31 July 2006

Friends: It's a Generational Thing

Last night I got a really cool call. "Hey, Jim," said the voice on the other end of the line, "It's been a long time."

Since I have been through a bevy of names in my short life, I can often infer someone's relationship with what they call me.
  • The name, "Jim," belongs to my school days--primarily grades one through ten. I knew right away that this person and I went way back.
  • If I'm "James," then it's a professional relationship, usually.
  • "Jay" is the name from my four seminal years in Arizona.
  • I'm "Dittes" to my AZ students and a few Portlanders here.
  • And, sadly, if it's "Dits" "Dietz" or "Deits" it's usually a telemarketer. Click.
It turned out to be Eric, my best friend from my days growing up in southeastern Ohio. We hadn't talked for years--it turned out to be eight as we pieced together our last conversation eight years ago (the last chat I ever carried on over Instant Messenger).

Even though I moved from Ohio to Tennessee just before my 13th birthday, Eric and I had been able to keep in touch over the years. We attended each other's high school graduations, and he was a groomsman in my wedding. Our deep bond came from our years as close friends, but it was kept alive by meeting at Cincinnati Reds games once a summer.

When Eric and I were ten, we moved from collecting toy cars to buying packs of baseball cards. He and I both loved the Reds, and we were always pestering our parents for another 35 cents to buy a pack that included 15 cards and a stick of bubble gum.

When we were eleven, our parents drove us three hours to Cincinnati to attend a game between the Reds and the Atlanta Braves. It was one of the shining moments of my childhood, and I carry many images from that game: the Reds' starting pitcher (Bruce Berenyi), the Braves right fielder (Jerry Royster), and the time Johnny Bench came to bat with two outs and the bases loaded (he popped out).

The next year we found the entrance to the locker room, and we waited anxiously for autographs of our favorite players. That was also the year that our families started the tradition of walking to the Spaghetti Factory for a post-game meal.

After I moved to Tennessee, we met for a few more games. I was in England in 1990, the last year the Reds won the World Series, but Eric was a true friend. He made it to a game, and he even sent me a ticket stub to help me share in the glory (I have it framed, along with a picture that I clipped from the London Independent about the Reds' victory).

When he called, I thought, "This must be something big!" I prepared myself to drop everything and head up to the Magical Land for a wedding. Instead Eric told me about his business selling sports tickets on E-bay, and he invited me to attend...yes, a Reds game with him and his girlfriend in September.

Today Ellie was on the phone for a similar reason. Darby, her best friend since age three, had moved away this year, first to Chattanooga and now on to Oklahoma.

"Dad, I need to use three-way calling," she said. I had never used this feature but I dutifully--dadifully--got online and figured it out. Within minutes, we had Darby on one line and Kaitlyn on the other. They were talking girl stuff.

Next, Ellie moved online, directing her friends to some of her favorite web sites. As they looked at them together, they talked about TV stars, clothes, and many other pre-teen inanities. By the time supper had called an end to the conversation, Ellie's sadness for her missing friend had been sated.

As we sat down to eat, I tried to compare Ellie's lost friend with the one I had left behind 22 years ago. In the age before three-way calling and unlimited long distance, it had been a miracle to get the chance to meet at a Reds game once a year. Despite the miles that separated them, Ellie and Darby could confer over a joint love of Disney Channel, not baseball.

Of course this blog goes out to far-flung friends as well, keeping us informed about one another's thoughts and news, so maybe I'm not as "old school" as my daughter's high-tech reunion might have made me feel.

27 July 2006

Superman: the 2nd Coming

Today marked the official end of my summer. I attended a three-hour teachers' workshop this morning. In the afternoon I cut my hair (I had the real Surfer Dude look going, and I was constantly having to swipe the hair out of my eyes, if you can believe it).

I also watched a movie I plan to use in my British Literature classes this fall: Superman Returns. It's been eight years since I've taught senior English. I was reviewing my old notes last month, and I noticed that the first half of the class is heavy on ancient heroes like Beowulf and Gawain. I try to get students to make connections between the heroes of old and those of today. The fact is that you can tell a lot about a civilization if you can figure out two things: its hopes and its fears.

