e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


is it happening for ya'll?

I loved the unabashedly zany THE HAPPENING. This is the kind of movie I would have dug on, hard, when I was twelve, and the type of movie for which I still have so much affection. Blood and gore ("M. Night Shyamalan's first R-rated feature," proclaim the commercials). Dread. Post-apocalyptic speculation. Heavy-handed themes, drawn from Major Issues of the Day. THE HAPPENING is as good and bad as The Blob or any movie whose title contains the words "I was a teenage..."

Where to begin? Definitely with the dialogue, which I'll try to re-create from memory. Female lead to mystery man with whom she may have had an affair: "Dude, get over it. It was just tiramisu. Stop acting crazy." Religious zealot: "You eyeing my lemon beverage?" Random survivor of apocalypse to other survivors: "You guys like hot dogs?" Marky Mark: "Why am I talking to a plastic plant?" Never has a b-movie offered so many delicious rhetorical questions.

One of the plot points that raises silliness to a state of zen is when the high school teachers react to the massive catastrophe using their discipline-specific worldviews. The math teacher calculates the probability of a second catastrophe. The science teacher (he of Funky Bunch fame) tries to make sense of the chaos by identifying variables. I was waiting for the language arts teacher to drop some allusions to dystopic fiction.

I also loved the quick and ill-fated devolution of the two middle-class adolescent boys into thuggish behavior. Spencer Breslin puffs out his little chest and says "We've got a hungry little girl out here, bitch!" (another stand-out piece of dialogue, by the way). Several survivors won't share their refuge and these two young suburbanites go all Tupac. And wind up dead. It's an instant, cheesy, allegorical moment: see how important it is to stay civilized. But also a moment where the perennially coveted demographic--teen boys--can sip their Dr. Peppers, grab a handful of buttery popcorn, and nod approvingly at the machismo.

In terms of both plot and tone, the film reminded me of two of my favorite Stephen King novels. First, The Stand, that masterpiece of roundly drawn yet familiar archetypes reacting to the apocalypse. Second, the ultra-violent Cell, King's more recent look at disaster on a grand scale, this time brought on by signals from cell phone towers. Those are two books that revel in genre and seem to drip with affinity for their inspirations. Two books that I love.

Let me say a few things about THE HAPPENING as post 9/11 art. I'm not giving anything away by mentioning that early on the film shows a bunch of New Yorkers jumping from a building to their deaths. This is the scene featured most heavily in the film's trailers, and it's striking and memorable. We see the scene from the perspective of an earnest construction worker (a blue-collar hero) below. What follows is ninety minutes of dread. As I've emphasized, it's campy dread. But dread nonetheless. There's a kind of sadness that permeates THE HAPPENING, from the couple whose marriage is on the rocks, to the best friend character who goes off on a quest for his woman but deep-down knows she's probably dead, to that supporting character's little girl who realizes her parents have most certainly died horrific deaths. Just like the 50s b-movies whose paranoid stance refracted cold war mentalities, THE HAPPENING plods toward its eventuality.

Roger Ebert's somewhat over-the-top review says: "For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act [of Earth's existence]." Ebert's referring, of course, to the film's environmental themes, but I must admit having similar thoughts on the way home from the multiplex, not about the environment but about the more general pessimism of our own age. Our safety is threatened. We must band together against evil. The world has changed. Raising such concerns is one more example of how THE HAPPENING, in so many ways, is wonderfully and provocatively awful. So far, it's the best (worst) movie of the summer. Then again, I haven't seen THE STRANGERS yet.



Distressing story in the New York Times. In "Beloved Characters as Reimagined for the 21st Century," the Times reports on toy companies making over '80s semi-icons like Strawberry Shortcake. Obviously, the companies wish to make some nostalgia dough from people my age who are having kids. Fine. Sure, characters evolve to fit the sensibilities of new decades. Warner Bros. famously began to de-emphasize the racist content of Bugs Bunny (disgusting stuff--check out the awesomely comprehensive DVDs) in favor of BB's sexually ambiguous trickster persona.

What's distressing about the new make-overs, though, is the way the companies are imagining/shaping the identities of milennial kids--girls in particular. Strawberry Shortcake is now very skinny and talks on a cellphone instead of playing with her cat. I guess animal shelters don't pay much for product placement. The company also is moving the Strawberry Shortcake gang away from their affinity for candy and toward a love of fresh fruit. Elsewhere, according to the story, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have "less attitude." Huh? You don't want young boys growing up in wartime to have attitude, I suppose. My favorite, though, is the plan for the new Care Bears: "less belly fat, longer eyelashes." I'm not making this up. What kind of weird zoological rationale does the corporation have for this move? I doubt that bears today are skinnier. And I really, really doubt that they have longer eyelashes.

My objection is not that these characters are changing. And it's not personal, either. I was never into any of these cartoons. (Remember on "Family Ties" when baby Andrew arrives and Alex P. Keaton tells him "Enjoy your childhood; I know I did and it was the best two weeks of my life"? That's kind of like me as a kid, minus the conservatism of course.) My problem is the reprehensible contribution these companies are making to body normalization and consumerism. All for profit. Let's not kid ourselves...Strawberry Shortcake was always about selling dolls. Now she's about selling cell phones and negative body image too, both of which are even more lucrative than action figures.


just saying...

