Tuesday, May 29, 2007

But is it Art?

Back from D.C. last night, I got up early this morning to watch the season finales of "Heroes" and "Lost." Oh my! I was very moved by both shows, but, on "Lost," Jack's surprise flash forward (did you happen to notice that the name of the funeral home was an anagram of this?--I didn't!) and Charlie's final palm message were some of the best dramatic moments I have experienced in a long while. Both of these shows, as well as "The Office," are absolutely brilliant--three solid reasons why people should never get rid of their TVs. How am I going to survive without these shows for so many months? And I have no idea how the American broadcast dates for these shows correspond to when they air in Australia, so I may be waiting even longer...

Anyway, I have plenty of snobby friends who think my love of good television (and Diet Coke, for that matter) betrays my 25 years of education, which makes me wonder how I could be so wrong and they could be so right. Well, at the APS meeting I attended this past weekend, I saw a talk by Paul Bloom, a Yale developmental psychologist (and someone about whom I have blogged before), titled "But is it Art?" He recently studied how young children perceive art and discussed his findings in the context of broader philosophical theories of art. Among the various points he made (I didn't take notes, so I'm doing this from memory):
  • Adults and children place special value on artistic reproductions of the real world. This explains the preference most people have for portaits, landscapes, pictures of still life, etc.
  • Adults and children prefer original works of creation over perfect copies. Think about how everyone reacts to the news that a revered painting by a great master is actually a forgery. Three-year-olds have this same response when they are given a chance to have an exact replica of their favorite attachment blanket or toy instead of the original.
  • The more we (and children) perceive that the artist labored, the more we value the end product. Bloom cited a study in which subjects reported liking an abstract painting more when they learned that the artist spent 28 hours or so on it, compared to a condition in which subjects were told that the artist spent 9 hours creating the same work of art.
  • Adults and children recognize that the artist's intention is more important in appraising the art than what the end product actually resembles. As Bloom noted, tell a young child that the stick figure that she has just drawn not only looks like "mommy," but everyone else in the family, and you'll end up with a very upset child.
I believe that Bloom comes from an evolutionary psychology framework, and his bottom-line argument is that there may be a few basic principles that we all share when we evaluate works of art that reflect basic cognitive processes we use in other areas of life. I am not sure that this analysis works in the case of my favorite television shows, but in these shows I do appreciate the originality, the attention to realism (so that I become absorbed in this new reality), and the apparently huge amount of work it takes to create such a quality product. Why my snobbier friends don't have these same appreciations of my television shows, or why people the world over differ in their artistic tastes, certainly has less to do with the inherent qualities of the art, and more to do with what we already know about the artist and/or perceive in the art in the ways in which Bloom described.

Cops and Robbers

Our local city, Sandy Springs, recently became incorporated, and many members of its police force have been recruited from surrounding communities, probably with significantly better pay. As a result of all the enthusiasm that accompanies new things, the police department has been especially proactive, giving lots of speeding tickets and keeping the local neighborhood watches apprised of every local offense via email. I simply had to share this one with you, my loyal readers:
A 43-year old man was arrested at 6335 Roswell Road, in the parking lot of a gym after a man reported that when he walked out of the gym and got into his car, a silver Mercedes drove up next to him and the driver of the car began to stare at him. The complainant said that he noticed a motion coming from the man’s hands, near the waist area and suspected the man was staring at him and masturbating at the same time. (This is sometimes known as multi-tasking.)

The report indicated the man told the complainant “Hey Big Boy, can I play with you?” The complainant then got out of the car and walked over to the man’s car at which time the man probably read the word “Police” on the complainant’s T-shirt.
The man was arrested for Solicitation for an Illicit Sexual Act, a city ordinance. The complainant is a detective with Sandy Springs Police.

The guy in jail is upset because of all the luck, this guy was a cop.

The detective is upset because all day long everyone’s been calling him “Big Boy.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

To DC We Go!

We reached another moving milestone this morning when we gave our cat Sammy to one of my colleagues for adoption. She's going to be living on the 13th floor in downtown Atlanta with a view of CNN, Centennial Park, the Georgia Aquarium, and the World of Coke. I imagine that she's going to be crying out for me as she goes from room to room in the next few days. She was really attached to me, so I do worry about how she'll cope. I am sad.

On a happier note, we are flying to DC tonight for the weekend. I am presenting a paper at the APS meeting, and we'll get to see our old friends Larry and Lisa (and their three kids) in Virginia as well. However, we already missed our 4:50 flight to Dulles because of the traffic. We are now scheduled for a 9:50 flight that we hope we won't miss!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Little Sh*t

For the record...I am sure that I would have hated our president if we had been in elementary school together. He would have been the little sh*t who was always getting everyone else in trouble while he snuck away with his little impish grin.

