out of the mouths of babes

It was a long and crazy day, full of unexpected twists and turns.

It began with my normal volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary School. This week, I was to help several different groups of second-graders walk through a booklet on what life was like in colonial times.

The first group was well-behaved, paid close attention, and we had a lovely little discussion springing from some of the things they’d noticed in the book.

The second and third groups? Well, not so much. We had a little bit of a behavior problem, to the extent that with the last group, I did something I try never to do:

“Do you want me to have to call Ms. Aymett over here?”

I can’t remember which group – it may have been the second – but one of the kids said to me, “Mr. Carney, do you know you have a really big belly button?”

Let me clarify here that my torso was fully covered throughout my visit to Learning Way this morning. What the child was seeing, and reacting to, was a bulge visible under my pullover. I do, in fact, have a walnut-sized belly button. It’s called an umbilical hernia. A few years ago, when I had a membership to Shelbyville Recreation Center, I overdid it on some weight machine or other and a small portion of my intestines pushed itself through my abdominal wall. It’s harmless; it can be corrected by surgery, if I were ever in a position to do that, but it’s no real problem except from an aesthetic standpoint, unlike the turn-your-head-and-cough sort of hernia.

Anyway, I and my Really Big Belly Button got out of the hour more or less unscathed. I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to hold the kids’ attention, but Ms. Aymett – as always – took it in stride.

Maybe I should write a children’s book: “The Really Big Belly Button.”

I bet that one they would pay attention to.

a long day, but a good one


Since the 1990s, I’ve been a United Methodist lay speaker – which, when I first got into the program, simply meant someone who was not an ordained minister but who was approved by the church to preach. A layspeaker might fill in for a sick or visiting pastor, and some churches have “laity Sunday” observances in which the entire worship service is presented by members of the church.

When I got involved, you would take a basic lay speaking class, about 8-10 hours of instruction – after which you were approved to speak at your own home church. Then, after you’d taken any of the available advanced classes, you became a “certified lay speaker,” approved to speak in any United Methodist Church. You had to take some sort of advanced course at least every three years in order to remain certified. Many people would take courses more frequently, just because they’re usually enjoyable, and you get to know and reconnect with other lay speakers.

A few years ago, the United Methodist church re-worked the program a bit – it’s now known as “lay servant ministries” instead of “lay speaking ministries,” and more different types of people are encouraged to get involved, even those with no desire to stand behind a pulpit. Within that program, there is still such a thing as a “certified lay speaker,” which now has more stringent requirements than before. Instead of becoming certified after one random course, you have to take at least one course each in five different topic areas. I was grandfathered in under the old requirements – not automatically, but based on an endorsement from the director of lay servant ministries for the Murfreesboro District, Ruthan Patient. But of course, I still need (and want!) to continue to take courses.

In recent years, the format for the course was either Friday-night-and-Saturday or Saturday-and-Sunday-afternoon. At any given event, the basic class will be offered for those who need it, while there will be one or more advanced classes going on at the same time.

After a couple of recent training events failed to get enough registrations to “make,” they decided to monkey with the format and whole the whole thing on Saturday.

That’s where I was today – at Blackman UMC in Murfreesboro.

The new format proved popular with students – we had forty some-odd people today – but it also made for a long day. We gathered at 8:15, started at 8:30, and were supposed to dismiss at 6. But the closing worship ran long, and so we didn’t get away until 6:30 p.m.

WP_20151114_10_30_23_ProI’ve spent too many words setting this all up. What I really wanted to say was that today was a good one. I was in a class on United Methodist heritage and how it relates to our beliefs, taught by the Rev. Karen Barrineau. I’d thoroughly enjoyed reading the text, Living Our Beliefs by Bishop Kenneth Carder, and Rev. Barrineau did a terrific job with the class. I learned a lot about Methodist history – although now I want to go and read full autobiographies of John Wesley and Francis Asbury. (And I definitely want a John Wesley bobblehead.)

One of my classmates was Wayne Bradshaw, with whom I’ve served on a committee and who I’ve been with at previous training events. Wayne goes to Morton Memorial UMC. I saw several others at the event; Ruthan, of course, was running the whole she-bang.

