Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coffin Nails

Five years ago to the day – September 30, 2004 – I smoked my last cigarette. I hope that the implicit “ever” in that statement is really true, that it was my final cigarette and not just my most recent one, but there’s really no way of knowing that until I run out of days in which I could theoretically light up, and that’s not an endpoint I’m in a big hurry to get to.

I have no desire to get either political or preachy about cigarettes or the tobacco industry or anti-smoking laws or whatever here, so consider this your standard disclaimer that all of the following are just my opinions and experiences, to be taken for whatever they’re worth. Just a meander down memory lane specifically focused on the little cancer sticks, to commemorate the day that I quit.

It’s easy for me to remember the date because I chose it with great deliberation and rare forethought. On October 1, 2004 I turned 30, and as that birthday approached I knew that once I was 30 I didn’t want to be a smoker anymore. I believed on a fundamental level that there was nothing wrong with smoking if you were in your 20s. 20-somethings are bulletproof. Nobody dies from smoking in their 20s. (There are two ways to read that last sentence. They vary in the degree to which each is verifiably, scientifically true, but I mean it both ways. Again, I’m not as interested in facts as I am in my personal experience.) However, people who smoke in their 30s get lung cancer and die. So as that very clear line in time approached, with my 20s on one side and my 30s on the other, I knew I was going to cross from being OK with my smoking habit to being absolutely certain it was going to kill me. I don’t want to die at all, but especially not from lung cancer and special-especially if it’s within my power to prevent it. So I smoked until the day before I turned 30, and never since.

My grandparents and my parents all smoked, at one point or another, but my parents and two out of three grands all quit when I was fairly young. (My mom’s mom smoked basically her whole life, and she did eventually die from cancer, but she also lived a sedentary lifestyle and ate fried red meat for dinner every night and lived to a ripe old age, so it’s hard to say what exactly killed her and if it’s any better or worse than random telomere decay. The only takeaway I got from her death was “you never know.” She died when I was about 26 and obviously I kept smoking for years.) When I was a kid (and here I’m defining kid as “up to age 18”) I was never tempted by cigarettes – not in the abstract sense of wondering what the grown-ups in my life or on TV were doing, and not in the literal sense of anyone waving an open pack under my nose and exerting the dreaded pressure to fit in with one’s peers. I know I’m part of the first generation that was raised after medical science figured out that the smooth, rich flavor of a Winston was not necessarily the greatest thing to put in your body, so I was constantly bombarded with cautionary tales and general disapproval, but I just don’t remember it being that big of a deal. But like I said, I just kind of lucked out that I wasn’t offered cigarettes on the playground in the first place, so I don’t consider it any great moral victory that I stayed smoke-free until college.

I was pretty much alcohol-free until college, too, but that changed in a hurry. I think there’s a lot of overblown terror-mongering out there with regard to “gateways” but I know for a fact in my case that social drinking led inexorably to social smoking. I think there were two things that got through whatever passed for my defenses at that point. One, when I went out drinking socially I would get drunk. (well, duh) Being drunk lowers your inhibitions, but what that really means is that it suppresses your fear. You’ll stand on a table and screech along to Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night” if you’re not afraid of being laughed at or judged. And I’ll smoke a cigarette if I’m not afraid that it will instantly and irrevocably give me deadly malignant body-wide tumors. (My “20-somethings are bulletproof” theory/rationalization evolved over time.) Two, I had always had a certain mental image of smokers my age and I dissociated myself from it. (I’ve quit smoking, but classism is a vice I have yet to relinquish.) In my high school (or my perception of it) there was this kind of bell curve of coolness. The height of the in-crowd, the biggest part of the curve, was the average jocks and the cheerleaders, and then in one direction you had coolness start to diminish as you went through the overachievers (the student council, the female athletes, the honors students) and in the other direction you had the equally-but-differently-uncool underachievers (the hangers-on friends of jocks and cheerleaders, the loners, the burnouts). And the cool kids didn’t smoke, nor did the overachievers. (At least, not brazenly and publicly. For all I know lots of otherwise “good” kids were sneaking cigarettes and I was oblivious. But I truly believe, for my weird little small town, I’m mostly right about this.) Smoking was the refuge of the burnouts, the kids who were actively looking forward to dropping out at 16 so they could work full time down at the garage. I was in an extremely thin outlying arm of the coolness bell curve, myself, but it was the opposite one from the smokers. Then I went to college, which multiplied the size of the student body around me by a factor of fifteen or twenty but pulled them all from the same approximate area of the high school hierarchy, my geeky neck of the woods. And I made a bunch of new friends who I thought were cool, in some cases even empirically cool in a way that would have crushed the homecoming court back in my tiny hometown, and a bunch of them smoked. This probably makes me sound extraordinarily dense (because I am) but at the time it was a revelation – people like me smoked cigarettes. Finally being able to identify with smokers opened the door for joining them.

And it was purely social at first. I only smoked in bars, which meant I didn’t smoke every day (except during those stretches where my friends and I went out to a bar more or less every night). And I didn’t smoke during the day. And I didn’t buy my own cigarettes – I was forever bumming them off people at the bar, which proved remarkably easy. Sometimes I felt bad enough to toss someone a couple of bucks and split a pack with them, but in my mind this still made it true that I never bought my own. And I still wasn’t a smoker, I was just someone who occasionally (frequently) smoked. I didn’t feel like an addict. I didn’t wake up craving a hit, or crave it at any other time. It just always seemed like a good idea when we were out drinking, but certainly something I could live without. And for whatever it was worth, more than a few of my friends were playing by more or less the exact same rules, smoking socially but not self-identifying as smokers.

I promised myself that smoking would be a college phase and I would quit when I graduated, but that didn’t happen. I still wouldn’t say I was addicted, but I found reasons to keep lighting up. For a few months after graduation I waited tables at a family restaurant chain. (Hint: it rhymes with Zapplebee’s.) There were no provisions for the waitstaff to take breaks on shift, but smokers were allowed cigarette breaks. I could keep swearing off cigarettes, or I could take smoke breaks – no brainer. I still wasn’t buying, because most smokers hate smoking alone and would much rather offer someone a cigarette to entice the non-carrier to join them out back. I took full advantage of that fact in my fellow nicotine-fiend waiters and waitresses. It meant I ended up smoking a few truly foul menthol cigarettes if that’s what Nene was carrying, but still – five minute smoke breaks kept me sane.

Then I moved from Jersey to Virginia and roomed with heavy smokers. Because we were renting a house and weren’t allowed to smoke indoors, every time my roomies had a cigarette became an opportunity to invite me outside to join them, and I often did. I slid pretty easily from “only when I’m out drinking” to “only at work” to “all the damn time” and that’s when I would say I got hooked. Before that, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the buzz I would catch from cigarettes. I didn’t smoke for the social acceptance or the reckless daredevil associations or the conversational prop (or at least, not exclusively for those very understandable reasons) – I smoked because it physically felt good. It also didn’t seem to be doing any physical damage, since I never developed a horrible hacking cough or anything like that. I still didn’t buy cigarettes very often, but I did start buying them. Camel Lights were my brand, mostly because of the simple circumstance of being so common when I was bumming them off other people.

Does this tie make my nose look big?  AWWWW YEAAAHHH.
Ah, Joe Camel, you magnificent son of a bitch. I can’t say that smoking ever made me feel like a tuxedoed secret agent catching submarine rides to spearfishing dates in the tropics with wetsuited blondes. But it always felt pretty good. I’ve talked to other smokers who described reaching the point where a single cigarette no longer provides any kind of lightheaded chemical rush. It just settles the needy monster of the addiction itself. In other words, it doesn’t transport them from normal to good, it just restores them from bad to normal. I never got to that point, luckily.

I tried to quit smoking several more times but it never really took. I would cut back for a while, then I would binge for a while. My ex was vehemently anti-smoking, which only meant that I smoked less and took heroic measures to cover my trail when I had been smoking. When we got divorced, which came on the heels of me getting laid off, that was the closest I ever came to being a pack-a-day-every-day smoker. I would smoke in the car in the morning on the way to my shitty new job, take smoke breaks at work, smoke on the way home and smoke here and there in the evening. When I went out to bars I would basically chainsmoke. If I hadn’t been addicted before that particular rough stretch, I no doubt was after.

But life got better and the future got more appealing and I wanted to enjoy as long and healthy a future as possible. I entertained the thought of just cutting back. A lot of my friends still smoked at the time (and a lot of them still do) but several of them had adopted the stance of “I don’t want to stop smoking, but I want to smoke less” with varying degrees of success. But by age 29, having smoked more or less continuously for the preceding decade, I knew that the cutback model wouldn’t work for me. Anything I indulge in has a very high chance of being something I overindulge in. Most of my previous attempts to quit had slowly deteriorated into attempts to cut back, and then I would find myself out drinking and wanting just one cigarette, which I gave myself permission to have because that still counted as cutting back, but no one around me would have any so I would have to buy a pack, and then after I’d smoked one I would have nineteen left over which would go to waste unless I smoked some more that night and the rest the next day or two, and that’s not exactly cutting back … I learned my lessons. There is no such thing as an occasional cigarette for me. It’s either one that inevitably leads to more, or zero.

And I chose zero, although I dragged it out to just about the last possible moment. At the end of the work day on September 30, 2004, I shut down my computer and took the elevator downstairs with the buddy I was carpooling with. He also smoked. We stepped out of the lobby of the office building, lit up on the sidewalk, and shared an amiable after-work smoke, which was not at all out of the ordinary. But I told my buddy that would have to be my last ever cigarette. I couldn’t smoke once I turned 30 the next day. He was supportive, but probably skeptical. Still, I managed to stick to my resolve.

