Thursday, January 31, 2008

Will the Real Batman Please Stand Up?

Perhaps you have heard of this:
That's right, Lego Star Wars has been such a huge hit as a video game, that Lego is branching out to make a Lego Batman game. In theory, I'm fairly excited about this development. After all, Batman still ranks as one of my favorite iconic American characters, the Lego Star Wars game has addictive game play and is fun to watch, and I have visions of long conversations about Batman with my nephew similar to the ones we already have about Star Wars.

My one hesitation is that I'm not sure which Batman the video game will go for. There are as many versions of Batman out there in popular culture as there are years he's been an icon.
Will Lego Batman go for the original Bob Kane Batman? You can see his version there on the left in the premiere of Batman in Detective Comics in 1939. That Batman was literally like a giant bat, all in black and gray, and existed to scare criminals, mainly because he didn't have any fun toys. That's right, early Batman relied on ropes to tie up criminals, not super fast drying polymers to freeze criminals in their tracks. It could be interesting, but most people would grow tired of that Batman.

To inject a completely different spirit, but one that is certainly in the public's memory, they could go for Adam West's Batman of the 1960s TV series. You can tell he isn't as dark and foreboding as the original Batman because he's in dark blue, an oh-so-pleasant light purple, and is sucking in his gut to look lean and mean. This is the Batman that would provide plenty of "BIFFS!!" and "POWS!!!!" in colorful pop-up balloons for the game, which would be a nice visual. There are also plenty of fun toys and even the possibility of Batman going surfing!

But the 1960s Batman is distant enough in memory that I figure the powers that be Lego will go for one of the more recent incarnations. Batman from the 1989 movie or the 2005 one - a Batman that works in shadows but still has fun toys.

And yet, there is always Frank Miller's most recent version of the Batman. The man who put the dark back in Dark Knight has been plugging away at All-Star Batman and Robin, pouring all the over-the-top excess you've seen in Sin City and 300 into a redefining of Batman's team-up with young Robin. But even with the success of those movies, I really can't see Lego getting into Miller's version of the Batman - it isn't quite suitable for those under the age of Frank Miller.

Overall, I'm sure Lego Batman will go for a mash-up, bringing together styles from throughout Batman's changing nature (though they will have to make a call on short ears or long). But as they are making that call, I'd like to submit one treasure out of Batman's past they shouldn't overlook:A video game featuring Superman and Batman playing H-O-R-S-E? That's a game I'd buy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Anything for a Laugh

If you look at this picture quickly, you'll probably just see two loving brothers completely consumed by playing Portal (and yes, it is Stephen's mission to convert everyone to the wonders of this game). If you look again and look closely, you'll notice that I'm wearing this shirt. Stephen and Misty gave it to me for my birthday last year and I've had several good laughs about it, especially when I wear it around friends who don't know me and my sense of humor well enough to say anything. They just stare, and then start to speak, stop themselves, and then stare some more. Keep the shirt in mind for later in the post.

When I was in graduate school, my adviser worked closely with me to develop teaching skills. One semester when I was his TA, I filled in for his class while he watched. Afterwards, as he was giving me a critique of my teaching, he casually mentioned a formula that he's used to great success in his teaching: 50 seconds of laughter = 50 minutes of attention. At first I laughed his idea off, but as I've done more training as a teacher, I've discovered just how spot on his formula actually is. Most researching into teaching and learning tells us that we need to reset our students every 20 minutes or so - switch tasks, have them participate, shake things up a bit - or you'll lose them for the last 30 minutes of class. Since most of my classes are 1 hour, 15 minutes long, I have to push the reset button a number of times each class.

Teaching music, pushing that reset button isn't terribly difficult. At least every 15 minutes I'm playing a new piece of music, and I always have my students react to that music either verbally or through writing to engage their ears as well as their minds. But even with those switches, I've discovered that one bit of humor goes a long way to snapping the students back to attention.

Enter the shirt. Yesterday in my undergraduate music history class, I reached Mozart. I always show a scene from Amadeus and discuss how our society has created and recreated Mozart through generations. This year, I had a secret weapon in this discussion. We were about halfway through class, the students were dragging and only faintly participating, so I casually mentioned that I had brought my Mozart shirt to demonstrate Mozart's cultural saturation. I had prepared for this moment earlier by taking off my coat (something I do regularly because it gets hot lecturing in front of a room), so I began unbuttoning my dress shirt. The students' reaction was priceless. Some shielded their eyes yet kept glancing up as though they couldn't stand to watch, but couldn't bear not to. Others shook their heads as though in disbelief that I was actually stripping in front of them. Underneath my shirt I was wearing the Mozart shirt and when it was finally revealed the class erupted. One student proclaimed "Dr. Granade, you just made my day," and another chimed in as I attempted to continue the discussion, "You have to give us a minute to soak it all in." Regardless of their response, I saw them all suddenly tune back in and our discussion picked up immediately. As we turned to Mozart's music, they had new insights and were eager to learn.

