Friday, April 30, 2010

Clockwatching

Lately I’ve been leaving work early on Fridays because the contract I am assigned to requires me to both track my hours in the office rigorously, down to the tenth of an hour, and to work exactly 40 hours and not a tenth more each week. I usually get in early and work eight hours and change (straight through lunch most days) which means by Friday I’m a couple of hours ahead and thus spring myself from the cube that much sooner. It’s nice, at the very least, to have one day a week to look forward to on which I won’t be battling 5 pm rush hour traffic on I66 to get home.

Today I’m planning on leaving early but there’s slightly more to it than knocking off at mid-afternoon on a Friday. I made an appointment to have some blood drawn for medical tests (purely routine, I assure everyone that nothing is amiss) and in order to make that appointment I need to leave at a specific time. Whereas generally on Fridays I do my thing and when I happen to glance at the clock and realize, “Oh hey, I’ve been here six-point-four hours and I only needed another six-point-three, I should go” and then I’m pretty much out the door. (Also worth noting, in my minutiae-observant definition of the word, is that I’m supposed to have my electronic timesheet filled out by 9 am on Friday, which in theory means I predict how many hours I’m going to be in the office, but in reality means I just enter the digits that will make the weekly total add up to 40.0, and then if there is a discrepancy between how long I sit in my cube and what the time sheet says where I work “too long” I really don’t sweat it.) Because I don’t want to miss my leave-by deadline, I keep checking the clock every minute or so. Which means I’m getting even less done than usual.

Thirteen-year-old me is still very upset that we didn't acquire one of these when we were thirteen.
It’s been an exhausting month, though, so maybe that’s acceptable. I have a few large, sprawling thoughts I want to get into hereabouts, but they will have to wait until May.

P.S. 200th post! Woohoo!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Right in the kisser

This morning got off to a bad start thanks to the commute. It’s incredibly petty, but there’s something about getting up when all I want is to roll over for five more minutes, and hustling through the pre-work preparations when all I want is to take it slow, and getting behind the wheel and navigating to the highway only to find that it doesn’t matter whether I set out five minutes closer to the optimal departure time or not, because there’s a massive all-lanes-blocked accident way up ahead that completely hoses traffic and adds at least a half an hour to the time it takes to get to the Metro anyway. And when, on top of that, I get to the Metro parking lot and find one of the few remaining spots which is still open only because the person with the Jeep Cherokee next to it is parked over the line, oh MAN does that chap my ass. I pulled into the spot anyway and was entirely ungentle in opening my car door into the Jeep, and the apoplexy-center of my brain really wanted to leave a note on the Jeep’s windshield that said something along the lines of “As if the fact that you drive a gas-guzzling, planet-killing, terrorism-enabling SUV wasn’t enough of a clue that you are a selfish fucking asshole, thanks for taking up two spots and making it crystal clear!” But I held back, mainly out of fear that the owner of said SUV would get back to their car before I got back to mine, and they would assume the person parked right up against them left it, and they would slash my tires in retaliation for daring to call them a fucking asshole, or something. So I consoled myself with the possibility of leaving a note this evening, if I get back to my car first. Of course now it’s been a good three hours or so, and the urge to leave scathing missives has pretty well dissipated. Which is probably for the best, as there’s not much to be gained from throwing fuel on the People Suck fire.

The object lesson here is that I get fairly cranky when things don’t go my way, which is something I need to keep in mind as I continue trying to raise a tiny human being. And yet I am still capable of being sucker-punched, sometimes literally. Last night I was repeatedly denying the little guy the right to toddle around while eating, informing him he needed to sit at the table or put down the food. We went back and forth on this a few times, and after a sufficient number of “no”s from me, the little guy changed tactics and said, “Up?” Happy to move on, I bent down and picked him up and held him so we were looking each other eye-to-eye. And at that point, with my height advantage nullified, he smacked me right in the face.

Umm ... owch?
The reprisal for this was that I sat him down on the Time Out step and walked away, because above and beyond the shock I really just wanted to laugh. He pulled a move right out of the Looney Tunes playbook and I totally fell for it. Hopefully not a mistake I will make again in the future, but no less absurd for having happened even once.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Domestic squab-ball-ing

Three weeks into the MLB 2010 season and the Yankees and Orioles finally played against one another last night, setting off another instance of the Tempering By Fire of my marriage. You might think that April baseball drama is hard to come by, since the impact of those games on final season standings is about as meaningful as the first three minutes of a basketball game are in determining the winner. But never underestimate the singular gravity of the AL East.

Not helping matters at all was the fact that the O’s have been off to what can charitably be described as a rocky start. Uncharitably, one might point out that, going into Tuesday night’s game at Camden Yards, Baltimore had the worst record in the majors and had yet to notch a single W at home. As an unapologetic and insufferable Yankees fan, I of course prefer to see New York not just win, but dominate, and I usually look forward to the match-ups against the more hapless clubs (your KC Royals or your Pittsburgh Pirates), which meant that I couldn’t even play the “hey, it should be a good game” canard. Not while I was licking my chops at the prospect of my team’s bats carving up my wife’s team’s bullpen, I couldn’t.

Fortunately my beloved was working late during the first few frames, as the Yankees’ starter Phil Hughes struggled some but got out of a couple jams relatively unscathed (pitch count notwithstanding), while the rest of the Bombers chipped away and established a lead. Then my wife got home and there was indeed some bullpen-carving to be witnessed, but shockingly it was the O’s on offense making the Yankees relievers look like chumps. All of which culminated in a Yankees rally against a 3-run O’s lead in the ninth inning, as the Yankees small-balled their way into a position wherein they might actually snatch victory from the jaws &c. while the O’s closer Alfredo Simon showed some unsteadiness, amounting to the ultimate lose-lose situation for me:

We're gonna scream 'put it over the wall yo!'
If the Yankees lost, they lost, which always gives me the mean grumpies, especially when the loss comes against a team they should be able to beat on any given day. (On paper. But we don’t play the game on paper, do we, Jim?!?!?!)

B'LIEVE, HON!!!
If the Yankees won, it would have been a heartbreaker for the O’s, who had had a solid outing as a team to that point and did not, in any cosmic/karmic sense, deserve to suffer the indignity of yet another blown save, yet another day with zero wins at the Yard and the stairway out of the basement getting longer and longer. And of course my wife would be sad, doubly so for having allowed her hopes to be raised by the eight previous innings (or technically the two or three that she saw) only to be thrown under the Steamroller from 161st Street.

So as it went, the Yanks’ rally fell short and the O’s gutted out the 5-4 win, and good on them, and all in all my own personal grumpies are preferable to the righteous resentment of my better half.

I often try to envision a significant American League scenario which would actually be a win-win. I think it might develop something like this: The Yankees cruise to win the AL East, while the Orioles claw their way into the wildcard spot. (Of course, this being the ultimate win-win fantasy, the Red Sox finish dead last with the worst record in the history of the majors, 13 – 149 would be nice, and are unceremoniously sold to a foreign conglomerate. Hopefully one orbiting Alpha Centauri.) The Yankees take their ALDS series to five games, but lose what seems like a sure thing in the decisive all-the-marbles ninth due to egregious fan interference (which would in fact be cosmic/karmic payback for 1996 and hopefully would mean I would never EVER have to hear the name “Jeffrey Maier” again, once the inevitable firestorm of comparisons had died down). Meanwhile the O’s would win their Division Series and, now playing for the pride of the entire East, would sweep the ALCS and go on to ultimately triumph in the World Series over, I don’t know, the Marlins or someone equally unlovable.

I can dream!!!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Radio flyer

My Little Bro was briefly in a band back in the early years of the previous decade, and while their career may have been short I still count it as legit because they did manage to secure a plurality of paying gigs (which is infinitely more than I can say for myself). The other three guys in that band, along with a fourth friend who acted as their unofficial promoter and roadie, were all at Little Bro’s bachelor party, and during a long stretch of sitting around and shooting the breeze over beers we got to talking some about music.

(Yes, I’m talking about this past weekend’s bachelor party two days in a row, but that really shouldn’t be too surprising since it involved me going somewhere off the beaten path, hanging out with people I too-rarely or altogether-never hang out with, and doing things not generally the norm in my creature-of-habit routine. Clearly this makes for dense fodder for the ol’ blog, even if I leave out the more salacious elements of the weekend. Which I will.)

I mentioned to my brother that on the car ride up to NJ I had listened to a CD he had introduced to me (Fizzy Fuzzy Big and Buzzy by The Refreshments) many years ago, and the age of said CD led fairly naturally (I thought) into a question about discovering new music. As in, how does one go about finding out about new music? I used to listen to a local radio station that more than occasionally brought to my attention acts I had never heard of, either because the bands themselves were new or because my musical knowledge is really pretty shallow. But that radio station no longer exists and now, AARP help me, I mainly listen to public radio news or satellite radio 80’s and 90’s stations. Little Bro had a ready answer to my question, but unfortunately it was less than optimally helpful: he admitted that he finds out about new music from his friends.

So I turned to my brother’s friend who played bass in their band and asked him what his source was, and he said he would flip through music industry mags now and then, mostly looking for band names he would recognize to see if they had new albums out or on the way, which was not exactly the same thing as what I was going after, but then we started talking about satellite radio again and the dilution of quality after the Sirius-XM merger, and the conversation just wandered off into different territory from there.

But still, I was somewhat envious (in a very narrow and specific way) of my brother for knowing and keeping in touch with so many people whose primary passionate hobby is music, with entertainment consumption habits to match. By contrast, I feel like most if not all of my friends are content to listen to the same music they discovered in high school or college for the rest of their lives, if they listen to any in the first place.

Really, though, it all comes down to the eternal lament about the number of hours in the day. My friends may not be remotely interested in the slow extinction of album rock or discovering the next genius of eight-bar pop, but they love comics and movies and RPGs as much as I do or in some cases more, and we certainly make the most of sharing those interests, and I’m happy for that. But no one can possibly be into everything. Even though I often wish I could be.

