meeting of minds

I don’t know what made me think of “Meeting of Minds” the other day. I went looking online tonight and found just two short clips on YouTube. The show doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, nor do I believe it’s been rebroadcast since its original run, which is a shame.

“Meeting of Minds,” which ran on PBS in the late 1970s, was the brainchild of Steve Allen. Allen first had the idea in the 50s, and wanted to include it as a segment on a weekly prime time show he was doing at the time. But the sponsor wouldn’t approve. Later, a Canadian show with a similar premise appeared, and Allen even appeared on that show as George Gershwin, a year or two before his own version premiered on PBS. But although the Canadian version predated Allen’s, Allen actually had the idea first.

The premise was a historical talk show, with Allen as host and the guests being actors in character as historical figures from various eras in time. (Allen’s wife Jayne Meadows was a frequent guest, playing a number of different historical figures on different episodes.) I especially remember one episode with Voltaire and Martin Luther as two of the guests. Allen would bring out the first guest, interview them a little while, and then that guest would stay on stage as the next guest came out. There were usually four guests, and so once you had all four of them on stage they’d start to interact with each other. As you can imagine, Voltaire and Martin Luther were not quite in agreement.

The dialogue was based on the actual writings or reported comments of each real person, but they were artfully edited and woven together by Allen (who wrote every episode) into what sounded like natural conversation.

I see on Wikipedia that there was one episode which made a minor deviation from the format. William Shakespeare was paired, not with other historical figures, but with characters from his works. (Jayne Meadows played the “dark lady” from his sonnets.)

I don’t think I saw anywhere near all of the episodes, but I still remember the series vividly, all these years later. I really wish someone would make it available. Wikipedia says that the scripts are available for educational performance or study, and Allen waived any rights to performance royalties because of their educational nature.

Here’s one of the YouTube clips I found:

The sun rises in the yeast

I spent a lot of last night baking three loaves of artisan bread for today’s Times-Gazette bake sale to benefit the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. I baked one loaf before Holy Thursday services and then the other two after I got home.

Two of the loaves were bought by co-workers, while my fellow Relay booster Judi Burton – who’s becoming a regular customer – bought the third.

All that baking made me want some bread of my own, so I made up another batch of dough just now. It will sit out for the next two hours, then before I go to bed I’ll snap a lid on it and put it in the fridge, where it will yield three loaves over the next week or so. (For my own use, thankfully, I only need to bake one loaf on a given day.) I use a no-knead recipe; it’s a wet dough designed to keep in the refrigerator until you need it, and the yeasty flavor improves over time. The dough starts to smell like beer after a few days.

The dough is based on the basic recipe from Jeff Herzberg and Zoë François of the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day” cookbooks, but instead of baking on a baking stone with a pan of water to provide steam, as in their recipe, I now use Kenji Lopez-Alt’s method of baking in a cast iron dutch oven. You pre-heat the dutch oven, including the lid, in a hot oven, so it’s good and hot. and after putting the loaf in you bake it for a while with the lid on, which holds in some steam and gives you the same nice crust as that pan of water would. Then, you take the lid off for the last half of cooking to let it brown.

I use the piece of parchment called for in the Herzberg / François recipe, only I cut it sort of like a sling so that I can use it to lower the ball of dough into the blistering-hot dutch oven. I remove the parchment at the same time I take the lid off the dutch oven, so that the bottom of the loaf can make good contact with the cast iron.

I can bake myself a loaf tomorrow – a good Saturday project – and still have enough dough for two more loaves as I need them next week.

On Screen

When I got to Learning Way Elementary this morning for my weekly “Raise Your Hand Tennessee” volunteer session, I noticed a pile of equipment, including a couple of tripods, lying outside Ms. Aymett’s classroom. I figured there was something going on and was just about to turn around and ask the office if it would be better for me not to disturb them. Just then, Ms. Aymett popped her head out of the door, about to hang a sign on the door that said “VIDEO SHOOT – DO NOT DISTURB”

“Oh, Mr. Carney!” she squealed. (Regan is a wellspring of enthusiasm.) “Come on in!”

