Friday, February 26, 2010

DOTWW – Part 5

And so we come to the grand conclusion of Days Of The Week Week, which may be a bit of a letdown because Friday is something of an outlier. Rather than one single unifying characteristic (or one marked lack of same), Friday has always been, and continues to be, pretty multi-faceted to me. The facets accumulated steadily over time.

Guys India has their own name and goddess for Friday it's like they have their own way of doing EVERYTHING!!!
When I was in middle school, the town recreation department hosted dances on Friday nights. Actually that’s pretty solipsistic (even for me) so let me try that again: for a period of time, the beginning and ending of which I honestly couldn’t pinpoint, the town recreation department in my New Jersey ‘burb hosted Friday night dances at the American Legion hall. They started and ended at reasonable hours and were pretty strictly chaperoned by a combination of police and concerned parents, so there wasn’t any underage smoking or drinking or experimental heavy-petting or fighting or anything much beyond hanging out, perhaps buying off-brand sodas for 50 cents at the concession stand, and actual dancing. (By which of course I mean the girls would dance to every song and the boys would only maybe dance to some of the slow songs if certain stars aligned.) Clearly this was incredibly milquetoast which is why I consider this another middle school memory; by high school, kids had moved on to other things, but in the weird borderlands of sixth through eighth grade it was the closest thing to an independent social life we could cultivate, and I did so pretty faithfully. It was kind of boring and repetitive, and in middle school most of the girls were taller than me which made slow-dancing excruciatingly awkward, but for three years Friday night was Rec Dance night.

In high school I was in the marching band, and by then Little Bro had started playing Pop Warner, so Friday night became significantly more football-oriented. I feel compelled to point out that my high school was possessed of a spectacularly dismal football record, and as my wife always reminds me, we Jerseyans didn’t take football as seriously as places like Mississippi and Texas in the first place anyway (our high school graduation was on the actual football field on a June evening, and the girls were allowed to walk on the grass in high heels; apparently this is unspeakably taboo in gods-honest Friday Night Lights country) but again – small town, not much else going on, I ended up where everyone else was.

Before I move on to college, I’m going to equate Friday nights to pizza, which is yet another thing I’m sure I have in common with approximately 50 million other people, but I’ll at least mention the peculiarities of my family in particular. Little Bro and I were distressingly picky eaters growing up, and about the only break we gave our mom was that we both had pretty similar likes and dislikes. We both refused to eat any kind of fish and 90% of all vegetables. Mom’s a meat-and-potatoes type herself (as was her mother, rest her soul, who pretty much ate cheap cuts of beef fried in a frying pan for dinner every day until she died at a ripe old age) so me and my brother’s food aversions weren’t that calamitous … until Lent rolled around every year and my mom had to figure out what to do for dinner on Friday nights. (All fascination with heathen pantheons from Scandinavia to India aside, I grew up really devoutly Catholic.) A nice cheese pizza was obviously the path of least resistance for a meat-free dinner, but of course mom’s life couldn’t be that simple. My dad hated having pizza for dinner. I think this stemmed from a combination of a couple of things: he worked in Manhattan and probably had pizza for lunch sometimes and saw other people having it for lunch more or less every single day, and in his mind it was cheap junk food. My dad also harbored the delusion that he had married his own mother and was thus going find a three-or-four-course meal piping hot and set on the table when he got home from work every evening. (The question is not “why did my parents get divorced”; the question is “how did they stay together for nineteen years”.) In any case, over Dad’s objections, Mom ordered pizza on Lenten Fridays pretty often and when Little Bro and I got somewhat older and had to come home from school, eat a quick dinner, and get back out to a dance or a football game or whatever, pizza became a default Friday night option year-round. My wife and I both love pizza, including making homemade versions and ordering in, and the pies-as-complete-meal-option seem to gravitate toward Friday nights even still.

(One more note about pizza that has nothing to do with Friday: if Mom asked me and Little Bro what we wanted for dinner, and we said pizza, we knew we would usually get it. If Dad asked because he was in charge of dinner, as occasionally happened, we knew better than to ask for pizza every time. But when we were staying with Dad’s mom, if she asked us what we wanted for dinner, we’d ask for pizza and she would not just acquiesce but get excited. She would sincerely gush over each slice: “This is wonderful! I’m so glad you boys thought of this! Your grandfather and I never even think to order pizza, but I love it!” And I think I knew this was much to the chagrin of her son, my father, even before I knew what the word “chagrin” meant. Grandma still cracks me up.)

Having given more than enough attention to alcoholic binges this week already, I will skip that obvious collegiate Friday connection and proceed to another: traversing I-95. At first I was going to say “the road trip” but I stopped myself as I realized that’s really not what I’m getting at. Road trips are automotive expressions of the classic “it’s the journey, not the destination” sentiment, and thus the best road trips are often characterized by serendipitous side-excursions to see mutant six-legged cows or whatnot. I’ve made my share of those kind of road trips, and don’t get me wrong, I love them, but I don’t associate them with Fridays, per se. Friday night is a time for getting in the car, aiming it directly at a specific and familiar Point B, and covering the distance from starting Point A as fast as possible. In general, if I’m going somewhere for the weekend, I like to wake up on Saturday morning and already be there. Thus, I was forever opting to devote Friday night to the necessary travel time. Better by far to pull up to the curb at Mom’s house in the wee hours of the night, collapse into bed in the guest room, and take on Saturday first thing in the morning, than to put off the trip and waste half of Saturday on the extremely boring black ribbon that is the East Coast’s primary Interstate.

That became especially true when I started dating my wife, a relationship which for several months was conducted long-distance. I would leave from work on Friday evening and endure what felt at the time like definitively the world’s worst traffic on I-95 South, and get to her place hours and hours later despite only having driven a little less than a hundred miles. But given the choice between that scenario or not getting to see her until Saturday, it was totally worth it, never even a question.

So yeah. Adolescent social events, high school football and marching bands, college travel plans and fraternity speak-easies (though never in the same night), a high-milage love affair, and pizza. Friday’s pretty good in my book.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

DOTWW – Part 4

Although I was (am and always will be?) an English major, I’m not an Anglophile per se. Yet somewhere in that non-primary colored overlap of the Venn diagram, I do have a fondness and respect for British writers and their way with words. So allow me to lift verbatim from the deeply missed Douglas Adams: "I never could get the hang of Thursdays."

Thursdays are particularly nebulous to me. You would think that they’d have a sturdy mid-week character, bracketed by central W and terminal F, but I believe the general rise in three-day weekends and the very fact that Friday is sometimes the last full day of the school or work week and yet other times is the first full day of the weekend (to say nothing of going way back to public school and the frequent Friday half-day hybrids) makes Thursday that much harder to pin down by proximity. Nothing particularly comes to mind when I first think of Thursday, and nothing rushes to fill the void upon further reflection. Sure, there’s an admittedly weak association with good old Must-See-Tee-Vee – I’m as televisually opiated as any other patriotic cable-subscriber. But it’s not as if that goes anywhere interesting, leading to theories of government media manipulation and programming the good stuff on Thursday night so that people will bother showing up to work at all on Friday, if only for the water-cooler discussions, thus giving Thursdays overall the shadowy-paranoia vibe.

It’s as if Thursday is a pale reflection of Tuesday, but where Tuesday is all about the possibilities of wild abandon and riotous unpredictability, Thursday is the time of week anything can happen because it’s a blank gray blob. Thursday doesn’t even get its own proper monogram; the aforementioned W and F are typically found on either side of fourth-place R, or sometimes Th, a gangly lowercase appendage necessitated because life-of-the-party Tuesday has already called dibs on the T.

So, if the only noteworthy characteristic of Thursday is its lack of identifying characteristics, I seem to have set myself up for a short post here. That will never do. Instead, let’s take a little sidetrip into the realm of mythology, which is apt if for no other reason than the fact that, to the Germanic-influenced English speakers we are, today is Thor’s day.

The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands!
You may have noticed my not-too-infrequent invocations of Thor, as well as other Norse gods and legendary figures, as everything from improvised oaths and cusswords to exemplars of raditude. I really love all kinds of mythology, going way back to age ten or eleven or so, which was when I discovered that if I wrote book reports on the latest pulpy swords-and-sorcery paperback my father had been reading on his commute my teachers would roll their eyes, but if I turned in book reports on Myths of Ancient Greece, they were deemed much more academically worthy. From my perspective they were still both stories about dudes killing monsters, but I was more than willing to exploit a good loophole when I found one.

Greek and Egyptian and Babylonian and Indian mythologies are all fascinating in their own ways, but when I got around to the Norse myths in sixth grade they really resonated. I have a hyper-vivid recollection of reading one particular tale about Thor, which I have no doubt is an extremely inaccurate personal memory, because I’ve replayed it in my mind so many times that it has taken on layer upon layer of my own personality, a modern adult personality that bears little resemblance to the pre-adolescent version of me reading condensed translations of eddas in middle school. Still. Here’s a story about a story, and how I became smitten with the Aesir.

It starts out as fairly standard myth, with Thor and Loki roaming Midgard (Earth) in mortal guise, riding around in Thor’s chariot drawn by Thor’s pet goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr (which translates to Snarler and Grinder, and if you think we are deep into bad-ass territory now, hold on). They stop at a farm for dinner and Thor pulls off one of his stock magic tricks: he tells the farmer to kill the goats and the farmer’s wife to cook them. Thor plans to resurrect the goats from their skeletons in the morning and ride on (he does this all the time) but he doesn’t tell the farmer, his wife, or their son about that part of the plan. He just sternly warns them not to break any of the goat bones while eating dinner.