Others I knew at the event included Tom and Nita Wright from Smyrna and Jim Overcast from Shelbyville. Later in the day, District Superintendent LeNoir Culbertson and Rev. De Hennessy dropped by; Rev. Culbertson officiated at the communion during our closing worship service.

going deep with david rees

The best show you’re not watching started its second season tonight, and has moved from National Geographic Channel to the Esquire channel. If tonight is any indication, they’re running a new episode followed by a rerun of one of the first season episodes – perfect if you’re just discovering the series and catching up. Fortunately, I was in on this gem from the very first episode.

Going Deep with David Rees is devilishly hard to explain. Host David Rees starts by telling you that he’s going to teach you how to do something you already know how to do – make ice, for example, or swat a fly. But then, as he explores the topic, he reveals details and nuances and background that you would never have expected. It ends up being remarkably informative, but it’s presented in such a unique and humorous voice that it’s remarkably entertaining.

Tonight’s episode, “How To Pet A Dog,” addresses Rees’ fear of dogs (which I assume is real and not just something he put on for the show), talks about how dogs were domesticated. Rees talks to the very funny author and comedienne Amy Sedaris about how to pet rabbits to see if any of that knowledge will transfer to dogs. He talks to astronaut Chris Hadfield – the one who made all those great educational videos, as well as a David Bowie cover, while on board the International Space Station – about how Hadfield overcame a fear of heights.

Eventually, he gives you some actual practical tips about approaching and petting a dog with which you’re unfamiliar.

Watch this show.

And now, since I mentioned the Chris Hadfield music video, here’s the Chris Hadfield music video:

MST3K II: Attack of the clones?

Is MST3K coming back? Or is it already here?

This is going to be geeky. You know I love Explaining Things, and this is a topic on which I’m passionate.

One of my all-time favorite TV shows was “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – MST3K to its fans — in which three characters were silhouetted against a really bad movie, which they made from bad to good by seasoning it with a constant stream of wise cracks and pop culture references.

MST3K started as a local show on Minneapolis television, then moved to something called The Comedy Channel, which a year or so later merged with HA! to form Comedy Central.

The show ran for seven seasons on Comedy Channel / Comedy Central, was cancelled and then ran for three more years on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy).

The show was created, and originally hosted, by prop comic Joel Hodgson (whose character on the show was named Joel Robinson). He left midway through the fifth season on cable; the last 2 1/2 seasons on Comedy Central, and the entire run on Sci-Fi, was hosted by Michael Nelson (who used his own name). I like both, but I’ve always liked Mike better. Granted, in some circles this is tantamount to preferring Roger Moore to Sean Connery. (Kids, ask your parents.)

Making fun of movies was the meat and potatoes of the show, but the premise was that mad scientists (played, in various eras of the show, by Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) had trapped the host (Joel or Mike) in an orbiting spaceship and was forcing him to watch bad movies as a cruel experiment. Joel/Mike shared the spaceship with wisecracking robots, two of whom – Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo – would join him in the theater when it was time to watch a movie.

After MST3K left the air, two different groups of alumni continued making fun of bad movies through their own self-distributed projects. Neither group used or had access to the MST3K characters or puppets.

Joel and some of the MST3K alumni who had moved to California had a group called Cinematic Titanic, which released DVDs and did live appearances.

Mike and the two riffers who were with him in the theater for the Sci-Fi years – Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – had a brief run as “The Movie Crew” before forming RiffTrax. RiffTrax started by releasing audio commentary tracks which the purchaser plays in synch with a store-bought DVD or on-demand movie, and that’s still a big part of what they do. That allows them to make fun of big-budget movies which would have been out of MST3K’s reach, since they don’t have to purchase the rights to the movie.

But RiffTrax eventually started releasing its own DVDs as well, allowing them to cover the type of low-budget movies and shorts which were MST3K’s meat and potatoes. And RiffTrax does two or three live shows each year which are simulcast to theaters across the country. They’ve even done nights of programming on the National Geographic channel, making fun of bad nature shows.

Although the two groups were competitors in one sense, they were still collegial friends and former co-workers. A few people from either camp even made guest appearances on the competing product.

Cinematic Titanic ran out of steam a few months ago and announced that it was shutting down, leaving RiffTrax the sole survivor.

