Thursday, November 30, 2006


My husband and I will be selling our jewelry at the Chimneyville Crafts Festival in Jackson this weekend. Hopefully after that I'll be able to come up for air.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pumpkin Patch

We went to the Pumpkin Patch at the Tupelo Buffalo Park with a group of families from PEAK. They had a haybale maze which everyone enjoyed, even the lady who lost a pair of glasses in it and walked over it three times with helpers before she found them. The children played themselves out.

Autumn has been hard for us. My husband has had commitments almost every evening for over a month. I'm left alone at home with the girls all day and a good part of the night. We can't find a babysitter and we've only got one working car, so the girls and I are pretty sick of each other right now. Brighteyes has been so fussy we got down to doing lessons only one or two days a week, then stopped completely. I don't have the energy to deal with all her screaming.

I've also felt the urge to write fiction again. Fiction is a lot more uncomfortable for me to write, what with getting inside another person's head instead of just blathering my own thoughts. It feel much more intimate. I can't do it with anyone making noise near me, let alone standing over my shoulder. But I'm never alone. I can already feel the urge dying inside me from not having a chance to get out, and all I've written are snippets. The girls don't understand why I need to be alone, and it makes them cling to me even tighter. I don't know what to do.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

We set up at the Rock & Gem Show on the Old Miss campus yesterday. Our babysitter cancelled at the last minute, which threw everything up in the air. We took the girls along, and I must say they were very well behaved. It still put a spanner in the works.

Note to self: always put out your own press release. Don't rely on the show to do it for you. That's the only way to control the quality.

It's the first time I've been on a college campus that had a football team since "tailgate parties" became big business. How on Earth do the students stand it? There were thousands of strangers everywhere, spending huge sums of money to rent dinky tents, grills, beer kegs, and satelight dishes that littered every inch of grass on the campus and made driving impossible. And this goes on for every home game? Unbelievable. The Administration's response to that lunacy had been to move the game time back to 8:00 to encourage it. I went to the football-free
Mississippi University for Women and later attended the University of Southern Mississippi before tailgate parties were hot. Weekends were down time. They were time to chill out and catch up on your friends, your sleep, and your homework. I couldn't have stood that insanity twice a year, let alone every other weekend. I was shocked at the Ole Miss Administration, as it looked like they were placing money-making opportunities way ahead of the needs of their students.

We were set up at the
Oxford Train Depot. It's a 135 year old brick building with hardwood floors. It's lovely, and the brickwork is in fabulous shape. My husband walked with the girls up to the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. It's a 10 year old building that looks really impressive from a distance. Get up close to it and you'll see that the "brickwork" is actually concrete slabs with caulk holding them together instead of brick and mortar. Find a place where the caulk is peeling off and you'll see cardboard shims under the caulk. One of these buildings will still be here in another 100 years. The other won't.

Friday, September 29, 2006

We're still getting back in the rhythm of lessons. We managed to have them three days this week. Yay for us! And Brighteyes is now taking lessons with Sunshine. Double yay! She's learning cursive, and finds it difficult but exciting.

My husband had to go to the high school homecoming game tonight. He said the entire homecoming court was escorted by either their fathers or their first cousins. None of them have boyfriends to escort them. The high price of gas is putting a severe crimp on the high school dating scene.

We'll be at Ole Miss tomorrow setting up at a Rock & Gem Show. It's our first show of the fall.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Yesterday morning we all got up late. I was the last person to stumble into the bathroom. As I wandered around it in my birthday suit trying to wake up my brain, I noticed a yellow towel folded on the counter beside the sink. I had placed it there the night before so some toys I washed could air-dry. I had put away the toys before going to bed, but one of the girls' toys was laying on it. Good, they must have washed one of their toys themselves for a change. Which one? Ah, the toy snake their grandfather gave them. Haven't seen them playing with that for a while.

I sat down. I looked around. I looked at the toy. I admired the workmanship. It was well made.

The girls' toy snake was green.

This one was black.

And yellow.

And had a diamond pattern on the back.


I got to my feet and backed out of the room.

Rattler or cottonmouth?

They're first cousins, whatthehell does it matter when one of them is on your freakin' bathroom counter! "Only aggressive when cornered" or "always aggressive" is immaterial when it's effectively already in a corner.

I called to my husband, "Come here now."


"Come here now!"

He walked in, also in his birthday suit, looked, and said, "Cottonmouth." That's cleared up. It's the "always aggressive" one. "Where are the girls?"

"Outside in the playhouse."

"Keep them out, keep the dogs out, watch that."

Clothed and shod, he stepped out to the workshop and came back with leather gloves, a one-inch wood dowel, and the long-handled tin snips. Sunshine came up and tried to walk into the house. I told her to go back to the playhouse until Mommy and Daddy said she could come in, don't fuss, it's important. She protests, I repeat myself. She turns around and screams only once, which is incredible self-control for our five year-old Scream Queen.

Unfortunately the snake heard her and -- disappeared.

We search the floor. No sign of the snake.

We start carefully pulling stuff off the counter. It was coiled up under some ointment bottles, ready to attack the first thing that moved.

It got the end of the dowel on its back behind the head. As it tried to strike at the dowel, the long-handled tin snips took off its head.

My husband carried it out the front door by the tin snips. He crushed and buried the head, then asked me to call in the girls.

"Come in and see this."

Brighteyes asked, "Why?"

"It's a lesson."

"Lessons on Saturday? Before breakfast? That's not fair!"

We showed the girls the snake. Even headless, it still looked more impressive than the ones at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science had looked two weeks ago, probably because it was on their front steps.

My husband had been in the bathroom shaving only minutes before me and hadn't see it, so it must have just come in. At a little over a foot long, it was a juvenile looking to mark out its own territory. No other snakes around then. We search the house anyway. We found the entrance point, a tree branch touching the bathroom window where there was a gap in the frame. We lop off the branch and seal the gap.

We tried to recover enough to get the rest of the day's work done. Somehow that wasn't as easy as it sounds.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Celtic Fest 2006

We went to Celtic Fest this weekend. It was a bit disappointing. There was Irish singing and dancing for hours, but there wasn't anything else. The Highland games and other events that the festival used to boast about were gone. There was hardly even any vendors, to the disappointment of many people. They'd be better off changing their name to Celtic Music Fest and not getting people's hopes up.

While we were there we took in the
Mississippi Museum of Natural Science and the Small Town exhibit at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum. There wasn't anything else to do except sunburn.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

We're going to Celtic Fest this weekend. It will be our first time there. Two years ago I actually got my husband in Jackson the weekend of Celtic Fest, but he balked at the sight of the crowds. This time we're going in.

Still getting over some stupid sickness.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

This week lessons went easier, but they were still very tiring. I only managed to give lessons three days a week. That's an improvement though.

Brighteyes and Sunshine are still moaning about starting back up, but they're getting more in the rhythm. I still can't give them lessons at the same time. I have to give Sunshine her lessons in the morning and Brighteyes her lessons in the afternoon. Brighteyes is too fussy in the morning. Sometimes she'll try to throw a screaming fit in the morning during her sister's lessons. I'm trying to encourage her to go play outside at that time. By the afternoon she's calmed down enough to do her work with a lot less fuss, but mornings just aren't working for her.

This means I have to spend twice as long giving lessons, and I'm not getting anything else done. Period. I'm so worn out all I can do is collapse when we get through. I haven't been this exhausted since I was tandem nursing.

Hopefully it will get better soon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I got sick two weeks ago, but I'm starting to feel better.

We picked up a real problem this summer. The girls went to a summer learning program and picked up some bad habits, like throwing tantrums and refusing to do what was asked of them. I thought it might just be a development phase and backed off for a few months, but the behavior has gotten worse and extended to everything they're asked to do. So now I'm having to homeschool them separately while making it clear that such behavior is not an acceptable way to communicate. It's very exhausting, which is why I haven't been posting as much.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Stone Age Board Game

A nine-man's morris board found in Nottinghamshire appears to go back to the Ice Age. People had to have something to do on those cold winter nights.

