Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Boo" or "Brr"?

And a frigid All Hallow's Eve to you, too!

Oof-da, but it was cold tonight. There's a little dusting of snow on the ground and some ice here and there on the roads and parking lots, and the temperature has been in the low 20s. Thank goodness for very little wind tonight. Still, it was cold enough to bite at our ears and cheeks as we braved the weather to go trick-or-treating.

Tuesday nights, Suzanna and Abigail have dance class, and they wanted to attend tonight, even though the instructor gave them the option to skip it for Halloween festivities. While they were dancing, Susan took Hillary to the mall to make the candy-collecting rounds. I picked up Suzanna and Abigail after dance at 6:45 P.M., took them home, picked up Hillary, and escorted them around the block for some chilly trick-or-treating in our new neighborhood.

There were precious few other people out and about. At many houses, the girls were told that they were the first people to show up--and that was around 7:30 P.M.! Candy givers were overstocked and feeling generous, dumping mounds of their goodies into the girls' bags. I was freezing my extremities, but we still hit all the porch-light-lit houses on our block. Everyone was very friendly, and some had even set aside special goodie bags for the girls without ever having met them ("We've seen you out on your bikes, and we mean to have your family over soon").

No one argued when we'd made it around the block and Daddy suggested heading indoors. Susan made hot chocolate for us all and reported that about a dozen people had stopped by our house for candy. So, sitting on our kitchen counter now are the two giant bowls of candy we bought to give away plus the two giant bowls' worth of candy the girls collected.

I guess I'll have to pitch in and do my part to make all that candy disappear. *sigh*

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Goblins, Fajitas, Urine, and Home Decor

Susan and I took the girls to the Armory for the Dickinson Parks and Recreation annual Halloween party for littluns (third grade and younger). Suzanna dressed as a farm girl (what we called her scarecrow outfit minus the straw coming out the sleeves and neck of her shirt, because we couldn't find that raffia in time), Abigail as a bride, and Hillary as a princess (in her witch costume with a tiara instead of the witch's hat). They got bags of candy when we entered, and then we wound our way through a haunted house set-up (well decorated with someone hiding in costume who popped up occasionally to startle people) until we made our way to a large room filled with games: bowling, tic-tac-toe beanbag toss, etc. It was fun to see the scads of other little kids in their costumes, and the girls enjoyed playing the games and seeing/talking to their friends from school. Each child received free bottled water on the way out, courtesy of Pepsi.

Our new entertainment center was delivered on Friday, so we spent part of Saturday setting it up with all the electronic media equipment. We also unpacked and organized all our CDs, cassettes, videotapes, and DVDs. Susan's aunt Kathy spent the evening with the girls so that Susan and I could go out for supper and then to a musical at DSU. We ate at El Sombrero and had a great meal: we shared the Fajitas El Sombrero for two, featuring a sizzling platter of shrimp, chicken, chorizo, and steak to stuff as we pleased into flour tortillas. We each got a plate of deee-licious refried beans and cheese, Spanish rice, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, and lettuce, too. Susan had a strawberry margarita, and I enjoyed some cerveza. It was so much food that what we took home made a meal for the five of us tonight!

Afterward we saw Urinetown: The Musical at DSU. It's a funny, satirical musical, and we both enjoyed the script. It was our first theatre experience in Dickinson, and we were pleased with the production, too. There were no klunky voices, no awful actors, no disastrous directing choices--the detractions (and distractions) of which there are usually at least one per production. A student employee from the Academic Success Center (where I work) was in the cast, so it was fun to see him on stage. And it was a full crowd in the auditorium, including a very funny and friendly woman who sat next to me and visited easily between acts . . . and even during Act II. When a certain character came on at a certain time, she guessed the secret that the character was about to reveal, and she leaned over and told me, "I'll bet she's her mother. I just had a feeling all along." When the character revealed this parenthood secret, the woman next to me punched me in the shoulder as though to say, "I told you so." Afterward, Susan asked me who the woman was, figuring it was a coworker of mine whom she hadn't met yet. Nope, I have no idea who she was!

Today was the day for sorting through the stacks of pictures, photographs, and knick knacks that we've been forming in the living room as we've been unpacking boxes. We figured we should assemble all our decor items in one place before we started putting up pictures on the wall; better to see it all laid out so that we could remember our options and reimagine old things hanging up in new combinations in this new place. We got out the hammer and nails, the level, the tape measure, the stud finder, the pencil, and the step stool and got to work, room by room. We're not done nailing and hanging yet, but we have assigned every hanging item to a room now. We'll place tchotchkes, candles, framed photos, etc., on the horizontal surfaces after everything is up that belongs on a vertical surface.