I'm in a foul mood.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Losing Sleep Selling a House

This past weekend was the most tiring one yet in our son's 15-month-old life. It started with a birthday party on Saturday morning during his nap time. He was able to make up that missed nap in the early afternoon, but he never got his second one. We then went to a 6:00 dinner at Patty and Sarah's house. Unfortunately, Will was ready to go to sleep an hour after we arrived, so I tried to get him to fall asleep on my chest as I walked around, missing the dinner conversation and having to eat my meal after everyone else had finished. This was all for nothing, as Will never went to sleep and just grew crankier. We left at 8:30, got home, and put Will, who was now completely exhausted, straight to bed. I then checked the messages. An agent wanted to show the house the next morning, "sometime between 9 and 12." (The early hour on a Sunday made me want to write my own "Dear 24," letter).

If you haven't had to show a house in this country, let me just say it is disruptive. Each time one is scheduled, usually with just a few hours' notice, we are expected to be out of the house, and, of course, our home is supposed to be spotless. With a young toddler in tow, this becomes extremely challenging. Normally we spend a good part of an hour feeding him in the morning, and then following that with another 30-45 minutes of bathing and getting him dressed. Well, yesterday, he slept until 9 because of his long day before. We quickly dressed him and left, not wanting to have the house messed up by the usual routine. This particular agent's three-hour window was especially annoying because most showings don't last more than 10 minutes. We went out to breakfast at a local Dunwoody institution, J. Christopher's (our first time, if you can believe it...and I am now sorry that I didn't know about it before now), and then headed to the mall to buy some shoes. By the time we got home at 1, Will was exhausted again. He even fell asleep in the car. But he woke up when I transferred him to his pack-n-play. Now he was awake again, but another message was waiting for us that an agent wanted to show the house sometime between 3 and 5. This time we waited in the house until 4, and then put Will in the car for a long drive to kill the time. He did fall asleep again, but woke up as soon as we got back to the house at 5:15. For the next two hours he tried to stay cheery while he banged around the house like a drunk and picked through his dinner. Putting him to bed at 7, he then cried for the next 40 minutes while we tried different tricks to help him calm down. He was so, so tired. Finally, after much singing of Beatles's songs, he gave me a smile, and fell asleep almost the instant I put him down. He was exhausted, we were exhausted, and our last "quiet" weekend was finally over.

And still no one has made an offer on our house.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sorting It Out

It really happened. Four guys showed up at our house on Wednesday and began packing our stuff. They finished yesterday and then loaded it all into a 40-ft shipping container (they only used half the space, which seems like such a waste). That container will be taken to the port in Savannah, where it will be loaded onto a ship bound for Australia. We should next see these belongings around the first of August. But for now, our house feels strange. Some rooms are completely empty, while others look the same because we are not taking any of the furniture in them. Our kitchen is a mess. All the silverware, glasses, and dishes are gone. Last night we had dinner from the crockpot but we had to use a plastic fork and knife to scoop out the food. We also packed our cookbooks and pots & pans, so cooking is going to be a challenge for a while.

Both my home and work offices are nearly empty. I feel uneasy having all my books and files gone...what if I really need something that's been shipped? Of course, I will survive just fine without all this crap, but it is disorienting.

At work I have finished giving 4 of the 15 scheduled 150-minute lectures in social psychology. I have been giving this course all my best, as I would like to leave GSU on a high note. It helps that this is a course that I have taught more than 15 times since the early 90s. V.'s work is "winding down," although she has as many appointments in the coming week as she normally does. In the week after we come back from our Memorial Day weekend trip to DC, most of her appointments will be her last.

In six days we move Sammy to her new home (a colleague is adopting her). She's sitting on my lap as I write this. I feel really sad about leaving her here, but I'll save that for a later post.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Someone Else's Happy Ending

Last year, thanks to Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code podcast, I discovered the music of Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers. If you like great pop music, you really ought to give “Hang on Mike” a try. One song in particular gets played at least once a week on my iPod—”What to Do With Michael.” It’s an autobiographical song about Viola’s real-life romance with a woman he met in Paris after his first wife died of cancer. She was studying abroad and he was on tour, so they had to say goodbye until they met up again in New York, where they watched “The Spirit of St. Louis” in Bryant Park on their first date. They’ve been together ever since, as Viola sings:

Now my friend, they are inseparable
She even gets that boy to go to the gym
Now if you don’t think that’s love, you must by cynical
Or maybe man, you’re just dreaming in French, yeah

‘Cause she knows what to do with Michael
She knows how to make him feel
That he’s the one, he’s his mother’s son, not like anyone
He just needed time to heal
Well that’s right, he just needed time to heal

My affection for this song is partly due to my being able to relate to parts of their story, but I think it’s also one of the most romantic songs I have heard in a while. I wondered what happened to these two (the album came out in ‘04), and I was later pleased to see that Mike Viola posted an entry on his website about his life with his wife and daughter, Isabel, including the picture below. See, you love cynics, happy endings still happen all the time!Note: This is a modified verion of an entry I made at mog.com blog last June.

