Friday, September 29, 2006

Voila! The fourth-year review is submitted!

From the introductory narrative piece --

Cinema is rife with elements that come in threes. We talk constantly about classic Hollywood movies operating under a “three-part structure,” we venerate epic trilogies like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or Krysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors films, and several notable films from the 1990s to the present play with the narrative structure of the triptych, as in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Milko Manchevski’s Before the Rain or Alejandro Gonález Iñárritu’s Amores perros. In all of these cinematic situations, however, the crucial section is the middle. With the dazzling theatrics characteristic of an opening and the climactic finale still to come, the “middle” section in each of these permutations of three seems to hold the danger of lagging, making the piece as a whole uninteresting or, worse, irrelevant. In the examples I list above, however, the second section is often the most interesting section when held under closer scrutiny, providing convincing information to propel the narrative forward, even when the viewer knows the film is not yet complete. I view my progress toward tenure in the light of these cinematic examples and hope this portfolio, the second of an anticipated three, provides evidence of the continued rapid momentum of my teaching, scholarship and service.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Watching "Heroes," as little as possible

Last night, NBC decided to re-air the premiere of a new show called Heroes, which I had originally pooh-poohed from the ads as X-Men Lite, incorrect spelling intentional. The show got rave reviews, however, on Monday, so I decided to give it a chance. I now consider NBC's strategy of re-airing premieres genius, as I now claim to be hooked (at least until 24 begins whenever it begins). Some comments:

First, great storytelling. There is nothing really new being done here, but it's done really well. For example, I didn't see the end coming at all.

Second, it's good to see Adrian Pasdar working again. I have said this before (I think) that he starred in Profit, one of the best series about a deliciously bad person that got kicked off the schedule after only four episodes. (Damn you, Fox!... But wait, it's on DVD now! Hooray!!...) Even though he's not nearly as good here, it's good to see him working. Likewise, it's very unusual to see otherwise eye-candy Ali Larter actually demonstrating that she can act, after Final Destination and Legally Blonde. Not to mention that I still don't understand exactly what power she has, but I'm scared of it.

Third, I looooove Masi Oka, who may be the most endearingly hilarious character on television after the entire cast of My Name Is Earl. Along with the upcoming movie Babel, I think that Japanese may be the newly hip nationality of choice, replacing Korean and Icelandic.

Finally, and the real reason I'm blogging about this at all, is Milo Ventimiglia. He looks different here that he did when he played the bad boy in Gilmore Girls, but that's OK. Angela and I were watching the show and almost immediately, she turned to me and said, "Doesn't that look like Dan?"

Ah, Dan. My former teaching assistant now does as little as possible, has been keeping his cars lately in our driveway and, ever since he was my teaching assistant, has been confused with other brooding actors with dark hair and intensely bright eyes. This started when he screened Psycho for my class and, as he opened discussion, found that people were freaked out because they thought he looked like Anthony Perkins. Oddly enough, they were right. (We then played this up by having me race through the classroom dressed as Mother and pretend to stab him at the front of the classroom as a Halloween prank.) Lately, he's been confused for Jake Gyllenhaal. The funny/scary thing about this confusion is that Ventomiglia's character on this show actually seems to also carry himself somewhat like Dan does, if Dan insisted to his older brother that he could fly. Which makes me wonder if Hollywood execs are atually stalking Dan's apartment or something. Which could be a television series in itself, come to think of it. Dan, what do you think?

Friday, September 22, 2006

No more snakes on a plane (or Virgin Mary statues, for that matter...)

While waiting for Angela to pick me up from work yesterday, I stumbled upon a shockwave game called Airport Security. This should be played, if for no other reason that to see the ever-changing, absurd instructions that pop up at the bottom of the screen: "Due to enhanced security measures, passengers will not be permitted to wear PANTS through the security chackpoint" -- which means you then have to remove all passengers' pants, along with the hemarrhoid suppositories, MP3 players, shampoo and shoes which had been previously declared as dangerous. (Add to this the fact that it's actually not the easiest of games, particularly since you lose points not only for letting bad things through the checkpoint but also for violating passenger rights by not keeping ahead of the latest security measures!)