We want the home decorated and everything in its place by Thanksgiving when my family will be in Dickinson to spend the holiday with us! My sisters from Oregon and Nebraska and my dad and stepmom from McGregor, ND will all be here, and we're very much looking forward to it. We want the home in order to "show it off" to them (and to maximize the space available for setting down suitcases without feeling claustrophobic among stacks of boxes).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Abigail's New Appearance

Abigail now wears spectacles! As of Monday, she is the proud owner of a pair of glasses. A vision screening at her elementary school a couple weeks ago revealed that an official visit to the eye doctor was in order, and the doctor prescribed corrective lenses. Abigail's eyeballs are as sensitive to light as is her skin, so the lenses react to light and automatically darken outdoors to function like sunglasses. The frames are rectangular and are dark purple. She wears them faithfully and proudly. She looks so much older with them on, which makes me a little sad. However, now reading is so much easier for her that she's plowing through books at the same rapid pace that Suzanna does. Abigail is grateful for her glasses, and she's gotten compliments from her classmates at school, too. That's a very good thing.

Oh, and she just this morning lost another tooth: her upper-right incisor. She came up to me to say, "Dad, I have a tooth that's really loose. See?" When she wiggled it, it fell right out--no pulling or pain required!

P.S. I started wearing glasses at about 3 years old, as did my sister Sandy. We also wore our glasses religiously. I think Sandy still wears contacts. I grew out of needing glasses in my early twenties, though. Maybe the same thing will happen for Abigail . . .

Friday, October 20, 2006

Fall TV

Okay, okay. Friends have been asking for my recommendations for fall television viewing, and I haven't written much about the topic (except for reality TV favorites). It's already well into the season, but perhaps it's not too late to join in on shows already in progress. You can always catch up via reruns and DVD releases later on, anyway. Here's what I know:

New shows: I watched an episode each of Ugly Betty and The Nine. Neither of them is in my weekly DVR lineup (gotta limit how much TV I watch, ya know), but I really enjoyed them both. The latter especially has an intriguing premise: we watch in the premiere as a bank robbery takes place and then flash forward to 52 hours later as the robbers are captured and the hostages released. We don't know exactly what has occurred during the interim, but the following episodes reveal those details a little at a time. Why are this person and this person so close now when they were strangers beforehand? Why are this person and this person so distant now when they were in love when they entered the bank that fateful day? Why can this person remember nothing from the incident, and why won't her dad (who was there with her) talk about it? And why did this person have a swatch of her hair cut off during her time inside the bank? Weird and promising.

Returning shows: Dancing with the Stars is interesting. Celebrities are coupled with professional ballroom dancers, learn a new style of dance each week, and try to wow the judges and the voting viewing public so that they may return the next week. Co-host Tom Bergeron's humor is enticing, and the drama concerning participant Sara Evans recently added spice to the show.

Desperate Housewives is regaining the unusual combination of humor, drama, and mystery that it featured its first season but lost last year. I don't watch Boston Legal regularly, but the occasional episodes that I have sampled are always entertaining. Candice Bergen, William Shatner, and James Spader are hilariously quirky. Lost still surprises me, keeps me on the edge of my seat, and makes me care for characters one week whom I disliked the week before. And Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is always good if you need a feel-good cry/emotional release.

You ought to be watching The Amazing Race on Sunday nights if you're not already. It's highly addictive and easy to get into at any point of the season. Enjoy the adventure of couples racing around the world, engaging in local challenges in each country, outwitting one another, bickering with their partners, and hoping to win $1 million in the end.

I started with the new series Jericho but dropped it due to lack of time. I enjoyed it, however, and its ratings continue to rise. The scenario: what if residents of a middle-American city discover that they may be the sole survivors of a nuclear war?

I watched one episode of Kidnapped and enjoyed it for its combo of dark writing and dark acting. A wealthy couple's son is kidnapped, and the search lasts throughout the season. Along the way, secrets are revealed about everyone connected to the kidnap victim or to the search itself. Intriguing. I watched a couple episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and found the writing smart and the acting appealing. It's a behind-the-scenes look at the efforts to rejuvenate a late-night comedy/variety show on a fictional network (clear parallel to NBC and Saturday Night Live). Too little viewing time in my week prevents me from committing to either show for the long haul, however. I have yet to sample the new trivia competition 1 vs. 100, but I've read good things about it, so I plan to (if only for one episode). The contestant faces 100 opponents. He/she must answer every question correctly and hope to outsmart the 100 on the way to the $1 million top prize. And I haven't watched Friday Night Lights, but critics have hailed it as the best new drama of the fall and a surprise for anyone expecting your typical "feel good" celebration of American high school football culture. Might be worth sampling.