I quit cold turkey, which sucked a lot at first but eventually got better. I still want to smoke every once in a while. Like I said, it was never about stifling the withdrawal symptoms, it was always about the fact that it felt good, a feeling that I remember and kind of miss. But I know I’m better off without it, and even if I get hit by a bus when I’m 40 I won’t think “Man, I should have smoked in my 30s.” (Well, probably not. Much more likely is “Man, that bus came out of nowhere!”)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In the corners of my mind

Got a semi-major reprieve at work today, as the government lead for my team/project made a phonecall and secured a two-month extension for current hosting services. Thus, the drop-dead September 30th wall we were up against has been moved to the end of November, which should (knock on cubicle pressboard) be plenty of time to actually make the server transition now that everyone has been jolted into action. This means I’ve been denied the very context in which I could pull off a miracle, but the chances of that happening were vanishingly small, so I’m more than fine with letting it go. I still expect that when all is said and done my efforts will be appreciated, if only in the sense of “hey, attaboy, we sure are glad that you put up with all the crap of coordinating this whole mess, because none of us wanted to do it.”

Fun Fact: Some days I like clowns more than I like my job.  AND I DO NOT LIKE CLOWNS.
I must admit, I do enjoy imposing order onto chaos, as long as I can do it at my own pace, which is pretty slow. I have no problem unpacking an entire ridiculously overstuffed closet, sorting through it, getting rid of the dross, and replacing everything as neatly and ergonomically as possible – provided that I have all damn day to do it and nothing else clamoring for my attention. Ask me to do the same thing, or even a half-ass reduction of the thing, in an hour or so and my brain just seizes up with misery. Ideally I’ll have advanced warning that the opportunity to do some organizing will arise, I’ll make whatever lists or spreadsheets will facilitate the effort, and I’ll check my way through the process to the satisfying end. If you know me and have ever hung out with me, you are probably calling bullshit right about now because you are far more likely to have seen my laid-back, agreeable, up-for-anything fun-loving follower side. But I swear, that’s just a function of time. I switch back and forth based on how much time I have to work with, and there usually isn’t enough time for me to be hyper-organized. It’s not “hyper-organized or nothing” with me, it’s “disorganized most of the time, hyper-organized on rare occasions of luxurious opportunity.”

I have a spreadsheet on my laptop to keep track of the household budget, and another spreadsheet to keep track of how well (or not) I’m eating and working out. I have idle fantasies about buying another bookcase for the basement, not only because we are running out of shelf space but because it would give me the opportunity (excuse?) to re-organize the books themselves, which are kind of stacked pell-mell at the moment but which I would love to see grouped and alphabetized, with non-fiction here, literature there, fantasy in one section, sci-fi in another, maybe urban fantasy bridging the divide … I could go on.

I’ve noticed, in both myself and other geeks, a very high correlation between the depth of the geekiness and the organizer mindset. To a certain extent, the geek archetype looks like an overgrown kid – thirty or forty years old and still playing games, reading comic books, wearing (XXXL) Underoos. But the games are complex, and the more codified the rules, the better. (For the geeks’ enjoyment, that is – I’m not saying elaborate is superior to simple across the board.) If you watch a bunch of kids playing on the playground, pretending to be soldiers, they’ll most likely be running and yelling and making sound effects and falling down and getting back up again and switching sides and basically behaving like rowdy plasma particles, the essence of kid-dom. But, if you can identify the one kid in the bunch who is trying (not necessarily successfully) to impose some order – telling his friends that once they get shot by a bad guy they HAVE to stay on the ground, or suggesting that they take turns for half being the good guys and half being the bad guys, or insisting that everybody with a stick has a machine gun but only the kid with the big dead branch has a rocket launcher – that kid is the future geek (or to use the term my friends and I tend to favor, the “rules lawyer”). Someday he will collect board games like Axis and Allies (or RTS video games or tabletop miniatures or whathaveyou) and he will enjoy the framework that settles the I-shot-you-NO-I-shot-you-FIRST questions definitively.

A couple of days ago I mentioned my Green Lantern obsession and the non-zero measure of shame that goes along with it, but I was probably being overly self-critical. I do love the comics and following and acquiring them makes me happy, so much so that I still collect them even though I categorically do not have room for them in my house. (Luckily I have a friend who lets me store the comics (in alphabetical order of course) in long boxes in his basement. I AM SO NOT KIDDING.) I do try to remember that on the one hand, everyone is a geek about something, whether it’s being a foodie or a gearhead or a superfan of a certain actor or band or sports team or whatever. So being a comic book geek does not make me a total inhuman freak. But on the other hand I think it’s only realistic to acknowledge that my geek wheelhouse is practically custom-made for the way my brain works, the hyper-organizer who, given enough time (like, close to thirty years) can come up with a system for remembering the convoluted-but-internally-consistent ways that an endlessly ongoing story gleefully violates the laws of physics, biology, time and narrative logic. Comic books (superhero comic books like Green Lantern at any rate) are a chaotic mess that are only fun if you enjoy doing the work of imposing order on them. And that’s not everybody’s thing in the same way that everyone likes good food or appreciates a nice car. I’m not really ashamed that it happens to be my thing, just slightly self-conscious and aware that it’s kind of out there. Classic over-thinker, that’s me.

All of which apparently makes me highly well-suited for government contracting, to boot. So ... yay?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Must be Monday

I wish I could say that I didn’t update the blog yesterday because I was too busy preparing today’s monumental post, this being the one-month-a-versary of PA … but that’s not true. (Which doesn’t technically prevent me from saying it, but I try to keep it reasonably real here. And the fact that I have put no forethought into today’s post will become readily apparent soon enough.)

But hey, a solid month! (For a forgiving definition of “solid”!) I’ve already expressed my surprise at the early trends in subject matter here, which have held up since: a lot more about sports than I expected, a lot less about my genre-riffic pop culture obsessions. Another shocker, from my perspective, is how little I’ve used this particular pulpit to howl about The WMATA.

Note: Actual Metro trains are not this interesting.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t slowly, begrudgingly become fond of the Metro. I still pretty much hate it, but as always I feel like it’s the lesser of two evils between itself on the one hand and driving in Northern Virginia traffic AND paying for inside-the-Beltway parking on the other. It is a slim evil-margin, though. There hasn’t really been anything egregious in the past month, I guess. There was a bad Metro train crash back in June, and since several people were killed in that accident I’m disinclined to use that as snark fodder. It also puts things in perspective and in its own twisted way makes the day-to-day indignities of Metro less objectionable (or maybe I’ve just gotten numb to them all). And that’s all it’s been lately, really: overcrowded trains and escalators out of order (I remain convinced that if there were ever a day when all the escalators in all the stations I pass through were working during both morning and evening rush hour, the entire Metro system would spontaneously implode). These are the little things that make me long for the bucolic rusticity of life as a goat-and-tortoise farmer, but they don’t fire me up enough to write about them, as it turns out.

My extended commute also introduces a certain tricky element around this time of year, but I can’t blame that on the WMATA, either. Late September in northern Virginia usually means some of the most pleasant weather of the year, but the temperature ranges a lot on any given day: chillier in the morning, warmish in the late afternoon. When you drive to work this is not a big deal, and there’s really no wrong way to approach it: if you wear a jacket when you leave in the morning, but you don’t need the extra layer in the evening, you sling your jacket in the back seat; or if you don’t wear a jacket in the morning you turn up the heat in your car and ride in comfort all the way to the office, and ride home with the windows down. My commute, on the other hand, involves lots of time outdoors (waiting for the bus, waiting for the Metro, and walking from the Metro to my office) which means if I leave my jacket at home I’ll have plenty of chances to miss it. But if I bring a jacket, then when I go home I swelter wearing it amidst the crushing throngs of other commuters on the train, or I present an even more awkward shape carrying it over one arm. (That one arm obviously cannot win no matter what I do, and will probably one day rise up against me to overthrow the tyranny of cashmere blend.) I like the onset of autumn, I really do, but there are undeniable logistical benefits to days when it’s either warm all day or cold all day. I am mortified that such petty thoughts even intrude on my mind for a millisecond but since I’ve gone through all the trouble of typing it out I guess I’ll let it stand.

But hey, even what-the-hell-it-was-hot-and-humid-yesterday-and-today-there’s-morning-frost weather can’t take away from how much fun it was to be a New York fan yesterday. The Giants and the Jets both improved to 3 and 0, and the Yankees got their 100th win of the season to complete a series sweep of the Red Sox and clinch the AL East pennant. Sadly the Steelers lost a tough one in Cincinnati, but my wife was gracious enough to be happy for me regardless (as I expect I would be for her if our positions were reversed). Personally I was excited enough to crack open an Old Dominion Octoberfest. Ah, clearly THAT is why the blog didn’t get updated yesterday – one afternoon beer and I was mentally done for the day.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Saturday Grab Bag Forever

E = 3! I haven’t blogged about the Yankees lately because not only were they playing out of market earlier this week, but way out in Anaheim where the games start after 10 p.m. local time. So I wasn’t even tracking the games on the interwebs – I was just kind of vaguely aware that they were happening while I slept each night. But last night the Yankees were back in the Bronx, hosting the Sox, and Joba Chamberlain actually had a decent start (all the more impressive as he was up against Lester) and the offense more than backed him up (A-Rod’s box score line was, as the kids say, SICK) and for some weird reason I still haven’t pieced together, the game was broadcast on TBS so I got to see it. (Well, most of it. I fell asleep in the 8th inning but I woke up to see the 9th. I’m an old man.) So yeah, all the Yankees need now to clinch the AL East is to win enough games in combination with Sox losses to add up to three. And since they are playing the Sox today and tomorrow, every game involves either both a NY win and a Boston loss, or neither. The Yankees could clinch by the end of Sunday’s game. Which would be great and all – except one of the announcers last night felt compelled to point out that ever since the Yankees lost the ALCS to Boston in 2004, the Yankees have not won a single post-season series. I was stunned to hear it put that way and thought it couldn’t be true, but it is. So I’m confident the Yankees will snag the pennant, if not this weekend then some time this week (because they have the Royals next … not exactly contenders), but then I will just fret about what’s going to happen in October.

