Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Travel travails

I still maintain, with the unchanging steadfastness of a novelty t-shirt purchased at the shore, that a bad day out of the office beats a good day in the office, but man oh man, yesterday was arduous.

In hindsight it’s difficult to make it out to be anything more than it was, which was just your typical commercial air travel comedy of errors. My step-father dropped me and my wife and the little guy off at the airport with ridiculous amounts of time to spare, considering the airport itself is not that big from one end to the other and a Monday mid-morning does not generally entail massive crowds in the security lines or anything. But this was by design, because we wanted to have a day free of even the slightest worry, one in which we could check our bags and then go through security and then grab a hot breakfast and then leisurely await the boarding call. Since we had a two-year-old to wrangle on the one hand and his awkwardly bulky car seat to tote on the other, padding the schedule seemed all for the best.

And it would have been, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their dog. And by “meddling kids and their dog” I mean “massive delays due to mechanical problems which no one could have foreseen or done anything about”. Well, maybe someone could have done something about it, maybe there’s a business plan somewhere in running an airline which has a 100% on-time rate because all the planes are rigorously maintained and replaced as soon as they’re two years old and armed with Destro’s Weather Dominators or whatever, but that does not describe Southwest Airlines. (Nor, for what it’s worth, does it describe an airline I’d be likely to fly my family on, because I imagine the tickets would be astronomically expensive.)

Iron Grenadier Airlines runs a tight ship, but their major hub is a bit out of the way on Cobra Island.
We had a connection in Chicago and at the start of the day it was a very manageable hour and a half between flights. But our flight out of Albuquerque was delayed 55 minutes, and then an hour and 15 minutes, so suddenly it seemed like the only way we could hop from one plane to the next would be if we were among the first six or so passengers off the plane in Chicago and just hustled like Charlie, and also if the jetway for the second flight were no more than three or four gates away. Getting off a plane fast of course requires sitting towards the front, and this might actually be possible on Southwest because of their bizarre free-for-all boarding/seating scheme, but you know what can really screw it all up? When you spot a window-and-middle pair of seats in Row 8, which would have been perfect for me and the little guy (federal aviation law requires the carseat get buckled into a window seat, and my wife could have found a singleton even closer to the front), and there’s a lady sitting in the aisle seat, and you ask if you can get past her to the two other seats, and she says she’s saving one of those seats for her husband. Does that not kind of violate the spirit and/or defeat the purpose of open, unassigned seating? Husband-Seat-Saving Lady, whoever you are, wherever you are, you pretty much suck. You may not have technically done anything wrong, you may have been within the letter of the law of Southwest’s A-group boarding policy, and you of course weren’t obligated to look out for anyone but yourself, but still. You suck.

We skipped the Emergency Exit row and tried sitting in Row 10, which is still at least in the front half of the plane, but were reminded by a flight attendant that it’s actually three rows that count as emergency exit for purposes of expressly forbidding carseats, so we ended up in Row 13. And also ended up wheels-down exactly when you’d expect, with 15 minutes ticking down until our connection. And also taxied to Gate A11 and were told by the flight crew that the flight to Dulles was at Gate B25. But in a mad frenzied burst we deplaned as fast as possible and I ran … no, that’s not the right word for it, but I think English may lack the specificity to describe in a single word the locomotion that results when an out-of-shape 36 year old with a large carry-on strapped to his back and a carseat hugged to his chest tries to get from one side of Midway to the other in seven minutes. (The German tongue might have it covered, but I think Babelfish has a character limit.)

The plan was that I would get to the gate first while my wife (who, let us not forget, is four and a half months pregnant) maneuvered herself and the little guy (who walks pretty slowly, or slows down whoever’s carrying him) in my wake, and if I had to lay across the cabin door I would keep the plane from taking off without all three of us. I got to B25 with two minutes to spare! And then saw that our connecting flight had been delayed half an hour and had yet to even start boarding. Which would have been nice to know when we landed. Also, once my bride and my heir rejoined me, we heard an announcement that boarding would be further delayed because another Southwest flight carrying passengers who were supposed to make the same connection was coming in late, and they’d be holding the plane for them. Which also would have been nice to know when we were twiddling our thumbs nervously in Albuquerque and trying to claw our way to primo seats on that flight. I really can’t decide after all that if I’m a fan of Southwest Airlines or not. On the one hand they seemed to be doing a lot to accommodate the repercussions of the screwed up schedule; on the other hand the schedule-buck does stop with them. They’ve got good prices; but the cheapness shows in the experience. And some other day I’ll describe the nightmare of the first leg of our flight out west, when the cabin pressurization system malfunctioned and I thought my head was going to explode, as did the little guy (thought his own head was going to explode, I mean, probably didn’t spare a thought to anyone else’s, understandably) and the little guy didn’t even know or understand what you’re supposed to do to alleviate the pressure imbalance in such a situation and therefore just SCREAMED BLOODY MURDER. Which I do, in a roundabout way, basically blame Southwest for in the same buck-stoppage way.

But I’m still pretty sure about Husband-Seat-Saving Lady. She totally sucks.

Anyway, we’re all home in one piece, all back to our beloved routines of work and daycare and whatnot, and all’s right with the world, or close enough. I’ll dole out a few more Thanksgiving anecdotes in days to come. Right now I’m just thrilled to be home.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A comic character rebus

Trendy!
It Girl, from The Atomics (AAA Pop, Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics)

Rocket-tastic!
Supergirl, from the Superman family (DC Comics)

Cowgirl up!
Arizona Girl, from Wild West (Marvel Comics)

IT + S + A + GIRL

Or so we think! My wife went in for the 20 week ultrasound this morning and the results were semi-conclusive. The umbilical cord running right between the legs prevented a clear and definitive imaging of our baby-to-be's sex, but on the other hand, there wasn't a "check it out I'm totally a boy!" moment like we had with the little guy. The sonogram-operating professional in attendance said she was inclined to believe it was a girl (which my wife's maternal intuition is beginning to suggest more and more as well), and offered to check again at a future appointment. I'd put the odds at about 75%, which means that if I'm going to include three pictures of girls I should include a fourth to represent the 25% uncertainty. Preferably something androgynous with an air of mystery about it.

?????
You guys, comics are awesome.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Stuck Record

An atypical Tuesday, too? Oh, yes, believe it.

I made it home last night without too much difficulty, although it was slightly nerve-wracking simply because the whole process was generally unfamiliar to me. When I drive I almost always go in and out of the DC area using 66 as a straight shot, so not having that option due to HOV restrictions meant I had to get creative. And I may have been a bit overconfident at my ability to wing it, and by just kind of following roads I sorta recognized the names of in the general direction I thought I should be heading, I probably didn’t make headway as straightforwardly as I could have. But in the end, door-to-door, it took just about exactly as much time to get home as the combination of mass transit and driving commute usually takes.

Also working in my favor on the way home was much more favorable conditions, both external and internal. I didn’t bring this up yesterday, but the most trying part of the morning commute was the stretch getting from Megabus to M Street, not only because I was winging it but because my car was running on fumes and I was overdue to relieve myself of my morning coffee, ahem ahem. Fortunately when I re-oriented myself on M I quickly found a large gas station with not abominable restrooms, so I solved those problems and made the rest of the trip without incident. This also meant that I had plenty of gas on the way home, and I made a conscious effort to visit the restrooms at work before hitting the road, and the morning fog obviously was no longer a factor in the evening, so all in all it was an improvement.

But by not following my usual commute habits, I set off other cascading effects. Usually when I settle down in my seat on the bus or Metro, I unclip my building security badge and put it inside my work bag so I can’t forget it the next day. But yesterday evening I left the office and by the time I was sitting down again I was operating a motor vehicle, and didn’t realize I still had my badge clipped on until after I had gotten home, dropped my work bag, and taken off and hung up my coat. So the badge ended up on the kitchen counter, right next to my cell phone, which I was sure would remind me to grab the badge as well in the morning.