Two new shows that are on my weekly DVR list are Heroes and 30 Rock. Heroes actually shocks me from week to week! What if a handful of people from around the world suddenly awoke with powers such as flying, reading minds, or stopping time? This is not a stereotypical superhero show in which these folks adopt alter egos and take up crime fighting. Instead, they struggle to come to terms with their new powers, all the while escaping dark forces that target them because of their powers. Spooky! 30 Rock stars Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin--'nough said.

Move along, people. Nothing to see here.

Okay, nothing currently on here to see. 24 won't return until January to tell, one hour per week, another harrowing real-time tale in the dangerous life of secret agent Jack Bauer. Celebrity Duets was entertaining (pairing non-singing celebrities with singing superstars in a weekly sing-off against other duos), but its season has ended. So You Think You Can Dance hasn't started its new season yet, but we enjoyed watching that from time to time last season as hopeful dancers compete for the top spot.

This new network, a hybrid of UPN and WB, is the new home of Veronica Mars, one of the most excellent shows in television history. It's smart and sassy, like me (ha!). The last two seasons, Veronica was a high school student whom classmates and adults often turned to for part-time detective services. Invariably, the cases she solved turned out to be bigger deals than at first they seemed, and her sleuthing usually outsmarted that of local authorities on big cases involving murder. Now she's a college freshman, and she's navigating the waters of university life while working to uncover the identity of a college rapist. A quirky mix of seriousness, mystery, comedy, and young adult life. Watch it!

The next season of The Shield will be in the spring sometime, most likely. It's a riveting, dark, addicting look at some intriguing characters portrayed by excellent actors. The central character, Vic, is a cop out to get "the bad guys" and willing to resort to illegal means to capture them--and if there's a way for him to profit while taking down the criminals, all's the better. Does the end justify the means? And how do those who work with or against Vic change as a result? I'm not a fan of cop shows or crime procedurals as a rule, but the writing, acting, and production values of this show have me sucked in.

If you're not watching Battlestar Galactica because you don't "do" science fiction shows, then you're sadly underestimating this show and how it's reshaping that genre of television. I speak as though I'm a long-time fan, but really, besides having watched the pilot and a handful of episodes here and there, I have not been a viewer until this weekend when I caught up on the episodes that recently kick-started season 3. And if I can become addicted this quickly and understand the backstory this clearly with so little experience before now, so can you! In this version of life in the universe, humans have colonized a planet called Caprica and created robots called Cylons to serve them. Over time, Cylons evolved into beings sophisticated enough to rebel against their makers and demand autonomy. In seasons 1 and 2, they attacked Caprica and forced the surviving humans--the lone representatives of the human race--to take to their spaceships (the lead one named Battlestar Galactica) on a race to evade the Cylons and find the mythical home planet called Earth. When I started watching this weekend, the humans had colonized a habitable planet they called New Caprica, only to be occupied by invading Cylons who hoped to co-exist. Their treatment of the humans, however, has clear parallels to major events in our own history: the American occupation of Iraq, the Germans' treatment of Jews during World War II, etc. It kept me on the edge of my seat with its bold storytelling, its realistic reimagining of the human story in this universe, and its intriguing characterization. I highly recommend it.

Breaking in the Garage

No, not breaking into the garage. Breaking it in!

Last night was the first that both our vehicles slept in our garage together (automotive romance?!). We just this past weekend got the last of the boxes out of the garage. Many we unpacked and put their contents away; some we stacked in the storage room in the house until we can unpack them at a later date. In any case, we needed to get the garage empty and available for use by our vehicles before the snow piles up any deeper.

(Yes, we have a little bit of snow. In October.)

So, Susan has had the van in the garage since this weekend. I was delaying putting the Explorer in the garage until I could have its oil leak fixed. The mechanic can't find the leak, though, and neither can I (it hasn't leaked since the initial leaking incident last week), so I happily drove into my stall in the garage last night, put a sheet of cardboard under the engine to detect/catch future leaks, shut the door behind me, and enjoyed the sight of our two vehicles side by side in the same garage. Then, I walked directly from the garage into the house.

This is rather mundane to most, but it's a big deal to me. Our previous house had a one-car, detached garage. The van lived in the garage, and the Explorer sat on the driveway in the winter (where it got covered with ice and snow and required plugging in if it was to start on cold mornings) and on the street in the summer (under a tree that was a favorite perching spot for neighborhood birds with full bowels).

