Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Primitive Video Gods

A buddy of mine and I are collaborating on a pop-culture cataloging project, the end goal of which would be a simple and fun web interface for slicing up all the entertainment arts into personally meaningful lists. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that this reveals the following things about me: I am the kind of person who is capable of evaluating web interfaces themselves as ‘fun’; I also consider coding databases and GUIs in my spare time both ‘fun’ and ‘a good use of my time’; I am so all about pop-culture that I overthink it into taxonomies and hierarchies all the time anyway and computerizing or webbifying the process is an utterly natural evolution.

Gah?

Having shuddered involuntarily at the giga-geek in the mirror, let’s get back to the idea of the project itself, which is basically that the things you like (or dislike) are important parts of who you are. Of all the books or movies or albums or websites or whatnot ever produced by humankind, a certain segment are the ones I think are the best, or the ones I think everyone else should be exposed to, or the ones I find personally inspirational. And a social forum dedicated to sharing and riffing off those specific sub-groupings of our common culture seems like a good idea.

Of course, for my buddy and I to get this project off the ground, we have to standardize the points of reference. OK, technically, we don’t have to, because we could accomplish the minimal goal of getting people talking about what seemingly benign movies totally gave them nightmares as kids or what kind of playlist would be essential for driving cross-country just by e-mailing a bunch of people and asking them to hit Reply All when answering the question. But if we want to not only get the conversation going and keep it going but also break it all down along the way with nuggets like “78% of people really do think Happy Days is an overrated TV show!” then we need to start with a standardized database so we can take advantage of computer processing of data instead of figuring it all out by hand. (To me this seems pretty inherently obvious because leveraging data in databases is my whole wage-earning job, so I’m just going to leave it at that assertion. If you don’t quite follow, just trust me on this one.)

(Also I’m all for job creation in order to stimulate the economy and all that but why is the 2010 census not being conducted mostly online? Seriously?)

So my buddy and I are still working out the details of our grand plan here, which seems like a good idea on paper but may or may not be tenable in execution. One thing we’ve been wrestling with is the following scenario: we pose a question like “what movies are your equivalent of comfort food for your brain?” and encourage people to answer it, and some people have ready answers but others might need a little thought-prompting. So, logically, we would give them the ability to browse the database of movies we set up ahead of time. Except … what’s the best way to browse a list of (ideally) “every movie ever made”?

I have no answer to that question at the moment. But what I do have are some childhood memories that I hadn’t thought about in ages until that scenario came up. Childhood memories of the dawning of the VHS era and the Age of Video Stores.
It’s strange to recall given the improbably deep reserves of material available via every outlet from Netflix to Amazon, but when VHS was first catching on, retail businesses had to build up their stocks from nothing. The scope of a mom-and-pop video rental store’s collection might be vast or slight, and even for the ones that somehow quickly built up to vast territory faced another challenge, which was how to convey the vastness. Hundreds, even thousands of VHS cassettes stored spines-out on narrowly spaced industrial shelves didn’t take up that much room, but at the same time weren’t very inviting. On the other hand, putting a bunch of clamshell cases on the wall face-front made perusing the offerings a bit more enticing, but if the video store was in a strip mall, space was at a premium, and there was no way the entire stock could be shown off that way.

The future was then!
I have a distinct memory of being at my grandparents’ house at the beach, and my parents planning to go out for the evening to take advantage of Grandma and Grandpa as babysitters. My brother and I were allowed to pick a couple of movies to rent to amuse ourselves (and presumably make G&G’s caretaking task that much easier). My grandparents, like my parents, were pretty early adopters of technology like cable tv and VCRs, so Grandma already was a steady customer at a local video store, and had brought home a copy of their catalog, which I also distinctly remember. It was black and white, printed on really low-grade newsprint, in two or three columns of teeny-tiny text, like the phone book. (Hey, remember phone books?) It wasn’t terribly hefty, maybe about the size of the TV Week that comes with the Sunday newspaper. But, as I mentioned, the text was dense. And it was just an alphabetical listing of every movie the store had a VHS copy of, categorized along the lines of “comedy”, “romance”, “action”, “children’s”, etc. And I remember poring over this list scanning for titles of movies that I wanted to ask Grandma to rent. I also remember my Little Bro taking one look at the cramped columns of titles, uninterrupted by pictures or anything, and saying “Ugh. You do it!” and shoving the catalog at me. It really was a cumbersome and onerous way of going about picking a movie, but I took to the task with great seriousness, because that’s just the kind of little geek I apparently always have been. (To be fair to the analog technologies of yesteryear, I know the print catalog system was not really designed with indecisive children in mind. Presumably an adult would think to themselves, “I’d like to watch The Sting tomorrow night, I wonder if Beachcomber Video has a copy?” and flip to the appropriate page for a yes/no verdict. But as a kid who’s most frequent response to “what do you want?” was “what do they have?”, I made use of the information available in the format provided.)

As if my young geekiness cred needed any more burnishing, I’m pretty sure the movie we ended up renting was TRON.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In and out of harm's way

This past weekend I took my son Picaro to a neighborhood birthday party, which was an interesting experience (or at least we’d better all hope that it was interesting, since I’m embarking on a lengthy blog-xamination of it here). The birthday boy was our neighbor’s youngest son, turning 4 years old, so it was a bit of an older-skewing crowd of kids than the usual collection of 1- and 2-year-olds Picaro usually hangs out with, whether at daycare or when his mother and I hang out with friends of ours who had kids around the same time we did. The entire guest list consisted of Picaro, another little boy almost exactly the same age as Picaro, the birthday boy and his two older brothers (maybe 8 and 12?), and a brother and sister (maybe 5 or 6 and 8 or 9 respectively, although I am admittedly dreadful at the “how old is that kid?” game), so the age range was fairly broad and not exactly typical of my pre-conceived notions and/or memories of childhood birthday parties, where you turn 6 and invite a bunch of other 6 year olds from your first grade class.

But then, I suppose neighborhood parties in general tend to be a bit more of a random mixing of people as well, since (all panic about the Great Sorting of Our Society aside) a group of people living on the same street don’t necessarily have that much in common, especially compared to other social-party situations which are usually family gatherings or get-togethers with old friends from high school and college or mandatory work events or whatever. And since we’ve only been living in the new neighborhood for about three months, our neighbors constitute a random group of people whom I don’t know terribly well yet at all. The father of the birthday boy was the guy who ran out with his snowshovel in hand to help me get the U-Haul unstuck on moving day, so there really was no question that I would accept the invitation (which technically was extended from my neighbor’s son to my son, in theory, anyway) even though social situations in which I don’t know anybody are not exactly where I shine.

I’m trying to get better about it. I like the idea of being on good terms with all the neighbors, especially if we’re going to occupy our current house for the next few decades which is the current plan, and I know the only way to get to that point of comfortable neighborliness is to put myself out there and plow through the awkward getting-to-know-you-stage that comes first. But it’s still hard and doesn’t come naturally, and it never has.

Opinions vary on what constitutes the threshold between childhood and adulthood, but speaking for myself I think it lies somewhere around the point where you start recognizing the things you’d like to change about yourself and take active responsibility for getting to that goal, where you start making yourself do things you’re not pre-disposed to do. There is a long list of things that I still have to remind myself to do in order to be a grown-up, and socializing pleasantly with strangers is one of them. It has not yet become just another practiced habit. It still puts knots in my stomach sometimes.

People always think I’m lying when I cop to this, by the by. Very occasionally, if a group of us are reminiscing, someone will say, “Man, I remember when I met you, I thought you were such an introvert!” or words to that effect. I really am two different people depending on my comfort level. Around people I already know and am friends with, or even a mixed group of some friends and some strangers, I clamor to be the center of attention, I’m loud, I’m clownish, I’m fearlessly opinionated. But take away my safety net and I fade into the background. Many people get to see both sides, if they meet me on neutral ground and then get to know me over time, but for most of them the recency effect of my obnoxious side soon crowds out their memories of when I was quiet and subdued.

And that’s adult-me, the one who actually tries to overcome the awkwardness as quickly as possible. My childhood memories runneth over with feelings of crippling shyness. I used to be pathologically averse to new experiences of any kind. In retrospect, I just wish I hadn’t been so closed off. I feel like I missed out a lot (on what, exactly, I’m not sure, but that doesn’t make the certainty any less poignant).

Which brings us back to Picaro, who I hope isn’t bound for a childhood of missed opportunities and paralysis in the face of the unfamiliar and vague shapeless terror at the prospect of being forced out of his element. The birthday party was as good a testing ground for that as any (obligatory caveat about how I know, I KNOW I can’t read too much into any isolated incident in an 18-month-old’s life) especially because the birthday boy owns a Fisher Price Bouncy Castle (which is something I heretofore did not know existed) and it was one of the feature attractions of said birthday party. At first Picaro wasn’t the slightest bit interested in going inside the bouncy castle, preferring instead to ride some of the scooters and trikes scattered around the backyard (you can imagine the abundance of those in a house where they have three sons under 12). But as some more of the older kids got into the bouncy castle, Picaro wanted to check it out. So I helped him in and let him go. The great thing about bounce-house type toys is that if you put enough kids into one it becomes a self-sustaining ride, and an 18-month-old doesn’t have to grasp the concept of jumping and ricocheting, because the motion of the other kids just makes uncontrollable motion happen. And, as it turned out, Picaro loved it, it made him laugh, and then after a little while he had had enough and wanted to get back to scootering and triking, and I helped him out.