For example, when I was a teenager, my heroes were Pete Rose and Al Gore, Jr. That probably says a lot about me--more than I might want to reveal in other ways.

The upcoming unit gave me an excuse to go see Superman Returns. It was a purely literary exercise, I assure you. I may have seen snippets of the eighties Superman films, but I had never been a big fan, nor had I read the comic books. This was a movie I saw based on two reviews, one found in the New York Times and another by my favorite Christian singer, Andrew Peterson. Both reviews pointed out the religious iconography of the film, and Peterson even repeated the rumor that it could be called "The Passion of the Superman."

The movie was right up my alley--which means that it was probably doomed as a blockbuster. I'm a God-stalker, who loves scouring pop culture for inadvertent references to Jesus Christ. This movie was chock full of them. Since Jesus Christ is another hero of mine, that means that Superman is now my hero, too, right? Not quite.

The conflict of the film deals with Superman's return after a five-year absence to search for signs of his doomed planet Krypton. In his absence, Lois Lane has had a baby and moved in with a male colleague. Lex Luthor has gotten out of jail on a technicality and restored his fortune. During Superman's absence, Lois has soothed her broken heart by composing a Pulitzer-prizewinning essay entitled, "Why the World Doesn't Need a Superman."

In my mind, then, the primary conflict is between Superman and Lane. Does she still love him? Does she know how he feels about her (we understand this because of Clark Kent's clumsy efforts at romance, but she is oblivious, only her son has an inkling)?

At the end of the 2nd Act, Superman reveals himself to Lois Lane in the form of an exclusive interview (a la the Transfiguration). Soaring high above Metropolis, Lane insists, "The world doesn't even need a savior anymore."

Superman, the cries of thousands of people below echoing in his ears, replies. "From what I hear, they still do."

Indeed, by the end of the movie, Lois types a question that resounds outside of the movie: "Why Does the World Need Superman?"

Why does the world need a savior? Why did Britain of the Dark Ages need a Beowulf--or an Arthur in the Middle Ages. Why did teenage JD need Pete Rose of all heroes?

The one question the movie doesn't bother to ask is this: 'from what does the world need saving?' Lex Luthor is an anachronism, really, a relic of the 1930s and 40s when fascist madmen dreamed of world domination. His sadistic plan is to create a New Jerusalem-style island off the eastern coast of the United States. There are no terrorists, no nuclear weapons. A cool tsunami is about the only nod to recent catastrophes.

In a religious sense, then, this movie left me feeling a little empty. The line, "I will always be there for you," pops up several times in the movie, aping Christ's "I will never leave you or forsake you." There is some mention of a Son being one with the Father at the end. But in the end, the movie cannot bridge the concept of Superhero with Redeemer. Superman can save a plane from crashing into a crowded baseball stadium, and he can save the world from falling from the top of the Daily Planet building. He can mend Lois's broken heart. But he can only do these things by himself. He can save the citizens of Metropolis from disaster, but he cannot save their souls. He can leave nothing behind that gives them some measure of his power, as Christ did with us.

The limits of Superman are where Christ begins in the believer's life. Like Superman, Christ crashed into earth in a giant blaze of light, where he was raised by an adopted mother who struggled to understand his powers. He performed many whiz-bang-type deeds, yet he struggled with this alien planet, laced with deadly sin (kryptonite). Then he was resurrected, impermeable. (My favorite religious image of the movie mirrors the resurrection, as Superman rises into the heavens, bathed in golden light, until he finds himself in the direct glare of the sun, from which he gains the energy to fight Lex Luthor a final time.)

But when Jesus left us, He left something behind. For one, he left the Gospel of a life well lived and wonderfully sacrificed. For another, he left his Spirit behind, through which the superpowers that he displayed can be made evident in our own experience. He mends broken hearts with more than an embrace and a cruise above the city--he mends them with his own ever-present, boundless love.

I can't complete a commentary on the movie without mentioning a few critical things. Brandon Roush was a fair Superman. I like his performance. Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey left a lot to be desired. As the Mary Magdalene figure, Bosworth is completely beautiful. In the soft light, her dark hair and eyes remind me of Ingrid Bergmann in "Casablanca." But she isn't persuasive as a mother, and her size 1/2 body is emaciated to the point of ugliness. At one point, I found myself thinking, "Lois Lane has no butt!"

