"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

28 December 2006

We're Home!

Thanks for well-wishes below. We got back last night and were SO glad to sink into our very own beds.

Of course we all got sick. Of course this was while with older, not-overly-well parents. Pray for them!

My mother-in-law got good news about the cancer activity being reduced by half. They hope to have just one more week of every-day treatments and be able to cut back to maintenence treatment.

My dad is finally seeing a gerontology specialist this week. The drive is a bit longer than before, but on safer roads. I hope to hear something this weekend.

The YM is 16 today. I am not sure how he achieved this feat, but I guess we will have to let him continue to grow up now. :)

And I'm back at my office for the day, filling out forgotten forms that were due before I left . . . oops.

I don't know about 24, Sarah -- I've watched portions and it's so frenetic . . . maybe I'll give the season premiere another try next week, on your recommendation. I do know folks around here either love it or hate it!

Not my usual kind of post, but don't have time for several separate emails. Perhaps next week I'll find energy to post something worth thinking on.

Happy New Year to all!

15 December 2006

Christmas Cometh . . . At Last!

I have turned in grades and am now simply trying to clear the mind, find the things I need to take with me to work on during the break, clean up the office a bit so it looks better when I come back.

We will be gone for a couple of weeks, probably without internet access.

The YM sent me an email yesterday:

Dear Santa Claus,

When I was little, I accepted that when you pass judgment on little children, you really knew what was right and wrong. But now, a lifetime of experience has left me bitter. What is good? What is bad?

Can I say to my neighbor "I am good and you are bad?" Who are you to say if we are good or bad? And where's that iPod Nano? Huh??

This will be the last year I send a letter to you, so you'd better get everything on my list right this time. (Last year you mixed up my list with someone who wanted t-shirts and underwear.)

iPod Nano, xBox360, Sam's Town by The Killers, a Pearls treasury, some sunglasses that Gwen Stefani wore in Wind It Up, and $200 cash.

Thank you.

p.s. Can you give me Fred Claus's email address? You know, your brother who give gifts to all the bad children.

I'm still laughing.

May you have a blessed Christmas season and know the love of the One who came so we could be reconciled to the Father.

Review part 3: "Criminal Minds"

All art invites the viewer to consider values and ideas. However, Criminal Minds does this more explicitly than most television shows or films through a voice-over at the show's beginning and/or end of a quotation from a philosopher or writer that suggests the episode's theme and perhaps how we are to think about it. Sadly, I haven't been able to locate a website that gives these quotations, so I rarely manage to keep them accurately. At least the gist often stays with me, though, as they frame my response.

One example: A woman who was horribly abused becomes a serial killer, taking out her bitterness by hurting others as she was hurt. The team identifies her as the killer -- instead of a male suspect -- when they learn about her past. But the quotations at beginning and end are about how suffering can make one great, thus reminding the viewers that the victim of suffering has choices -- there is nothing inevitable about bitterness, about repaying evil for evil.

In this week's episode, the voice-over was about the dark oppression of secrets -- and in the course of the show, Morgan is forced to reveal the secret of the sexual abuse he endured as a boy and had told no one. But when he finally speaks out, it is to save another boy and end the abuser's exploitation. "[Not telling] was my mistake," he tells the boy. "You don't have to make the same one, and I've got your back -- forever." The episode also deepens Morgan's character by showing him interacting with his widowed mother and sisters, revealing some of his past, and showing us why he is especially enraged by crimes against children. "You are responsible for who I am," he tells the abuser; "I became an FBI agent to put b**s like you away."

The characters also often reflect on and discuss the nature of their job, inviting us to consider with them the values we hold, our assumptions about good and evil, right and wrong, the sanctity of life. At the end of one case, for example, Hotch muses to Gideon, "What makes people do such evil things? Is it the parents' fault? Society's? Neither?" Rather than merely driving us to a single conclusion, we are invited to think about it ourselves, and the show's actions leave it open for interpretation even while critiquing various policies and positions having to do with crime and punishment.

In an episode where the team finds a vigilante who has been killing people guilty of criminal acts but who have not been convicted because their actions were blamed on parents or society, we find that Hotch still second-guesses himself about the first case he and Gideon worked together. They had identified a man who had abused and killed two young boys. They had confronted him, armed and desperate, and Hotch had "talked him down," preventing him from killing himself or forcing them to do so. Then he was found not guilty on the basis of his wife's perjury -- and was only sent to prison after he killed again.

"You did the right thing," Gideon tells Hotch, and Hotch agrees -- but we are invited to think long and hard about our justice system and whether it might ever be right to at least not prevent the death of a known killer.