As the Times-Gazette reported a few months back, Regan Aymett has been chosen as an NEA Master Teacher, meaning that they would be shooting video of her in the classroom to be used as a reference by other teachers. That’s what was happening today.

Regan Aymett video lesson

For the particular lesson that was being recorded today, Regan had the kids divided up into pairs. She had me work with one girl who was without a partner (and, perhaps, who needed a little extra encouragement).  There were two people shooting her with video-enabled digital SLRs, along with an audio person using a long boom mike.

The lesson was helping the kids understand what Ms. Aymett referred to as “text features” – things like captions and titles that stand apart from the main body of a composition. The example she was using was some sort of magazine article about the importance of helmets for things like bicycling and horse eventing. (Regan is also a riding teacher!)

The girl with whom I was working was fully on board with the importance of helmets, but had a little trouble understanding that we were looking at the mechanics of the article and not its content. I tried as best I could, but I didn’t have much success getting her attention away from helmets and putting it on captions and headlines.

Still, I tried to at least be patient and encouraging. Ms. Aymett may be a master teacher, but I’m an amateur, a volunteer, and sometimes that’s the best I can hope for.

Mighty casey strikes out

It has not been one of my better weeks.

We started out the week with the revelation that I recently committed to pay $350 for a new computer for no good reason, since my old computer could be easily fixed with a few cents’ worth of heat sink paste. The good news, of course, is that the old computer can now be sold to help offset a little of the new computer’s price. The bad news is that I feel like an idiot for buying the new computer, which I really can’t afford, in the first place.

Then, Thursday night, I had a minor traffic accident which left a three-foot-long dent in the passenger side door of my car and which will no doubt raise my insurance premium.

It was also a quite busy week at work. I took the day off Wednesday, however, to account for the fact that, today, I was supposed to go to Murfreesboro to cover a conference on Baseball in Literature. I had been looking forward to the conference, and my sister-in-law (who is an English professor and a Dodgers fan) was jealous.

I indeed drove to Murfreesboro this morning, only to discover that the conference had taken place on Friday.

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The news release, correctly, states that the conference was on “Friday, April 4.” But I also downloaded the conference agenda, and it said “5 April 2014,” and that was what I put into my calendar.

So I drove to Murfreesboro and found that the James Union Building was empty. I got back in my car and came back home, feeling like an idiot for the third time this week. Three strikes, and the week is out.

On the bright side, someone stopped by the apartment just now selling homemade tamales door-to-door. They were wonderful the last time I bought some, and so I happily sprang for another set. I’ll have them for lunch today.

Maybe next week will be better.

Who’s next at the ‘late show’?

I have been a fan of David Letterman ever since “Late Night with David Letterman” started on the air in 1982. For years, my shtick at United Methodist singles retreats and Mountain T.O.P. camp events was to do a “Top Ten” list.

I still remember a night back in 1984 when I was feeling hurt and alone because of a romantic disappointment. I was curled up in my bunk in the dorms at ORU. “Late Night” came on. Then, as now, there’s a different humorous introduction of David each night. That night’s introduction, delivered by “Late Night” announcer Bill Wendell: “… and now, a man who’s sick and tired of your whining…. Daaaavid Letterman!”

I nearly fell out of the bunk laughing.

Well, now Dave has announced that he’ll be retiring at some time in 2015. It’s the end of an era – and the beginning of a guessing game about who or what will take that time slot.

I have no knowledge whatsoever, just layman’s guesses from watching the late night scene over the past three decades. Let’s look at some of the names that have come up tonight:

Craig Ferguson: Supposedly, Craig’s contract includes a clause giving him the right to succeed Letterman, but CBS could almost certainly pay him off if they went another direction. I could be wrong – my brother in North Carolina and I are in disagreement on the issue – but I’m not really convinced he really wants the pressure and network supervision that a move to the earlier, more high-profile time slot would entail. He would have to rein in certain aspects of his comedy. He saw what happened to Conan O’Brien when Conan tried to move his show intact to the earlier hour and resisted network interference.