Perfect for those of us who, um, ran into problems at the airport...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Which is more fabulous?

Please choose one of the following:
(a) The fact that Xan is developing an appreciation for yardwork at an early age;
(b) The fact that his rake and mine match colors; or
(c) The fact that I'm doing yardwork wearing my purple Doc Martens, purchased en route to a Machines of Loving Grace/My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult concert in Boston circa 1992? Posted by Picasa

Mmmmm... Wellness...

At this very moment, I am savoring the deliciously sweet, crispy yet doughy wonder that is funnel cake.

Which I picked up at the AU Wellness Fair, where many people are trying to show how people can be healthier.

I would discuss the incongruities here, but I am too busy dusting the powdered sugar off my jeans and basking in the wonderful feeling of my arteries hardening exponentially due to deep-fried dough.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

No, it's not Dr. Seuss

I've been tagged by Cathy of Where's My Cape? for this particular meme:

The rules:
-Grab the book closest to you
-Open to page 123
-Scroll down to the 5th sentence
-Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog
-Name of the book and the author
-Tag 3 people

As it happens, I have a small stack of books by my bed which comprise (in the manner of Italo Calvino's stroll through the bookstore in If on a winter's night a traveler, which we read for class today) the Books I Will Someday Read When I Have Time. I thought the one on top was Alex McLennan's The Zookeeper (which is a great read and is also by an AU MFA alum), but as it turns out, a different book happened to be on top, probably put there by one little boy with damp fingers.

As it turns out, the result is rather amusing.

The quote:
"HUMPF! I'll try it again. HUMPF!"

No, really, that's it. And it's taken from Life of Pi by Canadian author Yann Martel. It won the Booker Prize in 2002 and is due to be made into a film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet this coming year.

Tagged, because I'm curious what books are lying around them:
  • nephew Joel, living in blue shift;
  • friend Jenny, living in Baggage Carousel 4 (that is, when she's not in coffeehouses telling my current students certain nicknames, ahem!!!); and
  • newly rediscovered former student Dan and/or his lovely wife Linzey, who are both Buono da Mangiare down in the bayou.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

God bless Kentucky

With my pre-tenure review materials due in less than two weeks, enough colleagues (at last night's departmental party) and students (last week during class) asking me about two texts that I will now be forced to read/view them (the former asking about the film Little Miss Sunshine, the latter about Mark Danielewski's novel House of Leaves), and a son that is literally climbing hand-over-fist over everything, I should hardly have time for reality television. (Thank goodness I don't have cable, or we'd be all over Project Runway given the two episodes I saw over the summer.) I won't even comment about Survivor, whose ratings-baiting race division turned out to be a relative non-event on the actual show.

But I must point out something from tonight's episode of The Amazing Race, back to form as it jettisons the boring families-go-across-America version from last year and returns to the two-person team format it does so well. Part of me was sorry that the first two teams eliminated happened to be the Muslims and the Hindus, who all seemed charming and personable. No Survivor-type conspiracy manipulation here, I'm certain: just bad luck as both teams got bad drivers to get them to their locations in China.

Here's what warmed my heart: in China, virtually all the contestants were shown speaking English to everyone, including their drivers. The first person shown to say "thank you" in Chinese, however, (indicating the forethought to be culturally sensitive and learn some of the language) was Mary, the 31-year-old Kentucky coalminer's wife who had only once been on a plane before this experience. Given the current world political climate where we Americans seem to revel in our backwards attitudes toward the rest of the world, this one fleeting moment of a silly reality show genuinely made me smile and think that maybe there is some hope for us after all.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Overheard on NPR this evening during All Things Considered was this story about Pope Benedictine XVI. Read this aloud and see if you can figure out why I started laughing a moment after hearing this read by Sylvia Poggioli on the radio.