Yet the show does always come down on the side of life: one never, under any circumstances, kills except to save the life of a victim or fellow law enforcer. It is not the law enforcement officer's job to execute justice in any but a desperate situation, no matter how flawed the courts may be. And thus the horror of the team members to realize that Elle has taken justice into her own hands, has killed with pre-meditation an unarmed man. The sick rapes he has committed are no excuse for her own lawless act.

In another episode, a brilliant high school boy approaches Reid, implying that he might be the serial killer that is terrorizing D.C. prostitutes. They find he is not the killer, but he is obsessed with death and crying out for help. Gideon does a psych evaluation and tells Reid afterwards, "It's not a matter of if he kills; it's a matter of when he kills." Later, the boy tells Reid that he has realized that the only way to keep from killing someone else is to kill himself.

Yet his mother puts off hospitalizing him. Finally, he comes by to tell Reid he is going into the hospital the next day. "You know I'll never get out," he says, and Reid -- who "knows what it means to be afraid of your own mind" -- tries to encourage him to be hopeful. A few hours later he receives a phone call: the boy has solicited a prostitute, fantasizing murder, but he doesn't try to kill her. Instead, he lays Reid's business card on the table and slits his own wrists. Reid and Garcia race to the apartment to try to help him. Later, as the ambulance drives away, Gideon tells Reid, clearly as a compliment and encouragement, "You saved his life." Reid answers, "And what about the lives he takes someday?" Gideon: "Profiles can be wrong. But if this one's not, then . . . you'll bring him in."

The unspoken message: you must always presume on the side of life and hope, never except in the direst circumstances taking into your own hands the decision that someone else must die.

Before and after this episode, Gray Gubler voices over quotations from T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men":

"Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

[. . .]

"Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow."

And we are invited to consider what the Shadow is, if it can be fought, if idea and conception can be brought to birth without destructive distortion.

13 December 2006

Review part 2: “Criminal Minds”

The Characters

Jason Gideon (played by the incomparable Mandy Patinkin, with whom I can claim that I went to college [don’t ask if I ever met him] and I can say definitively that he was a phenom even at 18 or 19): Senior Supervisory Special Agent Gideon is the “elder statesman” of the team, whose special talent seems to be drawing out people’s deepest secrets. Remarkably perceptive, he is saved from breakdown by a rigid code of honor and a place to get away. He battles guilt when things go wrong, but reminds the others that crime is the criminal’s fault, not theirs for not catching him.

Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson): Unit Chief Hotchner is the team’s leader with Gideon and often the show’s moral compass. He is the only married agent, with a young son – Hayley is supportive and the marriage appears stable, but the job creates inevitable (though always sideline) tension at times. Hotch’s integrity is unimpeachable and he tolerates nothing less in his agents – for whom he would gladly give his own life. He is a serious man whose rare smiles deepen a character who might otherwise be seen as overly melancholy.

Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore): Supervisory Special Agent Morgan is a younger team member who seeks Gideon’s approval, rebukes Reid’s tendency toward self-imposed, undeserved guilt, and flirts shamelessly, for sheer fun, with Garcia. His cheerfulness with the team serves to accentuate his intense hatred of evil and revulsion towards evildoers. He would never hesitate to put his life on the line.

Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler): Supervisory Special Agent Reid is the genius, and the youngest team member. At 24, with a photographic memory, he holds 3 PhDs; besides being a walking information bank, he seems especially adept at discerning patterns, visual, verbal, or behavioral. He is prone to blurting out information, but not, it seems, from arrogance – more like an eager kid who happens to know the answer. Compassion, perhaps surprisingly, is his identifying personal trait, and he fears the schizophrenia from which his mother suffers.

Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini): Special Agent Greenaway was shot during a case and became increasingly disturbed, cynical, and fearful. She resigned from the unit early this season after shooting a suspect in cold blood and covering it up to make it look like self-defense. Cleared by the FBI, she avoids Hotch, but he follows her to her father’s grave. When she asks why he believes she is guilty, he tells her, “Because you’re here, confessing your sins.” He can’t prove it, but he can’t let her stay in the unit because he can’t trust her.

Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster): Special Agent Prentiss is the newest member, replacing Elle. Assigned to the unit without the request or approval of either Gideon or Hotch, she is driven to prove herself. Hotch is still uncertain whether he can trust her or not, especially after discovering a family-friend relationship between Prentiss and a congresswoman – who mysteriously discovers their work on a case that affects a bill she is sponsoring and threatens Hotch’s career if he doesn’t handle it to her satisfaction. Prentiss knows Arabic and plays chess.

Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness): Analyst Garcia is the computer genius who finds any information that can be found, tracks cell phones, does any needed technological feat. A flashy character who loves to laugh, she adds comic moments, but also poignancy as she reacts to crime with revulsion and victims with compassion. She loves to harmlessly flirt and occasionally takes Reid under a maternal wing.

