Author: Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Here are my most recent posts

Eternal Campaign Oscar Shorts, Contributions

Most of my life, the Oscars for short films were about as mysterious (and boring) as the Oscars for editing and cinematography, because I had no idea what they were. When it comes to film editing, now that I know what editors do, I still have no idea how anybody nominates or votes in that category, because you can’t possibly judge what the editor’s contribution to a film might have been without knowing what footage ended up on the cutting room floor. The only movie that I’ve known much about was, in my opinion, semi-saved by the editor, who cut out some shockingly destructive scenes that should never have been written, let alone shot. But the editor could only semi-save it, because there were some almost-as-appalling scenes that could not be cut without interfering with the audience’s ability to understand the story, such as it was. The editor, you see, can’t splice in footage that wasn’t shot. If the studio isn’t willing to spend the money to reshoot a scene, or shoot a new scene, when the film was supposedly wrapped, then the editor can only work with whatever garbage the director shot, trying to salvage something out of it. So the Oscar nominees for best editing should, by rights, be for films that aren’t very good, but they’re infinitely better than they would have been if a good...

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Wanted, Hugh Jackman vs. Everybody

Oh, right. Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. My wife and I have never made that big a deal about Valentine’s. It’s a greeting card holiday, right? It’s not something real, like our anniversary. Or birthdays. Or Christmas. Right? Except that I usually do a better job of remembering. It’s not that I ever forget that Valentine’s is Feb. 14. I just forget, constantly, what day it is right now. And what month. My brain is still in January. So why would I be thinking of Valentine’s Day? So sorry, O thou generous and lovely woman who hast tied thy life to mine for all these 41 years. I am blessed far beyond my deserving. I actually have a couple of valentines that I meant to send thee. And wouldn’t flowers have been nice? But thou art surely not surprised. Thou knowest whom thou marriedst. I know, elegant apology and archaic language don’t make up for not having anything there at the house for her on Valentine’s Day. If I hadn’t been in Lexington, Virginia, I could have done something excellent and last-minute in person on the actual day. But I am in Lexington, and she’s in Greensboro. Bummer. …. I did get her a box of her favorite blue-ink pens (Uniball Signo 0.038mm). But there’s no way I could count that as a Valentine’s gift. It’s just too useful. I...

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“Winning” Arguments, Audible, Dude Powder

I’ve known Rusty Humphries for more than a decade now, and I count him as one of my best friends. I suspect, however, that I am one of dozens, if not hundreds, who account him so, because Rusty has a way of earning friendship quite readily. Rusty had one of the top radio talk shows in America when we met, and after having me as a guest on his show, he was kind enough to train me in the art of hosting a radio show. He trusted his training so well that he allowed me to sit in for him when he was obliged to miss the show a few times. I suspect that some of these times might have been manufactured for the purpose of giving me experience. I remember that after the first segment of my first show as guest-host, Rusty called one of the producers of the show to say, “Tell Card that he sounds like he’s on NPR!” I realized, upon hearing this, that I was using the microphone training I had received long before from Stefan Rudnicki, the brilliant director, producer and narrator of my audiobooks. When narrating an audiobook, all my training as an actor was out the window. “Talk into the microphone as if you were speaking to a friend just over his shoulder, so that your voice remains quiet and level,”...

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Shape of Water, How Language Began, Tickling

It’s weird how we can become so concerned about a social problem that we can come up with a new set of rules and then go way overboard in our enforcement – while nothing is actually accomplished in attacking the underlying problem. For instance, we went through a spate of absurd over-protective rules like expelling a kid from school for bringing a plastic knife with his lunch so he could cut up an apple – because, you know, zero tolerance. Or the weird thing that happened in Guilford County a few years ago, when a teenager of my acquaintance, as non-violent and rule-compliant a girl as you could hope to have in your school, got suspended because she had to borrow her brother’s car to get to school. He had left some prescription meds on his front seat, but because they might have been controlled substances, school security officials opened up the car. Warrant not needed because, of course, schoolkids have no rights. In searching the car, they found her brother’s Eagle Scout knife, which she had no way of knowing was there. Still, it was a weapon on campus! Drugs on campus! Bullying is beginning to fall into this category. It’s a serious problem – this aggressive form of social isolation and personal terrorism has made vulnerable children (and adults) miserable and frightened for as long as I’ve...

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Quora, Big Heavy Fantasy Books

I gave up on Facebook during the 2016 election. Weirdly, though, it wasn’t because people were so rancorous. It’s because everybody was so isolated and protective. See, I thought that the idea of Facebook was for friends to have conversations in which they discussed things that mattered to them. And in 2016, it seemed as if almost everyone was proclaiming, in the most brutal terms, just how evil they thought that everyone that disagreed with them must be. But nobody ever posted a contrary view. Nobody ever said, You do understand that there are no facts whatsoever to support your claim that all the evil of our time comes from Republicans, right? You do understand that some people oppose Hillary for reasons other than a deep hatred for all women, right? Oh, wait. I said those things. I didn’t think I was being mean, I just thought I was raising the possibility that we could make our decisions about voting without having to hate a whole class of people in the process. But I kept running into people who said, If you disagree with me, write your views on your own Facebook page, not on mine. Or, if you disagree with me then you’re a troll … not a friend. This all came to a cusp and I realized: Facebook is not a place for ideas or even rational...

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Billboards, Paddington, I’ll Be Me

If you can’t tell by the title that Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is not just an independent film, but one with pretensions to being Art, and if you don’t know that this means that the ending will be frustrating and unresolved, you probably need to find a film-savvy friend to vet your movie choices for you. Because if you want a clearcut resolution of any of the issues raised by this movie, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You’re hunting with a pussycat instead of a pointer. You’re trying to get Lassie to do your trigonometry homework. Enough dog metaphors? So yeah, the ending is more like a fadeout before you reached the main chorus of the song … but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. In fact, this is a powerful, moving, constantly surprising film. Frances McDormand gives perhaps the best performance of her lustrous career, playing Mildred, a mother who is deeply angry that the local constabulary has failed to make any progress whatsoever in finding the men who raped and murdered her daughter. Driving along a road that used to have a lot more traffic, Mildred sees several old billboards that are falling apart. She stops and looks at the name of the local advertising company that’s in charge of leasing out the signs. An idea forms, and she goes to town to lease...