Not even a minute's worth of classtime, but enough to carry us through the rest of the period. That's why, sometimes, I'll do anything for a laugh.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

All that Remains

A week ago today we buried my grandfather's remains. I say remains purposefully - dementia had slowly been stealing him from us over the past few years, leaving us with its remains. But oh, what remains were left. When moments of lucidity would flash across his face, his eyes would open and his mouth would stretch into a grin, and he was the Granddaddy I had always known. On our final visit, I lifted Sam up to see him, and I saw that spark of recognition dance into his eyes. "You named him after me!" he proclaimed with the biggest smile I had seen on his face in years. That is the moment I've carried with me for months and encapsulates his life best - faith, family, and love.

I also say remains because I know we didn't actually bury my grandfather; he is with his Father and Master now and is more whole than he has ever been. That's why, last week, we held a service of celebration, not one of mourning. But the entire experience was a surreal one for me. During the service, I heard wonderful men say wonderful things about a wonderful man I knew, but that man was not my Granddaddy. They knew him as pastor, as friend, in roles in which I had observed him over the past thirty years, but they did not know him as a grandfather. I was left with an incomplete feeling I could not explain until last Friday when my brother posted his tribute. That evening, reading his words in the darkness of our den, I heard the man I knew, the man as truly only Stephen and I knew him. Thank you, Stephen, for giving voice to feelings that were swirling in my head too fast for me to express at the time, for describing the man who towered over my childhood and made me long to be as tall as he (I missed it by one inch), for portraying the sensation of being smothered in one of his hugs (hugs he freely gave me throughout his life), for explaining the way you instinctively slowed down to hear one of his stories both because they were so enjoyable and because he told them so well, and for pinpointing why his was a life worth celebrating.

Oh what remains. I see them stretching through the generations. In the name my father and son carry and I proudly wear. In the ability to captivate with stories my father and brother truly inherited from him. In the legacy of faith and service that runs through his descendants, even down to the youngest. In the model of devotion in marriage I still try to echo. And in the genuine love of people as children of God he demonstrated.

My Granddaddy loved the outdoors. He loved things living and things growing. And so it is fitting that he related so many stories to me as a child about my heritage, about my roots. His own roots were deep, wide, and strong, and will continue to nourish me and my children through generations. That's the Granddaddy I knew.

Friday, January 25, 2008

For Buffy Fans

I know not all of you followed Buffy the Vampire Slayer while it was on (or even on DVD), but a good friend addicted me and Joy to this well-written show. But for those of you who did follow it, Cogitamus has given a great run-down of the Republican Presidential Field as Buffy Villains. Even though it is a little dated with the most recent departures (and if you haven't been following the Wall Street Journal's Bye-kus, you really must - here's the one for my senator, Sam Brownback), it is still spot on. Of course, others quickly and rightly responded with the Democratic field as villains as well, including this dead-on similarity for Hillary Clinton.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Notes on Flying

As some of you know, but most of you don't, my grandfather passed away last Saturday. If the Victorian idea of a good death holds true, my grandfather certainly had one, able to make decisions about his health at the end and to have earthly closure to the 65 years of marriage he had with my grandmother.

His passing meant Sam, Joy, and I quickly settled our week and flew to Montgomery on short notice. We had a good, healing time with our family, telling stories and holding each other up, but the trip there and back proved a virtual guidebook on how not to treat airline passengers. So, since the airline industry is continuing its free fall and is looking on how to lure customers back to the skies, I offer my few notes on what practices might be off-putting to someone like me:

1. When a passenger's account is clearly marked "bereavement," don't assume that every mistake is their fault and act rudely toward them. On Saturday afternoon, I called to make our plane reservations and spoke to a polite, helpful agent who made the reservations, took my credit card information, and expressed her condolences. On Sunday afternoon when we arrived to check in, the agent rudely told me I hadn't paid for the tickets, expressed disbelief when I claimed the contrary, laughed at my worries of paying twice, and then charged me $20 a ticket for the privilege of flying with them.

