Wednesday, March 31, 2010


In January I went with a friend to see Avatar, the much-acclaimed film by James Cameron. Its claim to fame was the near-monopoly of computer generation in the making of the film, coupled with the fact that viewers could watch it in "3-D." (And this, of course, meant that it is the most expensive film to date--a title I'm sure it will hold for at least another three months.)

The 3-D part was cool, not only because it's always cool to see depth on the screen, but because the film knew when to stop. 3-D films sometimes succumb to the temptation to send a sharp stick flying toward your eye in every scene. Like a five-year-old who wants to keep making that sound even though it's not funny anymore, these films overuse the ruse of making something "jump out of the screen" at an audience who has not, in fact, come to get whiplash.

Avatar was not seduced by this lure. Instead, with only a few near-miss reminders that you're actually in the film, the "3-D-Wow!" effects made way on the stage for normal encounters with depth. The plot and characters were given room to do their Aristotelian thing.

The part of this film that really impressed me, however, did not strike me until the film ended. And it struck me in part because I only realized it as the lights were coming up. The computer-generated faces in the film had such a humanity to them that my viewing mind accepted them as real.

The human body is difficult to replicate on the screen. I've played a lot of video games that shoot for realistic representations of people, so I've seen many attempts to convince the viewer that the CG virtuality is reality. But humans--and all organisms, in fact--are tricky things. They're always in motion. Even when a person is standing "still," tiny movements betray life, thought, and unconscious presence. If these are absent, as is so often the case in films and video games, the viewing mind perceives that the image is unreal. And soon we tire of the mockery.

This problem comes to a head with faces. So many tiny muscles make the face difficult to replicate for a given emotive expression, let alone over seconds of passive, unconscious movements. Even the sleeping face is never quite still, in the way a photograph is still. Thus computer generated faces, no matter how detailed in texture, usually appear wooden. The viewing mind registers them as fake, even when it might otherwise be taken up by the plot or dialog on the screen.

Avatar made a huge leap in presenting the face as an extension, the quintessential emblem, of a living being. As I watched the film I became engrossed in the action, character development, and narrative precisely because I was not distracted by the faux finish of the characters' faces. I don't know anything about computer graphics and CG animation, but from a viewer's perspective I have to say: James Cameron and his teams did a great job in Avatar. They've put a whole new face on CG animation.

~ emrys

Best Christmas Gift . . .

. . . ever.

(Short of the First One, that is.)

This past Christmas Sara put a little red packet of wrapping paper in my stocking. I opened it up to find a thin slip of green paper with a number and a phrase: my first clue. I knew from that moment I was getting a taste of my own medicine: a clue-to-clue hunt. So I followed where the hints led me--to places at work, around the house, and to people we knew. About twenty-four clues in all I had to find, and beginning with number two, I received a puzzle piece with each clue.

The tension built as I assembled the puzzle. I knew that Sara was particularly excited about her gift to me this year, but I had not idea what it was. Even the fact that she had reserved two days in July on my calendar did not tell me what was up. All I figured was that it couldn't be something that required a plane flight (too short). Not much to go on. So I patiently put piece after piece together.

With only three pieces left, I could see that I was assembling a poem. The first three stanzas, with only one lacuna, I could read:

"Your daughter and I, we love you so much
We're so glad to make a fuss.
For the husband so dedicated and the dad so fine
To give a break away from the grind

For many years you've been a fan
To see them live, Wouldn't that be grand
In 2010 you'll have your chance
To see the whole show, not just a glance

Tickets were purchased, to give you admittance
To Meadowlands Stadium, really a pittance
For all the diapers, toilets, laundry and dishes
Without complaint you care for our wishes"

Now I must admit that I think I had guessed it by this point. The best hint came not from the poem itself but from the background on which it (and the whole puzzle) was printed: a LAX-spider-like piece of architecture in the middle of a stadium. I had seen that before, in adverts . . . . But I held my peace for the last piece, which, when I found it, completed the last stanza:

"So on July 19th you'll join the throngs
To hear played many favorite songs
So now to wait until we go
For a night away to see U2's show"

We're going to see U2 in July!