More Ignoramuses

Evolution Major Vanishes From Approved Federal List

Published: August 24, 2006

Evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students.

The omission is inadvertent, said Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, which administers the grants. ?There is no explanation for it being left off the list,? Ms. McLane said. ?It has always been an eligible major.?

Another spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, said evolutionary biology would be restored to the list, but as of last night it was still missing.

If a major is not on the list, students in that major cannot get grants unless they declare another major, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Mr. Nassirian said students seeking the grants went first to their college registrar, who determined whether they were full-time students majoring in an eligible field.

If a field is missing, that student would not even get into the process,? he said.

That the omission occurred at all is worrying scientists concerned about threats to the teaching of evolution.
One of them, Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, said he learned about it from someone at the Department of Education, who got in touch with him after
his essay on the necessity of teaching evolution appeared in The New York Times on Aug. 15. Dr. Krauss would not name his source, who he said was concerned about being publicly identified as having drawn attention to the matter.

An article about the issue was posted Tuesday on the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dr. Krauss said the omission would be ?of great concern? if evolutionary biology had been singled out for removal, or if the change had been made without consulting with experts on biology. The grants are awarded under the National Smart Grant program, established this year by Congress. (Smart stands for Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent.)

The program provides $4,000 grants to third- or fourth-year, low-income students majoring in physical, life or computer sciences; mathematics; technology; engineering; or foreign languages deemed ?critical? to national security.

The list of eligible majors (which is online at is drawn from the Education Department?s ?Classification of Instructional Programs,? or CIP (pronounced ?sip?), a voluminous and detailed classification of courses of study, arranged in a numbered system of sections and subsections.

Part 26, biological and biomedical sciences, has a number of sections, each of which has one or more subsections. Subsection 13 is ecology, evolution, systematics and population biology. This subsection itself has 10 sub-subsections. One of them is 26.1303 ? evolutionary biology, ?the scientific study of the genetic, developmental, functional, and morphological patterns and processes, and theoretical principles; and the emergence and mutation of organisms over time.?

Though references to evolution appear in listings of other fields of biological study, the evolutionary biology sub-subsection is missing from a list of ?fields of study? on the National Smart Grant list ? there is an empty space between line 26.1302 (marine biology and biological oceanography) and line 26.1304 (aquatic biology/limnology).

Students cannot simply list something else on an application form, said Mr. Nassirian of the registrars? association. ?Your declared major maps to a CIP code,? he said.

Mr. Nassirian said people at the Education Department had described the omission as ?a clerical mistake.? But it is ?odd,? he said, because applying the subject codes ?is a fairly mechanical task. It is not supposed to be the subject of any kind of deliberation.?

?I am not at all certain that the omission of this particular major is unintentional,? he added. ?But I have to take them at their word.?

Scientists who knew about the omission also said they found the clerical explanation unconvincing, given the furor over challenges by the religious right to the teaching of evolution in public schools. ?It?s just awfully coincidental,? said Steven W. Rissing, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio State University.
Jeremy Gunn, who directs the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief at the
American Civil Liberties Union, said that if the change was not immediately reversed ?we will certainly pursue this.?

Dr. Rissing said removing evolutionary biology from the list of acceptable majors would discourage students who needed the grants from pursuing the field, at a time when studies of how genes act and evolve are producing valuable insights into human health.

?This is not just some kind of nicety,? he said. ?We are doing a terrible disservice to our students if this is yet another example of making sure science doesn?t offend anyone.?

Dr. Krauss of Case Western said he did not know what practical issues would arise from the omission of evolutionary biology from the list, given that students would still be eligible for grants if they declared a major in something else ? biology, say.

?I am sure an enterprising student or program director could find a way to put themselves in another slot,? he said. ?But why should they have to do that??

Mr. Nassirian said he was not so sure. ?Candidly, I don?t think most administrators know enough about this program? to help students overcome the apparent objection to evolutionary biology, he said. Undergraduates would be even less knowledgeable about the issue, he added.

Dr. Krauss said: ?Removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid, but if this really was removed, specifically removed, then I see it as part of a pattern to put ideology over knowledge. And, especially in the Department of Education, that should be abhorred.?

Monday, August 21, 2006

A study in contrasts

My 7-year old daughter asks out of the blue, "What's 149 +137?" I pull up a sheet of paper and start to show her how to figure it out, but she waves me away, thinks a bit, and says, "It's 286, isn't it?"

"That's right! Yay!"

That afternoon my husband comes home talking about his chemistry students, "When I mentioned the Chinese working on a space elevator for a lunar colony, a 17-year old senior in the class started laughing so hard he couldn't sit up straight. 'It'll never work! What will they do when the moon isn't in the sky? It goes down in the daytime!' Seventeen years old, a high school senior, and no one had ever taught him that the moon orbits around the earth."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Favorite Geek Quote of the Week

An exasperated Paul Cornell, one of the writers on the revitalized Doctor Who, responding to complaints from some older fans about the romantic elements that have been added to the show, "People! Armies of teenage girls raving about Doctor Who used to be a distant dream. Let's not blow it now!"

No, make that my Favorite Geek Quote of All Time. It just says so much about where geek culture came from and how it's matured (or sometimes not).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Still here

The heat is beginning to break, and we're starting lessons back up.

I'm working on a review of reports about Patrick Henry College. It's turned into the most depressing thing I've written in ages. An hour of work on it is enough to send me into a tailspin for the next 10 days. I need to get angry about it. I need to build up a good head of steam and pound my way though it in a total fury until I beat it into a postable form, but it just saps away all my energy. It's a humongous leach on my chi. So I'm spending all my time on the recently discovered youtube watching sappy romance fan videos set to 80s pop songs. YT is cheaper than therapy and healthier than bourbon.

Do me a favor, guys. Nag me to spend more time outdoors, and to put on some music and dance.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


U.S. Lags World In Grasp Of Genetics And Acceptance of Evolution

A comparison of peoples' views in 34 countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower.

Among the factors contributing to America's low score are poor understanding of biology, especially genetics, the politicization of science and the literal interpretation of the Bible by a small but vocal group of American Christians, the researchers say.

"American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close," said study co-author Jon Miller of Michigan State University.

Evangelicals urge museum to hide man's ancestors

Powerful evangelical churches are pressing Kenya's national museum to sideline its world-famous collection of hominid bones pointing to man's evolution from ape to human.

Leaders of the country's six-million-strong Pentecostal congregation want Dr Richard Leakey's ground-breaking finds relegated to a back room instead of being given their usual prime billing.

Mathematician who doesn't understand history says human civilization only 1000 years old. He also doesn't understand either art or psychology.

I would write a post tying all these together, but it's just too depressing.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

2006 Teacher Prep

It's time to prep Mississippi public school teachers for the 2006-2007 school year. It's a mixed bag, with some good news, some bad news, and some weird news.

Good news from the DOE: The MSDOE now requires that all schools enter all their classroom assignments on the state computer by August 1. This wasn't done because the state wants to be a busybody, but to end some of the more egregious practices local school districts have fallen into.

All classes must now by assigned by August 1. Our local school system has been assigning classes anywhere from one week to one month AFTER school starts, with the children just sitting there twiddling their thumbs for days on end. Then the schedules they were assigned would be changed daily for the next several weeks. The first nine weeks of teaching was always thoroughly disrupted. Hopefully we won't see any more of that nonsense.

The bad news is that school districts that have gotten used to not working up their classroom assignments until the children are actually sitting there in front of them think they have to start back on August 1 or earlier. The new rules don't say that, but that is how some districts are interpreting them. This puts children starting school during the hottest month in Mississippi and there's a heat wave going on. It's too hot for grown-ups to think, let alone kids!

The state's computer program won't accept more than 25 students in a class. This "flaw" means that classroom size is now capped at 25 students. School districts can't cram 30-50 students in a classroom anymore.

The state's computers also won't allow school districts to give teachers more than 3 different subjects or "preps" to teach. That is the legal limit, but school districts have been routinely ignoring it. Now they can't. This is wonderful news for my husband, who has been given 4 or 5 preps ever year for the past 10 years.