2. When a passenger politely asks you to put a bag over their carseat to protect it while in your care, don't ignore their request. When we flew to Montgomery, I asked the agent to put Sam's carseat in a protective bag. They did so and the carseat arrived without a mark and in clean condition. When we flew out of Montgomery I made the same request, but noticed as they were loading luggage on the plane that our carseat was not bagged. Guess what? Not only did they ignore my request and not cover the seat, they lost it in the Memphis airport, so it arrived dirty and late.

3. When a passenger is sitting in a exit row and has a child sitting elsewhere on the plane, don't assume they paid extra for the seat and sharply rebuke them for sitting there. On our last leg from Memphis to Kansas City, the flight was full. I was assigned a seat in an exit row, Sam was assigned one three rows behind me, and Joy was assigned three rows behind him. Generally we've had good luck getting people to move so we could sit together, but on that leg, only one person volunteered, so Joy sat with Sam and I went to the exit row. I had barely sat down when the flight attendant appeared and barked at me, "are you traveling with that child?" I replied "yes" and she hurriedly continued, "well, you can't sit here, so we'll refund the price you paid to sit here and you'll have to sit with your son." I frankly was shocked first because the ticketing agent clearly knew I was traveling with Sam and yet assigned me that seat, and second because the flight attendant assumed that I wanted to pay for the privilege of not sitting with my family. When the attendant went back and demanded the other passenger in the row with Joy and Sam move, she said she would only if she could have a window seat. Thankfully the other two passengers on the exit row were willing to move over and the crisis was averted.

4. When a passenger calls to question a transaction, don't make them go through any extra hurdles once you've determined they are correct. On Monday, I called the airline to make sure we were not double charged and to see if I could have the $20 charge removed. The laconic agent kept me on hold and then responded that he saw the error and we would be credited the $60 dollars when we checked in Wednesday afternoon. As of this morning, the refund has still not appeared and I'm having to call back.

All in all, a frustrating trip made harder by our stress and state of mind. Genuine politeness would have gone a long way for us on this trip. But not all was bad. Tomorrow I'll highlight the good things that happened, just to restore your faith in a bit of humanity and to help us move on.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Music's in the Genes

Strange musical factoid #4837 - Proteins can be encoded into into music.

Last year, scientists working at UCLA decided that it would be easier (and perhaps a bit fun) to hear patterns in proteins instead of simply looking for them. Rie Takahashi, an undergraduate working on her thesis under Dr. Jeffery Miller, hit upon the idea of transforming the sequence of 20 amino acids that creates a protein into a musical sequence. But being a classically-trained pianist, Takahashi knew that assigning 20 individual notes to the amino acids would create incredibly disjunct music. Instead, she grouped similar amino acids together under chords and then assigned different chord qualities to each amino acid based on its individual characteristics. So a group might be assigned a D major chord, but one amino acid would be in root position and another in 1st inversion.

Once the transfer of amino acids into chords was accomplished, she applied rhythm based on the protein sequence and played the result on the piano. Here, for example, is the Huntingtin protein, the one responsible for Huntington's disease: In case you aren't near a piano right now, you can hear a computer-rendered version here.

The scientists involved claim that added benefits of viewing proteins through your ears include being able "to help make protein sequences more approachable and tangible for the general public and children. The project also opens opportunities for visually impaired scientists to access protein sequences more readily." All well and good, but what I see is an entire cottage industry based on tunes from proteins. Imagine Protein the Musical and bands like Rage Against the Protein.

Since Huntington's disease ultimately killed Woody Guthrie and he helped bring awareness to the disease, I think we should start with him. There's the music - anyone able to fit some of Guthrie's lyrics to the protein?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Big-Boy Room - The Tent

We've had an interesting week battling Sam's determination to get out of bed and play on several fronts. Being the fearfully over-educated people we are, we first turned to books that promise everything from getting your child to sleep in bed in two nights without the use of duct tape to having your child make their own bed before they can even walk. Unfortunately, most of those tomes deal with toddlers who want to leave their room and see you multiple times a night. Sam is perfectly happy playing in his room with his stepstool (yes, his stepstool) much less his toys and books, so we don't have that problem. So we read many solutions, none of which applied to our specific situation.

We did come to the conclusion, however, that Sam needs help settling down at night. His grandfather often has to read late into the night to settle down enough to sleep and his mother routinely watches TV to help fall asleep, so it isn't that surprising Sam needs a little help. So last week we began reading several books, telling a few stories in the dark, singing to him, and then coming back to check on him multiple times to see if he was still in bed.

Most times he wasn't.

In fact, when I went to check on him, Sam would run and jump back in bed giggling the entire time. Most of those nights we tried to rock him to sleep, but that can take 45 minutes to an hour, something we don't relish doing for the next few months.