Needless to say the badge is still sitting on the kitchen counter as I type this, because I am a dingus. Hence today’s completely different flavor of atypicality. I had to stop at the security desk for the building this morning and get a visitor badge, which also means I’m not allowed to wander the building on my own. So I’ve been shackled at my desk all day without so much as a mosey down to the fifth floor vending machines, because the hassle of getting someone to escort me anywhere isn’t really worth it. This is what I reap from being ultra-orthodox in my dedication to keeping my head down and not socializing much at the office.

If I'm going to whine, I'm going to whine EXTREMELY MELODRAMATICALLY.
And can I just add that I’m sure being a security guard at a government office building is a challenging enough job, and my problems caused by my own negligence do not automatically become their problems, but would it kill them to be a little bit sympathetically helpful? Even to get to the elevators with my visitor badge, I needed to call someone for an escort from the lobby. I started scrolling through my cell phone contacts looking for my boss and was surprised to find I’d never saved his number. Another of my co-workers, whose number I did have, is already on vacation, so I was at a bit of a loss. I asked one of the security guards if they had any kind of directory, explaining my phone predicament. The security guard sighed and said “All we have is that directory over there between the two columns” and pointed across the lobby. I figured it was worth a shot to look and see if maybe my office had a main number and maybe I could prevail upon the administrative assistant who manned that phone or whatever. I would not have figured it was worth a shot if the security guard had said something like “The building directory doesn’t have any phone numbers on it” which was, in fact, the case. I mean, seriously? If I tell you I can’t find a phone number and ask if you have a directory, why in the world would you even bother mentioning (and implying even the longshot helpfulness of) a floor directory which only lists which agencies are in which suites? How hard is it to realize that the most helpful answer would actually be “No, sorry”?

I’m mostly mad at myself, I guess. One more day to go and I can’t wait to see what kind of curveball that’s going to entail. Probably thunderstorms and a fire drill and I’ll forget my umbrella.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rainy daze

This has been, in many ways, an atypical Monday.

For one thing, I know I kvetch all the time about being tired but seriously you guys, today I am exhausted. In large part I can attribute this to the visit my internet buddy paid to our humble home. We did, as predicted, engage in some hardcore dork-blathering (which sounds way more double entendre than I intended, ah well) but I still managed to resist the temptation to keep the open-ended conversation going until 2 or 3 in the morning. In fact, we were saying good night and respectively turning in by a little after 11. But still, I was probably overly wired, and we altered certain nighttime configurations (my buddy is allergic to cats so my wife and I made sure to shut up the cat with us in our room, and then since the door of our room was closed we turned on the baby monitor in our room to listen for the little guy, who was a little under the weather all weekend, and the baby monitor was as usual picking up Spanish radio broadcasts, faintly but enough to intrude on my ability to drift off) SO … very little sleep for me.

I have the strangest feeling I've used this exact picture before ... but that might be the sleeplessness talking.
I got up at the usual time today, got myself mostly ready and then woke up my buddy so he could get ready, and that meant I had time to savor my cup of coffee and read some of the Sunday paper and whatnot, and then we left the house about 35 minutes later than I normally do. And instead of heading to the local commuter bus lot or the Metro station, I got on 66 in the HOV lane and drove all the way into DC, so my buddy could catch the Megabus back to NYC which was supposed to leave at 8:30. This morning was obnoxiously foggy/misty which, as you can imagine, has nothing but deleterious effects on the general traffic congestion. So, backed out of the driveway a little after 6:30, got to the Megabus departure point (H and 10th) at about 8:15. At which point, after my buddy bailed out and I wished him a safe trip, I had to navigate up and over to M street so I could take the Key Bridge into Rosslyn. I got to work at 9, which is acceptable but, again, pretty atypical. I can’t remember exactly the last time I drove into work, but I think it was last winter one day when the offices were finally re-opened but the snow was still making the Metro and the VRE really hit-or-miss.

I’m dreading the commute home tonight, because I won’t be able to retrace my steps and head west on 66, now that it’s just buddy-less me and 66 is HOV only between here and the Beltway. I’ll presumably end up on 50, which has an annoying abundance of traffic lights.

Of course another prominently atypical aspect of today, as Mondays go, is that it’s the Monday of a short week, with the offices closed for Thanksgiving and the day after. That should be a silver lining I could latch onto but the fact that Thanksgiving is so imminent only serves to remind me that we have quite a bit of packing and preparation to do before we fly out west to see my mom for the holiday. I am looking forward to the visit, but getting the tri-part family unit through the multi-airport gauntlet on Thursday, less so. Although, man, if we make it through the whole trip without major incident, I’m going to run a serious risk of getting a little bit cocky.

In any case, in spite of my weird, sleep-deprived feelings of discontinuity, really all is well and good and normal. (Oh, and thank goodness, absolutely nothing new to report at work - still waiting on a bunch of stuff from other people and unable to move my projects forward due to circumstances beyond my control!) I just don’t have enough coherent thoughts to hang much of a blog post on – which, of course, I feel bad about because it’s a short week and I certainly won’t be posting on Thursday, Friday or through the weekend. Silly, sure, but that’s how the whole blogging thing has insinuated itself in my brain. Here’s hoping that maybe tomorrow I can manage one scintillating essay to prevent the entire week from being a loss. We shall see!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Scanner Sunday - Goofy, goofy comics (2)

That fanfic buddy who's coming to visit me today? He recently admitted there's a certain comic series he's never read, which is one I happen to both own and love. It's a six-issue miniseries from the mid-80's called LEGENDS and it is one of the last gasps of a comics industry that was still essentially making silly stories for children, but casting a hungry eye on an adult audience that wanted more mature themes and (quasi-)realistic depictions of costumed vigilantism and so on. The Grim-And-Gritty movement would hit its stride in the late 80's and early 90's but LEGENDS pre-dates it enough to have some utterly awesome goofiness to it. And since I dug out my issues to loan to my buddy anyway, I thought I'd share one of my personal favorite moments:

I would set up the premise of the miniseries in detail (short version: an evil godlike alien tries to soften Earth up for conquest by manipulating the media and making the people of the world lose faith in superheroes; chaos ensues) except the sequence below is almost completely random in its minimal bearing on the overall plot. It's just a scene of the "chaos" where super criminals are running wild because superheroes are otherwise occupied not getting curbstomped by angry mobs of civilians (seriously). Thus, the following nefarious caper unfolds (feel free to click each scan for a bigger, more legible version, but you'll probably get the gist at a glance):

'You never can tell what might BLOW in' - oh Len Wein, you rascal!
OK, hoity-toity clock auction is gatecrashed by an attractive woman in a bikini. Arguably more of a prank than a felony, but then, the plot thickens:

Hell of an entrance, cliche dialogue and all.
Ah yes, Chronos, of course, who has arrived to steal the rare and valuable clocks because that's his thing. And Chronos has what is inarguably one of the goofiest costumes in perhaps all of comicdom, but that is actually completely besides the point here. What delights me endlessly about this whole scene is its intricacy, especially when you mentally reverse-engineer it. Chronos figures the easiest way to waltz in and take the clocks is to incapacitate everyone in the room, hence the robo-girl (whose name, it is later revealed, is "Tikki") and her deafening bong-screams which knock out everyone who hears them. Although presumably those bong-screams could have been emitted by any electronic device at all. So of all possible delivery mechanisms for said nefariousness, Chronos chose a sexbot over, say, bribing a waiter to carry the emitter in on a tray or any number of other possibilities. Granted, the sexbot provides other benefits as well. NO NOT LIKE THAT. As the caper continues, Chronos pulls some insta-inflatable packing crates out of the robot's abdominal storage space, and when the Blue beetle finally shows up to save the day, Chronos makes use of the bot's self-destruct to mask his getaway. But still, all of those gadgets and gizmos were incorporated into a lifelike automaton capable of walking into a room unassisted, and also scantily clad yet bedecked in clock-themed baubles. There can only be one possible logical explanation for why Chronos would accrue that kind of expense in the front-end of a plan to yoink some old timepieces:

PANACHE.