It’s true that Dave himself struggled to translate his comedy from the late time slot to the earlier time slot when he moved from NBC to CBS. I was faithful to him all the way through, but there was a period when he struggled creatively. He ultimately emerged with a quite different kind of show than “Late Night” had been, but there were definitely growing pains – and in the current, much-more-competitive environment, the network suits don’t have as much patience for growing pains.

I think Craig will get some sort of raise out of this, but ultimately CBS will go another direction. After all, Craig was losing consistently to Jimmy Fallon when they were both on in the late time slot, and the network has to be concerned he would lose to Jimmy in the earlier time slot.

Stephen Colbert: An immensely-talented man who could probably break new ground in the time slot. But the question is, would he bring along “Stephen Colbert,” the character he plays so brilliantly in his current venue? Would “Stephen Colbert” translate well to an hour-long talk show format? And if not, would people be confused to see Stephen Colbert instead of “Stephen Colbert”? Then again, maybe Colbert is capable of blowing up the format entirely and creating something new that would suit him and/or his alter ego.

Jon Stewart: He’s denied any interest in such jobs in the past, and rightfully so. He has the perfect format and forum for his talents. Sure, there’s a potential to earn more money on a broadcast network, but Jon’s smart enough to know that money isn’t everything.

Tina Fey / Amy Poehler: While either might be momentarily intrigued by the idea of breaking new ground, I don’t think either is looking for the nightly grind of a talk show, especially Fey, who is now branching out as a writer and producer.

Aisha Tyler: I’ve enjoyed her since “Talk Soup” and think she’d be great. I’m shocked at some of the online vitriol directed at her by people who still want Drew Carey to host “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” But you can find online vitriol directed at just about anyone if you look hard enough. I don’t know if the network suits are willing to bet the farm on her (and lose her from “The Talk”), but I think she’d be a smart choice.

Chelsea Handler: Coincidentally (at least, I think it’s a coincidence), she just announced she’s leaving her E! network show. She’s undoubtedly talented and funny. She would probably have to tone down certain aspects of her bad-girl image for this kind of network gig – as Conan learned during his brief tenure on “The Tonight Show,” the network must not only worry about ratings but about individual affiliate stations, some of them located in parts of the country where Chelsea’s brand of humor may not play as well. I have no doubt that she could do that and still be funny – but would she want to?

Jay Leno: I don’t think this is going to happen. I just don’t. Jay could still get good ratings for a few years, but if the network is going to build up a new show from scratch, they’re going to want a long-term investment — someone younger, and someone with more of an eye towards social media and the younger demographic.

Louis C.K. – a former writer for the Letterman show. I’m not sure he’d do it, because he’s gotten used to a high degree of creative control with his FX show and his self-distributed standup specials that I don’t think CBS would give him in this case.

Format change – The ratings for all the late night talk shows have been declining in recent years, because the sought-after younger demographic isn’t locked into the format and would just as happily watch Adult Swim. ABC and NBC have tried to buck the trend with younger hosts, but maybe CBS will decide to go some complete other direction – a reality show or a game show or some different comedy format or the night-time equivalent to “Today” or “Good Morning America.” I don’t necessarily think this is likely, but I do think it’s possible.

I am guessing that if CBS does stay with a talk show, it will be based in Los Angeles rather than the Ed Sullivan Theater. Moving to L.A. would help restore the balance that was upset when “Tonight” moved east. Currently, Fallon, Seth Meyers and Dave are all in the loop for movie stars on the New York leg of their publicity tours. Dave’s successor will, I think, go to the West Coast.