Annnnnd as I wrote this the Michigan Wolverines just took down Indiana in the Big House, so they are now 4 and 0. Go Blue!


Today while my Little Nemo was taking his morning outing in Slumberland I finally read all of the comics that I bought a few weeks ago and left on a shelf until I had time. Then when Nemo woke up I fed him lunch and took him to the comic book store, so I could buy the comics that had come out over the past few weeks. So now I’m right back where I started, except I’m a little bit farther along in the plot of the epic cosmic soap-opera I’m committed to keeping up with. (Up with keeping to which I am committed?) No cure for comic book addiction. Nemo had fun at the comic book store, too, pointing and babbling at expensive resin statues of Superman which I assume he wants for Christmas.

The comics I read this morning were good, for what it’s worth, but I’ll hold off on saying any more than that because the storyline is very much still going, and it should have a definitive ending in a few more issues, and I’ll be able to judge its merits more meaningfully then. For now I’m just happy to have had a chance to gorge on brain candy for the first time in a while.

I could explain who these guys are but ... that information is the very definition of 'trivia'.
That cover above is from a comic from 1986 or so. I used to own that particular comic but that was before I became really geeky about saving every issue, so it has long since disappeared. But the two guys on the cover? They figure pretty prominently in the current epic, which makes today's story a more-or-less direct continuation of what was going on 23 years ago. Seriously. In reference to the more socially unskilled trolls out there I've been known to say "Sometimes I am ashamed of our people." But when I think about how long I've been a Green Lantern nerd, most of the shame is self-directed.


National Novel Writing Month starts on November 1st, which means I have about a month to decide if I want to do it this year or not. I’ve done it twice before, first in 2001 and then in 2006, but I haven’t had great success. National Novel Writing Month is a crazy web phenomenon where people encourage each other to write like fiends for 30 days and produce a 50,000 word story in that time. (50,000 words is a “novel” like The Old Man and the Sea is a “novel”. But National Really Long Short Story Month isn’t zippy.) The results aren't necessarily good, but it's all about crossing the finish line and realizing that something seemingly unthinkable - writing a freaking novel - can actually be done when you disregard hang-ups like quality and coherence. The math breaks down to writing about 1600 or 1700 words a day. Yesterday’s post was about 600 words, by comparison. But at least I’m in the habit of writing every day, so that’s encouraging. Also, I have an idea for a story that would be fun (for me to write, at least – no guarantee anyone would have fun reading it).

My two previous attempts went like this: in 2001 I tried doing something that was very close to a straight memoir. I succeeded in the sense of writing 50,000+ words between the first and last days of November, but those words did not constitute a complete story. They barely covered setting the stage. Every so often I think about returning to that and working my way through the middle and end, but I haven’t yet. In 2006 I came up with a completely fictional story (sci-fi, and pretty dark in a way that bore absolutely no resemblance to my mood that year) and a plan for how I could cover the whole thing in 50,000 words, but I lost focus about two-thirds of the way through and so that also remains unfinished.

This year’s idea is somewhere in the middle, and ideas for it keep popping into my head so it’s got some legs, and like I said, I’ve been able to carve out writing time every day for the past month, so … we’ll see.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Contracting" is another word for "catching a disease", right?

It’s been a weird couple of days at work. Yesterday I tried working from Crystal City, and I didn’t really get much done (which is par for the course for the last three months) but I felt like I could have been getting more done if I had been in the Rosslyn office, on the government network, able to poke my head in teammates’ cubicles, etc. So today I came to Rosslyn and it looks like I might be camping out here for a while, at least until we get through the project I was recently put in charge of (a server migration, if that means anything to you, and if it doesn’t, fear not, I won’t be getting into any of the technical details of it here).

My supervisor finally realized today that I would be haunting the Rosslyn office more now that I have my own building pass and network permissions and whatnot, so this morning he stopped by the cube where I’m squatting and he invited me to walk with him around the office so he could introduce me to other people who work there besides our specific team. And it sounds corny as hell but that really made a lot of my built-up anxiety go away. For the past three months I’ve been trying not to be too thrown off by the cognitive dissonance of knowing that I have a job and I’m getting paid and yet feeling like I’m not contributing to anything. Touring around the office doing grin-and-grips doesn’t necessarily make me feel like I’m contributing anything, either, but it at least made me feel like I was part of a team that might collectively make contributions. Or something like that. Also - Rosslyn office had Krispy Kremes for everyone today. Score.

Towards the end of the walkabout my supervisor introduced me to a fairly high-up government guy who was super-excited to hear that I was a web-database developer. Apparently if my supervisor can’t keep me busy enough, there’s some projects that are purely in the drawing board phase now which I might get conscripted into working on (read “working on” as “being solely responsible for everything from design to implementation because no one else really has a clue what that entails”). I’m not getting too excited yet, because I’ve heard that line before and seen it come to absolutely nothing, but again, it was nice to be able to imagine my job actually involving programming work again at some point.

Of course then I had to get down to the business of trying to coordinate this server migration as it comes down to the wire, and I finally got an answer to one of my questions, which was simply “how long can we expect the set-up to take?” I had predicted that the answer would be “about a week” and I had been telling my team as much and making contingency plans for holding everything together for a week of downtime. The real answer, as it turns out, is “4 – 6 weeks” and my reaction to that news can charitably be described as follows:

Yep, right down to the shrieking like a little girl.
Don’t worry – I got over it. As the day went along I remembered that in the world of government support offices it takes a lot for people to get really worked up over things, and I don’t really care if this project takes six times longer than I expected, but I care if other people (like my supervisor and his superiors) are upset about it. But when I circulated the info it didn’t faze anyone. Nevertheless I am very much looking forward to the weekend and just not thinking about work for a couple of days.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Flossing my craw (Vernon God Little)

I recently finished reading Vernon God Little and overall I really enjoyed it. Apparently it won the Man Booker prize and I’m not going to argue with that. But there is one particular aspect of it that stuck in my craw, and I’m going to try to dig it out here.

The book is a satire, which to me means any reading of it has to make allowances for certain exaggerations and grotesqueries which, on examination, are not realistic. I am a big fan of exaggerations. At certain points, especially towards the end, I’d argue that Vernon God Little verges into being a fable, and I think that encompasses even more suspension-of-disbelief. I’m just laying all of those cards on the table to emphasize that when something in the book strikes me as not realistic, I mean above and beyond every other intentionally distorted aspect of the book.

I’ll try to give a thumbnail summary of the book for context: the title character (whose middle name is not really God) is the best/only friend of another kid who went on a shooting spree at school and then turned the gun on himself. The small-town Texas community is grieving and in shock and has no one to take these feelings out on thanks to the perpetrator’s suicide, so they end up turning on Vernon, who tries and fails to exonerate himself, then runs away to Mexico, then gets caught and brought back and put on trial, sentenced to death, but (SPOILERS!) finally is exonerated by others, gets pardoned, and gets his revenge on some of the people who wronged him along the way. Vernon’s misadventures in town, in Mexico, in the courtroom and in prison are mainly there to keep the plot bouncing farcically along. But as every good English major learns (and even I managed to pick up) books are never about the plot, they’re really about society. In the case of Vernon God Little, it’s about the media and the justice system and how people generally regard the two and in some cases can’t really tell the two apart and neither one of them ever does much in the service of the actual concept of justice.

So if I were actually writing this up as a five-page paper for Contemporary American Lit I’d have to start running through examples (and decide whether to look at them in the order they’re described in the book or in order of importance and oh dear Lord just thinking about it has me flashing back to early 90’s DOS word processing programs with blue screens and white text and menus running off the Function keys) BUT lucky for you I am just going to look at one example. Because, as I believe I mentioned, it is stuck in my craw.

There’s a hinge point in the book where Vernon is on the bubble in the court of public opinion, maybe some people think he must have had something to do with the school shootings, maybe some people think he’s being unfairly persecuted. Then a shady, self-promoting bush-league journalist cons his way into Vernon’s house by buttering up Vernon’s mom, videotapes a bunch of footage, spins it so that it all makes Vernon out to be an antisocial psychopath, and gives the whole report to the news media. Overnight Vernon is made into a monster.

I get what DBC Pierre is doing there. Society always means adult society; adults usually see teenagers as near-monsters anyway and can be easily convinced to drop the “near-“; all teenagers are rebellious, which comes across as antisocial, so finding evidence to prove they’re dangerously antisocial isn’t hard. Some teenagers like slasher flicks and actually root for the bad guy and enjoy every bloody demise onscreen, but that doesn’t mean that all of them have a deep desire to go out with a machete and hack up the residents of a sorority house, and they’re sublimating it through watching the movie. Still, if one teenager were to kill a college student, and the police (or a shady reporter) found a copy of Sorority House Massacre in his effects, a lot of people would cluck and tut and see a distinct pattern. Everyone is guilty sometimes of oversimplification, of looking for a simple explanation where things are almost always more complex and sometimes flat-out unexplainable. It’s a little ridiculous, though, and we should be better than that, and satire exists to point out the ridiculous and raise our awareness of it along with the likelihood that maybe we can change for the better.