I’d like to say that all that really matters to me is that the little guy had fun, but obviously that is not true, because it’s also fairly important to me that I think I caught a glimpse of a little kid who might be a little slow to warm up to new experiences but eventually goes for it, and that is an immensely gratifying relief, because if my kid were condemned to be exactly like me just because he’s mine, that would bum me out.

Of course, kind of off to the side of all this, there’s the notion of whether certain experiences are scary just because they’re new or if they’re legitimately inherently scary, from the child’s perspective or the parent’s perspective. And it did peripherally occur to me as I shoved Picaro through the mesh gate of the bouncy castle that there was a very real possibility he might get a bump on his head or a split lip or who-knows-what if one of the bigger kids landed on him after a wild jump or something like that. Picaro has always shown a certain resilient rough-and-tumbleness, though, and he’s had more Accident Reports at daycare than I can count, so I was aware of the risk but decided it was worth it. I didn’t want to stifle his fearlessness, I don’t want to be an overprotective parent, I thought the risk was pretty small overall, etc. And maybe I just got lucky, but the point was moot; he was fine, in and out without a scratch.

I often wish we did have two MedEvac choppers and an ambulance standing by at all times.  Just in case.
It’s also entirely possible that on some level I was consciously choosing to laugh in the face of danger to my son’s well-being because so often that is not the case, because so often I succumb to world-class freak-outs, like when Picaro suddenly stops playing with his bulldozer and blocks and wails in pain and I know that it’s most likely just a teething twinge because his canines are starting to come in, but part of me can’t help but wonder if maybe that time a week ago when he was fussing as we left the store and I gave him some unwashed organic grapes right out of the package, maybe those grapes were absolutely saturated with parasite-egg-filled snail shit and evil fangity brain flukes are currently hatching inside Picaro’s brain and causing him excruciating intracranial agony. Maybe? (You probably think I am exaggerating my thought process here for humorous effect. I assure you I am not. Also, I might need to dial back the amount of parasite-centric edutainment I watch on TLC. I blame my wife and her arguably reasonable professional fascination with parasitology as a veterinarian. Anyway.)

And then of course it’s not the bouncy castle or the malevolent parasites that are going to end up doing the damage anyway, it’s the things you never see coming. I didn’t blog about birthday parties and injury-defying exploits yesterday because it was a bit of a sensitive subject given the way Picaro started off his week: rattling the baby-proofed doors of a very large cabinet until a statue of a horse on top of the cabinet wobbled off, fell and hit Picaro horse-ear-first on the cheek, giving him quite the shiner. He screamed bloody murder (or so I’m told, since I was at work and my wife was home at the time) but once the initial shock wore off it became pretty apparent that, flagrant bruising aside, he was fine. Which didn’t stop my wife or myself from massive self-recrimination for thinking that just because things were up out of reach they were incapable of doing harm, or wondering if Picaro could have tugged on the locked doors until he pulled the whole huge cabinet down on top of himself, or speculating as to how close we came to having to deal with a concussion or shards of statue lodged in flesh or any number of torturous hypotheticals. By late last night the Cabinet of Doom had been partially dismantled, but it remains an eye-opener as to just how much trouble our little guy can get himself into now. And I honestly want him to get into a little trouble here and there, because that’s how he’s going to learn to be self-sufficient, but I also know it’s my job to draw the line between acceptable risk and unacceptable life-threatening stupidity. There’s probably no one who always draws that line in precisely the optimal place every time; there may not even be an objectively optimal place to begin with. It’s just yet another challenge, yet another karmic ha-ha for every time, when I was a kid, I thought “Being the dad looks pretty simple to me over here.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

An Easter experiment

One of the government supervisors in my office is out all this week. I have to walk past her office several times every day going back and forth from the main office entrance to my cubicle. This morning, passing her doorway, I noticed several things:

- Her door was standing open.
- The candy basket on her desk had been refilled.
- I mean, like, SERIOUSLY refilled.

nom nom nom nom nom
Candy baskets or dishes or jars or whathaveyou are certainly a pretty commonplace feature of modern American offices environments. When a person keeps a stash of sweets on their desk, it’s usually for one of two semi-official purposes: to make visitors feel welcome and at ease, a sort of insta-gratifying form of hospitality, if the person in question is some kind of authority figure who can make people nervous simply by asking them to swing by; or to actually encourage (read: bribe) people to detour over to the person’s desk and say hello, if the person in question is in some kind of drudgery-based role that requires little to no human interaction. (Unofficially, the candy supply may simply exist because the person who sits at that desk likes to eat it themselves, and does just that, and goes through the motions of sharing in a fairly passive way so as not to seem piggish.)

Obviously my supervisor is in the first of the two hypothetical positions above, and just as obviously she is not going to be calling anybody into her office this week. In fact, while her door remains open the lights in her office are extinguished and it is very clearly a room not currently in use. And yet, there is a small mountain of single-serving chocolates rising like Kitkatmanjaro above the Serengeti of her workspace. It’s hard to miss, too, because Easter candy is in season now and the individual wrappers are somehow simultaneously pastel and mega-bright. And it is totally devoid of any socializing context. The mini-Twixes and Reese’s chocolate peanut butter eggs are not something people might idly sample while dropping off paperwork for a supervisor’s signature, or any other pretense. As of today, if someone eats that candy it’s because they went to an office they know is empty for the express purpose of harvesting snacky-snacks.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I am curious to see how quickly the locusts work at razing the chocolate edifice. My money’s on mid-day tomorrow being the point at which I can see the bottom of the candy basket from the hall. Then everyone will be well goofballed on choco-sugar and several days away from our supervisor returning and replenishing the supply. That’s when the real trials and tribulations will begin. So maybe it’s more of a Passover experiment, at that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Telenirvana

Belated confession: when I was going through Days Of The Week Week here and I sidestepped discussing what Thursday means to me in order to discuss what Thor means to me, I had an ulterior motive. I had wanted to riff on that Thor and Loki and the giants myth for a long time and was staring at a perfect opportunity, and I took it, but I also wanted to avoid an unpleasant truth, namely that I am slavishly devoted to the Thursday Night Comedies on NBC. I am of course old enough to remember the heyday of Must See TV but that was when I was in my very early 20’s and I was just as likely to watch no television of any kind on Thursday night because I was kicking off the weekend debauchery one night early. I honestly believe that the current Thursday sitcom lineup on NBC is vastly superior to whatever aggregated around Friends and Seinfeld on any given season (although ER back then of course kicked the shit out of primetime Leno and The Marriage Baseball Referee put together) but I also am somewhat ashamed that I am now totally middle-aged and thoroughly bourgeois and kicking back on the couch for two hours of corporate programming is one of the highlights of my week.

But this is neither the first nor the last time I’ve used this blog to cop to my own lameness, so there it is. My wife always has Thursdays off so it is kind of nice to have a sort of ritual in place. When I get home on Thursday evenings the two of us can tag-team making our own dinner, feeding the little guy, getting him bathed and ready for bed, and then ensconce ourselves on the couch with dessert and/or wine, sometime during Jeopardy. My wife’s as big a fan of the NBC sitcoms as I am, so there’s really no question as to what we’re going to watch, as opposed to other nights we find ourselves in aimless glass teat intake mode. We sometimes fight about who gets the remote but it’s the exact opposite of the “standard” fight most couple have (assuming that the notion of “standard” which I have, in fact, apprehended from television shows, is correct) – we each try to push the remote into the other person’s hand, because neither of us wants the responsibility for having to find something that both of us want to watch. Each of us wants to be the one saying “I don’t care, let’s watch whatever YOU want.” It’s like two tai chi masters entering the MMA octagon.

So anyway, last night we watched TV. Some stray thoughts along the way:

- My wife and I were in complete agreement that if NBC.com were to sell “Abed and Troy In The Morning” oversized coffee mugs, we would snap them up without a second thought.

- Community and Parks and Rec are actually more consistently entertaining than the better-known Office and 30 Rock. 30 Rock still has flashes of genius that are far and away better than anything else out there, but they are becoming fewer and farther between. The Office is starting to show real signs of suffering from something I like to call the Tribbiani Effect. Yet another thing I could blow out into an entire post, in brief it’s the way that Joey on Friends went from being the guy who didn’t go to college and thus sometimes missed references that are (somewhat douchily) considered common knowledge to most upper-middle-class white kids but certainly had street smarts to spare, to a completely unrealistic broadly-drawn caricature of a clueless actor who was as dumb as a bag of doorknobs and had the impulse control of a five-year-old off his meds. It took a decade, but the writers pushed and pushed and pushed the boundaries of how stupidly Joey could behave until he was a one-note character. Maybe writing 220+ nuanced episodes of tv about the same characters is really hard, maybe they were just giving the audience what test groups told them they wanted, who knows, whatever. It’s just not my cup of tea, as it goes. And the Office is heading down the same path. Michael Scott gets more unbelievable all the time, but the supporting cast is showing symptoms, too. Kevin, for example, started out as kind of socially awkward and maybe a bit of a dullard, but ever since the (admittedly, funny) storyline where Dwight convinced Holly that Kevin was mentally challenged and it took a long time for Kevin to naturally prove otherwise, they’ve gone broader and broader with Kevin acting, in a word, totally retarded. (Fine, two words.) Ah well, nothing good lasts forever. At least, as I said, Community and Parks and Rec are spinning comedy gold.