"In Turkey, some of the harshest reactions were from an official of the Islamic-rooted ruling party. He said Pope Benedict's words look like an effort to revive the mentality of the crusades, and he compared the pope to Hitler. In an effort to quell the furor, the Vatican issued a statement saying the pope wants to cultivate respect and dialogue with other religions and cultures, and had no intention to offend Islam..."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Diary of a Montgomery County Election Judge

In 2004, I answered a call sent out on a public radio PSA that was asking for bilingual-Spanish people to work as election judges. I was assigned outside my own district to Pine Crest Elementary School in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring. During that presidential election, I assisted only about three votes out of nearly a thousand with Spanish, but did pretty well with helping voters use new touch-screens. The Republican Chief Judge (a really nice guy) suggested that I apply to be Chief myself for the next election. So earlier this year, when the Democrat recruiter begged me to be a Chief for the same school, I said yes. What could possibly go wrong?


I should note before I go on that I have been up since 5:00AM. Tomorrow, I have to wake up with my son no matter what (because he could care less what I did today, he wants to play), take him for a doctor's visit (avec les shots), then race to campus to catch a post-screening discussion for one class, followed by a block class for which I am quite underprepared. All that said, I feel compelled to write this, and to do it right away. (Marcy, Jenny: This is especially for both of you.)

To start with, if you're reading this, you should know that on Monday night, I met with all my poll-workers to set up as much as we could before the morning rush. We set up the actual touch-machine polls on their legs, hung up some signs, coordinated what we would do with meals and when. You should also know that most items immediately applicable to the election cannot be opened the night before: the machines themselves, bags contained secured voting items, etc. All these items have tamper tape and locks and what-not to ensure lack of fraud. (We will not go into the Diebold issue, which is separate from what happened today. Yes, these are Diebold machines.) The crew seemed apt and congenial and G (my Republican counterpart, a lovely retired woman) and I both were confident we would be OK. Neither one of us had been a Chief before, but we had some good vibes. My main concern was that I still had to go home after set-up to (a) review my notes for the election and (b) make a curried lentil dip for my fellow election judges that I had already bought ingredients for.

We all arrived at 6:00AM as scheduled. Actually, G arrived about 5 minutes late. No big deal, except she had the bags with the keys and what-not. Everyone started doing what they were supposed to be doing with set-up. I opened the bag with all the secured equipment to get the keys and to get the plastic Voter Assistance Cards that would allow each voter to vote. (As a voter, you need to first have the card encoded with the proper primary election, then you are allowed to vote on the machines.)

No cards.

My first thought was: We must have dropped them somewhere when we opened the bag.

We searched the bag again, the table that the bag had been placed on, other secured bags. We thought about checking G's car for another bag, even though she insisted she had brought all the bags and besides, by law, once we were in the polling place, we weren't supposed to leave. We checked our handbooks for the excruciantingly inclusive checklist of items ("8 pencils"), trying to figure out where the bags were supposed to be.

I thought: No. There is no way they would have forgotten to pack all of the single item that people actually needed to vote with.

We call the hotline. I get put on hold for a while, tell everyone else to do what they can do to get ready. Someone finally answers. I tell them we have no VAC cards. The man says that they are aware of the problem.

For a split second, I try not to faint.

They continue to tell us that they are on their way with the cards, but that if they don't arrive in time, we need to prepare to do provisional voting.

More explanation: provisional voting usually occurs when there is a discrepancy between what is in the log book and what a voter says is true -- for example, party affiliation doesn't match, or they just moved from another part of the state, or they got married and their name changed, but none of these changes are yet in the pollbook. If this occurs, the voter fills out some forms at the Assistant Chiefs' table and is then given a paper ballot; after they fill that out, they seal the ballot in a special envelope and drop it in a big bag. This shouldn't happen very often, but it can be a somewhat lengthy process. Indeed, at 6AM, I had joked to the Assistant Chiefs (E and M, hereafter referred as a pair as ACs) that they were the ones who would be lounging around all day.