And frankly, I do lament sometimes how a lot of comics today are all about villains who murder indiscriminately and heroines who are survivors of sexual assault and on and on with the real-life horrors, but when I get nostalgic for the comics of my youth, it's not because I think they were simpler. They were, as I think I've made clear above, absolutely byzantine sometimes. But it was a joyful kind of elaborate mess, and just trying to keep up with it was fun. I admire a career criminal for whom the trappings and calling cards of his schtick are obviously more important than the loot itself.

SatOrSunday Grab Bag - Fanfic Week Edition

On Thursday night my wife fired up her netbook and surfed over to my blog and read the title of the post and said "Fanfic again, huh?" All I could do was smile sweetly and say "What part of 'fanfic WEEK' did you think I was joking about?"

+++

But I missed yesterday, and the reason is because I spent the vast majority of it (when not toddler-wrangling which I assume almost goes without saying) tidying up the house because we have a guest coming to town today and spending the night tonight. That might seem like mere excuse-making but it is actually relevant insomuch as this friend is one of the people I mentioned during the course of the week - a fellow fanficcer who I now consider a friend, despite only ever communicating via e-mail and reading one another's stories. There are odder things in this modern age to base a friendship on besides the common ground of being copyright scofflaws. Anyway, my online acquaintance lives on the west coast but came east for Thanksgiving and I suggested we get together, so he's riding the bus down from NYC to DC today and will spend the night on our sleeper sofa before heading back tomorrow morning. We both tend to write fairly locquacious e-mails so I suspect there's a strong chance we'll both just chatter dorkily most of the night and I'll be hoarse tomorrow. Fun stuff.

+++

Speaking of fun stuff, like the much anticipated (in this quarter) Green Lantern movie, they released the first full trailer online this week and you may be wondering if I saw it. I didn't interrupt Fanfic Week to talk about it but OF COURSE I SAW IT. Actually that's not as much of a gimme as you might think because I tend to get most of my online time in logged while I'm at work, but I don't have speakers at my work computer so one area I fall behind in is online videos. But I made a special point of clicking over to the trailer at home on Tuesday evening. And I realized, strangely, that although I was curious to see the trailer I might have let it go a couple of weeks nevertheless. It wasn't so much pure desire to see it that drove me, as it happened, but a desire to meet other people's expectations - I assumed other people who know me would ask me what I thought of it and I wanted to be ready. Then of course I got together with my friends on Wednesday evening and none of them asked about it at all. Such is always the way.

But bottom line, the trailer has not diminished my enthusiasm for the movie. It looks keen, and also seems to have a good sense of humor about itself. Come on, Summer '11!

+++

One last thought about fanfic, specifically the research part, which I avoided the temptation to tangent into earlier: yet another reason why the internet so strongly enabled fanfic as part of the 90’s web ascendance goes something like this: fan sites devoted simply to chronicling every line of dialogue and every plot development for various cult tv shows and sci-fi movies and whatnot make great resources for determining the correct backstory for fanfic writers to draw upon in fleshing out their own ideas, and the fact that those fan sites were online put them at everyone’s fingertips. Not to mention that if you want to include more exotic, pulpy elements in your stories, be it the inside of a nuclear missile silo as a setting or poisonous spiders as murder weapons or whatever, the vast resources of teh interwebs make that info easy to find, too. Anyone who might have fought the urge to contribute their own ideas to semi-official canon because they lacked confidence in their own expertise pretty much couldn't use that excuse one the information age really boomed.

Also incidentally, sometimes I think I should start my own comic book reference site collecting all the information I was never able to find easily online when doing my own fanfic research. That's ideally how the internet Web 2.whatever is supposed to work - everyone contributes and the whole ends up greater and all that. I do have a scanner now, after all. It's probably only lack of time that holds me back. If I make it that far, I'm going to be the least bored retired person EVER.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fanfic Week - Part 5

V: Shame Laid Bare

So basically there’s two big reasons why I don’t like talking about how much I really do like writing fanfic.

The first one is because, although I talk a good game about keeping things in perspective and according hobbies their proper place in the grand scheme of thing and maintaining balance and all of that, I sometimes fall a little short in following my own advice. I have never spent time on fanfic at the expense of real deadlines at work, or devoting attention to my wife or my son or truly necessary housework or anything like that. Having established that, I will say that I do spend a lot of time on it, and that’s just counting the actual writing process; I spend a mind-blowingly inordinate amount of time thinking about it. I cannot honestly claim that it’s just a lark for me, something I do when I’m dead bored or fleetingly inspired. It’s more or less always there as mental background noise, and even when I turn the volume way, way down so I can focus on something else, it’s still on to fill the silence when things inevitably quiet down.

See, I didn’t just get sucked into a comicbook fanfic community loosely defined by a bunch of people reading each other’s work. I got sucked into a community where groups of writers band together to essentially form their own versions of the Big Two comicbook publishers. I found a niche for myself as the Green Lantern guy (sorry, should have warned you to hold on to your hats before dropping that stunner) which meant not just writing a story here or there that happens to star Green Lantern, but acting as if I were writing prose versions of monthly comics, where every story I wrote was a continuation of everything that had gone before, basically on and on without end, while another guy did the same for Batman and another did the same for Superman, and so on, with all of our stories theoretically taking place concurrently and able to influence one another, just like in the real DC Comics.

One thing's for sure, this week has been a great opportunity to just post comicbook art every day.
And on the one hand, that’s an interesting and challenging project to be a part of and it kind of raises the imaginary stakes of the performance that each story I write represents, but on the other hand it takes the jaw-dropping geekiness that fanfic starts out with and atomic-rockets it to the next level. It also means that in addition to writing stories and thinking about what other stories I’m gonna write and reading other people’s stories (all of which, not for nothing, starts to feel all the more obligatory when it’s part of a group effort) I also spend even more time e-mailing the other people who are part of the group so I can coordinate things with them. AND, because everyone else in the group is as big a comicbook obsessive geek as I am (if not moreso! It is possible!) and because each story I write not only builds off what I’ve already written but also builds off everything DC Comics had themselves published before I started pretending their characters were mine, that means I have to accommodate and be sure not to contradict impossibly vast swaths of canon, which in turn means I spend yet more time clicking around on the internet. Doing research on old obscure comics. So that my personal amateur stories starring comic book characters will have that much more verisimilitude to the source material. Is that, in and of itself, fun for me? Clearly it totally is, or I wouldn’t do it (or not only do it but have gotten addicted to it). Fun notwithstanding, is it embarrassing that this is something I expend so much time and energy on? Yep. My face burns a little even just typing this.

Which is kind of a segue into big reason number two. Since I am someone who bitches all the time about how there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or days in the month, it is doubly shameful to admit to something I know without a doubt I already spend a disproportionate amount of time on. I can rationalize it all day, with all the same arguments I touched on yesterday, and say that I gravitate towards it because it’s simultaneously fun and undemanding, and I could be more productive but productivity is often more demanding and less fun, sooo …

Further complicating the whole matter is the fact that writing fanfic is in a weird way a mockery of my dreams. Suppose I were out of shape and watched too much tv. (Feel free to mentally eliminate the subjunctive since this is far from contrary to the truth.) You could make the argument that, while it’s all well and good that I love tv and derive great pleasure from watching it, I should take better care of myself and maybe work out at the gym some. And if I have the time to watch hours of tv, clearly I have the time to work out. But, fair or not, I could argue against that. Now suppose further that on certain evenings I cleared my schedule, changed into gym-appropriate attire, got in the car, and drove myself to the gym … then spent an hour hanging out at the front desk of the gym watching tv with the kid swiping membership cards. And then came home without working out. SO CLOSE! COME ON!