When I was in school I played an instrument in various ensembles and messed around pretending to be in a garage band with some friends (unlike Little Bro, we never had a gig to speak of) and music just felt like a very large part of my life, both new discoveries and old favorites. To be fair, when you’re 13 you can still potentially count “Tommy” by The Who as a new discovery, although eventually you’re going to work your way through most of the past and claim all the classics you want as your own. But in recent years music has just taken a nosedive on my priority list, while other forms have stayed more or less constant. And when the pop-culture tides are at low ebb because I’m consumed with a new job or a new house or a new baby or whatever, music is the last thing to get addressed, if ever (and, honestly, probably not). I’ll obsess over ways to find a new comic book shop near my new workplace, or put a lot of brainpower into figuring out what’s on tv at midnight that’s worth catching up on if I’m going to be rocking a baby back to sleep after a feeding anyway, but the fact that I’m current-music illiterate gets a disappointed mental shrug at most. At my most frazzled I’ve at least always had a fingernail digging into some corner of the movie or tv or comics worlds, and I can figure out a way to increase my grip. But with music I don’t even really have a starting point. It has become one of those things I would focus on if I had more time, the kind of time you imagine will be yours when you win the lottery or retire (or both). But I have to be selective with my time and energy.

Most of the time, anyway. Obviously one CD was not enough to fill the hours required to drive from VA to NJ. Six CDs might have done it, but after I left the house I found that the six CDs I actually had in the car were an extremely odd bunch and I was only in the mood for a couple of them. So I let my radio scan for stations and stopped a few times when I recognized something good. I also stopped a few times when I heard something unfamiliar that caught my interest.

So terrible it seems ironic, or so ironic it seems legitimately terrible?  We may never know.
So have you heard of this band Boys Like Girls? Yeah, neither had I, but they have this song called “Love Drunk” which is … man, I’m bad at this. One reason why I don’t do something utterly logical like read more about music to keep up with it is because I lack a working vocabulary for it, and I find the listening experience too subjective to translate into other people’s words (or something like that). Anyway, the band slots into the pop-punk genre, although it’s pretty much all the way to the pop end of that continuum. “Love Drunk” got my attention while randomly station-surfing because it is so insistently, calculatingly poppy that it almost defies belief. I had to stop and listen until I figured out where and how the irony was going to come in. Then it slowly dawned on me how a song which contains the line “I used to be love drunk, but now I’m hungover” just might possibly be not so much an honest artistic statement as an attempt to ride the coattails of a movie like, say, The Hangover. I’m pretty sure the song had both auto-tune at one point and a chorus of male-cheerleader-esque “hey! hey!”s in the background at another, which … I mean, seriously. COME ON. There’s no such thing as an inherently bad musical motif, but there’s ways to incorporate them earnestly and ways to incorporate them knowingly, and then there’s way to just pile them on cynically. I was formulating this opinion and thinking “All this song needs is a totally pointless key change after the bridge …”

When the key change came I just about died laughing, but fortunately managed to keep from crashing my car. And this is why I envy my brother’s personal network of musicians for recommendations over my own random sampling methods. Sturgeon’s Second Law in full effect.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The A.C.

And lo, I am returned from the weekend, and it was good. My car survived the trip, which is fairly unremarkable considering I just bought the thing a little over a year ago as a new-used with less than 30K on the odometer, but in fact until this past weekend I had never taken my car on a roadtrip longer than the workaday commute, since the vast majority of roadtripping these days involves my whole family and thus we pile into my wife’s roomier sedan and leave my li’l beater at home. Also worth mentioning as a complicating element is the fact that, twice in the last month or two, my car has refused to start in the morning due to battery lifelessness. Once was because of an interior light being left on overnight, but I swear the other time was for no reason whatsoever, and although each time the battery came back to life with a simple jumpstart and showed no other ill effects, I was still somewhat worried that I would drive all the way to the pine barrens and then not be able to get back (or only get back on a much-modified timetable) due to another untimely battery death. Luckily those fears proved unfounded and the experiment which was my first extended travel in my current car was a success.

It was somewhat nostalgia-inducing to return to the state where I spent fourth through twelfth grade and the vast majority of my college breaks, although geography had very little to do with it; the southern reaches which were my destination, the old 609, are tantamount to a completely different world than the rest of the Garden State, including where I specifically grew up (I’m given to understand that if it were not unconstitutional to make new states out of old, the two leading contenders for their own stars on Old Glory would be East Kansas and South Jersey). Still, the nine-man guest list for the bachelor party weekend included my two brothers, four of my brother’s childhood friends whom I’ve thus known for decades, and another couple of later-life friends whom I only ever saw and interacted with in the old northern Jersey stomping grounds. That’s probably where the majority of the retro feelings came from, although even that was almost overshadowed by the strange realization (it shouldn’t be that strange or that big of a realization, but there it is) that even my Little Bro and his peers are getting older: getting married, buying houses, having kids; in other words, hitting their mid-30’s. So I was reminded quite a bit about high school days and at the same time reminded that those days are pretty long gone, and maybe nostalgia isn’t the right word for it because there was no sense of longing or wishing that I could turn back the clock. Just a bit of a mental break from my usual routine of obsessing over what’s going on right now, what’s on my to-do list and what upcoming obligations are on the horizon, and going back through memories, some good, some awful, but all mine.

I missed the Friday night portion of the festivities but I gathered that it mostly involved sitting around the camp cabins (three of them which could sleep four people each) listening to music and drinking. Saturday ran the gamut from Frisbee and grilling to a trivia contest designed and implemented by my Little Bro and all about my Little Bro (hey, it was his weekend) to an evening excursion to Atlantic City for go-karts, boardwalk-roving, gambling (both of the casino variety which happily produced a good deal of winnings at the roulette table, and of the spontaneous variety involving an arcade punching bag strength-meter and the low-scorer being forced to get a henna tattoo of the word Princess across his lower back), steakhouse dinner and other entertainment. The point is that Little Bro had an excellent time, as did everyone involved (even the tattooed party member).

Henna-tattooing girl's reaction to the proposed tattoo/location on the loser: 'Seriously?'
One thing that did strike me, both at the time and in recollection, is how much time at the campsite was spent talking about the weather. April on the mid-Atlantic is famously variable and we were lucky in that it was neither unseasonably warm nor unseasonably cold, and the rain didn’t come until late Saturday night. There was, however, a marked difference in temperature between what one felt standing or walking around out in the sunshine and what one felt under the shade of the pines, including especially in the cabins themselves. People made mention of this so many times I started consciously noting it and then made mention of it so many more times I lost count. I was amused to be given such a blatant indicator of our common backgrounds as sheltered, upper-middle-class suburban kids. We all grew up in houses in developments with central AC but no shade trees, and the fact that the crude structures of our humble cabins could have such similar thermal contrasts just about blew our damn minds. Oh what would our pioneer forebears make of us and our pampered ways? I guess it kind of makes the whole North Jersey/South Jersey, industrial/agricultural dichotomy a bit moot. My cohorts and I truly are the suburbs generation.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Road warrior

One of the pop-symbols of environmentalism I didn’t manage to work into my Earth Day doggerel yesterday was Toxie, aka the Toxic Avenger.

Remember, kids, radioactive waste is a terrible thing which will give you AWESOME super powers.
Who has run a rather circuitous route from being the (deliberately grotesque) face of the semi-skeevy Troma Films empire to being re-imagined as a cute Saturday morning children’s cartoon character leading a group known as the Toxic Crusaders (who, presumably, crusaded AGAINST toxic pollution, but I’ve never seen the show so that’s just an educated guess). Now Toxie is just another piece of popcult scrap from the 80’s or 90’s, depending on your point of view. But I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for him.

Speaking of toxic waste, I’m off to New Jersey this weekend for Little Bro’s bachelor party, which means I will be offline most of the weekend. So no Saturday Grab Bag tomorrow, not that I really need you to brace yourselves for that since I haven’t done one of those in, what, a month or so? The weekends of April have been a bit of a gauntlet-run, but the end is nearly in sight …

Anyway, in honor of the driving on I95 (or Big Sweet Black Licorice as I fondly refer to that stretch o’ highway) that I am about to undertake, and in the spirit of the absent SGBs, I leave you with the following From The Vanity Plate Archives item:

The other day I was driving home from the Vienna Metro and I saw a car with a license plate reading H8TN66. Given the circumstances (driving on 66 … ever) I was on the same wavelength as my fellow commuter; I, too, was “hatin’ 66”. SO much hate! I hate that four lanes aren’t enough for the sheer volume of traffic, I hate that there’s an HOV lane I’m not allowed in, I hate the antiquated exit interchanges that excessively disrupt the flow of traffic, I hate that it runs east-west in such a way that I’m always driving directly into the rising or setting sun. I trust you fully divine my attitude. But in fact, the road makes me so cranky that I am helpless to stop myself from such petty bitchery as … critiquing other people’s vanity tags. Because, honestly, “H8TN”? That’s not very good rebus construction, as the “T” is completely redundant. “H8N” would get the same point across, wouldn’t it? If VDOT regulations mandate a minimum of six characters, would “H8NI66” get the idea across more literately? Or how about “H8N66W”? (I steadfastly maintain that the westbound commute home in the evening is far worse than the inbound morning rush.)

And then (perhaps because the license plate was a specialty model including the seal of my alma mater, and thus put me in mind of royal charters and monarchies and so forth) it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t a commentary on the transportation engineering shortcomings of sprawl-sploding northern Virginia at all. Maybe the vanity plate was actually supposed to be read “Hate 1066” and maybe the driver was a seething cauldron of resentment about the Norman conquest of England. (Hating on France is so very in style these days, after all.) Maybe the plate’s registrant imagined a better world in which the Scandinavian influence on the sceptered isle remained the dominant force in its culture. I got about as far into that scenario as imagining Wotan Churchill as Angland’s greatest prime minister before snapping myself out of it. Still, I had to share.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thanks, Gaylord

Treebeard will cold JACK YOUR SHIT UP.
E is for Ents, tree-herding in Fangorn!

