those frenchies seek him everywhere

I came home for lunch just now and noticed that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1934), with Leslie Howard, was just about to come on TCM. I can’t sit here and watch it, of course, but I started the DVR right away.

A little history: Baroness Orczy’s novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” about a heroic freedom fighter masquerading as an ineffectual fop, was one of the inspirations for Johnston McCulley to create Zorro – and cartoonist Bob Kane had both the Pimpernel and Zorro in mind when he created the mysterious caped crimefighter who hides behind the public face of wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne.

And, of course, you can’t mention the Pimpernel without quoting the poem – the silly, sing-song poem spouted frequently by the Pimpernel’s swishy alter-ego Sir Percy Blakeney:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? — Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!

If you mainly know Leslie Howard as wishy-washy Ashley Wilkes from “Gone With The Wind,” you need to see him in this, where he’s equally adept as both the hero and the buffoon.

Memories of Kenya

When I got to Regan Aymett’s class at Learning Way Elementary this morning for my weekly hour of volunteer service through “Raise Your Hand Tennessee,” she and the kids were working on a little story book in which the main character decides to take a trip to Ghana.

I excitedly told Ms. Aymett that I’d been to Africa five times and was planning another trip there this September. I figured she’d just mention the fact right then, while they were working on the book, but instead she suggested I show the kids some photos, presumably next week.

So, tonight, I’ve been digging through photos of my past Kenya trips, trying to pull some that would be suitable for a relatively-secular slide show for second graders.

I have found some good photos. The story book today mentioned African women carrying things on their heads, and I have a photo from our 2005 trip in which the women of the church in Ndonyo carried our luggage up a steep hill to where our van was waiting for us:

2005-12

I will not, however, be showing the second graders this photo, from the hotel where we stayed during the 2009 trip:

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the curmudgeonly lay servant

LSMinistrieslay-servant-emblemI had a great time this weekend at the Murfreesboro District Lay Servant school at Beersheba. I took a class on leading worship and it was fantastic. I also got to see several people I knew. There was a men’s group from Blakemore UMC using Beersheba at the same time, and so I even bumped into Mountain T.O.P. founder George Bass.

So I had a great experience this weekend. But the whole thing reminded me of some of the reservations I have about some recent changes in the whole lay speaking / lay servant program. I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in me venting them, since it’s sort of a water-under-the-bridge situation, but I decided I needed to get them off my chest.

First, a bit of background. “Lay speakers,” in the United Methodist parlance, have been people who are not ordained ministers but who are available to preach, lead worship, etc., for example when a pastor is sick or on vacation. Some lay speakers have even been asked to lead smaller churches for extended periods of time when a pastor was unavailable. They have to rely on an ordained minister to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and the like, and even to bless the communion elements.

There have traditionally been two different types of lay speakers. After taking a basic course (usually offered over the course of a weekend, or on two consecutive Saturdays), you became a “local church lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at the church where you were a member. After that, you could take an advanced course – any of several that might be offered – and become a “certified lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at any other church as needed.

You had to take an advanced course at least every three years to maintain your certified status – but it didn’t matter which one. Sometimes, I would take a new class after just a year or two, because I wanted to; other times, the three-year deadline would sneak up on me and I’d have to take a new class right away or risk losing my certification. I actually took “Go Preach!”, the most basic advanced preaching class, more than once because it was the only one that was available during a given training event, or what have you. And I gained something new from it each time I took it. I took other classes as well, including one on crafting better sermons, one on leading small group studies, and what have you.

I’ve been a certified lay speaker for a number of years now, and in fact in 2007 I was the first lay speaker ever to deliver a (brief) sermon at the Tennessee Annual Conference. In 2013, I preached about a dozen Sunday morning services – an average of once a month, although in practice a large number of them were during the summer months, due to preachers taking vacations or mission trips.

A couple of different things have taken place over the past couple of years – one denomination-wide, the other specific to our conference. The denomination-wide change was to rename the program from “Lay Speaking Ministries” to “Lay Servant Ministries.” The stated rationale was that there were a lot of different ways to serve the church, and we shouldn’t limit the program to just those who are comfortable standing behind a pulpit.