I think of fanfic like that sometimes, because I really do want to write. I want to publish a novel before I die. I wouldn’t mind selling a few original short stories between now and then, either. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t think much of his own writing ability and scratches out fanfic just for love of the characters. I do it because it scratches that itch. Sitting at a computer, opening a Word doc, stringing together words and sentences into paragraphs and dialogue and character development and narrative arcs, clearly I can find the time and energy to do all these things which is like, GAH, 90% of the way to writing my own stuff free and clear? 95%? But almost every time I go the easier way, and that is humiliating. Ten, eleven years ago it was the easy fix I needed to give myself a mental vacation from bad-bad times. And I could even say it was practice, sharpening certain skills in a risk-free, reward-rich environment. And I don’t regret any of that, I’ve even made a couple of genuine online-only friends in the deal. But now, life is good, and I’ve written like 750,000 words of fanfic in the past decade and I still get a lot of the same geeky joy out of it but I feel like I either need to cut back on it or do more original writing to counterbalance it. I need to take more risks and be a little less comfortable.

I think that might have been a subconscious reason for starting this blog, so that I could have a daily writing outlet that wasn’t just further entrenching my fanfic addiction. Of course blogging has its own comforting limits and inherent easiness as well, and I think I’m starting to feel that too, which might be why I’m bringing things full circle and finally marathon-blogging about fanfic. So maybe changes are starting to rumble underfoot. One never knows. What I do know is that at least now, when my quotidian geeking-outs include ventures into the fanfic realm (as they’re bound to now and then, even if I suddenly and drastically cut way back), I can make passing reference to them here and feel like it’ll be placed in the proper context. Except of course for the people who skipped this week once it started piling horrifically high and deep – they’ll still be totally baffled.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fanfic Week - Part 4

IV: Serendipity

Everything I’ve said so far this week on the topic of fanfic is, of course, either an oversimplification or an exaggeration. The fact that I’m snarkily prone to exaggeration should come as no surprise to anyone, and the oversimplification can be attributed simply enough to the fact that I’m trying to get these posts to clock in around 1000 words apiece, not 10,000. But that doesn’t change the fact that by breezing on through I am perhaps being overly reductive.

Just like, basically, every other freaking thing under the sun, fanfic can be nuanced and taken as a whole has inexhaustible complexity. For every person writing graphic accounts of what actually happens when the source material tastefully fades to black, there’s someone else writing a legitimately interesting (yet still PG-rated) twist on an old idea. For every delusional diva who demands comment-thread worship for staging elaborate puppet shows using someone else’s toys, there’s a counterpart who’s humbly grateful to have any likeminded readers at all. For every obsessive who takes the reverence of sacred canon way too seriously, there’s a casual fan who knows it’s just a lark. Like I said, this makes fanfic no different from any other hobby, especially the hobbies that fall outside of mainstream pursuits like “watching movies” or “listening to music”. Model railroads, societies for creative anachronism, whatever – they’ve all got their enthusiasts who keep it all within the perspective appropriate to a fringe hobby, and they’ve got their zealots who take it all a wee bit too seriously and can be a mite offputting to everyone except those very much in lockstep with them.

I enjoy reading fanfic, and I enjoy writing it, too. Unsurprisingly (and despite trying to throw in as many examples this week as I could from novels and movies and tv) I gravitate exclusively to the comicbook superhero flavors, and more specifically fanfic as opposed to slashfic as I’ve already explained. I’ve been into it more or less consistently since about 1999 or so, which not coincidentally was not the greatest year for me. My first marriage was on the downward decline and picking up speed towards its inevitable end, and I had started a new job which I was really uncertain about (in retrospect it was the first step along my current career path, which seems to have turned out fine, but at the time it made me feel wobbly as hell). I was (this may sound familiar) undertasked and stressed during the days in the office, and overwhelmed and stressed in the nights at home, and I desperately needed some kind of lifeline, escape hatch, release valve, call it what you will.

Magic wishing ring?  OK!
It’s hard to think of something else that would have been more perfect in those circumstances than fanfic, which I discovered quite by accident while surfing teh interwebs at work. Reading and writing comicbook fanfic gave me something mentally engaging to do at my desk besides waiting for assignments to trickle in and wondering if I had made a big mistake employment-wise. In the relative privacy of a cubicle with a computer that supported an internet connection, a web browser and a word processor, I had everything I needed to engage fully in the hobby, and to any co-workers passing by I looked legitimately busy. Every time I finished another story it gave me a feeling of accomplishment, which was obviously sorely lacking in the other big areas of my life.

And writing (for me anyway) is just as much fun as it is hard work, so working on fanfic was extremely pleasant escapism. But on the flip side it was easy, way more fun than hard work, because half of the work was already done for me. Establishing personalities and character traits, setting up backstories that lent resonance to current developments – all conveniently handled by the mountains of comics I had grown up reading, which meant I could borrow all of those elements liberally and get right to the high notes, the one-liner zingers and the F-YEAH! climaxes. I conceivably could have spent my time writing on highly personal, 100% original dare-I-say-it art which has its own capacity for catharsis and release of pent-up energies and so on but the needle would have been much further to the hard-work side in that case, and I sincerely maintain that wasn’t what I needed at the time.

Stepping into a fanfic community was just icing on the cake, since I was feeling so isolated at the time (another side-effect of the unhealthy demands of a floundering marriage) – not that I unburdened my soul to these people with whom common ground consisted solely of appreciating the scripting abilities of Kurt Busiek or John Ostrander, but just having any kind of camaraderie at all was nice. Did I mention 1999 was bad times?

So it was the right combination of mental exercise and creative expression and fantasist entertainment and cyber-tribalism all at once at exactly the right time for me, and I didn’t meet but a handful of divas and hardly any pervs (oddly enough slashfic seems to be almost entirely the domain of female writers, and everyone I came in contact with who was writing straightforward prose versions of modern comics were dudes) and then I kind of got addicted to the whole enchilada which probably explains why I still do it today, long after the desperate need for it has passed. And all of the pros make sense and the cons are neatly sidestepped, but notice that it has taken FOUR DAYS for me to satisfactorily allow that to happen. So then that’s why I’ve never casually mentioned my own fanfic adventures: waaaaay too much caveating and caviling required.

I’m also not quite done with the personal shame yet, either. Dismissing slashfic as completely separate and way-over-there from what I do is one thing, but there are still other elements not so easily ignored because they totally do, in fact, apply to me. Yet here I am pushing 1000 words again, so we’ll save that for the big finale tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fanfic Week - Part 3

III: The Bad Rap

Where were we? Ah yes, exploitative fanfic, which simultaneously is pretty much what you’re thinking and also a lot more than that besides. Where previously we considered cases of “I want more of this Source Material Property, but there isn’t any more being made, so I will create my own” as well as “I want more of this Source Material Property, and I want it done right which is currently not happening, so I will take it upon myself” now we are forced to contemplate the case of “I want more of this Source Material Property, specifically more adult-themed material which is probably not at all commercially viable for various reasons whether or not said Source Material is still being produced, not to mention arguably being quite at odds with the original authorial intent, so I will gratify that urge on my own”. And yes, this could conceivably encompass hyperviolent Pokemon stories with blood and guts and dramatic deaths and so forth but mainly here we are talking about sex.

I am reminded of something which the great interwebs sage Lore Sjoberg once said when he was writing about furries. A person might tell you they are really into Coca-Cola memorabilia and your response would probably be mild indifference. Ditto if the person said they were into Tudor England or singing saws or any number of other weird niche interests. But there’s something instinctive in all of us that causes a predictable near-universal reaction when someone says they are into anthropomorphic animals, and that reaction is “Wait … is this a sex thing?” It doesn’t have to be, it could stem from a completely innocent fascination with animals, but of course the unsettling mascot-costume orgies are what get turned into episodes of CSI with what feels like a certain inevitability. But this might be unfair. I’m willing to at least concede the empirical possibility.

And probably it goes thusly for fanfic, too. If Spider-Man comics published continuously since the early 60’s, plus multiple cartoons, a blockbuster Hollywood trilogy, licensed novels and the odd video-game here and there aren’t enough to satisfy my love of the character, so much so that I will seek out prose stories starring him online … wait, is this a sex thing? It’s weird, it involves the internet, how naïve do you have to be to not connect the dots?