Obligatory Batman Appearance!
A is for Alec, as Swamp Thing reborn!

AKA George Washington Hayduke ... I think he's the one at lower left
R is for Rudolph the Red, eco-warrior!

UNLESS
T is for truffulas, tufts bright and furrier!

He brung flowers.
H is for Holland, recycled on this list!

Happy Earth Day to all, and … um … go rent Gorillas in the Mist!

Everything improves with the addition of monkeys.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review Twofer! (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Everything Bad is Good For You)

So remember when I said I probably wouldn’t be finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Friday of last week, for various reasons? My foresight was reasonably accurate; I didn’t finish the book until some time on Saturday. Larsson definitely wrote a serious page-turner, and I can understand why it’s such an international phenomenon that some people in the U.S. are going to extraordinary lengths to get copies of the third book in the Millennium trilogy, which has been released in Europe but not yet in the States. I know I’ll certainly be picking up The Girl Who Played With Fire sooner than later.

Now I’m going to talk about the content of the book itself so, as usual, SPOILERS et cetera.

One thing that I found particularly interesting about the book was the way it plays with a lot of different ideas, some of which are hyper-timely and topical, dare I say zeitgeisty, while others are about as old and universal as literature itself.
On the of-its-moment side, we have the two main protagonists, Blomqvist and Salander. Blomqvist is an investigative journalist who focuses on commerce and industry, and ends up railing against the fact that the media are really slack about holding the ultra-wealthy robber barons of the 21st century accountable for anything. Blomqvist, for his part, goes after a corrupt mogul, gets in over his head, gets convicted of libel, and yet goes after the corrupt mogul again later, with bigger guns, and triumphantly draws blood and achieves a kind of moral (and financial) victory. I know “fat cats = bad” is hardly specific to the chapter of history we’re all living in, but it is a defining characteristic of the era and Larsson handles it in a way that feels both fresh and familiar and ultimately real. Salander, Blomqvist’s partner-by-circumstance, is an intriguingly weird girl, with lots of quirks ranging from poor social skills to an eidetic memory, and towards the end of the book it’s revealed in a fairly offhanded way that she falls somewhere along the autism spectrum and most likely has Asperger’s, and at that moment I felt like her character finally clicked into something recognizable and understandable (not to mention something that seems to keep popping up everywhere from the tabloids to sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and dramas like Parenthood to car magnet ribbons to Facebook groups …).

Point is, if I had sat out the Stieg Larsson phenomenon, but then in the year 2050 someone had said to me, “Here, read this book, it’s about corporate malfeasance and Asperger’s!” I would have immediately pegged it as a book from and about the 00’s, as quickly as the 70’s would be evoked by someone handing me a book about “disco and Vietnam vets with PTSD”. Not that that’s an inherently good or bad thing (sometimes I think “timelessness” is a touch overrated).

But like I said, the book blends a lot of ideas, including good old Sex and Death; it is, after all, a story about the investigation into a teenage girl’s disappearance which leads to the trail of a depraved serial killer. (Truth be told, one of the things that kind of annoyed me about the copy on the book jacket was a blurb about how the book was like “Ingmar Bergman does Silence of the Lambs” because the serial killings are revealed after great build-up as kind of a mid-story twist, but Silence of the Lambs puts serial killing front and center so, y’know, spoilers? At least I warn about mine up front.) Fortunately, Sex and Death are not the sole province of said serial killer. The whole investigation begins under the pall of mortality, as Blomqvist is hired by the missing girl’s aging and infirm grandfather. And during the course of the novel, Salander’s mother dies of natural causes. Death is always all around us, sometimes cruelly and unfairly coming too soon, too violently, but waiting ultimately for everyone. Sex is always going on all around us, too, if Larsson is depicting something close to the real world – or, at least, the real Sweden. I consider myself a fairly open-minded, laid-back red-blooded American dude but it’s always a bit of a bracing shock (followed by laughing bemusedly at myself) when I encounter non-American libertine attitudes towards sex. Blomqvist is introduced as a divorcee who has a long-standing way-beyond-booty-call arrangement with a married female friend, and in the course of the novel he sleeps with a few other women as well – and not in serially monogamous couplings, either, but very casually drifting back and forth from one bed to another as circumstances allow. All of which is presented totally non-judgmentally; everyone is a consenting adult, and sometimes feelings get hurt but there’s never any “and then the woman who seduced Blomqvist got killed by the serial killer, and she totally deserved it for being a slut!” punishment meted out.

Which is not to say that the book puts forth rural northern Sweden as a hedonist’s orgiastic paradise. There’s bad sex aplenty, mostly of the non-consensual variety, some of it in the mix for plot-driven reasons and others for let’s-go-ahead-and-generously-call-it-verisimilitude. But the point is that overall the attitude towards sex is even-handed. Sex is natural and commonplace – but bad people can twist it to bad ends. Just like death.

A few weeks ago I read a non-fiction book, a bit of pop-sociology called Everything Bad Is Good For You, and I never got around to talking about it here, but I’m not about to pass up the excellent chance I have to work it in now. The premise of the book is basically a scientific refutation to the theory (perhaps best expressed in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy) that humanity is just getting stupider all the time. Cultural scolds will cluck to anyone that will listen that entertainment keeps racing to the bottom, pandering to the worst elements, and as a result western civilization is being dragged down into the amoral muck, a process which will only end when the last fat, stupid couch potatoes die off due to be unable to provide for their own basic needs. Steven Johnson, the author of Everything Bad, argues (pretty convincingly, I thought) that it’s only some entertainment that is getting more and more vapid. Meanwhile, other forms of entertainment are actually getting more complex, and in order to enjoy complex entertainment people have to make mental efforts which actually make them smarter.

And it’s all well and good to reference neurology studies showing that people who play modern video games do have faster reaction times, or psychology experiments concluding that people who follow long-form television serials like The Sopranos or 24 are better able to keep track of extensive social networks and navigate human topography. I absolutely buy into all of that. But interestingly (or unsurprisingly, considering Johnson regards himself as an empiricist of sorts) the author completely sidesteps the issue of content and morality. Yes, video games require split-second decision making. Yes, you have to have watched and digested dozens of episodes’ worth of content to make sense of Season 3 of The Sopranos. But what about the fact that in all those previous episodes, there’s multiple cold-blooded murders? What else changes inside a person besides reaction times when the split-second decision they make in a video game is whether or not to visit and/or rob a hooker? Johnson doesn’t even come close to opening those cans of worms. His thesis seems to be that if interfacing with the medium has any measurable beneficial neurological effects whatsoever, then intangible things like “appropriateness” are besides the point.

Just in case you were worried I was taking this all a bit too seriously ...
My own take on the whole sex-and-violence-as-entertainment thing is not exactly a perfectly polished gem, but I can at least say a few things about it rather than looking the other way and whistling innocently. First, I do think that adults are entitled to pretty much any entertainment they desire, whether it involves Spelling-esque jiggling or Tarantinoan violence. Adults are capable of holding things at a safe distance and enjoying spectacle, reveling in explosions or bloodletting or titillation even if they have no desire to actually experience those things firsthand. I’m pretty solidly anti-censorship at the macro-societal level because I don’t think violent or sexy entertainment ruins society as a whole. Of course there will always be some people missing those safe-distance circuits in their brain and who do want to experience the blood and guts firsthand, but I tend to believe that even if we sanitized every inch of pop culture out there, the freaks would just find their inspiration elsewhere, in clouds that look like eviscerated bowels or dogs that bark in killing chants or whathaveyou. Given a choice of living in a world with or without provocative art that some people will learn good useful things from and other people will claim as inspiration to do evil, I’ll take the one with the art every damn time.

But I know that’s thoroughly oversimplified and doesn’t even touch on things like outright exploitation inherent in pornography, or the fact that one of the fundamental ways we differentiate children from adults is that children still lack the safe-distance ability to critically evaluate images and messages. I don’t believe in sheltering children, for what it’s worth, because I fail to see how that does anyone any favors. When some people say, “If you think your kids shouldn’t watch it, don’t let your kids watch it!” and other people say “But it’s everywhere, so it’s impossible to keep my kids from watching it, therefore I wish it just didn’t exist!” I kind of roll my eyes, because yeah, it is impossible to stop kids from consuming a certain amount of sex and violence in entertainment, but is it also impossible to be the first and strongest Voice Of Reason your kids know and love? I certainly hope not, because that’s what I’m banking on. I refuse to let sex and violence in entertainment operate on my little guy’s developing world view and personal philosophies IN A VACUUM. (Awesome! Now all I have to do is hold onto that’s elf-righteous surety for another sixteen and a half years.) It may not always be easy or pleasant or something I feel like I have a ton of time for, but sweet holy Jormungandr, could anything be more important than providing the life I brought into this world with a modicum of moral context? I swear, I feel like people who say “I wish that tv and video games and movies and rock and roll weren’t so overflowing with bad attitudes towards sex and violence! Won’t someone think of the children?” should be obliged to add on, out loud, “Think of the children, who are being raised by tv and video games and movies and rock and roll! That’s where they’re getting 100% of their character. They’re certainly not getting any from me! I don’t have time for that!”

Anyway, not only does “I don’t want to talk to my kids about sex and death (which is really inseparable from violence), therefore entertainment vehicles shouldn’t talk to my kids about it in my absence” pretty well miss the point about the responsibilities of parenting, it also pretty well misses the point about pop culture as well. Pop culture is supposed to speak to all of us, and illuminate the human condition, and strike universal chords. (Even if it does those things tritely or ironically or any other less-than-transcendent way.) Do you know what the biggest, most human, most universal concepts are? Sex and death. Everyone comes from sex and is headed for death. Everyone carries both around with them all the time. Everybody has a sexuality, everybody has a sense of mortality. Is there more to life than trying to get laid and trying to avoid getting killed? Yes, of course, no question there is so much more to it than that, but that’s where we start getting into infinite variations in infinite combinations with differing amounts of relatability for different people. Sex and death should be the things everyone can grasp, and it’s crucial that everyone get a handle on them, and they are very much worth taking the time to think about and talk about, and yet, somehow, the two universal elements of being alive are two of the most taboo subjects in our culture. People with upstanding senses of propriety Do Not Talk About Such Things. And when pop culture does talk about these things, we (some of us) get collectively outraged.