Some have speculated that CBS has been preparing for this moment and may already have someone waiting in the wings, ready to be announced after a respectful interval. In any case, it should be an interesting few months. Bill Carter, the New York Times writer who has been the unofficial historian of late night, should be busy.

I kissed minnie

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Last year, I worked the ticket table for the annual “Hee Haw & Howdy” show to benefit the American Cancer Society Relay For Life.

For you out-of-towners, this is a Bedford County tradition going back to the mid-1970s: a revue done in the style of the “Hee Haw” TV show, featuring corny humor and some surprisingly-good local musical performers.

Anyway, in recent years the local Relay For Life organizing committee, of which I am a member, had been responsible for “Hee Haw & Howdy”; this year, it’s being done by one of our individual Relay teams, Strength In Numbers, which was basically formed for that purpose. So the committee didn’t actually have to work the show.

I wanted to go, however, because a) it’s a great show and b) I knew this year’s show would honor Harriett Stewart, our former American Cancer Society staff partner, recently retired. (Harriett has been playing Lulu Roman in the show for several years, and did so again this year.) Judi Burton, Relay’s grand poobah, got me a ticket.

I went and thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the show – but it had been a long week, and I was kind of restless. During intermission, cast members mingled with the audience, and I got to speak to Harriett. But I decided to slip out, quietly, rather than going back into the theater for the second act. Let me be clear – it wasn’t the show; I was just restless.

I was at home, wearing pajama bottoms, when Harriett (who had no idea I’d left early) messaged me to say some of the cast was at Casa Mexicana, and did I want to come join them?

Yes, I did, if for no other reason than to see Harriett, who lives in Lebanon and who we won’t get to see as often now. So I got dressed and headed over to the restaurant. I had a wonderful time. I slipped out again, just after midnight. Letha Marlow, who plays Minnie Pearl in the show and was still in costume at the restaurant, said something, and I responded by posing for a photo planting a kiss on her cheek. It’s probably on Facebook by now.

Harriett did not know the show this year would be in her honor, and I was delighted to be there at the beginning of the show when Judi made that announcement and Harriett teared up. They had to keep her from seeing the programs before the show, since they featured her prominently (including a photo of me and Harriett from one of her retirement celebrations a few weeks ago).

Anyway, it was a nice evening, and I’m glad I decided to get back out and join the others at the restaurant.

Back in black

A year and a half ago, when I first started getting the two major mobile providers to send me gadgets to review for the newspaper, I got to try out the FitBit tracker. Their model at the time clipped to your pocket or belt. It tracks steps, of course, but you can get a $5 pedometer at Walmart that will track steps. The FitBit also tracks steps climbed, and you could even wear it on a wristband to track your sleep. It wirelessly transmits your stats to your computer, where you can view all kinds of charts and graphs, and compare your progress with your friends’. It even gives you little badges when you pass certain milestones (such as 10 flights of stairs in a day, or various round numbers of lifetime steps walked).

I loved the FitBit, and wrote a glowing review.

A few months later, in North Carolina, a co-worker of my brother Mike had decided he liked Nike’s new fitness tracker. He offered his FitBit to anyone who wanted it. My brother, remembering my review, took the device and sent it to me. And this is a device that, at the time, cost $100 new. I haven’t checked lately; while FitBit still makes a waistband-based tracker, their hot new model is a wristband.

I loved it. I wore it all summer, and I think it motivated me to be more active.

Then, in August of last year, came the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. I was there the first night (out of 10) to cover the event for the newspaper. I got home that night and realized the FitBit was no longer clipped to my pocket. I had lost it somehwere on those huge grounds – and I had, in search of feature photos, walked all around the grounds.

To the untrained observer, the FitBit would have been nothing but a pinky-shaped piece of black plastic. Unless you’re pushing the button to make the display light up, it doesn’t look like an electronic device. I knew it had probably been swept up and thrown away without a second thought. I had some slight hope that it would turn up, and I looked to see if it was in my car or somewhere in my apartment, but to no avail.