So, of course, the farmer’s son accidentally breaks a leg bone and when Thor resurrects the goats in the morning one of them is lame, and following the logic of myths the farmer’s son (I honestly don’t remember his name, let’s call him Olaf) is now pressed into indentured servitude and must attend to Thor and Loki on the remainder of their journey.

Thor, Loki and Olaf end up in a land of giants and the giants present themselves as friendly and hospitable but it soon becomes apparent the giants have no intentions of letting the three travelers continue on their journey. Olaf freaks out a little, and Loki starts scheming a way to escape, and Thor mostly just gets annoyed. I find this fairly endearing, the thought of a storm-controlling warrior god becoming just ill-tempered enough to grumble passive-aggressively at everything, like he’s spending the weekend with his wacky in-laws instead of being held prisoner by giants.

Loki comes up with the idea of challenging the giants to contests rather than combat, and the king of the giants accepts, being so magnanimous as to allow the trio to pick the subject of each contest to suit their own strengths and talents. Olaf, with youthful exuberance, volunteers himself to run a footrace, since he considers his swiftness to be his greatest asset. The giants produce their own champion runner, and Olaf ultimately loses the footrace, although just barely. Loki watches this go down and then volunteers himself for an eating contest. Loki assumes he’s probably going to lose the contest, so he might as well get a good meal out of it, and I gotta say, I like where his head’s at there. So the giants lay out this preposterously long banquet table piled high with all kinds of amazing food, set Loki at one end of it and their champ at the other, and start the contest. Loki works his way down the table and ends up meeting his giant opponent at the exact midpoint, which would seem to be a draw, except Loki only ate the edible foodstuffs, whereas the giant ate the bones inside the meat, the seeds inside the fruit, the plates under the bread, and a fair amount of the table surface itself. So Loki loses.

Now the giants turn to Thor and ask him what kind of contest he wants, and he basically says he doesn’t want to play. But the giants press and press asking him what he’s really good at, what he can do absolutely without peer, and finally Thor can’t take the badgering anymore. He growls, “They say that I can drink.”

I didn’t get properly drunk until I was 17 years old, and in fact had a bit of an anti-alcohol bias before that, yet that moment stuck fast in my 11-year-old brain. Partly because it’s faintly hilarious that Thor is essentially using the contest – which for all intents and purposes his life and the lives of his companions depend on – as an excuse to drink. Loki did the same thing to pig out, but you expect that kind of behavior from Loki. Thor is supposed to be the good guy! And he’s their last chance, the third and final contest! And on top of that, he has to be cajoled into it, and when he finally gives in his response is so beautifully understated. (It really doesn’t matter if I’m remembering a translation verbatim or not; these are the words at the crux of my memory so that’s what I’m going to focus on.) It’s not “I can drink you MF’ers under the table!” (At 11 I was still a bit naïve and underinformed, so I wasn’t really aware of the possibility that Thor wasn’t trying to get drunk, but rather suggesting he could drink a lot and stay sober while someone across from him blacked out. Again, I learned more about those kind of drinking contests later in life.) It’s “They say that I can drink,” like he’s too cool to even care about it one way or the other. It’s not even false modesty; it’s utter indifference. That’s how Thor rolls, doing his thunder god thing. To other folks it might seem like he puts an awful lot of mead away every night, but that’s just Thor being Thor. In any case, I just loved the subversion of the heroic concept here. Thor doesn’t nobly rise up to vanquish a threat. He resigns himself to having no choice but to play the giants’ game.

The giants don’t give Thor an opponent, though; they just hand him a gigantic drinking horn and say “Finish this and you win.” Thor tries three times but can’t quite drain the horn. So it looks like all is lost for the trio of travelers.

But at that point the giants reveal how they rigged the three contests. Their runner was actually, literally (following the weird dream-logic of myth) the wind itself. Their competitive eater was fire. And the horn of mead was actually the sea (as the Norse would have understood it, meaning the entire planet’s water supply). So the giants actually respect Olaf for running almost as fast as the wind, and Loki for eating just as quickly as fire could burn through things. Thor, on the other hand, scares the hell out of them. He almost drank the whole world! (This myth just keeps echoing through my life. I woke up some mornings in college feeling like I had drunk the whole world, which is a sensation I do not miss in the slightest. I also had people tell me on occasion that I drank so much the night before I scared the hell out of them. Again, I’m not particularly proud of this, but it’s all part of what makes this myth so personally resonant.) The giants let the travelers go because it has dawned on them that if Thor were to progress from “mildly annoyed” to “screw this, I’m outta here” he would absolutely annihilate them.

I don’t remember if the story keeps going after that or just kind of ends with the trio charioting off, but that’s beside the point, because there’s so much to love in what I’ve permanently lodged in my brain as reflected above. I love that it gave me a version of gods who were not embodiments of Pure Good and Pure Evil, but capable of roadtripping and squabbling along on adventures together. I love that Thor’s stubbornness plays such a central role in both his early refusals to compete and his full-throttle attempt to win once he realizes he has no choice. I love that what ultimately resolves the conflict is just the hint of the raging monster that lurks inside the protagonist-by-default thunder god. If I may reach for my second quotation of this post, this time the immortal words of Nathan Explosion: “That is BRUTAL!”

Although I often find myself wishing for the ability to control the weather and/or the power to smite my enemies, I don’t really want to be the Thor of my favorite Norse myth. When I was little my father used to express to me a certain worry that I might emulate fictional characters I read about who were not, in fact, Good Role Models. I always found it hard to explain that I wasn’t looking for direction, but simply was fascinated by different, interesting ideas. And I suppose to a certain extent I still am. I’ve been thinking about Thor and the giants for a quarter of a century now (on and off) and I still don’t really know what kind of higher instruction one is supposed to get from it, if any (other than that Vikings totally kick ass). That in and of itself was kind of a revelation in sixth grade, after a steady diet of the same morality plays in different stage dressings over and over and over again. Sometimes the moral of the story is that not all stories have morals.

(Kind of like how not all blog posts have a point. Or even a strong conclusion.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DOTWW – Part 3

Wednesday is the Geekiest of Days, at least when it comes down to documenting my particular worldview. As has become a bit of a theme here during Days Of The Week Week, the association between the midweek point and all things genre-ghetto-licious (though mostly having to do with comics) is not something I ever sought to establish myself. It just kind of happened due to things I had little or no control over.

Thank Odin It's Mittwoch!!!
On the no-control side, there is the fact that Wednesday is new comic books day. The way that the comics publishing industry is set up, each company puts out one new issue of each title every month (by and large) and splits up the distributions to comic book specialty shops (and presumably bookstores and grocery stores and the like, although that’s become such an afterthought of a system that very few people talk about it so I can’t say for sure) into weekly shipments. The distribution shipments are actually handled by an independent (and fairly monopolistic) entity and long, long ago it became the standard practice that the comics would all arrive at the stores on Tuesday nights, where they’d be inventoried and shelved overnight, and available for purchase on Wednesday morning.

So if you go to a comic book shop on a Monday or Tuesday you might find the racks a bit picked over, and even Thursday or Friday might be too late to score a copy of a particularly fast-selling favorite (or under-ordered surprise hit), so most self-respecting geeks know that if you’re only going to go to the shop one day a week, Wednesday is the day to do it, and plan accordingly.

(There are various ways around the requisite Wednesday shopping trip, including a practice known as “getting a box for your pull list” but that, in addition to sounding kind of filthy when I quote it out of context like that, is a subject I will perhaps return to another day.)

You might think that going to the comics shop every single Wednesday would be more exception than rule, if you were to assume that most comics geeks were fairly focused in their fandoms. (And given the laser-like intensity of said fandoms, that is not a wildly specious bit of reasoning.) My deep and abiding love for all things Green Lantern compels me to pick up his monthly comics adventures, but that “monthly” bit would imply that on three out of every four Wednesdays, there are no new Green Lantern comics available. Sort of. Because there is a spin-off series, Green Lantern Corps, that focuses on his alien allies and comes out on a different Wednesday. This is clearly a blatant exploitation on the part of the publishers, preying upon my inherent addiction to completism that is part of being a geeky comics fan in the first place. Actually I get off pretty easy, as fans of Spider-Man and Superman and Batman and the X-Men have been ensnared by franchise expansions of four or five or more titles that see new issues featuring their favorite characters hitting the stands every single week. But by the same token, every once in a while DC Comics will release a special mini-series or annual or stand-alone prestige edition that happens to focus on Green Lantern, and they are of course savvy enough to do so on one of the off-weeks. Thanks to the proliferation of comics news sites and blogs and whatnot on teh interwebs, these one-offs don’t usually catch me by surprise anymore. But back when I started going to comics shops regularly, when the habit first emerged and later calcified, I was in high school and the inner workings of comics distribution were still a mystery to me. My choices were to show up every week or potentially miss something. And not only do I hate missing things, but I find predictable routines deeply soul-soothing.