Now, however, Joel Hodgson has a Kickstarter campaign to bring back MST3K under the original name and with the original robot puppet characters. But Joel would be involved only as a producer. A new, young host and a new, young mad scientist would be hired, and new puppeteers would be hired to voice Crow and Tom Servo.

Mike Nelson took to Facebook to explain that he wasn’t involved in the new MST3K – and  he’s not interested in it, although he says he wishes them well. He explained that he was a “hired hand” at the old MST3K, while now with RiffTrax he, Corbett and Murphy are running their own show.

Joel has set a $2 million goal for the Kickstarter campaign, which is ambitious – but not unthinkable, given the dedication of some MST3K fans.

I wish Joel all of the best, and there’s room for both MST3K and RiffTrax, but on any given day I’d rather watch something by RiffTrax than a new MST3K hosted and performed by unknown quantities. Mike, Kevin and Bill are the MST3K reboot I want to see. If I give to any Kickstarter campaign in the near future, it will be the one by my Facebook friend Jerry Chamberlain of Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies:

go west, young second-graders

“I can’t believe you haven’t written something yet,” posted Regan Aymett to Facebook just a few minutes ago. Come to think of it, I ought to.

RaiseYourHandLogocolorfinal%20(2)I haven’t been blogging about my weekly Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary School as much this year – not for any particular reason; I love it as much as ever. I just didn’t have anything specific to say.

But Regan’s right; today was a little unusual. The woman she usually has in the room with her working with some of the kids wasn’t there today, so it was just me and Regan. I spent the first few minutes helping a small group of girls finish an assignment they’d already been working on before I got there. But then I had a big group for the rest of the hour – it must have been seven kids, where I usually have about, maybe, five.

Turns out there’s a difference between managing a table of five second graders and a table of seven second graders. I hope I did OK; there were times I had to be really deliberate about making sure I paid attention to each child.

We had a worksheet with a few paragraphs about the California gold rush. The nit-picker in me objected to the summary, because – while it outlined the many hardships that kept settlers from making it all the way to California – it sort of implied that the people who did make it to California got rich right away. But this wasn’t a history lesson; it was a reading comprehension lesson for second-graders, and by virtue of that it was necessarily a little over-simplified.

Regan told me to read through the little story three times and then to spend 10 minutes letting them read it to me.

As Regan noticed – and teased me about in her Facebook post – the kids were disappointed that I didn’t pull out my smartphone and use it to time that 10 minutes. Regan commonly uses her iPhone or iPad for things like that, but I didn’t see a need since I was sitting where I could clearly see the clock on the wall. (And I didn’t need to time it that exactly). After that, there were some questions for the kids to answer on the worksheet.

Two of the boys were playing with change – one of them had several quarters, and another had a handful of pennies. One of them went and got the item he’d brought for snack time, and even though he didn’t open it he and the other boy were talking about it and it was a distraction. I had to try to keep the boys focused without spending so much time on them that I ended up ignoring the other kids who were already working on the assignment.

Even though I’ve been back in class for about a month now – and I’m not the only one – the Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteers here in the county are supposed to attend an orientation session tomorrow at the school system central office. I think most of us are returnees and there are only one or two newcomers, so hopefully it won’t be too long. It is fun to hear about others’ experiences; some are signed up for one-on-one tutoring, others – like me – are signed up to work with groups.

Even after tomorrow’s meeting, I’m sure it’s not too late for other volunteers to sign up. I was a latecomer my first year in the program and didn’t start until January. Contact Pam Fisher at the United Way of Bedford County office (or your local United Way, if you’re elsewhere within Tennessee). It could be the most satisfying hour of your week.

A Hedy of her time

It was within the past two weeks that I posted a comment on someone’s Facebook post talking about Hedy Lamarr, who — during her peak as a glamorous movie actress in Hollywood of the 1940s — was also an inventor. She and a friend co-invented a technology called “frequency hopping” which they thought would help protect military radio transmissions from being intercepted during World War II. The military didn’t use it during the war, but it later became an important part of cell phone and WiFi technology.