The state is giving the school districts $4,193/student this year. While it looks like a lot of money, it's well under the actual cost of providing good teachers and resources. This is especially true since many school districts have to hire extra teachers because they can no longer get away with cramming classrooms to the gills and giving teachers too many preps.

Bad news from all over the place:

The Curriculum Board: The history teacher was apoplectic with rage. "Look at this mess! 35 years of teaching and I've never seen anything so stupid. It's insane!" She thrust out the Curriculum Board's junior high and high school "Social Studies Framework" like it was a poisonous snake.

History isn't taught until junior high. In 7th grade history begins to be taught in a "compare and contrast" model. It's never taught sequentially. You can't compare and contrast something without a context, and the context isn't taught. "Compare and contrast" is the way history should be taught the second or third time the student is exposed to it, not the first.

Oh yes, and American History begins in 1877. Nothing of consequence happened in American before then.

Lunches: Students are to be strenuously discouraged from bringing their lunches. Students are no longer allowed to eat anywhere other than the cafeteria. Gone are the days when you could chill out for twenty minutes picnicking on the grass. Chilling out is forbidden.

Gifted classes: There will no longer be any gifted high school classes in Mississippi. There will no longer be any accelerated classes either. Accelerated classes are "tracking", and "tracking" is now completely out of favor. If the class if too boring for a student, tough.

Since "tracking" is out of vogue, the highly respected CAT test is no longer needed or given. But since there is still a "need" to test, the much less respected Mississippi state tests will be used in their place. Mississippi students will no longer be ranked alongside national students and neither will their schools.

"Class looping": A while back experimental private elementary schools had a wonderful idea called teacher looping: the same teacher stayed with the same class for 4 years. This meant the students had time to really build up a trust and rapport with that teacher, and cut discipline problems in half. The public schools have picked up the idea and turned it completely backwards.

In Mississippi public schools, the students are supposed to stay with the same class every year BUT have different teachers. Forget about developing a rapport with your teacher. This means if you don't share any abilities or interests with the class you happened to have been shoved in when you first arrived, tough. You'll be stuck with them until you graduate. Isn't that against the Geneva Convention?

Worse, it means that the students within that class feel a rapport with each other that they don't share with the new teacher. After all, teachers come and teachers go but you have to put up with the classroom bully forever. It also means the students get extraordinarily good at cheating. They literally spend years perfecting how to send each other notes and signals, and the new teacher doesn't have a clue what the signs are.

Worst of all, because they bond with each other but not with their authority figures, they make exceptionally bad employees. Local grads have gotten into huge amounts of trouble with their employers because they'll do what their coworkers tell them and not what their bosses tell them. Why shouldn't they? That's the way the school trained them to behave.

Weird news: "They told us today that 71% of African-American second-graders would be dead or in jail by the time they were supposed to graduate."

"What? You've been teaching African-American students for 10 years now. How many of those kids have you seen end up in jail?"


"And how many died?"

"One boy got killed by a drunk driver."

"So for the average to be 71%, there would have to be communities where every African-American child was ending up dead or in jail. Wouldn't we have heard about that?"

"I know. It sounds crazy."

To sum it all up: it looks like my husband is going to need lots of Doctor Who this year.

Heat Wave Days

We're not having lessons right now because it's over 100 degrees. Even with air conditioning, expecting young children to concentrate in this heat is asking for trouble. So why are Mississippi schools starting back this week, at the start of the hottest month on the Mississippi calendar? It's crazy.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Summer Teacher Training Seminar

Every summer my husband has at least one teacher training seminar to attend. One of them was great. Most of them are boring. This year he got the Teacher Training Seminar From Hell.

There were three levels of informants at the seminar. The book that he was given, the presenter, and the MSDOE representative. Each of the three informants said completely different things. To be fair, I don't think the DOE rep. got the seminar he thought he was providing.

What the book said: "We are the Borg. You will assimilate. Resistance is futile."

Unfortunately the writer wasn't that succinct. Instead he wrote: "You work in a crappy place. There is nothing you can do to make substantive improvements. You can't do anything to make your workplace more safe, more fair, or even more legal. But hey, you can make it more productive! You can do that by being happy all the time, in spite of working in a crappy environment. If you micro-manage your emotions and spend an enormous amount of energy staying in complete control of your feelings every second of the workday you can make your workplace a more fun experience for the people around you. It won't be solve a single one of the structural problems which are bringing this workplace down upon your ears, but you and your coworkers will be more productive, and that's all that counts!"

While I don't completely agree with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, he got it mostly right. It's awful hard to "don't worry, be happy" when, for example, the funds entrusted to a teacher to provide for their classroom mysteriously disappears after the first two weeks, there's a hole in the ceiling that lets in rainwater which has rotted out 1/4 of a second-story early elementary classroom's floor, raw sewage seeps out of the restroom and perfumes the air, and the principal refuses to discipline students sent to the office for fighting and sexual harassment. Some things are worth bursting a blood vessel over.

When we were growing up in the 80s, the message we heard from the adults around us was, "Do what you love and the money will follow." This came from such New-Agey, fluff-bunny impractical types as the Dean of the College of Engineering at MSU and several millionaires next door. As the Dean of Engineering put it, "If you do what you love, you'll get really good at it. Somebody out there will notice and compensate you for it. It may not be the employer you have right now, but there's somebody out there who is willing to compensate you what you deserve for passion, skill, and experience." In spite of the "recessions" that's been going on for most of my life, I have to say that this advise is generally true. It might be awfully hard to find that somebody, and the compensation might not always take the form you expect, but it works out over the long run.

But the message from this book was 100% passion-free. "You're doing cruddy work for cruddy pay at a cruddy workplace. There's no chance of any of that ever improving. You will always be working for terrible bosses for miserable wages at dangerous worksites. Accept your fate. Be happy!" Not only is it a complete downer, that mantra comes perilously close to being a state endorsement of a religious message.

What the presenter said: "Micro-management is fun!"

State tests: "You are supposed to spend 100% of your time preparing your students for your state's test. Anything else is treason. Your students can't be allowed to think about anything else while they are at school. Even 6yos should not be allowed to ask questions or bring up any issue that is not on the state test."

Identifying troublesome students: "The child who has made trouble and been disciplined is no longer a problem in the classroom. They have been disciplined already, so they will not make trouble again. The REAL troublemaker is the quiet child reading a book in the back of the classroom while everyone else is finishing their assignment. There is the viper in your midst! That child incites trouble because he is not doing what you told him to do. It doesn't matter if he's already finished, he still shouldn't be reading. He should be going over his work again and again!"

Obedience: "Your students must obey you instantly. When you tell a child to stop reading a book, he should not take the time to read another word. Letting him finish the page is a sign of weakness. When you tell a child to stop writing, do not let him complete his sentence. That is a sign of rebellion on his part."

Discipline: "Keep your problem students in your classroom. Handle them by yourself. Don't send them to the office. The principal doesn't want to know about your problems."

Closure: "Always plan more for the day than you can possibly complete in the time you have available. The student must never, ever experience the satisfaction of successfully completing anything. Above all else, never, ever give them as much as a second to rest, think and regain their balance."

What my husband said: After a few days of this nonsense, he raised his hand and asked, "Excuse me, but there have been times when following that model would have cost me students. Once I had a teenager who came in on a test day in a state of total shock. Her mother had kicked her out of her house the night before. She had no car, no phone, hadn't been able to find anyone to stay the night with, and wound up sleeping on the sidewalk. The only reason she was at school at all was because it was the only part of her routine that she could cling to right then. I told her to not worry about the test, go put her head down on a back desk and rest, she could make it up in a few days when things had settled down. If I had put the slightest pressure on her that day, she would have quit school altogether. She was that close."

Presenter: "Uh that's good, but she should have taken the test".

Other teacher: "I can't afford to find out that much about my students' personal business."

DOE representative, glaring: "He did the right thing. That's exactly the kind of response we want to see from our teachers."