I’ve mentioned occasionally that my geekiness does indeed extend to what is considered the darkest depths of all trollishness: role-playing games a la Dungeons & Dragons. In an eerily similar way to the manner in which I was able to engage in regular drunken tomfoolery with a close-knit circle of true friends, I was also lucky enough to find equally boon companions for polyhedron-rolling and imaginary adventuring. (A couple of these buddies actually overlapped, truth be told.) In college, the roleplaying game sessions were catch-as-catch-can, often on weekend afternoons. But once my friends and I graduated college and got jobs, but stayed close and wanted to keep the gaming going, we concluded that the scheduling needed a bit more formalization. I wasn’t part of the negotiations for this adult-phase incarnation of our pastime, I just remember being invited to join in a new game that had been established. The gaming group got together on Wednesday nights.

I role-played with the same crew almost every Wednesday night for years and years, literally: from early 1999 until some time in 2001, the breakpoint being an incredibly long and semi-irrelevant story that ends with me moving from Virginia back to NJ ever so briefly, and then again from late 2002 until around the time my son was born in the fall of 2008, when I couldn’t keep up with the weekly commitment any longer.

It was a rock solid commitment for many years, though, by mutual agreement. There are two levels to a good role-playing campaign. One is the central game of skill and chance, in which you assign some numbers to the abilities of a fictional character (the skill) and then pit that against opposing forces with the outcome determined by math and the randomizing influence of dice (the chance). If that’s your cup of tea, that’s as entertaining a mental exercise as playing a dynamic video game. The second level, though, comes when you imbue your fictional character with more intangible touches, and collaborate with the other players to give the whole fictional world setting of the game a life of its own, and you end up telling a long and elaborate story that is partly about mechanical combat but also about the same real themes and emotions that pervade all escapist entertainment. And that combination of both active creativity in what I bring to the gaming table, and external enjoyment of what others are bringing, is really what gets under my skin and makes the hobby so freaking irresistible to me.

The point being that for the game to really work as an ongoing, epic story, for the characters to feel real and have emotional weight, for mysteries to unravel over time and feuds to burn slowly and then detonate meaningfully, you can’t have players dropping in and out randomly. And my friends and I all tacitly agreed to this as the game picked up momentum, to the point where most of us scheduled the rest of our week around Wednesdays. Need to work late? Do it Tuesday, or Thursday. Want to get together with some folks for a weeknight dinner? Monday or Friday is fine. Wednesday was inviolate.

I always invoke D&D as the archetypical RPG (because, you know, that’s what it is) but for most of the years that Wednesday night was role-playing night, we played other games that were not pastiches of Lord of the Rings but of super-hero comics. I enjoy sci-fi and fantasy and various genre mash-ups, but super-heroes are my perennial favorite, so supers RPGs are my quintessential chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo. Circa 2003, I would peg the number of Wednesdays that I went to the comic shop at some point during the day, brought my purchases over to my buddy’s house in the evening, and spent hours reading super-hero comics or playing a supers RPG (or both at the same time) at somewhere around 46 or 48 out of 52. You might think this would be too much of a good thing but I assure you that it was not. I was a proverbial pig in excrement, to put my happiness in livestock terms.

I’d like to say that I gorged myself on Wednesday geekiness the way that I did because I knew it couldn’t last forever, but I think that would be revisionist. Like most things, I just did it because it felt good and seemed like a good idea at the time. Nowadays, that’s how I would describe being a husband and a father. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the camaraderie and the predictability of Wednesday night gatherings, but my pants would be just as much on fire if I said I didn’t enjoy the freedom of not having every single Wednesday already spoken for. And I still see my gamer-geek friends, and sometimes I’ve even arranged for a weekend game that fits better with my evolving life schedule, and that’s cool.

I don’t maker weekly pilgrimages to the comic shop, anymore, either. As I alluded to, online release schedules make it feel like less of a necessity, and I barely have time to sit down and read and catch up on the few comics I do still buy (as I’ve griped about more than twice hereabouts).

But my mental picture of Wednesday remains the same: a Fortress of Geekitude. That’s the day of the week my mind is most likely to drift into considerations of comic book minutiae, and when I swear to myself that this weekend is when I’m going to plow through the issues waiting for me at home, and when I toy with ideas of getting another gaming session on everyone’s calendar. I honestly don’t see any of that changing any time soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

DOTWW – Part 2

I know that a lot of my thoughts about Mondays from yesterday’s post weren’t particularly revelatory; lots of people consider Monday to be Back-to-the-Grind Day and can’t separate it from the whole concept of the work week, and I’m sure lots of people start strong out of the gate and see their productivity decline over the five-day stretch. The fact that my experiences are commonplace doesn’t make them any less true. I’m an office drone in the standard mold, and I don’t choose to waste any energy trying to deny that.

So is this doomed to be a crushingly dull week of blogging? (I mean, you know, moreso than usual.) Perhaps. But while my personal take on Tuesdays may be boring as well, at least it will be boring on its own merits and not because it’s just like everyone else’s Tuesday.

It's comin' right for us!
Tuesday will always and forever in my mind be inseparable from tequila. This is because I spent most of The College Years getting together with some friends every Tuesday night to drink tequila (and eat cheese fries and drink beer and generally act the roustabout). We’re closing in on a decade and a half since The College Years ended, and yet the association refuses to yield.

I know that drinking tales (especially along the lines of “this one time I got SO DRUNK …”) have limited appeal to anyone who’s made it past the age of, oh, 22 or so. And saying “I drank a lot in college,” while true enough, once again gets us back into Monday-type territory of the predictably banal. But nevertheless, maybe I can coax just a little noteworthiness out of the whole mess.

I always feel compelled to start by pointing out that I went to a smaller college in a sleepy little town where the after-dark options were limited. Cable television was only available in student center lounges, and the nascent interwebs were accessible only via the computer labs. We were at the apex of experimental ages and on our own for the first time, and 25% of us could purchase the goods available at the Alcoholic Beverage Control store with money the other 75% of us kicked in. I’m pretty sure back in 1993 a bottle of Two Fingers tequila ran about $7.95. So, why tequila? Because we were bored and it was cheap thrills.

But why Tuesday? According to apocryphal legends that were passed down to me, it was because a group of girls decided to celebrate the campus-wide Alcohol Awareness Week by getting together to drink different beverages every night, following an alliterative theme: Martini Monday, Tequila Tuesday, Whiskey Wednesday, etc. Tequila Tuesday was such a hit that it survived week after week. And the girls invited more friends to join in, who carried on the tradition even after the founders graduated, and invited yet more younger friends, year after year after year. Over time a remarkable amount of formalization settled in, first and foremost being that Tuesday was the night and the night should always be Tuesday, world without end. (Second being that the number of shots to be consumed was two and the name Two Tequila Tuesday more or less stuck like it was meant to be.)

Most of the campus population that was inclined to drink at all did so on Friday and Saturday nights (with a sizable contingent lured to the Sunday night specials available at the lone over-21-only bar). Some people with forgiving schedules or more voracious appetites for drunkenness might get an early start by going out on Thursday night. Extremely dedicated enthusiasts (or the terminally stressed) could even conceivably tie one on as Humpday crested before the slippery slope toward the weekend. But who in their right mind would go out drinking on a Tuesday night, and not just out for one beer but specifically for two shots of a notoriously ass-kicking distillation followed by as much beer as seemed like a good idea after downing said two shots (which, it probably goes without saying, is more than one beer)? Not many people, we found, as TTT frequently had the bar to ourselves once we made it that far. And that was just as we liked it. It made us feel decadent and iconoclastic and rebellious and all of those other things that college-age adolescents yearn for so desperately. In hindsight it reveals itself as fairly tame and silly, but at the time, it had a certain seductive appeal.

Mockingbirds and Sunrises and Brave Bulls were for amateurs, we were inclined to believe, despite the fact (or more likely due to the fact) that tequila’s reputation for being punishing to drink on its own is wholly well-deserved. The rituals we cultivated, of gathering at a specific time (ten ‘til ten on Tuesday nights) but always in a different place (from the garden of the College President’s residence to the ceramic arts studio, from the Board of Visitors meeting room to the physics labs, one of our number always managed to have a plan if not an actual key to get us basically anywhere) and always to down two shots of a specific brand of Tequila after reciting scripture (the marketing copy on the back of the bottle, which eventually was changed by the distribution company but by then we had our version memorized) and singing songs (“Ruby Tuesday” of course), all of that grew out of something that was already highly ritualized. The cutting of limes, the salting of the backs of hands, the lick-slam-suck choreography, the test of manliness inherent in not overreacting to the scathing effects of Agave spirits, those are all actions and images that are practically encoded at the collective consciousness level.

So given all the self-referencing and self-reinforcing patterns inherent in TTT, it’s no surprise that it embedded itself so deeply into my consciousness. (Wormed its way in, you might say, or I might given my weakness for puns.) But above and beyond all of that, Tuesdays in college were nights spent with some of my very best friends. And because I also can’t shake the scoldingly schoolmarmish messages that we were bombarded with back then, from the people who would bring forth Alcohol Awareness Week as a frightfest highlighting the evils of drinking, I rush to add that I don’t mean my very best drinking buddies. I don’t mean that because I spent all my free time in bars (and English majors have a LOT of free time) that the only people I formed emotional bonds with were functioning borderline alcoholics. Through various hooks and crooks, the people I would have spent time hanging out with and becoming friends with under any circumstances were the same people who were invited to carry the TTT torch. We spent tons of time together at various times and in various conditions, some chemically altered, many not. It would have been satisfying to Stick It To The Man by drinking in public while underage accompanied by people I didn’t care for; but as it happened, I got that satisfaction while reveling in the company. I’m still friends with those people today, even while the demands of the real world and adult life therein have precluded the possibility of getting early-mid-week wasted until 2 in the morning with them.