RFS FTW
- At one point there was a commercial for Twilight Saga: New Moon on DVD and that got me going on a rant to my wife about the book series. Which my wife hasn’t read. Nor have I. But lately I’ve been semi-obsessed with the whole Twilight phenomenon, and that’s kind of become a whole internet meme of late, with people knowing full well that Twilight wouldn’t be their cup of tea, but feeling compelled to read it and tweet or blog about it because so many people are so fanatically into it. So I read these blogs and I keep seeing the foregone conclusion that the books are dreadful, but I’ve also learned the surprising fact that it’s not just a story about a bunch of stupid mopey kids, some of whom happen to be vampires and werewolves, but that it’s a story about a textbook abusive relationship (Edward pushes Bella around and constantly tells her he’s fighting the urge to kill her and insults her and generally treats her like crap) which mindlessly presents itself as a romance for the ages. No irony, no introspection, just abductions and death threats which somehow convince an idiot girl that she’s found her soulmate. And the reason this bugs me to rant-imperative levels is because I’m pretty sure I bought my sister (she’s 12) the Twilight box set for Christmas, because she asked for it and at the time I thought it was just harmless (if poorly written) escapist fantasy. Now I feel like I need to have a heart to heart with Sis and inform her that if she ever lets anyone treat her the way that Bella allows herself to be treated, I don’t care how sparkly the guy is, I will come down on him and her both (in different ways of course). Of course this is one of those weird intergenerational circles of life, because I’m now worrying that Sis will emulate Bella the way my dad used to worry that I would emulate the misanthropic rapist anti-hero of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. So I’ve talked myself down to planning to open a dialogue with Sis by asking her what she thinks about the putative love story in Twilight, because I am still open to the possibility that she sees it as trainwreck entertainment rather than a blueprint for her upcoming high school years. Whereas my dad always went straight to assuming the worst and busting out the admonitions.

- Also good on Thursday nights: the new cartoon Archer on FX, which comes on at 10 p.m. That’s convenient in the sense that it’s not competing with any of the NBC stuff (and I am apparently the Last Person On Earth Who Doesn’t Have a DVR) but it’s also inconvenient because, come on, 10 p.m.? That’s time for all good bourgees to be getting ready for bed on a Thursday night.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The worlds we know

I had my geek posse over to the house last night and ran a game of Dungeons & Dragons for them, which is noteworthy mostly for the fact that I haven’t blogged about actually running D&D since around mid-September or so (and, in fact, it’s not that I’ve been neglecting to mention an ongoing game but rather that I put the game on an extended hiatus). I had some stagefright-like anxiety going in to the game (which might have contributed to my oversensitivity about other subjects, such as how slowly I’m progressing through my pile o’ unread books) but it went well enough, I thought. That means that I can do my usual amount of overthinking about it in a pleasant, laughing-at-myself kind of way, rather than the agonized self-scorning version.

Let me back up a little and explain some of the history of my gaming group. As I mentioned when I was riffing on Wednesdays, I’ve been playing RPGs with these guys since the late 1990’s. For most of that time I was just a player letting someone else run the games, but eventually I took my turn coordinating a brand-new campaign. I had become so fascinated with a new role-playing game that I needed to see our group take a swing at it, and I knew that the only way that was going to happen was if I stepped up as the Game Master. I could probably rip through 3000 words or more on how that whole experience gradually unfolded, but most of that would not be particularly germane to what’s on my mind today. Namely, the concept of world-building.

When I talk about “genre entertainments” (or “the genre ghetto”) I’m usually referring to sci-fi, fantasy, horror – another way of lumping those all together is to point out that they don’t take place in the world we all live in. “Serious” literature or movies are about real people dealing with real problems in the real world, which everyone in the audience will be familiar with as a common reference point. But as soon as you introduce one fantastical element, you have moved into a different world with its own rules, and the audience has to understand those rules in order to really get the story. Sometimes the new world is extremely familiar; the world of the Spider-Man movie is exactly like our own except that genetically engineered spiders can confer quasi-supernatural abilities on high school dweebs (un)lucky enough to be bitten by them. Also, military contractors have some sweet toys. Other times, the world is completely alien, for instance taking the audience to a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. And when that’s the case the author can walk a fine line between things being mysterious and/or unexplainedly baffling, OR the author can spend a lot of time explaining how things work, which is all well and good when someone is dropping allusions to Clone Wars and rhapsodizing about their personal connection to the Force, but gets progressively worse when someone starts taking blood samples for midichlorian counts. (Ahem.)

So this game – Nightbane – which I ran for my friends was a fairly original idea to begin with, and I kind of took it as published and modified it extensively to accommodate some of my own ideas, and so the world in which the game was set was pretty complex. It started with modern Earth and then added on a mirror-dimension ruled by ancient godlike evil overlords with designs on conquering Earth, plus another dimension full of demons kind of like Hades and yet another dimension full of more weirdness like the Astral Plane, and the focus was on a mystical race living secretly amongst humanity and capable of shifting back and forth from human form to powerful (but still good-hearted) monster form, who are really the only ones capable of stopping the evil overlords, but who risk being hunted as monsters themselves if they act too openly, especially because 99.9% of Earth’s population is unaware of the existence of any mirror-dimensions or demons or anything like that. And that’s the starting line – it got stranger from there.

Now like I said, I was the only one who was obsessed with this game (or even knew it existed) when we started, so I was the only one who knew the contours of things. This actually turned out to be a blessing in some ways, because half of the fun of the game for the players was discovering the rules of the world their characters inhabited. (The hook was that the players' characters had no idea they were Nightbane creatures until the game began, and they were thrown into the deep end of this cosmic war of good and evil with no preparation.) We were literally building up an entire (altogether insane) world, adventure by adventure, and I say “we” very deliberately because although the Game Master always is the final authority on what is or is not a part of the fictional universe, our group has always been pleasantly collaborative and I was often taking suggestions from the players and incorporating them into the tapestry. It was delightful.

It was also a lot of work. Because we’ve all been playing for so long, inhabiting these fictional worlds, we all can spot logical inconsistencies and general fakeness a mile away, and we disdain it accordingly. So my job running the game was that much harder as I was constantly tempted to try new things as we went along but worried that I might contradict something we had established previously. It was often rewarding, but just as often exhausting. And eventually the bottom gave out. The game campaign never quite reached a satisfying conclusion, but tapered off because I couldn’t devote the energy to it that it needed.

FURIOSO!!!!!
Which is why, when I volunteered to run a new game, I suggested Dungeons & Dragons. Because that is a world that is already incredibly well-established, and therefore so much less mental upkeep. Even if you’ve never come anywhere near an actual game of D&D, you probably have a good sense of what you’d expect to find in one. Mostly it’s a shameless rip-off of Lord of the Rings, with every mythology and bit of folklore known to man (and a few invented just for the game) thrown in to boot. Plus the magic-study lore created by Jack Vance. OK, I could keep going about all the arcane oddities that constitute the game’s world (really technically worlds, each with a different flavor, but I’m desperately trying to rein this in) but the basics remain: pseudo-medieval, low-tech, swords and sorcery, monsters in the forests, fairy-tale world. Nothing could be simpler to grasp the essence of, right?

Somehow, though, I have managed to completely subvert my own undertaking. Last night’s game was fun, I reiterate emphatically, but here’s what it mainly consisted of: a walking tour of the city in which the game was set, which included some history, some economics, some sociology, some engineering, and some social etiquette. All of which is kind of suggested by “swords-n-sorcery-n-so-forth” but my friends and I were geeking out about nailing down the details. Because that’s what we do. There was also an extended philosophical discussion about the relative morality of organized crime in a semi-lawless environment, and what the proper response would be if one were to kill a “made man” and then be informed by the man’s capo that the only way to avoid eye-for-eye retribution was to undertake a hit contract on another enemy of the capo; this discussion was conducted entirely IN-CHARACTER. And then to wrap everything up (because I have always thought it was a shame to play a game where everyone has swords but doesn’t use them) there was a fight to subdue a random escaped zoo animal, which was essentially a venomous four-legged parakeet the size of a large elephant. And even that triggered some reflection from a character who is a mystically-powered nature-worshipping druid about the inherent evils of keeping wild animals enclosed in menageries in the first place.

So apparently, even when playing in a setting which is one of the all-time hoariest of hoary clichés, my friends and I find ways to build our own worlds from scratch, not because we have to, but because we love doing it. We’ve all played video games from Legend of Zelda to World of Warcraft, too, but it’s the limitless open-endedness of a pencil and paper and dice RPG that’s the reason why we will never stop geeking out with good old D&D.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It’s not spiraling out of control if it doesn’t really go anywhere

I’m reading this really interesting novel right now, the premise of which is the reincarnation of a few souls throughout the history of the world, except it’s an alternate history to our own, one in which most of European society in the dark ages was totally annihilated by a plague, and thus Arabic and Indian and East Asian and Native American cultures flourished instead of being conquered, colonized and wiped out. It’s totally engrossing, and yet, I’m starting to feel like I’m not reading it fast enough, since the only time I devote to it is on the Metro every weekday morning and evening. At the pace I’m going, I probably will not finish it by the end of the month. Which makes me feel like I’m falling behind.

Behind on what? I made an offhand comment in this space yesterday about finally catching up on Blackest Night, although that was only true yesterday, because as of today (new comics day!) a new issue of Green Lantern is on the stands, and I need to first find the time to get to a shop and buy it and then find the time to read it, and then start the cycle all over again the following Wednesday. That’s the business model of comics publishers, to make sure that the only way the reader/collectors generally feel caught up is if the reader/collectors are buying the latest installments of a continuous never-ending saga every single week. My one consolation is that Blackest Night is a discrete chunk of that saga which I can (someday, soon) catch up on and then be done with. They’ll just be publishing other new Green Lantern stories after that, and I’m on the fence as to how willing I am to go along for the next leg of the ride.