It’s one of those too-strange-for-fiction stories. If I wrote a novel in which the protagonist was one of the top actresses in Hollywood and also a pioneering inventor, you’d laugh in my face and call it ridiculous. And yet, it actually happened. It’s a great story, and one that could be particularly useful in getting young girls interested in the STEM fields.

Don’t believe me? Go to google.com and check out today’s Google Doodle.

And, with all apologies to Harvey Korman, in this case we really are talking about Hedy Lamarr, not Hedley.

where did we go right?

I turned over to Turner Classic Movies: TCM just now to see the last few minutes of The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Sellers. I loved the the book, by Leonard Wibberley, when I was a teenager, and we did the play when I was a drama student at Cascade.

The movie takes some liberties; the Grand Duchess, one of several characters Sellers plays on screen, is a flighty young woman in the book, but an old dowager in the movie.

It’s a very funny premise. At the time of the book and the movie, the Marshall Plan was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The story (and I’m going by the book version here) is about the tiny — and mythical — European nation of Grand Fenwick, more like a small town than a country. Grand Fenwick has fallen on hard times because an American vintner has copied its signature wine, which is its primary export. The leaders of the country note that the United States is quite generous in rebuilding countries it has beaten in war, and so they come up with an ingenious plan: They will declare war on the United States, surrender immediately, and then reap the benefits.

But the plan goes awry. For one thing, the declaration of war gets lost in the shuffle at the U.S. State Department. For another, the somewhat dimwitted patriot Grand Fenwick sends to lead their invasion force is not privy to the real plan; he thinks he’s supposed to win, even though he and his men are armed only with bows and arrows. The invasion force lands in a seemingly-deserted New York during a disaster drill, and blunders onto the campus of Columbia University, where they take as their prisoner an Einstein-like scientist who has invented a terrible new type of bomb – and who has the prototype in his possession. The U.S. government has no choice but to surrender, an outcome for which Grand Fenwick is stunningly unprepared.

It’s the first of a series of books about Grand Fenwick – I vaguely remember reading one or two others but I think the original was the best.

TCM is showing a series of movies tonight about fictitious ruritanian countries. It started with “The Mouse That Roared.” Right now, there’s “Romanoff and Juliet,” about a tiny nation whose vote on a key issue in the UN General Assembly is being sought by both the U.S. and the USSR. But coming up at 10:30 is one of my all-time favorites: Duck Soup, in which Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo lay waste to the fictitious land of Freedonia.

A free offer

I have a special free offer for the first two men who respond to this blog post. Keep reading.

A couple of years ago, I decided that I missed blade shaving. I’d been reading about a couple of different Internet startups offering razors much more cheaply than Gillette, and I ordered a starter kit from Harry’s. I like Harry’s better than Dollar Shave Club for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I just like the razors, which I find to be attractive and well-made. I have the basic “Truman” handle, which is plastic, but there’s also a “Winston” handle, which is metal and which can be engraved. Unlike Dollar Shave Club, which buys its razors from a Korean company, Harry’s makes its own razors. (At the time I first ordered from Harry’s, they were contracting with a German company to produce their product. Soon thereafter, they bought the company.)

Secondly, unlike Dollar Shave Club — which only offers automatic subscription plans — Harry’s allows you to buy blades and other supplies on your own schedule. They also offer subscription plans, if you prefer automatic delivery.

In defense of Dollar Shave Club, they do offer several different types of razor cartridge — Harry’s has only one cartridge, a five-blade model — and they have very creative viral-video commercials:

Either company is going to save you quite a bit compared to Gillette or the other store brands.

Harry’s also offers shave cream, although I’ve found a different band, Cremo, that I prefer and which I buy from the store.


Anyway, getting back to the free offer: After my most recent order of replacement blades from Harry’s, I got an e-mail from the company saying that I could send free Harry’s razors to two of my friends as a special promotion. I was trying to think of who might be interested. I’ve already given a Harry’s razor to my oldest nephew as a Christmas gift; my brothers both have beards. So I’m going to open it up. If you’re interested, e-mail me or fill out my website contact form. First come, first served. I do not know if this is the full starter kit or just the razor and one cartridge. But it’s free — and it will save you money if you’re currently buying blades at the store.

Anyway, let me know if you’re interested.