Granted, pop culture does not talk about these things very reverently. But that’s not pop culture’s job! Reverence is important but it’s (gasp!) kinda boring. Irreverence is entertaining. Pop culture is always going to aim for column B there. Which would not be a problem at all if there were some kind of balanced back and forth going on. Parents and extended families/communities can and should provide a counterweight against the excesses of pop culture, and take the onus of shaping the moral backbone of the next generation off of action-adventure directors, comic book writers, heavy metal lyricists, and FPS developers.

Wow, this really went off the rails Crazy Train style. I think I was trying to say something about how Stieg Larsson’s willingness and aptitude for naturalistically presenting both Ideas Ripped From the Headlines and also Great Big Universal Human Concepts without sensationalizing them really resonated with me and won my admiration. Let’s close on that note, at any rate.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Precautionary measures

I’ve worked on exactly two contracts for my current employer; I was hired to fill a role on a contract staffing the communications department of a newish DoD agency in the summer of ’07 and worked there for about two years until my employer failed to win the re-compete. Then I moved over to my current contract, which is with a much older and more established DoD agency, so there are both similarities and differences between the two gigs as far as the day-to-day experience of the workplace.

One of the more striking differences (to me, anyway) is the general attitude towards our network ID cards. All the government computers in the office are equipped with card reader USB devices, and everyone who works here is issued an encoded electronic card that gets slotted into the reader whenever you want to log on to the computer. No card, no access, blah blah blah, is a pretty standard security measure and they generally impress upon everyone how important it is to keep careful track of your card. If you lose it, it is a big unpleasant rigmarole to get another one.
I had one at the first gig, turned it in at the end of the contract, and got a new (identical) one for my current gig. The difference, as I said, is in how the two different offices approach the issue of “keeping careful track”.

When we want it, we'll be back for it.
At the first gig, they were hyper-obsessed with the security of the access cards, which may very well have been due to the fact that it was a young agency and thus trying very hard at the organizational level to be compliant with the letter of every law while struggling every day to justify its own existence. That agency had a Chief Information Officer (the head of IT) and a Chief Security Officer who had cause most days to move about the office building from floor to floor, roaming the rows of the cubicle farms, in the course of their duties. As they traversed the office, they would glance into every empty cubicle and open office, to see if the person who worked there had properly locked their computer and taken their access card with them when they stepped away. If the access card was sitting unattended in the reader, the CIO or CSO would take it. Yoink! And when you got back to your desk you would find yourself unable to unlock your computer and do any work, until you went to the CIO or CSO and got your card back. And of course they would let you wriggle on the hook for a while, and extract repentance and promises to never do it again, with something approaching sadistic glee. (Ah, government lifers.) The CIO and CSO had actually turned card-harvesting into an ongoing friendly wager, and they would compare how many each of them yoinked every week, and whoever had yoinked the most in a given month would win a lunch off the other. When I worked that gig I literally worked in a constant state of queasy fear that I would accidentally forget to take my card with me if I so much as ran to the water cooler, and I never deliberately left it sitting in the reader unattended. Once in a while I did forget, and more than once I placed a panicked cell phone call after I had left for the day to ask one of my nearby colleagues to grab the card I had absentmindedly left behind, because it was far better to retrieve the card from a co-worker than from the cackling Torquemada-esque CSO or CIO. I repaid those kindnesses myself a few times, as well, securing someone else’s card to save it from the roving officers of doom. It was very much an us-vs.-them mentality.

But that was then, and this is now, and I realized recently that at the current gig I can brazenly leave my card in the reader and wander to the mini-fridge, or the printer, or even as far away as the restroom, and no one is going to do any yoinking whatsoever. The general rule about securing your card at all times is as much in effect here as it was in the environment I first learned it, but there’s no enforcement here, no ever-present specter of fearsome security vengeance. And it’s quite nice to be able to breathe easy on that front after nearly three years of low-grade subliminal dread.

So of course, no sooner do I think that than I commit TWO completely different glaring security violations in rapid succession. You are going to accuse me of manipulating the timeline of events here to suss out a compelling theme for this post, but I swear this is how it went down.

I actually have two computers at work, one connected to a non-secure network and the other to a security-clearance-required network. The high-security machine has a removable hard drive which is supposed to be stored in a locked file cabinet every night. I’ve always been compliant with that until last night, when I left for the day without locking up my high-security hard drive. So when I came into work this morning, the hard drive was gone, and a note was on my machine, signed by a co-worker who had locked away my hard drive for me. All in all, that’s not the end of the world, but it’s embarrassing (it caused me to wriggle on my own hook, I guess) and a little inconvenient, because my colleague came in later than I did and I had to wait on him to get the drive back. But ah well.

Then, around 10 o’clock this morning, there was a safety drill for the entire office building. It started out as a “shelter in place” drill in which everyone was supposed to grab their safety hoods (which are low-tech items consisting of a plastic bag, a chemical-filtration brick and a snorkel mouthpiece that are supposed to buy you enough time to get out of a building filled with toxic smoke, and which became standard-issue after 9/11, no joke) and gather in the conference room because it is “away from exterior windows”. Fortunately we did not have to put the hoods on, just carry them, sit, and wait. (I spent about ten minutes deleting text messages from my cell phone, where I had somehow stockpiled about a hundred and sixty or so.) The “shelter in place” segued into a more traditional fire drill involving evacuating the building via the stairwells and then proceeding to the alternate assembly point – usually we assemble at the courtyard of the next office building up the street but I learned today that the alternate point is a small park about three blocks away, right at the foot of the Key Bridge. When we got to the park, I wandered around looking for my team but not looking terribly hard. Eventually I found them, and that’s when I was informed that I’m the most non-compliant punk ever to take up space in a federal place of employment. (OK, those exact words were not spoken per se, but the implication was pretty clear.)

For one thing, there is a sign-in sheet for the office where everyone is supposed to mark themselves as present every day they are in the office. For months when I first started camping out at this particular desk I had no idea this sign-in sheet existed, but someone finally hipped me to it recently, and I did actually start signing in. But I forgot to do so today (and combined with forgetting to put away my hard drive last night, this really makes me start to wonder why I’m in such a daze at work this week), and again that wouldn’t be a terribly big deal, but the primary purpose of the sign-in sheet is so that if anyone needs to do a headcount – say, just as a random example, once everyone reaches the assembly point during a fire drill – the headcounter knows whose heads to look for and who isn’t even around to be counted. Not only had I not included myself for disaster-readiness headcounting, which was mitigated slightly by the fact that everyone on my team saw me sheltering in-place in the conference room, but then I was extremely lackadaisical about checking in at the park, which is something we are all supposed to take responsibility for as well. Apparently. Again, I was never really given a proper orientation for these kinds of things anyway.

So I’m not going to get my Make-Believe Chemical Attack Merit Badge, it seems. Or if I do, I’ll know that’s a sure sign I’m about to get relocated to a different office anyway.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Children's poetry

Maybe it’s because I’m feeling guilty for skipping blogging on Friday, but let’s start this week with a confession: my wife and I, some time ago, started keeping a spreadsheet to track all of the words we could reasonably claim that our little guy Batyr has command of, meaning that he can pronounce them at least quasi-recognizably either on command or spontaneously. This is not only a fairly nerdy thing to do, but also equal parts prideful and shameful.

It honestly started out as the satisfaction of idle curiosity. Let me set the scene by explaining that there are three computers in our house: an aging desktop that sits upstairs in the spare bedroom and is rarely used, but supports the hardwired cable internet connection and the wireless router. Then there’s the slightly-less-antiquated laptop which is usually sitting on the dining room table, plugged into the wall for power but picking up the internet connection wirelessly; we also recently got a very small wireless netbook (it was a free gift from our cable provider) which floats around (not literally) from room to room due to its superior battery life. The laptop is where we maintain the spreadsheet, when we think of it, because the laptop’s dining room location is ideally situated in the corner of the house with the kitchen on one side and Batyr’s playroom on another. The three of us spend a lot of time in that part of the house, and the laptop is usually on for e-mail or Facebook or scoreboard-checking, so it’s really no trouble to open Excel when Batyr says something new and add another word in a new cell.

I love me some lists, and I can sometimes be wildly inaccurate in estimating things, so when Batyr’s vocabulary really seemed to be growing fast my wife and I would sometimes look at each other and say “How many words do you think he knows?” and no ready answer was forthcoming. But between the two of us, his mother and I were able to rattle off all the things we knew he said on a regular basis, and when you do that in Excel, one item per row, then you have an automatic count. Question answered. And of course the answer is going to change over time, but Excel makes that easy too, since you can click to re-sort the list and make sure you aren’t counting the same word twice and so on.

Sometimes I go looking for pictures and end up learning new things I really didn't need to know, like that USB parrots exist.
I’m trying really hard to justify this elaborate word-accounting system as not at all elaborate, really just a software-assisted trifle, because I know deep in my heart that this is all No Big Deal. My wife and I are both pretty verbal, expressive people, lovers of literature, admirers of deft wordplay, so on the one hand we hope that Batyr will turn out the same as us but on the other hand, how could he not? We talk to him and to each other in front of him constantly, we’ve read to him since he came home from the hospital, he has our genes; there aren’t many automatic givens in this world, but Batyr developing into a wordy child might be one of them. And thus the rest is all just details, and who cares if Batyr starts talking early or late, if his vocabulary is large or small for his age according to the literature at the pediatrician’s office? By the time he’s smuggling a flashlight into his room to read past lights-out, or asking us imponderable etymological questions, are we going to remember, or even care, how many months and weeks old he was when he put together his first complete proto-sentence?