But still. The feeling of Tuesday nights stays with me, the feeling of freedom from expectations. You don’t have to go to bed early every schoolnight. You don’t have to get your kicks from officially sanctioned outlets. You don’t have to do exactly what everyone else is doing, even if that only manifests in doing the same thing in your own slightly different way. Circumstances have changed for me such that the opportunity for Tequila Tuesdays is vanishingly rare, not to mention Time having had its way with me to the point where I’m not sure I could absorb the masochism of it the way I did when I was 19 anyway. But I try to keep the spirit of the thing alive, which means if you’re going to ask me to break routine, do things a little differently, even a little crazily – Tuesday is a good day to ask.

Requiem

Yesterday this blog went from being the official chronicles of a geek, his cool wife, their cute kid, and their three pets to being the official chronicles of a geek, his cool wife, their cute kid, and their two pets. Our most recent four-legged acquisition (sometimes known as our backup cat) had to be euthanized.

Charlie was in a position to be rescued by us (unequivocally to be read as "my wife, with my shrugging assent") after two different families ditched him upon discovering that his favorite "substrate preference" (place to pee) was on people's clothes on the floor. He did that a few times to us, too, when we slipped in our vigilance to keep all soft fabrics tucked away in dressers or hampers at all times. He also was a bit skittish and antisocial, had to have several fang-ity teeth removed due to abcesses ... the cat had problems, but none of them were game-enders. But over the weekend my wife, in rapid succession, noticed Charlie was looking thinner, felt some weirdness in his abdomen, took him to work, and ran a battery of tests that indicated kidney failure with a probable root cause of cancer. By Monday he was getting worse rather than better despite receiving round-the-clock veterinary care, so we decided to let him go mercifully before his condition deteriorated even more painfully. He was seven and a half years old.

I don't really have anything else insightful or even snarky to add, but just wanted to acknowledge the event and the fact that, despite being a deeply weird and often difficult animal, Charlie will be missed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

DOTWW – Part 1

I am a creature of habit. If this blog is ever used as a sort of blueprint for reconstructing my personality within some kind of electronic android brain, I might as well put that facet of my personality right out in the open: I wouldn’t be me without a slavish devotion to pattern maintenance and reverence for tradition. I get how that can be inherently limiting, and as a result I strive to be open to new things, and to allow things to grow and change for the better, and all that, but the deepest parts of me, when left unencumbered by overthinking, are pretty addicted to routines.

This is so true that I catch myself thinking “I’m not sure if I can do that day, because that’s day” way more often than I can possibly feel normal about. Because it’s not always a matter of scheduling conflicts and specific repeating time commitments, of “I couldn’t possibly meet my old co-workers for a beer at 6:30 on a Wednesday, because my wife works late Wednesdays and I need to pick up our son from daycare and get him fed and in bed.” Sometimes the thought of doing something on a certain day feels discordant because the whole day has its own character and quality which is open to certain activities but weirdly inappropriate for others. Maybe this doesn’t make much sense in the introductory abstract, but hopefully it will make a little more sense in the specific. (Or maybe not – there are no guarantees, especially where hyper-examining my so-called mind is concerned.) In any case, I’ve decided to drag this particular mindset into the blog-light, as it were.

I will also fully cop to the fact that posting to the blog every single day sometimes leaves me wondering what I’m going to talk about on any given day when nothing newsworthy has happened, and nothing has caught my attention that I haven’t already talked about before. Thus, instituting “Days Of The Week” Week (DOTWW) at least gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I have a structure in place, a quotidian assignment beyond “write something”.

I was actually still somewhat on the fence as to whether or not to pull the trigger on DOTWW as recently as pre-dawn this morning, as I was getting dressed for work. But my wife, waking up early of her own accord, asked me how I was doing, and I replied that I was fine but a little sleepy (with no small amount of unspoken but strongly implied self-pity) and she commiserated, “Awww, sounds like somebody has a bad case of the Mondays.” So that pretty much settled it.

Touch the sky!!!
Monday does pretty much axiomatically equate to Work in my mind. It’s usually my most productive day at the office, as well as Most Likely To Involve Making a Detailed To-Do List, Possibly in Spreadsheet Format. It’s the day I’m likely to dress the closest to “business standard” whether that means an actual suit or just grown-up slacks and pin-striped shirt and conservative tie, as opposed to Dockers and a bright shirt and a cartoon tie that all adds up to say “high school kid at a cousin’s wedding” (those outfits don’t crop up in the work rotation until Wednesday or Thursday). These days it’s also likely to be a long day at the office, since my wife has Mondays off and I don’t need to rush to the daycare pickup, and instead I can put in 9 or 10 hours to burnish my team-player standing as well as make up for any time elsewhere in the pay period when other obligations make me jet early.

Monday is also the most stressful day of the week at work, purely for reasons I put upon myself. Because I am exactly the creature of habit that I purport myself to be, I tend to resemble a grown-up who actually has his shit together the most when I’m doing the same things over and over and over again. The interruption of the weekend always sparks a minor panic on Monday morning, then, along these lines of serious doubt as to my ability to remember all of the following: to bring my SmartCard for the Metro; to not zone out, and get off at the right stop on the Metro; to bring my badge to get in the office building, and my CAC card to log on to the government network; to call to mind my various passwords for sites and systems I need to access to do my job; to bring lunch so I don’t end up rationalizing a cheeseburger at the greasy spoon a cross the street. As the week goes along I know those physical objects are where I put them the night before, and those pieces of information are relatively intact in my memory, but priming the pump on Mondays is a bitch. And I love a good three-day weekend, but losing that whole Monday back-in-the-swing ritual can (and usually does) throw my whole week off.

All of which means I tend not to make extracurricular plans on Mondays because I’ve got just about all I can handle in merely showing up for work on time and recalling which desk I’m supposed to sit at. The notion of anything non-work-related is anathema. (Ask me again on Tuesday, because that is a totally different story.)

Incidentally, Monday night is Bean Burrito Night at dinnertime at our casa, as well. This was never designed by intention, it just grew into a habit over time, which is how these things happen, I suppose.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday Grab Bag On the Road

From the Vanity Plate Archives: This time, it's actually a good one. Wednesday morning I spotted a big black Dodge Ram 1500 with Virginia tags that read HELLROY. In case you missed or have forgotten or found impenetrable my original Vanity Plate Manifesto, let me restate the high ponits: custom tags are essentially a silly and pointless (if ultimately harmless) form of self-promoting conspicuous consumption, or at least that's how I was introduced to them in Jersey where they run expensive. What ups the silliness in my estimation is when the tags seem to promote (or redundantly identify) the vehicle bearing them, instead of the driver within. Vanity plates should be affixed to a Porsche and say BIGSHOT, not a minivan with the caption DOGTAXI. So I tip my hat to HELLROY for at least doing it right and in a moderately interesting and original way that doesn't resort to nigh-incomprehensible vowel-dropping or gratuitous l33t-speak.

Still, the real intrigue lies in what exactly HELLROY means.

Possibly...?
Is this a nickname the driver gave himself in hopes that it wouldc atch on, or do people commonly refer to him as such every day? Was he a hellraising rapscallion before he could even drive, or do people tend to sigh and roll their eyes at him and regularly address him with a scolding "Aw, hell, Roy ..." For that matter, is his real name Roy or Elroy, both of which I associate with men no younger than about 55? Is it possible that a graying good ol' boy also has a deep and abiding affection for (or identification with) Mike Mignola's demonic super-agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense? Or is Roy not actually part of the driver's name at all, but used for its root meaning of "king", thus implying that the onyx pickup truck in question is steered by the claws of the King of Hell, Satan himself?

I spend waaaaaaay too much time alone in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

+++

Here's a question of workplace etiquette: what is the proper vocal volume for excusing oneself when literally stepping through someone else's conversation?

Government offices have a tendency to feel a bit overstuffed, since various budgetary restrictions make it more feasible to cram in a few new pre-fab cubicles and rearrange the rest rather than simply rent more commodious office space and let the agency spread out. This is certainly true in my office, where the hallways created by backs of cubicles on one side and office walls on another can be pretty narrow. If two people bump into each other in one of these passageways and get involved in a mutual discussion, and a third person tries to get past them, it's often physically impossible to go around them.

When I am this third person I always say "Excuse me" as I squeeze between people, but I never feel like I'm doing it right. If I say something in my normal speaking voice, that's pretty loud, which is bound to drown out what's being said and thus derail the discussion, which seems a little rude. But if I whisper, I worry that the two people talking won't hear my "excuse me" at all and they'll think I'm some jerk who just plows between people with no apologies. Anyway, if you have any thoughts on whether it's better to be polite through a bullhorn or not, feel free to let me know.

+++

I know I'm a little bit late to the party on this, but as a recent convert I now feel the need to spread the gospel far and wide. Seriously you guys:

AXE COP!

Hells yes.