My wife rocks. And she's a poet and I didn't know it. So I hung her work of art up on the wall:

I saw them in 1998 (also as a gift) at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Being college students, we had nose bleeder seats (though with U2's signature screens, we didn't lose much of the action). It was a cool show then, and I'm sure the boys from Dublin will live up to their reputation this year. Another reason to be excited about summer!


Monday, March 29, 2010

Family Archaeology

Item #UmpteenHundredFiftySix from the collection of Dad's stuff: a five-inch by seven-inch black six-ring binder stuffed to one-inch-thick, full of worn-edge pages, the cover reinforced with medical tape.

In my dad's household we didn't use duct tape. Since Dad was in the medical profession, we used medical tape for everything. We used it to tape ankles, repair book bindings, and hold the bumpers on the car. You name it, we used medical tape to keep it in one piece.

I opened the cover to discover why it was this little black book needed so much structural support. The addresses inside revealed a lifespan of at least three decades. Three locations graced the inside cover (written on patches of medical tape): University of Vermont Medical Center (1960s); Cincinnati General Hospital (1970s); and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1980s and '90s). This book had seen a lot of action.

Belying the inadequate space within the book's covers lay a packet of 3x5 cards, banded together. 3x5s were my dad's bread and butter. Anything he ever needed to remember he'd write on those cards. He had a permanent stash in his front shirt pocket. If he needed to remember to get milk and butter at the store, he'd write that on a 3x5 card. If he needed to have someone's phone number for later, he'd write that down. If he suddenly realized which branch of the Indo-European linguistic family tree the Czech language belonged to, and wanted to keep from forgetting it again, he'd whip out a 3x5 card and scribble it down.

Dad's kitchen was like a Rolodex turned inside out. Phone numbers, addresses, things to do, messages for Chris and me, trivia about dinosaurs . . . all these things had been written down and attached to corkboards, walls, tabletops (with medical tape). Was it a weakness or a strength? Dad had everything written down.

This little black book, I discovered turning the pages, was Dad's "cheater" for medical practice. Do all physicians have one of these? Or just my dad? In alphabetical order, the book contains an encyclopedic survey of first aid, drug information (including costs of basic antibiotics per 5-day dosage), and disease symptoms. It's all written with the elegance of medical shorthand. (Chris and I learned how to abbreviate "before" by writing "a" with a line over it, and "after" by "p" with a line over it, without ever taking a Latin class, because we knew Dad's shorthand.)

Need to know whether to give morphine to someone having an asthma attack?

Labyrinthitis. Who knew? Suggested drugs and contraindications for vertigo: it's all here (cataloged under "E[ar]N[ose, and]T[hroat]).

Even a hand-drawn, cross-sectional diagram of the wrist and the muscles and tendons that move across the bones of the wrist (below, with red labels). I'm pretty sure that Dad wouldn't have used this at the operating table. I do picture him, however, sitting with a patient who has carpal tunnel syndrome and will need surgery, explaining slowly how the tendons lay upon each other in sheaths, and what it will take to correct her trigger finger. How handy to have an anatomical diagram right in his medical bag:

Or maybe all this was written here to facilitate my dad's long-term memory. I know for myself that often when I write things down--even if I never look at the copy again--I remember better the material that I wrote. Maybe this was Dad's "memory book," where he rehearsed with his fingers the things he wanted to have at the front of his mind for a life of medical practice.

Here's one I laughed at when I turned the page:

Yeah: "snake bite." I remember Dad telling stories about his nights in the ER at Hazelton (northeast Pennsylvania) General Hospital. He told us that on a Friday or Saturday night, especially on a full moon, sooner or later some guy would show up who had been dared to kiss a rattlesnake. With courage helped along by high doses of ethanol, he would take on the challenge and end up with a bite on the nose. That's what you do in the coal regions on a slow weekend, I guess.