Last night, however, we hit on two items that when combined, proved to be the kryptonite to Sam's need to get out of bed. First up, was the bed tent:We figured out that Sam felt a little exposed in bed and the tent helped him feel a little safer. Also, because he already loved playing in his Christmas tent, it created a surefire draw to the bed. He wanted to sleep in the big boy room before, but the pack and play in the room was fine. Now he wants to sleep on the bed.

Saturday night, at the end of our rope with this round of sleep challenges, I picked up the free copy of Parenting magazine that had come. Sure enough, it featured sleep issues on the front. We read the article and adapted one of the suggested methods that hopefully will keep us from any more freak-outs over bedtime. We do our usual routine and then, as we leave the room, tell him that we'll be back to read him another story in two minute if he stays on the bed. We then progressively lengthen the time until he falls asleep. Last night worked perfectly. He got still and fell asleep on his own. Each night, now, we'll increase the amount of time before we go back in, helping him learn to settle in and go to sleep on his own.

We'll let you know how it all goes.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

On the use of Opera in Film

Night before last, Joy and I stayed up late, enjoying the last few days of our winter break before classes wash over us next week. We watched a movie recommended to me by a student last year in my Romantic music class who felt it would appeal to my sensibilities in numerous ways.

He was right.

The movie is an epic from 1982 by Werner Herzog called Fitzcarraldo. The story follows a madman or a dreamer, depending on your point of view, who desperately wants to bring an opera house to the jungles of Peru and have Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt (even though the actress could not sing) open the house. To raise money for the project, he options land to harvest rubber. The only problem is that the land lies downriver beyond impassable rapids. Noticing another river runs close by, Fitzcarraldo determines to sail down the second river and then drag his steamship overland to the first river, bypassing the rapids.

The film is famous for its troubled production, not unlike Coppola's Apocalypse Now, another film about madmen in the jungle. Cast members quit and were hospitalized, half the production was shot twice, and Herzog decided to attempt Fitzcarraldo's plan, having his crew drag a 360-ton boat up a 40-degree incline and leading to a mutinous cast and crew. Perhaps as a result of Herzog's focus on making his vision come true, the film is meandering, a bit overlong, and everything after the boat crosses land fills like an anti-climax. But there are images throughout the movie that are breathtaking and searing.

The sequence that most haunts me days later is when Fitzcarraldo, abandoned by all but three of his crew members and hunted by natives who have killed every other expedition down the river, climbs to the top of the boat and begins playing Caruso records. The steamship, plowing through the water, is quickly surrounded by hand-dug canoes as the natives listen in surprise and awe, stroking the ship as though it were an apparition. It is a striking scene, and one echoed later as we the audience watch in surprise and awe as the steamship is pulled over land while Caruso sings from the top, a ghostly voice haunting the production.

The scene impressed me for many reasons, but perhaps most for its use of opera. I have long been fascinated by the way modern films incorporate opera into their structure. Opera is such an art of artifice and is so overly emotional that multiple meanings can be grafted onto it, especially by a public that does not understand the meaning of the words. However, I have found that in the past thirty years, opera has come to symbolize evil more than anything else in film, and especially wealthy, arrogant, intellectual evil. Perhaps most famously that connection was made with Hannibal Lector in the series of films beginning with Silence of the Lambs. In that character, the purest, most chilling evil, dispassionate about every activity including death, was given music that was exactly the opposite. As he committed horrible acts, beautiful music flowed on, enveloping the viewer and charging their reaction further, heightening their response.

Opera is strange in that way - so many ideas can be grafted onto it that it serves multiple purposes in film. However, this notion of opera equating with evil has truly permeated film beyond any other connection. From its beginning, the television recounting of Superman's origins Smallville has traded in convention comic book and movie cliches. It does so sometimes to its advantage and sometimes to its hilarious disadvantage, but because of this trend, I find it useful in viewing what musical and visual tropes have become de facto in our shared language. Since Lex Luther was not evil at the show's outset, an evil Luther was provided in his father, Lionel, and every time Clark or Lex entered Lionel's office (his lair, if you will), opera was playing. Lionel's evil essence vibrated in the very air around the main characters. Since Lionel is wealthy, upper class, and cruel, the cliche dictates that opera must be his musical marker.

In this scene, Lionel is contemplating suicide, but even in a fractured state of mind, opera surrounds and identifies him:

What strikes me as most interesting about these uses of opera as sign of evil is that lyrics are hardly ever important. Lionel is listening to "Je crois entendre encore" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, a beautiful song about longing for a lost lover and the divine rapture those dreams give. He is not pinning under the stars for a beautiful woman, he is fixated on ending his pain and suffering.