Good luck with that.
So, given the much slower publishing schedule for books, not to mention the fact that (as far as I know) The Years of Rice and Salt is a self-contained novel and not part of a series, how can I feel like I’m falling behind? To a large extent it has to do with my Pop Resolution to read, what was it, 53 books this year? TYORAS would be my eighth, which is not exactly a world-beater pace. The obvious solution then seems to be that I should just read more in my spare time, but that would cut into my comics reading, or my DVD watching, or any of the other things I really feel like I should be doing more of but don’t have time for as it is.

(I have actually contemplated waking up somewhat earlier to try to squeeze a few more moments of consciousness into my daily allotment of time in which to Get Things Done, but then I remember how wretched I usually feel when the snooze alarm goes off for the third time as it is, and I know that backing up the rise-and-shine isn’t gonna work.)

The really crazy thing is that I am fully, consciously aware of how little sense any of this makes. Maybe it stems from my years spent as an English major wrestling with multiple syllabi, but I know I’m not in school any more. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of some old need to competitively prove myself, but I know that I’m not really contesting anything at the moment. Nobody cares if I read 53 books this year or 27 or 0. Nothing changes one way or the other. I have lectured myself inside my own head extensively, on multiple occasions, reminding myself that I should be reading books because I enjoy reading and prefer passing the time on my commute thatw ay, and that in and of itself should be enough. Any hobby or interest which fills me with dread and angst and a nightmarish feeling of an angry anthropomorphic TO DO list looming over my shoulder is really not a very good hobby or healthy interest. Life’s too short! Do what makes you happy! Blah blah blah!

I don’t need someone to give me a wake-up call and deliver these little pearls of wisdom to me, because I’ve already got them in hand, internalized and understood. They just don’t seem to really change anything. The feeling of pressure to read more, watch more, consume more, keep up with more – that’s not coming from some external locus. It’s a part of who I am. Apparently reading makes me happy but reading as much as I possibly can also makes me happy, and even trying and failing at that does something for me, and letting myself off the hook for meeting arbitrary quotas wouldn’t make me any happier. It’s very weird, but there it is.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gratification

I’m still not entirely clear on how well my little boy grasps concepts like “tomorrow”; creature of pure id that he is, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the truth were that he lived in a permanent and eternal “now”. I do know for sure that the word “tomorrow” is not in his tiny-but-expanding vocabulary, but can he even wrap his brain around the idea of the yet-to-arrive future?

Don’t ask me. But even though I’m not sure it makes sense to him, I do stress that tomorrow exists pretty regularly. When he wants to put on his coat or his shoes at bedtime, I just say “We don’t need our coat and shoes right now, but you can wear them to school tomorrow!” This probably all goes right over his head, and if anything he divines meaning from my tone of voice, primarily the “no” part. But as far as I’m concerned, I can’t possibly start too early with the fundamental concept of delayed gratification, because if he’s anything like me it is going to be a lifelong struggle.

I remember right around the time that the very first wave of Transformers toys were released in the U.S. It was before Very Little Bro was even born, but Little Bro and I were the perfect age to immediately salivate over the prospect of owning a couple of Autobots. But the goods hit the toystore shelves in the spring, which meant that Christmas and even our birthdays (his in September, mine in October) were pretty far away. I remember Little Bro and I telling our father that we should go out and get some Transformers … because we wanted them. What more reason could we possibly need? And that was the first (and by no means last) time my father tried to acquaint us with the concept of delayed gratification. Alas, I fear he was too late.

I recently went to a comic book shop and managed to restrain myself to spending less than twenty bucks (and still managed to catch up on Blackest Night, which is about three comics away from finally ending and holy crap that is some outrageous high-dorkery right there) but at the same time I was mentally adding up a bunch of toys that pressed my WANT button and they must have totaled close to a hundred. Again, I was inordinately proud of myself for not spending a hundred dollars on geek toys even though I really, really wanted to. And I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might still go back for some (or all) of them. Sometimes the fact that I held off for a little while rather than spending the money right when the impulse first popped into my head is the closest thing to a moral victory I can claim.

So yeah, I’m a lost cause, but hopefully I can break the cycle of avarice for my son. Not that I expect it to be easy, for either of us. At the very least, I recognize potentially hazardous situations. For his first Christmas, I bought the little guy a set of kiddie Iron Man figures (because based on in utero kick counting, he really enjoyed it when his mother and I caught Iron Man in the theater) and they have remained in the box ever since. Partly this is because they are technically only safety-approved for children over three years old. Partly also, though, there is a part of me that wants to unbox those little armored guys and hang a plastic shelf in the kid’s room and set up the Hall of Armor. But I know that once I do that, then every time I’m at the store and I see another chiba-fied super hero, I’ll want to snag it and add it to the collection and my child will end up with a hundred and fifty mini superhero figures by the time he’s cleared the choking risk milestone. And I’m fairly certain that although that sounds like my dream version of childhood, there’s something a little bit wrong with that. So the struggle goes on.
Too scary?  Or too SCARY-AWESOME!?!?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Well, that backfired … or did it?

People often joke that the first word their child spoke clearly was “no”, but all kidding aside the negative is one of the first ten (maybe sometimes first five) words a kid learns to wield expertly in 99% of all normal developmental cases, I would venture to guess by totally making up a statistic on the spot. Our little guy was no exception.

Less common, but not altogether uncommon, is a phenomenon in which the child becomes so enamored of the word “no” that he or she utilizes it indiscriminately. It’s understandable how the pattern gets established: most of the times in which a parent bothers to ask a child a question, it’s a very leading set-up, and a toddler learning self-expression (and/or gleefully anarchic willfulness) will react with heels-dug-in opposition.

“Honey, can you let Mommy finish this please?” “No!”
“Sweetheart, pick up your lethal tripping hazard blocks.” “No!”
“Would you like some creamed spinach, little angel?” “NonononoNO!”

And then when the parent deviates from the script every once in a while, the child can’t zag as fast as mom or dad zigs. So the question “Want to go outside and play?” gets the same lustily yelled “No!” as “Want to stop stomping on the cat?” Or the child will carry over an empty sippy cup and say “More?” and the parent will say “You want some more milk?” and the child will say “No.” It’s just become automatic.

I understand all of this intellectually, but it still managed to drive me crazy when our little guy started showing a strong tendency to say “no” even when he meant “yes”. I didn’t want it to drive me crazy, but it did. So I tried to handle it as best I could, by ever-so-gently correcting him when he misspoke. He would say “no”, and I would say, “I think you mean ‘yes’. Yes? Yes!” The early results of this were encouraging, so I threw myself into it wholeheartedly, and strove to make saying “yes” seem like The Most Fun Thing In The World. On the occasions when my little guy would repeat a reasonable facsimile of the word “yes”, I would pump my fist and shout it again in a drawn out, celebratory way.

FIST FTW
So the good news is it really is working (and yes I know this is purely good news for me, because the little guy would have been fine either way and outgrown it eventually if I had left it alone, but … ) and my boy now mostly manages to catch himself, so that when he answers a question where he and I both know the answer should be yes, sometimes he’ll get it right on the first try and other times he’ll say “no” without thinking and then realize that’s wrong and add “yes!” immediately.

The … I’m hesitant to characterize it as bad news, so let’s say it’s the other news … is that he is really quite taken with the hyper-celebratory way of saying yes, and he is provnig to be a gifted little mimic. He doesn’t say it, he shouts it, just like his old man. “Yyyeeesssss!!!” he cries. And he makes a tiny little fist and pumps it in the air when he does. It is silly and slightly weirdly inappropriate and pretty dang adorable. And, again, I know he will grow out of it before too long. I should probably be more bemused by it, but I’m actually enjoying it quite a bit. I think on some level the little guy actually knows it amuses me and that is encouraging him to do it all the more. So maybe he won’t grow out of it that fast. We shall see.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday Grab Bag - All About Books Edition

I've been busy lately, too busy during the weeks to collect blog-snippets, instead barely cranking out one post per day (if that), and waaaaay too busy on Saturdays to compose anything from scratch and post from home. But while it may be irregular, the ol' SGB is bound to pop up every once in a while.

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So I belong to a website that lets you track books you've read and sort them into shelves and post reviews and follow other people. Book nerd social networking, more or less. Anyway, I recently read the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which I didn't post about here because there really wasn't much I felt I could say about it. I mean, it's a pretty genius novel, incredibly affecting and dazzlingly well-written. But I had to post at least a brief review on the tracking website, and in that review I mentioned that I was late to the party in reading Middlesex, because for a while there it was one of those books everyone was reading and that always makes me a little leery. I offered two other books as examples of that type of damningly uber-popular work, two books which I haven't read and probably never will read: The Lovely Bones and The DaVinci Code. Then I said I loved Middlesex and understood why it was so universally regarded, and posted my review.

On the next screen, the website offered some quick recommendations, as always, based on "People who read Middlesex also read ..." I SWEAR TO FRIGGA these were the top five books:

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones
by Alice Sebold
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

Notice Lovely Bones and DaVinci Code are of course on the list. And are those other three just as exemplary as archetypes of my "suspiciously ubiquitous" category? Yes, yes they are. The difference is, I've already read The Time Traveler's Wife, the Kite Runner, and Water For Elephants. The Kite Runner was a bit underwhelming, but the other two were really good. Still, it was just bizarre to be so squarely in line with that list, four out of six (including Middlesex) under my belt. This is probably the most caught up on contempo lit I've been in over a decade.