Jennifer “J.J.” Jareau (A. J. Cook): Supervisory Special Agent and Media Liason Cook sorts through the various cases brought to the team’s attention, reports initial information about requests for help to the team, and is the team’s competent and winsome media voice. Intelligent and sharp, when Hotch asks if she wants to become a profiler, she says no; she is content with the background role she plays doing groundwork for the team.

That’s the cast of characters. The actors are all excellent, and they avoid dropping into stock characterization, instead creating interesting people who react in realistic ways to the job they do.

If grading doesn't kill me, next time I'll look at the philosophical side of the show.

12 December 2006

Review part 1: Criminal Minds

~to inject some enjoyment into finals week~

I'm not especially enamored of visual entertainment. My parents, thankfully, limited television time in our house, and any time the tv was on we all had books or magazines (Newsweek, Boys' Life) to read during the commercials (and often during the show as well). I haven't been to a movie theatre in years and rarely can make myself sit through a movie on television. People always tell me, you must see such-and-such, and I always think, why? There's not enough time in life to waste it.

But now and then I watch a movie, and I do watch a few tv shows for relaxation if I like the characters and plot lines. Crime and mystery shows especially appeal; after all, Ngaio March and Dorothy Sayers are two of my favorite writers. Most of these shows, however, I can take or leave; there's no significant disappointment if I miss an episode and no one tapes it.

CBS's Criminal Minds, however, has utterly captivated me, and I may even have to lobby for the first season on DVD, since I missed most of it. Acting, character development, plot lines, and the philosophical challenges all intrigue me every Wednesday night.

An overview:
CM follows the professional lives of an FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), a unit highly trained in psychoanalysis of the criminal mind to profile unknown perpetrators and help identify them, predict their behavior, find them, and convict them -- often through psychologically acquired confession. It's based on real-life cases, though of course fictionalized (with the adventurous aspects no doubt hyped up a bit).

Some things I especially like:
It really is about the characters' professional lives. Their personal lives are somewhat known but peripheral: Hotchner's wife and child occasionally appear; any romantic interests are downplayed (as in barely hinted at) and there's never that I know of been even the implication of a sex scene; when personal impinges on professional the effects are made clear and not over-played.

It's clean. There's an occasional curse word, only with great provocation. There's no sex. The women agents dress professionally and don't look sleazy. And there's very little blood and gore, a nice relief from CSI, half of which I visually miss to avoid the explicit effects of violence. Sometimes the crimes, the perpertrators, and/or the victims are sleazy, but there's no dwelling on, for example, strip-bar scenes or excessively violent scenes of crime commission.

The team works well together. There are occasional tensions, of course, but no one-up-manship or jealousy or silly grudges. They have a goal, they have been chosen because they're both smart and trustworthy, and they focus on getting the job done as well as they can. Authority is respected without those under it being sycophants or mindless.

Each character is complex. You think you've got one pegged and then you see another side. No one's a complete stereotype even though they play on these.

The job they do is largely intellectual. It's a kind of Sherlock Holmes approach -- what's the evidence? Okay, now think about it and see where it leads. They get out in the field, yes, but much of their work is reflection on the constantly evolving information they have in order to to out-think the evil-doers.

More to come when another round of paper-grading is over!

05 December 2006

Tarnished Brass, White Gold

Yesterday the tarnished brass of a full moon barely peeked through the branches, disappearing behind the far ridge as I reached the bottom of the old ferry road. Still, her light brightened the sky enough to keep the dark at bay.

This morning, she shone like white gold, riding the tips of the pines and blazing out above the mountains as I left the trees behind, her light suffusing the western sky as brightly as the hinting sun did the eastern horizon.

However full or bright, He uses His reflection, even at times whether we will or no.

04 December 2006

Nancy L. Walker, RIP

(written Saturday, 2 December 2006)

Nancy died day before yesterday. I sat numbed in front of the computer screen for a quarter of an hour, thinking again and again, "I never made the cross-stitch I'd planned for her."

How arrogant and foolish to put off kindnesses, thinking there will be time. We have no idea how much time there will be, and I never told her how much a part of me she is.

Nancy Walker was my colleague, director of the writing program and writing teacher, at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State). It was my first full-time position out of graduate school, half-time teaching and half-time directing the new writing center. She was kind to this nervous 30-something who'd never intended to work outside the home; she made me feel not only welcome but competent, belonging in this alien place.