Kevin Spacey has played the same guy in just about every movie I've seen him in since "Se7en." Sure, he's intense, but Lex Luthor was basically the same guy as the alien in "K-Pax" or the heavy in "Se7en." I missed his Oscar-winning turn in "American Beauty," and I missed "The Usual Suspects" and "The Bobby Darin Story" (which also had Bosworth), so maybe he does have some chops I haven't seen over and over and over again. I hope you'll let me know on this one.

Superman Returns is a pleasant, if unfulfilling, way to spend a summer afternoon. The special effects are great, the iconography is thought-provoking. Does the world need to pay $6 to watch Superman? I think it does.

26 July 2006

One Man's Lake...

This summer I've tried to keep Owen outside as much as possible. If he could, he' stay on the computer/Gameboy all day and wouldn't ever leave the living room.

Often he asks, "Can I play with the hose?" In his play, he doesn't spray anyone. He just likes to let the water run and track it as it flows downhill to the creek. It's a game all boys play with water--creating dams and finding ingenious ways to divert the flow. Some boys end up using the experience to become civil engineers.

Today Owen's friend, Nicholas, visited, and they played with the hose. When Nicholas left, I noticed all these black rocks covering the driveway. I looked closer and realized that this was blacktop from a patch of the parking area (laid down 30 years ago, probably, so it was cracking).

I next looked at the end of the hose, and I realized that it was dripping into a pretty good-sized lake--a lake made by removing the blacktop from my driveway and creating, well, a humongous pothole.

I have a new saying: "one boy's lake is another man's pothole."

20 July 2006

The End is Near

I returned from Georgia today. The trip was twelve hours, including three potty stops, a McDonald's fix, and a three-hour visit with my cousin, Ken Scribner. Despite tearful goodbyes to their cousins Jacob and Joshua Gates, the kids are thrilled to breathe the same air as Jenny again.

I am left, then, to celebrate The End...of Summer. Next week, it will be nose to the grindstone, preparing lessons and ideas for the coming school year. I'm teaching Honors Senior English for the first time in eight years, so there is some rust to rid myself of. There is also a strong chance I'll be teaching German, which will take quite a bit of work to prepare, since I've never taught that class in a high school before.

Today I celebrated The End...of sub-$3 gas prices. Our President's been fiddling, Lebanon is burning, and gas has gone up by a quarter a gallon over the past week.

The situation in Lebanon really galls me. I see a defenseless country being totally destroyed over the kidnapping of two Isreali soldiers, not by the Lebanese Army, but by militants. It isn't war. It's more like a Turkey Shoot.

Why is this happening? Well, a generation has come and gone since Israel practiced genocide and war in Lebanon, leaving that country with a devastating civil war that lasted almost 20 years. (One of the war criminals who came out of that war was Ariel Sharon, who now rests in a coma.)

Of course the American President could do something, but he won't. Two years ago, he couldn't take enough credit for the Cedar Revolution, which cast of the shackles of Syria and brought democratic reforms to Lebanon. Now, that seems like a mistake. Without the protection of Syria (or the United States for that matter), Lebanon is helpless before the brutally vindictive Israeli Defense Force.

So this is what I was thinking when I paid $2.95/gallon in Calhoun, GA, today. Usually Georgia is about 5-cents cheaper than Tennessee, so I figured that it would be my last sub-$3 fill up for awhile. On the way down to Georgia last Sunday, I paid $2.65.

It isn't going to get better. Seventy percent of Americans know that now--based upon approval ratings of President Bush. Sadly, if there was a country that could have used some hope, it was Lebanon. By this time next year, Beirut and Baghdad will be parallel examples of lawlessness and hopelessness--and gas will still be over $3 a gallon.