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Oscar-So-Scared, Darkest Hour

Everybody’s playing Outguess the Oscars, but that’s a pointless game now that the Academy members are terrified that if they collectively don’t nominate enough people of color, their Oscar voting privileges will be taken away, whether they individually voted for nonwhite actors or not. Because of the secret ballot, we don’t know how any Oscar voters actually voted. The ballots are tallied by the accounting firm that sprang forward and corrected last year’s wrong-envelope fiasco, where a wonderful movie about movies, with white actors in it – the usual probable winner – was mistakenly announced as the winner, when in fact the votes had gone where they had to go: to the movie about the struggles of a black, gay character. Moonlight may well have been the best movie of 2016, but what we now know is that it was the inevitable winner because there was no safer vote for the Academy members hoping to preserve their Oscar voting privileges. Did the Academy voters really think that way as they decided how to vote? I don’t know. In fact, the Oscars-So-White whiners could not know how any individual Academy voters and nominators made their decisions in a year with no nonwhite nominees in any major category. They leapt to the assumption of racism, without evidence. Furthermore, the people trying to “remedy” the “problem” were just as bigoted when they decided that...

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Mini Waffle Makers, Vinny, Jedi Redux

Here’s a Christmas gift success this year: Sur La Table offered tiny red waffle irons for something like ten bucks – or less. The price was so low that I assumed half of them would blow up as soon as they were plugged in. Instead, when we made a waffle breakfast for a pair of our grandkids and a niece, the tiny waffle irons worked perfectly. They turned out little round waffles like clockwork; even the littlest child ate two waffles. I pronounce them to have been a smash hit. Too bad that they seem to have been a Christmas-only promotion, so I can’t find them on the website at all; for that matter, since I found them in the Sur La Table in Friendly Center, they might never have been available in the online store. However, they may be the same as the Dash Mini Waffle Maker sold online by Crate&Barrel for $9.99. They look the same, except that the Crate&Barrel version is white, and the ones I bought were red. So if you want to give them a try, why not? Maybe I was just lucky with ours – or maybe these are really well-made tiny cheap appliances … Just remember: If you’re cooking for a group of hungry people, one of these is way too few. Our three waffle makers were barely able to keep up...

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Winning Christmas, The Last Jedi

As we were about to start opening the Christmas gifts on Monday morning, my wife told me that the first gift was for me. It was a small gift box of the sort that is always used in Hallmark Christmas movies – you know, the kind that looks gift-wrapped, but in fact the lid comes right off. In movies, that kind of wrapping serves the essential purpose of letting the package come open instantly, without tearing any paper. That means the scene will move more quickly – not so much unwrapping time – and also, you can keep using the same prop no matter how many takes the scene requires. Nobody has to keep rewrapping it with the same paper. A definite budget saver. But my wife’s purpose was simpler. That package needed to come open easily, because what was inside needed to be refrigerated immediately. She had taken it out of the fridge only moments before, and there was no way it should sit around waiting for me to get to it in the course of Christmas morning. So I pulled off the lid, and knew instantly that my wife had won Christmas – that is, once again she had found a gift so thoughtful, so perfect, that none of my poor attempts could possibly compete. It’s hard to be disappointed at “losing” in such a way –...

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Oasis Strap, Sister’s Keeper, 1994, Albums

I love my Kindle Oasis, especially because it’s so much smaller than the original Kindles – yet has plenty of surface area to show each page in large enough type to be read by old and tired eyes. However, the trick is to hold the thing. It’s just wide enough to be hard to grasp when you’re lying on your back in bed – which is when I do 90 percent of my Kindle reading. And the burnished metal surface wants to slide off my hand, meaning I have to exert actual grip strength to hold up the Oasis. I tried a leather cover. I wasn’t sure how it would attach to the Oasis, because there’s almost no margin around the screen. To my surprise, the cover was partially magnetic. The short side of the cover attached to the back of the Oasis, covering the thin portion that doesn’t contain the battery and computer parts. Then the wider part of the leather cover folded over to cover the screen. It does a lovely job of making the Oasis look cool, keeping the screen free of dust, and then folding back in a triangular way that allows the Oasis to stand up for hands-free reading on a flat surface. Which is great, if I ever read my Kindle on a desk or at a table. But I don’t. Because the cover’s...

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Mighty Trains, Walkable City, Alexa

So we were heading for Barnes & Noble to sign books that were stacked up waiting for my signature, when, to my surprise, we discovered that Barnes & Noble was completely dark. On a Tuesday at 5:15 p.m., that isn’t expected. But then we looked around and realized that most of Friendly Center was dark, except a few lights down at the south end. The power outage included the whole new western end of Friendly Center, too. As my wife and I thought about where to go for dinner – I mean, if you can’t sign books, then of course it’s time to eat – we had to eliminate all our favorite spots at or near Friendly Center. We decided on Osteria, at the corner of Westover Terrace and Mill. But that shopping complex, too, was dark. Thus we discovered that apparently a major trunk line in our power system runs along Wendover – or else these two nearby shopping centers both went dark by coincidence. One happy surprise: At the corner of Pembroke and Northline, where Forum VI used to be, the light was out, and Greensboro drivers were actually obeying the law and treating it like a four-way stop. This is miraculous, because we’ve never seen this at non-working stoplights in the aftermath of snowstorms and ice storms in Greensboro. Usually the people on the “bigger” street treat...

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Geography Quiz, Publishing in Movies, Flags

I love trivia games. Well, I love trivia games except for the sports questions and the celebrity questions, because I don’t follow sports and I don’t read People magazine. I don’t know any of the Bachelors and I can’t name you any of William’s children or anybody that Harry has ever dated, nor do I get weepy about Princess Di. But there are many categories of trivia that I prided myself on, and chief among these was geography. In fourth grade, I memorized the globe as we had it then. Large swathes of British-Empire pink across the fringes of Africa; French green across the Sahara; this was an old globe. As I grew older, I learned the new names of the former colonies – I could tell you what Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana and Namibia used to be (Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Bechuanaland and Southwest Africa) and what Gold Coast, Dahomey and Upper Volta are called today (Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso). Then I got the Android and iOS World Geography Quiz Game from Atom Games Entertainment. The graphics were terrific, and in the early stages of the game I did very, very well. That’s because the early stages consisted of naming countries highlighted on a regional map, and their capitals. But I was humbled when I realized that I really never had sorted out which Pacific island...

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Pease, Dickens, Finding Santa

I was a pretty fussy eater as a kid. And it wasn’t by choice. For instance, I have very clear memories of sitting at the kitchen table in my family’s house in San Mateo, California, when I was 3 years old. My mother was making me one of my favorite meals, which was a mashed-up hard-boiled egg. Not a deviled egg, mind you. No mayonnaise was added. Just a little butter when the egg was still hot enough to melt it. Some salt. Done, perfect. Except that on this particular day, the egg wasn’t quite hard-boiled. Not soft-boiled, either – the egg white was all perfectly cooked and solid. But the yolk wasn’t that powdery bright yellow of a hard-boiled egg. There were dark patches that were still moist and … it was wrong. With the perfectionism of a child I found that not only was it “not to my taste,” it was completely inedible. It wasn’t a real egg. My mother already knew it, too, because she kind of apologized as she served it to me. “But it’ll taste just the same.” And it did. The trouble was, it didn’t feel the same in my mouth, and I was just coming to know that mouth-feel was probably more important to me than taste, when it came to deciding which foods would make it into my central and nether...