Presenter: "Uh, yeah. Let's move on to the next subject so we can get through early for lunch."

What the DOE rep said: The DOE representative talked the presenter into leaving early, then turned to the teachers and said, "Ignore all that. We're just trying to make the schools healthier. We want to get the soda and candy machines out of the hallways. We want to make sure the kids eat good food and get plenty of exercise. We would like to encourage them to eat supper with their parents so they don't get into social trouble, but who eats with their children anymore? I don't even eat with my second-grader more than twice a year! We eat takeout and they get theirs when they show up at the table. What good can we do?"

(Gee, our kids don't eat meals with us only when they're away on sleepovers.)

It was a very surreal and stressful week. I think you can understand why my husband was decompressing with massive doses of Doctor Who every night. "Even the Daleks are sensible compared to those people. All Daleks want to do is kill you. They usually don't bother messing up children's heads!"

Update - Presenter: "Reading non-assigned books is forbidden! Students should only read books they are assigned and will be tested on!"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The dog days of summer are here.

It's too hot to sleep, and I'm exhausted all the time. Brighteyes is fussy all the time, probably for the same reason. My husband is getting ready to go back to teaching Thursday with new guidelines in place, some of which are wonderful and some of which are so lunatic he retreated into Doctor Who for a sanity break. I'll post on those changes to the school system as soon as I wake up enough to write them down.

2005 Dr. Who Summary: Heroes

The 2005 season was unquestionably the best acted Dr. Who ever, with several of the best stories. That said, there were pacing problems; some of these were fixed and some of them were not. The show also desperately needs an "unpaid scientific advisor" of it's own to work with the script editor. The number of bonehead scientific errors was hard to forgive in a show that calls itself "science" fiction. While there's no need to bog the show down in endless technobabble, a basic understanding of elementary science built into the script would have made some scenes both more exciting and funnier. But these sorts of problems can be expected when the crew hasn't done this sort of show before. Hopefully they'll be corrected in the second season.

There was a noticeable problem with overused memes, including zombies, pregnant brides, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. A more obnoxious overused meme had to do with aliens and villains. The only nice aliens were in the 2cnd episode, after that nice aliens disappeared from our screen. And while the redemption of villains and other people was mentioned, it was only the humans who perused that redemption, i.e. Captain Jack. Alien villains were either scene as uninterested in redemption or unredeemable. That is a serious bias which needs some attention.

The season reintroduced/reinvented the major elements of the Doctor's universe and established that the Doctor is a hero not a god. It also hammered home that anyone can become a hero if they're willing. But what kind of hero is the Doctor?

There are many different kinds of heroes, but some of the toes that have been prevalent in pop fiction lately go way back to the Classical era. These include:

HECTOR - Hector's a family man who's just doing his job. He's the one who has to get other people out of the messes they've gotten themselves into from their own stupidity because nobody else will bother. He makes a great sheriff, and he was all over the screen in the early days of film and TV. We haven't seen many Hectors lately though.

ACHILLES - "My name is Bond. James Bond." Nope, it's Achilles.

Achilles is the snotty brat who's never been beaten. He's the former schoolyard bully grown up to become the unstoppable killer who happens to be on your side. He's a gangster with a government contract. These days the contract is usually an exclusive "license to kill" with one government or another.

Achilles made a splash on the big screen as James Bond and Dirty Harry. By the 1990s he was all over the place, played by Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenagger, Bruce Willis, et al. Such overexposure brought out his twin flaws.

The first flaw is that he's unstoppable. This means his enemies have to get bigger, meaner, and more ridiculous. And since he doesn't really know what it's like to lose, he has a limited supply of empathy for others. "Hasta la vista, baby."

The second flaw is that Achilles has no moral center. He'll do anything to fulfill his contract, and only the terms of his contract restrain him. Anytime you hear a variation of the line, "His tactics are completely out of line, but we keep him because he gets results", beware. You're approaching Achilles' territory.

Since he has no scruples about killing anyone, who are you going to put him up agains?. Only Homer was brave enough to put him up against Hector. Every other writer since then has wimped out and put him up against villains who are supposed to be more viscous than he is. Then the next villain has to be even more viscous. It's an unending downward spiral into blood, violence and depravity.

Can you tell I despise Achilles?

HERCULES - The former snotty brat who's had the snot beat out of him. He knows what it's like to lose and this tempers his action. Most of the Classic Marvel superheroes are Hercules types. Hercules may be a whiny drunk, but he usually makes more of an effort to think than Achilles does. He may not be that good at it, but at least he tries and he gets better with practice. I'll take Hercules over Achilles any day, but there's someone else I'd prefer over both of them.

ODYSSEUS - Odysseus is the veteran of the group. He's the most reluctant to start a fight and prefers diplomacy, but he's ruthless when he thinks it's necessary. He usually finds himself in the position of cleaning up the messes Achilles and Hercules can't think their way through, and he hates that job.

The problem with Odysseus is that he can't find his way back home. Every hero spends some time in the wilderness, but Odysseus stays there the longest. Sometimes the journey home is long and arduous. Sometimes "home" is on the other side of a sealed border, or he is in exile. Sometimes "home" doesn't exist anymore, and sometimes the problem is all in his head. Odysseus has a keen intellect. His mind knows he can't go back home, but his heart refuses to accept it and settle down anywhere besides Ithaca. The same conflict causes him to hook up with a string of women only to leave them for not being Penelope. Anytime you're dealing with a "wandering hero" or "wandering monster" (the difference can depend on where you stand) you're probably dealing with Odysseus.

Late 20th-Century American pop fiction broke out in a flush of Odysseus-types after every war, especially Vietnam. Americans never could get the hang of it though, and got bogged down as technological advances made the premise less workable. Britain pole-vaulted all the high-tech quibbles with Doctor Who.

The Doctor has always been Odysseus, smart, refined, pragmatic. He is an Odysseus who somehow could never find peace back home after the incident that left him in semi-exile, maimed, and without a name he felt he could mention in public. He takes up with a string of Nausicaas and the occasional Circe, but he can't ever settle down.

Eccleston's Doctor cleaves to the Odysseus image stronger than any of the others, building on elements that were in original season but that have become muted over time. He and Davies have taken the character back to his thematic roots. The result is a strong, fresh, complex portrait that takes the core elements and builds on them in a sophisticated way. The result are stories meant for children that don't talk down to children. That seems to be the rarest thing in moving pictures, and I love it.

I also love how they've revamped the old swashbuckler stereotype with Captain Jack. I loved the swashbuckling heroes from the classic movies as a child! What child doesn't? But the ones in the old movies tended to be too sexist. Modern action heroes are usually just as sexist (if not more so) and a whole lot meaner. They have no charm at all. Honestly, if I saw one of those guys on the street I'd run and hide. Captain Jack is sweet, charming, funny, heroic, commanding when he needs to be, and definitely not sexist!

Of course he's in the sidekick's role, and that doesn't give him much chance to be dark and brooding. I realize they're going to flesh his character out more when they give him his own show this fall, but I hope they don't take away his kindness and charm. I never understood why I was supposed to trust a mean gun-toting "hero".

And it's wonderful to have a show that doesn't make a big deal over people not being heterosexual. One of my favorite parts of the whole season is where the Doctor runs through various stratagems to stop Jack from hitting on Rose all the time before finally coming up on one that works: when Jack flirts with Rose, he flirts with Jack. It works like a charm to disrupt Jack's intentions without an unkind word having to be said. The world could use more solutions like that.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

2005 Dr. Who First Season Finale: Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways

"I told you it was Daleks."

"I never doubted it."

The Doctor, Rose, and Jack are kidnapped off the TARDIS and stuck in futuristic version of what I later learned are contemporary reality and game shows. Some fans have expressed skepticism that this episode would hold up with people who weren't familiar with those shows. I wasn't, and I still got enough of the jokes to laugh at it. They bust out of their respective TV hells and we find ourselves back on the TV station satelight to meet it's real Masters, the Daleks. Then it's round up the troops and mount a defense, now we know why the London Blitz was brought up earlier.