But be that as it may, my wife and I are both cut from the same cloth in that once a question occurs to us (of the answerable, non-imponderable type) it tends to itch our respective brains until we answer it. Especially when said question initially emerges in the form of musing along the lines of “he’s saying so much now, he must know 50 different words” which is immediately followed by second guessing: does it seem like 50 because it seems like a lot and 50 is a number roughly equivalent to “a lot”? Are we overestimating because we have fallen into the clich├ęd pitfall of first-time parents who think their super-special precious little snowflake is the most amazing iteration of the human experience ever unleashed? So in that sense, answering the question became as much a reality check, a brakes-application in the face of the beaming and bursting we simultaneously mock in ourselves and more than occasionally revel in. And then it turned out, at the time, yeah he was right around 50 operating signifiers in his speech, thanks for the autocount, Excel … and of course once that round of typing was done it was agin no big deal to save the file, and add to it as time went on, just for curiosity. Maybe also for conversation fodder with the grandparents.

And also it’s tremendous fun to marvel at his precocious language acquisition and there’s really no point in denying that, either.

Of course here I am trying to make my peace with this aspect of parental vanity, right at the junction where it’s about to become a moot point. Because I noticed over the past few days that Batyr is most likely on the cusp of a veritable communication explosion. Three big examples:

1. He’s figuring out compound words. Or at least the idea behind them, which means he can make up his own compound words, and that’s pretty hilarious. But it also functionally blows out his vocabulary by a couple of orders of magnitude, by turning his words list into his words list squared: he knows “dog” and he knows “bowl” and he also knows that “dog bowl” is something different from his own bowl. I, personally, just really like the idea of being able to differentiate and specify things without confusion (arguably this is really one of the running themes of my life as a whole). It also leads to some quality ridiculousness like “water hat” which is what I resorted to as a Koko-sign-language-esque description of “rinsing shampoo off your head” and which , improbably enough, actually worked. Batyr hated the scalp-rinsing part of bathtime until I started referring to it as “water hat”, which he could repeat and understand and that made it cool, apparently.

2. He’s getting better at mimicking complicated words. I’ve never been hyper-obsessed with urging Batyr to say what I say, just to see if he can, but this past weekend I gave it a go while we were playing with his toy toolset. I’m not sure “screwdriver” belongs on the vocabulary-mastery spreadsheet quite yet, but he did give sounding it out a solid try with moderate success. It’s funny and cute to hear big words come out of such a tiny mouth, however garbled, but at the same time it’s a little unsettling because the evidence seems to be there that he could repeat back just about anything I said, if he wanted to. When exactly he’ll really start to want to is anybody’s guess, but it feels imminent. And that means I really need to start watching what I say, because I’ll inevitably hear it again.

3. He’s starting to realize that language is funny and abstract. On Sunday morning Batyr was barefooted and my wife commented on his cold feet. The little guy’s response: “Cold feet? Cold feet goldfish!” I enjoy a good bit of absurdity as much as the next guy (even and/or especially when the next guy is nineteen months old) but what really tickled me was that he made the association with goldfish, which had no context in the conversation whatsoever, just because “cold” rhymes with “gold” and “feet” sounds kind of like “fish” and “cold feet” thus reminded him of a completely different word he knows. It is of course highly likely that I am extensively overthinking this and even more likely that Batyr was just free associating out loud motivated by some very primitive neural feedback in the language center of the brain, but then again, at the end of the day, maybe that’s true of everyone who’s ever turned a clever phrase or constructed a memorable bit of poetry.

It’s all just words (in many senses) and it’s yet another thing that every kid (and by association, every parent) goes through. But that does not change the fact that my kid is going through it now and I am happily, utterly caught up in it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cuttings

My fondest hope for today is to obtain a lawn mower and (if I may be allowed a two-part fondest hope) to mow the damn lawn, which is loooooong past needing it. The obtaining of the item in question should not be too difficult, since I still have a balance on a Lowe’s giftcard Christmas/housewarming present and there is a Lowe’s on my way home from work and I am slightly ahead on hours this week (as usual) and can leave work early to make the sidetrip and my wife is home with our boy and I don’t need to rush to daycare for a pick-up …

As always, I dare to dream the impossible dream.
To be totally honest there are, by my reckoning, about a million little projects strewn about the house which are half-begun and never-done. Painting has stalled out, as has unpacking the basement, ditto the garage, et cetera et cetera. So on the one hand if I can get the lawn mowed (mown?) then I will be able to cross SOMEthing off the list and feel a momentary sense of SOME accomplishment. I hope. It’s entirely possible that I feel like nothing ever gets done because that’s just the headspace I’m stuck in right now, and maybe I have been getting other things done all along but I’m selectively interpreting the evidence and even the lowering of my rising grass tide to the same level as my neighbors’ won’t get me unstuck and I’ll have to dig a little deeper.

But hey, hopefully it’s the former. I know I tend to bring things up on the blog when I’m in the middle of working my way through them and then never return to them again once they’re resolved. This is largely because middles are interesting and resolutions are emphatically not. A reasonably safe bet is that if I never mention something again, it got satisfactorily taken care of and became a non-issue and I’ve just moved on. (Case in point: did the new little dog ever get a proper name? Of course he did.) So, if we never speak of yardwork and rake guards and discharge bags again, just assume everything worked out for the best.

(OK, fine, who are we kidding here: one way or another I’m sure we’ll talk about discharge bags again.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Another King family book review (Horns)

I hate to think that I’m falling into a rut, but once again I find myself on a Wednesday getting ready to blog about a book that I finished the Friday before, and once again the book in question is a horror novel, and happens to be written by a member of a certain famous Maine writer’s family. Rut or not, it won’t last, as the book I’ve moved on to in the mean time is neither written by Stephen King of a relative, nor likely to be finished by Friday.

So, Stephen King’s son Joe has had a few books published, and while I will probably go to my grave never having read his novel Heart-Shaped Box because the title is a Nirvana reference (and my feelings about that particular 90’s cultural legacy are oh-so well-known) I thought the premise of his latest, Horns, was worth checking out. In short (or as short as I can make it because it gets pretty twisted) it’s about a guy named Ig who wakes up one morning with devil horns growing out of his forehead, and with this physical transformation comes certain powers and abilities which are reminiscent of the Devil His Own Self, although perhaps more the folkloric version of Old Scratch than the Miltonian version of Lucifer the fallen angel (though we get elements of both, and more). Some of the powers are physical, like a fireproof body and the ability to regenerate damage via flames and blazing breath. But others are more mental: people feel compelled to confess their secret sins and shameful desires to Ig, and he can read minds when he makes physical contact with someone, and to a certain extent he can control others’ actions as long as what he wants them to do is something they want, too, even if they’ve buried the want in the deepest darkest corners of their soul. The physical powers are there primarily to create a higher-stakes action-movie plot in the book’s climax; the psychological powers are really what the book is about.

I use this blog as a clearinghouse for my thoughts and reactions about the pop culture I consume, and it works pretty well as far as it goes, but as I was making my way through Horns I found myself wishing at various points that I was in a book club and discussing it with real live other people. Hill is basically doing an in-depth examination of the big concepts of personified evil and the nature of evil in the universe and the representations of the devil in art (high and low) and justice and vengeance and punishment and rational cosmology and all that, all through the lens of the devil. And sometimes he forces it a bit. When Ig raids the fridge at his parents’ house, what does he find? Deviled eggs, of course. And how much better are they than whatever he might have eaten at his own apartment? 10 times better? 100 times better? 666 times better, of course, of course. And while I rolled my eyes with a world-weary “I see what you did there, Joe” every time, I was curious what other people might think – if it worked for them, if it bugged them, if they even noticed.

Insert obligatory Rolling Stones reference here (Lord knows Joe Hill did)
And then again I wondered what other people would make of the bigger themes in the book. An examination of what a human being with the powers of the Devil might do could be interesting enough in and of itself, but Hill grafts that high-concept onto a murder mystery of sorts. Ig’s girlfriend Merrin was brutally murdered, and Ig himself was the prime suspect though the case was unsolved and untried. There are intimations that maybe Ig really did do it and doesn’t remember (thanks to his tendency to black out at the tail end of drunken binges) and his physical transformation into a demonic figure is just another manifestation of his steady descent, BUT there are also intimations that Ig is innocent and can use his newfound unholy powers to finally solve the mystery of who killed his girlfriend, and (maybe more importantly) why. Most mystery stories rely on scientific reconstruction, deduction, and knowing whose story to believe, and even then often the best answer that can be reached is to what happened, not why; Ig’s mind-reading ability makes for a nice narrative trick that allows certain things to be presented, as the story unfolds, as TRUTH, brooking no doubt.

Of course that sets up a stark contrast between questions like “Why was Merrin killed?” (which ends up answered, actually answered several times over in increasingly revelatory ways) and “Why did Merrin have to die?” (which, it should go without saying, has no answer) For all the plot twists and turns, and all the supernatural comeuppance, there are larger issues which are never resolved.

(Forgive me a longish tangent here, while I’m on the subject of comeuppance, while I once again devote some space to my own bloodthirstiness as an audience member. Another one of Ig’s devil-powers is the ability to command snakes. Hill tosses out a Chekovian pronouncement by Merrin’s murderer at about the two-thirds mark wherein he admits to having a deep phobia of snakes. So it’s a given that snakes will figure in the murderer’s demise, and they do … or more accurately one does. The murderer ends up stabbed repeatedly and, before he can bleed to death, chokes on a single snake which Ig commands to crawl down the murderer’s throat. Striking and horrific, sure, but weirdly not enough for me. Because Ig is shown with a whole satanic congregation of snakes following him around at various points. And Hill gets inside the murderer’s mind deeply enough that there is no reasonable reader reaction for him except utter revulsion and a desire to see gruesome punishment. I honestly expected the murderer to drown in a pit full of snakes or something equally over the top. But that’s me; hi, I’m bloodthirsty, I believe we’ve met.)