Not that it was paradise for whoever drove the van, either. There was still the walk through the treacherous winter weather to get to or from the house. Also, the garage had space between the foundation and the lower portion of the walls in several places, making it not a very weather-proof structure.

Our current garage is wonderful: finished walls, painted floor, plenty of storage cabinets and work bench space, wall hooks, room for parking the snow blower and the large trash bin, room for both vehicles, and direct passage into the house. If your garage offers you the same features, take a moment to appreciate what you've got.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Famous Relative

Read all about my step-niece, currently featured on the University of North Dakota's Web site.

And She Means That Literally!

Don't read this if you find it crude to read about bodily functions.

This morning Abigail used the toilet and, upon completion, said, "There: all pooped out."

I love it!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Awesome Concert

Wow. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

The second concert in the Dickinson Area Concert Series was tonight, and I haven't experienced anything so wonderful in a long time . . . if ever. Tonight's artists were an a capella men's quartet called Cadence. Dylan Bell, Ross Lynde, Carl Berger, and Kevin Fox are Toronto musicians--a high-energy, humorous, active bunch whose voices blend well, who display a high level of musicianship, and who know how to infect the audience with their own joyful attitudes.

They sang a wide variety of music, from '40s and '50s standards to '60s and '70s rock "classics" to more recent songs. In between, they performed their schtick, told jokes, introduced themselves and their songs, and interacted with the audience. In fact, at one point Ross came over to where we were seated (near the stage, as luck would have it) and asked me my name, whether the women seated around me were my family, the names of my daughters ("Three girls? Wow! How many bathrooms do you have in your house?"), and Susan's name. Then he invited her to join them on stage!

They seated her on a chair, surrounded her, got down on a knee, and serenaded her with "My Romance." She was a good sport, and they were funny, joking about being in love with her and telling me from onstage how lucky I am. Suzanna could hardly contain her giggles over seeing Mommy up on stage, and Abigail and Hillary were giddy and antsy, jumping up and down and beaming from ear to ear. It was almost as great to watch the three of them as it was to see Susan up on stage with Cadence and to hear them sing and joke and act all swoony!

Afterward several audience members approached us to say "hi" to Susan, having known her from years ago and recognizing her while she was on stage. We bought two CDs of Cadence's music and had each singer autograph each CD. They were good sports, very amiable, and sincerely interested in listening to the girls' comments and answering their questions. I had the sense that they'd be folks we'd enjoy hanging out with in a social setting.

I'm listening to one of their CDs as I write this; it's great, too, and brings back to my mind their onstage antics (that was an important part of why the concert was so enjoyable). Their Web site motto (proclaiming their a capella-ness: "Instruments are for surgeons") reflects their fun attitude. I can't praise them enough. It was terrific. This concert series was a great investment.

P.S. I forgot to ask them afterward during autograph time whether any (or all) of them had ever been in the musical Forever Plaid. I was in that show a decade ago with my friends Patrick, Paul, and Darin, so I was delightedly surprised to hear Cadence sing two songs in nearly the same arrangements as they appear in the musical: "Mathilda" and "Scotland the Brave." And I mean nearly identical arrangements, so if they've never been in the musical, then at least they have seen it and been inspired by it. That deja vu (deja heard?) was a nice element of the evening, too!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Airline Humor

Two funny things I encountered recently:

(1) While flying from Denver to Washington, D.C. last week (en route to a conference in Harrisburg, PA), I read a joke in the airline magazine provided at every seat:

Did you hear about the actor who fell through the floor?
It was just a stage he was going through.

(2) On the flight from Harrisburg to Washington, D.C., the flight attendant added a humorous twist to the "be careful" warning given before the plane lands and people prepare to retrieve their carry-ons from the storage compartments overhead:

Watch out when opening the overhead bins because, as you know, shift happens.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

NCLCA Conference

I just returned from the 2006 National College Learning Center Association conference in Harrisburg, PA! What a wonderful week. I flew from Dickinson (Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, home of unlimited free parking!) to Denver, from Denver to Washington, D.C. (Dulles), and from Washington to Harrisburg on Tuesday, October 3. I attended pre-conference sessions on Wednesday, then two days of official conference activities Thursday and Friday, then a post-conference session on Saturday. It was cheaper for me to stay another night and fly home today, so I did.

I knew next to nothing about NCLCA or its mission or its members or its conference before my boss told me that she was sending me to it, so I didn't know what to expect. However, the conference sessions were very enlightening, and the networking was invaluable to me. NCLCA folks are very warm and welcoming and willing to share everything that they do if it will make another person's job at his/her own university or college a little easier.