Jack organizes a defense by some of the remaining humans, which ultimately fails but still buys some valuable time. The Doctor has a bad idea. Rose has two bad ideas. Between them and Jack's forces, the Daleks are defeated but the Doctor is forced to regenerate. A lyrical ending to a beautiful series.

There were many feel-good and teary-eyed moments, but the one that hit me like a sledgehammer didn't involve any of the main characters. It was the fate of the extras who were trapped on the space station with a Dalek invasion coming at them. Some of them went to fight the Daleks, knowing they were going to their deaths, while some of them hid and hoped they would be spared. You know what? They all died at about the same time. But some of them DID something with their deaths, even if it was only buy a few minutes time.

Watching that, all of a sudden I'm a teenager again. I'm different from other people around me, and they're trying to force me to change into someone who isn't me. Violent threats are made against me. I'm terrified. I'm convinced that someday soon someone is going to kill me. Looking back my fear was overblown, but it didn't seem that way at the time.

Then one day I realized that there was one thing "they" could NOT do. While "they" could line me up against a wall and shoot me whenever "they" felt like it, only I could decide if I would be cowering at the foot of that wall or standing on my feet staring back at them when it happened. I owned my death. It was a golden coin even my murderers would not be able to take it away from me. Once I realized that, I realized I owned my life as well. I grew up a lot that day, but that is another story.

This is a theme that echoes throughout this entire season. "The ordinary man is the most important thing in the universe" because at any moment the ordinary man might decide to become a hero or a villain. Everybody has a chance to be a hero, no matter who they are or what they do. Everybody is a hero everytime they help the people around them. "Go on," the Doctor tells a young thief stealing food for her children at one point. "Run along and save the world." And she does. So do servants, writers, reporters, doctors, con men, soldiers, and shop girls. Even a tow truck driver named Rodrigo gets to help save the world although we never see him and he'll never know it. But he helped someone who needed help, and that's what saving the world is all about. The world is saved every day by thousands of "ordinary" people who help each other and do the right thing. Without those people doing what they do each and every day, the world would never make it to sundown.

That's not to put down the "professional" heroes, but I'll get to them in my summary post. Then it's back to talking about schooling.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

2005 Dr. Who First Season: Boom Town

More consequences of the Doctor's actions are explored here in questions the original series never asked.

The story opens back in Cardiff, which thanks to the events in "The Unquiet Dead" can now be used as a TARDIS fuel depot. I thought that was a loveley way of thanking the production team's hometown. Mickey comes to visit Rose, who has evidently had quite a few adventures with the Doctor and Jack since the last episode. The crew on board the TARDIS is tight and giddy with shared victories, and Mickey feels very much the outsider.

I enjoyed seeing the Doctor flirting again, this time with Jack. It's a shame our oversexed mainstream culture has forgotten so many of the old rules. Here's one about flirting: flirting can either be a prelude to sex or a replacement for sex. In the latter case it comes from two people realizing that flirting is as close to sex as they care to get, so why not kick back and enjoy it? It's much more bearable than the modern equivalent, the dreaded "can't we just be friends?" line.

The fact that the Doctor flirts with Jabe and Jack says nothing about his level of sexual activity. Some of history's greatest flirts have been celibate, the theory was that it provided them a release valve. I'm greatly releived to see the Doctor flirting for just that reason.

On the other hand it says nothing about his lack of sexual activity, but Rose wouldn't understand and that crew is too tiny to weather that level of emotional tension. Not that this will slow down most of the slash fans.

Margaret the Slitheen is back trying to blow up the world again. The crew catches her, but while they're topping off the fuel tank she takes the opportunity to plead for mercy from the Doctor over dinner. Unfortunately she doesn't understand how to do it. You can feel the Doctor rooting for her, "Come on Margaret! Let's have some genuine remorse, atonement, restitution. Convince me you really will turn your life around if I let you go!" Alas, she fails to offer any real recompense for her deeds, and the Doctor is left to take her back home to her execuation.

BZZZTT! The "overused meme" buzzer goes off again, this time on pregnant brides. So far we've had Jackie and Sara in "Father's Day" and now another one here. Doesn't anybody in Britain marry without getting knocked up first? Throw in the unwed teenage mother from the last story, and you've got way too many out-of-wedlock pregnancies for one season.

Meanwhile, Rose and Mickey are having a date. Mickey is having a hard time dealing with being in effect a sailor's girlfriend. It's a completely different life from anything he's known before, and he doesn't know how to handle it. I once heard a woman whose family has been military since the 14th Century talk about how difficult it is for "outsiders" to adapt to that lifestyle. I can sympathize with Mickey's plight.

Then Margaret's backup plan kicks in, and the TARDIS itself has to save the day. That wouldn't have happened in the original series, but it does follow up on hints that the TARDIS has been growing in sapience over time.

Overall, I really liked the way this episode served as an anchor to keep Dr. Who grounded in reality. Science fiction needs that sort of grounding to keep you caring about what happens next.

2005 Dr. Who First Season: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

It's amazing how many of the best Dr. Who stories ever are in this one season.

Twenty seconds into this episode and we know we're in the hands of a wonderfully witty comedy-action writer.

Two minutes into this episode and we know it's the "let's make fun of American TV & Film" episode. No problem there. That's a genre that needs skewering.

An alien ship has sent out a distress call and crashed in London. Should be easy to find, right? Just ask about the thing that fell from the sky and find the big crater. Pity it's during the height of the London Blitz. The scene where the Doctor inadvertently becomes a stand-up comedian by asking those questions right before the air-raid siren sounds in priceless.

Once again they drive home the message that in spite of being from an insanely advanced alien culture the Doctor is a people person, not a techie person. Hmmm, there would be an interesting meeting. Can you see the Doctor and McCoy swapping tales over mint juleps?

Now we get the additional message that in spite of being an adventurous sort of guy, the Doctor isn't a stereotypical action-adventure hero. That role goes to our new cast member Captain Jack Harkness, as perfect a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood as you're likely to find, only updated for the 21st Century. It's wonderful to see another old favorite tastefully modernized in this way.

Haha! Hello Jack-me-boy, I know your Daddy! Your spiritual Daddy at least.

For those of you who missed the glory days of independent comic books, Donna Barr's award-winning The Desert Peach focused on a bunch of people who picked the wrong time to be born German. They ended up fighting in the German military during World War II. None of them were ideological Nazis, many were from groups the Nazis loathed, but there they were trying to stay alive and off the radar of both the Allies and their own increasingly out-of-control government. I highly recommend it to anyone who is not childish.

One of the most memorable characters is Luftwaffe Oberleutnant "Rosen Kavalier" (Yes, it is a made up name. You wanna make something of it?) Physically he looks exactly like Captain Jack: the face, the jaw, the cheekbones, the hair, the build. He wears a black leather World War II combat pilot's uniform, the most important part is a fancy oversized watch on it's black leather strap. He's a cocky, charming, insanely courageous, bisexual, amoral, suave, thrill-seeking, promiscuous combat pilot who becomes a con man after leaving the military, and who grows up a lot after falling in love with an honorable and much older man. Captain Jack is so much like a kinder, gentler version of Rosen, it's astonishing.

Back to this story. Something apparently connected with the crashed ship is turning people into gasmask wearing zombies. BZZZTTT! That's the "overused meme" buzzer going off. We now have three different zombie stories in the first season, and the limit is one zombie story. Yes they're all wonderful, but one of the producers should have put his or her foot down all the same. And they're not even a satire on people who don't think, so they don't even have that excuse.

The Doctor investigates and is told to consult "the Doctor", a character whose story obviously parallels on our Doctor's own story. "Once I had children and grandchildren. Then the way came. Now I have nothing left but my work taking care of others." There are hints as well that the Time War paralleled Britain's experience in World War II without the American cavalry coming over the hill, including a lovely "it's always darkest before the dawn" speech that doesn't say "it's always darkest before the dawn".

The parallels point out something else about Dr. Who. In spite of all the efforts to describe him as alien, he's not. He's very foreign, he's haunted by baggage both known and unknown, but at no point in his entire existence has he ever seemed alien to me. He's the "stranger in a strange land."