We in this generation must not only repent for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. -MLK Jr.

a definition

I've often returned home after conferences with ideas and energy. This weekend, spending time at the American Democracy Project meeting, I've found not only ideas and energy but also motivation to keep focusing on community service pedagogies at Dearborn. I actually came back to my room last night after the last session and did some brainstorming on directions I hope to take in the piece I'm writing based on last year's service learning dfata. I also spent several hours working on a presentation for our writing program faculty on civic literacy. Letting info from various sessions and various readings sink in, I came to a working definition of 'civic literacy' I'm kind of happy with. Here goes:

Civic Literacy: the skills, values, habits, and knowledge needed for full(er) citizenship. Skills include written and oral/interpersonal communication, collaboration and collective decision-making, critical-analytic thinking, organization, and persuasion. Values include responsibility for the common good, belief in deliberative rhetoric, and engagement with and across difference. Habits include participation in the public sphere, voting, critical consumption of media, and cultivation of the life of the mind. Knowledge includes--but isn't limited to--history, current events, and community issues.


on location

Writing from Snowbird, Utah. What can match swimming on the roof of the lodge, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the cold, clean air of Utah? Sometimes opportunities for rejuvenation come at the most opportune times. Thanks, UMD, for sending me here. Props also go to the American Democracy Project for putting on an incredible program, complete with film screenings and challenging plenaries and talks that are rigorous and pragmatic all at once.


new endeavors

The summer months speed by...what else is new? Every teacher laments how quickly days turn into weeks during the summer season.

I'm thankful for the travel opportunities. Seattle. Tomorrow, a wedding in Illinois (two former students). Next week, off to Snowbird, Utah, for the American Democracy Project meeting, where I'll spend three days learning about service learning in first-year courses. Good timing, as our campus is launching community-based writing sections of first-year composition and I'm teaching two of them. The ADP meeting is held at a ski resort complete with spa facilities (pool and hot tub on the roof, with views of snow-capped mountains!), so, like with the RSA meeting in Seattle, I'm taking advantage of the geographic locales of professional gatherings. Did I mention that Snowbird has a few inches of the white stuff today?

I'm writing, but not forcing a quick pace. The big project is working through the data gathered during last academic year's service learning courses. That research looks to be evolving into two or three articles, but I'm going slow and steady. The small project is a book review for the WPA journal.

And my Peace&Justice group continues to be an enjoyable time commitment. Working on plans for our fall retreat already as well as our next book club gathering. Through P&J colleagues I got hooked up with July's Homeless Count in Detroit, a project I'm going to make a priority in the next month, and one which I hope will spill into one of our fall projects in the first-year courses.

Not just thankful for the travel opportunities, I'm thankful too for all that Detroit continues to offer, personally, professionally, and all points in between. Juggling endeavors that are rewarding is a reminder that moving was a very, very good decision.


wacky wednesday

Each Wednesday, the Arab-owned produce markets in Dearborn offer their cheapest prices. We're talking about really good sales: cucumbers for forty-nine cents/lb., three heads of romaine for a dollar, and so on. If big crowds and loud kids don't bother you, the experience can't be beat. Feels like being in another country, and not just because most people are speaking Arabic. From what I can tell, giving children food that hasn't been paid for is perfectly acceptable. I've seen kids in shopping carts eat bananas, grapes, bags of chips.

Yesterday the lines were especially long. I had almost gotten to the registers when a little old woman with a very large bag of rice approached me and spoke Arabic for perhaps two minutes. From gestures and my imagination I intuited that her point was something like 'I was at home cooking when I realized I needed rice. Can I jump in front of you, my good man, so I can purchase my rice and be on my way?' Flattered by her imagined use of the phrase "good man," I gestured for her to take a cut in line. Immediately I heard dramatic sighs from behind me and knew trouble was coming.

Another woman approached my rice-loving new friend and absolutely berated her (in English, which she clearly did not understand) for cutting: "you're getting in front of everybody, not just this guy." ('This guy'? I'd much rather be referred to as 'my good man'!). They went back and forth in two different languages. Finally the old woman got the message and began to mope toward the back of the line.

Now, the customer behind me in line was too busy feeding her toddler a meal's worth of unpaid merchandise to notice the argument. When she saw the old woman walking away from my cart, she offered the woman the place in front of her and then with a sneer looked me up and down as if to say 'what kind of a jerk won't give an old woman with one item a cut?' At this point, I had one customer mad at me for giving cuts, one mad at me for thinking I don't give cuts, and one under the impression that I speak Arabic. The anti-cutting advocate got in front of the woman with rice and said that if rice lady was going to get a cut then so was she. Nobody stopped her, so I guess in the end everybody was happy, including me with my cart full of good and cheap stuff.


it won't end

At this point, is there any doubt that Hillary Clinton is damaging the democratic party and weakening Obama's candidacy? How can a presidential candidate project the requisite image of power when his first act as nominee is negotiating and making concessions to Clinton and her "camp"? Clinton values her own ascendancy to executive power more than she values her party or any of the goals and principles on which she built her campaign.

At this point, how can she go back to the senate and work effectively with colleagues who can't believe her refusal to concede to Obama? I suppose all she can do is initiate/continue the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Obama's inner circle. A lot of buzz about the possibility of Obama promising Clinton a Supreme Court nomination. But a hypothetical Supreme Court seat for Hillary Clinton would fuel unprecedented GOP fundraising ("help us keep more Hillary Clintons off the bench") and generally fire up the religious right, thereby doing more harm than good.

Clinton as vice president? It's looking likely, isn't it? I would rather not vote for a ticket that includes someone who voted for the Patriot Act--and even voted to renew the Patriot Act once its popularity was already on the decline. I hope the Obama camp doesn't give in to Clinton's "demands" and opts for one of the better vp choices: Kathleen Sebelius, Ed Rendell, Bill Richardson, or my favorite of the alleged short-listers Janet Napolitano.