72 plus me

The honest truth is, when the letter first came inviting lay speakers and lay leaders to participate in something called “72+U” training, I was not at all clear what it was all about – even after reading the letter. But it sounded like something that would fit in with the educational requirements for me to continue as a certified lay speaker, and besides, it can be fun to go to district and conference events and meet United Methodists from other communities.

So I signed up online, and I put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone else from Bedford County was interested in carpooling to Nashville. I was Facebook friends with Jim Overcast, a very active – and very connectional, to use the church’s term – United Methodist, but I’d really never had much actual contact with him. So riding together turned out to be a chance for us to connect as well.

The training event was originally scheduled for the Tennessee Conference offices, just off I-24 at the Harding Place exit. But strong advance registration numbers resulted in a change of venue, to Hillcrest United Methodist Church. The wonderful Ruthan Patient, director of lay speaking for the Murfreesboro District, was also there, and the three of us sat together. I saw several other friends and acquaintances as well.

This event was actually training-for-the-trainers. Each of us who completed the training today received a notebook and DVDs which we can use to teach the 72+U curriculum in local churches – our own, or any others that might want or need the training. The curriculum can be taught in large group or small group settings, either as a single-day event or split up over four weekly sessions. It could be used as four weeks of Sunday School lessons, or four weeks of Wednesday night programming, or you could put on a day-long training as a regional event to bring in people from smaller churches that don’t hold the training on their own.

So, what is 72+U exactly? It’s an initiative of the Tennessee Conference (which represents United Methodist churches in Middle Tennessee) and the Memphis Conference (churches in West Tennessee). The name comes from Luke 10, in which Jesus commissions 72 disciples and sends them out in ministry. The curriculum has to do with equipping and motivating local church members for ministry, mission and outreach, in keeping with our conference’s mission to “discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that offer Jesus Christ to a hurting world, one neighborhood at a time.”

The 72+U curriculum has been carefully developed and researched to implement a variety of educational principles and techniques, with a lot of participation from the students. There are different versions of the curriculum tweaked for large group and small group settings.

I really enjoyed today’s training, and hope I get a chance to teach the 72+U curriculum. The district superintendents will get a list of today’s participants, so it’s possible we’ll be called on (and we’re also free to set something up on our own). The Murfreesboro District is already looking at holding its own training-for-the-trainers event similar to the one today, and Ruthan said that Jim and I would each be asked to be a part of putting that on when it happens.

All in all, it was an enjoyable day. At one point, we did a “scavenger hunt” in which we were tasked to find various things in our 72+U curriculum notebooks. I was one of the winners, and so I brought home a very attractive-looking box of fine Belgian chocolates. I decided the best use for this would be to put it in First UMC’s annual bazaar tomorrow, so I dropped it by the church on my way home.

I did, however, get to enjoy a bag of custom-printed M&Ms (you can order those online) which they’d printed up for the event, with slogans such as “GOD IS CALLING,” “72+U” and “BE ONE OF THE 72.” Each of us got a little bag of them.

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heavyweight champion

I didn’t get around to watching Monday’s episode of “Mike Tyson Mysteries” until tonight, and – after three episodes – I think this may be one of my new favorite shows, and the funniest thing Adult Swim (Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block) has done in years.

“Mike Tyson Mysteries” is a 15-minute-long animated parody of several different things, including “Scooby Doo” and various Saturday morning cartoon shows of the past built around real-life personalities like Mr. T and Jackie Chan. You may recall a few times when Robert Smigel’s cartoon segment on “Saturday Night Live” parodied the Mr. T. show specifically. Those segments were funny, but “Mike Tyson Mysteries” is funnier.

Tyson (voiced by himself, although all the other celebrities on the show are impersonations) travels in a Scooby Doo-like van with his adopted Chinese teenage daughter; the ghost of the Marquess of Queensbury (Academy Award-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on “Community”); and a talking pigeon (the always-funny Norm MacDonald).

The show parodies that one season of “Scooby Doo” that involved celebrity guest stars. The first episode featured a murder mystery involving Cormac McCarthy and John Updike; the second episode featured Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and computer Deep Blue; and this week’s episode involved Buzz Aldrin, Elon Musk, Elton John and Richard Branson.