It's the radioactive blood.
Even now this is probably somewhat belated but allow me to quickly shift for a moment from the generalizations to the more personal: I am into fanfic, but I am not into that kind of fanfic. I’m trying to sketch the broad outlines of the whole phenomenon/community here, though, and it would be willfully myopic of me to not at least acknowledge the whole erotica wing of the museum, since I’m perfectly well-aware that it exists. And furthermore, I’m not trying to hate on it. I’m no prude and I’m a very “whatever floats your boat” kind of guy, even if the buoyancy in question is totally not for me. More for you, I guess. You and your boat.

Another thing I’m reminded of: music class in middle school, which our teacher tried (with nothing but noble intentions, I’m sure) to pitch directly at us by focusing entirely on rock and roll and using that to convey concepts from chorus-verse structure to syncopation. One day the lesson plan had something to do with musical genres and subdividing taxonomies and so on, and the teacher was asking us all to volunteer the names of sub-genres of rock and roll, like rockabilly and new wave and so on. Someone said “heavy metal” and that set off one of the resident metalheads in the class. (Again, bear in mind, this is middle school. We were all, like, twelve.) The metalhead was very dismissive of “heavy metal” as a useful label because there were so many different kinds, from thrash to death to black to glam, and he went on and on naming species of metal for what seemed like ten minutes. Of course he was, in what was without a doubt the most I ever heard that kid speak in class ever, proving our teacher’s point about how different styles of music can on the one hand have distinct characteristics but on the other hand share commonalities with an overarching tradition. But mainly (not that he came right out and said this) what I think he was trying to do was carve up the metal landscape for the sake of his own sense of identity. He was known amongst his peers as a metalhead and he knew it, but he also wanted to know that we all knew that what that meant was that he was into Slayer and Megadeth, and emphatically NOT Cinderella or Poison or any other pretty-boy band that just happened to have long hair and the capacity to make someone’s grandmother say “Turn that heavy metal nonsense down!”

Do you take my point? (Don’t worry, I’m not even sure I do at this point.) When I first started getting into fanfic I learned a useful, related term: slashfic. That’s the sexy stuff, so named because it usually involves specific binary character pairings in romance, with the two characters’ names separated by the slash symbol. So someone sublimating their desire to see Captain Reynolds and Inara Serra from Firefly finally bump uglies would write Mal/Inara slashfic. And yes, that’s the redundant construction, and it would be valid to say “Check out this Mal/Inara story” where the fact that it is slashfic is implied. This is crucial to know if you are haunting a listserv and someone says “Check out this Kirk/Spock fic!” and your first hought would be, “Oh, OK, cool, an original Star Trek story that just focuses on the captain and his science officer having an adventure.” They will have an adventure, sure, probably, but it will likely involve bathing pools and/or Pon Farr. And this, it turns out, the erotic exploration of same-sex couples who have virtually no antecedent sexual tension in the source material (I say virtually because some people will argue about the existence of subtle subtext for any story until the heat death of the universe) is an extremely common slashfic instantiation, to the point where they almost become synonymous and you have to specify “straight slashfic”.

And it’s nomenclature, which I obsess over anyway. And it relates to something which I claim to understand from the inside but which I often see misused by outsiders. I totally get how when anything has an even slightly unseemly element to it, people perceive it entirely and exclusively in that light. But it drives me crazy when some proper nomenclature could clear things up. If everyone used “slashfic” to refer to amateur erotica about established fictional characters, and “fanfic” to refer to amateur stories about established fictional characters, then I wouldn’t feel so ashamed to cop to an interest in fanfic. But fanfic acquires the bad rap of one of its subsets, and so it goes.

Of course, there are plenty of other things which can and do give fanfic a well-deserved bad rap. The fact that it’s a pursuit for amateurs who hang out on the lawless ol’ intertubes means that the quality of the writing can range from pretty good to abysmally wretched, in every sense from comprehension-defying grammar and spelling and punctuation to unironic embrace of the most cringeworthy cliché ideas imaginable. The fact that it springs from the fount of superfandom means that it can contain deep, dark pockets of near-ruinous obsession. The fact that online communities tend to ooze up around it in the form of mutual admiration societies, where Suzy praises Betty’s Sweaty Bi-Curious Adventures of Dr. Carter and Dr. Ross from ER to the high holy heavens and therefore expects Betty to similarly exalt Suzy’s own epic time travel saga wherein Dr. Kovac goes back to the Korean War and has sex with everyone from M*A*S*H … that is just a bad fact, man. All of those are embarrassing, and I haven’t even gotten around to breaking down Mary Sues yet.

So when you combine the whole “sex thing?” conflation with all the other legit ugly warts of fanfic, perhaps you can understand why laying claim to it as a hobby is not something I tend to toss out much at dinner parties (or in over a year of blogging, for that matter). And yet there it is, a hobby of mine, however much I keep it a secret. Can I possibly justify at all, even to myself, in light of how impossible I clearly think it is to justify to others?

Perhaps. But that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fanfic Week - Part 2

II: Terms and Technicalities

Having set the stage for my gigantic confession of inhabiting one of the lowest circles of absolute dorkdom, I now feel like I need to define some terms here a little bit before moving on into analysis and opinion and further personal revelations (ah, my liberal arts degree, you continue to serve me well). Of course fanfic is one of those slippery concepts which is simultaneously easy to define yet hard to explain, not to mention frequently oversimplified or misused (or so the vested insider, such as myself, would exasperatedly insist). But when have concerns like those ever stopped me. Thus, Fanfic 101:

The word itself is an abbreviation of “fan fiction” which is a straightforward enough concept; so it’s a label for works of fiction written (a) by fans of an existing work and (b) about an existing work. Implicit in this definition is the idea that in order to be a fan of something, that something has to originate externally to yourself. It’s possible to be your own biggest fan, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This is about encountering someone else’s ideas and becoming so enamored with those ideas that you feel compelled to use them as the basis of your own semi-creative expression. And not in an analytical way, producing something that could be filed in the non-fiction section of the bookstore, like a memoir about a year spent watching every weekday’s installment of a soap opera, or a case study on the making of a doomed Hollywood epic. Fanfic is about fictional storytelling, by means of borrowing established characters and settings from someone else’s work.

Except, of course, that covers a lot of ground doesn’t it? Once upon a time Ian Fleming came up with James Bond – are modern Bond films just fanfic? Chris Carter originated The X-Files concept but the show quickly became staffed by a team of writers – were they all fanficcers? What about anyone who ever wrote a cash-in novel licensed as an X-Files product? I honestly think these are open questions, but I’ll try to pin them down nevertheless. Objectively, the answer to all of the above is “no” for a couple of closely intertwined reasons. Bond flicks and X-Files novels are created with all rights issues cleared (usually) and with an essential officialness about them, and the people who generate them get paid for doing so. Whereas fanfic is essentially an amateur pursuit engaged in by nonprofessionals, with either blithe disregard for copyright issues or a little lip service to Fair Use and whatnot. Subjectively, of course, if you are of the opinion that Casino Royale was James Bond fanfic I feel you should be entitled to your own point of view. “Fanfic” tends to get tossed around as an insult among people who follow entertainment the same way that “fascist” gets tossed around as a political put-down, and arguably with equal amounts of factual support.

I’ll get back to that idea of “fanfic” being a derogatory term in and of itself in a little bit, but first let me give voice to a question which would be understandably raised at this point: why in the world would anyone write fanfic to begin with? Writing is hard, time-consuming and solitary, and anyone who’s ever sat down to actually record the ideas in their head can at least momentarily comfort themselves with the thought, no matter how unlikely, that just maybe when they’ve finished composing their magnum opus they could potentially be compensated for it, in real money and public adulation. It is generally accepted, in fact, that this is J.K. Rowling’s origin story – she had an idea, she toiled over it and wrote it all down, and Harry Potter ended up one of the most successful and beloved series of books of all time. But if I were to write my own story about Harry and Ron and Hermione, no matter how that story turned out I would never be able to sell it or publish it commercially without getting sued. Why bother?