Hill goes to great pains to show that Ig and Merrin and their families are really good people, in all the senses that matter. They’re all kind, they all go to church, they all volunteer with the church, and none of them are hiding evil secrets which would undermine their essential goodness (so long as you more or less subscribe to the same rock-n-roll-heaven system of morality that I do, wherein teenage sex and drinking and smoking are not exactly mortal sins). And yet they all suffer horribly, Merrin losing her life and everyone else losing Merrin, for no discernable reason. By contrast, the murderer is mentally unhinged, possibly because of a childhood accident that resulted in brain damage, but the accident is random. The hand of God is nowhere to be found in anything that happens. Ig’s spontaneous development of exactly the right powers to ultimately solve Merrin’s murder and punish her murderer notwithstanding, the whole book is a pretty convincing case for the non-existence of God. And, again, I find myself wondering what other people would take away from it all.

My biggest takeaway was a line in the middle of the book that’s more or less a throwaway, but which I think kind of gets at the central knot of “What’s the whole point, then?” If you break down the notion that everything happens to serve some higher purpose until it ceases to make any sense, then what you’re left with in the absence of a higher purpose is everything being self-contained. It’s possible for there to be neither a heaven nor a hell waiting on the other side of death, and for life and what we do with it to matter, just in and of themselves instead of as things that will keep us either alive and happy in God’s good graces in this lifetime or earn us our way into some kind of reward afterwards. Anyway, at one point Ig meets a random, elderly shopkeeper who confesses that he’s tired of taking care of his wife with Alzheimer’s, and sometimes he fantasizes about pushing her down the stairs so that he can move to Florida to be with another woman. This fantasy is somehow more palatable to the man than the thought of putting his wife in a home and leaving her, because the latter would be a betrayal of their “til death do us part” vows, and a much greater sin. Ig uses his diabolic mind control to convince the old man that he is getting a phone call from the other woman in Florida, and in her voice Ig convinces the man to go ahead and put his wife in a home. Because if he doesn’t, he’s either going to die himself – miserably and alone, and soon – or he’s going to snap and murder his wife. Putting his wife in a home and trying to get a little bit of happiness out of what’s left of his life is the third (and best) option, even if it is a sin, because so is murder and so is utter, irredeemable misery. “Pick the sin we can both live with,” Ig urges in the other woman’s voice. Of course the man agrees, because he’s being hypnotized by the Devil His Own Self, but I think that argument would work pretty well on me without supernatural force behind it.

(Not that I would ever leave my wife, and supernatural-forces forbid she should ever get Alzheimer’s! Just in general – everyone sooner or later faces a situation where it seems, based on what they’ve been told all their lives, that whatever choice they pick, it’s going to be wrong. In which case you pick the sin you can live with, and get on with the living while you’ve got a life to live. I can think of worse advice.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

XXL World of Sports

Astute readers of this here blog may have noticed that I’ve barely mentioned the current season of The Biggest Loser. I am still watching it pretty regularly, if not quite religiously, because it still fulfills its primary function of giving me something to do on Tuesday nights after the little guy is becribbed while I’m waiting for my wife to get home from work, something other than raiding the fridge (in fact, something which actively makes me feel bad about even looking longingly at the fridge). I will no doubt settle in to watch it tonight, eventually, but I might miss the beginning and/or ending, neither of which would strike me as a devastating loss.

So clearly I am not as into it as I was a mere eight months or so ago, and that knocks it down several pegs in the bloggable estimation; another way of looking at it is that not much is going on there that is worth blogging about, even if it were still taking up predictably huge chunks of my free time you could set a clock by. The personalities in the current season seem a lot more subdued than Crazy Tracy, Saint Abby, Wild-Eyed Okie Danny, and others from seasons past. I’m not as invested in the outcome this time around. (And do not even get me started on how infomercialriffic the show has become; namebrand product shilling is up, by my calculations, about 7000% this cycle.) Without the human melodrama drawing me in, the only thing about TBL I still find entertaining are the competitive challenges of fat-thleticism.

But then there's real athleticism, as we’ve also reached another one of those magical times of the year when professional sports hold a particularly strong sway over my household. I was pleased that I had the opportunity to watch the Yankees play baseball over this past weekend, doubly pleased that both the Saturday and Sunday games were televised, triply pleased that the Yankees won both games, and pretty much out-of-the-park over the fact that I taught my little guy how to yell “home run!!!” Unfortunately the Orioles are off to a slow start, which is already causing a bit of the old mixed-marriage tension to resurface; ultimately a lot of that tension is my fault because I might very well be physically incapable of modulating a question like “So who’s the number one guy in the O’s pitching rotation this year?” in such a way that it does not sound like I am a condescending douche who plans to follow up whatever-the-answer-may-be with something along the lines of “It’s so freaking cute the way Baltimore thinks they’re a real team!” Again, for the record, I don’t actually think that – I just always somehow come off like I think that.

But helping to buoy my wife’s spirits is the fact that the NHL playoffs are about to begin and the Pittsburgh Penguins are the four seed in the East. In an ideal world the Pens would run the table and by the time they were repeat Stanley Cup winners, the O’s would have recovered from their out-of-the-gate stumble and be fun to watch and root for again. (In MY ideal world, to get a little more specific, the O’s would claw their way out of the AL East basement up the backs of the Rays, Jays and Sox by whooping them all mercilessly, but leave the Yankees unscathed, but, you know, time will tell.)

The overlap of the Boys of Summer and the players of the Winter Classic in the late spring is a turbulent confluence, but at least it’s loaded with potential to be interesting. And it leads to conversations like one my wife and I had a week or so ago, when we flipped to a random hockey game and heard the announcer talking about the youth hockey career of a Canadian player named “Molson”, if my ears did not deceive me. A Canadian hockey player … named Molson. My wife and I quickly realized that we – we as a nation, that is, our beloved U.S. of A. – need to close this Living National Symbol gap and produce a baseball star named America Hot Dog.

Apple Pie is my MIDDLE name ...
Dare to dream!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Night and day (and night again and day again)

So the bottom line is, we all survived the experience of my wife going away to a conference in Baltimore from Friday morning until Sunday evening. My wife of course missed her boys for the duration, but at least had the conference itself to occupy her mind most of the time, and the nice thing about missing people is that the problem solves itself immediately at the moment of reunion, which was certainly the case here. The little guy, for his part, asked for his mommy a few times over the course of the weekend but never came close to throwing a tantrum demanding that she show herself or anything like that. He also remained relatively injury-free (by which I mean relative to his own self-imposed rough and tumble standards, which of course means he did fall down a couple of steps on the back deck at one point, giving himself a little scrape/bump on the forehead, but again – relatively speaking it’s like he spent the weekend lounging in packing peanuts and bubble wrap).

Me, I was pretty damn tired by the time my wife got home on Sunday but that was mostly my own damn fault. Granted, keeping up with the little guy and keeping him happily amused so that he doesn’t antagonize the pets unnecessarily or bring large pieces of furniture crashing down on himself or incite countless or other calamities can be exhausting in and of itself. In theory (and in my own personal experience) one of the bests part about modern marriage and child-rearing is the unargued understanding that staying home with the kid(s) is not a slack job, and whosoever leaves the house to work in an office for several-odd hours might actually be the one getting a break, which means coming home from the office and claiming to be too tired to go into active parenting mode is a non-starter, because the homefront-holding partner has more than earned a respite, even if it’s five freaking minutes. The truly excellent thing about my domestic situation is that there are both a couple days a week where I ride in like the cavalry around dinner time, and a couple other days where she’s the one tagging in off the top turnbuckle. (So to speak.)

So not getting that just-you-wait-til-your-mother-gets-home-young-man buffer is a bit more trying, yes, not to mention that my wife usually has better sleep-lightly instincts allowing her to wake up at the slightest twitch of the little guy in the night, which means when she’s not home I don’t sleep well at all, waking up worried that I won’t wake up when something happens. But on top of all that, since I felt my wife’s absence not only in the pre-bedtime baby-wrangling workload but also in the post-wrangling hang-out time, I was left to my own devices for entertainment. On Saturday night, this amounted to a Netflix double-feature and Saturday Night Live.

The Netflix double-feature served a few purposes. One, it got me back on pace for my 2010 resolution to watch 12 Netflix movies this year (in order to justify my membership to the service). I watched a lone movie in January and another in February but never found time in March, so by checking off two in April I’m at least staying on the level. Two, the movies in question were ones I had really wanted to see - of course that probably goes without saying because I don’t generally request Netflix discs for movies I don’t care if I see or not - so perhaps I should say Two-Point-Five they were movies my wife had absolutely no interest in whatsoever, and I spared her the experience. And Three, by watching both back-to-back I was able to get the fullest experience of their combined effect.

The cinematic gems in question here, I should say, were Crank and Crank 2.

Germany ... or Florida?  (No, seriously.  It's Germany.
I like Jason Statham, and I like big dumb loud action flicks (as long as they are more comprehensible on a raw sensory-input-processing level than a Michael Bay eye-rape like Transformers) and I had heard enough good things about Crank and Crank 2 as BDLAF exemplars that I really was excited about watching them. There weren’t any surprises, really, with one possible exception: how different the sequel was to the original.

SPOILERS!

Crank has a good hook: a professional hitman (Chev Chelios, played by Statham) gets injected with “The Beijing Cocktail” and is being slowly poisoned to death by the adrenaline blockers in it which will eventually stop his heart. But if he can flood his system with more adrenaline than the poison can block, he can keep his heart beating and stay alive long enough to get revenge on the enemy who injected him. So this becomes a good excuse for Chelios to engage in all manner of risky stunts, the more dangerous the better to get his adrenaline pumping, while running nonstop to find his soon-to-be killer. In the end Chelios calls in a large favor which leads to two gangster armies shooting the holy hell out of each other, an attempted helicopter escape by the bad guy, and Chelios and the bad guy falling out of the helicopter. Chelios kills the baddie on the way down, then bounces off the hood of a car himself and his heart finally gives out.