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Christopher Robin, Gratitude, Odor Control

A weird thing is happening to me. At age 66, with one stroke behind me and type II diabetes busily changing my life, I find myself noticing perfectly ordinary things – walking up the front walk to my house with an armful of mail and catalogs, looking at my yard as I back out of my driveway, sitting at our kitchen table playing games with friends, hearing the voice of a grandchild singing a song to her grandma on FaceTime, practicing a tricky passage during choir rehearsal under the baton of my wife, or hearing our friend Christi Baughan’s glorious soprano voice soaring with song – and I’m suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude. Not necessarily for that particular event or thing, but rather gratitude for being alive, for having a life that contains so many kind and generous people, good memories and continuing opportunities to accomplish useful things. This is a review column, and it’s the nature of the beast that I will often complain about things that don’t work right or fail to be what they claim to be. But even on my worst day, I’m glad to be alive. I’m glad that the vicissitudes of life brought me to this beautiful city, to my lovely neighborhood, to a climate that allows trees to grow gloriously tall and flowers to bloom all year, with beautiful snow and scary ice...

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Orient Express, Song for Christmas

Murder on the Orient Express is based on one of Agatha Christie’s best Hercule Poirot mysteries, and when it was filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1974, it was dazzling. Gorgeous sets, a fabulous cast – Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York, and Albert Finney as the vain and brilliant Hercule Poirot. I had read the book years before, but didn’t remember the ending, so everything took me by surprise and at the final reveal, I was blown away. It was one of those movies that stayed with me for years after seeing it. When I heard that Kenneth Branagh was directing ╨ and starring in ╨ a remake of Murder on the Orient Express for release this year, I was saddened. First, because there seems so little point in remaking a perfect movie. Either you don’t change it at all, in which case, why not just let us stream or buy the original version? Or you change it, and every change makes it a little worse. They chose the second option, and who can be surprised? Because my second sadness was this: Only someone as vain as Kenneth Branagh could look at a project like Murder on the Orient Express and think, I know the perfect casting for Hercule Poirot! The greatest...

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Christmas Movies, Kindle Fire, Chinaberry

The Hallmark Channel’s annual “Countdown to Christmas” is already under way, with this year’s new movies debuting on weekend nights at 8 or 9 p.m. Now that there are two channels – the regular Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries – you can choose what kind of experience you want to have. The Hallmark Channel has the sentimental, magical, romantic movies where you know within the first 15 minutes who is going to end up realizing that they love each other more than anything. Hallmark Movies and Mysteries has the three-kleenex movies where genuinely bad things can and do happen, and while these also have love stories and non-tragic endings, you can shed a lot of tears along the way. Now, the fact that these movies are so predictable is not a flaw. This isn’t HBO – not that HBO’s premier offerings aren’t also predictable in their own way. With Hallmark Christmas movies, the audience tunes in precisely because they trust Hallmark to deliver, in a two-hour movie, an ending that can let the viewers trundle off to bed feeling good about the world. I’ve heard some people (who are nowhere near as smart or open-minded as they think they are) say that Hallmark movies are for lonely middle-aged women who keep cats. To which my reply would be: and why shouldn’t that audience segment have well-written, well-acted...

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Blade Runner 2049, Jelly, Onsen Towels

This is the time of year when the movie studios are bringing out their big guns – the movies they think have a chance of doing well at the Oscars. Fortunately, we’ve now passed that stupid season of October, when the studios try to enthrall us with constant horror movies. Outside of the theaters, there’s nothing horrible about October. In places that have autumn, it’s the time when we cool off from summer, when the world turns red and golden, when our thoughts turn to the season of Thanksgiving. Halloween isn’t such a big deal anymore, now that children aren’t free to roam their neighborhoods without parents. It’s just institutionalized begging, and while we try to delight our visitors with their favorite candies (Twix, every year, scientifically determined by letting them pick their own candy from our eclectic candy basket; Twix always disappears first, by a mile), we also avoid scaring them because our favorite candy-mendicants are the little ones, and there’s no pleasure in making 4-year-olds recoil in fear. Why, then, because of this downgraded diabetes-inducing “holiday” do we have to put up with movie trailers, in the theaters and on our television sets at home, that try to scare us? When I go to see a good and intelligent movie, why, during October, do I have to sit through stupid, sickening trailers that go “boo!”? I’ve actually...

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Pansies, Tech Help, Beats Earphones

We’re finally deep enough into autumn that we’re not likely to have many more days with temperatures above 80 degrees. So it’s time for the changeover from the spring-and-summer annual plants, like petunias and coleus, to our winter flowers: pansies. I’m ambivalent about pansies. I have fond memories of my grandmother Parkee taking 4-year-old me and my 1-year-old brother on walks from our home on Canyon Drive in Salt Lake City to Temple Square. During much of the year, there were lots of pansies planted by the marvelous Temple Square gardeners, and Parkee would stop at a bed of pansies and sing, “Little purple pansies dressed in yellow gold, growing in the corner of my garden, old.” She knew the whole song, but my brother and I rarely allowed her to finish, because after you’ve sung to the pansies a couple of times in the four years of your life, you’re pretty much done with that. For many years since then, I’ve thought of pansies as being small and slight (which they are) and childish (which they are not). They’re one of my wife’s favorite flowers, so she rejoices when it’s time to prepare for winter by giving the pansies a month or so to take root and start to grow profusely before the really cold weather. And I’ve come to respect the pansies for their amazing hardiness – how...

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Make It Out Alive, Victoria & Abdul, Spielberg

Those of you not yet sentient in 1980 may imagine that the year was notable for the election of Ronald Reagan, or the Iran hostage crisis, or for the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics, or the census, or Indira Gandhi becoming the fourth prime minister of India, or USC beating number-one-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, 17-16. But for many of us who were adults in 1980, the event of the year was the violent eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State on May 18. I was living nowhere near the eruption, but as ash was carried eastward by the prevailing winds, much of it was deposited in eastern Washington, where I had (and have) many family members, and where I was born nearly three decades earlier. So I had particular interest. The scientists studying volcanos did a superb job of predicting the blast, and because of their advance warning, there was plenty of time for anybody who didn’t want to die to get away from the coming eruption. One old fellow who got a lot of media attention was a curmudgeon named Harry Truman, who refused to evacuate, even though his mountain home was quite near to the volcano. After the mountain blew, no trace of Truman or his home were ever found. But he was only the most famous of the people who were...