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Speaking of books a lot of people have read, I am really keen on the idea of reading Moneyball this season. I think I'll have to see if they have a copy at the library or the used book store. It's just one of those baseball classics that I hear about all the time and still haven't taken the time to read, but the corrective urge is getting pretty powerful. And since the Yankees are defending World Champions again this season, and will have the highest payroll again this season, I have no doubt the (snidely disparaging) references to Moneyball will be flying fast and furious, and I want to go straight to the source. And soon - two weeks 'til Opening Night! Woooo!

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And speaking of books I am currently reading (were we? we are now!), I am working my way through Under the Dome in my spare time. I collect Stephen King hardcovers and this one is over 900 pages and thus a bit too cumbersome to carry on the Metro every day. So I read other stuff while I commute and UTD when I have free time at home, which is not all that often. This creates a nearly unbearable reading experience. UTD is a horror novel in the sense that the things that happen during the plot are horrible, and sometimes horrifying. There are no vampires or werewolves or reanimated corpses; all the monsters are human beings showing their worst nature when their town is isolated under an inescapable, otherworldly dome. The few decent people in the town are slowly being made to suffer excruciatingly at the hands of the morally corrupt power structure that emerges in the crisis. And because I'm going through the book at a snail's crawl, I'm drawing out the suffering and feel like I'll never get to the good guys' salvation and the bad guys' comeuppance. Sometimes I'll be sitting around feeling generally nervous and worried and can't figure out why, and then I realize it's because I don't know what the ultimate fate of a fictional character is going to be and the anxiety has been building for weeks. It's a strange sensation.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Time keeps on slippin’

There was an extended period during college wherein I adopted a couple of standard self-serving answers to imponderable questions. College, of course, is a curious transitional phase in the life of privileged kids and often combines a nearly mindless sowing of wild oats with more horizon-broadening experiences that challenge the intellect and encourage its growth. For the most part this is all to the good, but it does lead to a lot of pseudo-deep philosophizing. And I have always preferred having a snappy answer at the ready to silent chin-stroking. So, for example, if someone would pose a question about how something seemingly impossible or inexplicable could have come to pass, I would nod knowingly and say, “Great circles!” Referring of course to the practice of flying airplanes along the shortest distance over a globe’s surface, even though the path looks unnecessarily circuitous when pictured against a flat-projection map. It doesn’t really answer any other question about anything besides aeronavigation, but as a pat answer it has a couple of things going for it:

1. It’s made up of two words that convey simple but expansive concepts that could theoretically apply to almost anything, and also taps into that “wheel in the sky” quasi-mystical-metaphysical zone.

2. To be fair, I really was most likely to bust out “Great circles!” as an answer to shut someone up when they really deserved shutting up, when they posed a koan not so much because they were generally curious about the answer but because the flashing-neon subtext was “Look at how precocious I am for posing questions that don’t have easy answers!” My response-signal was “Yeah but here’s an answer that’s both easy and dismissive, so shut up and let’s all move on.”

I mentioned a couple of answers, but the other one tended to be employed mostly when I was trying to defend my own indefensible behavior (a circumstance which arose with disturbing frequency in college). If someone asked me why I was running late or why I had blown off plans or generally failed to live up to a promise or commitment, I would more often than not blame “Spring forward, fall back,” with a sad shake of my head. It mattered very little how long it had been since the last time we changed the clocks in our timezone; in fact I was more likely to say it the more non sequitor it was, because the whole point was to change the subject via absurdity and deflect any incoming (and rightly deserved, usually) wrath. Thank goodness I didn’t go to college at University of Indiana or some other non-DST-observing place.

(So why didn’t I blog yesterday? You’re damn right I’m blaming that lost hour of sleep.)

Did somebody say non sequitor?
Daylight Savings Time generally gets less blame for playing havoc with my life these days, but I might actually be feeling its effects more now. My post-work, post-daycare-pickup routine has gotten slightly more complicated, for example. It used to be fairly easy to get the little guy from the car in the driveway through the front door of the house when it was cold and dark upon arrival; now he sees how sunny and nice it is and just wants to play in the front yard. His bedtime has been creeping later and later as well, and even so there’s been more daylight visible at the edges of his bedroom window than there used to be. Technically I suppose it’s more gloaming than daylight, but then again, this is only March; by May or June 7:30 p.m. will be well-lit enough to count as late afternoon, and I shudder to think how that will affect his willingness to be put down in the crib. In the old house we had some pretty heavy light-blocking curtains on his bedroom windows, but the new house came with shades that are basically translucent rice paper. I foresee some drapery acquisition in the future.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Instruction

Whoa, where did today go? I’m so glad I asked. There have been some new hires in my department (both govvies and contractors to my team) as I’ve alluded to recently as an external force that may end up claiming my cubicle-squatter’s rights and exile me to a corporate desk somewhere (my govvie supervisor told me yesterday it would probably be resolved “in about a month”). So I spent a huge chunk of today with one of my new team members, showing her how the various websites I’m responsible for work.

The hilarious thing, of course, is that I barely know how they work. And I’m not referring to my usual estimation of my own webmastering skills as semi-fraudulent. As the webmaster, I can open up the code for any given page of the website and pretty reliably determine where the moving parts are, how it’s supposed to function, how to fix it if it’s broken and how to improve it or change it along the lines of someone else’s requests. But the bigger picture questions, like what overall purpose the site serves, or how an average user would actually interface with it, etc? Those are beyond the scope of my job description, as they say. I’m like a reclusive old auto-mechanic who has never actually gotten behind the wheel and driven down the road.

However, if there’s one thing I have learned in my Quest To Maintain My Lifestyle In The Manner To Which I Am Accustomed By Riding Out This Job Thing Until I Retire In Thirty More Years Or So I Mean Come On How Hard Can It Be, it’s that when my boss asks me to do something I should always say “You bet, happy to do it” and thus perpetuate my standing as a team player and all-around good guy. Hence, ask me to show someone how to use the websites I program, and I will give it my best shot. The even more hilarious thing is that it seemed to work, and my new colleague (I am not such a team player that I’ve actually committed her name to memory yet) seemed appreciative of all the knowledge I was dropping.

5318008 huhhuh huhhuh
It reminded me of my job a few years ago as a software instructor, which was kind of one big yearlong joke. In theory I was supposed to teach people how to best use office applications like PowerPoint and Excel, and sometimes I was paid to teach classes and other times I was paid to prep for classes, but except for the getting paid part it didn’t always work out that way (and the salary was an insulting pittance but the best I could do after the dot-com bubble burst, so, you know, the whole thing was a rat’s nest of deceit). Instead of teaching people how best to use the software, I was usually at one of the extreme ends of the knowledge-gap spectrum:
The Alpha End: I was expected to teach a one-day class to a room full of people who were so computer illiterate that when I tried to show them shortcuts that involved a right-click menu, they thought I was saying “Write ‘click menu’” and would begin hunt-and-pecking C … L … I …

The Omega End: I was expected to teach a one-day class to people who used the software every single day of their lives, whereas I was given exactly one work day to prep. So basically eight hours of fielding questions from legal secretaries about why, exactly, Microsoft Word didn’t do this particularly awesome thing exactly the same way WordPerfect did it, or from accountants about pivot table data aggregation. And that was on the software I knew well; sometimes I was given one day to prep on software I had never seen in my life, like LotusNotes or MS Access, and then expected to teach it. So basically eight hours of sheer panic-driven winging it.

I suppose in retrospect, by the tail end of that job experience I didn’t panic as much (mainly because I really no longer cared, about the job or much of anything; 2002 was some dark days, people!) and I’ve at least managed to carry some of that panic-free devil-may-care attitude forward. It turns out I’m pretty good at faking like I know what I’m talking about, and at the very least killing time by talking, so that spending a couple hours test-driving a website I’m passingly familiar with for an unsuspecting audience is really not a big deal.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Greater Mysteries (Strange Angel)

Last week I read a biography, written by George Pendle, entitled Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. I picked the book up on a whim because it seemed to be right up my alley: I usually read novels, but I like to break it up with non-fiction every once in a while, preferably covering some kind of factual subject matter that wasn’t hammered into my skull by public education (biography of someone I’ve never heard of > biography of, say, Christopher Columbus); rocket science is the ur-discipline of space exploration, which I’ve always had a soft spot for; the “otherworldly” reference in the subtitle is due to Parson’s lifelong fascination with the occult, which in turn snags my D&D playing, comic book reading interest. So I figured the book would be mildly diverting at the very least, and it turned out to be fairly fascinating on a couple of levels.

First of all, I was completely unaware of Parsons’s life story, and I’d be willing to bet his name wouldn’t ring any bells with most people. He seems to be not so much a forgotten giant as never recognized to begin with, and that’s odd considering both his accomplishments and the company he kept. He is essentially one of the godfathers of modern rocketry, which has descendents ranging from Boeing to NASA (jet airplanes originated as propeller aircraft with rockets bolted horizontally under their wings to assist in take-off, as opposed to the escape-velocity rockets of the Apollo program that fired vertically toward the moon). Parsons designed rocket engines and invented new fuel formulations despite never even finishing high school, just because he loved the idea of pushing rocketry farther and farther, and wasn’t at all averse to repetitive and risky processes of trial and error. He was part of a select group at the forefront of a new kind of science and engineering that was misunderstood by most of his contemporaries, to the point of drawing utter disdain, and he displayed a natural genius for it that thrived in the atmosphere of doubt and hostility. And yet: John Whatsa Who?

Maybe that’s not terribly surprising, though. We, the holders of the grand tradition of Common Knowledge, are aware of the Wright Brothers and the Right Stuff, but not much in between. We don’t know who Parsons is because we don’t know who any of those intermediary figures are.