No doubt there was fanfic before the internet, but the latter’s existence undeniably boosted the viability of the former. Cheap-if-not-free web hosting means that anything and everything can be published non-commercially, which means you still don’t get paid for writing fanfic, and you won’t reach a mass-market audience, but you still might reach a few other human souls who happen to have both a common interest in the object of your fandom and a stable ISP. And ultimately (I would posit) this is the big draw of writing fanfic: a built-in, pre-existing audience.

It’s easy enough to imagine someone scribbling (or hunt-n-pecking) a rollicking adventure of Han Solo and Chewbacca as they fight Stormtroopers and bounty hunters and to further imagine yourself smacking that someone upside the head with some painfully obvious advice: instead of a trademark-infringing homage to their childhood heroes, why don’t they just come up with some SLIGHTLY original characters of their own? Everything is derivative of something else, anyway, and they’ve already got a plot in mind that isn’t a direct and blatant rip-off. Change the lovable rogue’s name to Zan Doble and his alien sidekick to a giant purple fuzzy caterpillar and their spaceship to the Eon Eagle, and voila! The result will no longer be fanfic! It could be the next thing the kids all go crazy for!

And it could, that’s true … but it’s terribly unlikely. For every new idea that catches on in a big way there are countless ones that don’t. A person who clears their own path for commercial success also potentially clears the path toward utterly indifferent obscurity. So fanfic offers a trade-off: give up any notion of being a “real” (paid, successful, respected, etc.) writer and in exchange get a pre-assembled audience to validate your output.

Because the validation is all but guaranteed, as we consider some of the secondary draws of fanfic as a hobby. In most cases there’s a pervasive sense of never being able to get enough of a good thing. Seven Harry Potter novels and eight movies? Some people want more. Nine seasons of The X-Files? Some people want more. And some people, with just a hint of a creative bent to their minds, want more so very badly that they will go ahead and conjure up more themselves. There’s a certain point we’re passing here where fandom shades into superfandom. Fandom entails appreciating something for what it is, including the finality of a complete story. Superfandom never wants the story to end, and refuses to acknowledge the concept of diminishing returns. And at the same time, superfans don’t really want the story to change either, so a “new” story which is actually the same old characters following the same familiar beats in endless wheel-spinning is not just acceptable but actually desirable.

Yes it is an easy target.  There is no such thing as TOO easy a target.
So the genesis of a fanfic writer might go something like this: someone discovers the Twilight series and falls in love with it, quickly reading the entire set of novels and becoming a superfan. They want more, but there isn’t any, in the sense of published novels by Stephanie Meyer. So the superfan turns to the internet and joins message boards where other superfans congregate to talk about how Twilight is the pinnacle of western literature. And sooner or later someone on those boards mentions how they’ve written a new Edward and Bella story themselves, either filling in the gaps in the novels or taking place shortly after the last one ends, and the story either appears on the message board itself or the poster has some modicum of HTML design ability and posts a link to a website dedicated to hosting these Twi-fics. And everyone else on the message board posts responses to the story along the lines of “ZOMG SOOOOO PERFECT!!! MORE, PLEASE!!! TEAM EDWARD 4EVA!!!” and the brand new superfan is right there with them, and simultaneously thinking “I’ve always wondered what would happen if Edward and Bella went on vacation in Egypt and Edward had to rescue Bella from mummies” and the new superfan starts composing a tale answering that very question. And the new superfan knows it doesn’t really matter how well the story turns out, because everyone else on the boards is going to loooooove it, because it gives them exactly what they crave: more Twilight.

There are some variations on this, two main ones I can think of off the top of my head: the corrective and the exploitative. The corrective version arises when superfans become so obsessed that they feel an irrational entitlement over fictional properties, to the point at which they feel it is possible for the originator of an idea to do that idea “wrong” by failing to tell a story “the way it should have gone.” Fanfic, then, offers the remedy, by allowing someone to tell the story “right”. This comes up a lot with superheroes and comic books, which of course lend themselves well to the “and here’s ANOTHER story about the X-Men” approach because that’s essentially been the business model for going on eight decades now, and because the legit publishers of the comics have passed the properties around through the hands of various work-for-hire scribes innumerable times. So it’s not a case of not being able to get any more X-Men outside of fanfic, because there are approximately 19 new issues of X-Men on the stands every month. It’s rather a case of being indignant at the way Chuck Austen “ruined” the X-Men and channeling that umbrage into one’s own X-Men stories which are far truer to the characters and sharing them with like-minded fans.

The exploitative version, depending on how your mind works, is either immediately self-explanatory or horrifyingly opaque in a manner which leaves you unsure as to whether or not you even want me to explain it. I think I’ve rambled on enough for today so I’ll let you think it over, and if you do want some elaboration (which I promise to keep reasonably non-retina-searing) then I will provide it tomorrow.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fanfic Week - Part 1

I: The Secret Shame

When I went to college, just like when any other kid goes to college, I had to go through a weeklong freshman orientation which consisted of at least one in-detail walking tour of the not-terribly-big campus, a couple of mandatory presentations from various echelons of the administration, and an interminable procession of icebreakers and mixers. All of these lattermost activities had the ostensible purpose of helping all of us meet new people, with subtle variations ranging from getting to know a little bit more under the surface of the other couple dozen guys on my floor of the dorm, to at least becoming passably acquainted with the dozen or so girls who lived directly above us, to simply mingling with another hall or two from different dorms across campus in the vague hopes that a recognizable human connection or two might emerge, even if most of the names and faces would be half-remembered at best.

Anyway, this was in the late summer of 1992 which means I’m reasonably certain it pre-dates the phenomenon of speed-dating, but I do remember one icebreaker which involved a hall’s worth of girls tromping out to our dorm, with each pair of roommates walking up to a different door and knocking on it, talking to the two guys within the room, for about two minutes until the girls’ R.A. blew a whistle and every pair of girls moved one door down the hall and new two-minute conversations began. By necessity these conversations were pretty superficial, with most of the information volunteered in response to the same stock questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what are you into?

If I sound at all dismissive of the mixer aspect of freshman orientation it’s probably residual attitude from when I was 18, because by then I had pretty much settled on a self-image which was equal parts self-loathing and self-congratulatory; I knew I was a little too off-center to be the most popular guy around, but I also felt reasonably confident in my ability to find and make friends with like-minded peers. I didn’t feel like I needed the mixers and I saw them as weird bit of forced socialization. But I played along, to a certain extent. For example, in a scenario like the speed-door-knocking I was just referring to, when asked what I was into I would make a vague reference to the fact that I “read a lot” and quickly turn the question around again. This was the safest possible way to play it. On the one hand, I was at the beginning of four years at a school that you need to be fairly nerdy to get into, so being an avid reader was utterly unremarkable. It also might have been a little truer in my case than most, since there is a difference between reading as much as you need to in order to pull down A’s, and reading just for fun. And in my split-second assessment, I knew that as nerdy as being a self-professed reader was, the other things which could have vied for position as my answer – collecting comics, playing Dungeons & Dragons, listening to heavy metal – were stonecold conversation killers best kept to myself.

And the trifecta comes in the NIIIIIIIIGHT!
And to a certain extent that hasn’t changed, lo these 18 more years of life experience in trying to push the needle further away from self-loathing and closer to, if not the smugness of late adolescence, at least a nod of satisfaction. My musical tastes have broadened enough that I can talk intelligently about genres that don’t all involve distortion and double bass drums. Comics have become so mainstreamed that I no longer automatically assume people are luring me into a humiliation trap when they pose a question about the medium for which they assume I will have a ready (and exhaustive) answer. And D&D, other RPGs, minigames and the like may still be weirdly impenetrable at a glance, but I don’t think they’re exclusively the domain of freaks so weird that they couldn’t come up with something better to do on a Friday night if they tried. (Not that I have much going on Friday nights these days either way. But still.)