I hang up and relay the information to all the staff. Everyone's mouths drop open: they forgot the VAC cards??I warn the ACs to prepare for the worst. We are confident that they will get the cards to us before we open. We start all the machines up as usual.

Mind you, once again, it should be remembered that once we go into the polling area, we are sealed off from the world. No one can call us, there is no news, no radio, nada. We had no idea that this was happening practically all over the county. Because, who would forget such an important item in EVERYONE'S PACKETS?

At around 6:50, we realize that the VACs probably aren't going to arrive. G and I (OK, I...) decide that we have to open on time, that there were people there to vote and they needed to vote. And that we would do it provisionally.

At some point during all of this, our student arrives. Montgomery County offers community service credit to students who work a four-hour shift at the polls doing unobtrusive stuff like handing out stickers or making sure people don't walk away with the expensive VACs. I sit Mary down and tell her that we have a different job for her. We explain what's going on and then tell her that her job will be to inform everyone outside what is going on: that we will be voting on provisional ballots until the VACs arrive (which they should at any minute) and, because of the paperwork involved, that the process would be relatively slow. They could wait in line or, if they had to go to work or wanted to vote on the machines, to come back later; no matter what, their vote would be counted. (Bless your heart, Mary: she had potentially the most crucial job today and she performed it flawlessly.)

We open at 7:00AM. On time.

G and I quickly inform all the voters of the situation, but that we will continue voting provisionally until the cards arrive, which should be at any minute. I then call again to ask if they knew where the cards were.

A word now about G: she is a wonderful woman, and a real trooper for agreeing to be the Chief. She's also retired and, frankly, can get a little frazzled. She had already confessed to me when we first met (days ago, when we checked out the school space before the election) that she thought she was in over her head; I assured her that us newbies would be fine. That woman is fabulous for letting me drag her along with everything I thought we should do to ensure that everything would be bipartisan.

G and I decide to help the ACs out, who are swamped in paperwork. At this point, I realize that I had just glanced at this section of my handbook, assuming that there would be so few provisional votes that the ACs could handle it.

Around 8:30, we realize that we are going to run out of Democrat ballots. (Montgomery County, not Bethesda: not a surprise.) We call and ask them to send some. They indicate that ballots are on their way. Realizing that that was what they said about the VACs two hours ago (and several phone calls later, and still not here), we ask what to do. They tell us to photocopy some ballots. One of the judges has the presence of mind to point out that we are in a Montgomery County school which therefore should have a copier. Indeed, they do: in fact, a big shout out to the fab people at Pine Crest Elementary, for giving us all the supplies we begged for without a blink.

At around 8:45, we realize we will run out of the special provisional envelopes written in English. We photocopy the instructions off of one of them and start using the Spanish-language ones.

Soon after, we run out of those. When we called the BOE about this, we are told to "make do the best we can." Thankfully, I am a professor and I have to write lots of letters of recommendation. We ask the school for bunches of envelopes, which we direct people to write the pertinent information on, then sign across the back flap to ensure that no one has tampered with their vote.

Mind you, everyone is voting. We told no one that they could not vote. We never stopped the process, thinking ahead to prevent a pause at every step. The good people of Woodmoor, if they were upset, never took it out on us, who realized that we were doing the best we could. Thankfully, the new electronic pollbooks work wonderfully and speed up that part of the process exponentially. We later find out that at other districts, the polls did not open, or people were turned away. We did none of this.

A new set of provisional ballots arrive around 9:00. This was the last thing we had asked for. We ask about the VAC cards, the provisional application envelopes, anything about other items we had previously begged for. The person has no clue, leaves.

The VAC cards arrive at 9:25. I attack the woman who brings them with a gigantic bear hug view her as the Second Coming.