I don't understand half of the entries because of the medical abbreviations and terminology, and I know that much of it is probably now outdated in terms of doses and approaches used for specific illnesses or injuries. But I am impressed with the breadth of information in this little tome. I am also struck by the effort that has gone into something that I consider obsolete: the hand-written notebook. My hand aches at the thought of putting pen to paper for that many strokes! For that reason above the others, this is quite an archaeological find.


Friday, March 26, 2010

The Love of Family

Just about a month ago we spent a week in Arizona, hanging out with Geo and Krissy, George, David and Ginger, Judy, Andy, Michael, and Tate. I remember coming home feeling exhausted, partly because of plane trips, and partly because of flitting around to see so many people in those seven days. In spite of having to return to work to get some rest, the journey was well worth it.

I took great joy in watching my extended family love my daughter. It is such a blessing to have family that, while distant in terms of bloodlines, is very near in love for us. Sara and I do not dwell in the town of our upbringing, as happens in so many small communities, where four generations live on the same block and a family reunion is one Sunday dinner away. We have family scattered all over creation, and it takes some doing to get together. So it's all the more valuable to me that when we do get together we can enjoy each other's company.

For uncles who will get on the floor with my daughter; for aunts who sew extravagant gifts for Gwendolyn; for not-quite-related family that will still give us their time, their presence, and their love; and, of course, for grandparents: I thank God for you!


Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Call for Adventure

I recently received an email from Dublin Christian Mission which calls for volunteers for their summer program. While travelling abroad in 2006, we had a good experience during a week "on camp" with Dubliner youth as part of DCM's work. So if you've got itchy feet this year (and have been blessed with enough savings for a ticket across The Pond), and would like to visit the wonders of the Emerald Isle, and don't mind the idea of impacting the lives of inner city youth while you're at it, check out that first link. You won't regret it. In fact, you'll be immensely blessed.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Praise Jesus,

who cancels all debts public and private.

Since graduating from seminary in 2005, we have carried with us a significant debt load. It's the common story of pastors in denominations that require their ministers to have masters-level education: students invest in expensive coursework with the hope that their future calls will enable them to pay off the debt.

Problem is, most congregations in our denominations are rural, with mid- to low-income members, and are often struggling to meet minimum salary qualifications for pastors. So my denomination has a program called Seminary Debt Assistance, which offers annual grants to pastors serving a full-time call in small rural congregations.

Sara and I have been blessed by many blessings, including jobs before seminary that allowed us to save, a CFO in the household who knows how to work the numbers, a congregation faithful to its commitments, and the Seminary Debt Assistance program. As a result, we've been steadily paying down my student loan. In case you're wondering what "steadily paying down" looks like, here's a snapshot:

Note the CFO figuring with eyes and lips, and me staring blankly at all those numbers on the screen. Yep, that's how it is.

Until tonight. Tonight we (mostly Sara, but I watched and fulfilled the ever-important function of peanut gallery) clicked the online banking buttons that will deliver the final payment to Citibank. In just two brief business days, our balance due to them will be $0.00! So that my colleagues can be inspired by what they, too, will do some day, here's what that looks like:

We are out from under the yoke of Citibank! Praise the Lord for bringing us out of Babylon!

On a sobering note, the Seminary Debt Assistance has already begun to decrease the amount of cash it offers to strapped seminary graduates, because of the widespread shrinking of funds in denominational coffers. Perhaps we need to begin finding ways to prevent the saddling of future pastors with that debt in the first place. It's strange that in order to lead us in prayer that we be forgiven our debts every Sunday morning, pastors are asked to take it on themselves.


Morning Nap

The Worst Job

Working with a finicky substance that gets all over everything, requires two coats, and needs remedial work even after the second coat, all for an aesthetic end: this is my idea of hell. And this is what spackling (aka mudding, the application of joint compound) is all about.