However, just because I’ve made peace with the eccentricities and curious interests which my recent-high-school-grad self would have rather died than take pride in, doesn’t mean that I’m not still capable of secret shame. If I ranked all of my various forms of geek expression in order with the most embarrassing at the top, number one on that list would blow away everything beneath it combined. Purchasing and displaying overpriced action figures? Not a big deal. Hoarding packaging materials to repaint as obstacles for homemade tabletop strategy games? Kind of odd, I grant you, but not appallingly so.

Number one on the list would be fanfic.

It is entirely possible that after all that build-up, some of you got to the payoff there and went “um, what?” (Which of course kind of begins to prove my point about how this particular furtive pursuit is from way out past the fringes of normalcy.) After all, I never talk about fanfic hereabouts on the blog. Partly that’s because of the aforementioned shame, and partly because, gah, where would I start? Yet I’ve always suspected that sooner or later I would get around to posting about it and, as usual, it seems that linksurfing has once again forced my hand. In the past couple weeks I’ve run into references to fanfic everywhere I turn: in webcomics I follow, in essays about interactivity and art, and on professional writers’ blogs. (Regarding that trio of links, the first one is cute and amusing and goes to the first installment of an on-topic storyline that lasts at least six days, the second one is interesting and edifying, and the third one probably won’t mean much to anyone but I was on a roll there.) Everybody’s talking about it, and far be it for me to resist jumping in.

So I’m giving the blog over to the subject for the whole week, and I’m not really even going to try to tie it in to the usual day-of-the-week themes I tend to follow. So if me dissecting a somewhat disreputable corner of the teh interwebs and what it means to me sounds a mite off-putting, consider this fair warning! No hard feelings and I’ll see you Saturday or next Monday or whatever. But if you’re game, then I will break down what fanfic is, why it’s situated so far down on the geek-scorn continuum, how I got into it and stayed into it despite it so clearly owning the hell out of my personal self-scorn continuum, and all kinds of fun stuff like that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Celluloid

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was the keynote speaker at my college graduation, and he honestly gave a pretty entertaining address to my class, developing the notion that a lot of the platitudes one tends to hear on the occasion of commencement are not merely slightly untrue or oversimplified but out-and-out the opposite of true. The particular point he observed which has stuck with me ever since was when he skewered “It’s not an ending, it’s a beginning” and informed us that it was really both (I suppose the fact that the Constitution doesn’t specifically reference the undergrad lifestyle made it possible for Tony to countenance a point of view that didn’t come down on one side or the other) and he further identified a very particular ending – “the end of leisure”. As someone who had slacked his way through four years getting by with a B-average and an English major, I had no trouble accepting that he was probably right. (Many of my friends who had just about bled from their eyeballs due to near-constant studying, on the other hand, might very well have taken umbrage at the very notion.) Of course, it’s taken me until fairly recently to truly grasp the full essence of the point. My version of adulthood has been on kind of a slow burn, with parenthood only arriving a little over two years ago and owning a house where I’m also expected to take care of my own yard less than twelve months ago. But yeah, leisure is something I remember more than I engage in.

One of the things that was great about the leisurely structure of my college experience was that I felt like I had enough hours in the day/week/month to go head-to-heads with the dual gaping maws of my pop culture obsessiveness: I could keep up with new stuff as it entered the zeitgeist, and I could catch up on the classics that were from before my time or I had otherwise missed. Between the small second-run/revival theater in town, film studies classes, and the ubiquitous multiplexes, college was when I saw Citizen Kane and The Crow, Deliverance and Demolition Man, and on and on and on. Granted a lot of the “on and on” was crap, not just in retrospect but transparently at the time, and there were plenty of universally-adored classics I continued avoiding all the way through not only college but good stretches of post-college time too (e.g. not seeing The Godfather until 2005) but for sheer volume over time ratio-type numbers, the idle college years were understandably tough to beat.

In fact, in college I used to re-watch movies all the time, whether that meant throwing the VHS copy of Tank Girl on in the dorm room for background entertainment or going to see Basic Instinct in the second-run theater after already having seen it first run, just because I wanted to determine how many clues were dropped along the way now that I knew how it all ended. (The latter example might possibly have been more mental exertion than the film itself truly merited. In my defense both viewings were also sociable group outings as well.) Nowadays the thought of spending a couple hours of downtime watching something I’ve already seen instead of trying something new seems abominably wasteful.

Just one house in my personal neighborhood of make-believe
I’ve been thinking about the college/movies intersection slightly more than usual lately, for all kinds of random reasons (the recent Rocky Horror episode of Glee prompted a conversation amongst my friends in which I had to admit that I had never seen the movie, even when I had my last chance in college; I’m just now finally getting around to reading the manga of Akira, which I’ve been meaning to do since I saw the anime film freshman year, etc.) but that of course is just a starting point for overthinking my cinephilia in general, and diving straight into territory like “How exactly did I end up this way?” Not ending up as someone with more desire to immerse himself in movies than actual time to do so, because that’s easy: I made choices which I don’t regret in the slightest because they brought me other things I want significantly more than increased time in front of the big screen. Being married, being a dad, having a house and a job and a social life, those aren’t things which just somehow befell me. I went after them, and one way of determining how unsurprising that is would be to point out how normalized all those things were in my childhood. Of course they meant something to me. Movies weren’t exactly exalted in the same way home and family were. (The argument could be made that books were, on the other hand, but apples and oranges all that, I think.)

I can remember my dad recommending exactly one movie to me in the entire first thirteen years of my life (after which, needless to say, his recommendation of just about anything would have been the surest way to turn me off from it). That would be when I was maybe eleven or so and I wanted to have a monster-movie birthday party and my dad suggested Young Frankenstein, which of course remains to this day one of my favorite movies. I alternate between shaking my head and rolling my eyes over my father more often than not, but I will say that no one who introduces the younger generation to the better films of Mel Brooks can possibly be all bad. But in this particular case I’m not even trying to say it was wrong or bad of my father not to make tons of cinematic recommendations to me in my formative years – just saying it’s odd that he did no such thing and yet all on my own I became the kind of person who has a 150-flick long Netflix queue that constantly mocks me as it gets longer instead of shorter over time.

And then one of these days my little guy won’t be quite so little anymore, and he’ll be the one living the life of leisure, and it’s possible that he’ll indulge in absolutely any entertainment activity EXCEPT movies, cause “oh, gah, that’s SO Dad” or it’s equally possible he’ll dive into classics that I still haven’t managed to make time for and set up a weird dynamic where the common ground proves maddeningly elusive. Of course both of those scenarios essentially ignore the potential of a transitional stage where I’m the one guiding him into a love of movies at the same time that I perpetuate my own. That’s my big blind spot, the fact that there are more hands-on approaches to the not-strictly-survival-oriented aspects of parenting than my own parents took, and they don’t all necessarily amount to overprotective smothering, either. I gotta keep reminding myself of that.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

He is the night

As I write this I am home from work (thanks, veterans!) and my wife is out shopping, while the little guy is upstairs ... I would say "trying to nap" but he's not trying very hard. Maybe more accurately I'm trying to get him to nap, but that doesn't actually involve me doing very much other than leaving him in his darkened room and hoping he gets the hint and falls asleep. (It's been an hour and half so far of him alternately talking and singing to himself - selections including the Lorax's monologue about gloppity-glop and the University of Michigan fight song - and crying out for mommy, who as I mentioned is not here). Anyway I may have to bolt at a moment's notice to answer any screaming from the crib, but I did want to relate a little bit of recent adorableness.

On Halloween, when we went over to my buddy's house, my buddy's 9-ish-year-old nephew was in attendance, dressed as Batman (the Batman Begins/Dark Knight version). As young lads are want to do, he got way into character, running around with dramatic swooshes of his cape. (Also brandishing a foam katana, the canonicity of which I might quibble with if I were humorless enough to quibble with 9-year-olds.) Apparently this made a major impression on the little guy, because a few nights later,upon existing the bathtub and having his towel-hood draped over his head, he yelled "I'm Batman!" and started running around the upstairs, towel swooshing with appropriate drama.