Parsons kept some interesting company, though. He loved (and was inspired by) science fiction, and ended up meeting and sometimes socializing with a lot of the young talents of the 30’s and 40’s, like Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons and Hubbard actually interacted extensively and even vied for the attentions of the same woman, who was Parsons’s lover before Hubbard stole her away and ultimately married her. Parsons also got deeply involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis and became the master of a lodge for the group in California while growing close to Aleister Crowley himself. Parsons developed a notorious reputation for fostering covens and hosting orgies and all manner of “do as thou wilt” depravity. But, again, apparently this wasn’t enough to immortalize him.

Even Parsons’s death was bizarre. (Whenever I talk about biographical details, I always feel the urge to say “Spoilers!” before discussing the death of the subject, geek that I am.) Parson’s should have enjoyed a wealthy old age thanks to his contributions to American military development in World War Two, but he mismanaged his money and wasn’t able to keep working as a rocket scientist once his O.T.O. involvement compromised his national security clearance. He took odd jobs, including as a special effects wizard for a movie company thanks to his familiarity with explosives. He made plans to leave California for a while and spend several months in Mexico, but got a call from the studio looking for a rush order of squibs the night before he was supposed to leave. Parsons knew he would need as much money as he could get to enjoy his stay in Mexico, so despite the fact that most of his lab equipment was already packed away, he took the order and started mixing up explosives. By hand. In old coffee cans. And we’ll never know exactly what happened, whether he slipped or sneezed or let his mind wander or what, but something went wrong and blew up the garage where Parsons was working. According to eyewitnesses Parsons was still alive when the smoke cleared, his bodily horribly mangled and horrifically burned, but he died within a few minutes.

As I read about Parsons’s tumultuous life and death, I was amazed at never having heard of him before. But at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had known him for years and years. There was something eerily familiar about him, which seems absurd on the face of it. But towards the end I finally put all the pieces together:

  • Only child, mama’s boy, outsider not fully accepted by society? Check.

  • Aristocratic, arrogant bearing and appreciation for the finer things in life? Check.

  • Self-taught scientific genius? Check.

  • Student of the occult, known to use ritual magic to attempt spirit summonings? Check.

  • Grotesquely disfigured in one of his own experiments? Check.

What's that spell?

I even saw my name on the Goodyear Blimp ... it said DOC DOOM IS A PIMP
HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS.

If you only know the character of Doctor Doom from the 2005 Fantastic Four movie (which I failed to mention the other day when talking about next year’s GL because, sigh, the FF movie is pretty forgettable) then you might think he’s just the evil scientist who is the dark mirror image of Reed Richards. But in the original comics, Doom is a double-threat: a genius-level inventor and a powerful sorcerer, and capable of melding the two disciplines at will. Doom wears a metal mask because he attempted an experiment which tried to use an unholy union of technology and ritual magic to contact the netherworld and rescue the spirit of his cursed gypsy mother – the experiment literally blew up in his face and scarred him (although he survived, of course). He’s also the king of a small country he conquered through superior science and sheer force of will, which I guess makes him a triple-threat. For the record, I have always thought Doctor Doom was one of the baddest-assest bad guys ever (not a controversial position, really) but I also thought his backstory was excessively convoluted and borderline nonsensical (but since it added up to such a mighty villain, who cares?). Somehow the biographical story arc of John Whiteside Parsons gave it a little more cohesion.

Again, to familiarize you with the original comic book Fantastic Four as opposed to the movie version, the story started in 1961 (well before the moon shot) with Reed Richards and friends gaining their powers during the test flight of an experimental rocketship. This must have seemed like the zeitgeistiest idea Stan Lee could possibly imagine at the time (especially when you factor in the fact that the foursome went up in an untested rocket because they felt patriotically obliged to beat the Commies into space). The ideas of space exploration, and the nascent rocket science that enabled it, were always central to the early Fantastic Four concept. And Stan Lee was a voracious reader, and probably familiarized himself with a lot of the developments in the field that were only fifteen or twenty years old at the time. He probably ran across references to Parsons, who was way too much of a weirdo to make a good hero to lead the Fantastic Four. But when it came time to create the ultimate FF villain …

Yep, I’m calling it. There is no way Doctor Doom and John Whiteside Parsons could have so much in common by pure coincidence. Consciously or unconsciously, Lee modeled Doom on Parsons, or elements of his life story at least. In the case of a comic book megalomaniac who’s been having adventures for five decades, it’s a rare example of the fiction ending up stranger than the truth. But only just barely.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Five (plus one) things I did over the weekend that made home feel even more like home

This coming Friday will mark three months of residence in our new digs, and while we still haven’t unpacked every single box, we’re feeling more and more settled, and less like we’re temporarily hanging out at a vacation house or something. On Saturday night we went out for a large group dinner to celebrate the birthday of my wife Graziella’s BFF, which doubled as an opportunity for BFF’s parents (who’ve known my wife since she was in 7th grade or so) to finally meet our son Waggis. They also asked us about the ordeal of blizzard-moving, and I realized that while those memories will always be vividly etched into my brain, they seem fairly remote now.

The dinner was a good time, but it was only a small segment of what turned out to be a relatively full weekend, much of which had the cumulative effect of driving home the sense our roots on our new patch of land are growing deeper every day. A sampling, then, of what we got up to over Saturday and Sunday:

1. Thought seriously about attending a local event. Our hometown threw a Saint Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday, which was heavily advertised as “rain or shine!” and we really, really wanted to make a family outing of it. Waggis loves all things with engines and wheels, and fire trucks especially, so we figured he’d get a kick out of that, at least. And it would be a good opportunity for the whole fam to get out of the house and sample the community offerings. Unfortunately, the rain combined with the perfectly seasonable early-March coolness made it seem much less appealing when it was time for the go/no-go decision. Still, just the fact that we were aware of it and talking about it up through Saturday morning was encouraging.

2. Bought some gardening gear. So instead of going to the parade, we went to Costco, with the intention of restocking on our big grocery staples but also with an open eye toward … miscellany? (Really, with Costco, you never know what they’re going to have out there on the warehouse floor on any given day.) Graziella spotted some garden plant kits and suddenly felt an overwhelming horticultural urge, which, dang, I’m certainly not going to stand in the way of. Of course, you can never quite get all the essentials at Costco, because either they don’t have what you want or they do but not the right brand or flavor or whathaveyou, so on Sunday I was at SuperTarget getting a few more sundries, as well as a trowel and watering can and gardening gloves and all that stuff that we’ve never had before because we’ve always lived in a townhouse community where the exteriors are maintained by the homeowners association. Now, though, yard beautification is all up to us and my wife is stepping up to the challenge, which is pretty sweet.

3. Went back to the comic book shop. I actually spent a good chunk of Friday evening finally reading through the large stack of recent comics I’m always talking about needing to sit down and read, and having done that I was able to justify picking up the new comics that have come out in the interim. I went back to the local-ish establishment where I had a semi-grating nerd run-in last time, and I’m pleased to report that it was significantly less irritating this time around. Largely this was due to the fact that I got to the shop at noon, which is when they open on Sundays, so the only people there were one employee, me, and Waggis. The employee did not force himself upon me (conversationally, I mean – I have yet to ever be physically molested in a comic book shop and Odin-willing never will be) and had no one else to banter (in the loosest sense of the word) with at please-eavesdrop-on-us-and-note-how-witty-we-are volume level, and yes that really is all it takes to make the difference between pleasant and unpleasant shopping experience: just don’t assault me with your nerdiness. Waggis was very well-behaved (I only had to physically restrain him once, and you might think that was to stop him from ripping the cover off a comic or pulling a toy off the shelves, but no, it was because he was trying to drag a snowshovel out of the door-ajar bathroom, of all things) and all around it was a successful excursion, which brings me one step closer to embracing the store as “my” comic book shop. We’ll see how the decisive, yet-to-be-scheduled third trip goes.

Not what we had for dessert last night.  BUT IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.
4. Got kabobs. Sunday evening we ordered take-out from the local kabob place. There was a kabob place near our old house which was consistently crazy-savory-good, and we knew we were going to miss it terribly when we moved away. One of the odder things about the move is that nobody had to change jobs, we still hang out with the same people and generally still move in the greater Northern Virginia orbits, but we moved just far enough that it doesn’t make sense to go to the same restaurants or other local businesses. But we are slowly but surely rebuilding a stock of go-to joints (see above) and I’m happy to report that our local kabob place is satisfactory. It’s a notch below the old place, but that was to be expected and we can’t in any fairness hold that against it. My wife and I both got kabob combos, but we also noted that the same restaurant also vends rotisserie chicken, so we’ll have to check that out at some point as well.

5. Hung some stuff. Some time over the course of move-in weekend, we put up a shadow box full of wedding photos and mementos in a prominent place at the end of the entrance hallway, but we really haven’t done a lot of other picture mounting (excepting of course my ridorkulous mancave). We started addressing that on Sunday night, unpacking all of the framed pictures and various other wall-oriented knickknacks, and finding them places in the new house. We still haven’t finished painting, and thus not everything can be hung yet, but it’s amazing to me how much more the house feels like home with just a few additional personal touches in the décor.