(I worked on the campus satire magazine in college. I have pretty well convinced myself of the noble necessity of laughing at things that are awful. You may think that it sounds like a lot of self-important and naïve pigcrap. We can agree to disagree.)

Right, so, basic premise is good, and some exaggeration is to be expected. What exactly does the reporter find in Vernon’s room? Horror movie posters? Heavy metal albums? Drug paraphernalia? All good guesses, but in the end, it’s porn. Which makes sense in the larger context of the book because a lot of it is about sex and sexuality, especially the ending. But the reporter finds two kinds of porn. One is a collection of fetish pictures on Vernon’s computer, featuring naked amputees. Actually, Vernon isn’t into that sort of thing and only has those pictures because he knows he can print them out and bring them to a local guy who is totally into that sort of thing. The guy is too old to know how to surf the web and too poor to afford a computer or an internet connection anyway, but he can afford beer, and he trades kids like Vernon beer for printed out fetish porn. I found that whole arrangement pretty funny, just another clever satirical grotesquerie.

The other “porn” is one of Vernon’s mother’s lingerie catalogs. A few pages of which are stuck together. Here is my quibble: COME ON. Is Vernon’s embarrassment at having evidence of the liberties he’s taken with photos of underwear models understandable? Of course. Is the contrast between Vernon feeling no shame at collecting hardcore amputee shots for some crazy old man, and his feeling deep shame that he’s personally had a go at mom’s intimate apparel circular, a neat effect? Totally. My real quibble is the fact that the reporter makes such a big deal out of the catalog – as if the amputee porn isn’t enough! – and that the public totally buys into that.

I know that America, collectively, has a large pole up its butt about sexuality. We can certainly stand to loosen up about sex. We deserve to be ridiculed and satirized for being puritanical. But really, honestly, is there anyone in America today (and that’s when Vernon God Little is set, not in the hyper-repressed Leave It To Beaver 50’s, but today) who thinks that teenage boys who masturbate are perverts? I totally buy that in the great divide between Liberal Elitist Coastals and God-Fearing Humble Flyovers there exist mindsets and frames of reference in which a person who enjoys looking at amputee porn-with-a-capital-P is a pervert-with-a-capital-P and so sick and twisted that murder would not be outside their potential scope of interests, QED MFer. What I don’t buy is that anyone, anywhere now would think it was an obvious and self-evident conclusion to say, “He jerked off to a Victoria’s Secret catalog? What a sicko! He probably helped kill those kids, too.” That’s not an exaggeration of how uptight Americans are about sex, it’s not a caricature, it’s just absurd. It stretches the truth so far that, for me, it snaps apart to the point where I can’t resolve the incongruity.

But – am I wrong? Am I such a Liberal Elitist Coastal Douchebag that I’m just unaware these people exist? I thought we – all of us, America, the West, society - had at least gotten as far as “kids playing with themselves is normal”. Maybe there’s some healthy debate about whether or not it’s all right to talk about it in public, or in public school health classes, and whether or not encouraging it will actually speed children along to orgies of debauchery and spiritual ruin, but as far as fundamental facts (it happens, it’s not perverse) I thought we were all on the same page. Am I wrong? I think Pierre reached a little too far trying to prove a point about how uptight and judgmental society can be and invented a false mindset that doesn’t exist anymore (if it ever did), but maybe it’s just a slight distortion of a worldview that very much prevails. I don’t know.

In any case, whatever the answer, it just makes me want to go to Texas less and less.

Oral Fixations

First things first: little Wolfram suffered a self-inflicted injury yesterday at daycare. He bit his Tungsten. (Hiyo! Chemistry puns! This is why my Area III major friends hate me.) Nobody saw exactly what happened, but given how often he sticks out his tongue for no apparent reason, and the fact that he’s still not walking full time and tends to sit down as hard and fast as he can in order to start crawling when he wants to change his location, it really isn’t surprising that it happened (though apparently it was pretty shocking for the daycare workers to see him suddenly drooling blood). He’ll be fine, but it did make dinnertime and bedtime-snacktime yesterday a bit difficult as pretty much everything hurt his mouth. Thank goodness for baby yogurt (also, baby Motrin).

While Wolfram slept, Phosphora and I watched Top Chef, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before but which is a perennial household favorite. If you’ve been following the show at all this season then you probably know that Jen C. and the Voltaggio brothers are among the favorites to win, although the Voltaggio brothers are also fan favorites while no one seems to like Jen. There was some typical manufactured drama in last night’s episode because Jen was freaking out about deconstructing meat lasagna, but it all evaporated as soon as the judges tried her dish and obviously liked it a lot. This led me to speculate that either Jen is neurotically driven to be unreasonably hard on herself OR Jen is smart enough to understand the reality show conventions inside and out – there must be tons of confessional footage that doesn’t get edited into the final cut of each episode, but if Jen looks into the confessional camera and says “I think I may be going home this week” (a phrase that is almost as cliché in reality-tv-land as “I didn’t come here to make friends”) there is almost a 100% chance the editors will use that footage, because it’s ready-made for the kind of pseudo-foreshadowing reality shows need in order to be compelling. It is utterly irrelevant whether or not Jen actually believes she’s going home. That of course begs the question of why Jen – or any contestant – would go on Top Chef in the first place. Is it just the chance to win $125K? Or is it the chance to be on television, which would increase their focus on getting camera-time? (Or, obviously, both in some proportional combination.) The secrets of a reality show contestant chef’s heart are all but unknowable, of course, but that’s where my mind goes.

Meanwhile, the Voltaggio brothers just have a super-cool last name. Phosphora and I agree that it sounds like some kind of awesome vintage robot name. If Nicola Tesla had been a Batman-style crimefighter, his Alfred the Butler would surely have been an automaton named Voltaggio. (That really makes him more of a Tom Strong-style crimefighter but that reference is of course way more obscure and ri-dork-ulous.) At this point I cannot even say “Voltaggio” – it’s “VOLTAGGIO!”. And I can’t even say that without picturing some kind of clockwork marvel with a mechanical mustache.

Voltaggio doubles as a pizza oven and is programmed to sing opera ... but sadly, not to love.
Incidentally, Mechanical Mustache is the name of my new band.

And speaking of crimefighters, Moxie Crimefighter Jillette’s dad Penn was on Top Chef last night, too. I love Penn and Teller. I wish they had gotten more camera time.

I may post again later today to talk specifically about a book I finished earlier this week, so … you have that to look forward to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Your tax dollars at work

Anyone who read the blog on Sunday and thought, “Huh, he tossed out a barely-there post just to keep his streak of days posting alive, and he mentioned the streak itself in no uncertain terms … I bet he breaks the streak by Tuesday” … congratulations, your powers of divination are top-notch.

I’m realizing as this little vanity project goes along that my life does not always occur in discrete 24-hour chunks (and it never occurs in discreet 24-hour chunks, for that matter) which means sometimes it’s hard to pick the best moment to capture something, and some days are devoid of such moments. Obviously I am trying to keep the little random bits and pieces approach limited to Saturday Grab Bags, but I have entire days that are composed of many random bits and pieces, none of which ever get resolved. Yesterday was one of those days.

I had a work meeting yesterday morning which I was quasi-dreading. I didn’t really think anything bad was going to happen at the meeting, it just had an insidious effect on my day. It was a meeting with my teammates, all of whom are permanently set up at a government office in Rosslyn, while I usually work remotely in Crystal City. The Rosslyn office has a dressier dresscode, and I need to be escorted around the place because I don’t have a building pass. And by the time the meeting’s over, and I have to get to Crystal City, it’s no longer rush hour and the trains run slow, and the travel time cuts into the rest of my day (granted the rest of my day consists of surfing the web and working out in the corporate gym, but I like having plenty of time for those things) – there’s just a lot of annoying little things. Wah wah wah. As it turned out, my quasi-dread should have been real prescient dread because by the end of the meeting I had been informed that I would be the new pointman out in front for a process that has been going on for a while, needs to be done by September 30, and is currently NOT GOING WELL. On the one hand this is great for assuaging my general anxiety about never having any work to do at work, and if I can pull off a miracle I will look like the Golden Boy.

This Google Image search produced a lot of anime that I was very afraid to look into.
On the other hand it is going to be a huge stressor for the next week (and probably beyond if we miss the deadline, which we almost surely will) and it has nothing to do with the kind of work I like doing and thought I was hired to do.

But, this too shall pass. I made it back to Crystal City after the marathon meeting, and actually tried to start taking some steps on my new assignment by sending out a warning-shot e-mail. I wasn’t able to go work out because I felt I should stay at my desk to see if there would be any response to my e-mail (shockingly, there was not), and when the day was over I tried to let it all go, and headed home to pick up the boy, get him to bed, and of course watch The Biggest Loser.

(I’ve already asserted my love for that stupid show and guaranteed you that I’ll be watching it every week, but I’m not planning on blogging about it every week. It’s just not that interesting, not to mention the fact that the last thing I want is for this blog to start sounding like Bridget Fucking Jones’ Diary. I might bring it up if anything exciting or relevant happens. For example, Tuesdays when I don’t get to work out and then force myself to watch the zany trainer antics of TBL? Irritating.)

