blank'/> Mirth, Melancholy, and the Mundane: March 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Digitally Playful I…

I go to a lot of conferences, and one of the things I always look for are free things that I can use in the course of teaching. But this is not an entry about teaching. It's an entry about how teachers sometimes find very fun things to play with and though we may call them tools – they are a lot of fun as just plain toys. So, here's some toys I like to play with online…

Subtitled "From Here to Then," SepiaTown is working to map the world with historical photos. You can browse and explore the world through old pictures and even upload your own. Being that I grew up as the daughter of antiquing parents, I can't help but be fascinated by this concept. More people need to be aware of this and participate so we really can explore the world as it once was and how the once upon a time has led us to the here and now.

For those who want to create their own pictures, you can go have a little fun on – play around with a little whiteboard and then share it with a URL or through popular social media sites. It's also fun to peruse the galleries – people have done some fascinating things with the relatively simple tool.

For those how like to play around with their narrative imaginations but need a little inspiration to do so, Five Card Stories is very cool. This is how it works: "[y]ou are dealt five random photos for each draw, and your task is to select one each time to add to a selection of images, that taken together as a final set of 5 images- tell a story in pictures." This is fun to do on your own and it is also interesting to see what other people have done.

I can't talk about Web 2.0 tools and toys without mentioning Wordle. Word clouds may be all the rage these days, but they really are fun. I love to put my blogs in them and see how they turn out – and you can have fun with literature and all sorts of things in there. Talk about a strange way to see how the news is trending!

This is really dorky and it appeals to the geek in me. I mean, who doesn't want to turn their PDF files into flippable books? You can make your own circulars! Go ahead and try it at Youblisher. You can also see examples so if you have no idea what I mean, you can go see.

Shelfari is really for book lovers – not just educators, but anyone who loves and values books and all the power that they can have, no matter what they are. Books create and build communities and celebrate the joy of language and good stories. This website is a blog of sorts, a "gathering place for authors, aspiring authors, publishers, and readers, and has many tools and features to help these groups connect with each other in a fun and engaging way." It's actually run by Amazon, but is completely free to use. Basically, you use it to create a virtual bookshelf, discover new books, connect with friends and learn more about your favorite books.

The AT&T Text to Speech Demo is just fun to play with. You type in the text, choose the voice you like, then press 'Speak' and VOILA! An audio rendition of the text you put in.

This Drum Kit is just silly and I'm not going to talk about it. But it's fun.

And to end on a note that is fitting in terms of this being the blog of an English professor, I give you oneword. Its instructions should more than explain why it is a good concluding place:

simple. you'll see one word at the top of the following screen.
you have sixty seconds to write about it.
click 'go' and the page will load with the cursor in place.
don't think. just write.

Go. Play. Laugh. Share.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Entered Into Rest…

I enjoy walking around in cemeteries. As many of you know, there's one that makes up the back landscape at my house and while it isn't a particularly large or spectacular cemetery, it's a wonderful place. I walk Oliver out there, always careful to keep him from bothering mourners or from leaving unpleasant remainders of his presence. With or without the dog, however, it's a wonderful place to explore and I feel like I find something new every time I go there. Sometimes it's the wildlife – there have been a couple of deer sighted, along with the countless crows and squirrels, meandering cats, and even the occasional groundhog. That's not all of it, though.

There's a sense of peace – a sad peace in some ways, but a peace nonetheless. Cemeteries are generally quiet and lovely – rolling hills and landscaping, towering trees and colorful flowers dancing in the breeze. I cannot ever separate myself from the countless tears that made the soil fertile, or the broken hearts that have seeped into every corner of these places, but there's also a gorgeous sense of history, a lingering tranquility, and an almost fervent celebration of life. For those who have left the markers of their loved ones here, they carry on in defiance of their loss. They visit these places not as a morbid reminder of what is gone – but rather a concrete marker of what will always live on. Our loved ones are never gone from us, we know this. So, we look for places where they have left their mark, or where we have built markers for them. And the markers can be so exquisitely beautiful.