18 July 2006

Greetings from Savannah, GA

I'm sorry these posts have gotten so far apart! I'm not sure what has happened to my summer, but it certainly isn't much. Before school starts in three weeks I want to update you on a number of things:
1. The Navajo-style log hogan I'm building for Ellie
2. Book reviews. It's been a disappointing summer for books so far--at least I've been bored by most of what I've read. I'm hoping I'll soon have something good to write about.
3. Writing progress (alas).

Sunday the kids and I drove down to visit my sister, Julie, in Savannah. We're giving Jenny another week by herself, and we're visiting cousins and having fun. Julie has two boys, ages four and two, and they are buddies with Owen and Jonah. She is also well set up for visitors. We're staying in a guest house behind her own home; she has a nice pool for the kids to play in; and they have a basement devoted to little boy things, where Owen, Jonah and Cousin Jacob build train tracks, play with animals, and run around screaming for no aparent reason whenever they want.

Ellie is modestly detached from the mayhem. She reads books, basks in the pool, and otherwise impresses her Auntie Julie (whom she admires very much). I've seen her cooking food and setting the table--all to reinforce her position as the eldest of the cousins, if not the only girl. She especially enjoys any chance she can get to stay up 30 minutes later than the boys or ride in the front seat of the car with her auntie (a new development since she's turned nine).

What have I done? Today I went to my brother-in-law's clinic to have my unibrow lasered. Julie had insisted on scheduling an appointment to have some of the hairs over my nose zapped by a cosmetic laser they have there. "I haven't really plucked my eyebrows for years," I told her this morning, "I haven't noticed my eyebrows growing together."

"I have," she responded in the curt, direct way of little sisters. "I want you to have it done."

I also got to play in the pool with the kids. Jacob and Joshua had just gotten back from SeaWorld, so Jacob insisted that I was Shamu and he was the trainer. He got me to make huge splashes and leap over outstretched floats in the water. He fed me plastic fish and diving rings. Finally he took a long "noodle" float and wrapped it around me. "That's enough," he told me. "I'm putting you in your cage. Goodbye."

Ah summer! Tomorrow we'll go to the beach at Tybee Island, and Thursday we'll return. This trip pretty much ends the summer for me. Besides the continuing writing projects, I will need to dive into planning for lessons that I'll teach in the coming school year. Fun, fun, fun.

07 July 2006

Best Songwriters

OK, so everyone has a "best" list out nowadays. When I heard that some outfit called Paste Magazine had compiled a list of the Top 100 Songwriters, I was intrigued. I have my preferences.

Before I clicked on the link, I thought of the songwriter I would recommend. I have to say Willie Nelson for two reasons: "Crazy" and "You Were Always on My Mind." I mean, this guy has written for Elvis and Patsy Cline, to name a few.

As it turned out, he didn't even crack the Top Ten! Here they are:

10. Prince
9. Joni Mitchell
8. Elvis Costello
7. Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys)
6. Leonard Cohen
5. Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings)
4. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan
3. Bruce Springsteen
2. Neil Young (Buffalo Sprinfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
1. Bob Dylan

For the record, ole Willie was #12, right after Paul Simon.

I'm sorry, but the above list is a reach. I would keep Springsteen, Mitchell, Dylan and McCartney (who could argue with him at #1?)

Prince? Come on, "Purple Rain" had a melody that I played my 2nd week in piano lessons.

Granted, my knowledge of Neil Young came in the years after he lost his ability to actually carry a tune on a record.

Gravelly voiced Tom Waits--I hardly know him.

Leonard Cohen might belong here, I don't know. I'm usually too busy kissing my true love when his music is playing, so I'm not familiar with his use of chord structure or wordplay.

Elvis Costello is a cool singer, but I can name exactly ZERO songs that he has written.

06 July 2006

Final Thoughts on Arizona

We've been home for two weeks now. I'm frustrated I left everyone hanging on my trip. I really focused on finishing my Egypt manuscript (again). That project (a month past my personal deadline) overshadowed all of the other things I had planned to do this summer--including wrapping up my blog notes.

Well, it's done. Today I was typing my trip notes into my laptop, looking forward to some future writing assignments. I'm finally able to reflect on Arizona and all that happened.

I'll focus on favorites.