Tonight, after dinner at church, I stopped at the laundromat to get quarters from the change machine so that I could do my laundry here at the apartment complex (we have coin-operated washers and dryers, but no change machine). I stuffed the quarters into my jacket pocket, but when I sat down in my car some of them spilled out. I picked up a couple there and a couple more when I got home.

When I went to do laundry, I realized that – while I had what I needed for the immediate purpose – I did not have all of the quarters I’d pulled from the change machine. I went back to my car and looked a little more closely.

I found one more quarter. I think there’s still one or two more hiding from me.

I did, however, find my FitBit.

I tell you, I thought I had searched the car thoroughly last August. But the FitBit hid from me, wedged in between the driver’s seat and the emergency brake. It’s been there for seven months, all fall and all winter, through subzero temperatures and what have you. But it seems to still work (we’ll know for sure after it’s fully charged).

Fortunately, I did not throw away the charging station / base receiver which the FitBit needs to charge and to download its stats to the computer. I even remembered vaguely where I had stashed it.

This sounds like it ought to be a sermon illustration, perhaps tied in with the parable about the woman finding the lost coin. I’ll have to file it away for that purpose.

Vital Dihydrogen Monoxide

Goose Pond UMC
March 23, 2014

(Adapted from First UMC Shelbyville, March 27, 2011)

Are you familiar with dihydrogen monoxide? It’s widely used as an industrial solvent, in a number of different industries. In its liquid and solid forms, it’s powerful enough to damage asphalt, concrete or even stone. It can corrode metal. In its gaseous form, it’s been known to cause severe burns. Autopsies and biopsies have revealed that people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses have dihydrogen monoxide in their systems. And yet, dihydrogen monoxide is used in the production of nearly every processed food. It’s even found in baby formula.
The chemical formula for dihydrogen monoxide, as its name implies, is two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom – H2O. In other words, the chemical that can damage asphalt, corrode metal and cause severe burns is … water. You can find it in the bodies of sick people because you can find it in the body of every person.
The facts I read about “dihydrogen monoxide” were from a humorous web site. The site lists all sorts of alarming-sounding facts and pretty much leaves you to figure out on your own what dihydrogen monoxide actually is.

We know, however, that by whatever name, water is essential for any of us if we want to stay alive. Adult bodies are somewhere between 55 and 60 percent water. Depending on the temperature and the conditions, you can’t survive more than a few days without drinking water. When Aron Ralston, the hiker portrayed in the movie “127 Hours,” was trapped under a boulder, his concern wasn’t that he would die without food but that he would die without water.
But dihydrogen monoxide may not be the only kind of water. Water plays into two of our lectionary passages today:

Continue reading

various but not sun-dried

It has been almost a year since I first blogged about my experiment with creating (not-so-)sun-dried tomatoes in the dehydrator.

I used to occasionally buy sun-dried tomatoes, not the kind that come packed in olive oil in a jar but the kind that come loose in a bag in the produce section. I would buy them for recipes but end up snacking on them – and they were kind of expensive to use as a snack.

I came up with the idea of drying some Ro-Tel diced tomatoes in the dehydrator. When I did my first post a year ago, I was trying the recipe with extra-hot Ro-Tel (made with habanero) that I’d found on sale at United Grocery Outlet. They were good, but in their concentrated form they were way too hot. And they stuck to the plastic fruit roll-up sheets that I made them on, resulting in little bits and pieces of tomato flying everywhere as I attempted to chip them off with a knife or metal spatula.

In the past few months I’ve made some vast improvements in the recipe. First, instead of using regular Ro-Tel I use standard diced tomatoes. These are in larger pieces than Ro-Tel, and so the resulting pieces (while still small) are a little more convenient for snacking than the itty-bitty crumbles that would result from the Ro-Tel.

I do like some flavor with the tomatoes, though, so I sprinkle on just a little bit of red pepper flake. I also add some finely-diced raw onion, which dries at the same time and adds a nice flavor contrast to the tomatoes in the finished product.