The big homefront news from last night is that little Blarney McWeeblewobble has settled the issue of talking or walking first, and the answer is … WALKING! Again following the theme of things rarely happening with stop-the-presses momentousness, the scales seemed to be tipping as early as Monday, when Blarney’s mom Morrigan was home with him in the afternoon and reported progress on both fronts. We always urge Blarney to “say bye!” when we retrieve him from daycare in the afternoon, and on Monday he did in fact parrot a perfect “bye!” Not exactly talking, especially not by the rules of the bet, but on the other hand the closest thing he’d ever done to saying a real word. Then, at home, he took three steps – definitely tentative, but unassisted, and clearly in line with the rules of the bet. Still, Morrigan and I both agreed to hold off on calling it one way or the other while we gathered more evidence. Last night I set Blarney in the middle of his bedroom floor so I could put something else away, and he very nonchalantly stood up and took seven steps toward a low table with a bunch of his books on them (he probably would have kept going if he hadn’t already reached his goal). So, yeah, he’s ambulatory. Morrigan wins the bet. (She also came within guess-the-MNF-points-total of winning the pick'em pool this week. She's on fire!) Cue the anecdotes about literally having to run around after the baby as he streaks through the house … coming soon!

Meanwhile, the whole of Tuesday came and went without posting here. Now I’m a good chunk of the way through Wednesday and I’ve been to the Pentagon (where I was successfully able to obtain an access card for the government computer system and a building pass so I don’t need an escort in Rosslyn) and I’ve made some progress on my Mission:Improbable assignment. I haven’t been to Crystal City at all (so no workout again, argh). And soon I’ll be picking up young Mr. McWeeblewobble and I’m sure the daycare workers will tell me that he ran them ragged all day.

I did get to witness a crazy scene at the Pentagon, though. There’s an office at the Pentagon where you can get both the items I needed today … assuming that you have all the proper clearance, the signed (and sometimes counter-signed, which is something I’m not even really sure what it means) paperwork, and the time to wait in line because they have about six or seven administrators manning the stations and they get hundreds and hundreds of people coming through every day. I got there a little after 8 a.m., and the office opens at 8:30 a.m., and of course there was line of fifty or so people who all had the get-there-early idea. Just before the office opened, the manager of the office stepped out to address the mob, and he gave a little spiel which I thought was both smart and humane. He explained how everything worked and what everyone needed to have, and the main purpose of that seemed to be so that if anyone didn’t have what they needed, they could leave (as opposed to sitting around for an hour while twenty-five people went ahead of them , and THEN finding out they weren’t going to be able to get what they needed because they lacked a magical counter-signature). I’m sure you will be stunned to hear that, in accordance with statistical probability, there was in fact a woman in line who didn’t have paperwork to get her new badge, because it was technically a renewal and she thought she didn’t need any. Of course, she chose to focus on the negative aspects of how much time she had wasted just by coming to the Pentagon and the bad info she had been giving about not needing paperwork, rather than the positive of the office manager saving her some potentially wasted time, but I can understand the frustration. I can’t understand the overly dramatic huff in which she chose to stomp off, but that’s just not my scene. She was actually yelling, really to no one in particular, “They don’t tell you that you need any fucking paperwork!” She may have repeated that particular bit of observational philosophy twice.

Where it got crazy was when a man who was also waiting outside the office decided he really needed to get in her face. Not about her attitude per se or the fact that she was yelling, but specifically about her profane language. In fact the man got just as loud and just as angry as the woman, he just claimed the moral highground by virtue of not dropping any F-bombs. It actually took the woman a bit to figure out what was going on; first she thought he was just yelling at her for yelling, and she defended herself by pointing out how fucking ridiculous the set-up was, and then he laid into her with “You are in the Pentagon! There is no place here for language like that!” (Which … wow. Just wow.) So she deliberately retorted with “Oh get out of my face, you fucking creep” which of course only riled the guy up more. It actually escalated to the point where the guy was abandoning his place in line to follow her and keep berating her, which prompted her to yell even more loudly, “Somebody help me! This man is harassing me!” I don’t know if you’re aware of how HEAVILY ARMED the Pentagon police are, but basically the woman was trying to push the whole conflagration to the point where it would have actively involved semi-automatic weapons. I’m pretty sure it didn’t get to that stage, but at that point it had proceeded beyond my line of sight (and I wasn’t giving up my place in line, nosirree.)

I am a huge advocate of free speech including the protection of four-letter words’ right to exist. I think cussing serves an important purpose in being human and has a glorious history, BUT I also think that profanity has its proper time and place and there are certainly times and places where a person can be in the wrong for resorting to vernacular descriptions of sex acts and other bodily functions. I also try my best not to be too judgmental of my fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth and I have a hard time wrapping my head around any notion of circumstances where I am SO sure I’m right that I’d be justified in aggressively scolding and belittling someone else. I guess all of that means that I was more on the woman’s side than the guy’s – assuming there are sides to take in a trainwreck.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tales of the Basement Freighter

At one point at yesterday’s party I found myself in the basement with four small children, two brothers (one three years old, one six) and a brother and sister (he’s three, she’s six). These pairs of siblings had never met before, but the out-of-town guest of honor for the party had recently reconnected with the mother of the two boys and invited her along – which was fine by me, devout believer in the equivalence of The more and The merrier that I am. The kids got along great, and I was chaperoning them in the basement just to make sure that none of them got intrepid enough to explore The Pirate Bar.

Yes, I have a pirate bar in my basement. When my Little Bro was done with the Army and not yet employed in the private sector, and he was living with my mom and step-father, and my step-father was home on long-term disability, Little Bro and step-father decided to build me a pirate bar for Christmas because I made an offhand comment about wanting one. SOMEDAY. Like you might say someday you want a vintage jukebox for your rec room, or you look forward to someday being old enough to wear melon-colored sansabelt slacks in public. The bar is a thing of beauty, designed to look like the broadside of a ship, with a laminated top surface decorated like a treasure map. It weighs over two hundred pounds, and I have no idea how I’m going to move it when we outgrow our townhouse, but I really do love it. And I’ve put it to good use at many a hard-drinking party in the misty past. It is well stocked. I could wipe out an infestation of three-to-six-year-olds with just the volume of brown liquor alone. So, you know, my homeowner’s liability cap only being so high, I thought I should keep an eye on the rambunctious younguns.

So I kept them out of the booze but I did give them some paper pirate hats and plastic hooks left over from a previous party, and they all proceeded to pretend the entire basement was one big pirate ship and everyone had specific roles and therefore specific seats on the futon or the easy chair or whathaveyou. (I found that to be very Star Trek, but I didn’t pry as to where the kids got that idea.) I was “the cook” because I was standing behind the bar.

Pirate Cook is the new codeword for Bartender ... OUTTASIGHT!!!
Close enough. Anyway, have you ever tried to keep up with an extemporizing six year old? I have found that the best thing to do is basically agree with everything they say. If a six year old tells you that it is time to take the pirate ship to A-Speed, then you might as well hold on and holler like you’re on a roller coaster until he says stop, and if he immediately announces the ship is going to go A-Speed again, but this time flying, because there are giant shark-eating land worms blocking the beach where the ship had landed, then you holler again.

You would think that, given my comic book and action figure collections and the sundry other ways in which I am a completely typical Gen X-er enjoying a never-ending adolescence, I would have nothing but eager anticipation for my own son’s development into a three-to-six-year-old who plays crazy imaginary games, but I actually worry about it sometimes. Because for as long as I can remember I have been obsessing over the rules of games, from the exhaustively nerdy arcane of something like D&D to the competitive strategies of Dreamblade or Heroclix to the sugarplum fairy dancing statistics of pro sports. If you want to know how many points of damage a cockatrice can dish out, or what combos are no longer tournament legal, I'm your geek. This is what geeks do; even when we make things up as we go along, its always within a rigid framework that can inspire schism-inducing arguments of interpretation. I wonder sometimes if I still have the capacity to play non-structured open-ended silly freeform games. Based on yesterday’s pirate adventures, I can apparently do it, but I do well to stay out of the way and follow where small children lead me. But that’s probably good enough.

At a different point in the afternoon, upstairs with the rest of the guests, I was talking to one of the three year old boys and he looked at me with an utterly deadpan expression and informed me: “You. Talk. VERY. Loud.” And I cannot argue with that – I absolutely do. But to be told this by a three year old was hilariously humbling.

The party itself was successful in that a good time was had by all, and even made me feel pretty good about living in northern Virginia, because our out-of-town friends brought beer from Total Wine and Beverage, a store which they had never heard of before because apparently New York City lacks that particular chain. I was happy for my friends that they got to experience the majesty of Total, and even happier for myself that I have one within five minutes of home. The beer they brought was good, too (although to be honest it takes a fairly disastrous brew for me to dislike a beer) - a Magic Hat seasonal called Roxy Rolles, and a microbrew flavor called The Raven Special Lager. Recommended!

The Sounds of Silence

Another plausible name for this entire blog effort would have been "Sometimes I Make Dumb Decisions" because that is a category I could maintain pretty specific focus on and yet never run out of material. For example, yesterday's itinerary included getting up early, finishing cleaning the house, setting up for and then hosting a party, enjoying a few beers (and these days, anything more than one beer makes me sleepy like a mattress-store mascot), and cleaning up the party aftermath ... AND YET I convinced myself that I needed to stay up until midnight to watch the end of the Giants-Cowboys game, despite the fact that I usually find Monday mornings somewhat difficult to face even if I go to bed half an hour after the baby.