This was also the next step in the completion of our closet.

The help of our dear friend Sharon went miles to making the work easier. The daughter of a professional spackler, she knows all the tricks of the trade to make things go more smoothly (pun quite intended). We are oh-so-grateful for her cheery help. However, I'm still not sending out my resume for mudding jobs.

As of this entry, we've got one coat on. Some scraping and wiping, and we'll be ready for the second coat, which ought to go on more easily. Then comes the sanding. Shudder. At least we only have to do that part once.

Thanks, Sharon!


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Strangled by a Med Student

My dad used to serve as one of the teachers in a course called Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS). The program prepared and certified physicians to deal with trauma situations in emergency rooms. Instructors in the course (which was a two- or three-day affair, as I remember it) would take either lecture components or oversight of a role-play of a trauma situation. In the latter forum, students (often taking the course for the first time) would enter a room and be told the parameters of a situation. They would then have to go through all the steps of treatment. Meanwhile, the instructor would be checking boxes and, if necessary, giving hints as to what the next step of care might be.

In order to do a proper role-play of a medical scenario, you need a patient. Since this is a training exercise, it's not done with real trauma victims. It's done with dummies. Who are the dummies who volunteer to get slathered in fake blood and lie on a gurney for imitation chest compressions? You guessed it: the kids of the instructors.

C'mon. You'd do it, wouldn't you? It's the next best thing to being an extra in a Freddy Kruger flick.

I remember one year when I was nine or ten years old. I played the part of a nine-year-old boy who had been hit by a car and thrown sixty feet across the pavement. My only job was to lay semi-conscious (and unresponsive) on the gurney, head locked in a neck brace, and breathe shallow breaths. Meanwhile, a parade of students would come through and ply their trade on my fake-blood-smeared body. Yeah. When I told the kids at school, they were all jealous.

Now be reminded that many of the students need to pass the ATLS in order to get a post in a trauma hospital. And for many of these students, such a post is the holy grail of jobs. They want it badly. Therefore they must pass this course. Remember taking the SAT in high school? Yeah, imagine that, but with one thousand times the pressure. Many students at ATLS are nervous. Really nervous.

Anxiety is natural in these situations, of course. It can have unexpected side effects, however, for the dummy on the stretcher, especially since one of the first moves a physician has to make is to take the pulse of the patient. And unlike the nurse at your bedside, a trauma physician examining a young lad is going to take the pulse at a very vulnerable place: your neck.

One student entered the room, received his brief on the patient's (my) situation, and approached my fake-bloody body on the gurney. He put his fingers on my neck to take my pulse, and looked up at the instructor. The instructor gave him a number. I have no idea the significance of that number. What I do know is that the student didn't know what to do next. So he froze. Like a deer in the headlights. With his fingers pressing on my carotid artery.

They had told me that my job was to lie there, be unresponsive, and breathe shallowly. Well, the last one clearly wasn't going to be a problem. However, to a ten-year-old, the weight of a zombified med student cutting off one's blood supply to the brain is pretty scary. I remember feeling that pressure on my neck, wondering if this role-play was going to turn into the real thing. I felt my eyes get larger with alarm. I don't know how long this student fumbled for the right next step, but to the kid on the gurney it seemed like an eternity. So much so that I think I gasped when he finally took his hand away and moved on to blood pressure.

As long as he didn't have to get out those shock paddles, I would be all right. Don't lock up with those on, man.

Praise the Lord, he didn't need the shock paddles; and I have no idea whether he passed the exam or not. I was just the dummy. From the experience, however, I did learn that you should never let a panicked med student take your pulse. He may not give it back.

The next year I got to play a motorcycle rider who had rolled over the hood of a Buick and got the hood ornament stuck under his helmet behind the ear. As a result I learned valuable lesson number two: how to take the helmet off an unconscious rider without doing further damage to the neck.

I've not had to use either piece of knowledge yet, thank God. But you never know.