I attended sessions on using data to evaluate the effectiveness of one's learning center, training students to tutor their peers, managing the students in your learning center's employ, and getting certified either as a learning center or as a learning center professional (or both, for that matter). Being so new to my own position in a learning center, I had much to learn from this conference, and I loved coming home with so much "stuff": handouts that others use in their own programs and, perhaps more importantly, business cards with contact information for the many friendly people I met who offered to share procedures and materials from their own learning centers.

Harrisburg was beautiful, and the restaurants at which I ate (with my new-found friends from across the country) served delicious food: lobster bisque, veal in a red wine reduction, grilled caesar salad in which the Romaine lettuce hearts themselves were grilled before being plated, and, of course, Troegs beer, a Pennsylvania brew. Next year's conference is in Atlanta, GA, and I'm interested in presenting at that conference. I'll have to plant that seed with my boss . . .

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reality TV

I was never a fan of the "reality television" craze, thinking most of "those shows" to be demeaning, insipid, and not worth my time when something else more carefully crafted--by artists in their fields of acting, writing, directing, designing, etc.--was available to watch (yes, on television--it is a medium for quality work, too, you know!). But I've been sucked in now. By at least a few shows, that is. Here are four that Susan and I (and, sometimes, the girls) have been watching regularly:

Project Runway -- Totally addicted. Each week a group of aspiring fashion designers is given another designing challenge. After their creations are shown on the runway, a panel of fashion designers, models, and critics judges the work and chooses which contestant to send home. (Host and famous model herself Heidi Klum warns the designers each week, "As you know, in the world of fashion, one day you're in and the next day you're out." And "You are out" is her catchphrase dismissal of each week's losing designer.) We like this show because one just can't guess each week just which designs will win over the judges. Sometimes the crappiest garments win their praise while much more wearable and appealing designs are deemed boring or uninspired. Often, though, we're of the same mind as the judges. This show is moving into the final round when the winning designer will be announced. Exciting!

Amazing Race 10 -- My friend Darin and I couldn't get enough of this series in its previous seasons, and now Susan and I are loving the tenth edition. Couples compete against each other in a race around the world, each week finding clues at locations all over the globe, completing challenges related to the current country and culture, testing their own endurance and cleverness and ability to get along with one another and other teammates and "the locals" in each country, and fighting against time and bad luck to avoid being the couple each week who hears Phil, the host, say, "I'm sorry to tell you that you have been eliminated from the race." Our love of this show even inspired our own local version!

Design Star -- Not to be left out, Home and Garden TV created this, its reality show intended to find the next great interior design star. A group of designers was given a design challenge with parameters of varying difficulty each week (e.g., You must redesign this room using only items you can find in this pet supply store) until finally only two candidates remained. The show built two glass houses in a park in New York City, and crowds gathered to watch each finalist design the interior as a room of his/her choice (both chose to do bedrooms). The winner gets his own design show on the network!

Dancing with the Stars -- A celebrity is paired with a professional ballroom dancer, and the pro gets one week to whip the non-dancer into shape before the pair must deliver a polished, professional-level dance routine for a panel of three ballroom dance judges. The critics give them scores, and afterward the television audience call in from their homes, and each couple's final score is a combination of votes from the public and tallies from the judges. Tuesdays we see each couple dance (and some are truly amazing), and Wednesdays we see who got the lowest combined score from the previous night and must be let go from the show. It's interesting to note how this show has contributed to an appreciation for and renewed interest in ballroom dance in this country.

Celebrity Duets -- Similar to Dancing with the Stars, this show paired a non-singing star with a famous singer each week, and they performed one or two duets in as polished a way as they could muster after a week's rehearsals. One of the joys of this show was being surprised by the identities of each week's guest singers and by the way they were paired with the celebrity contestants themselves. One annoying aspect of the show: the results (who was voted off each week) were determined solely by the number of call-in votes each celebrity received, not by any input from the panel of judges, who gave oral critiques following each duet but weren't allowed to score, rank, or rate the performances. Thus, it was a popularity contest rather than a talent contest, and that was irritating. Marie Osmond, Little Richard, and David Foster were on the panel, and Wayne Brady hosted--and each of them, too, got to perform at some point during the run of the show.

I am sure other reality shows have their merits, too, but these are the ones that I have sampled and that haven't disgusted me with any kind of insistence on encouraging participants to be ugly to one another or with any kind of focus on humiliating or denigrating the contestants (beyond the degree to which they choose to humiliate or denigrate themselves, that is). If you haven't tried any of them, I encourage you to sample one or more and see if you agree with me.