So, the big stunts are all competently done, there’s a strong sense of pitch-black humor throughout, there’s some stylish direction, all in all It Does What It Says On The Tin. Obviously it requires a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, but still. Goofball fun.

Crank 2 is also about Chelios, who we find out was immediately scraped off the street and brought back to a ganglord’s compound in order to be nursed back to health so that his organs could be harvested. Apparently the events of Crank 1 proved to the underworld that Chelios was some kind of superman and thus his organs are coveted by a 100-year-old Triad leader. Right at the outset of Crank 2 Chelios is down one heart, which has been replaced by an artificial heart only ever intended to keep him alive long enough to maintain viability for the other organs awaiting transplant. And then Chelios escapes the compound, with a dying battery pack for the artificial heart.

So whereas the plot-engine for Crank was to have Chelios keep stimulating his adrenal responses while hunting down his killer, the plot-engine for part 2 has Chelios constantly looking for literal sources of electricity to keep his artificial heart beating while he tries to find his real heart, because his buddy who is some kind of back-alley doctor can re-transplant it for him. The bigger the jolt, the more Chelios gets superpowers of speed and strength due to his artificial heart pumping faster and more powerfully. Yes, clearly at this point we have left “healthy amount of suspension of disbelief” far, far behind and are swimming in the deep end of Are You Fucking Kidding Me?!?! But, to its credit, the movie doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t expect the audience to, either.

It’s still a little jarring, though, because almost the entire cast comes back. Statham as Chelios, Amy Smart as his girlfriend (who is now a stripper, because that’s the kind of way the sequel tries to outdo the predecessor), Efren Ramirez as the twin brother of a character who died in part 1 (but now as some kind of avenging kung-fu MFer who also happens to have Full Body Tourettes), Dwight Yoakam as the doctor (truthfully one of the best parts of both movies put together), etc. So it feels like 2 should by all rights be the next chapter in the story, but ends up so different in tone that these two books wouldn’t even be sold in the same store (or whatever tortured metaphor you like). Crank is an implausible high concept in a well-done action movie. Crank 2 is a laugh-out-loud ridiculous low-concept in a totally bonkers movie that kept me glued to the screen just to see how audacious it would get. (The answer to that is, a scene in which Chelios fights Johnny Vang in a city power station and the sequence morphs into a Godzilla-esque homage with two actors duking it out in slow motion in a miniature model of a power station, both actors wearing rubber suits that look like caricatures of Chelios and Vang. Worth the price of admission right there, folks.)

Watching both movies back to back probably made the contrast even more glaring, but then again, a lot of the goodwill earned by part 1 carried over into part 2 and no doubt made me like it more than it deserved. I’m still not entirely sure to what extent Crank 2 is a knowing self-parody of cash-grab sequels, and to what extent it’s just a window into a truly disturbed mind that thinks having Jason Statham climb a power pole, throttle a transformer, get blown back down to the ground in the resulting explosion, then run around ON FIRE while dealing out holy pissed-off retribution is the most magnificent bit of bastardy ever committed to celluloid.

Maybe both?

I timed it pretty well so that my Crank double-feature ended as SNL was starting, and I enjoyed Tina Fey’s presence as host, which really should come as no surprise. I’m not quite sure why I hung in there until the very end, since a stone truism is that the last couple of sketches always suck, but I did. Damn the completist in me! Although if and when Crank 3 gets released I will probably have to give that inner completist a stern talking to about good uses of our time.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Golden child

After more than nineteen months of it, it’s still amusing to me when people look at my unremarkably medium brown hair, and my wife’s luscious dark red hair, and then look at our little Samson’s fair blond hair and try to puzzle it all out. The cognitive dissonance fun continues when we inform them that I was blond for the first few years of my life, too; apparently it might be harder for some people to picture me blond than it is for them to picture me acting shy.

So yeah, given the fact that me and both my brothers and our dad all started out blond, and we have four different hair colors among us now, I wasn’t surprised at all by Samson’s lightly-pigmented locks. What I was a little surprised by was the reverse male-pattern baldness his hairline has followed. The fringe from above his ears around the nape came in first, eventually filling in on the top of his head, but thanks to the head start in back, until recently he looked very much like he was rocking the Compensatory Mullet look. Not that any of this bothered me, or worried me (for once!). I knew a full head of hair for Samson was in the offing, and many a child goes bemulleted for a while before his or her first haircut.

I thought that said milestone was quite a ways off, even though whirling clouds of ringlets were sprouting from behind my son’s ears. My wife had gone from vowing to never cut his hair (she has also vowed to keep him forever and ever, specifically living in our basement well into his 30’s, so, you know, that was an “uh huh, we’ll see”) to engaging me hypothetically on the subject of taking Samson to Kartoon Kuts or whatever, and whether or not that was a worthwhile idea. (My take was that if she wanted to take him to the mall for haircuts in the future, no time like the present to get Samson acclimated; but if my wife wanted to cut his hair herself for a while, no need to make a big excursion event out of the first shearing.) As one half of a marriage of overthinkers, I usually expect the hypothetical discussion stage for any given topic to last anywhere from two months to two years, so it threw me for a loop when my wife asked me to get the hair-trimming scissors last night as Samson was finishing his bath. But I obliged, and a minute later he was out of the tub and sitting in the sink, while my wife snipped off an inch or two from the hairs on the back of his head.

Ironically enough, buried under this pile are both papers AND rocks.
And just like that, boom, milestone reached and in the past. Which is exactly as it should be, it’s not like we’re talking about graduation here (be it kindergarten, college, or other), it’s just a haircut. It’s not a milestone that Samson actively reached, like “wow now he can sit up” or “wow now he’s walking” or “wow now he can climb up on a chair and from there to the dining room table and is someone going to get him down from there before he basejumps onto a pile of trucks with very sharp corners?!” I guess when I look at it, it’s more of a milestone actively reached for us, his mother and I, because it means we were ready to let go of the “baby who’s never had a haircut” aspect of him. And I didn’t even know I was ready until it had already happened.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Something is better than nothing

I think I’ve mentioned once or twice here that my job sometimes includes long, idle stretches for me, like I’m a personal auto mechanic kept around for any occasion on which the car needs repairs, but the car itself is pretty reliable and certainly doesn’t break down every day. Sometimes when those idle stretches draw out to absurd lengths, it actually makes me feel anxious. I was in one of those stretches this week, but then this morning I was asked to do a couple of job-related things. One was a bit of data entry which a monkey could do, but all the other monkeys were busy. That took five minutes. The other was a request to look into a system-wide website function that wasn’t working at all. This could have potentially been an open-ended trainwreck that would keep me busy for days on end. But I started with the first step of troubleshooting, which is trying to replicate the problem. I couldn’t – the website seemed to be working fine. I e-mailed the requester back and asked them specifically what sequence of events they had been going through when they hit the not-working point. A couple minutes later the requester e-mailed back and said they had tried it again and now it was working fine. So I was off the hook.

Still, even just taking a couple minutes to look at it myself and then convince the requester to try it again was enough to make me feel like I had been productive. Add on the data entry and I no longer cared if any more work came my way for the rest of the week. So this is the essence of my sanguinity about the job: nothing to do is bad, but something to do, ANYthing, no matter how trivial, is unreservedly good.

I hope that applies to blogging, as well, because honestly, I haven’t got much material or motivation today, but in order to keep up my every-weekday commitment, I’d rather post something than nothing. Thus, BEHOLD:

By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!!!
(Click to embiggen ... if you DARE!!!)

I love this trippy image, which is of course a graphic scan of a blacklight poster that Marvel Comics sold back in the 60’s/70’s. The image actually has some sentimental significance too, because it was plastered to the front window of a used book store in the town where my grandparents had a beach house when I was growing up. Said used book store also sold back issues of comics, which was kind of a big deal back when I was little, before the boom in comics specialty shops of the 90’s. My aunt took me to the store the very first time I went, because (if memory serves) she wanted to buy me whatever I wanted (up to 10 or 20 bucks or something) as a belated birthday present. In hindsight I think she expected me to pick out a bag full of 25 cent paperbacks or something, given what an obsessive reader I was, but when I saw the Dr. Strange poster in the window and realized they sold old comics, that was all I could think about. The comics were up at the front of the store; I don’t think I ever made it to the back half of the place beyond the cash register.

As the years went by I would always look forward to beach vacations with my family for innumerable reasons, one of which was visiting that used book store, and it always gave me a thrill to see that psychedelic poster in the front window. Of course it’s funny to see a scan of the original art because in my memory the colors are all different, much softer, really blended almost to a dull monochrome. (Yes, the owners of the store put a blacklight poster in a window that got full-on exposure to the sun pretty much year round, thus completely missing the point, but I can’t fault them for that, it struck them as the best use of a promotional piece and more power to them.)

The thought has of course occurred to me to buy one of these posters, now that we live in the future and everything ever created or conceived by man is a click away. And I tracked the poster down (as the image attests) but apparently it is so vintage that most people are only willing to part with it for $150 or so, and that’s a bit much for a poster, according to the rules of frivolous spending I (strive to) abide by.

Still, pretty sweet image, isn’t it?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Imaginary Playthings (Under the Dome)

This past Friday night was pretty well consumed, for me, by finishing off the last hundred and fifty or so pages of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, the requisite checking-out for which my wife very sweetly and patiently endured. I absolutely believe that a lot of marital happiness derives from engaging with one another, even if it’s in as passive a form as watching a sitcom or a baseball game together, which means I try to save my solitary pursuits for times when I’m in actual solitude, such as when the little guy is abed and the love of my life is at work, but every once in a while I succumb to the all-consuming need to finish some massive book or another, at the expense of quality spouse-time. (Last time this happened was when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out.) And I appreciate her understanding.