The final improvement was simply spraying the fruit roll-up sheets with cooking spray (like Pam) before putting the tomatoes on them. It’s much easier to remove the little bits of tomato.

I drain the tomatoes before putting them on the sheet, but don’t throw away the liquid; I add it to any V-8 or tomato juice that I happen to have in the fridge.

The tomatoes shrink up so much that, even though canned tomatoes are cheap, I’m not sure the finished product is that much cheaper per ounce than those bagged sun-dried tomatoes. But they’re probably a little cheaper, and I like the idea of adding the onion and pepper flavor. They’d probably be great added to some sort of savory snack mix. I’ve also tried adding them to bread dough to make sun-dried tomato bread.

Progress marches on.

the wheel, un-reinvented

Well, after lay speaking this morning at Cannon UMC and Mt. Lebanon UMC, I went to look up next Sunday’s passages from the Revised Common Lectionary, so that I could start working on my sermon for Goose Pond UMC in Coffee County.

If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s sort of a schedule for the scriptures to be used in Sunday worship. The Catholic Church has its own lectionary; the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant version, for those denominations or preachers who believe in such a thing. These would tend to be the same churches that recognize some form of the liturgical calendar – seasons like Lent, Advent and what have you.

Each week, there are four basic scripture passages. There’s at least one Old Testament passage (other than the Psalms), at least one New Testament passage (other than the Gospels), a passage from the Psalms and a passage from the Gospels. Some weeks, there are more than that – especially if there are alternate ways to treat that Sunday within the liturgical calendar.

For example, some churches celebrate the Sunday before Easter as “Palm Sunday” and would want a Gospel passage about Jesus’ triumphal entry of Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Those churches would typically recognize the crucifixion during a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. But churches that don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service might choose to observe “Passion Sunday” instead, treating the crucifixion one week so that they can concentrate on the resurrection the next. The lectionary includes passages for each of those two options.

The lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – if 2011 uses the calendar for Year A, and 2012 uses the calendar for Year B, and 2013 uses Year C, then in 2014 you go back to Year A again.

A pastor may pick only one of the week’s lectionary passages and focus on it exclusively. Often, though, there’s some sort of common theme or element, and the really skillful professionals can often weave two, three, or all four of the passages into a single sermon. I’m an amateur, and I usually just preach on one of the four passages.

United Methodism would in general be a church that uses the lectionary, although it’s enough of a big tent that there are pastors, especially at small churches, who don’t use it. There are also special occasions when a pastor might want to ignore that week’s lectionary because of some special occasion or situation which the pastor feels requires a different direction.

Lay speakers, especially if we’re called upon at the last moment, aren’t necessarily expected to go by the lectionary, but I do, whenever possible.

I recall a lay speaking class I took in which the class members had differing opinions about the lectionary. Some didn’t like it, feeling that in every case you should seek God’s inspiration rather than relying on some dusty man-made schedule. Others, and I am among them, find God’s inspiration within the lectionary, which sometimes forces us out of our comfort zones and requires us to look at passages we might ignore otherwise.

Anyway, I want to look at the passages for next Sunday and they looked familiar. I save all of my sermons to a folder on my computer, and it didn’t take me long to find a sermon I preached on the Third Sunday of Lent three years ago – remember, the lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – at my home church, First UMC Shelbyville. I looked at the sermon and remembered it immediately, and I recall being pleased with it. (Boy, that sounds egotistical.) And it incorporated two different lectionary passages — the OT passage and the Gospel passage.

Anyway, I decided that, rather than start from scratch, I would update and adapt  that sermon from three years ago and use it next Sunday.

It runs about a page or two longer than my usual sermon; it may need a bit of tightening. I’ll read it aloud some time in the next night or two and see if it really is longer time-wise. Then again, some of my sermons are on the short side so maybe this is just more of an average-length sermon.

Anyway, I won’t have to panic this week about whether or not I’ve written my sermon.