Speaking of parallels, Jack is also a former "Time Agent". What's that? Did some sort of "Time Agency" step in to fill the void left by the extinction of the Time Lords and solve the problems mentioned in the last episode? If so who's running it? I get a delicious but highly improbably image of a future Doctor as Jack's ultimate boss, then after Jack mentions his little amnesia problem a delicious and only slightly less improbable image of the Master in that role. And how many "Time Agents" are there anyway? Jack's apparently run this same con a lot, but in order to completely snooker a new one each time there would have to be hundreds of agents not cross-checking with each other.

I could go on about the Doctor's witty banter with Jack and Rose in the second half, but that's been over-covered already. I will point out that this story is a companion piece with "Father's Day". In "Father's Day" it's a Daddy who saves the world, here it's a Mummy who saves the world. It continues the season's excellent theme that it's ordinary heroes -- doctors, reporters, Moms and Dads -- who save the world every day. Which isn't to say you don't need a "professional" from time to time, but without all those "amateur" heroes taking care of people on a daily basis the world wouldn't last until sundown.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

2005 Dr. Who First Season: Father's Day



Here's a story Dr. Who fans have waited decades to see. The Doctor warned us back us back in the early 80s that when time travelers tried to change their own personal histories, Very Bad Things happened. Bad Things that even a renegade Time Lord didn't want to mess with. So what kind of Bad Things were they?

Now we know.

Eccleston's tight-lipped "say nothing more than is necessary" Doctor is the real culprit here. Bad enough he can't even bring himself to tell her the name of his people's planet, here his failure to go over the basic safety rules of meeting yourself in the past and his willingness to bring three Roses to the same time set up an event that threatens all existence.

Rose's father died when she was a baby. She wants to go back in time to see him, and thanks to the Doctor's failure to explain the rules about this sort of thing, ends up saving his life in such a way that it causes a rift in time. This rift allows the Very Bad Things to come through, and they are Very Bad indeed. The Doctor tries some fancy moves to save everybody and fails. Rose's Dad tries a simple move, and sacrifices himself to save everyone else.

When the Doctor explained to Rose that "his people" used to prevent this sort of thing but now they're gone, I felt my first touch of fear. So who's protecting the time stream now? And what will happen if nobody is?

It's a simple, beautiful episode, with incredible acting. I was crying by the end of it. The current season seems to have a theme running through it that everyone has the potential within themselves to be a hero, if they would just reach inside past all the banalities of their day-to-day world and find their true strength. The Doctor happens to be very good at enabling other people to realize this truth. In the course of trying to get this message across the story has the Doctor getting saved by other people a lot, but I can put up with a lot to hear one of my favorite messages getting out. Besides, it makes the stories more interesting when you get to guess exactly which person (or what combination of people) is going to save the world this time. Ensemble shows are so much livelier that way, and for the first time since the 60s Dr. Who is starting to look like an ensemble show.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

2005 Dr. Who First Season: The Long Game

I dub this episode the Most Annoying Episode of the Season. Doesn't sink to the depths plumbed by the "Aliens of London" two-parter, but doesn't soar to the heights of that story either. And what's up with Adam?

The Doctor shows off what his TARDIS can do to Adam the New Kid by landing them in the far future, at a time when human civilization is at its height. But something's gone wrong. Someone is holding humans back by controlling and manipulating the news. Nothing wrong with that storyline at all, it's wonderful and timely. But there's a McGuffin in our tale and the Doctor fell for it.

The Thing allegedly holding humanity back is a Big Ugly Monster who lives on the ceiling of the news control nexus. But what does it DO up there? It doesn't need to kill people or give orders, both of those can be accomplished by its human attendants. It was installed by "a consortium of banks" who are it's backers. Yes, the Doctor and his team manage to kill it, think they've done something really great, and ride off into the sunset; leaving their newfound friends going "But, but, but...." and me screaming, "It's a STOOGE you great big idiot! It's a ceiling-sized fall guy! How could you be stupid enough to fall for that?" It would have worked in the 1960s but by 2005 we know the real sinister enemy is that "consortium of banks" and whoever or whatever is behind THEM.

The performances of the guest stars are first-rate, but most of the interesting bits came in Adam's subplots. We learn (and old fans are reminded) that in spite of being from a civilization with an insanely advanced technology the Doctor isn't a techie kind of guy. Given a choice between talking to a machine or talking to a person, he'll go out of his way to talk to a person.

Adam demonstrates that not everyone is cut out to become a Companion. Instead of responding with excitement to highly foreign climes, he responds with severe culture shock and opportunism which endangers the rest of the crew and gets him taken home. Adam's scenes seemed like superfluous filler, but they did provide the best part of the entire episode, which was my husband's reaction to Adam's new data-port:

My husband got to his feet, pointed, and cried, "Wait a minute, wait a minute! Genius, deeply into alien technology, phobic about things that are different, knows and resents the Doctor, "third-eye"-style dataport in the center of his forehead! Do you know who that is? That's Davros, the creator of the Daleks!"


"Yeah! It matches perfectly! He had already met and resented the Doctor prior to his earliest appearance. This could be his real introduction."

"Well -- Adam's last name is never mentioned, nor does the Doctor say the name 'Davros' around Adam or anyone who knows him. It could be his last name or his email addy. And the Doctor did tell Von Statten that V.S. was just like the creator of the Daleks, so that might be where Davros learned his modus operandi. Maybe. But Davros is from Skaro. Adam's stuck on Earth."

"Sweetheart. Adam's a genius who knows he's living in the same country as a Time Lord's Companion. He can get to Skaro."

"Okay. It's a nice, tight conjecture. We'll see how it holds up."

"And I also think I know where Gallifrey is. It's been pushed deeper into the time stream, is only accessible from inside the TARDIS, and is now a 'city in a bottle'."

"Oh, now you're speculating way too far in advance of the data. Besides, bottled cities are so lame."

"So are ceiling monsters, but that didn't stop them. As you said, we'll see."

It would have been a good episode in an earlier age, but in the 21st Century I feel sorry for anyone watching it without as entertaining a Companion as I had.

2005 Dr. Who First Season: Dalek

Before we get started, could everyone who thinks this is really and truly the last Dalek we'll ever see on Dr. Who please join me in this corner? I've got a fabulous offer on shares in the Brooklyn Bridge I'd like to tell you about.


The TARDIS intercepts a distress call. Answering it lands the Doctor and Rose in a secret museum of alien artifacts under the Utah desert, which gives the BBC a wonderful chance to clean out their prop room.

The collection is the private property of arrogant American billionaire Henry Von Statton. Von Statton's first appearances are the only point in the series where I cringed. Are arrogant American billionaires really such jerks? But wait, it turns out later he started out as a computer geek. I guess that explains it. (end sarcasm)

The collection's prize is a living alien still in its little space suit that Von Statton has been torturing to try to get it to (literally) open up. The Doctor reacts like a bull who just had a red flag waved in its face. He charges in to save the little alien from the nasty humans. He comes in all soft and quiet to rescue the poor frightened creature, trying to win it's trust, saying, "I'm the Doctor. I'm here to help you.", and guess what it is?


It's a Dalek of course, says so right in the title. The Daleks are one of the Doctor's oldest and deadliest enemies. While it is in a severely weakened state, looking as pathetic and comical as they always do, the Dalek and the Doctor have a very revealing conversation. Then the Dalek regains it's strength, and a whole new generation learns how scary a "cosmic dustbin" can be.

This episode is the finest acting we've ever seen by anyone playing the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston shows off why he has a shelf full of dramatic awards to his name. He runs a gamut from compassion, terror, rage, grief, self-loathing, and sadism. This is not the Doctor of our childhoods. This is a haunted combat veteran out of touch with his inner Galifreyan, who doesn't know how to get back to his earlier self yet. Brilliant.