Still, the reason I make so many dumb decisions and just kind of roll with the consequences is because the things I decide to do are their own reward. It was inordinately satisfying to see the Giants kick a last-second field goal (technically to see them kick two of them as Wade Philips tried the old "ice the kicker" gag to no avail) to end up on top of what was a hell of a game, and then listen to the hush of the 100,000 Cowboys fans in attendance stunned and crushed. I no longer wonder what gobsmacked sounds like when turned up to 11:

Nice place you got there, Jerry.  Can't wait to come back!
Bwahahaha. The Cowboys have really had the Giants' number whenever the G-Men go to Texas, especially recently, so it was a huge relief to get a win. Doubly so for all the hype about the Cowboys' new stadium, most of which I thought was overblown but some of which I thought would have an impact on the Giants' offense. I expected more NY false start penalties. I expected more missed signals and blown routes. But the Giants apparently had icewater transfusions yesterday because they just stayed focused, moved the ball, and did their jobs. Meanwhile, I would love to take this as a sign of things to come for the Cowboys. They're too good a team to really suffer utter humiliation and ruin, but if they end up losing more games than they win at home this year, I will just laugh and laugh and laugh. This is (one of many reasons) why I never pursued a career in sports journalism. I like storylines too much to just stick to the facts. I would be looking - praying - for evidence of a Curse of the Egodrome, for a narrative that showed that the billion-dollar new stadium was the worst thing that could have happened to the Cowboys, and if their straight W-L record didn't prove my point I would have to invent some other bizarre numerological interpretations of their gypsy-hexed suckitude.

I will probably break blog tradition and post twice today, because I do want to recap some of the highlights of yesterday's gathering, but I wanted to make sure I got the fan-gloating out of the way early. Giants are 2-0 ... woot!

Sunday, September 20, 2009


If I haven't already said so explicitly (too tired to either remember or look it up) you've no doubt noticed that I get a little obsessed with numbers sometimes. Sports, mostly, with scores and records and points and such, but really I mentally run the numbers on almost everything. Maybe one of these days I'll dig into why exactly that is.

Another number I'm interested in? 24, as in, 24 consecutive days updating this blog. That's the only reason I'm posting tonight, at the end of a long, fun, but very draining day. Just want to keep the streak going. More words, and hopefully more coherence, tomorrow.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saturday Grab Bag’s Revenge

The Michigan Wolverines won today and are now 3-0, which makes my wife (and her whole family) pretty happy. The NY Giants have the Sunday Night game tomorrow, which means after playing the local Redskins last weekend, I get to see them on tv two weekends in a row (I’m enjoying that while it lasts). My wife and I both have the Giants and the Steelers to win in the pick’em pool this week, of course.

The Yankees’ magic number to win the AL pennant is 10, and they have the late west coast game against the Mariners tonight. The Sox are in Baltimore (a match-up that could really go either way) but I’m optimistic that one way or the other I’ll wake up tomorrow and the Yanks will have a single digit in the E# column. That would mean the race could be over inside of a week, but there doesn’t seem to be much drama left in the AL East right now. Expect a resurgence in my enthusiasm (or obnoxiousness) once the playoffs actually begin.


The great “will little Zebulon walk or talk first?” wager remains unsettled. He’s making progress on both fronts but has yet to cross either marker definitively. He’s got the walking motions down, and his balance when he’s standing still is solid, but he won’t move his feet unless he’s holding onto something. Cruises up and down the sidewalk with quite a spring in his step, honestly – but only if he has his Tonka push-truck to lean on.

The noises he makes are getting more word-like, but aren’t quite there yet. The closest he’s come to articulating anything recognizable is “uh-oh.” I think that’s a borderline call as far as being a word or just emotionally inflected noise. Zeb’s discovered gravity, and I’m reasonably convinced that he somehow absorbed the idea that when anything falls down or gets knocked over (or gets thrown off the highchair tray) that “uh-oh” is the correct accompanying sound. Or I was reasonably convinced, until today when he just started a sing-song “uh-oh, uh-oh” loop for no discernable reason. Cute and all, but that’s not gonna win daddy any friendly wagers.

So yeah, no first step, no first word as of yet. Just Zebulon tugging at me to get up, holding on to just one of my fingers, wobbling along beside me and guiding me to the fruitbowl in the kitchen, then pointing at the bananas and going “Dis! Dis!” At this rate he’ll probably learn how to scale up the vertical surface of the cupboards to get to his precious golden fruit before anything else.


Last night I watched The Host, a South Korean horror flick that was released in the U.S. about two and a half years ago. It was what I considered Hipster Homework – something I had heard good things about and which was far enough outside my usual pop culture consumption habits to be horizon-broadening (and if I ever found myself at a cinephile cocktail party where someone asked me if I was familiar with the work of Bong Joon-ho I’d have something to say. Everybody envisions scenarios like that, right?)

I’d have to say the movie was a mixed bag in most ways, which was kind of frustrating because going in I wanted to like it. I was impressed by how many things the movie tried to be all at once: political allegory, social satire, action-adventure, family drama, monster movie, psychological horror, disaster movie, black comedy, and probably other things that were lost in translation. (I saw an overdubbed cut and I kind of wish it had been in Korean with subtitles. When movies get overdubbed I think they focus way too much on getting the dialogue to sync up, and it just ends up sounding stilted and unnatural, which is a major problem in a movie that swings in tone so much because it’s such a patchwork, and at any given moment it’s hard to tell if a scene is supposed to be funny or serious and the off-kilter translation of the dialogue is no help.)

Anyway, it was a pretty entertaining movie, especially if you’re into two or more of the many genres thrown into the mix, or even moreso if you’re amused by genre mash-ups. Parts of the middle dragged but there were some insanely brilliant moments that more than made up for the pacing problem. Highlights:

  • The CGI of the horribly mutated monster was really well done, a striking but realistic visual. Unfortunately the climax of the movie involves a coordinated Molotov cocktail assault, and the CGI flames look cartoony. Apparently my brain doesn’t have any prejudices about a man-eating polyploidal amphibian’s appearance, but it knows what flames are supposed to look like, dangit.

  • Why did I call it a horror movie when it crosses so many boundaries? Because a lot of horror movies don’t have happy endings. Consider yourself warned, then.

  • The flick has no shortage of bad guys in addition to the monster: modern science, the South Korean government (especially its equivalent of FEMA), crooked cops, the U.S. Army, and basically all of self-interested stupid humanity. The extent to which each of those groups is responsible for, or simply worse than, the monster itself is left as an exercise for the viewer.


And I’m spent. Gotta finish getting ready for tomorrow's festivities.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Kids are back in school, football season is underway, the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler. But it is still technically summer. I realized that this morning because my whole commute seemed oddly underpopulated, from the bus to the Metro to the underground shops between the station and my office. Usually I associate that phenomenon with federal holidays that my office stays open for (like Columbus Day) or the day before or after a holiday weekend when people can get a four or five day mini-vacation by only using 8 hours of leave. So I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure out what the occasion might be for which people would take a Friday off, but “last weekend of the summer” was the best I could come up with. And I’m not really sure if anyone really celebrates that.

I would love to take a random celebratory Friday off but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Over the spring and early part of the summer I took a lot of time off when little Ludwig von Howlsatnight had ear infections and couldn’t go to daycare, and I am now in the hole on leave time. I’m grateful that my employer is flexible enough to let me take off whatever time I need without much hassle and just let me work it off later, but it is nonetheless depressing to see a balance of -11.25 in the vacation slot on my timesheet. I should be back on the plus side sometime in November. Wheeee.

My employer is really flexible on a lot of points that make my life and work/family balance easier. Most days I work from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. so I can get home ahead of rush hour and get to daycare before they close. Of course that means I have to leave the house as close to 6 a.m. as possible, which means the alarm clock goes off at 5. Roosters don’t get up that early, man.

Always let sleeping cocks lie ... um ...
And over the last week or two I’ve gone from leaving the house as the sun is coming up to leaving the house when it’s dark. I wish I could come up with a devastatingly witty metaphor for how much that sucks, but instead I’ll have to ask you to trust me. It sucks. And reminds me that summer is going, going, just about gone. (I tried to find an appropriate picture of hourglasses or sunsets or whatever to signify the passage of time but everything I found was way too heavily symbolic and I didn’t want you to think I’ve turned into a depressed thirteen year old girl. Well, MORE of one.)

Still, even if I wasn’t able to blow off work today, and had to get up on the wrong side of sunrise, I am glad that it’s almost fall because I like that season, and I will celebrate on Sunday as we’ll have some out-of-town friends over and some local mutual friends as well. There was a distinct lack of cookouts in our summer this year but we’ve managed to pull together two in September. Here’s to procrastination.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Worky, Worky, Busy Bee!

Just kidding.  There is no pension plan.
(I know "corporate" is misspelled. I think it adds to the charm.)

I’ve touched on my day-to-day work situation previously, but again, to sum up: I spend most of my time at the office killing time, and if I choose to do some busywork related to the project I’m nominally assigned to, so be it, and if I putz around all day and never do any real work, nobody notices and nobody cares. Which might sound like a slice of heaven but is, for me at least, unsettling. I’ve had crappier jobs but at least a well-defined crappy job is something my brain can adapt to, find the bright side in, use as motivation, whathaveyou. The current arrangement is a void and gives me nothing to do anything with.

Yesterday, then, was pretty exceptional because I had two legitimate work-related items come up. One involved providing some feedback for a statement of work my company is bidding on – it’s not clear if I would end up working on the team that gets assigned the work if we win the contract, or if I was just being asked for input on the bid, but still, it was something to do. The second was a conversation with a member of my current team to discuss getting me a new badge and a new access card – I have a company badge but I need a completely different badge to get into government facilities, and I need an access card to log in to government computer systems. The conversation itself didn’t really accomplish much but it made me feel like my team hadn’t forgotten that I exist. (Yes, sometimes that thought gnaws at my brainstem.)