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Vow, Falling, Paul Simon, Children of the Fleet

Thanks, John Hammer, for your many years of vetting the candidates for local office and telling us the unvarnished truth about them. Readers of the Rhino Times are well aware of your principled positions on the important issues, but what you have never been is partisan.  Though you seem more likely to favor Republican candidates, you are perfectly capable of exposing incompetent, dishonest and stupid candidates regardless of their party – while you give even those whose views you oppose a fear hearing in your endorsement issues, so readers can make up their own minds. I think that in all the years I’ve been reading your endorsements, only once have I gone ahead and voted contrary to your recommendation.  And in that case you were pretty iffy on the candidate I ended up favoring, so it’s not as if I’ve ever found any reason to reject your evidence and arguments entirely. In short: Good work.  Thanks for making Rhino Times one of the best local papers in America.  Maybe the best, but I haven’t read all of them, and besides, I wouldn’t want to embarrass you. …. Old movie discovery: I never noticed the 2012 Channing Tatum/Rachel McAdams movie The Vow, but that’s probably because it would have been hyped as one of those contrived, implausible tearjerker movies that I ignore the way I ignore the kinds of books...

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American Made, Young Sheldon, Good Doctor

When I was a kid, the resumption of new television programs with the new “season” in September was complete recompense for the end of summer vacation. Yes, we had to go back to school, but hey, there were cool new shows. When I was young, that usually meant intriguing new westerns – I remember the debuts of The Rifleman, Sugarfoot, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Have Gun – Will Travel and Rawhide, which provided starring roles for Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford; Will Hutchins; Lorne Greene and Michael Landon; Clint Walker; Richard Boone; and Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming, respectively. I can still sing almost the entire Rawhide theme song from memory. I remember Micah (Paul Fix), the marshal on The Rifleman, and Wishbone (Paul Brinegar) from Rawhide, and I haven’t even mentioned the most iconic TV western of them all, Gunsmoke. Fall television season was more important than the start of school. More important, when I was young, than presidential elections, which came as an anticlimax later in the season, and then went on hiatus for four years at a time. Nowadays, you’d think the “television season” thing wouldn’t matter anymore. Cable channels like TNT, USA, AMC, HBO, Showtime and others have mini-seasons of six, nine, 10 or a dozen episodes, and they start exactly when the traditional network seasons run out. Instead of the summer being devoted to reruns of...

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Izzard, Kingsman, Brad’s Status, Assassin

If only Trump would just shut up. Theodore Roosevelt called the US presidency “a bully pulpit,” in an age when “bully” was the slang equivalent of “awesome.” The presidency is only a bully pulpit if the people don’t think you’re an idiot. In that case, the twittering presidency is like being in the stocks in the village square. The Secret Service keeps people from throwing fruit or, like, rocks. But lots of people want to, and the more you shout stupidities at them, the more their fingers itch. Ultra-right Republicans have the delusion, shared by the ultra-left, that Trump was the actual consensus choice of the Republican Party. This is not true, was never true. Most Republicans in primary after primary kept voting for candidates other than Trump. The trouble was that for a long period Trump’s most visible rival was Ted Cruz, who was only slightly less repugnant. Trump was elected constitutionally, but with a minority of the popular vote. It is delusional and self-destructive for the far-right wing of the Republican Party to demand that the leadership of the Republican Party set aside their knowledge of how to govern, and instead adopt the ludicrous, mean-spirited, bigoted agenda of the far right and ram it down the throats of the American people. There is some consensus in the Republican Party: a strong national defense, which will be hard...

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Home Again, Do Your Laundry, Yesterday

Home Again was one of two movies my wife and I chose between last Friday. The other was American Assassin. (When choosing a movie to go to, horror movies like It aren’t even in the running. Why should I pay Hollywood for scaring me, when I can just stay home and watch the news?) We had good luck with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and American Assassin looked like it might be as good … or better. And all the promos and reviews for Home Again suggested that it was going to be about a May-December romance ╨ except the woman would be the older one. Ooooh, a twist. I found this offensive, by the way, because when we talk about May-December love stories, we usually mean an old guy. You know, December – nearing the end of the year, so metaphorically nearing the end of life. An old man. But when you flip it, and the “old” woman is an absolutely gorgeous and youthful-looking Reese Witherspoon, we’re not talking about May-December at all. Witherspoon is 41, for pete’s sake, and she has never been more beautiful. And even though Pico Alexander, who plays her initial love interest, has a photo on IMDb that makes him look 14, he was born in 1991, which makes him 26 years old. Fifteen years younger than Witherspoon. That’s not May-December. That’s June-August. No cradles are...

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Third Places in American Life

Why do you have a lawn? No, seriously. Why do you want to have this greensward that you must mow, weed (manually or chemically), water (even in our damp climate) and leave generally unused? Here’s why: English country houses. The wealthy ruling class in England before 1700 was generally dependent on their income from the land. They would collect rents from peasants who worked the land but did not own it. The landlord lived in a large fine house somewhere on his own property, with a clear separation between his household and the surrounding farmers. But the grounds of the house, while they might be well-tended by a gardener, were part of a large working agricultural enterprise. Therefore, large sweeps of land near the house were kept as meadows, with herds of sheep or goats keeping them well-cropped. As the idle rich sought more ways to amuse themselves, this close-cut grass began to be used for various functions. Croquet and tennis, when they were imported from France, were fairly easy to situate on a level stretch of lawn. Garden parties took place on tables and chairs set up (by servants) on the lawn. One of the hallmarks of a great house, as you approached it from the road, was the broad lawn on either side of the trees planted to line the long sweeping driveway. Yes, there were sheep...

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Exploding Yogurt, Two Games, Thorns

The biggest problem with trivia games – even the well-written ones, like Trivial Pursuit – is assembling a group of people to play together. Let’s face it, when playing trivia games many people are at a great disadvantage, at least in certain categories. For years, I’ve had to play Trivial Pursuit with a severe handicap: the Sports & Leisure category. Not only do I know less than nothing about sports (that is, even the things I think I know are mostly wrong), but also it seems as though half the “leisure” questions are about alcoholic beverages, and as a Mormon, I have no idea what liquids are ingredients of various mixed drinks. Otherwise, I do pretty well. So there’s been many a game where my little wheel filled up with cheeses, except for Sports & Leisure, long before anyone else was close. But then I keep dancing around, failing to answer the sports questions, until somebody else fills their wheel and goes to the middle and wins. Even if I get one sports question right, when I get into the middle my opponents only have to keep asking me sports questions and they have plenty of time to catch up and beat me. Then there’s the problem of brain-holes, where some fact you’ve known your whole life suddenly falls out. I remember one game with a group of professors...