Please note, this is a show for grownups, with adult humor.

Life imitates art

I’m a little behind pace on my National Novel Writing Month novel. But I had a vacation day yesterday, and caught up just a little. I am taking comp time today, because I’ll work a full day Saturday covering various events, and hope to catch up a little more today.

Just a few days ago, I had my main character worrying about something going wrong with his car.

This morning, I had (re)scheduled a lunch with Chris Shofner, a former co-worker (Chris was editor when I first joined the T-G in 1985). I went out to my car at the time I wanted to leave, and – it wouldn’t turn over. Chris came over and gave me a jump start, and I got the car to the place where I normally take it – which has changed hands since the last time I went there.

They tested and ruled out the alternator, and then tested the battery – bad. Not as expensive as an alternator would have been, but still exactly the kind of thing my main character was worrying about in the novel. Chris and I had our lunch while they were putting in a new battery.

If I have this kind of control over time and space, maybe I should have my character in the novel win the lottery.

Table for one, please

A month ago, we had a belated cast party for “Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got The Will?” at one of our local restaurants and had such a great time we decided to do it again a month later. At the time, all I was thinking about was that the first Tuesday of the month was the only one in which I had no county meetings to cover. I didn’t think about it being Election Night, when I’d have to be at the courthouse collecting results. When I realized the conflict a few days ago, I had to beg off.

Meanwhile, I ran into an old co-worker on Halloween night and he suggested we get together for lunch. Tuesday sounded fine to me — this time, I knew it was Election Day, but I also know that during the day, when the voting is actually taking place, isn’t necessarily that hectic. In fact, I need to take a little comp time during the day to make up for the fact that I’m working long hours in the evening, so a relaxed lunch with an old friend sounded like a great idea.

But the friend called me this morning — he’d suddenly realized it was Election Day, automatically assumed I’d be too busy for lunch, and went ahead and made other plans before calling me.

So now, I’m eating alone for both lunch and dinner — which is par for the course, but in this particular case a bit of a disappointment.

Day two, 4,100 words

bookcoverI might end up writing a little more before I go to bed tonight, but I seem to be at a stopping point.

I am officially ahead of the 50,000-word pace on my National Novel Writing Month project, “The Unreliable Narrator,” but I’m not as far ahead of pace as one would expect to be after two weekend days. I had sort of hoped to get 5,000 this weekend, especially since I may not have much time to write Tuesday, Election Day.

I have gotten off to a mixed start. I like some things, but what I’ve got so far is a little more scattershot, a little too autobiographical, and a little more rambling, than I had intended. But this is NaNoWriMo – it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be 1,667 words a day. It may be that nothing I produce this month will be marketable. Or it may be that there Participant-2014-Square-Buttonwill be parts of what I produce that I can turn into something marketable. But it’s more about the discipline and the experience than about crafting the next Great American Novel on this particular try.

One fun thing is that three of my “Daddy’s Dyin … Who’s Got The Will?” castmates are also taking the plunge this month, and so I’ll get to commiserate with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get to make it to our cast get-together Tuesday night – I had forgotten about the election back when we scheduled this.

that is the question

One of my all-time favorite comedies will be on Turner Classic Movies: TCM? at 7 p.m. Central tonight. I have blogged about “To Be or Not To Be” before, but just in case you’ve never seen it, please watch it or DVR it.

The movie, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the leads in a troupe of Polish actors during World War II. Carole has a little bit of a backstage dalliance with a Polish pilot – played by an impossibly-young Robert Stack – that ends up getting her, and thus the acting company, mixed up in some spy chicanery and requires Benny to impersonate a traitorous Polish professor.

The movie was a huge flop on its original release – it was at a time in the war when people weren’t in the mood to laugh at the Nazis, and it was released just after Lombard’s death in an airplane crash. But in the years since, it’s been recognized as a classic. It was remade in the 1980s by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and that’s not bad either, but the original is still the best. Be sure and see or record it tonight if you haven’t yet seen it.

juggling act

I had three different groups today during my Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer time at Learning Way.