+++

I'm off to D.C. now to take my wife to the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at the National Geographic Museum, a delayed Christmas present and one we are both very much looking forward to. Terra Cotta Warriors! Whoooooo!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Décor

So my mancave, my Den of Dorkdom, is coming along pretty well. I’ve put together enough cheap-o shelving to display most of my graphic novels and other genre-ghetto books, along with many of the toys and knickknacks I’ve amassed over the years. (Somehow, utterly unawares, I have managed to begin a gargoyle collection, of all things.) I still consider the whole thing a work in progress, as there remains the ongoing discovery of various tchotchkes and dust-collectors while we continue the never-ending unpacking from the move, so some things are not necessarily in their final museum-ready presentations. For example, Evil-Lyn and Dr. Fate are currently shacked up together in Castle Grayskull, one popping up from each tower like some dark demented corner of Mr. Rogers’s Land of Make-Believe. (For “demented”, please read “TOTALLY RAD”, btw.)

But other elements have come together in a pleasing diorama-at-the-local-public-library kind of way. As you might have guessed, my Green Lantern collection got some early obsessive attention. I can look at the shelves dedicated to the Emerald Gladiator’s various toy incarnations and feel pretty pleased with what I see. Which is of course immediately followed by a ravenous need to expand the collection.

I feel like I have a respectable number of sculpts of GL himself, so the next project I’m amusing myself by contemplating is a rogue’s gallery. They do make a ton of bad guy action figures, too (almost as if they’re supposed to be bought by kids who will act out dramatic fight scenes with them, like toys!) so it would be prudent to be selective in assembling the more nefarious characters.

If you read my primer a few weeks back about Green Lantern mythos then you might recall that GL’s arch-nemesis Sinestro has formed an entire Corps of evil-doers who are armed with yellow rings and powered by the ability to inspire great fear. It’s been interesting, on a deeply geeky level, to see how the comics have presented various takes on inspiring fear, even though most of them have something along the lines of “this guy will totally kill you.”

One that stands out is an alien hag named Kryb. Her schtick? She steals babies. Since being inducted into Sinestro’s Corps she has focused on stealing the babies of Green Lantern Corps members, but it’s been a lifelong activity for her. It’s not that she’s the witch from Hansel and Gretel; she doesn’t want to eat the babies, she wants to raise them and looooooooove them. She’s a nightmare pastiche of every Hand That Rocks The Cradle cliché possible, plus she has an alien morphology which includes gel-filled incubator pods all along her back, which is where she keeps the babies. If you can get past the sci-fi silliness, Kryb is a pretty scary, repulsive concept. And since I willfully embrace the tropes of my favorite comic series, and since I have a baby boy, I think Kryb is terrifying and viscerally disturbing – which makes her a glorious supervillain.

So do they make a Kryb action fig OF COURSE THEY DO.

If stealing babies is wrong, man, she don't wanna be right.
AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!

(Note, by the way, that she comes with two alien baby accessories. That is genius.)

So – to acquire this grotesque action figure, or not? I have to admit she’s become a personal fave just for the sheer audacity of concept – but do I really want a three-dimensional replica of that concept in my house? I honestly worry that if my son were ever to see that toy on the shelf it would give him nightmares. And despite my snark earlier, I do firmly believe that action figures are meant to be played with by little kids, and while I’m too old for that and my little guy is still too young, when he’s a bit older I will have no problem sharing, letting him play with the GL collection when the mood strikes him and displaying them on the shelves when his fancy is elsewhere. (There may be some negotiations as to what he’s allowed to do in the name of play, since I vividly recall going outside and burying GIJoes in the dirt to play “Jungle Ambush”, but those are just details.) Maybe by the time my son is five or six, he won’t be creeped out too much by a baby-snatcher because he won’t consider himself a baby. Or maybe he’ll have a rock-solid grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality and “scary toy” will be an oxymoron for him. Still, I find myself stymied on this issue of exactly how much weirdness I want to bring into the house, even in the subterranean corner of the house that’s set aside expressly for my weirdness. When and if the dilemma resolves, I’ll report.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Specters of Doom (The Terror)

As of this week, the northern hemisphere is angling towards the sun just enough (or away from the sun less, something like that) for the morning sky to be a dim, pale blue right about the time I get out of my car and walk up to the Metro platform, as opposed to the black-as-midnight dead-of-winter darkness of not too long ago. It’s still plenty cold, though, especially when the wind blows, and the snow of our recent –mageddons and –pocalypses has melted so little that it makes you think it never will. All of which is just a rambling introductory way of saying that I picked an apt time of year to read Dan Simmons’s The Terror, which is a novel about a doomed sailing expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840’s. (I may have already overstepped the boundary of spoilers by using that word “doomed” … more spoilers ahead.)

The title references, in part, the HMS Terror, one of two ships that ends up frozen for season after season in high-latitude Arctic ice that refuses to melt even during the summer. And much of the book focuses on the mingled dread and dreariness of day after day, week after week, month after month marooned on a ship that is locked in place, under dark skies that never lighten, assaulted by harsh sub-zero winds and savage blizzards. It is brutal and despairing and terrifying (which is of course a secondary signifier of the novel’s title). If I had read the book on the beach in July, I would have had to imagine being cold and miserable; as it happened, I only had to imagine being colder and more miserable. My point is that I want to commend the book for being so unflinchingly immersive, but I can’t be entirely sure that my experience is entirely attributable to Mr. Simmons’s talent, when he was getting a hearty (albeit coincidental) environmental assist.

I like Dan Simmons, by which I mean I like what I’ve read by him so far. I devoured the Hyperion Cantos, a sci-fi quadrilogy which hit all the notes I love in speculative fiction: wildly out-there ideas, mysteries with satisfying resolutions, good characters, a sense of fun, emotional resonance. The Terror was quite good, too, but didn’t sing to me the way the Cantos did, no pun intended. (OK, fine, pun accidental but not regretted in the slightest.) Mainly this was due to the third meaning of the title.

Simmons probably could have written a historically-inspired novel with zero fantastical elements and still come away with a winner of a book, but for some reason, he chose to incorporate a bit of supernatural horror into the Terror. All the while that the British sailors are trapped in the frozen sea, and even as they make their attempts to escape by walking on ice and barren ground, they are stalked by a fearsome predator with a limitless capacity for bloodshed and destruction. It’s just one more element of madness to be contended with as the expedition disintegrates, along with frostbite and scurvy and inadvertent poisoning by spoiled canned foods and mutiny and personal vendettas and on and on. Early on there is speculation that the monster is simply a giant polar bear, but ultimately the omniscient narrator confirms that it is a mythological god-beast with a strange, symbiotic relationship with the Eskimo people who are able to thrive in the very environment that easily destroys hundreds of able-bodied specimens of the Royal Navy. It’s a curious story-telling choice, partly because of the aforementioned likeliness that the novel could have existed without it, and partly because the final version of the novel with the god-beast doesn’t gain all that much from it. I find it curious for another reason, though, connected to my previous exposure to Simmons.

In the Hyperion Cantos, there is an entity known as the Shrike which wreaks havoc throughout the story. The Shrike is composed entirely of metal thorns and razors and has a super-science origin which could not be more different from the spiritual magic of the monster in the Terror. But superficial details aside, they are almost twins. Both favor the slice-and-dice approach to slaughter, with the Shrike using almost surgically precise blades and the monster relying on rending claws. Both have the ability to appear virtually out of nowhere at will, and then disappear again after claiming victims. Both are unpredictable, sometimes appearing and killing everyone in sight, sometimes eviscerating one while sparing another. Both are immune to whatever is the conventional weaponry of the time, whether the energy rifles of Hyperion’s future or the crude shotguns and pistols of the Victorian era. Both are essentially unstoppable. Both (unless I’m wildly misreading Simmons here) symbolize death – unpredictable, implacable Death incarnate.

DAMN RIGHT!!!
I hesitate (ever so momentarily) to do too much armchair psychoanalysis here, but I really wonder what trauma is in Simmons’s past that made him represent death’s embodiment so similarly in such wildly different settings. I mean, I get the part where it’s sudden and random and there’s nothing you can do to fight it off, that’s pretty universal. But the metaphor of the blades and the buckets of bloodletting is lost on me, if there is indeed a metaphor at all. Not to be too flippant about a hypothetical personal tragedy, but it’s as if Simmons’s father was killed at a young age in a freak lawnmower factory explosion. Anyone can write a sci-fi epic and give the force-of-nature killing machine antagonist whatever gimmicks they want, and that’s cool with me. But when you follow it up with a quasi-historical novel and just put furry skin on your force-of-nature killing machine antagonist and retain all the amputations and decapitations and gore in its wake … it just makes me wonder.

And, again, it seems a bit like overkill. It’s easy to read all of The Terror as an allegory. Towards the end some of the sailors want to keep moving, despite starvation and exhaustion, to find the mouth of a river that might hold the slim chance of escape and rescue and survival. Other sailors want to return to their ice-locked ship, so damaged by multiple winters that it will never sail again. Each group regards the other and thinks “You’ll die” and each group is right. In a grim, bleak way, the pitiless Arctic is life, and whether you struggle with all your might or just give up, either way Death wins. Fair enough. Also, Death might win not by outlasting your struggle or by accepting your surrender, but by violently scattering your internal organs at clawpoint. Fair enough, I guess …? I suppose whenever someone talks about how you can eat pizza and drink beer and smoke and die of a heart attack or emphysema or cirrhosis, or you can eat tofu and drink water and work out and die anyway, someone else always has to point out you could also get hit by a bus. The bus in Simmons’s world just happens to have insanely sharp edges.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Not-so-witty brevity

This morning as I arrived at the parking lot for the Metro I noticed that someone had nailed a sign to a tree near the entrance. It was a small sign, a little less than two square feet, maybe, plywood painted white and imprinted with this message in even black block print: CO2 HOAX. The sign had been nailed to the tree at such a height that its bottom edge just barely cleared a five or six foot pile of snow that had been plowed up against the tree.