Of course as of this morning I still haven’t gotten any response from the person I provided bid feedback to, not even a “great, thanks” acknowledgement. And the badge conversation ended with my teammate saying “maybe I’ll come to your location tomorrow and we’ll get all this finished” but there’s been no follow-up on that today, either. So I’m back in limbo, but that’s the way things seem to work around here – looooooooong stretches of dormancy, occasional bursts of activity, and eventually you end up at Point B and you can look back at how you proceeded from Point A in tiny steps but the transit seems endless when you’re in the middle of it.

Also of note yesterday was a crazy person on the bus on the way home. This happens a lot less often than you might think, I suppose, if you think of “crazy people on the bus” in the more traditional context of local buses operating inside a big American city. 99% of the people on my bus route (myself included) are suburbanites heading to and from work who just zone out for the ride with their iPod or their commuter newspaper (or both). But every once in a while …

So the bus I ride is a pretty popular one because it connects more-or-less the end of the Metro train line with a parking garage even further out in the ‘burbs. The buses run every five or six minutes during rush hour and, even so, people will get on a full bus and stand in the aisle (not me, though, I can always spare five more minutes to wait for a seat on the next bus). But at the same time there are some undesirable seats on the bus, especially the ones at the very rear, where you basically have your back up against the engine, your butt right over the rear wheels, no leg room, etc. Also, if you sit in that very rearmost row, you’re probably going to be one of the last people off the bus when it pulls into the bay. So some people choose to stand in the aisle rather than sit in those seats, to avoid discomfort, get off the bus faster, whatever.

The bus pulled away from the Metro station yesterday afternoon and a guy – let’s call him Captain Cuckoo – was sitting in the rearmost row with an empty seat beside him. And he starts to go OFF about how no one wants to sit next to him because he has long hair and looks like an unsavory character. As I tried to enumerate above, there are plenty of reasons why people wouldn’t have wanted to sit there that have nothing to do with whom they’d be sitting beside. But Captain Cuckoo knew the real score and he was sharing it loudly (you have to be pretty loud to be heard over the bus engine back there) – I couldn’t quite tell if he was just talking to himself of if he had somehow snared a fellow commuter into at least simulating a conversation by smiling and nodding, it really could have gone either way. Captain Cuckoo just had that not-quite-right quality to his voice.

The good Captain then proceeded to soliloquize much of his life story, including the following (swear to Thunaraz, I am not embellishing any of this):

  • He was an admiral’s son so he’s not some loser, he comes from MONEY, dammit
  • He likes this area but the people are assholes
  • He just got out of jail that very afternoon, after serving two weeks for assaulting a police officer who is always riding his ass about something
  • He believes in the Holy Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit and he also believes the Devil’s Trinity is Politics-Science-Religion (I had actually managed to start tuning him out right before that so I have NO idea what the lead-in was, but some cocktail-party-phenomenon got my attention towards the end, which honestly makes me worry about myself)
  • His ex-wife is relocating, with no notice, to Carolina (North or South seemed unclear)

The part about the ex-wife was not soliloquy but rather part of a cellphone conversation … I think. All I know for sure is that a cellphone rang somewhere on the bus and then Captain Cuckoo was telling his ex-wife he can’t believe she’s moving. For all I know someone else’s cellphone rang and was ignored, and Captain Cuckoo started talking into an empty crayon box that he carries around as a personal communication device. I wanted to peek over at him and confirm one way or the other, but I’m not gonna lie to you, I was also afraid that if I glanced at him and accidentally made eye contact I would get stabbed with something blunt and rusty.

The bus ride ended without incident for anyone, and that really should come as no surprise. My imagination tends to run down some crazy back alleys sometimes and I was probably blowing Captain Cuckoo’s differentness from the other bus-zombies out of proportion. His monologue was a wackadoo tour-de-force, but (assuming he was telling the truth about just getting out of jail, and the cop being bound and determined to fuck with him) understandable under the circumstances, and probably not that different from things most people think but don’t give voice to.

Except that part about the Devil’s Trinity, man. That was crazy comedy gold.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fun and Games (in moderation)

Approximate retail value of the mass of little Korak’s toys in our living-dining room (that is, not counting in Korak’s bedroom, the backseats of our cars, etc.): $300,000.00.

Thing that held Korak’s attention the longest last night: stacking and unstacking red Solo cups on the dining room table.

I know, I KNOW, “Kid gets a shiny new toy … and ends up playing with the cardboard box it came in!” is something a stand-up wannabe would say at open mic night. In South Dakota. Somehow this does not make it any less bemusing when my boy embodies it.

Korak, unsurprisingly, wanted bananas (his new favorite food) for dinner last night. He knows where we keep them and he’ll point in that direction and babble and grunt until someone tall enough to reach them gets the idea. He would have happily gorged on an entire good-sized banana but I was hoping to give him a little more variety, so I distracted him long enough to put some peach yogurt bites and some cheese and some bread in front of him. I was feeling pretty good as he went to town on those, and then I realized those are all “beige foods” and not as varied as they could be. Luckily I managed to add some avocado to the mix before he got full, and thus keep my points total for Father Of The Year well above the cutoff line.

Speaking of points totals …

So the New York Football Giants won on Sunday (woohoo!) but last night was really my first chance to take stock of the dark and obsessive side of football season: fantasy football and pick’em pools. Things on that front are … not going well.

I think everyone is required by Internet Law to include this image on their blog at least once.
I’m in a fantasy football league with 13 other guys which means there isn’t a ton of depth at any position. The biggest name on my roster is Terrell Owens. I hate Terrell Owens and I never would have drafted him but I had to miss the draft in August so one of my buddies drafted for me and he took T.O. when it came around to my turn and that was the best projected value on the board. And I appreciate him doing me that solid. (He also drafted me the Giants’ defense/special teams because he knows they’re my boys.) But at this point I’m torn between trying to trade T.O., outright dumping him onto waivers, or just benching him all season so that no one else can take advantage of any flashes of brilliance he might have in Buffalo. None of which he had on Monday night, of course. I finished the weekend with a team score of 67.5 points, which was the fourth lowest score of the week. And it was touch and go there to not be Dead Fucking Last. I’ve been doing fantasy football for five or six years now and it doesn’t surprise me to be where I am. I’m pretty bad at it, but the season would be weirdly empty without it.

I’m also in a pick’em pool for the first time, as is Korak’s mom Jane. (Not Korak, though, tempting as it might be to let him make his own picks.) (You guys get that I’m doing a Tarzan theme here, right? So really it’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’s fault that my wife has to be “Jane” instead of something more intriguing. Like “Fanci”.) The pool is run by an old high school friend of my dad’s and a lot of my family is in it, including Very Little Bro and my 85 year old grandmother. My grandma who is now tied for first place after one week – she went 12 and 3! Jane went 9 and 6 and I went 7 and 8. There are 39 people in the pool and 11 of them did worse than I did. Not great (kind of like the Black Plague survival rate was “not great”) but I called a couple of upsets correctly, so that amuses me, and some of the ones I got wrong were literally only one point off against the spread, so my luck may change over the next sixteen weeks.

The fact is I am not very good at these games! So I would not expect too many victorious announcements here at Parenthetical Central. But I assume that hilarious stories about how hapless I am in both competitions is going to play better to the crowd in the long run anyway.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In the future we will all live on The Ranch

On the nights when my wife works late (her veterinary clinic is open until 8 p.m., but she can be stuck there doing after-hours work until 9 p.m. or later and then has a 40 minute drive home) I don’t usually have a set plan for myself between baby-bedtime and her arrival at our front door. I might do a modicum of housecleaning (usually laundry) or sneak in some hobby-time or watch half a Netflix movie, or some combination thereof. Chances are pretty good that I might just flip around the tv channels for a mindless hour or two. Tonight is one of those nights, but I know exactly what I’m going to be doing tonight.

Because The Biggest Loser is back.

I just started watching last season and I know that means I am terminally late to the party but good gravy do I love this show. I love the in-your-face gender role reversal of the male trainer who is all touchy-feely and nurturing and the female trainer who runs her gym workouts with a merciless iron fist. I love the fact that Alison Sweeney has the impossible job of providing play-by-play commentary for the physical challenges the contestants engage in and sometimes these challenges are isometrics, which means Alison is breathlessly describing PEOPLE STANDING VERY STILL. The only thing that could make this more entertaining is if Alison got into character as evil scheming Sami Brady from mid-90’s Days of Our Lives and really stirred some shit between the contestants – this has yet to happen but I remain hopeful.

I love every tried and true reality tv trope that The Biggest Loser trots out. I’m fascinated by the way that reality tv in general has blown up over the past decade or so and at this point I derive most of my entertainment trying to work out exactly what contorted definition of “reality” any given show adheres to. All shows create their own version of reality, just by inserting a camera crew into an otherwise normal situation and then by editing the raw footage that results. I trust shows like No reservations or Living With the Mek to keep the un-reality to a minimal if non-zero amount. And I expect shows like Rock of Love to be as thoroughly manipulated as Wrestlemania. Which doesn’t make any show inherently better or worse than any other – there is room in my brain for thought-provoking cultural anthropology alongside skanks and sleazy producers engaged in an on-camera battle of dim wits. The latest case I’ve been trying to wrap my head around is LA Ink, where Kat’s brother hired a new receptionist for the tattoo parlor while Kat was out of town, and despite the fact that the receptionist sucks at her job and annoys the artists, Kat hasn’t fired her. This gives the show a little more drama except that it is also phony as hell and reeks of producer interference. And to weird it up even more, the receptionist is Aubrey from Rock of Love (I forget which season) whose resume objective is obviously not so much “work as a receptionist in a tattoo parlor” as “work any job at a workplace that is featured on a reality show so I can get more camera time.” And honestly, in early-21st-Century America, Microsoft might as well include a resume template in Word that has that objective already filled in, I’m over that, but if Kat were really the artsy rebel she portrays herself to be wouldn’t camera-whoring be adequate reason to fire someone as well? Kat slides farther from Anthony Bourdain and more towards Bret Michaels every time I catch her show.