Here is where I will start to sound like a curmudgeon. The distinction of “Lay Speaking Ministries” was a perfectly legitimate, even obvious, one. Yes, there are many ways to serve a local church – and we should be encouraging every church member to serve in those ways. But I don’t understand what that had to do with lay speaking. To use an absurd analogy, that would be like saying that you shouldn’t have to use a firearm to be in the U.S. Marine Corps, because you can serve your country in other ways than just shooting at people. Yes, it makes a weird kind of sense, but it negates the whole reason you started the Marine Corps in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Conference (which, despite its name, represents primarily Middle Tennessee) has implemented a new training regimen. I believe you become a certified lay servant after you take your first advanced class, but in order to be a certified lay speaker you now have to take one course each from five different topic areas: spiritual gifts, United Methodist heritage, preaching, leading worship and evangelism.

In years past, the Murfreesboro District has held about two training events a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. There’s no guarantee that a particular training event will have all five of the topic areas offered as options; the one I attended this weekend didn’t have all of them covered.

If I understand the rules right (and I may not), and going by the current schedule, it could take a local church lay speaker two and a half years (or more, if the schedule doesn’t work out right) to take all the classes required to become certified.  You could conceivably do it more quickly by picking up some courses in adjoining districts, such as the Columbia or the Nashville district.

I’m also completely confused about to what extent long-timers like me are “grandfathered in” under the new requirements. One person who spoke at this weekend’s training said that we long-timers needed to talk to the district lay speaking director and make special arrangements with her. But when I complained about my confusion online, the district director (whom I know personally) said I was good to go. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to make an effort going forward to pick up the other topic areas, and I’m not sure how I would count one or two of my past courses, or if they’d count at all.

I understand the value of the added material called for by the new program – and, in fact, I look forward to taking a course in the area on United Methodist heritage. (If one had been offered this weekend, I would have signed up for it.) But it seems like a dramatic change from the current system, and I’m not sure it’s been well explained. I wish there were a way some of the material could be delivered by online courses or what have you. I wonder how many local church lay speakers are going to stick with it long enough to meet the new requirements to be certified.

So, to summarize – we’ve changed the name from “Lay Speaking” to “Lay Servant” in order to encourage more people to join, but in order to be an actual lay speaker you now have to meet much more stringent requirements.

Thus ends my curmudgeonly screed.

critical shaving update

mens-shave-creamI know that all of you in the reading public have been breathlessly awaiting the latest chapter in my shaving odyssey. First, though, a recap:

I had been using an electric razor for a number of years, but late last summer I decided that a) I missed blade shaving, but b) I did not miss the price of store-bought razor cartridges. After looking at several online options, I went for Harry’s, an online startup founded by some of the same people responsible for the eyeglass company Warby Parker.

Harry’s makes a really nice razor – it feels like a quality product, yet the cartridge refills are much cheaper than the major brand sold in stores. Harry’s appears to be doing well – just since last summer, they’ve bought out the German factory that had been supplying their blades. They recently were a sponsor on Leo Laporte’s “This Week In Tech” podcast.

I’ve been very pleased with Harry’s, and I gave a starter kit to a family member whose name I drew for Christmas. For a while, I would post links to their site through their referral program, and as a result I earned four free cartridges a few months back when a friend of mine ordered something using the link. Now, though, they seem to have removed any mention of the referral program from their web site. So I don’t benefit in any way from telling you about them; I just honestly like the product.

The Harry’s starter kit includes not only the razor and cartridges but also a tube of their shaving cream. I liked the shaving cream in a tube, much better than the canned shaving cream or gel I used to use. Instead of a big fluffy layer of foam, you get a very thin, but slick, layer, which I think does a better job.

However, unlike their cartridges, Harry’s shaving cream is not any cheaper than what’s in the stores. In fact, I soon found that Neutrogena made a shaving cream in a tube that was cheaper than Harry’s. Then, I found Every Man Jack, which was even cheaper than Neutrogena.

The trouble with Every Man Jack is that the only place I could find it locally was Walmart – and then Walmart suddenly stopped carrying it. So I went back to Neutrogena, which seems to be in all of the supermarkets and drug stores.

That brings us to this week.

Monday, on a whim, I ended up buying a different brand – one which, like Harry’s, was a startup, although in this case it’s now being sold through regular retail channels. Cremo is a shaving cream in a tube which boasts of being “astonishingly superior” and “impossibly slick.” You only need an almond-sized amount to cover your face. The tube came with a little neck-hanger in which one of the co-founders, whose face and signature are prominently featured, offers a full rebate of the purchase price as an incentive for trying out the product. (“I’ll give you this tube FREE!”) So I bought the tube and sent in my receipt for the rebate.

I tried it this morning and … it’s pretty good. It’s got a citrusy smell, it lubricates well, and I got a nice close shave with it. I’d give it a good review, even compared to Harry’s, Neutrogena or Every Man Jack.

So that’s my latest review.

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.

IMG

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.