Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Grab Bag of the Living Dead

I'm currently reading Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman and I am loving the hell out of it, but I probably won't end up devoting a blog post to it when I'm done. Klosterman writes riffing pop culture essays on topics like how genius Saved By The Bell was, or what the sum total of Billy Joel's lyrics say about fame and glamour. He's kind of contrarian and kind of unabashedly a fan of pop culture, and sometimes he says stuff that is really insightful and sometimes he says stuff that makes him seem like kind of a jackass. Also, I've heard him on the radio (talking about the business of publishing on Marketplace on NPR because I am a nerd-beyond-measure) and he sounds a lot like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, whic makes him kind of off-putting and endearing in equal measure. Anyway, Fargo Rock City is a collection of essays on the single theme of heavy metal music, as filtered through Klosterman's own personal experiences growing up in rural North Dakota as a fan of the music. It's a great hang-out book, the literary equivalent of sitting around with someone who has a common interest and just talking that common interest to death. I don't think it's going to add up to anything profoundly worth blogging about, but for now I'm enjoying reading it. Here's an early quote that kind of sums it all up:

"Clearly, the definition of heavy metal is a purely semantic issue. That being the case, let's get as semantic as possible."

Which is pretty much exactly how my brain works. Just so you know.


I realized this week that I haven't said much lately about my little boy's continuing development, but rest assured that is neither due to said development stalling out nor to me not paying attention. Every day brings new delights in watching this tiny being, with new-human smell still detectable when you hug him and hold your nose against his round little head, figure out the world around him. He hasn't hit a major milestone like a discernable first word, but he adds random little tricks to his repertoire all the time. He has a pair of SpongeBob sunglasses which he won't wear over his eyes but likes to perch on top of his head. I'm not sure if he does this in conscious imitation of his mother and me, or just because it feels good. (I suspect the latter because he also likes to lay the phone cord across the top of his head. Which is not something his mother and I generally do.) He has gotten really interested in books, and he's figured out that if he toddles up to either his mother or me with a book in hand we will stop whatever we are doing, pull him onto our lap, and read to him. One of his favorites is a photo-illustrated ABC book, for which accompanying sound effects have become an intrinsic part of the reading. When we get to "L is for lightning" I do a pretty passable sonic recreation (if I do say so myself, although I admit it's probably closer to the sound of a transformer exploding after it gets hit by lightning, but whatever) and he LOVES that part. He's started trying to imitate my lightning sound, and it's an impressive effort, although his version involves a lot more spitting. I know I'll regret encouraging that, but I can't help it.

Anyway, he does stuff like that all the time. All kids do stuff like that all the time. I always swore to myself that I would never be one of those insufferable parents who regales people with stories about all the amazing things their kid does in a breathless tone that implies no other child has ever been so precocious. I think my son is precocious (and awesome and hilarious and the sweetest thing ever etc.) but I know that I am biased as hell on that score. This is just one of those areas I have trouble reconciling with the blog - if I note every little thing the kid does that makes me smile, it will surely wear thin, but if I never mention any of them, I'm really denying a big part of my life and my identity at this moment. This compromise - infrequent mentions when something big happens or a collection of little things reaches a critical mass - feels like the right way to navigate this, for now.

It's been a long Halloween so I think that's all for today.

Friday, October 30, 2009

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over

If I haven’t copped to it explicitly before, let me do it right now: I’m mockably co-dependent about the New York Yankees. I’m happy when they win, and I’m miserable when they lose. (I enjoy using Hootie and the Blowfish as a punchline as much as the next hipster, but I’ve always nodded understandingly at the part in “Only Wanna Be With You” where Darius Rucker sings “I’m such a baby, girl, the Dolphins make me cry.” I hear ya, Hootie.) I get hackles-raisingly defensive when people talk about the Yanks buying championships. I’m emotionally over-invested in them in a way that makes absolutely no rational sense, but it adds something to my life that I would miss if it were gone, so I leave it at that.

So of course I watched Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night; in fact; I watched the pre-game coverage and the opening ceremonies. I wanted to blog about the opening ceremonies, I really did. They announced the Yankees starting line-up to the accompaniment of the soundtrack to Star Wars – COME ON. The fact that it was specifically the music from the medal ceremony at the end of New Hope is laden with enough subtext for one of my longer posts in and of itself. Also, Yogi Berra was there, and if the mere sight of that goofball does not make you happy I question both your patriotism and the state of your soul. I have long wondered if the superlative mascot of Major League Baseball is the Phillies Phanatic or the San Diego Chicken but I’m beginning to think that the older and more adorable Yogi gets, the more he deserves the honorific.

The pinnacle of Western civilization
However, the debacle (for Yankees fans) that unfolded in Game 1 itself pretty much killed any desire to post about the World Series. I wasn’t quite despairing enough to believe that my hopes for a championship had been utterly dashed, but I was one playoff game’s worth of bummed and didn’t want to talk about it.

My mood has undergone a qualified improvement as of last night. It’s official: I’m done ragging on A.J. Burnett for a while. He was sharp as hell, and more importantly as sharp as the Yankees needed him to be, last night. The lone early run he gave up wasn’t technically unearned, but it didn’t really seem like his fault, since Ibanez scored from second after he got there on a ground-rule double that kissed the foul line on its way into the stands. I was frankly terrified when Girardi left Burnett in for the seventh inning, because pitching too long has been his undoing before, but he came through all right. Tex’s homerun was awesome (even if my wife made fun of me by doing the touchdown gesture because, you know, she reads the blog) and Matsui’s was even better. Rivera was Rivera. All good things.

A-Rod is now 0-for-8 in the World Series, though, and that’s troubling. From here on out, one of three things is going to happen. One, A-Rod will snap out of it and start contributing offensively in Mr. October-style ways as the Yankees win the World Series. Two, he won’t, but the rest of Murderer’s Row will cover for him and the Yankees will win the World Series anyway. I can live with either of those outcomes. The third possibility is that A-Rod won’t step up and the Yankees will go down with him and the story of the Phillies repeat will be overshadowed by the continuation of the A-Fraud saga. (Note there is no fourth option where the Yankees will lose the WS while A-Rod slumps but people generally acknowledge that it’s not A-Rod’s fault. This will never happen. Even if A-Rod only ever strikes out with the bases empty and less than two outs, he will take all the blame. Even if he hits several homeruns but the Yankees lose close games, which seems improbable, I still think he'll take heat for it somehow.) And like a true Yankees diehard I will be crushed to come so close and miss, but I think I might actually feel worse for Alex. So here’s hoping the Bronx Bombers all come back to life and take two out of three in Philly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just another bug hunt (Starship Troopers)

I saw Starship Troopers in the theater, which means way back in the fall of 1997. And I remember liking it well enough (although, to be fair, I am pretty easily amused, I love going to the movies especially with a group of friends, so I like just about everything that meets those criteria. Except Ang Lee’s Hulk.) Off the top of my head, if I were asked to name some specific things I recalled about it (and please bear in mind that these are the memories of a twenty-three year old single dude), at the top of the list would be “co-ed shower scenes”, followed by “Doogie Howser as a creepy Nazi-like psy-ops officer” and then “pretty good pre-millennial special effects that made the Arachnids look suitably alien but plausibly bio-realistic”.

Uhhh ... jibblie jibblie jibblie jibblie
(Seriously, remember when NPH wasn’t Barney Stinson or Dr. Horrible or a major awards show host or anything other than Doogie Howser?)

Twelve years can make anyone’s memory spotty and mine is notorious for that, but I still think that my list encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s commercial pop trash. It’s got some special-effects-driven battle scenes and it’s got some T&A, things that reliably sell tickets. The Nazi imagery I attribute to Paul Verhoeven’s particular (but not unique) lunacy and a maneuver I like to call “beating Godwin’s Law to the punch.” But let’s set the movie version aside for now.

Prior to seeing the movie (in fact, prior to this week) I had never read Starship Troopers. Which means I vaguely remember some people grumbling about the liberties taken with the Heinlein source material, but it didn’t mean much to me personally. Still, I think the existence of the movie helped raise the novel’s profile and I realized it was one of those sci-fi geek touchstones, which meant I felt like I should read it. Over a decade later, I can cross that off the list.

It’s funny thing how the various entertainment industries try to titillate us into consuming their offerings. With big-budget movies it’s sex and violence, boobs and explosions. With books it often seems to be the taboo allure of controversy, which therefore must be the highbrow intellectual version of sex and violence (assuming we’re going for a very oversimplified black-and-white contrast of books and movies. Which we are, what the hell, why not?). So sure enough, on the cover of the copy of Starship Troopers I borrowed from a friend, it is clearly marked as a “controversial classic!”

Having read the book it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. There are good things and bad things about Starship Troopers purely from an entertainment perspective. It’s very readable, which is something not to be taken for granted when it comes to sci-fi. Heinlein wisely gave the book a first-person narrator who works his way up through the military from the level of raw infantry recruit, and then interspersed tons of details about everything from hierarchical organization to sci-fi tech used by the troopers. Heinlein himself had military experience and also a hell of an imagination for coming up with futuristic elements like powered armor, and he brings all of that to bear but always in the context of what it means to the average joe, as represented by the narrator Johnnie Rico. Johnnie is forever in learning mode, sometimes literally sitting in History and Moral Philosophy class, which means Heinlein can go off for pages at a time with naked political proselytizing, and he does, but he writes those scenes as competent dialogue (or maybe I’m just a sucker for the Socratic method). And let us not forget the Bugs. “Bug” is a sci-fi synonym for “freakishly inhuman alien” and “bug hunt” means “human soldiers fighting freakishly inhuman aliens in alien territory” and these terms are widely geek-known (even the movie Aliens references them) but – as far as I can tell – Heinlein originated them, so credit where credit is due. I read sci-fi (ahem, “speculative fiction”) for the ideas as much as anything, and Heinlein has those in spades. On the downside, the book has no subtlety and honestly very little plot – just when it seems that Johnnie is ready to go from passive audience-relating cipher to protagonist, the book ends. It’s also quaintly retro as far as the attitudes towards women (so co-ed shower scenes was definitely something Verhoeven came up with on his own) – but it was written in 1959, so it was probably downright progressive for having female pilots in the space navy at all, treating them like porcelain dolls or no.