6. Talked about getting another dog. The loss of our backup cat has created an opening in the pet hierarchy (I refuse to allow the humans to be outnumbered by animals, so at the moment three pets is our upper limit). Graziella isn’t quite ready for another cat, and I respect that and also allowed that a small dog would also be acceptable - which suits my wife fine, since she has always wanted a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and has recently found a rescue organization for that breed. Graziella spent a lot of time this weekend e-mailing back and forth about potential adoptees, and we seem to be getting close to finding a good match all around. The connection to the overall hominess-of-the-house is that, at the moment, all of the residents (of all species) are transplants; we’ve all lived together somewhere else before. A new pet who had only ever lived with us in our current house would incorporate a lot of the sense of the present, the forward-facing now, of the whole experience. I concede (as always) that this may just be a weird, over-thinking way of looking at things, but it should go without saying that’s kind of my wheelhouse here, folks.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Of Lens And Man

I think one of the most telling things about my generation, or especially the narrower slice of my generation comprised of folks with birthdays within a couple years either side of my own (so everyone born between 1972 and 1977, give or take) is how much we all love to play Casting Call. If we respond favorably to a piece of written entertainment, a novel or a comic book, that hasn’t been turned into a major Hollywood picture yet (and those untouched properties are rarer and rarer, but still) it’s inevitable that we’ll start speculating about who should play each role. We even insert ourselves into this particular parlor game, asking one another who our dream on-screen alter ego would be if someone decided to give any of us the biopic treatment. Some of us (I’m not going to name names here – you know who you are) take this whole thought experiment so seriously that they will argue over the choices. Strenuously.

People born in the six years comprising my micro-generation have either always lived in a world with Star Wars or don’t really remember what it was like before the saga began. I’m not giving Star Wars sole credit, because I’m sure it doesn’t deserve it, but it is a highly visible signpost on the road of special effects development, one of the big moments in the history of cinema that blew the doors off and made it seem as though anything were possible. They’ve been making movies out of books for as long as they’ve been making movies, but there were always some books that people felt were unfilmable, impossible to capture with a camera. But I’m of an age where we assume every good story will eventually be given a chance to grab cash at the box office. So playing Casting Call isn’t just an exercise in wishful thinking, it’s a stab at predicting the future.

And maybe more than that expectation, my post-Star Wars (and post-MTV and post-Atari and post-every-other-modern-entertainment-introduced-in-the-80’s) generation has an ingrained preference to see stories end up in some kind of video format. I’ve been playing Casting Call since I was nine years old or so. And despite the fact that I was always a weirdly bookish little kid who filled all of his downtime with reading, I have very few memories of finishing a book that don’t include my brain immediately going from “That was great!” to “I wish they would make that into a movie!” The shiny-sparkly appeal of moving live-action images was so strong that I just took it as a given that the movie would always be better than the book. It took a long time to even become aware of the things books could do better than movies, and the elements films were always forced to sacrifice to convert a story from paper to celluloid. Still, there’s just enough of that child’s-eye view of movie magic remaining in me that my adult cynicism about the industry doesn’t completely dictate my response to the ideas of movie adaptations; I still want the flicks to be cool, until they prove themselves otherwise.

I was thinking about this last weekend as my wife and I got sucked into watching the Oscars. (Hey, we love 30 Rock, we wanted to give Alec Baldwin a chance to make us laugh.) We didn’t make it anywhere close to the end of the telecast, but did see a few of the teasers of the Best Picture nominees, including one that was introduced by Ryan Reynolds. Whom I am now incapable of seeing in any context without thinking, “Huh. Green Lantern.”

The thought recurs every time I see that British Columbia 2010 tourism commercial, too.
Yes, they are making a live-action movie out of Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds as same. You may or may not be aware of this. At the moment the release date is June 17 2011, so if you haven’t scoped out the local showtimes on Fandango yet, I understand. But information like that is something I go actively looking for like it’s my job. I have it filed away in my mind. As Summer ’11 approaches I will be getting ready for a very important life-event: my fifth wedding anniversary. Oh, and also I’ll be trying to schedule a Green Lantern opening night excursion a couple weeks before that. But right now, with the movie over a year away, barely in production, rumors of its quality or faithfulness or lack thereof essentially non-existent, all I really have to obsess over is the casting of the lead character.

And I find myself oddly ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, Reynolds is a fine actor and I don’t automatically recoil at the thought of him stepping into Hal Jordan’s bright green boots. And for whatever it’s worth, Reynolds has some serious geek cred. In addition to all kinds of genre fare on his resume, from playing young Peter Pan in Hook to Hannibal King in Blade:Trinity (a standout performance, arguably the best thing about that whimpering conclusion to the trilogy) to Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which, I confess, I haven’t seen because no one has convinced me that I need to), Reynolds has always told anyone interviewing him how much he loves comics and for a long time was allegedly lobbying stridently for someone to make a movie of the Flash and cast him as the hero. (We reserve the right to save the deeper explorations of the Great Flash/Green Lantern Divide at a later date.) On the other hand, he’s just not exactly what I expected.

But that’s primarily because those expectations were curiously non-existent. I can claim that the following is not by design, because my fandom goes back to my innocent youth before I was remotely aware of noxious hipster notions of authenticity and such, but Green Lantern is kind of an ideal comic book character to geekily obsess over because he is so solidly second-tier. He’s neither Superman nor Spider-Man, by which I mean I can easily name famous non-geeks who are fans of those characters (e.g. Shaquille O’Neal for Supes) and any random person you stopped on the street would be able to name them if you showed them a picture. There’s a first-tier of comic book characters like that who are so culturally ubiquitous that if someone says “Oh, I love Wonder Woman!” it doesn’t mean much on the geek level. “I love Green Lantern” at least strongly implies that the speaker has been inside a comic book shop, and possibly to a convention or three. Green Lantern has never had a live-action tv show, really no precedents outside the comics at all unless you count the SuperFriends. (And a short-lived cartoon of his own in the 60’s. And a recent direct-to-DVD animated film. But most people would only recognize the SuperFriends.) On the other hand, in the insulated world of comics, he’s not an obscure character by any means. His namesake title has been published more or less continuously for close to 50 years. So there’s a steady stream of consumable content to feed the dedicated fan, who gets to hang out in the pleasant middle ground between the blah mass popularity of over-exposure and the frustrating wasteland of under-appreciation.

That’s where I’ve been for a couple decades of personal Green Lantern fandom and I simply never thought they would make a live action GL movie. Never even occurred to me. Not because I thought it was unfilmable, but just because it was a little too niche. Now that they are making the movie, my brain isn’t quite sure how to process it.


I’m not one of the bitterly disillusioned comics fans who has grown to hate comic book movies over the past ten or twenty years because “Hollywood always gets it wrong.” I very quickly made peace with judging the movies on their own merits, separate from the source material and separate from each other. I could run down almost all of the major adaptations and give my take on each one and they’d be as all over the map as anyone who wasn’t an initiated comic book collector, with probably a lot of overlap (I loved the first two X-Men movies and though the third one was a bit of a disappointing mess; ditto for Spider-Man’s trilogy; Daredevil was OK but a little off; Ghost Rider was god-awful; I’ve never seen any of the Punisher movies because I have no interest in the character; Iron Man was amazing and I eagerly anticipate the sequel, etc, etc). Even when Watchmen was in the process of becoming a movie, I didn’t feel any soul-searing angst, even though I count myself among those who think the graphic novel is one of the greatest and most significant examples of superhero storytelling in the comics medium. I figured they’d probably screw at least some of it up (and they did) and yet I still looked forward to seeing the movie, and I enjoyed the experience, mainly for that visuals-come-to-life magic that the kid in me eats up, and I recognized the flaws I had anticipated (and some I hadn’t) and I moved on.

But Watchmen isn’t mine, just like Spider-Man and Batman and Wolverine aren’t really mine, not the way Green Lantern is. Every other superhero movie that’s ever been made has been a potential source of moderate entertainment and/or intellectual interest. I don’t really want to admit it, but on some level I know it’s true, but Green Lantern is going to be more important to me than all the others put together. If it’s on par with The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2, I’ll be elated. If it’s on par with Superman Returns, I’ll be crushed. (And as it probably goes without saying, if it has a bunch of CGI Uncanny-Valley-dwelling trying-too-hard Avatar-esque aliens, my outrage will reach murderous levels.) June of next year is still a long ways away, though, so mainly I’m just trying to stay open-minded and (more importantly) calm. I’m reasonably certain that the thought of the movie’s very real existence and all the possibilities it entails is a little too big for me to wrap my brain around, so I haven’t even tried.

Although every once in a while it does occur to me to wonder what it’s going to be like in the late spring of 2011, when all the department stores are flooded with movie tie-in action figures sculpted in Ryan Reynolds’s likeness. My personal Green Lantern museum is going to go supernova. Even if the movie bombs, that will be fun. Weird and unexpected, but fun. And hey, if the movie does bomb, then scooping up all that swag will be cheap, too.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pet Sounds

Last night our remaining cat (who, in some Middle Kingdom heka-fueled cat-goddess way, is bound to outlive us all) woke me up repeatedly with her plaintive yowling. It’s a really eerie sound that I only recognize as coming from the cat after living with it for some time; it doesn’t really sound like a classic meow, it’s a lot throatier and lower-end. The first time that it startled me awake, I stumbled out of bed and downstairs to see what the fuss was all about. I couldn’t see where the cat was, exactly, but I noticed that the door to the basement stairs was closed, thus blocking access to the litterbox. Usually we crack the door after our tumble-prone little guy Nezumi has gone to bed for the night, but sometimes we forget, so I remedied the situation and went back to bed. I was awakened again a while later by the same feline keening as before, but I had already convinced myself that the cat had no legitimate complaints for me to address, so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

This morning once I made my way downstairs to start a pot of coffee I heard the cat once again bemoaning the cruelties of the universe and I realized that I was hearing those kitty ululations electronically amplified. They were coming out of the baby monitor in the den, which had accidentally been left plugged in all night. (Fine, my wife Marli and I were a bit slapdash in our pre-bedtime housetending rituals last night. There may or may not have been a bottle of cab-shiraz at the root of that.) I about-faced and went back upstairs, opened the door to Nezumi’s room, and let the cat out. How did she get in there to begin with, you ask? The bedtime for under-two-year-olds in our house is 7:30, but on Wednesdays Marli doesn’t get home until 9-ish, so she pops into Nezumi’s room at least once before we head to bed, just to see him and let herself know he’s all right. Last night the cat (for unknowable cat-reasons) silently followed Marli into the room, yet failed to follow her out again, and my wife closed the door and trapped the cat.