Those who know me know that I am not a religious person. I don't much care for the message of religious institutions in a general sense, and so my relationship with the Divine has found its own Way. But that is not to say that I don't find beauty in churches and cathedrals, and in the markers we erect in these places that are intersection of life and death, permanence and passage, sorrow and joy, past and present, yesterdays and tomorrows. The upturned face of the weeping angel, the outstretched hands of Mary, the child enveloped in the arms of St. Anthony. So many beautiful carven images – so many dreams, wishes that when we leave this place, we are taken elsewhere, where there is love and peace and release from toil.

I love to read the names  – walking amongst the stones and reading messages and epithets that tell stories without telling them. Wife. Loving Husband. US Army. From County Cork. Infant child. Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. So small, so sweet, so soon. Worn dates and faded names, moss growing on etched stone. These are powerful images and powerful places. Words of comfort and memory from those who are now nothing but memory themselves.

These souls are not my souls, these names are not my names – except they are. The story of human love and human suffering, etched in stone and surviving through the ages. A name here, a date there, a marble lamb, an angel with wings unfurled. Beauty and sadness rolled into one.

There is more to say, but there are pictures I want to share and words I want to get just right. I will go again…and I will write again.

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Entertaining Truth...

I don't watch a lot of TV, but lately I've been exploring a variety of shows on Netflix Instant because it's so easy to start it streaming while doing something else. I've had fun with the over-the-top seriousness of Ghost Adventures and the occasional movie of late. My latest discovery, however, is a show that I've had quite a bit of fun with on a number of levels. The Syfy (strange spelling and all) has a show called Destination Truth hosted by a fellow named Josh Gates.

The premise of the show is that Josh and his crew travel to exotic locations to investigate local reports of (for lack of a better word) monster sightings. They have traveled from Africa and Japan to Egypt and the Ukraine, from the Everglades and Nepal to Indonesia and Australia. They gather photographic, audio, video, and other evidence and then bring it to experts to analyze.

Before I get into why I like it, though, I must first point out that it is not 'good' science. They only spend a day and night (or so) in an area, the cameras are generally pointed at their faces, and they have yet to find any conclusive evidence of anything other than 'there might be something there'.

But I love it anyway. I love it because of what they are exploring. The strange creatures come straight out of mythology and are fascinating reflections of local legends in and of themselves: the ninki nanka of The Gambia, the tarasque of Viet Nam, the mapinguary of the Amazon Rainforest, the tokeloshe of Lesotho in South Africa, el lobizon of Argentina, and the list goes on and on. They also explore things whose names are more familiar to us – sea serpents and the yeti, giant octopi and anaconda, ghosts, and the curse of Tutankhamen. Since I love mythology, I love these tales. And I love how he presents them.

The host and crew are very respectful of the cultures and belief systems they visit. They debunk when debunking is warranted, but they also acknowledge that sometimes belief and science can walk hand in hand – as long as you understand the powers of each. Josh has talked about how a creature seems to "live at the nexus of folklore and memory" and he is never judgmental of those he interviews. Unless they are just straight up silly. The fellow who 'transformed' into a werewolf on camera seemed a little dubious even with cultural respect in play. As Gates said, the way the gentleman checked his watch once the transformation was over to indicate he had lost time made his performance seem more fitting for dinner theater than for the strange phenomena books.

The episode on the Naga contains two of my favorite quotes. Together these quotes reflect some of my over-arching beliefs on mythology, science, truth, and spirituality. At one point, as he speaks to people who have more or less transformed their village into a temple dedicated to the naga, he says that "[he] was beginning to realize that the creature experiences in this town were more of the spiritual variety than the physical" (Season 1, Episode 2). And he says this without even the slightest trace of derision or scorn. His words are those of someone who is respecting the belief system of a culture that is completely and utterly removed from his own. As the episode concludes, he shares this:

My search for the naga revealed it to be more of a complex phenomenon than I ever could have imagined.  Steeped in Buddhist history, it seems to be a mythological meeting point between the physical and spiritual worlds.  As for its eye-witness accounts, I believe the Mekong River is sort of like a religious Rorschach test and that in Thailand, hints of that revered serpent  are what the faithful see in those instincts tell me it's a mystery for a reason.
This may not be good science, but it is good mythology and it acknowledges that there are things we will never understand and things we don't need to understand. I don't even care if they find anything – the investigation portion of the series is far less interesting to me than the interviews, the travel, the commentary, and the background.