So the controversy comes down to the politics, which is essentially extreme pro-militarism. One of the few things that survived the transition from the novel to the screen was the idea of a future society in which all civilians have rights protected by laws, but only citizens are allowed to vote (and presumably hold office) and only people with military service are considered citizens. If you have the time, energy and wrecking tools to diagram the grammatically-questionable sentence I just perpetrated, you might notice that the key word is “idea”. High-concept sci-fi often comes down to a single idea that the author finds interesting enough to explore at length. A war between humanity and an alien species wasn’t that innovative an idea even in 1959. But the idea of what the human side of that war might look like in the future, if then-current twentieth century governments collapsed and something new rose up, something based on military might and heroic sacrifice as ultimate virtues – that was something Heinlein found interesting enough to examine.

If you don’t find that interesting, Starship Troopers will bore you to tears. However, if you find that interesting but disagree with Heinlein’s conclusions – that force and the will to exercise it are the only things that guarantee prosperity; that only men who have proven willing to die for one another and the homeland can be trusted to do what’s best for society as a body politic – then good for you for having a brain and opinions of your own. Agree or viscerally disagree, though – it’s just a book. It’s an imaginary story about imaginary people in an imaginary world which happens to share some history with our own. Surely there are things more worthy of being deemed controversial. Actions can be controversial. Policies can be controversial. These things affect people’s lives. They matter. Even certain kinds of art can be controversial if their creation involves exploitation of some kind, because again, that’s a real person’s life affected. An idea in a novel is ephemeral. At most it can inspire other ideas, in support or rebuttal, which leads to discourse which is always a good thing. I guess you could argue that a radical idea in a book that no one speaks out against could find its way into the hands of an impressionable child and inspire the next History’s Greatest Monster, but … that possibility seems remote.

And, as always, there’s the question of authorial intent. Can an author examine an interesting idea without either explicitly skewering it or implicitly endorsing it? Does Heinlein’s vision of a Terran Federation with vaguely western NATO-ish ideals that is worth fighting an interstellar war to defend mean that he really wished in his heart of hearts that the Constitution would be abolished and a military-ruled meritocracy established? Is Starship Troopers a manifesto, or just an intellectual sandbox to play in? I did a little research and found that Heinlein really did try to do actual political organizing that was pro nuclear armament, to oppose the anti-nuke peaceniks, which sounds very Starship Troopers. On the other hand, I’ve read Stranger In a Strange Land, too, which is pretty hippy-dippy-trippy. Which one is the real Heinlein? Maybe both. Maybe, like Walt Whitman, he contradicts himself and contains multitudes. The point is it is never simple to interpret a work of literature, even one as unsubtle as Starship Troopers. For example, one of the things that jumped out at me about the book was the fact that Johnnie’s childhood friend Carl, the one who is more or less responsible for directionless young Johnnie joining the military in the first place, gets killed later in the book and merits nothing but a passing mention. I read that as a signal of how the military has been steadily dehumanizing Johnnie, and how that’s the ironic price a militaristic society has to pay: it may be a disciplined, orderly, prosperous society but its best and brightest are rational, self-sacrificing heartless killing machines. That’s what I got out of it, and to a large extent it doesn’t matter if that’s what Heinlein wanted me to get out of it or not.

I mentioned Godwin’s Law up above (on the off chance you’ve never heard of it: as an internet conversation/argument continues indefinitely, the chances of someone invoking Nazis approaches 100% certainty), and I recently ran across another interesting internet-meme: Poe’s Law. In brief, fundamentalism is impossible to parody because fundamentalism is already so exaggerated that any attempt to parody it simply looks like an accurate reflection. This creates two different phenomena: one is when a person sees an example of fundamentalism and says “this has GOT to be a joke”; the other is when someone creates a joke and a fundamentalist takes it very much to heart as a legitimate case of likemindedness. Which begs the question: is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers novel a straight passionate defense of kill-or-be-killed xenophobia as functional political doctrine, or a mockery of it?

What about Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers film? A lot of people hated it because it seemed to basically glorify fascism. Which it does, but not in a way anyone could take seriously ... right? That picture way up above from the film, it comes from a scene near the end where the space infantry have finally captured a Brain Bug, a member of the Arachnid’s command caste, and Gestapo-NPH is mind-melding with it. He gets an emotional read on the Brain Bug and says “It’s afraid … it’s AFRAID!” and the space infantry goes nuts with victory cheers. I think this bears repeating: something called a BRAIN. BUG. Is found to be terrified of DOOGIE. HOWSER. And this symbolizes that the war is more or less won. This scene is FUCKING HILARIOUS. How could anyone think this was unironic?

Well, someone could. That’s the messy beauty of the human condition – interpretations vary. There’s an old saying about how it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because war onscreen looks cool as hell. (Or words to that effect.) Some people are going to see Casper Van Diem kicking ass and getting laid and just think it’s all good in the hood. Some are going to laugh at him, not with him. And some are going to be appalled. And it’s probably worthwhile to bring all of that to the discourse, but again, I don’t think the future of civilization hinges on coming to consensus on middling 90’s sci-fi movies.

One last interesting (to me at least) piece of trivia on some of the hate for the Starship Troopers movie, which stems not from philosophical objections but the lament that the movie is not all that faithful to the book. And man do geeks hate it when you’re unfaithful to the source. Apparently, if you think Verhoeven set out to film Starship Troopers and butchered it, you’re operating from a faulty premise. Verhoeven just wanted to make a slick sci-fi bug hunt movie, and someone at the studio realized that it had a superficial similarity to Starship Troopers. While the movie was already in production, the rights to the novel were acquired by the studio. And then semi-compatible parts of it were incorporated from there on out and the title was changed. Frankly, if that apocryphal bit of Wikipedia lore is true, I’m amazed the two works bear as much resemblance to one another as they do.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Phagocyte Dynamite

I am trying not to let the feeling of forcing the universe to bow to my whims go to my head, but I am highly gratified by the fact that a mere three days after I posted about really wanting to know how Saint Abby on The Biggest Loser ends up getting to the other side of the active grieving process, I actually have an answer. Abby got a lot of screentime last night and appeared (via magic of reality television post-production, I know, I know) to have something of a breakthrough regarding how she was going to go about living the life she has left. She also filled in a few more of the details of her backstory, which should satisfy any viewer’s general feelings of loose ends, from morbid curiosity (she wasn’t in the car with her family at the time of The Wreck because she was in the hospital) to sense of justice (the guy who was driving the other car at 100 MPH also died in The Wreck). By the end of the episode Abby had fallen on her sword and requested that her team agree to eliminate her so the rest of them could stay in the competition, and they obliged. Should have seen that coming, really. The bonus for the viewer at home is that whenever a person gets eliminated there’s an epilogue segment showing how they are doing “today” (time being relative on non-live television), so we got to fast-forward some through Abby’s story and see her in a much better place. Again, massive grain of salt and all that, but at the ranch she always came across as someone who was determined to get back among the living but not quite there yet, really good at faking it until she made it but still faking it. In her epilogue she appeared to have made it, and to me, that was a relief. The show manipulated me from the get-go with Nightmare Scenario Omega and I fully admit I was shockingly over-invested in Abby’s well-being as a result. I suppose I really should have known that the higher-ups at the Sheinhardt Wig Company would never have allowed a bereaved widow to appear on their feel-good inspirational competition and then exit gracefully but ambiguously, the resolution of her grief in a state unknown. Reality tv is no place for such verisimilitude.

There may or may not have been any connection between Abby’s breakthrough and going on The Biggest Loser; maybe it was coincidental timing and would have happened just the same away from cameras and boom mikes. But I’d like to think TBL deserves a modicum of credit, that there’s always a physical, biological component to all of our mental and emotional experiences, because that would be a useful tool to have access to. So much well-intentioned advice for coping with extremes of anger or sadness or frustration comes down to a blithe suggestion to cheer up. We tell people to change what they’re mentally focusing on, to let things go, to choose one mood over another, all of which are tricks which I consider about on par with consciously slowing one’s heartbeat to the death-trance rate (i.e., incredibly difficult if in fact empirically possible at all outside of pulp stories). We have a hard enough time defining consciousness, let alone controlling its direction as easily as we flip a lightswitch. I don’t believe anybody can just decide to stop being angry or stop being afraid or stop being depressed. But I do believe that if you give your body reasons to feel good, your mind and heart can follow. I’m not positive that’s true, but I want it to be true. Of all the reasons I’ve ever given myself to haul my ass onto the treadmill one more time – from admitted vanity about my appearance to irrational fear of dropping dead – the fact that running can be a weapon against anxiety or sadness or quivering rage might be at the top of the list.

And speaking of physical well-being, the little one slept much better last night than the night before. Still some coughing, but this does in fact seem to be a brief interlude in his otherwise rosy-cheeked existence. His mother and I are also still trying to rally past ambiguous cold-like symptoms but more or less winning the struggle so far. Huzzah for health!

One pill makes you larger ...
(The above image is the character Drix from the animated movie Osmosis Jones, which I personally have never seen but given the mind-bogglingly vast reserves of FAN ART the interwebs offered up when I inquired, I really wonder now what I’ve been missing …?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


The post title today has two applications. One is in reference to the general health of the Parenthetical household, which is on the decline but we are desperately hoping is a merely undergoing a brief dip with a quick course correction to follow. So far I’m getting off the easiest, with just a little more congestion than usual (I have allergies – I’m always a little bit congested) and that burning feeling of I’m-coming-down-with-something at the back of my throat. My wife is on the verge of losing her voice due to a very scratchy throat, and my little guy has a cough bad enough to wake him from a sound sleep (fortunately that’s his only symptom so far). Of course when the baby doesn’t get much sleep, nobody gets much sleep, even if everyone else is feeling hale and hearty. Which we’re not. Gack.

The bigger gack – GAAAACCCKKKK – is the H1N1. It hasn’t hit our household (certainly I don’t think the current discomforts are its handiwork) but it is out there and, I’m not going to lie here, it kind of freaks me out. So far I have stayed fairly calm but it does weigh on my mind. Amusingly enough, I was talking to Little Bro about the swine flu last night and found myself reassuring him that, even if he comes down with H1N1 himself, it’s Not That Bad. Nobody likes having the flu, especially when it hits brutally hard and fast, but it’s not the end of the world. He’ll live. That was actually kind of a revelation for him, because the way the media has been (semi-hysterically) covering H1N1, with all the focus on rising numbers of cases and overwhelmed ER scenarios and vaccine shortages, the unspoken implication seems to be that it is a matter of life or death, not convenience or inconvenience. But I further pointed out that, as far as the wider society that the media speaks to, it is a matter of life and death because the virus can be fatal for very old people and very young children. And of course at that point the conversation trailed off a bit awkwardly because I have a fourteen-month-old.

Fourteen months old may be the worst possible age to be in the fall of 2009. I would get the little guy vaccinated in a heartbeat, but at the moment our pediatrician is currently offering two H1N1 vaccination options: a very small number of injections for high-risk kids, babies under six months and the parents thereof; and the nasal mist for anyone between the ages of 2 and 49. I will count my blessings that my son is generally healthy and not a high-risk kid, but other than that, GACK. I know more vaccines will be available in mid-November, and that is helping me stay sane, but I will be pretty much holding my breath between now and then.

Last night sucked pretty profoundly, because there was very little either his mother or I could do for the little booger while he was coughing uncontrollably and crying miserably, each one feeding into the other. We (mostly she) went through those very little things, which brought forth more screaming, but eventually got him calmed down and back to sleep, more or less. We made it through the night. I’m devoutly hopeful today that last night was a metaphor for this H1N1 season. There’s nothing I can do, realistically, to prevent my kid from possibly being exposed to viruses in public. There’s nothing I can do to magically make the vaccines super-abundant. It’s going to be frustrating and worrisome and exhausting. BUT – we will make it through the night. Now where the gack is my emoticon for “steely optimism”?

Monday, October 26, 2009

A study in contrasts

This past weekend was fairly exhausting on many levels and I for one and my wife Cybele for two are glad to have made it through to the other side. My son Ebirah, for three, tends to keep his own counsel on these matters but I assume he’s pretty OK with moving on as well. In the span of just about 24 hours we managed to cover some pretty wildly divergent ground, geographically and otherwise.

Saturday we attended a friend’s wedding in D.C. The ceremony itself was at the National Cathedral and the reception was at the D.A.R. Fancy! I actually bought a new suit for the occasion (this being a late afternoon/evening affair, I took the opportunity to buy a black suit, which I had been regretful about not owning the last couple of times I’ve had to attend a funeral - not to turn this whole blog into Parenthetical Memento Morii, but there you go) and Cybele decked herself out stunningly in new togs as well (I had grave but unvoiced concerns about my wife upstaging the bride, but the bride herself told Cybele she looked great at the reception, so, etiquette crisis averted I suppose). Usually, unless something really disastrous happens, most weddings are by and large the same and the only details worth telling or remembering are little ones, and that was pretty much the case here. The ceremony was held in the choir of the church, which meant the bridesmaids in their floor-length dresses and heels had to climb several steps during the processional, but nobody wiped out. The best man told me later that the wedding ring he was keeping safely in his trouser pocket managed to sink beneath his keyring during the ceremony, which is something you don’t think about until you’re trying to smoothly and quietly remove said ring from said pocket without disturbing the solemnity with a bunch of spastic key-jangling. The pastor used the word “nerdliness” in the homily – quoting the bride and groom affectionately referring to each other, of course. The bride cried, the groom cried, several guests cried – you can do a lot worse than a by-the-books wedding.

The newly married couple were, always have been and presumably still are very, very visibly and obnoxiously in love with each other. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. I personally have the capacity for great cynicism but I have decided that I’m not going to let the ostentatious display of affection be something that gets on my nerves. I’m going to try to not even roll my eyes. I’ve just known far too many couples who treat each other with naked scorn as their default regard, who put down each other, their marriage and the whole notion of lifelong commitment to another human being. They act as if they were characters in a mean-spirited sit-com instead of actual human beings with souls in need of nurturing. That whole “marriage is hell, my spouse makes me miserable, but eh what can you do” schtick really does get on my nerves in the worst way, so I have to give its opposite a pass, and not just on someone’s wedding day. Suffice to say it was in great abundance on the Saturday in question.

So instead of making fun of the flush and rush of self-absorbed devil-may-care love, let’s just make fun of me, because I am an idiot. At the wedding reception the first dinner course was a mixed greens salad served with a pear poached in pinot noir and topped with Roquefort mousse. I know these particulars because they were written on petite cards tucked into the napkins at the place settings. I’m sure these printed meal line-ups have a name but I am ignorant as to what it might be and unwilling at the moment to strain my Google-fu by looking it up. My parents tried to impress a fair amount of high-end table manners on my brothers and me, and I absorbed enough of it that I hope I don’t come off as completely cloddish in more formal settings (I remember being the only person at my table of eight at junior prom who knew which fork to use in which order, but considering the town where I went to high school, that is a pretty remedial achievement). Nonetheless, sometimes my culturing ain’t what it oughtta be. Still, I was looking forward to that first course. I like pears! I like pinot! I like mousse! Yeah, I kind of glossed over that “Roquefort” part. Let the record show that I unequivocally hate blue cheese. I’m the guy who gets ranch dressing to go with his buffalo wings. I’m also the guy who is just uncultured enough to not know off the top of his head that Roquefort is, in fact, a rather pungent blue. Rest assured, though, that after one big bite of pinot-poached-pear and rancid death mousse (in my defense, the mousse was a lovely pale shade of green that went well with the salad) I will not soon forget where I’ve heard that Roquefort word before. (Also, I hasten to add that the main course and desserts were excellent.)

I'll never doubt you again, SCM.
So, all in all, the wedding was elegant and lovely, and Cybele and I spent the night at a cozy little hotel downtown while Ebirah was being minded by visiting grandparents. It was our first overnight away from the little guy but it was greatly assisted by the length of the day, some walking, some dancing, and some free-flowing reception wine and champagne – by the time we headed to bed we were too bone-tired to obsess over the fact that Ebirah wasn’t right down the hall. Another milestone crossed.

Most parents of a one-year-old, assuming they were in their right minds, would have slept in and enjoyed the child-free Sunday morning, but while the rightness of our minds is debatable, we didn’t have any choice. Cybele’s vet clinic was hosting its annual open house and we needed to get back out to our house by 9 a.m. so that we could gather up baby, grandparents and dog and make it to the clinic before the doors opened at 11. Happily, we were successful – and so was the open house. As usual it was Halloween-themed, and the clients were encouraged to bring and dress up their pets, with bonus points for owners wearing outfits that matched their pets. Since we are trying to reinforce at every opportunity the idea that the dog is legally Ebirah’s, we dressed them both up as lobsters (store-bought toddler and pet costumes, respectively) and they were FREAKING ADORABLE. Ebirah’s costume was a bit more elaborate as it was basically padded footie pajamas with extra limbs sewed to the sides and a hood sporting both antennae and eyestalks. The dog’s costume was an exoskeleton-shaped cape with dangling limbs and an ill-fitting hood with antennae. Ebirah looked like a toddling crustacean-kaiju; the dog looked like he was giving a piggyback ride to a langoustine hit-and-run victim. Our dog was probably a little too big for the costume, as there were some much smaller pugs there who wore the same thing a bit more comfortably. In addition to a riot of animals in costumes, there were tons of kids there, a face-painter, a balloon-animal-artiste clown and a spread of snacks (subs and chips) and desserts (brain-shaped jello mold and the ever popular litter-box cake complete with melted Tootsie Roll scat). Also, considering the fact that the clinic is way out where you can just about see West Virginia on a clear day, I was gratified by the number of clients in Yankees jerseys in attendance, many of whom complimented me on my Yankees ballcap. (Originally I was going to dress myself up in an elaborate lobsterman costume to match baby and dog but lack of planning and preparation led me to go with boots and jeans and a thermal work shirt and a ballcap and if anyone asked I was going to say I was a “Yankee fisherman” but in retrospect I think that’s not so much a real phrase as the name of a seafood restaurant near my grandparents’ old beach house. In any case, no one asked.)

(And GO YANKEES, obviously. After expecting to miss Game 6 because of the wedding, I figured the rain postponement was a sign and I needed to stay up and watch the game Sunday night. The lack of home runs was kind of surprising; the Sandman’s performance at game’s end was not. And I was thankful for the distraction from the Giants’ lackluster performance against Arizona. When did the NFL decide the Cards were allowed to win on the East Coast now?)

For what it’s worth, I really enjoy being situated somewhere that allows me to take a best-of-both-worlds approach to collecting experiences. There are opportunities that a city affords which are harder if not impossible to come by out in the sticks, and vice versa. I reject the notion that there is one singular overriding city lifestyle or city type of person, and I equally reject that there’s one type of country person or way of doing things. Most of all I reject the stupid Hollywood idea that there’s a clear-cut dichotomy that has to be permanently resolved one way or the other. Somehow the myth continues to be perpetuated that you either run breathlessly in the rat race to keep up with shallow killjoys, or you quit your job and walk away from all sophistications in order to live a life closer to the earth and more real. What a crock. I have never experienced a blink of cognitive dissonance going from an archetypically urban experience one day to quintessentially rural the next and back again and again and again. Cabernet and kettle corn are not mutually exclusive, and woe to anyone who tries to tell me different.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Back to the Saturday Grab Bag

So, despite the heart-breaking one-run loss on Thursday night, it still feels like the Yankees are rolling merrily along. Honestly I'm looking at the bright side of potentially winning the AL title in Yankee Stadium - that will be good times! But I caught myself doing something amusingly dumb on Tuesday night which I must share (because sharing is what I'm all about). I was flipping between the Sabathia-Kazmir duel and The Biggest Loser (of course) and I flipped back to the game in time to see A-Rod bash a home run. Both my arms shot up overhead in exultation, hands straight as knife-edges, and I was sheepishly grateful that I was alone and didn't have to suffer anyone, my wife for example, saying, "That's the sign for touchdown, sweetie. That's football." (Although she does love a wacky juxtaposition of sports tropes. She's been known to ask during the late innings of lopsided ballgames "When are they gonna pull the goalie?") The thing is, I know the difference between football and baseball (and hockey!) and I know that just as football has a gesture for touchdowns (and field goals and PATs) baseball has a gesture made by umpires when a hit is a homerun: index finger pointing up and twirling counterclockwise, presumably mimicking a baserunner touching them all. I also know this: the homerun gesture is not as much fun to do at home on the couch as the touchdown gesture. Come on, MLB, get with it! Somebody get working on the new homerun gesture technology immediately. Chop chop, let's go.


Speaking of The Biggest Loser, I didn't comment on this week's episode - there was a refreshing lack of chicanery and it seems like they're no longer full-throttle on the "Tracey is Evil" storyline - but it did occur to me that there is an obvious parallel between Saint Abby's backstory about losing her family in a car accident and Rob Sheffield losing his wife. Both are random, could-happen-to-anyone tragedies, but I still have a much harder time blogging about Abby, whereas I wrote a 2,000 word post about Rob. I don't think it's just that Abby's tragedy involves a baby and a small child dying, although that's got to be part of it. I think it has much more to do with the fact that Love Is a Mix Tape has a strong sense of closure to it. The tragedy has been procesed, past tense, even if Rob is still living with it and will be reminded of Renee in small ways for the rest of his life. They say that demons shrivel in the light, and Rob takes a long, hard look at the effects of death and grief in his book. And at the end of the day he is a working journalist and published memoirist, which are things I more or less idolize. Thus I believe Rob is gonna be OK. Abby, on the other hand, seems like she's still going through the process. And it's a subplot on TBL, not the main focus of the show, so there's no room to explore it in Love Is a Mix Tape levels of detail, even if she wanted to. She referred to the accident in passing at one point, saying something about "Since The Wreck ..." (and yes, I could hear the capitalization) and I felt pretty sure that was her shorthand way of referring to something that could very easily be too big and unwieldy too handle. So her difficulties - which, again, I absolutely do not blame her for - translate into my difficulties. The sad thing is I doubt she'll be fully through her personal process by the time this season ends. I hope that if she ever does reach the gonna-be-OK point that somehow (stray issue of People magazine in the powder room at my mom's house?) I find out about it.


One thing that never fails to amuse me about the Orange Line of the Metro is the advertising placards in the train cars. Because so many people using the Metro work for the military or government, the ads always strike me as bizarrely specific. In NYC you see posters on the subway for TV shows and movies and common products like sneakers or alcohol. (Do they still have cigarette ads on the subway? They did when I was a kid and my dad would take me into his Manhattan office around the holidays.) In D.C. you see posters for mid-air refueling tankers. I cannot even envision the circumstances under which I might be shopping around for mid-air refueling tankers, but if I stumble into that scenario at least I know Boeing wants my business.


Quickie grab bag this week because of the aforementioned wedding tonight - need to focus energies on getting the house ready for grandparents to come and watch the baby. But coming soon - a permanent blogonym for the baby! And for the missus! And more thoughts on interesting things that fall into my line of sight!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The End of the World as We Know It (Love Is a Mix Tape)

I read about a book a week on my commute, and they vary quite a bit. Mostly I read novels, but I try to alternate between classics that I missed during my school days, modern mainstream stuff, and my good old stand-by that I lovingly refer to as “the genre ghetto”: sci-fi, fantasy and horror, usually cheap paperbacks, notwithstanding the new release Stephen King hardcover every few months. I also mix in non-fiction to keep things interesting and maybe learn a factoid or two. So, the subject matter of my daily reading material is all over the map, but my emotional reactions are usually pretty narrow. I hover somewhere between “that’s interesting” and “that’s pretty awesome” most of the time, occasionally spiking into amusement or sliding down into empathetic sadness. It’s not that I’m not open to being touched emotionally by the written word (I kind of eat that stuff up); it’s more of a Metro survival instinct. The expression of my emotional reactions has to be kept in a narrow range, because I don’t want to unsettle any of my fellow commuters (or, more selfishly, I just don’t want to be on the receiving end of any funny looks). When I say that something I was reading on the bus made me laugh out loud, what I really mean is that my breath quickened to something approximating a whispered chuckle. And when I say that something made me tear up, I mean my eyes just barely registered feeling a little hotter and wetter.

Love Is a Mix Tape is the one book of 140 or so I’ve read in the past two-plus years that came the closest to actually making me bawl. Not figuratively, in the sense of “Oh, I was so sad that I could imagine myself crying at that one part if I hadn’t been sitting on the Fairfax Connector 980. And if I had been tired and maybe a little drunk.” I was literally blinking my eyes and focusing my breathing to fight off the crying.

It’s not so much that Rob Sheffield is a brilliant writer – he’s fairly plain-spoken and kind of a smart-ass. You might know him if, like me, you enjoy the funditry of VH1 shows like “Top 100 One-Hit Wonders” and you appreciate the contrast between the low-wattage celebrities like Chris Jericho or Hal Sparks who wax snarky about their own personal reminisces and the slightly more cerebral talking heads (who are usually writers) called upon to vocalize the greater context of whatever’s being discussed. Rob, a reviewer and columnist for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, obviously falls into the latter category. (Usually I refer to authors by their last name but I find myself unable to call Rob anything but Rob. Reading his memoir makes me feel not like we’re, if not friends exactly, something beyond the usual author-reader reserve.) Rob is plenty smart and can turn a good phrase, but none of that is likely to dissolve me. Ultimately it’s what he says, not so much how he says it.

Rob and I have a few things in common. We’re around the same age, at least close enough to basically be part of the same American generation (he’s eight years older than me but he was still living like a college student in extended adolescence well into his twenties, so his life at 27 wasn’t that much different than mine at 19). We’re both northerners who self-transplanted via school to Virginia. We’re both into music, in many cases the same kinds of music, although we differ in degree of intensity (but, honestly, there are times when I wish I was as devoutly into music as Rob clearly is, and that bridges a lot of the gap). And we both were lucky enough to find our respective soulmates and marry them. Given all of that overlap, Rob could have written a memoir that was only about breaking into the music journalism biz, and I would have been drawn in. Given how much he loved his wife Renee, and how many illuminating details about her he’s able to summon up, I could have been absorbed in a fairly plotless recounting of their courtship. But there is a major difference between Rob’s life and mine: his wife died five years into their marriage. She was 31.

Words fail.
Love Is a Mix Tape opens with Rob going through some old stuff, letting the reader know that Renee is gone and that’s why it’s so important to him when he finds an old mix tape of hers, a tangible object imprinted with her audible fingerprints. Then it becomes a meditation on mix tapes and the intersection between pop music and human mating rituals, flashing back as far as Rob’s early adolescence but quickly catching up to the point where he meets Renee Crist and focusing on their relationship. Which, thanks to the opening framing device, the reader knows is tragically doomed. For me, this set up an incredible tension between my tendency to see myself as Rob and see his life as a slight variant on my own, and my need to distance myself from the impending disaster.

(There are a lot of very specific references to music in the book, as songs are the signifiers of time and place and zeitgeist and whatnot Rob uses to hang his recollections on. I knew a lot of the songs, or at least the artists, and plenty of them were new to me. Ordinarily I would find this super-cool to geek out about, but given the larger context of the book and my reaction to it, it almost seems superfluous. I just wanted to acknowledge it.)

I am supremely lucky in that I have never lost someone close to me prematurely. I’ve been to the funerals of three grandparents, but all were when I was an adult and both were more or less expected at the time. I’ve known people who died far too young, but they were acquaintances, friends of friends at best. I’ve never had to grapple with carrying on with my life and incorporating a noticeable void where someone used to be, someone who I expected would be there a lot longer. I’m very afraid of that happening, and of course my wife is one of two people who could escalate that fear to crippling, soul-ravaging terror if she were to take the used-to-be-someone role. Just like anybody else (except possibly the most morbidly-obsessed) I often confuse the fact that I can’t imagine something happening with the comforting but delusional belief that it can’t happen.

Whether he means to or not, Rob shatters that delusion. Renee died of a pulmonary embolism, which is one of those fatal anatomical accidents that can literally happen to anyone. Rob and Renee were not Sid and Nancy, they didn’t do drugs or live high-risk lifestyles, and Renee wasn’t genetically predisposed to breast cancer, or conceived by her parents despite being strongly advised by doctors that she would probably have some fatal inherited disorder or anything like that. Renee (in Rob’s telling, and I will totally give him the benefit of the doubt here) was a good person who took reasonably good care of herself and dropped dead with no warning. And there is absolutely no way of reading their story and saying, “Well, that won’t happen to me.”

It wasn’t Renee’s death that set off the waterworks for me. I had been braced for it all along, and I actually find it hard to be sad for the dead themselves. It’s much easier to be sad for the living and grieving, and moreso when reading someone’s memoir and feeling as though you’re really getting to know them through a common interest. And Rob is unsparingly honest about his grief once the memoir encompasses the day Renee died. He wallowed in his grief at the time, and his memoir takes its time recounting that period of his life in exquisite, excruciating detail. It is harrowing to read. At one point I reached the end of a chapter as my evening bus pulled into its bay and I closed the book and thought, “Whew, OK, I made it. I’ll set this aside and pick it up tomorrow, where I assume the narrative will resume with Rob getting better and moving on.” Back on the bus the next morning I re-opened the book and found Rob exactly where I had left him but most emphatically not getting better. And I soldiered on with him. Ultimately Rob did put a new life together – obviously, or there would be no book – but it took a long time.

Sometimes we read memoirs to vicariously experience a life we can’t have but sort of wish we could; sometimes we read them to see what we’re glad we don’t have because we emphatically don’t want it. Love Is a Mix Tape was both of those for me, but there was an additional layer in my experience of it that was probably the hardest part of all to reckon with. There’s another major difference between Rob’s life and mine: Rob and Renee never had kids. I mentioned above that my wife was one of two people I can’t sanely contemplate losing, and if it wasn’t clear that my son was the other person I was talking about, let me state so for the record now. The fact that I have a kid – a fact which brings me nothing but joy, a fact which lines up with the reality that I am fully living the life I chose for myself – means that I can never go through what Rob went through. Not the spouse cut down in the prime of life part – that’s still and always out there - but the complete and total breakdown while in mourning, casting off entire years wrapped in heavy gray shrouds. I don’t judge Rob in the slightest for falling apart under the circumstances, and every bit of me knows I would want to, too. But that is totally off the table. If I lost my wife I would have to pull my act together lickety-fucking-split, for my son’s sake. I pray with all my soul that I never have to find out exactly how I would manage that. But I was confronted with that realization as I read Rob’s journey, and I’m confronting it now as I write this. I’m honestly not sure if that confrontation or realization accomplishes anything or not, other than making me even more grateful for my good fortune holding out one more day.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Shooting the messenger

There were delays on the Orange Crush during yesterday's afternoon rush hour, which kind of threw off my whole evening. I did have to laugh ruefully, though, at the convergence. You may remember in recent posts here I've said that I was surprised at how little I was grousing about my nemesis the WMATA, and then I caved and wrote a commute-themed 5 Things that covered the general annoyances of the Metro in the absence of any recent, specific mishaps. Should have known that would precipitate an actual specific mishap. The other thing that probably precipitated it, karmically speaking, is the fact that WMATA has been actively solicting rider input about their current budget shortfall woes, and that story has been getting play lately on NPR, the local nightly news, and the online newsfeeds I follow. So, great timing there. WMATA wants to know why Metro ridership is in decline? It's because Metro sucks, and nobody trusts the system to get them where they need to go on time and certainly not without getting packed gill-to-gill on crappy old cars. Metro needs to run nothing but eight-car trains on the orange line through both rush hours. Instead they run six-car trains that are always on the verge of breaking down with mechanical difficulties that lead to single-tracking delays. Because they can't afford to buy enough new cars to have reliable trains or eight-car trains, let alone both at the same time. And they're never going to be able to afford all those new cars they need, because no one is giving them money via fares, because Metro only has busted-ass six-car trains ... see the vicious cycle? Maybe WMATA really doesn't see it, in which case I can only hope all this solicited rider input helps illuminate the situation for them.

Of course, the timing was ironic for me personally as well as for WMATA - I had planned yesterday evening to run my laptop over to a buddy's house, because the laptop needs an exorcism which my buddy can hopefully provide. I would have had enough time to pick up little Stumbly from daycare and get the laptop to its destination on a normal evening, but since Metro took half an hour longer than usual, that put the kibosh on that. My household's laptoplessness will extend a bit longer, it seems.

I read almost an entire book on the Metro yesterday (it was a short, breezy read) and yet after two-plus years of plowing through books on my commute I still marvel sometimes at the way my fellow commuters pass the time on the bus and train. The readers versus non-readers breakdown is probably 50/50. And among the readers, half read something they brought with them (work documents, a book) and half read the free copy of the Washington Post Express they picked up at the bus or Metro station. The appeal of the Express eludes me (other than it being free, of course). I feel like its motto should be "Yesterday's News ... Today!" I like catching up on today's news today via the web while I'm chained to my desk between commutes. Do these other people on the train commute to non-office jobs, or offices with even stricter internet policies that filter out the Post, CNet, USAToday? Or do they just love Sudoku, which to be fair is timeless? I don't know.

Occasionally I'll glance over someone's shoulder at the Express they're reading, and I did today, and the headline I saw really irked me: "Vatican Reaches Out to Anglicans". Remember the other day when I said I almost never talk about religion and politics? And how I need to be braver about expressing my opinions? If you're on board with that, read on.

I saw this story online yesterday and it just makes my blood boil. If you have somehow missed this particular news item, the basic upshot is that the Catholic Church is officially making it easier for Anglicans to "convert" to Catholicism. This is in response to the growing schism in the Anglican church between those who support progressive developments like blessing gay unions and appointing women as bishops, and those who do not approve. The Catholic Church is proudly anti-gay and anti-women (all right, maybe that's not exactly enshrined in a papal bull in so many words, but I'm gonna stand by the statement) and would welcome Anglicans - even married Anglican clergy - to the bigoted, conservative Catholic fold with their traditions (married priests, homophobia and misogyny) intact.

So, Jesus Funloving Christ, where to start with this mess. Just the reminder that there are so many people out there who are deeply convinced that gays and women are second-class citizens who don't deserve the same basic fucking dignity that they themselves enjoy - that is depressing. The fact that there are huge institutions - supposedly dedicated to fostering people's spiritual welfare! - who are committed at the institutional level to denying those dignities is outrageous and infuriating. Then add on top of that the pandering opportunism inherent in the Catholic Church commenting on what is, essentially, an internal mess of shit that the Anglican Church needs to work out themselves. "Hey, you guys hate fags? You guys hate bitches who don't know their place? We hate fags and uppity bitches! We should totes hang out!" Way to miss the fucking point of spirituality, Vatican. Not like getting the point of spirituality is your job or anything. What exactly is your job again? Keeping silk cape-makers in business or something?

No joke, too angry.  Move along.
I swear, it's like a scene out of a high school cafeteria (minus the silk capes). A table full of kids has a few odd ones that a lot of the other kids like to make fun of. But over time some of the more enlightened kids at the table realize it's not cool to pick on the ones who are different and they cut out the abuse and treat their lunchmates all right. Still, some of the kids can't accept that things are changing and get increasingly uncomfortable with the new order of things. And one day a kid at another table, a table that as a whole loves to dish out the abuse, stands up on his chair and yells over that anybody who wants to keep making fun of the dweebs should come and sit with them. Even though a long time ago that abuse-dishing table drove away a bunch of kids for not eating tuna fish sandwiches on Fridays, or something metaphor-straining like that.

Another thing that got under my skin, I have to admit, is the word choice in the Express headline. I just don't see the Vatican sticking its nose in another church's business and reminding the world that, hey, if you long for the days of the 13th century, the Catholic Church is firmly rooted there, as "reaching out." I'm a fan of reaching out. I think the world could use a bit more reaching out, a bit more being there for each other, a bit more acceptance. Being accepting of other people's intolerance because it is of a kind with your own does not count. As much as I might believe in the power and worth of multiculturalism, I don't think anybody gains anything from letting people be dead wrong about human rights because that's just their culture. I don't feel like there's a lot any of us can do about the Catholic Church's regressive, repressive nature, since it maintains itself as being ruled by a single old man who's in direct contact with the Supreme Being - all the protests and petitions in the world can't compete with that. But I guess it would be nice to see everyone excluded from the policy-making (i.e., everyone) at least calling a duck a duck, and not confusing hate-mongering assholery with reaching out. I personally would have advocated for "The Vatican's Dick Move" if the story had to be covered at all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My blog runneth over (Fool)

There's a great issue of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman where the titular Lord of Dreams is conversing with Hob, a man who has been living since the middle ages thanks to magically-bestowed immortality. The whole issue is basically one long conversation, which is spread out across the centuries as Dream and Hob get together every hundred years. At one point Hob is grousing about the latest revival (and re-write) of Shakespeare's King Lear: "The idiots have given it a happy ending." Dream tells Hob not to worry, that the old ending will return, because the great stories have a way of reasserting themselves.

But it's a constant cycle, of course: a story is told, gets changed, reverts, gets changed again, reverts, and on and on. So King Lear will always be King Lear, but it will also always get fucked with. Maybe Lear deserves it, since it's so beautifully brutal, and even an abstract concept like a play has to expect to get slapped once in a while if it goes around constantly punching people in the gut. And certainly Christopher Moore enjoys fucking with things, so the pairing was probably inevitable.

I love Lear and I like Moore in a hit-or-miss-but-man-that-one-big-hit-was-righteous kind of way, so I was pretty stoked when I heard that Fool was coming out. I nearly bought myself the hardcover edition when I saw it at Costco a few months ago, but as hard as it is to cut back on cluttering my house up with new books, avoiding non-Stephen King hardcovers is one of the easiest tactics in that struggle. So I enjoyed the anticipation even more until it came out in paperback and I got it for my birthday. Having read it now, I'm glad I didn't invest in the hardcover. The book is good, but not great.

Spoiler - the poles to the Batcave are behind the bookshelf! Also, more spoilers below.

Holy Bard of Avon Calling, Batman!
Fool is the story of King Lear told from the perspective of Pocket, Lear's court jester and only loyal companion and truth-teller in the course of the play. By centering the novel on Pocket, Moore is forced to flesh him out considerably, giving him a backstory and a personality well beyond what's present in Shakespeare. The expansive personality works pretty well, because Fool ends up being a direct slap in the face to the story of King Lear. To my mind, there are two ways of reacting to Shakespeare's play. One is to get into the spirit of Tragedy and realize that the outsize characters in the story, especially Lear himself, make mistakes that compound each other and escalate wildly out of control. If you can relate to Lear, if you can think of one time in your life where you really wanted someone to reassure you emotionally and they let you down and you reacted in a regrettable way, then you can enjoy the agony of that moment when Lear banishes Cordelia and sets himself on the road to ruin. It's a sad story that ends badly, but the reader/audience gets out of it a certain painful cathartic release. The second way to read King Lear is to be a smartass, to look at the characters and say "these people are idiots who get what they deserve" and tick off every way that each escalating mistake could have been avoided. Moore goes the second route and does so via Pocket's perspective, since he is the character most well-equipped to pronounce everyone around him a moron. The Pocket in Moore's novel is clever and shrewd and embraces his lot in life because he can say and do whatever he wants because no one takes him seriously (which of course is both a blessing and a curse). So Pocket makes a lot of pointed observations and mocks the characters and actions around him, and Moore is a good enough humor writer that most of it is pretty funny. Pocket's reactions all make sense within the story, but they also work as criticism (however juvenile) of the original play as well.

I think Moore overreaches a bit, however, in making Fool such a romp. Not only is Moore's Pocket more than just a foil for Lear's madness, Moore's Pocket is a bonafide protagonist, a quick-witted schemer who sets a great deal of the plot in motion. (He also has a great deal of sex, with almost all of the female characters, which is fine and funny in and of itself but runs itself a bit into the ground by the end.) The civil war between Goneril and Regan is fomented by Pocket. Edmund's treachery against Edgar is abetted by Pocket. Even France's invasion of Britain is caused by Pocket, in a way. And of course, it turns out that Pocket is both related to King Lear and his origin is wrapped up in Lear's villainy. These root causes are all explained in the book and make perfect sense, but they effectively elevate Pocket clear out of the innocent bystander status that he's supposed to share with the audience.

And, to circle back to Hob's criticism again, Moore gives the book a happy ending. I suppose I should have expected a comedy to have a happy ending, but I thought it would be happy for Pocket and Pocket alone. Moore points out numerous times that Pocket's fool's motley is jet black, and I believe I catch his meaning there: the novel is a black comedy. Because everybody dies at the end! Except, in Moore's version, Cordelia is at the head of the conquering French army and the reason she conquered Britain was to be reunited with Pocket, whom she has always loved. Pocket and Cordelia get married and he rules the court while she continues conquering Europe. It's a ludicrous ending which is in keeping with the goofiness of the entire book, but I admit I was disappointed by it. I wanted to see if and how Pocket could keep laughing through the whole tragedy, but that wasn't the story I was reading. It's unfair to judge a book against what you wanted it to be, instead of for what it is, but so it goes.

One last thing that bugged me about the book: footnotes. And don't get me wrong, I love me some footnotes in my novels. I have a whole GoodReads bookshelf dedicated to novels that have gone that route. But the footnotes have to have a purpose, whether it's creating verisimilitude in House of Leaves or telling substantial parts of the kaleidoscopic story in Infinite Jest. The footnotes in Fool didn't seem to add up to much. Usually they were translations of British slang or archaic English. First of all, if you don't know what "dugs" are, then what are you doing reading Shakespeare-derived satire? Second of all, if the meaning of "dugs" somehow eluded you to this point, I'm pretty sure the context clues about female anatomy and nursing would clue you in without a superscript numeral and a definition at the bottom of the page. Some of the footnotes were written in Pocket's crude and self-undermining voice, but some were staggeringly straightforward and boring in addition to insulting to the intelligence, and then again some of them were so anachronistic in referring to, for example, office Christma sparties that they couldn't have been meant to be in pocket's voice at all, and having to decide if the footnote is from the author or Pocket is way too disruptive. I kept expecting one last footnote to tell me to go back through and read just the footnotes in order for some kind of secret message punchline, but that last key footnote never arrived. Although that does give me an idea to use in my own literature-mocking novella someday.


I feel bad about posts like yesterday's sometimes, when they turn out to be just lists cataloguing stuff that happened or presumably will happen. Partly it reminds me of being in fifth grade and having to endure a lesson on writing transitions in my Language class. (I always want to call it English, since that's what it was called by the end when I was majoring in it, but I have to remind myself that in elementary and middle school it was called Language, and only in high school when we had to take a foreign language did differentiating it as English make sense.) My fifth grade language teacher was actually a lovely person and a fun teacher, but that lesson was burned unpleasantly in my brain. My teacher loved assigning creative writing to the class - stories incorporating vocabulary words, stories on certain themes - but apparently at some point she got sick of all of us writing the way that ten-year-olds talked: Joe went to the beach. Then he went swimming. Then he built a sand castle. But then some other kids knocked his sand castle down. So then Joe was sad. Then a starfish asked Joe why he was sad and Joe told him. Then a bunch of starfishes jumped out of the water and landed on the bullies and turned their stomachs inside out and dissolved the bullies' flesh with digestive juices. Certain ten-year-olds' obsessions with echinoderm-based revenge aside, the whole pervasive THIS-happened-then-THIS-happened-then-THIS-happened drumbeat got to be a bit much for our dear teacher, and she went into exhaustive instruction on using adverbs and dependent clauses and a basic trust that the reader knows how causal events unfold in a four-dimensional universe (I'm paraphrasing) to create narrative flow. It's actually a very valuable lesson to learn, and the reason why learning it is such an unpleasant memory is because I was ashamed at not having already intuitively grasped it. Fifth grade was right about when my nascent egomania reared up on its hind legs to become rampant, and school became less about picking up new knowledge and skills and more about showing off. But I had made the same missteps in my written stories as everyone else in my class, composing play-by-play recaps lousy with "then"s. I had thought I was better than everyone else and I didn't take kindly to being reminded I wasn't. Twenty-five years down the road, I've been thoroughly disabused of the notion of being better than everyone else, but I like to think I'm better than I was when I was ten. Falling back into old bad habits is unpleasant.

But another reason why I'm disappointed in myself for a post like yesterday's is because I want to keep a blog to ... well, for a couple of reasons, really. One is to have a quasi-deadline oriented reason to write every single day. Even if I write something that's disposable, of very little interest, and couldn't possibly be published anywhere else, at least I'm exercising the mental muscles involved in stringing words together coherently. It's the mental equivalent of getting on the treadmill and walking for twenty minutes, because that's all you can muster the energy for, even though you'd ideally be running for forty-five minutes every day. I feel like I need that, and when I fall back on the last-resort quotidian inventory type of post, at least I've cleared the bare minimum bar.

I don't just want to do the bare minimum, though, I want to have an outlet for saying things worth saying. Understand that I don't think there's anything wrong with my life - on the contrary, if you've been paying attention you'll know that I think my life is pretty rad. But as the old saw goes, whether your life is rad or not, if it's unexamined it's not worth living. And it's my general hope that by forcing myself to blog every day I'll also be forcing myself to examine my life, and to find the things worth talking about - observations of things I had never noticed before, examinations of things I know I obsessively overthink about, random memories recalled, philosophies crystallized. Kind of like Mel Brooks's Comicus character in history of the World Part One, who explains the nature of his job (stand-up philosopher) as "I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension." Of course he is explaining this to Bea Arthur's clerk character at the unemployment office, and she responds with a scoffing, "Oh, you're a bullshit artist. Did you bullshit anyone last week? Did you try to bullshit anyone?" I acutely identify.

Ah, back when Mel was funny.
Related to that, blogging is good practice not only for the mechanics of writing but for being braver in my writing. I know that the only way to create something enduring and potent is by investing yourself in it, and putting yourself out there. I also know that that is way harder in practice than it sounds in theory, and especially for me in particular because by my nature I am very conflict-averse. I like pleasing people and I like keeping the peace. I like being able to socialize in large groups without making others uncomfortable. And I have years of practice smoothing over my rough edges, tamping down my excesses, and keeping certain deeply-held beliefs very private so as not to offend others. We live in a weird time and place where everyone operates under the default assumption that they are under constant threat of personal attack. Nobody would ever believe anything unless it were right, nothing can ever be right unless everything else is wrong, and therefore any opinion expressed is tantamount to drawing battle lines between what is said and everything else unspoken. Personally I do not subscribe to this belief system. If I say that The Crow is one of my favorite movies, I am in no way saying that anyone who dislikes it is empirically wrong and mentally deficient. People's reactions are going to be all over the map and I can only talk about mine. And on the other hand if I say that Xanadu, in spite of being a cult classic, is really a terrible movie, I'm still only talking about my reaction to it and I expect there to be people who disagree with me, and I feel no need to definitively settle who's right or who's wrong, if there even is such a thing. But still, I know that a lot of people take umbrage at what they perceive other people's opinions imply about their own, so I've learned to couch things in very qualified terms: "It's just my opinion, and I'm probably not a very good judge, but I think The Crow is probably one of the lushest-looking movies of the 90's, if you're into that sort of thing." And that's just pop-culture. I won't breathe a word about politics or religion except to my closest and most trusted friends.