Let me start by giving credit where credit is due. This is a punchy and effective bit of expression. With six letters and one number positioned in a certain space at a certain time for maximum ironic impact, an opinionated citizen was able to make an unmistakably strong statement. And leaving aside the violence done to an innocent pin oak, I have no problem with this kind of gesture. Every voice makes the discourse more robust. In theory, anyway. As a big fan of the First Amendment, I feel I have to appreciate all forms of self-expression in the name of philosophical consistency if nothing else. The problem with a broad, permissive personal philosophy, though, is the ease with which it can be exploited.

Snarky faux-grief over a nail in a tree aside (not to mention the impressions I’ve made on most people who’ve come within my orbit, especially in The College Years), I am not a knee-jerk spotted-owl-hugger. I just like to see people conduct themselves with a modicum of forethought and evenhandedness. I eat meat, but I could probably stand to eat less of it, though I will never give it up completely as long as it’s an option. (Again, The College Years: I tried. It didn’t take.) I want to live in a world that has viable coral reefs and rainforests, but I also want everyone in the world to be able to live in a stable structure with clean drinking water, and there has to be some compromise between unspoiled wilderness and habitable development to make that happen. I believe in the power of extremist factions to push the great middle mass down a sensible, sustainable route. Sometimes I find myself walking that best-of-both-worlds path of splitting-the-difference, and sometimes I ramble out to the fringes of one side to counterbalance something on the other, but in the end it all amounts to the same thing.

That said, the latest frenzy over global warming controversies drives me fucking insane. Apparently no matter how much I try to explain that “all things in moderation” is my middle name, I will always come across as belligerently bleeding-heart on matters environmental because I am fastidious about sorting the recycling (what a waste of time!) and because I feel the number of wildlife sanctuaries that should be protected by the government from oil drilling is non-zero (what an unpatriotic dope!) and so on. Apparently what I see as a great wide field of possibilities with everyone basically marching in the same direction, others see as two very narrow paths separated by a howling abyss. I am willing to concede that we don’t yet know everything there is to know about the impact of human development on the planet’s overall health. I will readily grant that there are more scenarios available to us than “go organic or die”. All I ask in return is that anyone disagreeing with me about the exact execution of our stewardship of the earth at least nod to the fact that we are having some undesirable effects on the biosphere and we should be taking some responsibility for it. Everything else is just details. But I am consistently surprised and saddened by the sheer number of people who retreat all the way back to “NOOOOOOOOO! We are having no effects on the environment! We don’t need to do anything different! Science is dumb! Everything different from my lazy self-interested preconceived notions is dumb!”

Or words to that effect.

And the extra ladling of gall-sauce (for me, at least) comes from the fact that a lot of it comes down to semantics. Environmental science is complicated. You would be hard-pressed to distill every chain of events cascading from every human action every day throughout our planet-wide atmosphere and oceans and land biomes down to a few hundred pages of comprehensible text. And we are not exactly a society of readers., so scientists have the impossible task of coming up with a soundbite that gets the idea across. This was probably doomed to fail no matter what. As it happened, the exact way that it failed was that they settled on the expression “global warming” to encapsulate these mind-bogglingly intricate patterns of human causes and damaging effects. One frightening hallmark of these effects, a rise in overall average temperatures, became the namesake. And the curse of the movement towards awareness and respect.

Because soundbite-addicted morons can’t be counted on to remember why we say things a certain way or what meanings would be elaborated on if a person had more than five seconds to convey an idea. They just rely on their own interpretations. So people began to think of global warming not as “gradual but deleterious rise in overall average worldwide temperatures over time” but as “every year hotter than the last”. And then the signal degraded further, into something along the lines of “too warm to snow. EVER.”

No.  Wrong.  FAIL.
I’m not so obtusely pedantic that I don’t get the social conventions of conversation. If Monday the mercury doesn’t climb above 25° F, and on Tuesday it gets up to 30° F, and I say “Hey, it’s really warming up outside!” you then have every right to slug me for missing the point even though I’m technically correct. But seriously, how hard is it to understand the flipside, that science isn’t expected to have a loose conversational feel to it? That science is in fact supposed to be technically correct (and even pedantic)? “Global warming” was never intended to mean “not just a slightly higher reading on the thermometer but warm enough to wear shorts in the winter.” And that’s not even getting into averages over long periods of time, where you can simultaneously have a record-setting coldest day for January and yet also the warmest winter in decades. (That’s, like, Stats 102, so forget that noise.)

I’ve heard scientists talk about the potential effects of global warming (or, more recently, “climate change” which is a little better for trying to sidestep all of the above confusion, but too little too late) and I’ve heard them mention melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels and more frequent hurricane disasters and summer droughts damaging crops and all manner of eco-outrage. I have never once heard them allude to mid-Atlantic states experiencing snow-free winters. But I’ve lost count of how many times this month I’ve overheard people saying they want to rub Al Gore’s lying face in the impressive snowbanks on either side of their driveway.

And so even though I strive for compromise and commonality, I can’t help but feel like I’m surrounded by enemies. Their credo, as I understand it, is “There is no way that the average global temperature is fractionally but steadily increasing over time due to continually more common man-made pollutants. No possible way. Because where I live got two feet of snow in a single storm. QED so suck it.” And I don’t even know how to engage with that. Because the awful truth is that it sounds right. It can be condensed down to a CO2 HOAX sign hung over a pile of evidence and it touches a “hey, yeah!” nerve. It’s not right, not when you seriously think it through, and the various ways in which it’s not right can be explained to someone who might be confusing the semantics, but that takes time. And in what passes for discourse at this moment of our civilization, the side that needs time and reflection and understanding to explain itself will usually lose, and the side that has a catchy buzzword will usually win. Right and wrong has little if anything to do with it. The human-nature tendency to cheer on the scoring of cheap points is why so many axe-grinding assholes win so many debates, even though most people when asked would probably say they do not want to live in a world ruled by axe-grinding assholes.

The ugly flipside is that less information conveyed requires more information to be interpreted and extrapolated, and increases the chances for misunderstanding astronomically. Conversely, the more information laid out at the outset should (again, as always, in theory) minimize the chances for misunderstanding. Most of my life I’ve tested other people’s patience with my insistence on backing up and explaining things and elaborating on points and saying the same things over and over again with only the slightest variation of shades of meaning. This probably comes across as classic overthinking most of the time, but the deeper motivation has always been a fear of my words being misconstrued and a desperate attempt to avoid such a fate. (Words are, like, my thing, man.) When what I say fails to properly execute my intent, that’s my downfall. Just in case you were wondering where multi-thousand-word blog posts come from some times.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Back to work

I still remember how to tie the ol’ business-noose, despite not needing to wear a necktie since February 4th, and thus I find myself back at the office today with things more or less back to normal. Yesterday the office was closed for the Presidents’ Day holiday, and by sundown I felt a little bit guilty about kicking back on the government’s dime and yet shirking my patriotic duties by failing utterly to buy either a new mattress or a new car. Then I remembered that we had gone to brunch at Cracker Barrel and my son had picked up and immediately bonded with a candy dispenser shaped like a blue convertible being driven by Mr. Potato-Head. And we bought it for him, partly for his amusement and partly because my wife was interested in the off-brand Runts (Ronts?) within, which are an Extreme Choking Hazard for our little one, but luckily he couldn’t care less and just wants to push the car around and go “bbbrrrrrmmm!” So, new (plastic toy) car FTW!

ROAD TRIP!!!
Insane amounts of actual work to catch up on here at the office, though, so a placeholder post will have to do for today. Normalcy is reasserting itself, though, rest assured. (Cue ominous gathering of blizzard clouds in 3 … 2 …)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Two times too many

Yesterday morning was a pretty typical relaxed Sunday, right up until my wife glanced out the front window and then asked “Why is the front hose on?” I found this to be an excellent question, one to which I did not have a ready answer, but when I went to have a look for myself I could only conclude that the answer was that a pipe leading to the hose had frozen and burst, resulting in an out of control spray of water going, to use the technical hydroengineering term, everywhichaway.

So I ran downstairs, trying to remember where the shutoff valve was (based on my dim recollections of the pre-settlement house inspection a couple of months ago). I suspected it might be in the small unfinished storage closet in the basement, near the radon detector (somehow we have one of those) and I did in fact find a wheel on a pipe in there, so I dutifully righty-tightied it. And sure enough, the geyser on our front porch ceased to be. An unfortunate side effect of this was that the entire house was now without water, as that valve was on the main supply line coming in from the town pipes. Still: one problem at a time.