The entire cast and crew performed like they were trying for Oscar nominations, a delight in any TV show but especially welcome in a "children's show". Eccleston said in any interview that his motivation for doing the Doctor was "to show children what good drama looks like, so they'll know what to ask for when they're grown." He lives up to that goal in this episode.

Back to that revealing conversation, which is possibly the best acted sequence ever on a Dr. Who episode.
Reportedly Eccleston's intensity during his first meeting with the Dalek frightened co-stars who weren't even on stage with him. I can believe it. The Daleks supposedly have all been destroyed by the Doctor, 10 million ships worth. We learn later a Dalek ships holds "just over 2,000 Daleks", so quick pencil work here, that's "just over" 2 HUNDRED BILLION Daleks.

That's an awful lot of blood on his hands.

Then we learn that the Time Lords are all destroyed too, in the same instant that the Daleks were supposedly destroyed. So was the Doctor also responsible for the destruction of his own people?

That's an awful lot more blood on his hands.

It's almost impossible to believe. In spite of whatever falling out he and the Time Lords had before the original series started -- the one that cost him his place in their society, led to them cauterizing a portion of his brain, and left him on the run in a broken-down time machine as a single parent looking after his only remaining grandchild -- the Doctor has always been their staunchest defender. He constantly derided them but he constantly derides humanity as well, and he never stopped protecting either race from alien threats. So what happened to convince him such a drastic step was necessary?

Oh, right. The Daleks.

He's always gone out of his way to give the Daleks another chance before. Now he goes out of his way to deny a Dalek another chance. What's happened to change things? What's happened to change him?

The rest of the story is predictable. Of course the Dalek escapes, kills a bunch of people, and menaces the main characters. What couldn't be predicted is how very well done that part was. It had you wondering if a single pepper-pot really could exterminate an entire planet. it also raised some other questions.

"The Time Lords cauterized the part of his brain that could connect with other Time Lords back before the very first episode. He says he can't sense "them" anymore but he hasn't been able to sense "them" in decades, except maybe in the aggregate."

"What's bothering me is where is Gallifrey? It was removed from time and space, and could only be reached by Tardis. So how could it have been destroyed? Maybe it wasn't destroyed. Maybe it was simply pushed further out of reach."

Oh, and Rose picks up Van Statten's former alien antiques' buyer, a cute genius English lad named Adam. You can almost see the Doctor rolling his eyes, "As long as he doesn't mess in the TARDIS."

Overall, this episode will go down in the Hall of Fame.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Face of Hope

I don't like the sort of music videos they play on MTV these days. I prefer the early '80s-style videos. For years I've been going to to watch brand new early-80's style videos set to some of the most beautiful music in the world. It's a popular site and often the links are so overloaded it's hard to find anything that will download, but it's worth the wait.

These videos are from Lebanon. They are made by young Lebanese musicians and dancers. They are full of beauty, intelligence, wit, and most of all hope for the future.

The majority of Lebanese people are not terrorists. They are cosmopolitan young people who are working to build a future for their families. They are burdened by the troubles of their heritage, but they are also buoyed by the wonders of that heritage. They are scarred by the violent war of their childhood, but they believe in peace. In the over 100 videos I've watched on this site, I have not seen a single one that calls for war with Israel or anyone else. Always they call for peace and an end to violence.

Watch some videos. Enjoy the lush photography, the music, the humor, the gorgeous men and women, the beautiful location shots.

When Israel bombs Lebanon indiscriminately, this is where those bombs land. These are the building that fall. These are the streets and the neighborhoods that are torn apart. These are the hopes that fade. These are the dreams that crumble.

These are the people who die.

Please look. It's important.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

2005 Dr. Who First Season: Aliens of London & World War 3

"That's more like it!" my husband said at the end of this 2-parter. "That's even better than Firefly!"

Episodes 4 & 5 form the first two-parter, a refreshing change since Dr. Who has traditionally had 2 hour stories. The 45-minute format was starting to feel a bit cramped.

The Doctor and Rose return from their "first date". Supposedly they've only been gone for 12 hours. Actually they've been gone for 12 months -- oh that pesky glitch in the navigational system. Rose's disappearance has led to some pretty serious consequences for her family.

Some people have complained about the "soap-opera" aspect of this story arc, but it plugs a major hole in the Dr. Who meme: what happens to the Companion's family when they're gone? People have thrown conniptions about relatively minor continuity glitches, but I always wanted to know what really did happen when Sara Jane failed to show up in South Croydon? What did Teagan's aunt think when Teagan disappeared for so long? These issues were either not treated at all in the old series or they were treated as a joke. I like that they are taken seriously now.

Post World War I Modernist fiction had an orphan fetish. Every hero, from Hemingway's crowd to Superman, were supposed to be orphans. Orphans were supposed to be better, "purer", sexier because they had fewer messy entangling alliances with other people. This conceit hung on in series media far longer than it should have because it made characters simpler to write. Unfortunately real people without those messy connections end up with serious psychological problems. Thank goodness we're finally getting away from that conceit and showing people plugged into more realistic relationships. Science fiction and fantasy stories especially need all the realism they can get.

People have complained, "It's supposed to be escapism!" Yes well it's also supposed to be a children's show; and it's a good idea that children find out that cutting yourself off from all family ties is usually Not a Good Idea. Exceptions exist, but they are rare.

I didn't like Jackie at first, but what does she do when her daughter disappears for a whole year? She devotes herself to trying to find Rose. And what does she do when her daughter reappears with a scruffy nameless stranger who offers an extremely lame explanation? She slaps him into the middle of next week. I love Jackie for that blow. Many an earlier supporting character has wanted to do the exact same thing. Both Jackie and Mickie get a chance to develop as strong, intelligent, compassionate people.

The Doctor tells Rose he's 900 years old. Huh? 60 years ago he wa not quite 800. There's some missing decades in there somewhere. What was he doing then, and how long was he involved with this "Time War"?

The plot -- someone who shall remain nameless (but whose initials are RTD) has been watching too much X-Files. An alien crash-lands a spaceship in the Thames -- but it's a fake alien. UFO experts from around the world gather to look at it -- but it's a trap to kill them set by the real aliens, who have taken over the government. Mulder would feel right at home.

And what is the alleged goal? To get the Earth to nuke itself so they can sell off the radioactive bits. There's billions of dead worlds out there you can nuke and sell off. Why bother with all that subterfuge (which was uncomfortable for the aliens) just so you can nuke a live world? It doesn't work....

...unless, in true X-Files fashion, the plot with the real aliens is a cover for another plot with another set of aliens. The Slitheen were a family business. Maybe they weren't working on spec. Maybe they were working on a commission which included a generous side package. Maybe that signal wasn't just the announcement of a fire sale, but also a signal to their real client. I ran that idea past my husband.

"You know who its got to be then," he said. "There's only one set of Who villains with a habit of working through intermediaries."

"There's two out of the Big Three, but only one uses intermediaries AND conquers planets. We're speculating way ahead of data here, though. We'll see."

After all, if you're going to do X-Files "conspiracies within conspiracies", you don't stop at just one layer. You go all the way.

The acting was excellent, but the Doctor is seriously off his feed. As my husband put it, "Tom Baker's Doctor would have figured it out in time to tell everyone to take off their badges." Or at least stolen the General's suit.

I had trouble with the Doctor's reluctance to get involved. It's not his style to sit on the sidelines, and he couldn't keep it up for long. Why did he try in the first place? Is there some reason he wants to stay out of the interplanetary limelight? What kind of attention would he attract? But that's speculating in advance of data.

I had an easier time with his difficulty coming to terms with endangering Rose, because his trouble with figuring out when it is acceptable to be responsible for the death of another, friend, foe or neutral is an ongoing plot in this season.

There's a juvenile aspect to the story which involves farting aliens. *Deep sigh*. I feel like Jackie here, "I suppose somebody put you up to it, did they? Well, you've had your fun. Just don't do it again. Ever. You hear me?" It worked in this particular story, but you can only pull a stinker like that off once without getting too camp to watch any longer.

Pst: Aren't You Supposed to be Posting About Homeschooling?

I am posting about homeschooling! Right now we're taking some time off to homeschool with Dr. Who.