Finally, we start doing things "normally." Everyone is in great spirits. Things move quickly. I get to share my lentil dip (finally in the refrigerator, since we had forgotten about breakfast in the hullabaloo) and the folks who try it love it, want the recipe. (If anyone wants it, let me know: I can post it, or email it.) The voters are thrilled all around. Even better, folks are buying lots from the school's bake sale outside our door. The watchers -- who have been frantically scribbling notes about what we're doing -- commend us for what we've done. I eat lunch after I let all the other Dems eat, don't have enough brain left to grade the papers I've brought with me, choose instead to read Redbook in the Teacher's Lounge and how much Julianne Moore loves her kids.

Sometime during more calls to the BOE, I ask about who will call us about staying open late, since we assume something will happen. They inform us that a decision has already been made to keep polls open an hour later. (I think: Why did I have to ask the question first? Shouldn't you be telling me this?) We open up our materials, discover that we have to temporarily shut the door to close down all the polling machines, then restart with special provisional ballots we had already been given just in case of extended voting. By the time we close the doors at 8:00PM to quickly do what we need to do, we're ready and we're back open in 10 or 15 minutes. (More about that changeover below.)

We close at 9:00, with no one banging on the door at all. I give some last guava pastries I had brought for breakfast to the last voters, then to the electioneers outside, who cheer. It takes us forever to go back and reconcile all our machines and or numbers (which don't really match all over the place but, given everything else, that is the least of our problems), but we finish just after 11.

There is blame. I will assign it.

I will start by saying that the problems today at our polling place had nothing to do with the machines or Diebold. This is not to say that I am fine without a paper trail; I wish we had one as well -- but Maryland made a decision to go this route and, quite frankly, the actual machines were fine and working as they should. In fact, the electronic pollbooks (new this year) were fantastic and earned raves from staff and voters alike. Sure, I can't be sure what the machines actually do on the inside -- but I have no problems with them for what they are.

The Board of Elections should take the brunt of the blame, naturally. The main cause of this was human error, plain and simple, and on a colossal scale. I fully expect lawsuits from all corners with what happened here and every one will be deserved. I am particularly disgusted that when we asked for specific help as to what to do, we were told on more than one occasion to "make do the best you can." Luckily, we had a more-than-competent crew who all kept their heads (and voters who did the same). We knew that it could have been much worse, as it apparently was elsewhere. From my small point of view, the BOE did a piss-poor job and made the situation much worse by not being able to provide uniform advice for this election catastrophe.

They do not get all the blame: I turn to the media. All outlets -- television, Internet, radio, news. You will not convince me otherwise and they are all to blame for one major thing: voters told us that the media -- specifically -- indicated in lead paragraphs that polls would remain open until 9:00PM without disclosing that votes between 8:00 and 9:00PM would, by law, be cast as provisional votes, not as regular votes until far into the story. Because many people read these reports but only really paid attention to the part that said "polls would be open," the folks that arrived at 8:05 were shocked, frustrated, hurt and upset that their votes would be provisional. ("Provisional? What does that mean? My vote won't be counted!") I had a real jewel of a guy who got in my face about how his rights were being infringed upon because his watch said 7:59 and the one at the school -- which is how we opened the poll -- said 8:04. He rattled on about international elections and vote infringement, not letting us explain what the law says we had to do, braying about how if we worked on international elections we would know not to do this. (Guess what? One of our ACs was an observer in elections in Bosnia.) And yet, while I wanted to tell the fucking prick to stop yapping (and let the people who actually know what they're doing to ensure as best as possible that your votes will be counted, and that the longer you keep us out here, the longer it will take us to turn everything over so you can FUCKING VOTE, ASSHOLE!!!!!), I also understood exactly what they were feeling. And he and the others who were out were right to be upset, saying over and over, "But the media said the polls would be open, they didn't say anything about provisional voting!" If that's what was publishing, then WaPo deserves a firm knuckle sandwich for being irresponsible in detailing that information at the beginning. (The links from before 8PM at WaPo appear to be gone; if anyone can find a story from there that corroborates this, I would appreciate it.) Yes, that lawyer guy was an utter asshole; I'm still glad that he cared. And when we let them in to vote ten minutes later, everyone was fine again. (Even that guy.)