This disconnect between the words of an aria and the onscreen image has been carried to an extreme by the recent dip into irony that operatic uses for evil have taken. I first remember noticing this type of use in The Untouchables, where Al Capone orders Sean Connery's character Jim Malone to be killed. The hit takes place while Capone is at the opera, enjoying I Pagliacci:

This scene is wonderful because Capone is crying, empathizing with Pagliacci who, in his aria "Vesti la giubba," is pouring out his pain at having to make people laugh while he is crying on the inside. As Capone's minion delivers the news of Malone's death, Capone does the opposite of Pagliacci, laughing through his tears of sadness to arrive at an indescribable elation.

However, most directors use opera in fights in this way:

In the background, "La donna è mobile" is playing while the Punisher and his assailant battle. "La donna è mobile" is about the fickleness of women and why men shouldn't trust them. So unless the director was going for understated homo-erotic content, an idea I sincerely doubt, he just wanted bouncy opera to ironically counterpoint his brutal fight scene. But even given the benefit of the doubt, the music does not fit, the irony falls flat.

Sometimes, however, using the sound of opera without any concern for the words results in powerful moments. Consider this scene from The Shawshank Redemption:

Andy is playing "Sull'aria" (also known as the Letter Duet) from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. In the duet, Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna are plotting to trick the Count and so are writing a letter dictating where the Count will meet Susanna who will actually be Almaviva in disguise. What does all this upper vs. lower class deception have to do with men in prison? Nothing. But the music is some of Mozart's most beautiful and is truly transporting, a feeling perfectly captured in this scene.

Perhaps the best use of opera in film is when the feelings of the characters in the film are translated, shared, and magnified by the feelings expressed in the opera. Consider this scene from Life is Beautiful:

Here, Guido is desperately in love with and attempting to woo his future wife Dora. His feeling toward his love are perfectly expressed by Nicklausse's words to Giulietta in the "Barcarolle" from Contes d'Hoffmann:
Lovely night, oh night of love,
smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day,
oh beautiful night of love!
The aria then reappears towards the end of the film, providing added resonance for the tragedy that unfolds. Music in this film is used to shape the character's intentions, provide links between earlier moments in the film, and underscore emotion. It is one of the best examples of the use of opera in film.

I could go on, obviously, as opera continues to be used in myriad ways in film, both well and poorly. Perhaps these examples only speak to the power of music, that so many differing ideas can be layered into it as it expresses and communicates with each one of us individually.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Big Boy Room - Moving In

We decided that moving Sam into his big boy room and into the big boy bed when we came back from our Christmas travels would be the easiest way to go. He was already out of routine, had slept in many different places, and thus would be easily led to his big boy room as, simply, his room.

Convincing Sam that the new room was indeed his room was not hard. He was extremely excited about the new room, especially once we put his new car sheets and car quilt on the bed, Christmas presents both. He wanted to jump on the bed, roll on the bed, snuzzle the bed. When it was time for supper the day we returned, he did not want to leave the room to eat, and after his bath, when I told him to call for mom and head for his room, he headed straight for the new room.

Mission accomplished, or so we thought.

The problem with the big boy bed is that Sam is no longer confined. So instead of playing on the bed in the daylight, he adapted to playing in the dark and went about his business. He has a difficult time calming down at night because the room is a bit too exciting, even though we haven't moved any toys into the room yet. Thursday and Friday nights we tried laying down with him, but he just climbed all over us. We held him close and rocked a bit and that seemed to help, but we don't want to get in the habit of rocking him to sleep again - we've been down that road. The thing is, once he's asleep, he stays asleep and doesn't come looking for us or get up and play until the morning. On Friday morning, he even overslept:
Hopefully we'll be able to figure out the settling down part and the drifting off to sleep part since all the other parts of moving to the big boy room were so successful. Well, that and the jumping on the bed part.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Our Alien Baby

As you might remember (even given our decently long hiatus this past month), we're having our second in early June, D-day to be exact. This morning we went for Joy's normal check-up and an ultrasound. That meant that we got to see great pictures like this one:That's right, we got to see that we're having a humanoid blob with clear nasal passages and a spine! Ah, the miracles of technology. All is well with TK and with Joy; our baby is developing nicely and is at the alien stage of development, with large eyes peering up at you and little nasal definition. And, he has all his parts. That's right, we discovered that we're having another boy, so Sam gets a younger brother and we don't have to buy a ton of new stuff.

All in all a good visit. And just for all you budding TK junkies, here's his foot: