Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A little off the top

So for the past few years I tend to grow my hair out a bit during the fall and winter, but some time in the late spring I’ll have it clippered down to a quarter-inch or so all the way around, an anti-style known as “my summer haircut”. I might touch it up once or twice over the summer, and then the growing out begins again. Sunrise, sunset.

Anyway, this past Friday I went under the shears, which was definitely convenient for the ensuing weekend of outdoor party set-up and clean-up and enjoyment in the middle. Of course, when I came back to work yesterday, I got all of the compulsory “whoa, didn’t recognize you there!” comments that usually attend. Since I just started on this particular contract last June, and even when I started was mainly working remotely until well into the fall, no one in this office had ever seen my abrupt solstice-centric conversion from longhaired to buzzed, so everyone felt that much more compelled to comment. (Also, this particular DoD office has a lot of Army vets who, I think, are always amused when someone goes from a recognizably civilian hairstyle to a more basic training ready ‘do.)

Nothing to see here.  Move along.
I am more than fine with the rubbernecking, which does not faze me in the slightest (even though my preference at work is to stay pretty well below the radar), but as luck would have it yesterday was the first day onsite for a new hire who has the privilege of sitting in the storage room with me. To clarify a little, the windowless interior room where my current workstation is located was once a small conference room, so it’s got enough space to accommodate multiple cubiclettes along the walls, everyone facing away from the center of the room, just as the space once allowed for a large central table with six or eight seats around it, everyone facing into the middle. It is not, in fact, a closet (just in case my humorous exaggerations have misled you). So my new co-worker, who is a perfectly nice older woman with a couple decades experience in the defense industry, had a bit of a double-whammy first day. Of course nothing was really ready for her, so she doesn’t have a working computer, or an access card to log on to the network even if she had a working computer, or even a proper badge that would allow her to roam the halls unescorted. All she could do yesterday was sit at her cubiclette and read some documentation and collateral as a kind of DIY orientation. Which was interrupted every twenty-seven minutes or so by someone poking their head in the room and saying “Hey, what’s up, haircut?” Must have bugged the crap out of her.

But now it’s another day and the unsolicited tonsorial feedback seems to be exhausted, but my co-worker remains un-computered. My money’s on the equipment getting hooked up and working correctly some time in her fourth week here, so I hope she enjoys the reading. Not too much, though, or she might start reading this over my shoulder. Awkward!

Monday, June 28, 2010


I came to a stunning realization early on over the weekend, one which in hindsight seems head-slappingly obvious: the new house is never going to be done. It remains, and will always remain, a work in progress. I really had thought that I was going to be able to get a certain number of things done before our housewarming party which would allow me to step back and look at the whole big picture and say “All right, that’s finished.” But, not so much. It’s honestly something of a relief, to have officially thrown our housewarming party and be able to regard the ever-evolving To-Do list as something which I shouldn’t necessarily neglect but which has no set deadline, either.

So the housewarming party, in and of itself, was a lot of fun. It is hard, in my estimation, for a party not to be fun when there are deep coolers full of beer and at least one bushel of crabs involved. (Check, and check.) In addition to celebrating our new place of residence, I was able to well and truly break in the new grill with multiple rounds of burgers and dogs, which in turn gave rise to yet another profound realization: I enjoy picking crabs by hand and eating the results, so much so that an entire party built around that very proposition strikes me as eminently worthwhile, but ultimately the crab-picking is an activity one should enter into for fun. As opposed to sustenance. Because a good time can be had pulling apart the wee crabby limb-from-limb and thoracic-chamber-from-chamber, but the calorie-intake versus calorie-expenditure balance, or the time spent liberating the food stuffs ratio to time spent eating, or however you want to measure it, is pretty heavily skewed in favor of the doing, not the chewing. I’ve always said we offer non-crab food options at these type of parties for the people who have shellfish allergies or just generally don’t enjoy seafood, but honestly I always end up scarfing down a few burgers and dogs myself because crab-picking really does work up one’s appetite.

It's the journey, not the mastication.
In addition to celebrating a warm home, there was at least some sports-related celebrating to be enjoyed as well. In honor of the World Cup (I presume, that it may have been purely because it amused her) my wife taught the little guy how to yell “GOOOOOOAAAAAALLL!” and he proved remarkably adept at the long, loud, sustained vocalization. And in fact he also proved uncannily good at matching the note he was hitting to the note my wife hit as they both yelled “GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLL!” Unfortunately the US lost on Saturday and the UK lost on Sunday so our rooting interests are now nil and there probably won’t be any more occasions for the little guy to use this newfound skill. Unless, of course, “GOOOOOOAAAAALLLL!” becomes his new “Home Run!” to be shouted out whenever he sees anything on tv that vaguely resembles a sport with grass and a ball, like tennis or golf.

While most of the rest of the world was focused on sports broadcast from South Africa this weekend, locals hereabouts were also interested in the regional interleague baseball rivalry between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. At the risk (as always) of sounding condescending, the O’s were astoundingly and unexpectedly impressive all weekend, not only sweeping the three-game series but coming from behind in all three games. Maybe that says more about the Nats’ ability to hold leads than anything else, but regardless. I’m happy for my wife and her team.

(The Yankees won two out of three this weekend which seems to be what they do with almost every series, so it’s not that interesting to talk about, even with the added drama of playing against Joe Torre.)

My wife and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary on Sunday, mostly by lounging around the house and reflecting that as we get older the big house parties get somewhat easier to clean up after because people tend to keep the large, sticky mess-making idiocy to a reasonable minimum. We also got a babysitter so that we could have a grown-up dinner at a real restaurant, which ended up being a Brazilian steakhouse. If you’ve never had the pleasure of that particular dining experience, they cook up several ark’s worth of various meats in the kitchen and as each batch is finished cooking (medium rare) the slabs are loaded onto swords which are then paraded through the restaurant by gauchos who will slice off a serving at your table if you like. Needless to say, it is one price for all you care to eat. This is exactly as awesome as it sounds, and my only regret was that after an entire weekend of consuming grilled meat as if it were my job, by Sunday night I was starting to slow down a bit. It was still nice to have someone else do the cooking, though.
After a weekend like that I am, perhaps predictably, very tired and surprisingly still full. But that is a nicely narcotizing effect which makes Monday a bit more bearable.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The end is the beginning

Yesterday I finished reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars and, as promised, I immediately moved on to The Gods of Mars. I have to say, so far in this experiment in going back to the lurid sci-fi pulp classics of the 30’s with my own overgeeked and semijaded sensibilities, I’m pleasantly surprised and even (dare I say) impressed. I’m also notoriously easily amused, and I had more or less made up my mind to enjoy reading the John Carter of Mars trilogy, so take that for what it’s worth.

There’s some clunkiness to Burroughs’s prose, and a casual sexism and racism that can’t be completely dismissed out of hand, but there’s some strengths to offset the weaknesses, too. Mostly I was fascinated by the way that Burroughs resisted turning his space-swashbuckling adventures into oversimplified morality plays. My general pre-reading impressions of the John Carter stories was that they were about an Earthling who allies himself with the beautiful good Martians against the monstrous, ugly, evil Martians and distinguished himself as that planet’s greatest warrior. The middle part of that assumption is a bit off, though. Carter is actually incredibly mercenary, allying himself with whomever he happens to be nearest to, until a more favorable opportunity presents itself. And the beautiful red Martians are just as capable of being cruel and greedy and stupid as the ugly green Martians, and even some of the green monsters prove themselves capable of nobility and even, pivotally, friendship. And even along the broad lines of generalities where most red Martians are more civilized and most green Martians are more barbaric, Burroughs goes out of his way to explain why that should be the case, and Carter is usually sympathetic. It’s not really earth shattering, it’s just a lot more nuanced than what I was expecting, which probably says more about how low my expectations were than anything.

The other minorly impressive element, to me, was the beginning of the second novel, which is almost completely different from the first. Most authors writing series tend to hit a lot of the same beats with every installment, which often comes across as somewhere between giving the audience what they want in the familiar trappings of the fictional world, and unrepentant laziness that lets the author pad out the length of the book with recycled material. The Gods of Mars opens with John Carter once again mysteriously transiting from Earth to Mars, but this time drops him in a completely different area of the planet, with new geographic features and new monsters right off the bat. A few familiar names of people and places get dropped in for a sense of continuity, and one of them even shows up for a stretch, but it’s in no way Princess-redux. Since I tend to enjoy genre fiction in general for the “wild riot of ideas” approach, I was happily charmed.

So speaking of coming to the end of one long story which sets up the next, last night the Buffy project reached the end of season. Although (tangent alert!) before my wife and I flipped over to the dvd, we did watch a rerun of Community, which happened to be one of the episodes that we had completely missed during the regular season. This was the “Mexican Halloween” episode, which somehow managed to combine various little weird obsessions of mine (Mexican folklore like Dia de los Muertos, craptastic 80’s genre movies like The Beastmaster and, of course, Batman) with the usual stuff that has won us over as fans of the show. It was a bit disorienting going backwards, though, and seeing the characters regressed to who they were in October as opposed to who they’d become by the season finale. I look forward to the next season and hope enough other people find it and goose the ratings so that season two doesn’t become the last one.

But (end tangent) I was talking about Buffy. When we cued up the dvd and it was already after 8:30, we were a little bit concerned that we were setting ourselves up for a late night, because in each of our vague memories of Buffy’s inaugural Big Bad Showdown, the season finale was at least a double-length episode, right? Funny enough, no; in 44 minutes (written and directed, unsurprisingly, by Joss himself) all of the following happens: Xander finally tells Buffy how he feels about her, she rejects him, he tries to fall back on Willow as a safety date and she rejects him too; Giles finishes interpreting the prophecy that indicates Buffy is going to be killed by the Master; Buffy finds out, freaks out, and quits being the Slayer in protest; Willow and Cordelia discover a bunch of vamp-stricken corpses on school grounds, which leads to Willow’s monologue about the evil having its way with their world, which puts Buffy back on the path of righteousness (good place for the episode to end, right? This is about the 22-minute mark); Buffy tells Giles she’s back on the case, he tries to talk her out of it, and she knocks him out; Buffy finds the Anointed One and goes with him to the Master’s lair; Xander finds Angel to get him to lead him to the Master so they can help Buffy; Buffy fights the Master, loses, and dies; the Master gets out of his mystic prison (33 minute mark or so!); Xander and Angel find Buffy and CPR her back to life; they head back to the high school where Giles, Jenny Calendar, Willow and Cordelia are fighting an army of vampires and a beast from the hellmouth erupting through the library floor while the master watches from the roof; Buffy gets her rematch against the Master, throws him through a skylight, impaling him on a broken piece of table and killing him, which scatters all the other monsters, and then everyone decides to go to prom and celebrate. There is this thing called decompressed storytelling which, apparently, Mr. Whedon is not a big fan of. And more power to him.

It’s really a pretty awe-inspiring piece of television. It wraps up the season’s major threat-based storyline (while leaving the Anointed off to the side for next season) and it touches on everyone’s emotional character arcs. It is, and appropriately feels like, major payoff, but if you had never seen any of the previous eleven episodes and came in just for the finale, you would totally get what was going on and what the show was about, which is no mean feat.

And yet the show ends up being about so much more! As I pointed out to my wife (when the Master has his heart pierced and goes through the most elaborate FX-heavy turning-to-dust of the entire season) the Big Bad next season is also a vampire, but after that, for a show subtitled “The Vampire Slayer”, there aren’t any more bloodsucking undead Big Bads – it goes aspiring-demon, government-created artificial demon, goddess, evil witch, primeval embodiment of evil. It becomes a show that throws away frigging Dracula in a one-shot season opener. It also keeps getting a more and more engrossing supporting cast. By the end of Season One BTVS is a great show, and we have yet to meet Spike and Dru, Oz, Tara and Dawn, Kendra and Faith, Anya, Wesley … the list goes on and on. To be fair, a lot of those characters show up in Seasons Two and Three, which are justly viewed by many as the show’s peak. So fairly early in the long view, but not there yet.

In fact, the first season finale is kind of quaintly retro, and absolutely hits some familiar beats, if you’ve seen the Kristy Swanson movie. Once again we end the story on prom night. Once again, Buffy fights evil wearing a white prom dress and a black leather jacket. I can’t really blame Joss too much for that, because it is a consummately cool image, and gets right to the heart of the dichotomies he wanted to explore with a character like Buffy in the first place. At least in the tv series, she manages to save the world without burning down the gym.

Anyway. John Carter of Mars: better than I expected! BTVS: better than I remembered! That right there is a win-win.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oh look a baseball troll

If I don't find time to get my hair cut this weekend, this is what I'm going to look like on Monday.
The Yankees are currently on an interleague jaunt to the West Coast, during which the games get started right about the same time I’m brushing my teeth before bed, so I haven’t even been able to follow along with semi-real-time internet coverage. I have instead been relying on the after-the-fact internet coverage on the Yankees website on the mornings after. Today I was happy to note that the Yankees had won a close one last night, 6-5, which gave them a series win over the Diamondbacks and also increased their first place lead, as both the Rays and Sox lost. I clicked over to the game wrap-up summary article because based on the score alone (significant runs on both sides in a tight contest) I figured I might have missed a good one, plus I was curious to see whether or not A-Rod had gotten one stroke closer to 600 HRs. (He had not.)

And it turned out I did in fact miss a good one that went into extra innings and was saved by Rivera after he put himself in a bases loaded, nobody out jam. There’s no way I could have possibly stayed up until the last frame, even if it had been televised, but I was happy for the write-up. One of these days, though, I am going to learnt o stop reading when the article ends, and not continue on to the comments. Because teh interwebs are full of trollish douchebags.

Case in point was a hater who had felt compelled to append a caustic missive to the game wrap, pointing out that the Yankees did not “deserve” to win the game, because they had so many earlier opportunities to score and “couldn’t get the job done”, all of which proved (to the troll) that the entire starting lineup for New York was overpaid relative to their lack of hit-producing ability.

Unfortunately I have been mentally gnawing on that comment all morning and now you all are going to have to deal with me getting my reaction out of my system, because I refuse to be drawn in to the message board shenanigans. Now, as I’ve already admitted, I did not see the game in question. However, I know with absolute certainty that the troll is completely wrong and has a shaky grasp on logic at best.

One of the things I love about sports is that the team that wins is almost always the team that deserves to win. There are occasionally exceptions of exceeding rarity, such as questionable officiating (or, ahem, fan interference) but by and large the games have clear and enforceable rules, two teams go at it under those rules, and in the end there’s no ambiguity about the winner. (I am, for what it’s worth, also a firm believer in the proposition that anything in which winning is subject to interpretation, such as the scores awarded by judges in figure skating, may be an athletic endeavor but is not technically a sport.) The team that deserves to win any given baseball game is the team that scores the higher number of runs by the end of nine (or more) complete innings. By utterly no coincidence, that is in fact by rule the way they award wins in the MLB. The Yankees scored 6 runs to the D-Backs 5 and, regardless of how many more runs they could have scored in various parallel universes where butterfly wings flapped to a different rhythm, they deservedly won the game.

And, to the best of my understanding, the job of every professional ball player is to win games. I guess in the moneyball era of contract incentive clauses and free agency and all an argument could be made that certain role players have more granular job duties, that some guys are getting paid to hit 30 home runs a season, or bat over .290, or steal bases, or make the All-Star Team, or whatever. But a lot of that becomes untenable when you shift from the player level to the team level. It’s not the Yankees’ collective job to score the most runs in the AL (though we all know it certainly makes Papa Steinbrenner happy when they do); it’s their job to win games, and ultimately championships. If you want to say a DH who went 0-for-4 and thus extended a seven-game hitless streak isn’t getting his job done in a specific at-bat, I’m not going to argue that point at all. But if you want to convince me that a whole team isn’t getting the job done, your best chance is to point to a game they actually lost, you know?

(Also, this is completely and borderline-unforgivably irrational, but anytime someone talks about “getting the job done” it makes me think reflexively of “git-r-done” which makes me think of Larry the Cable Guy, whom I loathe with the burning passion of a thousand exploding suns, so much so that his mere presence as the voice of Tow Mater is sufficient cause that whenever my wife points out to me that we also haven’t seen Pixar’s Cars, I pretend I can’t hear her.)

And the whole overpaid thing just unfailingly rankles me. Yeah, New York has the highest payroll, how shameful, because money is bad! Go back to Stalingrad, commie!

Well, that feels better. Now having once again burnished my bona fides as a despicably over-entitled New York Yankees fan, I guess I can call it a day.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Running on fumes

Clearly I sprained my brain a little bit yesterday in my attempt to catalog all of the various series I am currently bouncing between in my regular reading rotation, because today I got pretty much nuthin'.

Of course, not helping matters may be the fact that the part of the country I call home is currently experiencing a semi-ridiculous heatwave. Yesterday the digital thermometer on my car's dashboard read 104 degrees. At 5 p.m. Clearly that must be due to some kind of poorly designed sensor that somehow, I don't know, combines the ambient air temperature with the surface heat of the engine block, but dang. Hot hot hot hot hot. And today's much the same, so I'm really not looking forward to this evening's commute.

On the other hand, I made a determination yesterday that should lend the drive home every night an extra sliver of tolerability. The absolute worst, most soul-crushing part of the entire drive comes near the beginning, after I leave the side streets around the Metro station and have to merge onto I-66, which is a nightmare of multiple feeder lanes both entering and exiting the highway in various directions. For the past six months I've dutifully been going out the way I come in, getting all the way into the left ramp lane as soon as possible, and sitting in a creeping, crawling line of cars making their way to 66.

Very few things are too ironic for me to find amusing.  This would be one of them.
On rare occasions, however, (usually because I'm running off-schedule for one reason or another) I have had to park in the garage on the opposite side of the station from the lot I normally use. This is a huge pain because it involves spiraling up (and down) several levels of the structure and feels like a huge waste of time, but the one bright spot is that because of the garage's position relative to the highway, the closest entry point to 66 is further along in the feeder-mess, which means when I leave via that route I am one of the jerks zipping up the righthand lane and merging into the main feed at the last second, instead of one of the schlubs in the left lane rolling bumper-to-bumper at 5 mph and trying not to let the jerks in.

So yesterday, even though I was running on time int he morning and parked in my usual lot, when I left I tried driving out in the opposite direction, past the garage, to get to the next highway entrance ramp. Which was an idea so crazy it just had to work! (It did.) My determination, then, is that I'm basically OK with being a right lane jerk every day, if it means I can avoid those suckiest ten minutes of the commute as a result.

Not the most exciting announcement ever, I know, but like I said, it's a slow news day in my brain today.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


By all possible reckonings, both sentimental and calendrical, it is now officially summer. Beach Books on a Bus (2010 Edition) is now officially underway as well, as yesterday I once again rode the PRTC and cracked open my massive hardcover collection of the first three Barsoom novels (which is going to give me a significant workout just in the carrying-around, I suspect) and dove into A Princess of Mars, a pulp touchstone which is a little bit hard to believe I have thus far left untouched. I’m planning to go straight through the entire hardcover in one go, reading the trilogy back-to-back-to-back. I mention that because it’s something that I hardly ever do.

Back in June of 2007 when I started this government contracting gig and rode the bus every day, the very first book I brought along for the commute was a fantasy paperback, the first volume of a Dragonlance trilogy. I had borrowed the entire trilogy from a buddy of mine, but once I finished the first volume I read a memoir next (Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is awesome and I cannot recommend highly enough) and only when that was finished did I move on the next book in the fantasy trilogy. And after that, I read The Tipping Point, which I had discovered was reading recommended by the director of the DoD agency where I was contracting. Then I finished the trilogy.

It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the trilogy as of the end of the first novel, or at any other point as I went along through it. (There are approximately 700 different Dragonlance trilogies and other series making up an interconnected universe approximately on par with the complexity of modern superhero comics, and if you aren’t a fan then the next bit is going to be meaningless gibberish to you, but the particular trilogy I’m referring to here is the original Legends, the one about Raistlin and Caramon and time travel and the ascent to godhood and all, which is easily one of the top 5.) It just didn’t feel right to read the whole trilogy in one go. I wasn’t afraid of getting bored with the story, per se, I just thought I would enjoy it more if I broke it up.

That’s probably a vestigial impulse from growing up with my dad, who used to commute in from New Jersey to Manhattan on the NJ Transit and Path trains and was a fairly voracious reader himself. He would pick up new paperbacks on a pretty regular basis, and by “new” I mean not just new to him but newly published. It’s strange to recall, but there are various series which I think of as ancient and venerable institutions now, but which my dad was reading as they were published, which meant waiting months or years between installments and reading other, unrelated books to fill the gaps. I suppose because I was witness to that in my formative years, the idea became embedded that that’s how you’re supposed to do it. Even once my dad had completed a series and every volume was on the family bookshelf and I started pulling them down and reading them, I would end up consuming them at almost the same rate my dad had originally, and I would intersperse other stuff (usually for school) in between the individual novels.

Of course I’ve (arguably) grown up and have my own discretionary income and my own book collection and I don’t read hand-me-downs exclusively (though I still do that too, of course) and I have found myself at times buying books which are parts of series that have not yet been completely published or in some cases completely written. Or they exist fully realized out there in the world but I haven’t yet put my hands on every volume. Honestly, given the high incidence of creating properties with multi-volume potential especially in the genre-ghettos of sci-fi and fantasy and horror that I’m drawn to, this happens all the damn time. And that is another reason (in addition to bookbinding considerations) why I am planning to read straight through the John Carter of Mars trilogy: I almost can’t abide the thought of having yet another series added to the list of series I’m currently somewhere in the middle of, so I need to hustle Edgar Rice Burroughs’s planetary romance masterpiece on and off the list with all due haste.

Here’s the company it will be momentarily joining:

The Kingkiller Chronicles – I haven’t finished this series yet because only the first volume has been published. I read a review of that opening novel (The Name of the Wind) which was absolutely gushing, so I went out and bought it and had to agree, it was pretty phenomenal. Sometimes I surf over to the author’s blog to see how he’s progressing on the sequel. The answer is usually “slowly”. I carry around a certain amount of guilt associated with this series because I was so quickly and completely enamored of it that I gave a copy to my dad and another to a good friend of mine, both of whom finished it and said “That was great! When does the next one come out?”

The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – I’m two books into this series and, as above, just waiting for the next volume (the third of a projected four) to be written and published. The Covenant books are actually a series of trilogies (Chronicles, Second Chronicles, and Last Chronicles) so I’ve actually already got eight of them under my belt. And those first six are books my dad read on his commute, which I borrowed later, and which I now am trying to assemble my own copies of, specifically of those same paperback editions from the early 80’s with the cool paintings on the covers.

A Song of Ice and Fire – Yet another unfinished series, with four volumes out so far and (I believe) three to go. I’ve read all four published entries in the past three years, on the commute. It’s a great epic story of war and politics against a fantasy backdrop, and so popular that the first book is soon to be a mini-series on HBO (A Game of Thrones). But man, the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, is taking forever and a not altogether small fear preys on my mind that the author could very well drop dead before finishing the whole series. (Which nearly happened to Stephen King with his Gunslinger magnum opus, and did in fact happen to Robert Jordan just before he could complete The Wheel of Time, which is a 14-book monster I have so far steered clear of.)

Coming Sooner or Later!  We Hope!
The Dresden Files – This is an ongoing series that’s more comicbooky than most on this list, in that it doesn’t seem particularly structured to have an endpoint. Harry Dresden, Wizard for Hire, gets into supernatural adventures in modern Chicago, and every novel is a satisfying complete story, plus there’s a larger narrative arc running through all of them about Harry’s various relationships and personal development. I’ve read the first four, there’s ten or so published so far, and Jim Butcher will probably just keep riding the gravy train for as long as he possibly can, which would make it kind of like a single-author version of Sweet Valley High. With sex and murder and demons and vampires and stuff. (Which, for all I know, Sweet Valley High had as well? But I was led to believe it is not my cup of tea, as such.)

The Adelia Aguilar books - I don’t think this series has a catchy overarching name, probably because it’s not exactly from the genre-ghetto where such things are de rigeur parts of the marketing of novels. I read Mistress of the Art of Death a year or so ago and I liked it well enough, kind of a Name of the Rose Lite with a female physician instead of a male monk as the protagonist. I became aware that there were additional novels about the heroine Adelia, and I intend to check them out at some point, but this is another loose ongoing adventures kind of series, as opposed to “the whole story will only be complete when the last one comes out”. So it’s not a super-high priority, and doesn’t really sit in my mind as unfinished business. But still.

Spellsinger – This is a series I kind of fell into by accident. The first volume (and only the first volume) was in a bag of secondhand paperbacks I was given in high school and managed to carry around with me for an astonishing stretch of time, until it was unearthed six months ago as we packed for the big move and I figured I could give some of the contents a shot as commute reading material. Only when I got to the end of the novel did I realize it wasn’t a proper ending at all, and a little online research informed me there are a total of 8 books in the series. But the good news at least is that all 8 have been published with the last one coming out in 1994, so I just need to track them down. I have the second volume at home.

Millennium – aka The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and so on. Sadly Stieg Larsson is no longer with us, but he did finish this trilogy before going to his reward. I just read the first installment a month or so ago and I’ll pick up the other two sooner than later, I imagine.

Spelljammer – This is another Dragonlance series, six volumes long, and unfortunately this one is probably ranked nearer to the bottom of the 700 or so disparate cycles in that fantasy universe. But it’s got a marvelously insane premise, centering around giant sailing ships that use a special kind of sorcery to fly through outerspace, thus creating gloriously goofy sci-fi/fantasy parfait stories. The books are out of print, but being invested in the series at least gives me something interesting to specifically seek out at various used bookstores and library sales and whatnot.

All Creatures Great and Small – Hey look, it’s a series of books that are neither sci-fi nor fantasy nor crime fiction! I’m so well-rounded! It may perhaps go without saying (not that that has ever stopped me before) but the books of James Herriot are much loved by my beloved, and she gently pointed me in their direction, aided by the fact that she already owned the books. I found them perfectly charming, as well – or, at least, found the first two perfectly charming. I found the third volume perfectly absent from our collective bookshelves, apparently lost somewhere along the line between my wife reading it back in the day and the eventual consolidation of our respective libraries. The fourth and final volume is safe and sound by the first two, so really I just need to go out and get the third installment, because honestly if it had been in the house all along I surely would have finished reading the whole series by now. Of course I am slightly OCD about books on shelves, especially series, so much like my quest to compile the first two Chronicles trilogies of a certain vintage paperback edition, I’ll make every effort to find a copy of All Things Wise and Wonderful that matches the other three books. And that might slow things down.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy stories

No, I did not go see Toy Story 3 this past weekend, although I wouldn’t put it past me. An odd kind of detente currently exists between myself and Pixar, wherein I find myself … not exactly avoiding their releases so much as delaying my experience of them, consigning them mentally to some distinct future viewing after an indeterminate amount of time has passed. My wife and I actually went on a date (back when “dating” was the fully descriptive extent of our relationship) to see The Incredibles in the theater, and that was a bonafide good-time-had-by-all. But ever since we brought home our very own bundle of joy, the thought of procuring baby-sitting services so that we could go to the Cineplex so that we could watch, essentially, a children’s movie (and yes I know the glory and genius of Pixar movies is that they work for an appeal to all ages, but still) seems somehow … off. And, on the flip side, having a child in the house means I know that there will be many, many Disney DVD viewings in the future, and in fact I look forward to my little guy achieving both the attention-span and brain-development foundations that mean he can appreciate movies and I can enjoy them alongside him without fear that we’re rotting his brain. So I’ve never seen Ratatouille or Wall-E or Up (I know, I KNOW) but I’m pretty much OK with that, because I’ll get around to them eventually.

But Toy Story 3 seems like an A+ hit that somehow rises above the mere A-level material of its fellow Pixar flicks. And if we see it in the theater we get the 3D experience. (Which, also? I haven’t seen a 3D movie in the theater since this recent craze began with, what, Monsters Vs. Aliens? The My Bloody Valentine remake? I skipped Avatar and everything else. But I confess I’m a little curious to see what the fuss is about, and I trust Pixar’s take on it more than, say, the post-production fad-grab of Cla$h of the Titan$.)

So, no Buzz and Woody on-screen antics this past weekend but toys did still manage to figure prominently over the course of Saturday and Sunday, because this is me we’re talking about here and that is how I roll. On Saturday I took the little guy out for a morning excursion to what I consider the best local comic book shop (“local” being a term I use loosely since it’s more “local to where we used to live” and thus about 45 minutes away). Of course I forgot how late comic book stores open on the weekends, but luckily there is an upscale toy store in the same shopping center, so we meandered around in there for a while. And once again I was confronted with some toys that seemed so cool that I wanted to buy them right then and there, not for myself of course but for my scion and inheritor of my geektastic kingdom.

Not pictured from the same set: the skeletal whale and the three-headed sea-serpent.  TOTALLY NOT MAKING ANY OF THAT UP.
Your eyes do not deceive you; that is a Playmobil ghost pirate wielding a flintlock and an axe and riding on a giant crab (with claws that open and shut!) and there is nothing not to love about that. It is recommended for children ages 4 and up due to the choking hazard of the weapons and such, and I was only able to talk myself out of the purchase because the first birthday opportunity I would have to gift it to my son is over two years away and that is (apparently) an absurd amount of lead time even for me. Although, honestly, this is the kind of knickknack which even my wife (who is no slouch in either the pirate- or crab-appreciating departments) would find highly amusing. It would find a happy home with us and could be kept up on a shelf for a couple of years and then become a hand-me-down toy, as most everything I collect is bound to do. But down that line of reasoning lies madness and toy-hoarding at levels that might imperil our ability to pay the mortgage, so, again: restraint. Patience of the zen master. All things in good time, and who knows what kinds of insanely awesome playthings will exist when Christmas 2012 rolls around.

As we continued making our way through the toy store we also found a toddler-height wooden train table decked out with all manner of tracks and engines and cars from the Thomas the Tank Engine universe, and that probably could have kept my little guy occupied all day. Back home, the garage is almost completely squared away and one of these months I’ll throw some discretionary income at some kind of workbench tool-organizational structure. At which point, assuming most if not all of the other house-settling projects are completed, I’ll be tempted to see if I can’t cobble together a train table from scratch (I mean, he reached into his sack of famous-last-word clichés, how hard could it be?) because I really see no reason why my child shouldn’t enjoy that kind of thing every single day.

Speaking of the garage, that as workable a segue as any into Sunday, where my Father’s Day treat was many-layered, each of them wonderful. My wife bought me a new propane grill, just in time for summer to truly begin without fear that the old grill would simply crumble into carbonized dust mid-barbecue. The grill came some-assembly-required but honestly I not only don’t mind putting things together, I really quite enjoy it. So on Sunday morning, after my wife has left for work and removed her car from that side of the garage, the little guy and I unpacked all the parts and set to the task of “fixing” (as my boy characterized it) the grill. My able little assistant, equipped with plastic hammer and plush screwdriver, managed to split his time between grill-assembly quality control (following and mimicking the things I did, I assume to make sure that I had done it right) and riding his trike around the driveway and crumbling Styrofoam packing materials because that’s fun stuff right there. I found out later that the salespeople told my wife it would take about four hours to put the grill together, but I managed to do it in about three and get the little guy fed and down for a nap on his usual schedule.

You might worry that my blistering pace meant that the grill was not exactly assembled to all proper specs, but I had the opportunity to test it last night and it performed admirably on its maiden outing. Not that it’s terribly difficult to grill cheeseburgers, but this model also has the side burner feature which was used to boil a pot of water for corn on the cob, and all systems were go. I may be reaching into the cliché-sack again here, but I can’t deny that standing over a shiny new fire-breathing toy, drinking a beer, while my little guy scooted around on the deck on his big plastic dump truck and my wife set the picnic table for dinner, I was deeply enamored with the circumstances.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pulp Redemption

I heard a rumor this week that there may possibly be a fifth Indiana Jones movie in the works. And something occurred to me.

Raiders of the Lost Ark = hella-good
Temple of Doom = meh
Last Crusade = hella-good
Crystal Skull = verging on Ang-Lee-Hulk terrible

So maybe what we have here is a case of "Only the Odd Numbered Ones Are Good"? Or what you might call "The Inverse Star Trek"?

The Star Trek priniciple, I think, gained most of its credence right around the time that First Contact (technically Star Trek 8 at that point) came out, which proved that the movie series could jump from one cast to the next and still stick to the alternating-crap-and-quality pattern where its even numbered entries were golden.

This concept should have better than a 50/50 success rate, but in this world we take what we can get.
I would think that Indy 5 would be the last one in that series ... with Harrison Ford. But the groundwork has also been laid for Shia LeBoeuf to pick up the fedora and whip. So the franchise could keep going with Roddenberrian longevity.

So even though I felt totally burned by Indy 4, I know feel this odd numerology-tinged optimism about yet another sequel. I doubt this will be enough to convince my wife to go see Indy 5 in the theater with me, when and if it appears, since she's never seen Last Crusade yet suffered through a matinee of Crystal Skull opening weekend and is justifiably down on the whole property. But, we shall see.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Healthy as a Horse

A fat horse, that is. Or possibly a pony. But who doesn’t love fat, cute little ponies?!?!

Kings love ponies the most, but protocol demands they play it cool.
I had a routine physical yesterday and I pretty much zipped through it, which is likely because it wasn’t assessing my overall health but rather my healthy-enoughness. Back in college I signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program, not because anybody in my family was sick, but because another student on campus made a general appeal to the entire student body on behalf of one of his relatives. I was already in the habit of donating plasma every time a blood drive rolled through campus, and I cracked all the obligatory jokes about being that much cheaper of a drunk when I was down a pint, but on a deeper level I think I realized that I was living a life of utter and complete leisure and luxury while my parents paid for my school bills and I made exactly zero contribution to society, so sacrificing something that my body could easily spare and replace seemed like the right kind of token to keep my karma from devaluing too precipitously.

Anyway, you sign up for the NMDP and they keep you on file forever, and if at any time you should come up in the computer search as a match for someone who needs a marrow donation, they will track you down. So it generally goes like this: a computer search flags you as a potential match, and they call you to see if you’d still be willing to donate, and if you say yes they order blood tests to determine if you really are a full match, and if you are then they give you a physical to make sure you are healthy enough to go through the donation process, and if you pass that they set up the actual donation. Alert readers may remember a month or so ago when I was talking about various medical lab appointments – that was the full-match testing, which I didn’t get into in too much detail back then because it could have been a false alarm. But, as of now, it looks like this is going to happen.

So yeah, if I had been having a real physical with my real GP (which reminds me I need to find a new GP now that I’ve moved, and I also haven’t had a regular check-up in about 3 or 4 years) then I might have been advised that I am carrying a significant amount of extra weight around the old waistline and probably should watch what I eat more closely and exercise more and so on. But as far as my suitability for lying in a recliner for five hours while my blood circulates through an apheresis machine? In the clear. And it was yet another opportunity to reflect on the fact that I am, all in all, pretty lucky to be in some absurdly high percentile of healthiness. I have naturally low blood pressure. I’ve never been diagnosed with a serious disease. I’ve never had surgery of any kind other than oral (which the doctor yesterday literally waved off with “that’s nothing”). My tonsils and appendix are intact. Never broken a bone. Never been hospitalized. Not on any medication, nor am I allergic to any medication (that I know of, as I always hasten to add in those medical interviews, because how would I know?). I don’t have any chronic pains or conditions. When I find time to sleep, I sleep just fine. I have some environmental allergies but that’s more of an inconvenience than a health problem. I am losing neither hair nor eyesight (and yes I’m young but I have friends my age who are mid-loss themselves). Aside from being as out-of-shape as you would rightly assume for someone whose job description includes “computer programming” and hobbies include “reading and watching tv”, I’m fundamentally hale and hearty. If this sounds like I’m bragging, then consider it instead permission for you, if you ever hear me in person complaining about being plagued by ill-health, to punch me in the face.

At any rate it’s just as well that I am rarely in need of medical attention because man oh MAN do I hate doctor’s offices. My physical yesterday had three parts, a general exam, an EKG, and a chest x-ray. The first two were quick and painless but when I got to the radiology department I had to sit there in the waiting room for a long time. And of course most people who are waiting for a radiology appointment are not perfectly healthy specimens getting cleared for donations. Obviously I’m not upset with other people for having accidents or getting sick, and I’m grateful that modern medical treatment is available to them (or those who can afford it, at least) so this is not an angry rant. It’s just an expression of melancholy.

If I spend more than fifteen minutes in a medical waiting room, I start to feel like I can sense which people (like me) consider their own visits there to be exceptional deviations from the norm, and which ones are regulars who take doctor’s visits as the norm. And this is going to sound blisteringly obvious but I have a much easier time reckoning with the concept that “everyone gets sick sometimes” than I do with “some people are sick most if not all the time”. And that latter idea is even harder to grapple with when you consider that a good chunk of those sick-more-often-than-not people are old, living their so-called golden years but not necessarily enjoying them. Evidence of which was on hand yesterday in radiology.

There was a married couple in the waiting room, I noticed, and at first I thought it was very sweet that since they were both retired, they could both go to the doctor together even though it was only the wife who needed the appointment. That is sweet and I don’t mean to take away from that completely, but I couldn’t help but notice that they seemed to have a lot of trouble communicating with each other. Partly this was because the wife was very hard of hearing, but the husband managed to create some confusion on his own. He was flipping through a magazine and saw a story about that movie Ondine that just came out, and he tried to show it to his wife and say “Hey, there’s that Colin Farrell guy you like.” The wife was mystified, and they went through a bit of who’s-on-first until finally the wife explained to her husband that she enjoys the cinematic work of Colin Firth and has no idea who this Colin Farrell is. I’m not saying that I think this clearly indicates the husband has early stages Alzheimer’s, or even that he’s tragically disengaged from his wife, because at the end of the day however vast the gulf between Bullseye and Mr. Darcy may seem to me, I know that it’s pretty trivial. But still. My wife and I love to sit around and just talk to each other, and we both love movies and tv and talking about same, and the thought of time slowly wearing us down to the point where either of us can’t hear too well or can’t keep actors straight, there’s a sadness in that.

And again, that’s still a minor sadness. Another patient in the waiting room was an elderly woman, pushing 90 if she was a day, who was attended by a professional nurse. Dementia was also in attendance. The nurse was clearly the employee of the nursing home where the elderly woman lives, and the nurse was fairly patient despite her charge being quite a handful. Handful is a word we tend to use to describe the little guy in our house, and I’m using it deliberately here, because the elderly woman reminded me of nothing so much as a toddler. Maybe a three year old, because she was capable of forming complete sentences with perfectly pronounced words (albeit in a girlishly high register), but she also tended to repeat the same things over and over. And over. And over. If I had skipped this intro and told you I had heard this conversation:

-“I want to go to the bathroom.”
- “You just went.”
- “But I want to go.”
- “No.”
- “I’ll be right back.”
- “I said no.”
- “But I want to.”
- “You just went.”
- “I’ll be right back.”
- “I said no!”

You would think I was quoting a mom and a three year old, right? How about if I threw in this exchange:

- “Ow, don’t pinch me!”
- “But I had to you won’t listen to me!”

But I swear, this was all nurse/90-year-old interaction, word for word. And it just cut me to the bone. I haven’t even figured out what kind of response to dementia makes sense. Do you feel sorry for the person? Does the person who would understand you feeling sorry for them even exist anymore? Is dementia the worst possible thing that can happen to a person, or is it really not so bad because you lack the capacity to notice what’s become of you? My mind boggles. And I can encounter someone with dementia and think to myself “Ai yi yi I do not want to end up like that” but so what? Living well beyond the age when our ancestors would have been too slow to avoid being eaten by sabretooth tigers has engendered the consequence that some of us outlive our own mental capacities and no one seems to know exactly why or how to fix it or even stave it off. And all I can do, therefore, is just try not to think about it, because if I do think about it I find it to be painfully incomprehensible. Which brings us back to my point: I am unspeakably grateful that I enjoy good health and do not have to spend much time surrounded by reminders of all the ways I can and will decline.

But that’s a bummer of a thought to end on so let’s go even further back. PONIES!!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I am going to argue that this is radder than the Star Wars Rock Band meme.  REFUTE ME IF YOU DARE.
Click to make it bigg-ARRRRRR!!

The image above is the cover of a comic book which is due to be released a week from today. The title of this issue is “The Return of Bruce Wayne #3” from which you might be able to glean a few key pieces of information: the #3 does in fact indicate that it is the third chapter of a serialized story (which is scheduled to run 6 issues in total, so this is more or less the middle), while “Return” suggests that Bruce Wayne had gone somewhere and is now coming back, a suggestion indeed borne out by the story. It is in fact the culmination of a story which began in comics published literally years ago, the short version being that it involved Batman (Bruce Wayne’s heroic alter ego) winding up on the losing end (or was it …?) of a showdown with the God of Oppression and thereafter being presumed dead, when in fact he had simply been banished backwards in time. I read that particular story as it came out, but I’m waiting for “The Return of Bruce Wayne” to be completed and collected before I check it out. Still, I know from the internet chatter and the promotion of the issue covers that the story basically follows Bruce Wayne as he reinvents Batman over and over throughout history, starting as a caveman, then as a Puritan witch-hunter, and in this month’s adventure, as a pirate captain as seen above. So yes, in that cover image, the swashbuckler with the gray and black outfit and the mask and the utility bandolier is not just supposed to be a pirate with some resemblance to Batman; it IS Batman. As a pirate. Lost in time.

OK, so clearly there’s two things going through my mind right now:

1. DC Comics needs to release this cover image as a poster. The door to my comic book dork room is just past the end of my pirate bar. This poster would bring the whole basement together in truly Lebowskian fashion.

2. Notice the Jolly Roger flying from the rigging on the right side of the cover. (And yes, I know, flags wouldn’t be flown there on any proper ship, but just go with it.) Observe that it is a skull-and-cutlasses motif … but the skull has bat-ears. DC Comics pretty much needs to manufacture and market life-sized replicas of this flag, as well. NEEDS TO. My disctretionary income is yours for the taking, good sirs.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This is how they get you

So yesterday I got an e-mail from the I.T. department, which in fact was an automated e-mail from the helpdesk request management and tracking software that the I.T. department uses. The automated e-mail was letting me know that my recent ticket had been addressed and resolved and was therefore being closed, and further indicated that if I needed any additional assistance I should contact the helpdesk. Another way of looking at it would be to say that the automated e-mail was full of automated WTF on an utter crap template.

To back up a bit … some weeks ago I relocated from a cubicle by the windows to a desk in a storage room, but really I was fine with the change, rolled with it, saw the silver lining in the relative peace and quiet, etc. The major sticking point was that the desk in the storage area was supposed to be configured like my old cubicle, meaning it would have two different computer towers connected to a single monitor/keyboard/mouse set up on a switchbox. One tower is for the unclassified stuff I work on most of the time, and the other tower is for the classified work I do less frequently yet still officially have responsibility for. The two towers run on two totally different networks. (I rush to point out that this two-tower set up is standard for the whole office, not some special exceptional configuration just for me because my job is vaguely technical.) From the time I got to the new desk, I found that the unclassified computer worked fine and had access to the entire unclassified network, but the classified machine couldn’t reach any resources – no e-mail, no databases, nada. So I brought this to the attention of the helpdesk.

I lost a few hours here and there when various I.T. people showed up, displaced me to sit at my desk, and tried unsuccessfully to troubleshoot my classified network problem. At a certain point I resigned myself to having to wait a long time for the issue to be resolved. But I wasn’t expecting the I.T. helpdesk to blithely mark my issue as “resolved” when that was in no way true. The weird thing was the recent sequence of events. Last Friday an I.T. guy asked me to check my classified connection when I had a chance, because he thought they had finally fixed the problem. He wandered off, I got around to checking later, I found that nothing had changed and I still had no connectivity, and I experienced a complete and total lack of shock at this. I was so non-shocked that I left work for the weekend without taking any further action, but on Monday morning I remembered again so I checked the network connections for my classified tower one more time, found they were still dead, and e-mailed the guy who had stopped by on Friday. A couple of hours later, I got the “ok, all fixed, kthxbye” form e-mail from the I.T. helpdesk system and I was somewhat torqued by it, especially once I checked the connections one more time, which put the lie to the e-mail.

The standard-issue I.T. Helpdesk keyboard
So what I should have done was taken that torque and put it to use composing a scathing e-mail asking what kind of system allowed the helpdesk staff to just arbitrarily mark a problem as “resolved” when not a blessed thing had changed. At the very least I should have put in a new request to open a new ticket and indicated (fairly passive aggressively?) that it was still the same problem I had been having before. But I just couldn’t work up the energy. My classified connectivity issue had been malingering for so long that I figured it could just as well wait a few more days. Maybe I’d be really bored later in the week. (Moreso than usual.) So yesterday, I did nothing.

Then today the I.T. guy from Friday stopped by again with what I took to be an unjustifiably optimistic “Try it now!” Yet amazingly, when I tried today, I had all the classified network connections I am supposed to have. So overnight between Monday and Tuesday it got magically fixed. And I was spared the regret and remorse of having excoriated the helpdesk for prematurely marking the issue as resolved in their tracking system. And all of that is pretty good stuff, on balance, except when I cock my head and look at it and realize that in order to get to that point I had to be utterly beaten down and adopt the belief system that things around here, including the vital services I truly need to actually be technically able to do my job, will only get fixed on geologically long timescales, if ever. And adopt that belief system I have. It's ugly, but it is serving me well.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Unsummable parts

My English major upbringing has me pretty well conditioned to look for themes in my life or my thoughts or whathaveyou, so that my blog posts can be approximately thematic themselves (I’ve said in the past that I don’t think the whole blogging exercise would have sufficient value to justify the time and effort if entries consisted of nothing more than unexamined inventories of things that happened over the past 24 hours). I suppose, though, that it’s inevitable that from time to time the theme would have to be themelessness itself, not that I couldn’t be bothered to take the time to sort through what’s passing before my eyes and whizzing around in my brain and construe the connections, but rather that I did take the time and after a respectable interval concluded that there are no connections to construe. So not a cop-out, I insist awkwardly.

... but why will you say that I am mad?
This reminds me of an English class assignment from eighth grade, when we had to read Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart in our massive lit primer and then answer the four or five study questions at the end. Question 1: What is the setting of the story? I was stumped by that one and so I went to my father (who had himself been an English major and remained an appreciator of literature who shaped my own voracious reading habits in many ways large and small) and asked him to help me find the answer. It was hard enough swallowing my thirteen-year-old nerd pride and asking for help in the first place, but the indignity became too much to bear when my father tried to tell me that the answer was that the story has no setting. I distinctly remember favoring my father with as withering a glare as I could prepubescently muster and informing him that this particular lit primer did not traffic in what you would call “trick questions” – if what’s-the-setting were being asked, then there had to be a specific and correct answer. Of course all my memories are unreliable at best, and the fraught nature of my relationship with my dad means that he probably comes off worse in certain recollections than he actually truly behaved at the time, but I am still at least partly convinced that he did a poor job explaining the homework to me in that case, mostly because he had the right answer and the fact that I didn’t just take him at his word, believe him, write it down and move on was vexing to him. I like to think that if he had explained that it wasn’t a trick question, and that really a more nuanced answer might be not so much that there is no setting as that the setting is anyplace, anytime, universal, because the story is so purely psychological that it works in multiple contexts, or even perhaps that the setting of the story is inside the tortured soul of the narrator, a place that the reader can never really escape from because the narrator himself is already imprisoned there, something like that might have gotten through to me. (It’s not necessarily true, but I like to think so.) Instead my dad just kind of obstinately insisted that there was no setting and kept pointing to the literal text and urging me to show him where a setting was mentioned if I was so sure that there-is-no-setting was wrong, and my head just about exploded, and probably so did his. I think finally I wrote down ‘There is no setting explicitly mentioned in the story’ which I thought was a cop-out way of saying ‘I don’t know what the right answer is because it’s not in the place I’ve been trained to look’ and turned in the homework, and my teacher marked the answer as correct and I started to get my first inkling of a clue as to the dangerous intersection between concepts like artistic usage of negative space, and total bullshit.

So, yeah – the theme of this past weekend is that there was no theme. We had brunch in the District on Saturday, and dinner in Maryland on Sunday, both of which involved good people and good home cooking. In between there was significant advancement of the cause of getting the house painted and in presentable housewarming form. There was also some interleague baseball, and the Yankees swept the Astros and ended up tied for first in the AL East but none of it was televised down here, and the O’s struggled against the Mets, but my wife and I are still speaking to each other, though maybe not as fired up to blow some money on an outing to Camden yards as we might have been in March, say. We have plenty of other things to count down to in any case, between the aforementioned housewarming and my wife’s upcoming birthday and my brother’s impending nuptials and our family vacation to the Outer Banks in August. And probably more which I am incapable of holding in my brain all at once. The point is there is a lot on the horizon and sometimes that translates to a general feeling of marking time here in the present, but even marked time is good time most of the time. And if that feels like a cop out, sometimes that’s the right answer regardless.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Saturday Grab Bag of Follow-Ups

I know you're all dying to hear about the back-end of the commuting nightmare story from Wednesday. When I got off the Metro that afternoon and walked back to my car, I found that my predictions were 100% wrong: I had not beaten the SUV owner back to our respective vehicles, and the black behemoth was gone. Well, maybe not 100% wrong. I checked my passenger door and found I had been correct in assuming that no amount of frustration would overcome the physical impossibility of damaging my car with the SUV's door given only three inches of swinging space. There were a few whitish scuff marks, but nothing ruinous. In what I can only assume was the sole remaining avenue of retalliation for the SUV owner, a brown banana peel was plopped in the middle of my car hood. I honestly laughed as I chucked the banana peel into the woods. Banana peels are inherently funny! The SUV owner did a craphead thing by parking over the line, and in response I parked them in, which was (tenuously) arguably a craphead thing to do in and of itself, so the SUV owner in response left food-garbage on my hood. I can take it.

Now if they had smeared banana gunk all over my windshield, THAT would have been something else.

Sometimes I like to just scroll quickly down the front page of my own blog and take in the pictures to see what kind of composite portrait of me they convey. I did this after Monday's post and the elements were as follows: the Eye of Sauron, a Dalek, an Overstreet cover featuring the X-Men, the Voltron lions, the Frog Thor mini-bust, the $25,000 Pyramid, two Formula One cars, and the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie poster. That may be the purest distillation of the general background noise in my head EVER. I have peaked. Also, apparently I am eleven years old.


I was talking on Monday about the allegedly forthcoming super-powered supermodels novels by Tyra Banks, which clearly falls under the twin headings of "things that hit multiple personal buttons" and also "things guaranteed to be awful, but possibly so-bad-they're-good". I ran into another example of that breed of two-headed monster last week, when I found out one of the many direct-to-video sequels to The Crow (which is one of my favorite movies ever) stars David Boreanaz. Despite (or perhaps because of) my love of the original Crow, I've never seen any of its descendants, movies or tv series. But I'm curious, especially hearing that Boreanaz was involved. It's probably still pretty terrible. If I do waste a Netflix on it, I'll let you know if it's so-bad-it's-good, or just so-profoundly-bad.


Hey we got new couches! Somehow I have failed to mention this, even though they were delivered like a week and a half ago. They are nice! I've made this joke to everyone who will listen (which is now about to include alla y'all) but these are literally the first pieces of furniture I've ever owned which I did not have to assemble myself. Not that that indicates a huge seismic shift or anything; I'll be putting furniture together again in the not too distant future, as there are hypothetical IKEA trips yet to be made. But still.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Library of Dreams (The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul)

You guys, I totally read a book yesterday. By which I mean I read an entire book cover-to-cover, cracking it open on the morning commute and finishing off the last twenty-odd pages on the couch that evening while waiting for my wife to finish putting our little guy to bed.

To be fair, the book in question was not exactly Crime and Punishment or anything. It was, rather, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, which is one of the last novels completed in the entirely-too-brief lifespan of Douglas Adams. In pocket paperback size (like the edition I read) it clocks in at just a tick over 300 pages, and it is of course written in Adams’s trademark breezy style, which I would characterize as involving a propulsive plot occasionally bumping over random absurdities every so often, with as many jokes as the narrative can possibly contain.

I recently heard the word ‘joke’ defined (and apologies if you think that dissecting humor robs it of its inherent value, but I respectfully disagree, and I love dissecting why it is that some jokes work well and some work outstandingly and some fall flat; it’s not like sunsets have lost their magic and become less beautiful just because I understand atmospheric diffusion) as something which sets up one expectation and delivers on another. Most statements can only support one expectation, and deliver on it, whereas a pure non sequitor sets up an expectation and delivers a totally unrelated swerve, and jokes exist in the tricky middle-ground, where the unexpected conclusion still carries a certain sense of “shoulda seen that coming.” I bring up this particular theory of humor because I feel like it applies pretty well to the way that Adams goes about constructing individual sentences. Most people who’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide remember big laff-lines like “The huge golden space ship hung in the air in almost exactly the way a brick doesn't.” There are a remarkable number of sentences in his books like that, and I honestly believe that I read Douglas Adams faster than I read most authors because my brain tries to rush through every sentence to get to the punchline, and then on to the next, and the next.

Incidentally there is a scene in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul that is largely about dissecting humor, which is in itself pretty funny, which is kind of dizzying to think about.

Also, not so incidentally, the book is about (among other things) the pantheon of Norse gods and both Thor and Odin figure as prominent characters, which may prompt longtime readers of this blog to wonder what could possibly have kept me from reading it until now, considering that I discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy back in middle school. This is an excellent question.

Part of the answer probably has something to do with a vague awareness of, and general aversion to, diminishing returns. I’m not crazy about blaspheming a holy geek touchstone, and I have great sentimental fondness for The Hitchhiker’s Guide in general, but I’ve always felt that it kind of went downhill as a series. I think the original volume is A+, but Restaurant and Life are more A-, and So Long always struck me as a solid B. (And the less said about Mostly Harmless, perhaps, the better. It came out after the Dirk Gently stuff anyway so it really doesn’t factor in here.) When Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (and its sequel, Tea-Time) came out in the late 80’s, I had already read the four Hitchhiker’s books repeatedly and felt like trending evidence indicated these new books would be B or C material at best. I seem to remember them getting mixed reviews, too. And the rest of the answer has to do with the near-infinite number of other books vying for my attention which more or less crowded Adams’ lesser series off my reading list. Until now.

The fact is the Dirk Gently books are pretty good, good enough that I wish Adams had written more than two of them. Of course when the first installment is about ghosts, aliens and time travel and the second is about mythological figures and soul-ensnaring contracts, it’s fair to wonder what any subsequent episodes would have revolved around. I like to think that if he had lived to see it, Adams could have had a field day with the current obsessions with vampires and zombies, but alas, we’ll never know, until such time as unwritten hypothetical books make it into wider circulation.

I think I was well-served by waiting a couple of decades before reading both books. Maybe nothing will ever seem as magical as Hitchhiker’s Guide is when you read it for the first time, especially if you read it at as young and impressionable an age as I did and it blows your tiny mind with how different it is from everything else you’ve ever been exposed to. Maybe the unavoidable same-ness of the Hitchhiker’s sequels drags down their grades in my mind, and maybe letting them fade deep back into my mind for years and years and then encountering Adams taking on a whole new premise was the right clean slate for proper appreciation. The Dirk Gently books certainly aren’t perfect, and obviously no one’s screaming for a faithful movie adaptation like the (ultimately disappointed) throngs who clamored for Hitchhikers, but they definitely fall on the Good side of the Good/Not Good Divide.

Too much!
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was the book I started reading earlier this week, which I finished on Wednesday morning on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad commute. And both finishing the book and having such a wretched commute contributed to me reading an entire book on Thursday, because I finally got around to trying out the PRTC bus. I am pleased to report that the bus is very nice! It ran on the posted schedule, and (as buses go) it’s got a perfectly pleasant interior with big comfy seats, more like a luxury cruiser than a commuter. And it got me all the way from the main drag of town to the Pentagon, and back. The only downside was that, door-to-door (including driving from my house to the bus stop and taking the DoD shuttle from the Pentagon to my office) took two hours. Each way, so four hours of commuting for the day. That is less than ideal for any given day when I need to work at least eight hours and also get to daycare at a reasonable time, so I don’t know how often I’ll be taking the bus on a regular basis. But four hours is apparently plenty of time to plow through an entire mid-sized humor novel, so that’s an upside for the occasions when it’s workable. (In case you are wondering if reading an entire book on Thursday makes up for the fact that I wasted a one-way commute Wednesday evening reading nothing at all – it totally does.)

In any case, the whole bus-riding and novel-devouring adventure was fun, but also a bit sad because discovering new-to-me Adams reminded me that he’s no longer with us, and that truly is a shame. He’ll always be a pervasive influence on pop-culture, but as more and more time goes by it will probably be in rippling ways that some people have no idea originated with him. I’ll try to keep representin’ for him for as long as I can.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Still with the creeping crud

Last night I couldn’t be bothered to cook dinner because I was too exhausted, achy, short of breath and generally woeful. So I ate a bag of Sun Chips with some hummus. Later in the evening, since it was gaming night and one of my guests was kind enough to bring snacks, I supplemented with several large soft-baked chocolate chip cookies and several more mini brownie bites, plus a cup of tea and a cup of milk with a splash of coffee. I have to say that the one inarguably good thing about feeling under the weather is simultaneously feeling justified eating whatever the hell I want.

Yet somehow I managed to drag my carcass in to work today. The whole notion of “whatever happened to sick days” is something which columnists make much hay of in these crazy post-millennial days, but I think I’ve got a reasonably forthright take on it myself: sometimes they just don’t do any good. I definitely feel off my game right now, and if I felt like one day of staying home from work, lying in bed and recuperating would completely restore me, I would blow the eight hours of personal leave time. In fact, I’ve done exactly that in the not-at-all-distant past of the previous month or so. But I know my body and my health history well enough to recognize what I’m slogging my way through right now, and it’s not something that a day of hooky and lollygagging would much ameliorate. So why bother? I could spend a day at home and resting, and then come back to work tomorrow and still feel pretty run down, or I could suck it up and come into work today feeling run down and also come back tomorrow the same (or slightly improved). Might as well save the leave hours for a time when I actually need them.

Besides, now that I’ve been shuffled off to a cube in an oversized storage closet, me and my miasma of ill health don’t really infringe on anyone else’s space or wellness. So I can still look down my nose at people who come to work when they are hacking up a lung and smuggling enriched Petri dish stock up each nostril and also visit other people’s cubicles, stand over their shoulder, and contaminate the common air. I’m just a sickly lone wolf, I am.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Five things that went wrong on the commute this morning

Hey, everybody, it’s Five Things! Man, if this blog were a full-time “Commuting to DC Sucks” blog, I would have stockpiled a week’s worth of material between leaving the house and getting to work today. But it’s not, so you get to enjoy it all at once!

1. Low on Gas. My low fuel light went on during last night’s commute home, right about the time I was getting off the highway, but since the traffic has been gods-awful this whole week I just ignored it and drove straight through to daycare, picked up the little guy, and headed home. I had a vague notion at the time that I would wake up five minutes early today and leave the house five minutes early to accommodate the need for gas, but the (allegedly) somnolent nocturnal hours turned out to be pretty rough last night. The little guy woke up a few different times and was unable to console himself back to dreamland, and various cold symptoms interrupted my sleep at other times, so the alarm came far too soon and I was moving in slo-mo thereafter anyway. So I didn’t leave early, and still had to stop for gas, and thus by the time I finally got on the highway it was totally cloggerated. My only consolation is that it’s been just as heinous the two previous mornings when I did hit 66 more or less on time, so, who knows.

2. An Earful of Judgment in the Parking Lot. Anyway, by the time I got to the Metro lot it was a bit more crowded than usual, but I did manage to find a space. I quickly realized that the space was probably standing empty because immediately to its right was a giant black SUV with its driver side wheels slightly over the white line. I was able to slip my modest and compact vehicle into the space anyway, and leave myself enough room to get out as well, but in doing so I only left about three inches between my passenger side and the SUV’s driver side. Beyond argument, I rendered it impossible for the SUV’s owner to get in on the driver’s side. And the fact is (I’m not proud of this, but I’m not exactly mortified, either) that doing so gave me some grim satisfaction. I’ve ranted it before and I’ll rant it again, SUVs are bad for the environment, bad for our national addiction to fossil fuels, unsafe to share the road with, sometimes unsafe to drive period, and just generally not cool. Some people have vaguely plausible reasons for owning a personal vehicle that can go offroad and carry large amounts of cargo. These people are farmers and general contractors who use the vehicles in their line of work, but if you are parking your giant SUV in a commuter lot then you clearly are not using the vehicle for work, whatever it is that you do, so you are utterly unjustifiably selfish. And if you pile on the selfishness by not even bothering to park your absurd behemoth properly between the lines of the space, you get less than zero sympathy from me for anything untoward that might happen as a direct result. (Of course I have that whole hard-ass line of thinking but the truth is, because I leave work on the early side to go pick up my son from daycare, I will very likely move my car and unblock the SUV’s door before its owner ever gets back and even notices, and I know it.)

As I was walking away from my car, a woman was walking past and looked at the configuration of vehicles behind me and said “That’s close!” and I agreed that yes it was and she said, very accusatorily, “How they supposed to get in their car you didn’t leave them no room to open the door?” Which honestly flabbergasted me, but I kept my composure (this is an advantage to being an overthinker who composes monologues of rationalization on an ongoing basis) and I pointed out to her, “He has a giant SUV and he parked it over the line, you know?” She just shook her head and said “You better hope you don’t get back and find a big old dent in your car door,” like the SUV owner would be fully justified smashing their door open into mine rather than, say, climbing in on the passenger side or whatever. (From a physics standpoint, though, I’m pretty sure the gap between the cars was so small you couldn’t even open the SUV door far enough or fast enough to ding my car, so, ha ha!) I just said “Yeah, we’ll see” and she sneered “No, YOU’LL see,” and with a supreme effort and will I managed not to yell back at her, “That’s right, ma’am, I’LL see because this hasn’t got a goddamn thing to do with YOU so will YOU kindly shut up now?” I just kept walking.

And then the oddest thing happened as the woman called after me “Hey you don’t happen to have a cigarette lighter do you?” And I turned around and said I didn’t (which was true) and smiled and said sorry and then turned back around and kept walking, and that was the end of that. I mean, who does that, berating a perfect stranger for their parking lot etiquette and then figuring that’s the optimal softening up for asking a favor? People are bizarre.

3. A Mysterious Delay. Right, the lady in the parking lot didn’t really slow me down and I hopped on the train waiting at the platform and soon was being trundled city-ward. In between stations, right before the station where I normally get off, the train stopped in a tunnel and held there for a prolonged period. I have no idea why. I believe the conductor was offering some explanation via the intercom system, but the typical sucky maintenance of Metro’s fleet prevailed in rendering those explanations unintelligible. The ambient noise of the various motors and rotors of the train itself drowned out the low-volume, dropping-in-and-out voice of the conductor drifting feebly from the speaker. All told it was only about a ten-minute delay, but …

4. Poor Planning on Reading Material. I spent most of the delay twiddling my thumbs, because right about at the second-to-last stop of my route, I finished the book I had been reading. I had been oblivious to how fast I’d been going through it this week as well as how close I was to the end, so I hadn’t packed a new book to start in on. All I could do was stare into the middle distance of the Metro car, determinedly avoiding eye contact with my fellow commuters, and lamenting the fact that I’ll also have nothing to read on the way home tonight. Unless I go buy something at the drugstore. Or pick up a copy of The Onion. OK, fine, I know it’s not the end of the world but it’s one of those little annoyances I pride myself on usually avoiding.

This model would come in handy for a variety of self-evident reasons.
5. Forgot my Umbrella. By the time we got to my station I was in such a hurry to get off the train that I stood up without grabbing my umbrella off the floor. The cognitive perils of Metro-riding are many, but one is that if you board at an outdoor station, you may need an umbrella while you wait, as was the case this morning, but if you deboard at an underground station, you don’t have the view of the sky to remind you it’s raining and didn’t you have an umbrella around here somewhere? My cluelessness was further compounded by my certainty that it would be harder than usual to get off the train because, given the delays on the line, there would be a ton of people impatient to get on the train at the stop, and I needed to get out of their way with all due haste. Not that my fellow commuters on the train made that very easy. Surprisingly this is a phenomenon which I have only the rarest experience with, but today I happened to find the aisle between me and the train door blocked by people who felt extremely comfortable standing rooted in place like statues. They didn’t even glance around to see if anyone was coming up behind them to get off the train. I had to say “excuse me” fairly loudly, and more than once in rapid succession, as if the dude standing next to the dude I just said excuse me to didn’t realize he was also in my way until I specifically addressed him. Again, people are bizarre. At any rate, the umbrella was kinda old and shabby and it’s not the worst thing in the world to be forced to replace it, but still, when the realization hit me on the escalator it was kind of the argh-cherry on a crap-sundae.

I swear by Valhalla, this is not a punchline, I am taking the PRTC bus tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Creeping crud

The “little” part in “our little guy” is still pretty pronounced in certain circumstances. For instance, he’s so little that he hasn’t even figured out yet how to wipe away snot with the back of his hand. Before my wife can even begin to overthink how big a deal to make out of attempting to extinguish such unseemly and uncouth behavior, the little guy would have to actually begin practicing it himself. But so far, no matter how steady stream he produces, it just accumulates above his upper lip. Sometimes he gets very quiet and still, I imagine so as not to cause the glob to spill over into his mouth, but he has yet to proactively remedy the situation.

Maybe my wife and I jump in too soon, too often, with Kleenexes at the ready, and maybe he would learn to do for himself if we would stop doing for him. I don’t know. It’s difficult (not to mention gross) to just sit back and watch him contend bewilderedly with the cruder discharges of the immune system on his own, and not that difficult to wipe his nose every few minutes. Which we certainly kept ourselves busy doing this past Sunday.

The sheer volume of Kleenex sacrificed in Sunday’s efforts would seem to indicate that the child had not just the usual default runny nose of toddlerhood but an actual cold, but by yesterday he seemed to be well on the mend, the incident destined to be a soon-forgotten blip. So it was doubly ugh-worthy when both my wife and I woke up this morning with various cold symptoms of our own (congestion, fatigue, sore throat, general feeling that this is some kind of leftie conspiracy to retroactively justify Obamacare). (Note: some symptoms may only exist in the mind of fat moronic blowhard talk radio hypocrites.) Not enough to keep either of us home from work, just enough to be aggravating.

For what it’s worth, the little guy still seems better than he was on Sunday, so hopefully the family-wide incident will itself be a soon-forgotten-if-largish blip. I’m trying not to put too much credence in the thought that it could become a vicious cycle in which everyone in the house keeps re-infecting everyone else. But if I go suddenly incommunicado later this week, you’ll have some inkling as to why.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Foodstuffs, literal and metaphorical

My in-laws came to visit yesterday and for dinner we placed a take-out order for Afghan-style kabobs. There was an Afghani place near the old homestead that was profoundly loved by all of us (my wife and I as well as her folks) so the move to the new house involved some separation anxiety in that regard. There is a local kabob joint near the new neighborhood, but after sampling their offerings once or twice we pronounced the fare adequate but certainly not transcendent. But last night, on a local’s recommendation, we tried a restaurant which is technically in the next town over, a good twenty-minute car trip away.

Totally worth it.

The menu was a little pricey and that, combined with the forty-five minute round trip retrieval of foodstuffs, means we won’t be eating there on a weekly basis or anything. But dang did we enjoy the heck out of it last night. Everyone at the table stuffed themselves silly. Even the little guy enjoyed some tzatziki cucumbers, chick peas, and spicy rice.

If I had indulged in a brown ale or other alcoholic companion beverage with the meal I probably would have passed out as soon as my in-laws hit the road for home. (Two beers and I almost certainly would have passed out right there at the table.) But I abstained and thus had only a run-of-the-mill food coma to contend with.

Nevertheless, that still makes it fairly surprising that I ended up staying up late to watch the entire supersized premier of this season of The Next Food Network Star.
TNFNS is one of those shows I probably would never have watched if I hadn’t married my wife (owing to the fact that I doubt I would ever watch The Food Network at all if not for her) but don’t misread that as a complaint. The show amuses the heck out of me, at least when it’s not making me want to crawl out of my own skin with awkward discomfort. It all comes down to schadenfreude, and whether I enjoy that or not depends on whether its currently happening to a contestant I’m rooting for or wishing doom upon.

The show is just a perfect, genius blend of multiple opportunities for trainwreckery. On the one hand, anything involving cooking has the inherent possibility of spectacular failure, from Top Chef to Food Network’s various Cake Challenges (another pair of shows I owe my mere awareness of entirely to my better half). TNFNS certainly promises that, and by the time the second (!!!) cook ended up with raw chicken in their dish at the end of a timed challenge, my wife and I were wondering to each other if the producers had custom-built kitchen equipment which is actually booby-trapped to not properly achieve cooking temperatures a random 10% of the time or something.

TNFNS simply ices the kitchen-disaster cake with performance anxiety frosting. The sight of amateurs cutting promos or doing live on-camera presentations is hilariously or hideously cringe-worthy, again depending entirely on how much sympathy you have for the person whose soul is being devoured by the unblinking lens. I admit I did ample amounts of howling from positions both delighted and distressed, and by the end of the show I knew unerringly who was getting sent home, because it was the contestant who had crashed and burned in both arenas of the competition and for whom I had no sympathy whatsoever.

Why people who fear the great glassy gaze would try out for the show in the first place is utterly beyond me.
That may be the strongest appeal for TNFNS for me, because on a show like Top Chef the really loathsome competitors can hang around forever as long as they keep delivering solid dishes to the judges table. But when half the evaluation is based on personality appeal and likability, the jerks get weeded out pretty quickly.

While I’m on the subject of reality show competitions that have “Next” in the title and which my wife brought into my sphere of consciousness (and aren’t dating shows on MTV) … we haven’t watched America’s Next Top Model in a while, but there was a period where it was practically appointment television. This in turn led to the oft-repeated mantra, “Tyra’s crazy,” which would be spoken in a kind of understated horror that one might use while backing away from someone with a blood-smeared machete. In fact the trainwreck of Tyra’s craziness on display every cycle of ANTM eventually got to be too much to process, and there came a certain point where the show was unwatchable because the crazy never, ever let up. But every once in a while I am reminded that it still exists, and in a weird, Stockholm Syndrome way I kind of miss it.

Thus you can imagine how pumped I was to hear that Tyra has somehow inked a deal to write a series of books. Novels, in fact. Fantasy novels about models with super powers, to be ultra-precise. Abrupt needle-scratching-across-vinyl noise! Super-powered super-model fantasy novels written by Tyra Banks. There is nothing in that phrase I do not want to inject directly into my brain. I’m sure these “novels” will end up mostly ghost-written, and on the cheap to boot, which means they will be the literary sustenance equivalent of off-brand pork rinds. Do not think for one second that will stop me from buying at least the first one, and then obsessing over how far is too far in completing the collection/keeping up the joke. Chances are I’ll come down on the side of eating them all up, glutton that I am.