A short, petite woman, she dressed "professionally feminine" -- well-tailored dresses and heels that raised her above the lectern (if she ever used one). I sat in on one of her graduate-level writing classes; a dynamo with cropped greying hair and reading glasses perched on her nose, her heels tapping constantly about the room, she challenged, delighted, and encouraged, drawing from us our best. She didn't have to look at my work, as I wasn't a student, but she did -- many written comments and then the concentrated attention to help me make a piece publishable, my first.

It was during those four years at SMSU that I finally accepted the identity of "writer" that had been a reality since I learned to scratch my name on kindergarten lined paper. And it was Nancy who helped me see that the reflective essay is my genre. That in itself might have been a career-killer, we both knew, but she never discouraged me from following the gift given.

I left SMS for many reasons, one among them being my absolute inability to justify sacrificing my time, energy, and identity for academic writing. One of the greatest gains from those years was the courage to embrace a gift -- and in that courage Nancy will remain with me, leaving the world not quite as empty as it felt when I first read the message of her death.

May it please God that she rest in peace.

01 December 2006

Poetry Meme

LuCindy tagged me for this meme, so here goes:

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was....I actually have no idea whatsoever. I know my mom played music a lot, and I suppose she read poetry to me, though I don’t recall her doing so. All I know is that poetry has always been as natural a part of my life as breathing. I never went through a “I don’t understand poetry” or “poetry is too boring/hard/obscure” phase as so many of my students – even English majors – seem to do.

The first poem I can remember really reacting to was Tennyson’s “Two Voices.” I liked it when I read it for a college assignment, then my atheist professor scoffed at it in class, saying it was far too simplistic to believe that the doubts of the speaker – so strong that he considered suicide because life appeared without hope – could be resolved by hearing church bells and seeing a family on their way to church. But I knew that the resolution was absolutely perfect, because I’d experienced it myself – the simplest image of Truth has remarkable power over despair, far more power even than the mere rational arguments of Truth. “Two Voices” ever since has been my idea of a poem that images Truth – and a reminder of the impossibility of the unregenerate mind to grasp that Truth.

2. I was forced to memorize Robert Frost’s “Birches” in school and........ ah, my favorite teacher ever, ever. Wonderful Miss Angell. Sadly, we only had her first semester, as she had a nervous breakdown over Christmas – perhaps that’s why I’ve always feared teaching at the high school level? She made us memorize a poem so that we could write it out letter-perfect. I’ve loved “Birches” ever since. She also introduced me to Winnie-the-Pooh – she read a chapter aloud once a week, I believe. What a wonderful teacher, who loved language for its sound and made me realize that I loved its sounds, too.

3. I read/don't read poetry because.... I read poetry because it speaks to me in a way no other kind of writing can. The beauty of the language; the way an image becomes real and deep, far beyond its literal existence; the way it takes me out of myself; the beauty, the sheer beauty . . . *

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ....... Gerard Manley Hopkins – any of the Terrible Sonnets but perhaps “Carrion Comfort” most; T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”; Robert Browning’s “An Epistle”; anything by Mary Oliver, perhaps “Roses, Late Summer” and “The Ponds” foremost; Christina Rossetti – impossible to choose. Which one depends on my mood at the time I’m asked.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but.............. I don’t write poetry, but it is vital to my existence. It reminds me of the depth of beauty available, often in the most unexpected places, in a broken world, and that eloquence is worth pursuing.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature..... LuCindy wrote “it is less entertaining, for the most part, and more demanding,” which I agree with wholeheartedly; it appeals to both my intellect and my heart.

7. I find poetry...... in books recommended by friends and through the anthologies I teach from. I sometimes see poetry in physical activity – a basketball team working together flawlessly, an ice-skating routine. I envy my poet friends who see poetry in everything, but one can only pursue so many avenues in life . . .

8. The last time I heard poetry.... was reading it in class the other day. I read poetry all the time in lit classes. I rarely ask students to read because so many really can’t do it well at all, and I haven’t time to teach them. However, my Victorian Lit students did a poetry reading this semester and I’ve seldom heard Hopkins and Rossetti so well-read. I was impressed. The last time I heard a poet read her own work was when LuCindy was here at the college, what, 2, 3 years ago? I wish I could hear her every day.

9. I think poetry is like.... an offering of pure beauty clothed in words, Truth in imagery, love come alive.

* To clarify – I keep saying I love poetry for its beauty, and I don’t mean by that any kind of “prettiness.” Some of the most beautiful and moving poems I know are not “pretty”; they are harsh, maybe even dissonant, and treat ugly subjects, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owens, or Lawrence’s “Do Not Go Gentle.” Beauty has to do with the way the sounds and images are entwined to create an eloquence appropriate to the subject and not to be found in any other kind of writing – though an occasional fiction writer or essayist comes close, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Annie Dillard.

Megan, want to try it? Maybe you, Captain?