So, I love the show for that – for seeking the truth (albeit in a limited made-for-TV way) but realizing that it probably won't be found. And then realizing, accepting, and respecting that it probably doesn't need to be found. For acknowledging that truth is not always painted in shades of literal fact and irrefutable evidence. For knowing that our world, for all its technology and civilization and progress, is a mysterious, dangerous, and wondrous place. And embracing that.

I love the show for all this.

And have I mentioned that Gates is also quite funny?  :)

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Like Birds...

We're at that time of the year when it's still cold, but there are birds returning to the trees and the skies and to those invisible places where they perch and sing until it sounds as if they will burst. I don't know where they are when they do this, sometimes, but it is enough just to hear them. Since we live near a lake, there are countless geese around, specifically. Now, I know that Canada Geese make messes and whatnot, but I still think they are fascinating and beautiful. I don't have to clean up after them, though, so that might make a difference. I've driven by the lake recently on a grey morning and noted that the lake was even grayer – dotted with what must have been hundreds of birds. Mostly geese, but with the occasional seagull poised among them visiting with its bigger cousins. I stopped and stood on the little deck that juts out from the gazebo and just looked at them. More were coming in and so for a moment there were geese all around me – calling out to one another and dotting the sky with dark and beautiful shapes. I felt empowered and trivial all at once.

Geese are interesting birds. I don't know a lot about them (or about any birds, really), but I remember once I read that they assign amongst them sentinels who stand guard whilst their flockmates sleep and eat. You can see them if you look at a grounded gathering of geese – they are the ones scattered throughout with their necks craned and their heads swiveling as they gaze the area around the group. I've never seen one call out a warning that I'm aware of, they just watch and wait, protecting the group, no matter how large or small the gathering. They will gather everywhere, too – the lake, the median that divides the drive-thru from the parking lot at Tim Horton's, the ragged cornfields still sporting the truncated spikes of last year's stalks. I'm always happy to see them return.

I'm also happy that the crows stay through the winter. Crows are a different sort of bird altogether. I've always thought that if we were to transform a crow into a human, we wouldn't get Brandon Lee, but rather James Dean. T-shirts with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves and a swagger that would give all the T-Birds a run for their money, even Danny Zuko. They really don't care. They are jet black rebels, sauntering around as if they own the world. If you drive too close, they reluctantly get out of the way and often seem cranky while they do it. They will walk rather than fly, as if to drive home how nonchalant and unconcerned they are. Their call is raucous and edgy. They sit in the tops of trees and just send call after call into the sky, that throaty squawk that makes their whole bodies move. Sometimes they are alone, and sometimes they gather in clusters – exuding malicious or mischievous intent. A murder of crows. It is no wonder to me that one of the animal-spirited divine beings of some of the Native Americans is Crow, and for others, it is Raven. I can see it every time I catch the sight of black feathers, which always seem stark against whatever environment they've chosen – whether it is road-side buffet, the tops of barren trees, or just strutting around a random patch of grass.

On the exact opposite of the spectrum of birds are the little ones – the sparrows and the finches. The ones that are coming back to us now in full swing, moving in stuttered, hopping movement that makes 'flighty' an apt, if somewhat pun-ish, descriptor. Tiny beaks and tiny feet, they hop around looking for some great treasure in food or nest-supplies. I also like the bright ones – the elegant cardinals and the trouble-making blue jays. I love them all: the gangly grace of the heron and the ugly confidence of the buzzard, the stately royalty of the eagle and the menacing beauty of the hawk. I even love the goofy persistence of 'sea' gulls and the homebody waddle of the duck.

I do not know a lot about birds, but the few tidbits I've picked up are interesting and oddly amusing. For instance, it amuses me that they believe dinosaurs may have more in common with birds than with other beasts. It's entertaining also that pigeons and doves are more or less the same bird. I find it fascinating that flamingos are only pink because of the algae that they eat. And I will forever have the image of a chicken in a tree because I saw it once, somewhere. I also chuckle that every big, circling, faraway bird in the sky is a turkey vulture. Just ask my dad. In short, all birds are beautiful and funny and fascinating and with that first robin and that first morning filled with birdsong, I cease to love winter and I long for spring…

In that moment, I agree with e.e. cummings, who once said: "I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than to teach 10,000 stars how not to dance."

Sing on, my feathered friends.