I mentioned a little while ago how stressfully and exhaustingly trying it was to be in the middle of Under the Dome, emotionally invested in the fates of characters to whom bad things kept happening with no end in sight, or at least no end until I made time to read the words on the remaining pages, which was a feat in and of itself. The actual process of reading those words, especially as things escalated, was even more harrowing than walking around with the uncertainty. (Which may beg the question of why I do this to myself, which I can barely answer myself … it’s the good kind of harrowing?)

In order to really dig in here I’m going to need to talk about the end of the book, and along the way I’m going to talk quite a bit about the endings of several other Stephen King books by way of comparison so, you know, SPOILERS and all that.

When I was in high school and began delving deeply into the Stephen King back catalog (which has of course doubled or tripled in size since then), he provided me with my first real exposure to Books With Seriously Downer Endings. Sometimes I think this gets lost in a lot of people’s conceptions of old-school King. Everybody knows Carrie or The Shining or Cujo or Christine or The Dead Zone but people tend to key in on certain images from the movies (or USA Network tv shows, as the case may be) so Carrie is about Sissy Spacek getting blood dumped on her at prom and blowing up the gym and The Shining is about Jack Nicholson chopping down a door with an axe and Cujo is about a rabid St. Bernard (played by a big softie named Daddy, apparently) who … ok, people get the general Cujo pop-culture reference but I’m guessing very few could tell you what exactly the dog does for an entire movie. It’s pretty much what he does for the entire novel, which is terrorize a mother and her young son who have the misfortune of driving out to the farm where Cujo lives on the hottest day of the year, only to have their car battery die. So they’re trapped in the car with no AC, no food and water, and a murderously rabid dog waiting them out. And the little boy dies of heatstroke. So that may be the most egregious offender (and probably a big part of why Cujo is not as widely loved as some other King works) but just to sum up the others: Carrie dies at the end of her book, Jack dies at the end of The Shining (and in the book version that really is tragic because Jack is a much more sympathetic character, manipulated by the evil nature of the hotel, not the already-on-the-cusp-of-madness Nicholson take), Arnie dies at the end of Christine, Johnny dies at the end of The Dead Zone, etc. Having grown up on fantasy stories where the protagonists always triumphed, and then moved on to 80’s horror movies where some or most of the protagonists would get killed but eventually one would survive, it was still pretty shocking to me to invest the time and energy in reading a novel only to find out the protagonist did not survive – and in some cases with King’s work, like Christine or Pet Sematary, not only did they not survive but they didn’t even necessarily win the day. When Carrie dies, at least she takes her crazy mother down with her. In Pet Sematary, not only is Louis’s death undeniably implied in the voice of his wife’s reanimated corpse, but the thought of what will happen after that is honestly too terrible to even contemplate.

So why did I keep going back for second, third, ninth helpings at this Protagonist Dies At The End literary buffet? There is something about King’s style I find compulsively readable, his familiar, folksy “I’m just a guy telling some stories here” vibe. Some people get sick of that after a while but I pretty much eat it up with a spoon. And the stories are exciting, in the meaty middle parts; it’s fun to read about a psychic trying to plan an assassination to avert a nuclear holocaust he’s had a vision about. I suppose in that sense it’s like another activity I enjoyed as a little kid: walking my bike up a very long, very steep hill, climbing on, and coasting back down the hill, picking up speed until braking was essentially impossible. Most of those rides ended with painful wipeouts, but that didn’t stop me from pushing my poor battered bike back up the hill again and again.

A movie based on a Stephen King novel, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Christopher Walken as a psychic vigilante?  On paper The Dead Zone is officially the RADDEST. MOVIE. EVER..
And at some points it seemed like King rediscovered the happy ending, or at least the bittersweet triumph-of-good-over-evil ending. Misery has one, ironically enough. So does It. And then there’s the whole universe of Gunslinger/Dark Tower books, the central series of seven books plus a bunch of King’s other novels and short stories which tie in to the Dark Tower in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways and those tend to tread water a bit without coming down on either side of happy or tragic endings, just because they all put off the ultimate resolution until the final installment. (Said final installment can be argued as a downer, or not; I choose to see it as not.) King still has the capacity to break his readers’ hearts, but very little that he’s done recently has matched the sheer gut-punching of his Early Modern Tragic period.

I guess I got somewhat complacent over the course of Cell and Lisey’s Story and Duma Key recently because as I got deeper and deeper into Under the Dome I suddenly felt like I was reading old-school King again, as the dread was mounting in a way I hadn’t really recalled in years. A small town in Maine is enclosed by an invisible, impenetrable barrier. Nobody knows how or why. People freak out. Opportunistic jerks try to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. Decent people try to see to it that cooler heads prevail, but the opportunistic jerks are able to fan the flames of the groupthink freak-out and turn the general populace against everyone who gets in their way. And the town is dying off in ones and twos, as some people get killed by jerks who feel like outside authority can’t touch them, and other people kill themselves to escape the terror of being trapped in a town with limited resources – especially food and air – and no way out but death, fast or slow. The race is on to find out what’s causing the Dome to exist in the first place, even as it becomes abundantly clear that the opportunistic jerks actually want the Dome to stay right where it is because it suits their purposes.

That synopsis is pretty standard thriller fare, with a heavy dose of psychological horror, but the sudden turning point comes when one of the good guys finally finds the piece of alien technology generating the Dome, and it becomes apparent that the technology is both inscrutable and indestructible. The thrust of the book stops being “find the Dome’s power source and turn it off before it’s too late” and shifts into “the Dome can’t be turned off, and everyone is going to die”. Or, at the very least, that becomes a very distinct possibility. The possibility become an even more pronounced odds-on favorite when, closer to the end, a number of subplots converge and a crystal meth lab’s stockpile of propane canisters ignites in the heart of a C4-fueled explosion during a botched police raid, starting a firestorm that consumes most of the town, most of the people in it, and most of the oxygen inside the Dome, leaving behind a depleted and poisonous atmosphere for the few remaining survivors. I honestly believed those survivors were going to die horrible asphyxiating deaths, there would be an epilogue about how the US government ultimately dealt with the after-effects of the disaster, and the whole thing would be a grim fable about the futility of struggling against the implacable mysteries of the universe (cf. King's short story The Raft). I braced myself for it.

And then, funny enough, it didn’t go that way. There are overt comparisons throughout the book between what the aliens have done to the small Maine town and what human beings (sometimes kids, sometimes not) do to bugs: putting wasps in a jar and shaking it until they fight, frying ants with a magnifying glass, etc. The alien technology had given people who touched it flashing visions of the aliens themselves, so in the end one of the survivors lays hands on the technology and uses the resulting psychic connection to beg for their lives, insisting that even if the aliens see humanity as tiny, mindless insects they are causing real suffering and should make it stop. Miraculously, the appeal to empathy works and the aliens lift the Dome and the remaining survivors do not die horrible asphyxiating deaths.

Cheap and manipulative? Maybe so, and maybe I’m a Stephen King apologist, but sometimes I enjoy being cheaply manipulated. I was, as I keep repeating, very (overly) attached to the protagonists and concerned about their fates, so I wasn’t going to look a gift deus ex machina in the mouth. At the time, I closed the book with nothing more than a sigh of relief. But as I reflect on the ending more and more, I keep wondering how I should really take it.

For one thing, it seemed really rushed. Granted, once the apocalyptic inferno scoured the inside of the Dome, the clock was ticking for the survivors, but still, everything from that turning point to the aliens relenting went by in a blur. The air quality in the Dome gets so bad that a few major characters do die horrible asphyxiating deaths, but these happen off-screen, mentioned in passing, which struck me as narratively ... odd.

Another striking element of the climax is one of the phrases King employs to convey the alien perspective. There is an implied language barrier which the direct psychic connection can’t completely overcome, resulting for example in the pleading protagonist’s mind translating the alien’s regard as “You are toys from the toystore.” But another example is when the alien at first rejects the protag’s premise of having feelings and experiencing suffering; the alien thinks back “No, you aren’t real.”

Because if you take a step back and put on your Meta Reading Glasses, it wasn’t weird and creepy aliens who dropped the Dome and tortured the populace of a small Maine town, it was … Stephen King. And he does this ALL THE TIME. It is, in fact, his job. But it’s ok for him to slowly, horribly kill an entire town full of fictional characters, because they’re not real. Right…?

I have no way of proving this, short of interviewing the man myself, but it seems to me you could make a semi-convincing case that King set out to write another “everybody dies” blockbuster, and then as he got closer and closer to killing off the best of the good guys and the purest of the innocents … he chickened out (or had a change of heart, or however charitably you want to put it) and ended up with a breakneck conclusion that fixes everything as fast as possible. It’s like he was overcome with empathy for little creatures that made him feel godlike and amused, until they made him feel bad about himself.

Alternatively, though, there’s another way you could meta-read the whole situation. Again, King is the godlike alien, but the creatures suffering at his hands aren’t his characters, they’re his readers. The Dome is any one of his books, and when a reader opens the cover they become trapped in its self-contained world, and King can visit all kinds of mental cruelty upon them, pulling them back adn forth through the wringer at will, and there’s no escape, until King decides it’s time to release them. Although even once the book is over and the Dome is gone, anyone who survived its gauntlet will be haunted by it for a long time to come. Does King ever really think about his readers as people, as individuals who can potentially be gutted by an unexpected, unjust demise of a likable character? Or are they always just the abstract hypothetical Constant Reader, undeserving of much consideration given to the fallout from the words King gets paid to put down on the page? Could Under the Dome possibly be the apologia of a spinner-of-worlds who underwent a sudden shift from the latter to the former?

I mean, the guy's been writing for the better part of five decades. I'd be more surprised if all this written-work-as-symbol-of-the-writer stuff hadn't occurred to him than if it had. At any rate, it's an interesting riff.