Ms. Aymett had given me a basket of several different activities – but several of the little Ziploc bags, which she had described to me as containing rhyming words, did not rhyme. I looked at the pictures, and I looked at the teacher’s list of words, and there was not one rhyming combination in the first bag, and I don’t think there was one in the second bag either. (I think she just grabbed the wrong bags.)

So we moved on to one of the other games, where the kids are given are some words and asked to put them together into a sentence. The kids were surprisingly eager to do this.

The group dynamics of this were interesting, and I had to watch to make sure I was managing them as well as I could. In one particular group, there was a boy who was very pro-active (and right, a good part of the time). I wanted to reward him for being right, but I didn’t want him to take over the process or take too much time away from others.

I was well aware that other students (like the very quiet girl sitting right next to me) might or might not have the right answer, and that might be unrelated to whether or not they were willing to jump in. I had to be very deliberate – and I’m not sure I was successful – about trying to manage things so that everyone had a hand in the process.

I love this experience – but by the end of the hour, I’ve usually been keenly reminded what an amateur I am.

My third group was just two children, both girls, and with that one it was a lot easier. We breezed through the sentence game, and had time for the only other thing in the basket: some flash cards with words and letters on them. I thought this would be a hard sell, but they were happy to demonstrate their expertise.

In the on-deck circle

At this time next weekend, I’ll be noveling.

It’s been two or three years since I’ve made a serious stab at National Novel Writing Month, but – along with several of my recent “Daddy’s Dyin’” castmates – I’m going to do so this year.

National Novel Writing Month – “NaNoWriMo,” to participants – is an annual writing exercise, just for the fun of it. It’s not competitive (unless you make it so!), and anyone can participate, whether you normally consider yourself a writer or not. The idea is that you write a 50,000-word novel (which some would call a novella) entirely during the month of November. You can prepare in advance (plot outline, character biographies, etc.), but the normal interpretation is that you do not start any actual writing until Nov. 1.

If you get to 50,000 words by November 30, even if you haven’t finished the novel, you have “won” – although bragging rights and personal satisfaction are the only stakes.

The idea here is that 1,667 words per day is a very fast pace. It’s too fast for you to stop and do any editing, and it’s too fast for any long pondering about what to add. You have to make yourself sit down and write, period.

Some of what you write in that fast a pace is, almost by necessity, going to be horrible. The novel as a whole may turn out not to be anything at all good or marketable (which are not the same thing). But by forcing yourself to write every day, and hopefully turning off that little “no” voice in your head, you sometimes come up with little creative ideas and twists and turns that would never happen in a careful, more deliberate environment.

The official NaNoWriMo web site offers you a chance to connect with other participants, gives pep talks, and allows you an easy way of tracking your word count. You enter your word count and the site and you can see an easy-to-understand line graph showing whether you’re ahead of or behind pace. If you’ve missed a day (I doubt I’ll get much writing done on Election Day, for example), the site will show you what your pace needs to be to catch up and still get to 50,000 by month’s end.

In some areas, there are actually author meet-ups or “write-ins” at some quiet place like a library or coffee shop, where you can bring your laptop and do what’s normally a very solitary activity in the company of others. (“Anybody got a suggestion for a character name?”) I don’t have a laptop, and the closest location for the meetups is in Murfreesboro, but I’d love to go to one some day just to see what it’s like.

If you make it, there’s usually a little certificate you can download and print out, plus a little logo you can post to your web site or social media. It’s all on the honor system, though. Sometimes the Amazon-owned self-publisher Createspace offers you a free proof copy of your novel, which is how I came to publish my own Bad Self-Published Novel, which began its life as a NaNoWriMo project.

You can always go back later, after November has ended and you’ve taken a bit of a break, and see whether or not you think there’s enough there to make it worth trying to rewrite the novel, taking out the terrible stuff while leaving in those moments of inspiration.

There have actually been authors who have traditionally published novels which began during NaNoWriMo. Many others, of course, have self-published their NaNoWriMo novels. I still wonder what would have happened to “Soapstone” if I’d been a little bit more patient and gotten it professionally edited.

Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s completely free, although they do sell merchandise and solicit donations to keep the web site up and running. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you get to 50,000 is amazing.

the disappearing child

I have been in kind of a funk the past few days, but I knew my weekly volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary would get my mind off things.

This week, Regan had me with the same group of kids – three of them – for the whole hour. We played two different games and I read two different booklets to them.

It all started off well enough – they did well with the first game. But as the hour went on, one boy became a little more animated. He tried to read aloud from his book even while I was trying to read to the group (and he was on a different page). A different boy became a little more withdrawn as the hour went on. Regan had apparently made him take off his hoodie earlier, and I, not knowing this, let him put it back on. (He said he was cold.) As the hour went on he kind of disappeared into it, pulling the hood down over his head and the torso up over his chin.

The two booklets were fairly standard little things, and very similar to each other – one was about how plums are grown, the other was about the life cycle of acorns becoming oak trees and then dropping new acorns. Regan had specifically told me to read each book twice aloud to the kids.

“This is stupid,” said one of the kids.

I tried to be patient and kind throughout but also to be firm and direct when I needed to keep things on track. I think by the end of the hour I was getting a little frustrated. (And I only do this for an hour a week.)

The third child, a girl, was fine. I had no problems with her whatsoever.

I so admire the professionals who do this day in and day out.

It’s all been done

I have not gotten the chance to watch the new TV series “Gotham,” although some of my friends have praised it on Facebook.

The show is set in Gotham City, but without Batman – it’s set at about the time that young Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down. It follows young police officer James Gordon as he tries to keep his integrity while rising through the city’s corrupt police force, as well as showing or hinting at the origins for various other Batman villains.

The pilot was supposed to have been spectacular, although some critics haven’t been as impressed with the subsequent episodes.

I probably ought to check the show out, but I’m suspicious of the premise. To me, prequels like this end up  being kind of forced, especially when you know for certain where the characters are eventually going to end up. I was never a regular viewer of “Smallville,” but I had to laugh at the episode descriptions – apparently, every major figure in the DC universe eventually had a flat tire while driving through the same little town in Kansas. What are the odds?

One thing almost no one has mentioned, and it surprises me, is that “Gotham” is not the first attempt at a Batman-free TV series set in Gotham City. That would be “Birds of Prey,” from 2002. I did see a few episodes of that (although it didn’t last very long).

“Birds of Prey,” based on a pre-existing DC comic book, takes place in a post-Batman Gotham City. Batman has had a final confrontation with the Joker, and it resulted in Selina Kyle (Catwoman) being killed by one of the Joker’s henchmen. Bruce Wayne, consumed by guilt and grief, disappears, and apparently the people of Gotham are too slow to notice that both Bruce and Batman disappeared from public view at about the same time.

“Birds of Prey” is about three women who try to protect the city in Batman’s absence, assisted by the always-loyal Alfred Pennyworth. Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, is vaguely known in popular culture for being Batgirl, as in the 1960s TV series. But in the comics at the time, she was a little older, confined to a wheelchair, and using the superhero name Oracle. (Batgirl returned to the print comics just recently, as part of a company-wide reboot of DC storylines.) Huntress (Helena Kyle) is Catwoman’s teenage daughter, and finds out in the first episode of the show that her father was the now-absent Batman. She has mysterious mutant-like tracking abilities. Dinah, the third member of the team, is a psychic and telekinetic teenager.

Helena Kyle, distraught over the death of her mother and the departure of the father she never knew, has begun seeing a psychiatriist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Quinzel is actually Harlequin, who was Joker’s right hand and now runs a crime empire of her own. (The character of Harlequin as the Joker’s assistant was actually created for “Batman: The Animated Series,” but was quickly picked up by the print comics.) At the beginning of the series, neither the patient nor the psychiatrist knows about the other’s secret identity. Mia Sara’s portrayal of Harlequin was easily the best thing about the few episodes of the show I happened to see.

“Birds of Prey” wasn’t a great show, but it had some interesting ideas. I just find it amusing that every review of “Gotham” gushes over the idea of Gotham City-without-Batman, not realizing that it’s been done before.