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Hacksaw, TrapTap, Lucky Logan, Prager

My wife and I don’t go to the movies very much, for several reasons: There aren’t many movies that are aimed at people like us. You know, grownups. Even the movies thatcouldhave been enjoyable are often very badly written, and when that becomes obvious in the promos, why should we waste time and money going to see them? We can always catch them later on cable to see if they turned out better than they looked in the teasers. There are only two or three movies a year that are more enjoyable than just staying home and watching our recorded shows or playing Ticket to Ride or inviting friends over to visit or just talking. We’re busy. Sometimes, we’re traveling or are completely tied up in local activities during the entire theatrical run of a movie. This is why we didn’t see Hacksaw Ridge when it first came out. We knew the storyline, we like Andrew Garfield as an actor, and we know that Mel Gibson is not only a brilliant director but also one with the courage to show a man of faith unironically on the screen. But those are also reasons why I picked another movie the week that we could have seen Hacksaw Ridge in the theaters. Because I’m such a sucker for a good story – or even a bad one – that I over-identify with onscreen characters. I get too emotional, and if...

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Hitman’s Bodyguard, Quitters and Paprika

We just got back from a late-night showing of The Hitman’s Bodyguard. The reviews on this have been mixed. Our reviews are unanimous: Terrific adventure movie, with a double romance tossed in. Good dialogue, good writing, Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Gary Oldman, an amazing amount of obscene language (half of which you miss if you don’t speak Spanish), and more dead bodies and wrecked, shot-up and blown-up cars than your average movie. If you want to see stuff you haven’t seen before, this movie has a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is a gorgeous city when people aren’t shooting and blowing up vehicles. We loved every minute. Ignore the critics who are too cool for school. …. Watching a few moments of the Kevin Spacey film K-PAX, I happened to see Spacey, playing a man who might be insane or might be an alien, take a bite out of the end of a whole banana and start chewing. If you’ve ever tried that, you know that not only does it taste nasty, you’ve got to have sharp teeth, a strong bite and give the fruit a firm ripping motion to succeed in taking off the end. With his mouth still full (because I sincerely hope Spacey did not swallow the peel), he took a second bite. In case someone thought it was a fluke. Then, I hope, a production assistant or his personal valet...

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Nut Job 2, Conlangs, Taíno

Nut Job 2. I saw it last Saturday. Did you guess that I went because my grandchildren were still visiting us? The squirrel Surly has come a long way since he inhabited those cartoons at the beginning of Pixar features, in which the one joke was his Wile E. Coyote–style way of making desperate efforts to capture his quarry – an acorn – and failing spectacularly. We loved those cartoons. Partly because they were clever, well-produced and funny. Partly because the old tradition of having short cartoons before every feature is one that I miss. There was no profit in those cartoons in the old days. They were really there, I suspect, to allow time for latecomers to get seated before the feature started. But they made movie-going more of an event, a celebration. Even if you were there to see some dark, demented horror flick, the cartoon at the beginning put everybody in a good mood. (That’s right, even the annoying cartoons, like Woody Woodpecker. After seeing one of those, I couldn’t get that obnoxious cackle out of my head for days.) But those squirrel-and-nut cartoons, beloved as they were, had to be turned into money, and that is done by having a feature film. Never mind that the feature film had to be completely different and couldn’t possibly bring the same delight. Audience loved Surly the nut-seeking squirrel, so they had to be...

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Making Movies Despicable, Outer Banks

I wasn’t going to see Despicable Me 3 because, you know, Despicable Me 2.  But we have three grandchildren visiting with us, all under the age of 12. So now I’ve seen DespicableMe 3 and I’m happy to tell you that, compared with grinding your head into a rough concrete wall for an hour, Despicable Me 3 is better.  Which is more than could be said for Despicable Me 2 or the Minions movie.  The saving grace of all the Despicable Me movies is that Steve Carell plays Gru, and Carell classes up everything he’s in. He’s one of the few American screen actors who can do voices – accents, dialects and actual characters. This means that he is especially suited to voice work in animated movies – a branch of acting in which most American actors range from untrained to dreadful.  As a case in point, I recently tried to listen to the audio version of three books by noted performers, read by the authors: Paula Poundstone’s The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness;Kevin Hart’s I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons; and Jeffrey Tambor’s Are You Anybody?  Usually, with a book by a comedian or comic actor or, you know, any actor at all, you expect they’ll be the best or only possible reader of their material.  Why would you ever listen to an audio version of one of Woody Allen’s books, like Without Feathers, if Allen himself were not reading it? Nobody could bring off that mix of...

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Evan Hansen, Musical Groundhog

It’s an odd thing to say, but despite its role as the capital of American left-wing oppression – though Seattle, Portland and the whole state of California are vying for the title – New York City remains the cultural center of the United States.  And even though the days are long gone when Broadway shows were a steady source of enduring popular songs, we still look to Broadway to certify a show as important.  There are ridiculously few new musicals compared to past decades, and now that contemporary pop, hip-hop and rap are supplanting many older musical traditions in Broadway shows, it seems even less likely for a Broadway musical to produce any song that can reach the public consciousness.  And yet we still go to Broadway. Sometimes kicking and screaming, especially when ridiculous comic-book movies are turned into offensively stupid comic-book musicals.  Anyway, a few years back I simply stopped going.  That’s right, a dyed-in-the-wool theater major and play director like me finally realized: Broadway choruses are the best singers and dancers in the world, but with the star performers in the shows borrowed from television, Grammy broadcasts and movies, nearly without regard for whether they can actually act and sing well enough for Broadway, it’s usually better to see a local production after the Broadway hit has had its run. Cheaper, too.  Or, you know, not see it at all. ...

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Candy Bars, Dunkirk, The Big Sick

If you want good brioche, you go to France. Period. Very little that is called “brioche” here in the US is good brioche. For one thing, you mostly see it as a hamburger on a “brioche” bun. If it’s brioche, it isn’t shaped like a hamburger bun. Brioche is also way too good to put hamburger ingredients on it. Hamburger on real brioche bread is like using a matched pair of Arabian stallions to pull a little red wagon. Some foods can be internationalized. Not only is high-quality wine from France, Italy and (in the opinion of some) Germany, Spain, Greece and Portugal available all over the world, but also wines from the same kinds of grapes are produced in California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, China, Russia, Romania, New Zealand and Brazil. Is there anywhere on Earth where you can’t get Chinese food? Delivered? Or pizza? (American pizza is way better than anything sold under that name in Italy. If you go to Italy for the pizza, forget it.) But other foods remain, like brioche, the exclusive domain of a handful of countries. Mexican food, for instance, belongs almost entirely to Texas, California, New Mexico and – no, sorry, not Mexico. What we call Mexican food isn’t what you can expect to see more than 50 miles south of the border. (In Mexico, all the food is Mexican.) May...