The absolutely unforgivable thing about this is that I’ve been through almost this exact same malarkey once before. When I bought the old townhouse, my closing was in May, and the home inspector at that time told me about shutting off the pipes that led to the outside spigots, and draining those pipes, and how important it was, and showed me where the valves and drains were, and all of that. And I still had all that information floating around in my head was my first winter in the townhouse rolled around, and sometimes the notion even made it to the front of my mind, but never for long enough for me to act on it. (I am not blaming blames on anyone but myself here, but part of my indolence can be explained by the fact that I was working a lot and spending most of my free weekend time engaged in the upkeep of a long-distance relationship with the woman now known to readers of this blog as My Wife. So.) Inevitably, one of the pipes (the one by the front porch, of course) froze and burst. Unfortunately this happened while I was at work on a Monday so by the time someone in the neighborhood noticed the torrent gushing from my front spigot, and got in touch with the condo association manager, and the manager tracked down my contact info and clued me in, and I got home, the deluge had been going for hours. I was ridiculously lucky to escape with minimal damage to my possessions, but the cleanup and repairs of the house itself ran pretty extensively. Once the pipe was repaired I pretty much never turned on the water pressure in it ever again, since I never had the need to run a hose out front, and I kept the rear patio spigot pipe shut off and drained year-round too, turning it on only when I needed to use the hose out back and winterizing as soon as I was done with that use. Twice shy and all that.

Sometimes a dorsal fin is just a dorsal fin.  Not this time.
So how in the world could this happen to me again I mean COME ON. My wife and I conferred on the subject and agreed that we had both been under the impression that the pipes had already been winterized. We closed on the house on December 19. Surely the previous owners would already have shut off and drained the outside pipes by then, yes? Right? Guys?

Yes, well, not so much. I had though the extent of the previous owners’ twittery only extended so far as their horrible taste in wall painting colors and techniques, but apparently basic maintenance can be added to the charges as well. And cursing the ignorance and/or indifference of the people we bought this house from was not much comfort when we had just shut off all our water in order to stop an out-of-control deluge and my wife was still in need of a pre-work shower.

Really all I had to do was find the correct shut-off valve. Our house was built in the late 70’s along a fairly standard template, so there’s no way it doesn’t have a separate valve for each external spigot (he told himself). I also remembered some odd panels in the wall of my mancave room, and sure enough found a valve wheel in one of those (the other one? Just a pipe – for reasons unknown as of this writing). I tightened that wheel but suspected given its location that it was for the backyard spigot, and a quick experiment with opening up the main house feed again confirmed that as our personal Front Stoop Niagara resumed. Off with the house water again. (But hey, at least the backyard pipe was finally turned off before it burst too, so … yay?)

While I was staring at the house water supply valve, I started tracing pipes away from it along the front face of the house. They seemed to move across the length of the house just above the basement’s drop ceiling, so I started lifting tiles looking for the front spigot pipe specifically. About halfway down the basement hallway, I found a T-joint that had to be the valve. But, it was oddly wheelless. I got up close with a flashlight and convinced myself that yes, it was the right valve, and no, my eyes did not deceive me: I couldn’t close it off by turning the wheel because there was no wheel to turn, just a stubby metal stem.

I had some pliers close to hand and tried to use them to clamp down on the stub and tighten it closed, but that got me nowhere. I was on the verge of suggesting that I turn the main water valve open, my wife take a turbo-shower to minimize the flooding out front, and then we’d turn it all off again and call a plumber. But I insisted upon my right to give it one more try, this time using a wrench on the stem. Son of a bitch if that didn’t actually work. The right tool really does make a difference.

So, current state of the house: we have water, we have a busted exterior feed pipe, we have drop ceiling panels akimbo throughout the basement, and we have need of a plumber. But since I wasn’t planning on using the garden hose any time soon, I might hold off on making an appointment with the plumber until after the two feet of snow in our front yard has melted.

Did I mention it snowed again today? Just a dusting, but man, screw winter.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

Maybe it was a subconscious awareness that I only had to report to work for one day before being granted a two-day weekend reprieve, but somehow my body was able to roust out of bed this morning after only a couple of alarm snoozes. I got on the road slightly later than usual, but since I figured some people would be writing off the final day of the workweek and others would be home with kids enjoying a fifth day of cancelled school, I expected the traffic wouldn’t be too heinous.

And it wasn’t. Of course, I was a good stretch down the highway before I heard the radio report that the above-ground stations on the Orange Line were still closed by the snow. At that point my options were to turn around and head to the VRE station near home, drive all the way in to work, or drive to one of the underground Metro stops. I immediately ruled out turning around, and parking was an approximately equal concern for either of the other two options. (The nice thing about the above-ground Metro stations is that they have big above-ground parking lots, whereas the underground ones tend to be in more urban foot-traffic-friendly neighborhoods.) The deciding factors ended up being twofold: the farther east I drove, the greater the chance of getting ticketed for violation the morning rush hour HOV-only rule for 66. Also, my wife heard the same radio report, called me, and after a quick internet check told me the westernmost open Metro station was right off 66, which sounded like more of a sure thing than my vague notion of how to drive to my office. So I followed the Metro signs off 66 at the appropriate exit.

Or such was my intention, but after one Metro sign on the highway and one at the end of the exit ramp, indicators of the stations location (or very existence) dried right up. I drove straight for a while looking for signs, or the station itself, or anything I recognized, and then decided I was not heading anywhere helpful and turned around. Going in the reverse direction, I was then stuck in some pretty heavy traffic, complicated by the random narrowing of lanes due to giant snowbanks on the shoulder, so I turned off onto a different road which looked fairly major and thus likely to go someplace significant. And after dodging people literally standing in the street because the bus kiosk was full of snow, and being blinded by driving directly into the rising sun (I’m usually well ahead of sunrise on my commute) I finally ended up in Alexandria. Which was not exactly my ideal destination.

Another phone call from my wife and another map-googling and another couple of u-turns later I was finally on a path that would lead directly to my office. Took me a little over two hours, but I made it to work and got a spot at a nearby parking garage, which again I attribute to a severe decrease in the total number of people bothering to make the commute today. And now that my overwhelming urge to commit vehicular manslaughter has abated somewhat, I’m optimistic that the drive home will be much easier than the morning debacle.

Still, it’s probably just as well that I’ll put in close to a full day at the office, head homeward, gather up the little guy from daycare and then start him on the slow march toward bedtime. The past few days have been great for parent/child bonding but said bonding has frequently taken the form of reading and re-reading the Richard Scarry classic whose name has been appropriated for this post’s title. 70 or so pages of about nine zillion whimsical modes of transportation on the go. It’s the boy’s new favorite book in the world, and he is unflaggingly devoted to it, and to be fair it is fun to flip through and the owl dressed as a witch and riding a broom-o-cycle is a few different kinds of awesome, but … After my own zany automotive misadventure I’ll be happy if I can get through tonight with a couple of cribside readings involving only cowboys or monkeys or counting of things that have zero wheels. It’s important to have goals.

That monkey loves to get high, man.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A little "me" time

The Wellness Star is a less popular Imperial assignment, for some reason.I went to the gym today. So did a lot of other people - our town was spared 2.0 for the most part, the plows got around a lot faster, and today the only weather phenomenon of note was sunny skies and massive melt. Totally clear local roads are a good thing.

Looks like I'll be heading back to work tomorrow, too, which is honestly a good thing at this point. Since I keep forgetting the day/date. (Also, forgot to bring my iPod to the gym. Problematic.) Longer posts courtesy of my reconstituted brain soon.

Unless it dumps crazy snow on Monday. Seriously? That's enough, now, Winter. ENOUGH.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More like the Cold Dominion

We barely got two or three inches in the latest blast, at least around these parts. Other locales in the greater metropolitan area may have come closer to the projected 10 - 20 inches. My wife's presence was requested at her place of employment, but once she got there she spent most of the day in downtime and saw a grand total of one client/patient. At least she was able to come home early. Then, when she was settled and able to keep an eye on the little guy, I got out to shovel our driveway, and granted it was nearing sundown but daaaaaaaamn it was cold. Apparently the blizzard designation has more to do with wind speeds than snowfall amounts? Or something? Anyway, we still have power and a wood stove, but outside, it is brutally cold.

I suppose it goes without saying that the fed has closed all agencies for tomorrow. I'm on the verge of forgetting my various office door lock combinations and work computer passwords. But hey, I got more painting done today. Maybe tomorrow I'll goof around a little.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

OK, it’s getting kind of surreal now

The Federal government once again closed all agencies today, so I got to stay home and enjoy an even greater feeling of disconnection from my current gig. (It doesn’t take much, really.) I did leave the house, though, in order to pick up some supplies with which to make the most of my unexpected extended staycation. At about 9:30 this morning the temperature outside was 22° and the sky was a pale, washed-out gray, almost the exact shade of dirty snow. Was the vault overhead reflecting the terrain below, or vice versa? Yeah, when I’m thinking along those lines it’s definitely been enough with the snow already.

The oldies station I was listening to in the car played CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and later in the afternoon the 90’s station on satellite radio (to which we have been listening a LOT during Snowmageddon) played “Flood” by Jars of Clay. It occurred to me that there’s a lot of moody songs about rain, but the mention of snow always transforms a tune into a sleighbell-infested holiday ditty. The deep February accumulation has yet to inspire an enduring track, apparently.