Here's the question: will I serve again as a Judge in November for the general election? Yes. I'm not even working in my home district, but I'm proud as hell of what my crew and I did today. We did our damnedest to ensure that everyone who wanted to vote in our district did vote, and that their votes could not be disqualified for any error on our part.

But here's a warning, directly squarely at all those politicians who were elected in these primary elections today: however problematic things were, you'd better not blame the poll-workers themselves as a whole for this. We were largely left out to dry and we did the best we could. And I will be listening to anything said against us and will almost surely vote against anyone who wants to blame the volunteers at the polls for anything that happened today. Just so you know.

I have to get up in about 4 1/2 hours to hug my son. I'm going to bed.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Commemorating this day

There are many things to write about (Telluride, Xan, getting "screwed," classes, etc.), but today is a day for commemoration.

So many people are thinking about weighty issues today; I myself choose to do as little as possible.

Happy Birthday, Dan! (Alistair says hello and misses you...)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

TFF Posting 1: Hamming it up

This year's Telluride Film Festival has finally gotten underway, so I am now free to talk about some of the films involved. As it turns out, I will probably be seeing a whole bunch of films... but those films will largely be ones shown at my own theater, given that my new job entails me making sure things run smoothly and emceeing every show. I am what is called a "ringmaster," and so far things have run smoothly. We'll see what happens this afternoon, however, and whether I'll be able to keep it together when introducing one Laura Linney in a couple hours. (Woohoo!)

Some quick takes on what I've seen:

  • Dodsworth -- This 1936 William Wyler comedy opened our house and I'll be surprised if I'm tickled by anything else to quite such an extent. This failed box-office chamber piece follows Walter Huston as he gets old and realizes that the woman he loves is an absolute twit. The come-uppance is priceless and had the audience cheering. Sam Goldwyn, Jr. was lovely and had some wonderful bon mots about his father and"Willie" (and he insisted to me that the VHS transfer is quite good), while I finally was able to place TCM's Robert Osbourne not by his face but by his voice. This only proves that sometimes the most fabulous things at this festival are the old ones with restored prints.
  • Ghosts of Cite Soleil -- This was a riveting documentary about rival gangs led by brothers in Haiti during the tumultuous time in Haiti when Aristide was on the outs. I say "riveting" precisely because I desperately needed to drink some water about an hour into it and didn't reach for my bottle because I was afraid I would miss something. I actually liked this (mainly because it's very stylish and keeps the adrenaline going), but I also think it's a wee bit too long and not exactly the best doc I've seen of late.
  • Babel -- I loved this, precisely because it's a multi-layered, difficult film that everyone should really watch. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu brings another fractured narrative that is ultimately quite satisfying. Oddly enough, I found the film most connected with his short film from the collection 11'09"01 (and I wish I could find him to ask about it), but I'm also noticing that his films seem to be very stark, very bleak... and yet feature a glimmer of hope right at the end. (I have not seen 21 Grams to see whether this theory hold up, but if it does, it's a cinematic mindset I very much like.) I added Amores perros at the very last minute to my film class syllabus for this semester with the idea that Babel might be released right when their final project will be assigned. I think I made a good call there.
  • Day Night Day Night -- A tense, brilliant debut about a girl preparing for a moment. (To say more would be giving quite a bit away.) Director Julia Loktev's camera work is stunning -- formal, cold, gorgeous -- and the debut performance by Luisa Williams (whose work here reminded me of Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria FUll of Grace) was luminous. They also happen to be raelly nice, very genuine folks and I had a blast chatting with them afterwards.

Next up, two biggies: Jindabyne with Laura Linney, and The Last King of Scotland with Forrest Whitaker. Both sold out earlier today. We may be swamped. Viva la cinema!