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Spidey, Baby Driver, Apes, Cookies

Summer movies are supposed to be huge. The studios bring out their biggest moneymakers in May and June so they’ll have a chance to sit in the theaters all summer long, raking in money. Except that many of the movies the studios counted on simply have not performed. For instance, how could you lose with the Smurfs movie (Smurfs: The Lost Village)? Oh, wait. I forgot that I loathed every moment of the Smurfs on television when my kids were young. I would have paid 50 bucks for the privilege of never seeing it. Apparently I wasn’t alone in that sentiment. On a $60 million budget, it’s barely making that back … and not making a dent in the costs of promotion, which often equal the shooting budget. Baywatch had The Rock and Zac Efron. Seriously, how could it lose? Oh, yeah, it was based on a truly lousy TV show. And there was that little problem about how the promos weren’t even slightly funny or sexy, and if you don’t have either of those, why would anybody go see it? Like Smurfs, it might make back its budget, but it’s still a medium flop. Ghost in the Shell? If it had any promotion, I never saw it. Apparently it wasn’t advertised in places that an old coot like me would ever see it. On a budget of $110 million,...

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Spider-Man: Homecoming, Anne Ursu

When you drive across America with no particular itinerary, mealtimes can fall at awkward moments. Like between Denver, Colorado, and Salina, Kansas. Like westbound between Laramie, Wyoming, and death. There’s plenty to see in such regions. Railroad trains that go on forever. Redrock and then whiterock cliffs, buttes, and crags that gradually melt down to swells in the prairie with an occasional outcropping of stone. Clouds that drift along in neat acrobatic-swimming ranks and files. Distant rainstorms with virga sweeping down from the base of the clouds but never reaching the ground. What isn’t always obvious is information about where to eat in a strange town. When there’s only one Yelp review and it goes on and on about how brilliant the restaurant is, so that one can only assume that the owner wrote it. And there are some places so obscure that Yelp has not yet penetrated the fog. I’ve been daring, as with a very nice-looking standalone restaurant in Kanab, Utah, which has become, in our family lore, the legendary Fly-On-Your-Plate Restaurant. (We paid, left, and ate at a Subway farther along the road.) In the end, when you’re road-weary and eager to get to your evening’s lodgings, you sometimes have to figure, McDonald’s or Subway or Arby’s or some other chain represents a minimum below which they are unlikely to fall. McDonald’s is passionate about quality...

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Schmackary’s, Fragmentary Movies

It was almost funny. Someone had told me that Schmackary’s in Manhattan made the best cookies in America. The store also did wonderful-weird things like allowing people to go online and order a bunch of cookies to be sent to the cast of any show on Broadway. (Maybe they include off-Broadway shows, too. I didn’t check.) It sounded like great fun, but I wasn’t going to send an order of cookies to anyone else before I sampled some myself. My wife and I plan to go to New York to see Dear Evan Hansen, which has been highly recommended by friends. I take personal recommendations of shows seriously, because going to Broadway and spending the money to see a lousy show is a serious waste of time and money. I have found, ever since walking out of a couple of shows so offensively stupid that I felt it was dangerous to my mental health to remain, that Broadway reviewers are not to be trusted, period. But when a good (and smart, and not stage-struck) friend tells me that Dear Evan Hansen is a terrific show, and his plot summary is encouraging, then yes, it’s worth the trip to Manhattan to see the play. But what if we had gone to see the musical Amelie because we loved the French movie by that name? I ordered the original cast album...

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Cross-Country, Hotel Scams, Duvets

As my wife’s father’s 90th birthday began to evolve into a family reunion – which would take place in Utah, where he and my mother-in-law have lived almost their entire lives, and in Orem continuously since 1963 – my wife and I began to talk about how we’d like to travel there. Flying has become so miserable over the past few years that we both felt that we could take the extra time to travel by car. I’m not sure that, with the cost of hotels and meals along the way, it saved us any money over going by air. And trains take such a doglegged, switchbacked route to get anywhere in the west that we couldn’t seriously consider that. Once we decided that I would teach a writing workshop in Utah the week before the reunion, that locked us in – we traveled with several boxes of student handouts that would not have been convenient to take with us by air. I know it’s trivial, but one of my favorite things is that I could hang up my suit through the whole trip instead of jamming it into a suitcase and then probably having to get it cleaned and pressed when we arrived, as I’ve had to do when flying. But there are other complications. It’s summer, and I have a raft of prescription medications that I need...

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Unread Books, Walter Mosley, Casablanca

When I was young, I finished every book I started, or felt guilty about it for months. It’s not as if I felt I owed the author something, and had failed to pay what was due. I didn’t think about the author at all. It was the characters I was letting down – and that included nonfiction as well as fiction. If I didn’t finish a history, I had somehow harmed the people whose story I was now choosing to ignore. I wish I could tell you that this attitude faded by the time I was an iconoclastic teenager, but I didn’t clast any icons at that age. My guilt over not-finishing a book continued until my early 50s. That was when I realized that the ever-growing pile of books by my bed was rather like an archaeological site. The lower strata were older, and everything at the bottom had been dead for a long, long time. When, once every couple of years, I became ambitious and decided to go through those books, I could still see why I had decided to buy each book, but I now began to understand that when I found a dog-ear or a bookjacket flap on, say, page 40 or even 20, it meant that I had given this book a fair chance. Then it had to compete on its own merits. When...

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Dance Shows, NanoTrax Goes Wild

When promotion began for NBC’s new dance program, World of Dance, with Jennifer Lopez as the lead judge, I was optimistic. I was seeing no promotion for So You Think You Can Dance, and I vaguely assumed that it might have been canceled. After all, if Fox could cancel American Idol when it was still a powerhouse in the ratings, why would it keep on with SYTYCD? The signs of decay were already there. Some really misguided decisions – dividing the dancers into two categories – “street” dance vs. “stage” dance – lowered the quality of both groups. I still watched the show that year, mind you – but because all the street dance numbers were pretty much the same moves over and over, and the music was always hip-hop, mostly unlistenable to people who like things like lyrics, melody and harmony, SYTYCD had become only half watchable. And then they did the awful season 13, which they called “The Next Generation.” It was children, all children. Aw. Awww. Aaaawwww. How kee-yute. I don’t want to watch children getting pushed and tormented into doing ridiculously difficult moves, any more than I would like watching children play tackle football. It isn’t cute. It’s scary and it’s tedious. Watching children dance – even the most skilled of them – is like watching dogs walk on their hind legs. The amusement comes...