But wait, I was talking about The Biggest Loser, which never misses an opportunity to be an exemplar of the reality competition system. The show owns what it is and I am fully on board with this. Everybody lives together in a ridiculously pimped out complex (The Ranch) within walking distance of a full gym, so right there we have left the realm most of us recognize as “reality.” Then there’s the elaborate rules of the game. Instead of simply eliminating the contestant with the lowest percentage of weight loss each week, they give the decision to the other contestants to choose between the bottom two, so you get the elements of drama like Strategy, Alliances, Roll Call Votes, Feuds With Scores To Settle, and suchlike. They intercut the week’s activities with straight-to-the-camera confessionals just so you don’t have to think too hard to follow this week’s shocking developments.

The weigh-ins are just a masterclass in constructing artificial tension. First there’s a the scenario itself: if you can imagine yourself stripped to your shorts (ladies add a sports bra) and standing in front of a dozen other people and then getting on a scale that everyone else can read and then talking a bit about the number that comes up before being allowed to step down and put a shirt on, AND while imagining this you are not FREAKING OUT, then I salute your robust self-esteem. Second, this is not just any scale, this is a Crazy Roulette Scale where instead of stepping on and getting one number, you step on and get a random assortment of numbers that eventually settles on your weight. 290! 310! 285! 303! 261! 768! All accompanied by dramatic music. And occasionally, the numbers will still be randomizing, and the camera will cut away just when the “final number” sound effect hits, and we’ll get some reaction shots from the rest of the group and/or the weighee, clearly disbelief but is it happy disbelief or agonizing disbelief …? And we’ll cut to commercial. I can only imagine network executives saying “OK, we like this idea for a weight loss reality competition, but stepping on a scale is pretty boring for tv. Punch that part up.” And the showrunners punched the hell out of it.

Here’s the thing, though. You can create fake tension in the Top Chef kitchen by cherry-picking your confessionals and heavily editing the rest of the footage. You can run the Mantracker chase by one set of rules and then film recreated footage to fill in the gaps and the audience will either buy it or they won’t. And you can stage The Biggest Loser to be as overly dramatic as you please but what you can’t fake is people actually losing weight. Believe me, however many years ago the show first debuted, I was highly dismissive of it (what could be more boring than a diet show?) but when I finally watched I realized that people actually losing weight fascinate me.

I could stand to lose ten or twenty pounds. I’ve been dealing with my weight (poorly) ever since I was a little kid, for reasons which are not terribly deep: I love food and I don’t particularly like exercise. Food makes me happy. I tend to eat something because I’m craving its flavor way more often than I eat something because, y’know, I’m actually hungry or anything. I’ve actually learned over the past few years that exercise makes me feel good, but it’s never going to be something I have a passion for. If I think about the good things exercise will do for me, and the bad things that will probably happen if I don’t work out, then I can just about scrape together the motivation to hit the gym. I use a similar strategy to talk myself out of indulging in unhealthy food – benefits of skipping Chipotle and cost of cramming it in my face – and my success rate is similarly so-so. And I know none of this makes me a particularly unique case. Who wouldn’t rather eat much and eat well and hang out and relax than count calories on your plate and on the treadmill?

So maybe I’m just stating the obvious to make it clear that yes, indeed, sometimes when I watch The Biggest Loser I project a little. I’m not morbidly obese and I’m not at risk of dropping dead tomorrow (I hope) but I identify with the contestants on some level. I watch a lot of reality shows for the schadenfreude but The Biggest Loser is not in that category. The contestants all seem like decent people and I don’t begrudge any of them the (admittedly unrealistic) professional help they are getting to improve their lives, or the fact that they’re doing so on television. I wouldn’t exactly call The Biggest loser an inspiration, but it is compelling for me. And it keeps me out of the kitchen at a time of night when I would be most likely to be snacking just because I’m bored, alone and watching tv. In and of itself that makes it a Tuesday night lock for me.

Finally, in keeping with the “junk food is the enemy!” theme, here is an awesome tribute to the arcade classic Burgertime:
From the artist's Angry Pickles In Underpants period

Monday, September 14, 2009

Caverns & Chimeras

Over the weekend I managed to fit in a couple of activities that illustrate pretty much polar opposite ends of the spectrum of my dork interests (or, technically, the ends of one specific axis in the multi-dimensional spectrum, because if we don’t focus here, people, we’ll be at this all day). I finally finished reading Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. And I ran a game of Dungeons & Dragons for my friends. I am highly amused by the prominence of the mighty ampersand in both of these pop-culture artifacts, but I’m actually (hopefully) going to draw out some other connections.

Thomas Pynchon is fucking nuts. I read Gravity’s Rainbow last spring and yet I came back for more. Pynchon is a rulebreaker provocateur and I know that turns some people off because it’s like he’s deliberately trying to be obtuse and difficult, and for all I know that may well be the case. The total English major nerd in me, though, finds some kind of perverse appeal in the literarily insane.

So it took me about two weeks, mainly in the form of hours and hours of mass transit commuting every day, and I think I understood most of it. Not all of it, of course, because I’m a B-average English major nerd at best and there are (I’m sure) deep hidden meanings that would only be apparent if I re-read the book and did some research on the more esoteric topics Pynchon touches on, and even then I know I still wouldn’t get the whole thing because there probably are flat-out impossibly opaque stretches where Pynchon is just amusing himself. Understanding the whole book is kind of beside the point, though. Parts of it made me laugh, parts of it made me think, and maybe I ended up on the same page as Pynchon and maybe I went off on my own arc-tangents but ultimately it served the purpose I was looking for, a little entertainment and a little brain-exercise. (I’m terrified of developing Alzheimer’s someday, which is why my commute-reading is only 93% trash, because those few times I slog through a book that makes my neurons feel the burn I hope I’m doing my brain some long-term good. Check back in about 9,000 posts to see if it's working.)

So there’s a lot going on in Mason & Dixon, partly because it’s a picaresque novel by design and partly because Pynchon throws in as much of the fantastic as possible at every turn (small sample: self-aware mechanical ducks, were-beavers, Jesuit conspiracies, talking dogs, spectral pocket dimensions of time resulting from leap year calendar realignment) and as I was reading along I assumed it was going to be a parade of the bizarre for seven hundred pages and then stop. I was pleasantly surprised by how satisfying I found the ending. There really was a sense of closure to everything that had been building without my even being aware of it. (And I know it sounds like I’m being coy as if I’m avoiding spoilers, but really I’m just hoping you’ll take my word for it because if I were to get into the details, again, we’d be here all day.) I think good endings are rare and valuable so I’m always happy to come across one, especially where I wasn’t expecting anything of the sort (acknowledging again that my expectations have to be considered in the context that, really, I’m not that bright).

Speaking of endings, I’m a big believer in blockbuster endings for role-playing games like D&D. And when we’re talking not just “like D&D” but “yes, in fact, D&D” I think that there should be a dragon at the end of every dungeon (It does what it says on the tin!) … at least metaphorically speaking. The D&D game I’ve been running once a month or so has not gotten far enough along to see any dragons yet (the why’s and wherefore’s may very well constitute an entire separate post in the future, as this is something I could babble about for days, probably much longer than I could spend analyzing Pynchon) BUT I thought I had come up with a pretty good Big Bad:

That’s “MISTER Enormous Carrion Crawler” to you, cha-cha.
The Enormous Carrion Crawler. Yes, this is basically a giant bug, but it’s a giant bug that I have vast nerd-powered reserves of affection for, because it’s a version of one of the monsters that became an instant favorite when I was ten years old and got my hands on Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. My friends and I have been running role-playing games for each other for nearly half our lives, and sometimes being the one running the game can feel more like work than pure joy (but we suck it up and take turns being in charge and it all works out) but this time I was GEEKED. Because I got to be the Enormous Carrion Crawler.

The danger of getting really emotionally invested in an idea for running a role-playing game for your friends (or maybe not YOUR friends, but unquestionably for MY friends) is that you have no guarantees how the game is going to go. I love role-playing games because they’re essentially collaborative storytelling in genres I really dig. I like reading stories about wizard and elves fighting giant bugs (see “93% trash” above) and writing a story like that on the fly with the help of my friends is sweet, sweet brain candy. Assuming my friends are on board.

When I was in, I don’t know, seventh grade or so, we had to memorize definitions for literary terms like “exposition” and “denouement” and I will always remember that the definition of “climax” was “the moment at which the main character’s fate is most in doubt.” So clearly the Enormous Carrion Crawler represented the climactic moment in my game – but what would my friends do at such a pivotal moment, with their fates hanging in the balance? Would they be underwhelmed and laugh at my attempts to make a hypertrophied garden pest a threat? Or would they be overwhelmed, think the risk of being killed by the monster was too great, and run away?

Well, there was a hookah joke inspired by the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland but by and large my friends thought it was a worthy foe, and they braved the fight, which still could have sucked because role-playing games incorporate a lot of randomness by design and that can turn a potentially thrilling scene real ugly real fast, but I’ll spare you the dice-driven mechanical details and just say it all went down pretty groovy and a good time was had by all.

In other words, this weekend I finished a book that I thought would have a disappointing finish, and it ended better than I had expected, and I also ran a game that I hoped would have a climax that didn’t fall on its tentacled face, and it ended better than I had hoped. In my world, that is a win-win.