ELLIE'S FAVORITES: Ellie enjoyed White Sands National Monument as the best stop on our entire tour. We only spent about three hours there, arriving just before sunset. The kids barreled out of the van and climbed the nearest dune. They spent the next two hours sliding or rolling down the house-sized sand dunes. Meanwhile, Jenny and I got to enjoy the spectacular (and romantic) site of a White Sands sunset: pastel pinks and blues adorning the white dunes and the purple mountains. At the Navajo Reservation, Ellie picked up a taste for Sno-Cones, and we still talk about how delicious they were there and at the Acoma Reservation.

OWEN'S FAVORITE: This really doesn't have anything to do with the Southwest, but when he finished the "Alien Mothership" level on his Chicken Little Gameboy game, he screamed with joy for five minutes. Owen really enjoyed White Sands, too, and learning about the desert. We still talk about how hot it was.

JONAH'S FAVORITE: He still likes to talk about the "cactuh-eh-eh-es" he saw has we drove to Globe, Arizona--and the cacti at Al & Cinty Tomlinson's house. He loved the sand dunes, although he had the toughest time climbing back up of all the kids.

JENNY'S FAVORITE: Jenny has a special bond with Grand Canyon that dates back to a family trip she took there when she was twelve. We camped on the Rim one night, and it was a special time for us. We put the kids to bed and spent an hour looking up at the brilliant night sky. Jenny had spent the week apart in intense spiritual study, and she was bursting with ideas, hopes, dreams. As we sat close together at our picnic table that night, looking up at the Big Dipper and a million other stars, she asked me, "What is your dream?" My answer was one word: "This."

MY FAVORITE: Superior, Arizona. Our weekend in Globe/Superior was a time of intense emotion for me. We reunited with our church family there, which was totally uplifting. Leaving that place began an eight-year spiritual drought for Jenny and me that only lifted in the past ten months. My Sabbath School was taught by Preston Cox, who had been a student in my teen Sabbath School while I was there. There is nothing that makes me prouder than being taught by one of my students.

Speaking of my students, I did get a chance to meet with members of the Class of 1998 in Superior. What an experience. My four years at Superior High were there four years, and we graduated together, you could say. It was fun to learn about what they are doing eight years on--my Teacher's Pet, Aurora, is still brilliant and (alas) still making me wait to see her show her writing/teaching stuff. At least she's kept up the curiosity about Greece, and I'm looking forward to her sending me a postcard from some gorgeous Greek isle someday. (Pictured at left, beginning with me are [clockwise]: Manny, Monica, Sergio, Kelli, Aurora, Julie, and Ellie.)

The one thing they kept saying was, "You were our age (now) when you were teaching us?" (They are all 26 or 27). The one thing I enjoyed talking about was my trip to Troy in 1999. This group of kids, better than anyone else I know, including my own family, know what that meant to me--they spent hours reading The Iliad in my classroom.

04 July 2006

July 4th with the Ditteses

Today was a weird 4th of July for me. I'm a normally a very patriotic person. I've spent 4ths of July at baseball games and fireworks shows--I even dumped tea into the English Channel the year I was at Newbold College (1991). This year, it was just tough to get into the spirit.

I did my patriotic duty by supporting Germany in the World Cup semifinal this afternoon. But that was for naught, as Italy scored two goals in overtime to rout the Deutschen and move on to the World Cup Finals. I'm now rooting for France because their star player, Thierry Henry, plays for my favorite English soccer team, Arsenal.

Our budget for fireworks this year was quite modest, $10. We bought a pack of bottle rockets and another pack of sparklers. Ellie loves sparklers. She waves them back and forth and sings patriotic songs. This year Owen used his allotment of three sparklers to try to set fire to the front yard. Clearly, he's a pyromaniac like his daddy.

Jonah sat out the fireworks tonight. He enjoyed dancing among the smoke bombs this afternoon, but when I set off a pack of firecrackers, it kind of freaked him out. I burned my hand trying to light a sparking tank.

I hope your holiday was great. I'm sorry I haven't posted anything about our return trip. I've been working like crazy, trying to finish a 6th draft of my manuscript, The Sandal on the Obelisk. I'm a month late on when I was hoping to get it out to my agent.