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Wonder Woman, WWI, Smart Animals

I always thought the Wonder Woman TV series was terminally dumb. I hated her dumb red-white-and-blue merry-widow costume, I hated the dumb stuff she did to wield superpowers (a rope? crossing her arms? spinning around till they did a splash effect? They might as well have gotten their special effects from the people who came up with Daleks). And while everybody at the time talked about how beautiful Lynda Carter was, I thought she had a boring cliche face and no acting talent whatsoever. Now I understand that she was probably doing the best she could with really crummy scripts, and as for beauty, remember that I’m the guy who never understood all the hoopla about Scarlett Johansson or Andie MacDowell or Elizabeth Taylor or, really, anybody who was famous for being beautiful since Grace Kelly. I’m just out of the loop on all that stuff. And come on. “Wonder Woman”? Could they possibly have come up with a more generic name? It makes “Captain Underpants” seem deep. But then the trailers for the new Wonder Woman movie looked like there might be good writing and good acting and an actual story with characters we could care about, so my wife and I showed up for a late afternoon showing in the cushy reclining seats at Red Cinemas, full of hope. OK, we weren’t full of hope, but we...

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Fix, Mr. Funn, Hugo, Dude Wipes

Because I really liked the first two Amos Decker novels by David Baldacci, I pre-ordered the third one from Audible.com. The Fix had a promising premise: A rich and respected defense contractor happens upon a complete stranger at a streetcorner right next to the FBI building, pulls out a pistol, shoots her and then shoots himself. Decker happened to witness the actual crime, since he was working at the FBI building at the time, and he can’t let go of the investigation into this crime, partly because it’s implanted in his memory – he can’t forget anything – and partly because so many people seem to be anxious to get him off the investigation. The trouble with downloading the Audible.com recording was that … it didn’t work. I tried it on two different MP3 players, and I got nothing. Yet when I played the same file in iTunes on my computer, it worked fine. I was not going to sit at my computer to listen to the book. Listening to audiobooks is all about mobility for me. I listen to books while grocery shopping, driving long distances and short ones, or waiting in line. I don’t use up computer time, because then I could be playing Civilization or Ticket to Ride.  Come on, I have my priorities. So I did something radical. I bought the book again as a Kindle...

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How to Survive a Summer of Bad Movies

You know it’s time to stop channel surfing and go to bed when you find yourself checking back with HBO’s showing of Barb Wire (1996), a sci-fi action flick, in order to see if at some point the story becomes coherent or even intelligible. The answer is no. The only conceivable point of interest in this movie is to find out which of Pamela Anderson’s ventral protuberances is most fully revealed by the end of the movie. Answer: It doesn’t matter. No amount of bared-balloon-boobage can compensate for the combination of bad acting, ugliness and stupidity that seems to have been a requirement of every human being in the cast. Now go to bed, or you’ll have a serious couch-potato hangover in the morning. …. This is shaping up to be such an awful movie summer. A writer in Entertainment Weekly, after explaining why King Arthur and Alien: Covenant and Snatched are box office flops, went on to talk about why he had little hope for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the comic version of Baywatch. But then he mentioned the rest of the summer’s big-budget movies and talked about how much hope he had for them. That would be Wonder Woman, a Tom Cruise Mummy movie, Cars 3, another Transformers movie, Despicable Me 3, another Spider-Man movie, another Planet of the Apes movie, an Emoji...

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King Arthur, Talking Black

King Arthur. A legend that grew out of a warrior (not a king) who rated exactly one mention of his name in the meager history of the Middle Ages in Britain. When many British refugees fled the Saxons and Danes and Irish raiders and settled in the ancient land of Armorica, there were so many of them that the land was renamed Brittany. As Brittany gradually became part of France (a process that isn’t really complete even now), the people began speaking a dialect of French alongside their Breton language. Early on in that process, though, troubadours from Brittany began traveling around wherever they were welcome, performing songs they made up or learned. Those songs began to center around the great warrior Arthur, who quickly got transformed into a king. He was surrounded by a bunch of other heroes and a few lovely ladies, most of whom had Breton names but with more and more of a French tinge to them. These Breton troubadours came into a French courtly tradition that already had a great hero, Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor. But as king, he could hardly go out having adventures, so a lot of the songs centered around one of his hero knights, Roland. The Breton troubadours learned from that tradition – and tried to top it. King Arthur was centuries before Charlemagne. And he had so...

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Guardians 2, Rigor Mortis

Come on now. If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, you’re going to go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 no matter what I say about it. In fact, you’ve probably already seen it. If not, go. Contrary to what some idiot reviewers have said, you will enjoy it. It can’t dazzle and surprise you the way the first film did, because hey, they make sequels so that you can return to familiar and beloved characters. If Chris Pratt weren’t playing a mix tape of old pop songs, we’d be outraged, even if we might have a kind of contempt for the taste that chose the songs (credit and blame entirely claimed by writer/director James Gunn). I think my daughter said it best. All the reviewers who are criticizing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seem to be complaining that it’s not identical to the first movie. But one of the best things about Guardians 2 is that it’s a new story. And, arguably, a better, more personal story. Here’s a fun comparison: Guardians 2 is to Guardians as The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. That is, while it tells a current story that takes place after the events in the first movie (using mostly the same characters), it also spends much of its time on the backstory of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), so that when...

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Thick Fantasy Novels, City of Enoch

Grades for the courses I taught this semester were due on Tuesday, May 2, at 5 p.m. My response to the copy-edit of my novel Children of the Fleet had an ironclad deadline, though, and because my livelihood is tied to my books, that had to take precedence. That meant that I couldn’t start reading my students’ final exam essays until Tuesday. That’s right, just like a college student, everything was left till the last minute. The grades for my fiction-writing and hymn-writing workshops were easy enough. I had already read everything and discussed it at some length, so it was just a matter of assigning letter grades. All done by mid-afternoon. But for my course in the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis, I had 48 final exam essays to read (each student wrote three) (because I told them to), plus eight of their final papers to grade (I had graded the others during the final exam). In case you didn’t know, that’s a lot of reading. Especially because this was an extraordinary class. If this were the last class I ever taught, I’d die happy. No I wouldn’t. Too many unrepented sins. But that’s none of your business. Still, as a teacher, I have to say that this class exceeded my expectations. And my expectations were high. As I told them on the first day of class, all...

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Fair Grading, Millenials & Computers

The semester is nearly over at Southern Virginia University, where I teach, and that means that I must soon pass through that torment known as “grading.” I understand the purpose of grading; I also understand that grading has never accomplished that purpose, and is even farther now from doing so. Supposedly, C is “average,” with the other letters representing gradations of quality above and below that mythical creature. But that model is flawed from the outset. For instance, I’m teaching a course in fiction writing. While there are specific techniques I teach, and I can certainly detect many flaws both major and minor, I also know that if you write a good enough story, the quality of the plain tale will trump any of those flaws. So do I grade the plain tale – a brilliant one of which comes to writers only now and then, if ever, throughout a long career – or the mastery of specific techniques? And in calculating “average,” what, exactly, am I averaging? The quality of stories, or the mastery of technique, comparing only the students in this course this semester? Since averaging is mathematical, do I slap grades on the stories and then average those? How does that tell anybody anything? If this is an exceptionally good year, then a student who would have received an A in a different year might receive...