Besides, I've got these utterly depressing posts I'm working on about fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers and new state public school teaching guidelines. I need to remind myself that sensible people still exist somewhere in this world.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

2005 Dr. Who First Season: The Unquiet Dead

Episode 3: as Rose's first date continues, the Doctor takes her into the past. The TARDIS is running even rougher than before, and all these two adrenaline junkies do is laugh about it. Hello! How long's this craft supposed to hold together?

The story is a Dr. Who staple: a period costume piece with a 1950s-style "alien technology disguised as the supernatural" story. It's distinguished by how well the historical characters are fleshed out. Both the writer and the actors did an excellent job there.

We also learn that the pinpoint navigational system is still broken. The Doctor aimed for 1860 Naples and landed in 1869 Cardiff. Why Cardiff? It's not the sight of the location shots, and they're doing plenty of other "on location" stories in Cardiff. They could have set this one somewhere else.

The pacing problem with the climax seems to be worked out. Now they need to work out their more subtle pacing problems as well.

As far as the sub-plots go, we learn the name of our Great War, the "Time War", that a lot of "higher races" died in it, and that this episode's guest species lost their bodies in it. A psychic mentions that Rose has "seen the Darkness and met the Big Bad Wolf." Dunno who the Wolf's supposed to be. The Doctor? He has to be the bogeyman for dozens of would-be conquering races. If Daleks had children they would warn them, "Eat your peas or the Doctor will get you!"

In classic Dr. Who tradition, these are villains who will return. In modern TV tradition there were 3-4 subplots worked on in this episode that will return as well. That's one modern tradition that dovetails nicely with the Dr. Who universe.

2005 Dr. Who First Season: "The End of the World"

Episode 2 is a standard science fiction plot with an Agatha Christie climax. All the important things happen on the sidelines.

The Doctor shows off the TARDIS by taking Rose far into the future to see the death of her planet. Odd choice for a first date, unless a person happens to already have wholesale death and destruction on their minds. Where did you just come from, Doctor?

The TARDIS is badly in need of it's 10 trillion year tune-up, and it appears that he's been jerry-rigging the controls. Sure the chameleon circuit and the pinpoint navigational control have been broken since the series began, but why is it running so rough? He was on good terms with the Council last we saw, he should be able to take it in for a tuneup.

The Expensive People have all come to watch on a posh movable observation platform. I hereby proclaim Lady Cassandra the ultimate winner of the anorexia contest. Yes, you can be too thin.

But what's this? The Doctor suddenly gets a whole lot less wooden around Jabe the tree lady. Could it be he's sexually attracted to powerful older women with a commanding presence? There weren't a lot of those in the original series. The Doctor was 792 when we first met him. This might explain his platonic relationships with most of his Companions. I can hear it now, "She's a fine girl, and she'd be a great lady in another 250 years. That's the problem with human women. By the time they're old enough to be interesting, they're dead."

Rose asks the Doctor personal questions. He's always been reluctant to answer those, but now he blows up completely. Why? Then he turns around and soups up Rose's cell-phone just so she can keep in touch with her family. Why does he value her connection to her people so much, and refuse completely to talk about his connection to his own people?

Jabe is aware of whatever war he fought in. Apparently all the Time Lords are believed to be dead. She's astonished to find him alive and offers her condolences over what happened. That makes him cry. What did happen?

Jabe's dead -- arrgh! A heroic death, but I wanted her to live. And the Doctor is a lot more willing to inflict pain and suffering on others. (Not death, though. Look at the blue cylinder.)

The Doctor tells Rose that his planet was destroyed in war and his people are all dead. That explains much about him and the TARDIS that is different.

"But where's the Eye of Rassilon?", my husband the continuity buff asks. "The TARDIS shouldn't work at all if that's gone. Wait a minute, didn't they hint in an earlier episode that they hid it on his TARDIS?"

"I thought it was in the Cloister well."


More special effects this time, but it was set in the future. The pacing at the end is a still rough, but a great improvement over the first episode. Still looks good.

Review: 2005 Dr. Who First Season, "Rose"

Yippee! Amazon had a sale on BBC collections, and I got the first season of the new Dr. Who. Dr. Who ran on PBS when I was in high school and college. The episodes I saw were over a decade old by then, but the stories were still miles ahead of anything on American TV at that time. Yes, the special effects were cheesy, but I liked the BBC's attitude toward them. "Something just happened, but lets not dwell on it. We've got a story to get back to." I liked that a lot better than the Star Trek attitude of "let's bring the whole story to a grinding halt while we gather round and watch the expensive special effect." Bo-ring! STTNG acted like science fiction fans were brain dead idiots who just liked to watch explosions. Ugh!

Now, the great thing about Dr. Who is that it's a children's show. This means I can watch it with my small fry instead of having to sneak in an episode after they've gone to bed, like I have to do with Firefly. With Dr. Who I can say, "It's what The Magic Tree House is based on." So after a brief (for Dr. Who it was brief) explanation we pop in the first disc. The children giggle at the first episode, but by the end of the second they're starting to worry about monsters.

"Does Dr. Who spend all his time fighting monsters?"

"Not all, but a lot."


"Well, first it's to show you that not every alien is a monster. The Doctor is an alien, and he's not bad. Most of the aliens you meet are nice. No matter what people look like on the outside, it's the ones who act bad that are the monsters."

"But why does he fight monsters all the time?"

"Because -- it's a fairy tale, all right? All fairy tales are wonder tales, and science fiction is a special type of wonder tale where everything is supposed to have a scientific explanation. The reason monsters appear in fairy tales is to show little girls and boys that yes, monsters are scary and like to do bad things. But monsters can be fought. No matter how scary they are, they can be defeated by girls and boys who are brave enough to fight them and clever enough to figure out how to win."

They liked that explanation, and have begged to see each succeeding episode.


We have a potential Companion who is not a generic Bond Girl ripoff. She has a life, she has family who will miss her if she's gone. I don't particularly care for her mother Jackie or her boyfriend Mickey as characters, especially not after Jackie's clumsy attempt to seduce the Doctor. Honesty forces me to admit I've got worse relatives though.

I'm reminded of the ad for Pierce Brosnan's remake of James Bond. "The name is Bond. You know the rest." The episode deals with iconic elements in almost a cursory way, because you'd have to be living under a rock not to know them. The exceptions are where those elements would be new and strange to Rose. There we get to see them through her eyes, and the writers and directors wisely give her time to explore her reactions instead of rushing on to the next scene. This is the way science fiction should be filmed. The camera should dwell on people, not explosions.

The Doctor has changed again. He's got the shortest hair and scruffiest clothes we've ever seen on him, which is odd because through all his regenerations he's always been a relatively long-haired clothes horse. He's also much more distant with people and highly irritable. And his "adrenaline junkie" side is far more dominant than it's ever been before. It doesn't look "alien", except that we've never seen it on the Doctor before. He looks and acts like a soldier who's just returned from a long and terrible war, one who's seen too much on the battlefield and hasn't had time to come to grips with it yet.

Ahh -- there has been a Great War of some sort, and the bad guys are among the dislocated refugees. He's followed them here off some battlefield. And apparently they blame him for something that happened in that war, a charge he protests but does not completely deny. What have you been up to, Doctor?

There's a strong X-Files element. Let's hope they don't get silly like X-Files did. After all, we know very well there are aliens out there. We're rooting for one of them.

The special effects are nice, without being overdone. Okay, maybe the belching trash bin was a bit over the top. I think they're trying to remind us it's a British show. It was a little tasteless and juvenile, but sometimes life is a little tasteless and juvenile. As long as they keep that part to a minimum I won't complain.

Their biggest problem was that the pacing at the climax stunk. It's a first episode, hopefully they'll get better.

Mickey has a sensible person's reaction to the TARDIS -- get away from me! Rose has an adrenaline junkie's reaction to the TARDIS -- more! I loved how the Doctor not-quite-begged her to stay. Alien or not, like most people he needs another person around to remind him that he is a person.

All in all, a very impressive start.