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to be a little disoriented and unsure of my decision-making processes when I’m awakened in the middle of the night, which is true, but also true is that my hearing is pretty bad (too much heavy metal in the headphones as a kid, doubtless) and identifying the directional source of a sound is not my forte. Hence, I didn’t realize the cat was on the other side of a door upstairs, and thought she was hiding downstairs.

The look of deific indifference
I spent most of my life as someone who liked dogs fine, didn’t care much for cats, and understood why some people have pets but didn’t see myself ever having many (or any) because they weren’t worth the time, energy, effort, money and trouble. Nowadays former roommates who used to get earfuls from me about their dumb cats give earfuls right back to me (and rightly) because I am married to a veterinarian and will for the rest of my life live with multiple pets. I am the last person many people would have expected to collect a trove of stories about wacky midnight animal hi-jinks, and yet the trove is growing. And I contribute to the wackiness myself by virtue of not yet being a particularly good pet owner because it’s still relatively new to me.

By the by, Nezumi slept like a champ last night, so I am going to officially announce my retirement from Ever Possibly Figuring Out What Gets Him Through The Night. The yowls coming from the other side of two doors and separated by a length of hallway were enough to wake me up last night, but Nezumi was so zonked that he didn’t so much as twitch while the caterwauling echoed around his room. He also did not suffer excessively from any attempts by the cat to smother him or steal his breath, which I’m sure she got up to in the intervals when she was bored with practicing her banshee impression. (I know the cats-kill-babies notion is pure wives-tale, but I swear to Bast that when Marli was pregnant my grandmother asked if we were going to get rid of the cats, and if not weren’t we worried about the smothering possibility? Old people are adorable.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Untroubled waters

A buddy of mine came out to my house last night, just to catch up and have a couple of beers since we hadn’t seen each other in too long. It was his first visit to the new house since we moved in, and I gave him the grand tour, which also included an outdoor tour of the deck (in itself a first for me, since all previous new-home tours had been conducted mid-winter with much unmelted snow on that northerly facing side of the property; I don’t want to jinx things but it looks like spring might be right around the corner). Of course this segment of the tour was conducted in near-total darkness because either the deck is not equipped with sufficient electrical light fixtures or I just haven’t identified where the on switches for them are yet. (I really do think it’s the former. Add another item to the home improvement list.)

So at one point, my buddy – unable to answer the question himself with visual observation due to the blanket of shadows behind the house – asked me, “Do you have … a water feature?” And I laughed a bit (on the inside, since it would have been rude to laugh in his face) and explained that there’s an actual creek on the edge of our property and that was in fact the source of the sound of running water. It’s not that it was an unreasonable question – lots of houses in the greater Northern Virginia universe have artificial ponds with zen waterfalls hooked up to hoses and pumps and whatnot, and the deck was the last stop on a tour chock full of what-were-the-previous-owners-thinking features, like the roller-sponge atrocity on the spare bedroom walls just for one random example. I just think artificial water features are inherently, beyond-garden-gnomes funny.

Of course just because they're hilarious doesn't necessarily mean I don't want some of my own.
Still, a little later, we were standing on the back deck so that my buddy could smoke a cigarette, and during a lull in conversation the babbling brook sounds came floating up to us again, and I had to admit, it was really nice. I still think artificial water features are a bit of an odd extravagance (not to mention a waste of electricity and/or water) but I can understand the appeal of manufacturing that kind of white noise. I started to get a bit better idea of what it’s going to be like living in the new house year round, ranging farther and farther away from the wood-burning stove as the weather improves, and I liked what I saw. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but today I’m pretty happy about it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A few words about fanservice

Time once again for another installment of Geek Jargon Explained, this time featuring “fanservice”. You might know this entertainment phenomenon better simply as “pandering” but there is a genuine, if scant, justification for differentiating the two. “Pandering” generally involves delivering entertainment which is expected to appeal to the least common denominator, which means you can pander to an audience as broad as The American People if you’re so inclined. “Fanservice” is pandering aimed specifically at fans, playing off their expectations and their inherent desires (and sense of entitlement) with regard to the object of their obsession. If Friends were still on the air, and the writers worked in Robert Pattinson as a guest star, that would be pandering. But if the writers brought back the guy who played Paolo to reprise the character, that would be fanservice; you have to be a superfan just to remember the euro-trash obstacle to Ross-n-Rachel and even realize you’re being pandered to in the first place.

That’s a fairly innocuous example, but of course as with many geek domains there is a seamier underside. A long (and arduous) argument could be made as to whether or not the movie Star Trek: Generations is one long piece of fanservice because it gives hardcore Federationistas something they always wanted: a Kirk-Picard team-up. But more often than not, fanservice has a dirtier connotation (which, to be fair, is the exact same dirty connotation that pandering has, which actually might be the original denotation if we go all the way back to Pandarus from Troilus and Criseyde, further discussion of which can be found at my other blog, Insufferably Arcane Allusions!)(Note: no such blog. Yet.). Sexing things up is as American as apple-pie-flavored edible underwear, but again, fanservice specifically goes after the wants (possibly perceived as needs) of the existing, devoted audience. Random scantily clad hot chicks on Friends? Pandering. Jennifer Aniston in the Slave Leia bikini? Fanservice.

Matt Groenig art seems to get a disproportionate amount of screen tmie around here.
I know I’m getting set in my overthinking ways as a by-product of age, but it’s gotten to the point where blatant fanservice can either amuse me or make me vaguely uncomfortable, but rarely will it have what I imagine to be its intended effect. The most recent case in point for this was last year as I was working my way through yet another box set of Smallville on DVD. I really love Smallville and I’m pleasantly astonished that it just got renewed for its tenth(!) season. You might think my own fandom for a modern Superman on tv would go without saying, but then you might be surprised to know how many comic book fans really dislike Smallville, mainly because it decided early on NOT to be beholden to the source and rather to tell its own stories using the core concepts of the Superman mythos. (I’ve always argued the series made this decision before the first episode ever aired, because it’s always been the adventures of young, pre-S-shield Clark Kent set in the here and now, whereas in the comics Superman is always the world’s premier superhero in the here and now and his childhood and early career are already in some indeterminate past. Smallville isn’t a re-telling of Superman’s origin, it’s a totally new history that borrows a lot of the same elements. So.) I watched the first season of Smallville as it broadcast pretty faithfully, but then I fell behind on it and because it is something of a soap opera with some long, overarching storylines, I decided that rather than catch it infrequently when I was home, I would collect the DVDs and watch every episode in order. (In my defense, I was still single when I initiated this plan.)

Anyway, I got to a certain point in Season 5 of Smallville where the fanservice was threatening to make my head explode. There had always been a fair amount of network-tv-friendly titillation from time to time on the show, but suddenly I hit a run of three consecutive episodes in which (1) Lois Lane has a brief fling with Aquaman and spends a lot of the episode in a bikini (which, because Smallville takes place in Kansas, she wears to … the lake); (2) Lana Lang joins a sorority of slutty lipstick lesbian vampires; and (3) Lois goes undercover (uncovered? Eh? Eh?) at a strip club. Objectification of women aside (not because it’s unimportant but because it goes without saying), at this point in the Smallville continuity Lois and Lana are supposed to be about 18 or 19 years old. Obviously the actresses playing those parts are significantly older but it still stopped me in my tracks as I had to consider that the show was inviting me to ogle barely legal babes, and it forced me to decide if it was all harmless fun or if it was a little too creepy for comfort. I haven’t gotten back to Smallville since, which to be honest has way more to do with an utter lack of DVD watching all around, but at some point I’ll have to sort out if the show I was enjoying up to (and, I’ll admit it, right on through) those episodes is worth the attendant ickiness.

I suppose I could always be one of those apologists who says, “No, no, I watch Smallville for the articles.”

I was thinking about fanservice recently after the latest episode of Community (which, I know, was five days ago, but I have never once promised any of you that this blog would be super timely) which saw the Jeff character progressively strip down more and more while playing pool against a crazy phys ed associate prof who hates fashion-obsessed hipsters. (Or something like that.) You could consider this a bit of fanservice if there are a significant number of Community fans out there who also lust after Joel McHale (which seems plausible to me). But I processed that thought on the way to realizing that it was actually a metatextual parody of fanservice where, instead of getting Jeff all nakers under flimsy narrative pretenses, he ended up there via mind-bogglingly convoluted pretenses. And yet his B story beats still meshed perfectly with the ostensible A story about Abed’s self-confidence with women, which in itself was also subverting and parodying those kinds of stories.

If you are not watching Community because you think it’s just another ensemble sitcom that gets most of its punchlines from how lame community college is, I have to correct your misapprehension and inform you that it is fast becoming one of my favorite shows. It is an ensemble sitcom and it does get some laughs out of the community college premise but what it’s really about is prototypical sitcoms, about setting up the tropes with their attendant expectations and knocking them down again, except when it zags when you expect it to zig and lets a trope play out in full but ends up in the last place you’d expect. It is, essentially, an overthinker’s dream show.