Last Times

With about a month left before our life in Atlanta concludes, we have entered that phase of a big move in which one experiences the last time for this and the last time for that. I am particularly conscious of these moments because it is really hard to imagine how they could ever be experienced again, given that we are moving 9000 miles away (according to Google Earth). The picture above was taken last Sunday at the last party for my lab group. A few days before that I gave my last lecture to a graduate class. I visited Emory this week for the last time, spending some time with my ex-wife Patty as we (finally!) divided up the pictures from our previous life together. I also saw some of my former Emory colleagues on that visit, which will likely be the last time I see them. I had my last department-related meeting yesterday. It was a weird meeting to attend, as it was focused on the department's plans for the next five years, and my leaving has affected those plans. Today kicks off the last "normal" weekend in our house, as the movers arrive on Wednesday. I am taking a lot of pictures during these last times. It's a feeble attempt to keep these people and places frozen in time as my memories start to fade in the coming years.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Watch Out, Bill Bryson

I discovered a blog today that I am just crazy about. It's called "Audra's Australian Adventures," and it's written by an American ex-pat who moved to Sydney with her husband about four months ago. Audra seems to be some sort of biotech researcher, but her prose is some of the best I have read in the blogosphere. To whet your appetite, here's an excerpt from her entry about Australian politeness:
Here, school children ride public buses. If you should find yourself on a city street in the afternoon, your bus is sure to pick up a gaggle of chattering students adorned in their distinctive uniforms. (My favorite uniforms are the well-heeled boys of Monte Sant’Angelo Mercy College who wear black knee pants, long grey socks, black ties, and flat-brimmed straw hats fitted with a black and white striped silk band. In the winter, a crisp grey blazer is added to their ensemble.) Students are required to give up their seats for adults, and they do so with avid enthusiasm. When exiting the bus, each and every student shouts an emphatic “Thank you” to the driver, who politely disguises his annoyance with a grunty smile.
This is good stuff. It makes me wish we were getting on the plane tomorrow!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Journey, Part I

Our upcoming move to Australia has a certain inevitability to it, now that I reflect back on my prior trips to the country. In 1975, when I was 11 (32 years ago!), my family was living in Dixon, Illinois. My dad was asked by his corporate bosses to go to Australia for the summer to help the company start up a South Pacific branch. So, in May of that year we flew from Chicago, via Hawaii, Fiji, and Sydney, to little Wagga Wagga, a country town in southern New South Wales. I was the oldest child, and I had two brothers and a sister who was a toddler. How my parents managed with so many little ones on such a trip, I don't know, given that V. and I are already starting to panic about traveling with our ONE child.

We rented a house on the Wollundry Lagoon (see my last post), and my mother promptly enrolled my brothers and me in the public school a few blocks away. Even though it was our "summer vacation," I had an excellent time taking classes and getting to know the kids. My two brothers, on the other hand, did not enjoy the experience, as they were picked on constantly about their accents. All three of us were repeatedly referred to as "yanks" and asked about Disneyland and Al Capone. My brothers eventually quit school, but I stayed on. I remember coming back from Australia with excellent penmanship (we had classes devoted to handwriting) and pronouncing 'plaque' as though it rhymed with 'rock'. I came back to Wagga and visited my old school in 1996 and then again in 2000. See the pictures below...the first was taken in 1975, and the second 25 years later.

With the exception of my dad, we didn't travel far from Wagga that summer. We did go to Canberra, Melbourne, and a winery in northern Victoria. Given the short time we were there, it's amazing how many friends we all made. In August my dad was asked if he'd like to stay another 3 years, but by then my mom and brothers were more than ready to leave. I think it was really hard on my mom especially, and I remember that she used to keep a calendar on the wall in which she crossed out the days that we had left. And nearly everyday she would sing John Denver's "Take me home, country roads..."
I was probably the saddest of us all when we left. I had a girlfriend (for the first time) and many friends, I played sports (the only time in my life, really), and I was a bit of a celebrity as the only American most of those kids had ever met. In the picture above (taken by my dad on our last day in Australia) you can see me in the light blue jacket, with two friends on either side of me. My mom is second from the left, with my little brother and sister standing in front of her. My other brother is standing on the far right. The other people were the Smiths, a family that we spent a lot of time with. After we came back to the States, they moved to Surfer's Paradise, which isn't far from where we will be living in Queensland. Unfortunately, it's hard tracking down any particular set of Robert Smiths in Australia.

Alas, it took another 21 years before I came back to Australia. I'll write more about that trip in Part II.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Old Friends

That's me in the center of this photo, taken at the Wollundry Lagoon, Wagga Wagga, NSW, Australia in August 1975. I don't really remember the names of my friends here, but I think one of them (the one on the left) is Paul Arbuckle. My family lived in Wagga for three months while my dad was hiring people for a new branch of his company. I went to school, played rugby and aussie rules football, kissed my first girlfriend (Marie Manning, which apparently I have no photos of!), and made a lot of friends. When we came back to the States, I kept up the correspondences for about a year, and then all those friendships faded away. The whole experience was my special Aussie edition of "The Wonder Years."