Those are habits born of a need to be well-liked and stay out fights, and they are habits that I desperately need to break. I need to be able to plant a flag and stake a claim on an idea and risk being violently disagreed with. At least, I need to be able to do that in my writing - I don't want to become the overbearing, opinionated blowhard whom no one wants at their dinner parties. But I don't think it's a paradox to be personally pleasant and literarily honest. Not shocking, not provocative for its own sake, not necessarily cruel and punishing, just honest without excuse or apology. I've always been drawn more towards writing fiction, because that creates a certain separation between the writer and the work, and I think I've always needed that. I'm not saying that I really believe that bullies should be eaten alive by starfish, I'm examining what it means to be a young boy rescued from bullies by violently ravenous invertebrates. Which is all well and good, but I think I need to throw that blanket off for a while, and then pull it back on later once I've seen exactly what's underneath. So that's what I want to get at here - I'm not saying I've been entirely successful, or will be any time soon, but that's what I want. These posts are supposed to be my thoughts, for whatever they're worth, not my sanitized conversational quips but my real opinions. I don't want to focus so much on what's going on around me as what's going on inside me, which is not necessarily the more interesting of the two, or even the more important, but it matters to me. I have to be true to my inner bullshit artist, and if I work at it, maybe end up minus the bullshit.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The view from here

I took the day off from the blog yesterday for no particular reason (unless continuing the trend where I point out numerical milestones like consecutive day streaks or 50th post and then immediately follow up by missing a day counts as a good reason) but as it turned out, yesterday was a winding-down the week kind of day without major earth-shaking news. Which is fine with me, honestly, one of the best uses for a Sunday that I can think of.

But now it's Monday and I can look at the week ahead and take stock. (OK, and maybe look back on Sunday a little to give things context.)

The Yankees play at 4 o'clock this afternoon, which means for pretty much all of the game I will either be at work or mid-commute. Late evening games on the weekends, afternoon games on a Monday - I heard somewhere that these scheduling decisions all yield the best possible TV ratings, but I remain skeptical. I did stay up until 1:15 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning to see the end of the ALCS Game 2 (probably another reason why I didn't have the wherewithal to blog on Sunday) and I can only say that A.J. Burnett didn't move my estimation of him either way. He could have pitched a lot worse and handed the game to the Angels, and he also could have pitched a little better and made it a 2-1 NY win in nine innings. Hopefully he doesn't come up again in the rotation until the World Series. Meanwhile, I've decided I don't really have a preference as to which NL team makes it to the World Series (assuming, with all due arrogance, that the Yankees are the AL team). Phillies would make it Yankees versus the defending champs, which would be epic; Dodgers would make it Yankees versus Joe Torre, which would also be epic.

The Broncos and Chargers play MNF tonight and I doubt I will watch much of the game. (I hear Top Gear is on BBC America on Monday nights, as well!) I've already gotten my butt handed to me in both fantasy football and pick'em so badly that no outcome or set of improbable happenings can change my fate. I'm bummed that the Giants lost yesterday, but 5-1 is still a great way to start the season and I knew the Saints were going to give Big Blue a tough game. Not that I got to see Giants/Saints, of course. Market blackout rules meant our local Fox affiliate was showing sitcome re-runs between 1 and 4 p.m. while CBS showed the Redskins soiling themselves against the Chiefs. An 0-5 AFC team held the Redskins to two field goals all day, and got four field goals and a safety for themselves. Dear NFL, there is this thing in football called the "touchdown" and I kind of enjoy seeing them when I watch a game. Enough with the TV blackouts for crapfests like this.

I saw way too many commercials for Bud Light Golden Wheat this weekend, so much so that I am seriously considering going to Total and filling a custom-six-pack with the following:
1 Bud Light
1 Bud Light Golden Wheat
1 legitimate wheat beer
3 random brown ales
I will then use the first three as the basis for a taste test (and post the results here, obviously) and use the latter trio to erase all memories of the former.

Towards the end of last week at work it looked like I was going to be submitting to severe tissue and nerve damage (metaphorically speaking, mostly) in the teeth of the flesh-shredding gears, but it turns out the rumblings of the machine were mostly a false alarm. Right now my main project is languishing under technical difficulties utterly out of control (someone at the host is allegedly researching a solution, but I know what I mean when I say I'm "researching a solution" so I'm not too hopeful there) and my potential side project is on hold as I wait for a response from the bigwig who requested it. He has my proposed action plan and proposed timeline, and I can't start anything until it gets approved. Since this side project threatens, according to my first-glance estimates, to completely take over my professional life until February or so, I honestly don't know whether to hope to get word on approval as soon as possible, or to hope for the whole thing to be scrapped.

Honestly this really is the most likely outcome.
Mostly this week is shaping up to be a countdown for the coming weekend, which is going to feature a wedding at the National Cathedral and a Halloween open house at a veterinary clinic. Hard to top a double-feature like that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Grab Bag 5-0

Hey, it's my 50th post on the blog! That's exciting!


Obligatory Yankees update: as of today they are the only team undefeated in the post-season. Which is really, really meaningless since all they had to do to maintain that distinction was sweep the lucky-to-be-at-the-dance-at-all Twins and win the home opener of the ALCS against a weirdly error-prone Anaheim squad. Still, I'll take what I can get when A.J. Burnett is scheduled to pitch tonight. Here's hoping the NY bats can do enough work to mitigate any damage incurred on the mound.

If Burnett throws a really strong game and the Yanks go up 2-0 I promise I'll stop bad-mouthing the guy.


I've never been the kind of person who eagerly anticipates the release of particular video games. I've also never been the kind of person who saw himself owning more than one current-generation video game system. My friends all got into the MMORPG City of Heroes way before I did, but once I upgraded my PC so that I could play it, and started playing, I loved it. (Still do.) I also played Guitar Hero at other people's house a few times before feeling like I needed my own at-home experience, and that motivated me to find the Wii my wife was also interested in getting. Between those two monster time-sinks and the occasional Mario Kart marathon, I'm pretty much all set.

But now this game Brutal Legend is coming out, and it combines action/fighting with ridiculous heavy metal motifs and I WANT WANT WANT. But it's only available on PS3 and Xbox 360, and whether or not I can now see myself as a guy who owns multiple contemporary platforms, the one game cannot justify the hardware investment. But logic aside, this kills me. Come on, this game has a character called Kill Master based on the ugliest man in metal, Lemmy from Motorhead:

The Ace of Spades!


I just started reading a comic (ha-ha, not pictures and word balloons) novel that is a re-telling of King Lear. You might think that one of Shakespeare's more brutal tragedies would be strange source material for a satirical romp, and I suppose it is strange. But I've always loved Lear, probably my favorite of Shakespeare's plays. I'll have to judge the book as a whole when I finish it but so far so amusing, including (or possibly especially) because the author plays a little fast and loose with the history, having the characters refer to things in the distant past that are thinly veiled versions of 20th or 21st century events. I find that endearing because I've always thought King Lear was arguably the best Shakespeare to re-imagine as happening in a post-apocalyptic future. Nice to know I'm not the only one with such odd thoughts.


This week while watching Top Chef my wife and I pondered how ridiculously wealthy we would have to become in order to throw a soiree that could be catered by the Top Chef contestants. The day we become that loaded is probably pretty far off, so we'll settle for going to the Voltaggio restaurant in nearby Maryland one of these days. If ever this blog is going to feature a restaurant review, that'll be the reason why.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Some kinds of monsters

Last night was Dungeons & Dragons night, and the gaming session was satisfying if unspectacular. That’s not a knock on my players or on myself, it’s just that sometimes role-playing games are like that: you set up a story with certain elements and you want to resolve all of them logically, and you hope those resolutions always come with a certain amount of flair but once in a while you’ll have to go through a less-than-thrilling Point B to get to much-more-thrilling Point C, because going from Point A to Point C would defy suspension of disbelief and suck out most of the thrills’ fun. Or at least that’s a true enough formulation for the linear-thinking continuity-obsessive geek types of which I am the Alpha dog. (Need a nerdier pack mammal for that analogy. Alpha gnoll, I guess.)

I took a long hiatus from role-playing starting around the time my son was born – obviously everything other than infant-rearing was on hold during the maternity/paternity leave phase, but when my wife went back to work my new schedule involved picking up the boy from daycare certain days, including Wednesdays, the weekday when my wife works the latest and sometimes doesn’t get home until close to 10 p.m. Wednesday night had traditionally been our group gaming night, and of course the group kept it going in my absence (and rightly so), but a few months ago I suggested throwing in the occasional weekend afternoon as a better schedule fit for me. And that was all well and good for a while but a lot of people had frequent weekend conflicts, so now there’s a new plan. The whole group (except me) still gets together more or less every Wednesday. Occasionally, the Wednesday session shifts to Thursday for those who can make it (including me, as it’s always one of my wife’s days off). And also occasionally, there will be a weekend game for those who can make that – and those are hosted by me, as opposed to Wednesdays and Thursdays which are hosted by my buddy.

The reason I bring all of that up is because it had really been forever and a day since I had driven home from my buddy’s house around 11 p.m. on a weeknight, but as I did so last night after the game I was delighted to encounter something that had not changed in the intervening eternity: 97.9 FM (98 Rock) still plays MANDATORY METALLICA in that timeslot.

98 Rock is my Hero Of The Day
I try so hard not to fall into the traps of growing older that involve resenting progress and harboring delusions that everything was better when I was a kid, but man, if I think too much about how FM radio has changed since I was 13 it brings me down a bit. I was a huge radio-listener back in the day, and so was my dad, which meant I heard a lot of top 40 (Z-100!) in my room and a lot of classic rock (WNEW) in the living room, the family car and the garage. I liked the randomness of my radio station; in hindsight of course I know they had a very tightly-controlled playlist but at the time I enjoyed feeling like I didn’t know what song was going to come next from their vast library that dwarfed anything I could ever amass. But over time I started to gravitate towards Dad’s classic rock because the DJ’s were more knowledgeable and concerned with saying something germane than in love with the sound of their own wacky catchphrases. And they had weekly shows like “Ticket to Ride” which did a different facet of the Beatles’ career every Sunday morning, or “Deep Cuts” late at night, playing songs that I really, truly had never heard before (and might never hear again) because they were album tracks never released as singles.