Snow-thing Compares 2 U
Anyway, lest you think the objects I was going out for were hobby-related, to while away my afternoon in decadent leisure, be it known that I actually excursioned to the hardware store for painting supplies. We started painting our kitchen/dining room over the weekend since we knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, but we didn’t quite manage to finish the job. During some of the (emotionally) stormier moments of moving weekend, a fair amount of painting equipment was unceremoniously pitched into the garbage rather than moved. These things happen. It meant, however, that we had enough brushes to lay down the primer over the ugly colors the previous owners favored, but not enough brushes to then switch over to actual colors we can live with. Thus, my task today was to buy more brushes, and paint pans, and spackle, and so on, and complete Operation: Blueshift. I was moderately successful, and I also primed over the hideous dining room wall as well. And since I’ve just checked the closings website and seen that the fed agencies are, in fact, closed again tomorrow, I reckon I’ll be launching Operation: Greenification in the morning.

It’s nice, honestly, being given no choice but to take some time off and then focusing some needed attention on the home projects most in need of same. Slightly surreal, but nice.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Last ones out

Apparently we are now in the lull between snowstorms, and my household is hanging in there, although once again, my optimism was almost our undoing.

The thing is, although the weekend we moved into this house was undeniably memorable for its blizzardiness, I suppose in retrospect there was a lot going on with the move itself which may have made my recollections a bit befuzzed. What I recalled going into this weekend was that the snowplows in our new town were supremely on-the-spot, which made me feel good about the new ‘hood. Thus, on Friday, I expected the weekend would unfold something like this: snow beginning on Friday, ending on Saturday afternoon, snowplows making the rounds Saturday night, requisite shoveling on Sunday morning, Super Bowl party on Sunday night. Totally workable.

The first half of the plan went about as expected. (Except for a moment of minor panic Saturday morning when we went downstairs and found a mass of bloody stomach contents on the living room floor. We were mentally and physically prepared to be snowed in all day Saturday, but had no idea what we would do if one of our beloved pets was in need of immediate medical attention. But then it turned out the mass was just the remains of a mouse that one or more of them had hunted down and one or more of them, not necessarily the same one, had tried to eat whole. So, no medical emergency, huzzah! Also, one less mouse in the house, huzzah again! Also, gross on many levels, sorry.)

Eek.
Then Saturday evening deepened into night and the plows did not come. Sunday morning came and we shoveled out the driveway (with help from our little guy, who dragged around the miniature fireplace shovel and felt like a Very Important Part of the Team) but the plows were nowhere to be seen … on our street, at least. We got reports of other streets in town getting plowed, and could even hear the trucks going by on the nearest major road, but we remained trapped on the wrong side of a might-as-well-be endless stretch of two feet deep white. The Super Bowl party we were supposed to go to was canceled because their neighborhood was just as big a mess, so at least we weren’t missing much.

But we were starting to run a little low on groceries, because I had fully expected to be able to restock by Sunday. The sensation was steadily building of being marooned on an island, watching the skies for a rescue plane (sub “road” for “skies” and “snowplow” for “plane”) and trying not to freak out. Also, add into the mix of seventeen-month-old who doesn’t know how to try not to freak out, and who usually gets at least one car trip every day, because he loves cars and his parents love him and his parents also love not being driven insane by a stir crazy toddler.

My wife ended up walking a few blocks to a local restaurant to pick up some dinner for us Sunday night, and at that point, it was still a tiny bit funny. Jokes were made about how unwieldy it would be to carry extra-large pizzas through the snow, so we settled for a calzone and a sub and some chicken wings, all of which fit in shopping bags. Fortunately, through all of the wintry siege, we never lost power, so we stayed warm, never felt compelled to drink gallons of milk at a go before it spoiled, and knew we’d be able to watch the big game. (Go Saints, btw.) Food supplies were the main concern.

Somewhere along the line we learned a couple of things. Our city maintains that all roads will be plowed 36 to 48 hours after the snowfall stops. So the plows wouldn’t technically be late until about 3 p.m. Monday. And since we live on a short cul-de-sac, not a high traffic thoroughfare, we are on the absolute lowest priority tier for the plows. Maybe the plows didn’t come around as fast as I remembered moving weekend, or maybe that was a fluke. By this morning, we were trying to figure out what our hunting and/or gathering options realistically were. (I was home because the fed closed all the agencies.)

We watched through our front windows as several of our neighbors with big pickup trucks tried to blast their way through the snow, with moderate eventual success. My wife knew from her dinner-pickup excursion the night before that if we could get down our street, the crossing street and most roads after that were clear enough to drive, so we decided to shovel our way from the end of the driveway to the tire tracks our neighbors had made. And then one of our neighbors saved us a lot of work by driving his truck back and forth from the middle of the cul-de-sac to our driveway. We were grateful, but honestly the guy was having so much fun doing it I didn’t feel too terribly indebted. More power to him. In any case, we were just about ready to brave the treacherous street when, right on schedule around 3 p.m., the plows finally came around. And about an hour later, we had a properly restocked kitchen, the local grocery store’s picked-over-ness notwithstanding.

Hopefully enough foodstuffs were obtained this time, because as I said, it’s supposed to snow again tomorrow night, ten-plus inches on top of what we’ve already got. I feel like I’ve spent more days maneuvering my car around a massive snowpile at the end of my driveway than not the entire time we’ve lived at this address. When the spring thaw comes it will be like a whole different neighborhood.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Blizzard of Saturday Grab Bag

Just to follow up on the Record Setting Crippling Winter Storm Approaching post, my son's daycare ended up closing early yesterday, so I actually left the office half an hour ahead of my already planned early departure, at which point the whole office was emptying fast anyway. Even with a sidetrip through the (mobbed) grocery store, I made it to daycare and home again without incident. My wife's clinic ended up closing early (for them, which meant 5 p.m. instead of 8 or 9) and she also made it home with neither slip nor slide to report. The snow started early but didn't really start sticking to the roads until around sunset anyway. So, we're all fine, our house has power and heat, we have our larder stocked with essentials (note: I don't think we actually have a larder) and we're watching the snow pile up ridiculously high outside. I'm eager to get strted with the shoveling, and thus get it over with, but it hasn't stopped falling yet.

+++

Incidentally on the work front, I finally received my annual review from my boss, the follow-up to my self-evaluation. His supervisory scores and comments for me were largely in line with my own, which means either I had a pretty realistic handle on my performance or (I strongly suspect this latter theory is where it's at) my boss has no idea what I did from June through December and just followed my lead. Either way, the own-horn-tooting gambit seems to have paid off! (Or will, in a couple months, when I actually get my minor salary adjustment.)

+++

Another one for the vanity plate archives: the other night, driving home on 66, I saw a BMW with tags which, at first glance, I thought said NYR 3PTT. Baffling, since I immediately extrapolated "New York Rangers" (the hockey team) from the first three letters, and then wondered if the last four characters were supposed to mean "three-peat". Of course the Rangers have never three-peated, not even close; my Little Bro is a much bigger hockey fan than I but I got caught up in the excitement when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, after a 54-year championship drought, so I know that much. Had the owner of the Beemer over-confidently registered those tags in 1995? Traffic was moving pretty slowly on 66, so the Beemer stayed in my sights a little longer, and I got a little closer, and I realized it was actually NVR 3PTT. As in, I can only surmise, "Never three-putt." I'm also not a huge golf fan, but I'm pretty sure every pro has three-putted in a major tournament at least once, so boasting that you NEVER miss more than one putt once you're on the green? At the risk of jumping to unfair conclusions: Christ, what an asshole.

How bout a Fresca?
+++

My wife and I are big fans of 30 Rock, which is a pretty consistent hoot. This week's episode was about Jenna's mom, played by SNL alum Jan Hooks, who (I'm sorry but HOLY CRAP) has not aged well. I found an early scene in the episode particularly resonant, though: Jack's PowerPoint presentation to Jenna about saying "No" to her manipulative mother (technically the presentation was about saying "No" to Jack's manipulative mother but could be applied to any bad mom). On the one hand I was fascinated by what the scene represented in terms of the evolution of Jack's character. When the show started he was the symbolic (and satirical) representative of the giant corporation, and his voice was one of conservative groupthink and hyperadvanced capitalism. He was on top not by virtue of being right, but by virtue of knowing how to play the game of the way things are. But last night, talking about standing up to a parent's negative influence, he was unquestionably the Voice of Reason. The PowerPoint presentation was hilarious, but dead on; I kept thinking "so true!" with each slide. In the show's original premise, Liz was the Voice of Reason, the lone sane person surrounded by crazies on all sides: narcissistic actors, tempermental writers, weirdo pages, and profit-driven sharks-in-suits. (Plus wackadoo would-be boyfriends because, y'know, chicks, man, amirite?) Last night Jenna and her mom sang a ridiculously inappropriate duet and Liz was caught up in the crazy, leading to the exchange of the night:

Liz: "How can you not be moved by this?"
Jack: (deadpan) "Because I'm listening to the words." (drinks scotch)

Once again, the Voice of Reason is assigned to Jack. Which makes me wonder if last night's script had a guest writer with a slightly different take on the traditional roles of the ensemble.

But I find myself still thinking about the insightful PowerPoint today, which is odd in its own right because I get it but I can't really relate. My relationship with my parents isn't perfect by any means (best described with terms such as "fine", "not estranged but not close", and "an awful lot of work some times") but it falls decidedly on the non-toxic side. Yet I kept thinking everything Jack said about drawing boundaries against hurtful parental behavior was not only valid but importantly true. I'm not sure why that should be the case. Maybe I just imagine the world would be a better place if everyone took the slideshow to heart.