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Brainworms, Israeli Weapons, PopCorners

I have always loved singing in choirs, especially after I learned in my 20s how to bend my baritone voice to sing most tenor parts. (The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah rides that high G too hard for me to sustain it, alas.) On Easter Sunday we sang a couple of good choir arrangements. But now as I write this, it’s a day later and I can’t get those songs out of my brain. This didn’t happen before the performance, when you’d think my anxiety about not messing up the music would have those tunes and words running constantly through my head. No, it’s only after I gave the last performance of those scraps of melody. And it’s never the whole song. I know the whole song, or I did yesterday, anyway. But all my brain will do is play just a phrase or two over and over. And over. Right now I’m listening to Ana Moura’s wonderful Aconteceu album while I write. Ana Moura is a noted singer of Portuguese fado music. (“Fado” means “fate,” and the music is linked to the Portuguese word “saudade,” a kind of longing for things that are permanently lost, so that the longing can never be healed.) Yet even as I listen to Ana Moura’s wonderful singing, I still have those scraps of melody intruding into my mind. My solo part in one...

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Caller ID, Syria, Life Story, Easter

The goldfinches are blooming in our yard again. All winter, before I went up to teach at Southern Virginia each week, I’d fill the appropriate bird and squirrel feeders in our yard with sunflower chips, nyjer seeds, peanuts and suet cakes. By the time I got home a few days later, the sunflower and nyjer dispensers would be nearly empty. That’s because the feeders in our front and back yards have been major resources for several of the local winter feeding flocks – though, oddly enough, only the crows seem to know about both our feeding stations. Other than them, the frontyard flocks seem not to know about the backyard feeders and vice versa. (OK, I know that was ambiguous. Did “vice versa” mean that the backyard feeders didn’t know about the frontyard flocks? Of course not. Feeders are inanimate. They don’t know anything. “Vice versa” meant that the backyard flocks didn’t know about the frontyard feeders. Even though they’re all capable of flying over or around the house.) As the bird-feeding experts at Wild Birds Unlimited told me years ago, one of the most crucial times for feeding birds is spring, because birds aren’t pandas – they don’t eat shoots and leaves. The insect-eaters might start foraging for themselves as soon as the bugs come out in the spring – though I’ve noticed the bluebirds still take dried mealworms...

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Stats, Men Not At Work, Eggs

These past few weeks, I’ve read three books that consisted mostly of statistics – both methodology and results. Even if you’re a statistician – which I am not – no one can call such analyses and lists “thrilling.” Yet when good writers (which invariably overlaps with the group called “good thinkers”) give an account of careful, rigorous statistical analysis, the results are both fascinating and reasonably reliable. Remember that many of the statistics we’re fed on the news are complete nonsense, either because the analysis is faulty or because there was never any data to begin with. For instance, you remember that ludicrous statistic that Super Bowl Sunday was the busiest day of the year for shelters for battered women. It was based on, you guessed it, nothing at all. It was just a mean thing to say about men, which always makes politically correct people feel happy and proud. The three books I’m talking about are: Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, by Nicholas Eberstadt Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, by Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall, John A. Johnson and Daniel J. Kruger The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. The second two are of great interest to a fiction writer like me, though let me tell any novelists reading this review that The Bestseller Code does...

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Signo Pens, Storytelling Animal

For years I’ve been so happy with Uni-Ball pens that I buy them by the box. But I’m also an office-supply fanatic, which is why I get the OfficeSupplyGeek.com weekly newsletter. Needless to say, Brian Greene, the reviewer there, does not have my fanatical loyalty to Uni-Ball. Instead, he reports on all the brands. Not only that, but OfficeSupplyGeek.com introduced me to an online dealership called JetPens.com, where they not only sell all kinds of writing implements, from cool fountain pens to hardworking office pens, from mechanical pencils to calligraphy supplies, but also test and review them. They recently offered a review of extra-fine point pens that blew me away. In all my years of looking at pens in office supply stores, I thought that a 0.5 millimeter tip was the finest point you could get in a pen. Wrong. In Japan, because their language is written in characters that are a lot more complicated than our Roman alphabet letters, they need a very, very fine point – with ink that flows smoothly so that not a stroke is ever lost. As I get older and my handwriting gets worse (something no one ever thought possible), I need a much finer point so that other people – proofreaders, editors, and my students – can make decent guesses at what in the world I thought I was writing. So when...

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Cold, Table 19, Lady Hardcastle

I spent two weeks fighting the same vicious cold that has afflicted so many people this winter. Despite a brief fever, it never rose to the level of influenza, and while any lung ailment I get always wants to turn into bacterial pneumonia, the doctor at the walk-in clinic told me that we were definitely not at that level yet. I won’t bore you with my near-panic at using an inhaler for the first time, or the hideous digestive consequence of using a codeine-based cough syrup exactly once. (I had forgotten that the last time I took codeine, some 20 years ago, the same thing happened. When the doctor asked me if I had any adverse reactions to codeine, I only remembered that all the cough medicine had codeine when I was a child, and that I had had no problems back then.) (And now I’ve gone ahead and told you, so I guess I will bore you with that story after all.) The benefit of being sick for two weeks was an 11-pound weight loss, from which I’m trying not to recover, though I am trying to recover from the convulsive coughing, the abdominal pain caused by convulsive coughing and the tendency to wheeze, which never happened to me when I was young, but now can cause me to panic at my inability to inhale during a major wheeze. It’s so fun...

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Images, Cards, Steve Jobs, Jersey Girl

For those who, like me, are stuck with Windows 10, it’s plain that this time, Microsoft actually tried to deliver a stable operating system. But, as usual, they have proven themselves completely unconcerned with the experience of the user. Our duty is to salute, thank Bill Gates and keep our complaints to ourselves, because Windows is what it is, so live with it. Our gripes may seem petty compared to the grand vision of world domination that motivates Bill Gates. But for me, at least, I want to be in control of the screen I have to look at while I do all my work. To this end, for years I used a program called Wallmaster to shuffle through the thousands of images I have on my computer and tile them onto the screen as wallpaper – the background behind the programs that I run. I tile them so I can see the entire image beside or between whatever programs I have open. There are more than 30,000 images ranging from photographs of nature and architecture to art by great masters and contemporary favorites of mine. With Windows 10, you can supposedly “personalize” your computer by instructing it to shuffle through the images in a file you specify, and you can tile those images, too. So everything should be fine, right? Except this is Microsoft, so nothing works as...

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