I didn’t listen to much radio in college, and when I did it was campus radio primarily because one of my friends was DJ’ing. But that was the early 90’s era of the mix tape and the multi-disc CD player with shuffle feature, and I was listening to whatever everybody else was listening to which covered a lot of musical ground. Immediately after college, when I relocated from the New York markets to the D.C. markets, I discovered the local alt-rock station WHFS and I loved it. My tastes had parted ways with the top 40 and I had heard all the classic rock I felt I needed to hear and HFS was exactly what I was looking for (even though it turns out by the time I got to Virginia HFS had already sold out and switched formats from truly underground music to MTV-friendly mainstream-alt) and that was true for almost a decade, but in 2005 the station flipped to – I swear – tropical Latin music. Hey, if that’s what pays the bills, fair play to you, but I was pretty crushed. In the mean time the rest of the FM rock stations around here have gone pretty safe with ultra-repetitive classic rock or “today’s hits” where the implied value of “today” is 1995-ish. And they’re probably all slowly hemorrhaging money and going extinct as satellite radio and iPods squeeze them out.

Yet somehow 98 Rock, with their commitment to the midnight-black hard rock/heavy metal band of musical spectrography, is still broadcasting and playing three or four Metallica songs – including, oh yes, some very deep Metallica cuts – every weeknight from 11 to 11:20 p.m. or so. It made me happy to ear-witness that last night. I won’t tune in every night, in fact I won’t be consciously aware of it except for those rare Thursday night drives home, but I’m happy now just knowing that it’s out there. Rock, rock on.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Five things I hate about my commute

Well, maybe hate is too strong a word, but "Five things about my commute that I find consistently ennervating" is a little unwieldy for a post title.

1. The parking garage at the bus station. If this were actually a blessings-counting kind of list I could have started with the same item. The parking at the bus station is free, which I very much appreciate. There is plenty of room in the garage, so I'm not going to gripe about how far from the bus bays I end up parking, because that is mostly a function of how early I get up and motivate myself out of the house. Mainly what gets on my nerves at the parking garage is the minority of other commuters who strike me as gobsmackingly inconsiderate. Special ill-will is reserved for the people who park their extremely large vehicles in the garage. Big SUVs and oversized pickup trucks bug me plenty when I have to share the road with them. They're bad for the environment, they're bad for our dependence on foreign oil, and most of all they're bad for me in the sense that if my little Mazda ever got into a collision with an Escalade, the driver who ended up with the corporeal consistency of housepaint would be me. But I generally try to tamp down my road rage by giving the other driver the benefit of the doubt. I envision the backstory in which they need such a monstrously oversized conveyance. Maybe they have four kids between the ages of 11 and 17. Maybe they have four large dogs in the same demographics. Maybe they work freelance construction and often haul sacks of Kwik-Krete hither and yon. However, none of those would seem to apply to someone who takes the bus to work every day, so anyone who drives a gas-guzzling, emissions-loopholing Ford F-350 back and forth to the bus station is really just a selfish asshole who enjoys being the biggest dick on the road. I have a recurring fantasy about developing the power of invisibility and hitting the bus station parking garage around midday armed with an invisible switchblade. Every SUV and truck would get a flat tire. Huge vehicles parked at the ends of rows, thus making it dangerous to turn corners because it is impossible to see around them, would get two flat tires. Hummers would get four flat tires because, seriously, fuck anybody who owns one of those abominations.

The other thing about the parking garage that irks me is people in normal-sized cars who back up the flow of traffic by making a hot mess of the simple act of pulling into a space, either because they screw up getting between the lines and have to back out and try again, or because they insist on doing a nine-point turn so they can back into a space. Urgh.

2. The Dulles Toll Road. There are actually six lanes of highway going east from the bus station to the Metro, two express lanes reserved for actual airport travelers (and, helpfully, buses) and four local lanes. One of the four local lanes is for High Occupancy Vehicles during rush hour (again, inculding buses). Sadly, the bus station sits to the right of the Toll Road, so the bus has to merge into the slow on/off lane, work its way across three more lanes to end up in the HOV, and then proceed in that lane until the next crossover point to the express airport lanes. Sometimes the merging is pretty arduous because other drivers on the Toll Road absolutely refuse to yield to the bus. Despite the fact that the bus probably has at least twice, maybe three times as much ability as a Toyota Tundra to re-paint the asphalt a lovely shade of Self-Absorbed Commuter Brains, I have yet to see a bus run over a car. I think the bus drivers are probably told their annual review might be negatively impacted by those kind of incidents. Also, sometimes reaching the HOV lane doesn't improve matters much because it's just as clogged as the other three lanes. Lest you think Northern Virginia is some kind of utopia for enlightened carpoolers, I hasten to add that this clogging is largely due to one guy alone in his car with a goddamn right to drive in the "fast" lane, hoping to see a cop before a cop sees him, at which point he'll change lanes. That guy times a hundred. The best (and by "best" I mean "holy Niflheim kill me now") is when there is a cop on the left shoulder and the other three lanes are slow and bumper-to-bumper but the HOV lane is at a dead stop because some solo-flying asshole is trying to merge to the right so he doesn't get a ticket and no one will let him in. All of the above are bad enough but it's the worst on very sunny days, especially sunny days in the winter when the sun is low and slanty and in everyone's eyes as we are all headed east. Because no one around here has figured out that wearing sunglasses can actually improve your ability to resist glare; they just figure they should squint and drive very slowly so as not to further anger the evil daystar.

Well, kill all of us ... I don't take it personally.
Even reaching the express lanes is not always an off-to-the-races moment, because it's only two lanes and one bad accident ahead can jam up the works. I'll undercut my hateration again to relay one of the coolest things that ever happened on my commute. The set-up was the bad accident, trapping my bus at a halt on the express airport road. We sat there for a few minutes, as the four lane Toll Road traffic moved ironically briskly on the far side of a fairly wide grassy divide with a not insignificant culvert running down the middle. And I guess the bus driver decided enough was enough. He pulled the steering wheel hard a-starboard and drove the bus into the grassy divide. Commuter buses are not off-road vehicles by design, so we all felt every jolt of bouncing down one side of the culvert and roaring up the other, but as we nosed out way into the HOV lane and continued on our way no one was complaining. It was pretty rad.

3. Door blockers. The Orange Line of the Metro during rush hour is colloquially known as the Orange Crush. Not only are there not enough seats for all the riders, there's barely enough standing room for everyone, so there's actually some competition for more preferable places to stand. Middle of the aisles, with only overhead handholds, are the worst. Closer to the doors is better, as there are some floor-to-ceiling poles to hang on to. The truly cherry spots, if you have to stand, are right beside the doors, because in most cars there is some kind of wall perpendicular to the doors, which is convenient for leaning against while the train is in motion and bracing against when the train is jerkily coming to a stop. All perfectly understandable, but some infuriating people are so intent on staking a claim to those prime standing spots that it blows my mind.

One common offense is stepping onto the train and immediately stopping there by the door, even as people behind you are still trying to get on the train, when there is still a lot of open real estate further inside the car. You would think common courtesy would dictate that if you are getting on the train first (and sometmies, you are lucky to physically fit on the Orange Crush at all) you would proceed as far as you can to make things flow nicely. The spot by the door should be for the last person to get on. Common courtesy does not commute in and out of D.C. on the Metro.

Equally common, but more grievous in my book, is staying rooted to the spot by the door when the train arrives at subsequent stations. When each car is crammed with shoulder-to-shoulder commuters, there is a bit of slider-puzzle play at work at every stop. People who need to get off the train have to wriggle past others staying on the train. If you are standing right by the door, however, you can make everyone's life easier by taking ONE STEP onto the platform and not blocking the door as people de-train. One more step and you're back in your precious door-adjacent spot. The Hokey Pokey is more complicated, but people refuse to make even this measly concession to decency. They force people to contort around them. Come on, man.

4. Tourists in general. There's a million little things you pick up about the inner workings of the Metro system when you ride it every day. How to feed a Metro ticket through the turnstile reader without breaking stride. What the error messages on the turnstile reader mean and what to do when you get one. To stand to the right on the escalators so that people who want to walk them can do so on the left. I really shouldn't expect tourists to know any of these things because they don't ride the Metro every day, but gaaaaaahhh ... why would you schlep your family through any city's mass transit system during rush hour on a weekday? You want to match wits for several minutes with a magnetic-striped piece of paper and a bezel that has a diagram for lining up the magnetic strip RIGHT ON THERE? Fine, by all means, but if you don't want to get strangled by a messenger bag strap you should schedule those scintillatingly baffling minutes between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. KTHX!!! And when you get off the escalator, the best place to congregate and wait for the rest of your sightseeing group and figure out if you actually are on the right platform is anywhere else besides smack at the bottom of the escalator. And .. and ... numerous other annoyances.

Tourists who bring rolling suitcases the size of antique armoires onto the Orange Crush between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. shoot right past annoying me and into the zone where I wish painful death by fire ant swarms upon them.

5. McDonald's. Every morning for breakfast I have a cup of home-brewed coffee with skim milk and Splenda and a Fiber One bar, because as previously mentioned I do not want to weigh 300 pounds and/or have a heart attack. But my custom is at odds with my inclination, which leans heavily towards the hot breakfast sammich. I could probably go the rest of my life without another Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets or McFries or McShakes with only the slightest amounts of wist, but if I never had another Sausage McMuffin with Egg for the rest of my days I would pine for them like a consumptive poet. Just knowing that they exist in the world makes them a constant temptation. So, cruelly enough, when I finally get off the Metro every day and the only bit left is walking to my office, I have to walk past a McDonald's. It doesn't matter if I'm going to the corporate office in Crystal City or the government office in Rosslyn - a McD's lies in my direct path. And some mornings I am dead tired, and the way my maladaptive nervous system works, fatigue and hunger get conflated pretty easily. Walking past McDonald's and ignoring the siren SMcMw/E song (and smell) is a pretty grim way to finish up each commute.

Hey, that was fun. Maybe I'll do more "5 things" in the future.