’s name, or the name of a place, and I may offer up the wrong name.  But 99% of the time, if the answer is wrong, it will have at least started with the correct letter, because my brain works alphabetically to retrieve information.  I imagine that inside my head is a vast warehouse of file cabinets, and I hope that the files inside are neat and orderly.  Crazy?  Perhaps.

I’m sure that this is one of the reasons I became a librarian.  Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading, says that librarians are the organizers of the universe.  I believe I fit into that mold fairly well.  But I’m not really proud of this tendency.  I think it makes me too conservative, too hesitant to take risks, too boring and judgmental.  I want to be a free thinker, a more creative writer, and a fun friend – and I’m not sure my obsessive-compulsive behaviors really help me to make and keep friends.  They make me a pretty good Scrabble player, though!

One other thing that you may notice concerning my OCD behaviors – I will rarely, if ever, post a blog entry containing a misspelled word.  If I do, please let me know.  I’ll agonize over it until it can be fixed!

Hello world!

This is my latest attempt at blogging, and I hope it will be more successful than the last.  I tried keeping a blog that was strictly dedicated to book reviews, but that got really tedious after awhile.  It began to feel more like work than fun, so I posted less and less frequently.  This new blog is inspired by my good friend Wes Moore, who decided to give blogging a try and has done so quite successfully in my opinion.

Like most new bloggers, I doubt if anyone will ever read this, but I think I will enjoy having an outlet for my compulsion to rant.  I’ve also been inspired by friends like Karice Ledford, who have used blogs as an efficient way to share personal news with friends near and far. 

I’m not young – I’m over 50 now (unbelievable!).  Which means that I’m categorized as a “digital immigrant” – I didn’t grow up with computers and the internet.  However, I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of acclimatizing myself to the digital atmosphere.  I was fairly reluctant to enter the realm of social networking, but last month I joined facebook, and now I’m creating a blog to go along with it.

What can you expect to see here?  An occasional book or movie review, frequent rants concerning TV shows or current events – especially pop culture topics, personal stories, musings on life and love (or the lack thereof), and – of course – agony and angst as I continue with a hectic life that includes a full-time job, a part-time job, the pursuit of a PhD, church activities, friends and family, and the usual time-wasters.

And with this, I finish my first step into the blogosphere!