Biff!  Zam!  Pow!
Needless to say this slays me. He was at it again the past couple of nights, and I had taken to singing the Batman theme (Tim Burton/Danny Elfman version) as he ran through his caped crusader routine. Mainly I suspected I was providing a musical score to amuse myself - that is, until I stopped singing. Because at that point, the little guy stopped running around and turned to me and said "Daddy sing the song again!" So evidently he was very appreciative of the fact that running around pretending to be Batman accompanied by stirring orchestral compositions is far superior to the unaccompanied version of same.

THAT IS MY BOY.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cartoons with a vengeance

This past weekend, as I mentioned, I did quite a bit of housework, yardwork and errand-running, much of it with the little guy in tow, and in order to balance that out I watched a fair amount of tv, which while it may be blisteringly obvious I will point out is ideal in its passivity for combining with wrangling a toddler. I’ve tried to make use of ostensible weekend downtime by reading or indulging some fiddly hobby or another, but that almost never works. Inevitably the little guy will try to pull the book out of my hands and replace it with something I might read to him, or I’ll get so engrossed in the book as the little guy wanders off to follow his own bliss that when I come to the end of a chapter I have a moment of panic as I realize I have no idea where my child is or what he’s doing, or a loud crash will give me an inkling as to what he’s doing and I’ll hurriedly put the book down, losing my page and/or train of thought. But television is just kind of there, and it’s easy enough to keep one eye on the little guy while half-watching it, and no heartbreak to wander away from it if parental duty calls. Obvious, like I said, and it goes hand-in-hand with how insidiously bad for us tv really is, something I’m aware of and forever struggling with, but these days, I can rationalize things pretty darn quick.

Of course there’s still some judiciousness required in the presence of the little guy; even when he’s scooting around on his push-truck and could care less about what’s transpiring on-screen, I’m still not going to linger on Kill Bill vol. 1 (even if it is expurgated for basic cable, and seemingly running in a constant loop with its sequel from Friday through Sunday). Mostly, as always, I stick to live sporting events because they seem harmless enough to an impressionable young mind, and the little guy gets a charge out of throwing up his arms and yelling “Touchdown!” along with me (for which there was overabundant opportunity during Saturday’s ridiculous Michigan win in triple overtime). But in our house, it’s never enough to simply turn on a football or baseball or hockey game and leave it on; one must keep the remote near and change channels frequently, for several reasons: to avoid commercials, to skip the boring downtimes, and of course to avoid jinxing the team Heisenberg-style by watching too closely.

So, once again taking into account little eyes and ears, when I flipped the channel away from ESPN I headed toward the kid-friendly band of broadcasting, and I noticed that Disney XD was about to begin an hourlong block of their new Avengers cartoon. A comicbook-loving buddy of mine had mentioned that he was DVR-ing Avengers and found it to be reasonably appealing to the adult sensibilities of longtime fans, so I gave it a looksee for myself.

Gentle readers, I ask you, if a cartoon based on a Marvel superhero comic were aiming to get its hooks in me, what elements would you suppose would give it the greatest chance of success? Would you guess that the involvement of Thor would be high on the list? Would you also include unblinking references to obscure continuity? How about monkeys? If so, you know me pretty well. You also would have outlined the cold open for the episode which was my introduction to the latest animated incarnation of the Avengers, which not coincidentally at all amused me to no end.

This was actually the third or fourth episode of the series, which has taken the bold step of actually telling a long serialized story that’s not exactly The Sopranos or The Wire in terms of narrative complexity, but still a notch up from traditional kiddie fare. My buddy was good enough, in singing the praises of the show, to inform me that the origin story for the Avengers team is rendered here as a bunch of disparate superheroes coming together because of a massive break-out from four supervillain prisons. (In the comics, it was disparate heroes coming together because of the sometimes-noble, sometimes-monstrous Hulk on a rampage.) The first couple of episodes concerned themselves, beyond the formation of the titular team, with tracking down and recapturing one particularly badass villain.

But with that done, the series still has momentum to burn because there are a hundred other supervillains still out there, and they are villains with criminal pasts notorious enough to have already placed them behind futuristic bars. Which is a nice parallel to the Avengers themselves, who as noted are all superheroes who have had adventuring careers prior to the moment of realization that they could be even more effective in aggregate. This is not a cartoon that is afraid of losing the kiddies if it doesn’t introduce every character in the most obviously self-explanatory way possible. It simply assumes the existence of a comicbook world rich in its own history and asks the audience to trust that if they need to know any given character’s backstory, it will be revealed, but if it isn’t revealed then it’s probably irrelevant. I gotta say I admire that approach. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I’m the kind of geek who already knows all the backstories anyway thanks to decades of reading the very comics which serve as the source inspiration for the cartoon’s backdrop.

Once upon a time, some writer and artist got paid to come up with this.  God bless America.
To wit: the episode of Avengers I saw opened in media res as a six-foot baboon in a blue blouse and red cape is on the run with a couple valises stuffed with presumably stolen money. A cop pulls a gun on the monkey and yells “Freeze!” but the monkey is somehow able to hypnotically paralyze the cop, and keeps running. Then one by one the Avengers appear, and while the Mandrill is pretty sure he can take down the Wasp, his confidence diminishes as Iron Man, Giant Man, Thor and the Hulk all show up in succession, and finally the Mandrill surrenders. The greatness of this scene is manifold:

- Absolutely no explanation of the Mandrill’s powers. Either you roll with it, “Hypnotic blue-nosed baboon, got it”, or you don’t, but there’s no overt attempt at selling it. (It’s possible that in the earlier jailbreak episode, Mandrill’s powers got a fleeting mention in some kind of running-down-the-inmates exposition, but taking this episode as a self-contained story, that wouldn’t count in any case.) And yet in a nice nod to the comicbook-loving Gen X dads out there, the portrayal of the Mandrill is pretty much spot on. In the comics, it’s not exactly hypnotism, but super-pheromones which let him mesmerize only women. The cop in the cold open is, in fact, a woman. And as I mentioned, when the Wasp first shows up Mandrill is fairly sure she’s no threat. None of this gets called out specifically, and it’s arguably inessential, but geeks do love their easter eggs.
- The cold open has zero to do with the rest of the episode (which ends up being the first appearance of the series’ version of Avengers Mansion and focusing on how Hulk doesn’t fit in and is being provoked over the edge by the manipulations of the Enchantress) but is just a little bit of gleeful randomness. Sure, like I said, it ties in to the overall gotta-catch-em-all superstory that proceeds from the origin-initiating jailbreak. But it does so with a villain character whose intro and heyday were in the 1970’s and has been a fringe-player at best ever since. It’s pure throwaway, and considering that Marvel Comics owns approximately ten thousand characters from its five decades of publishing, I wish more cartoons would reflect that similarly. (Yes, I have wishlists about the narrative aspirations of children’s cartoons. This is who I am.) Not every episode of Spider-Man needs to be about Dr. Octopus. Yes there’s a wide gap between truly great characters who can carry a compelling story in the antagonist role, and one-note characters who are rightfully considered jokes, but certainly there’s room in cartoons for jokes, if only to spice things up a bit.
- Speaking of jokes, after the Mandrill surrenders and the Avengers observe that apprehending him was pretty easy, Thor’s take on the whole thing is (possibly paraphrased as I try to remember it four days later, but more or less): “Verily, he bringeth shame on all monkeys with his craven ways.” Best Line of Dialogue 2010, hands down. Also why I love Thor, and also the voice actor who managed to put so much emotion into the reading that you could really feel the god of thunder’s deep sympathy for the suffering of the world’s monkeys.

So, yeah, I’m a convert and new fan, which of course doesn’t mean that I’m going to magically find the time to actually catch his cartoon on a regular basis, but still. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that something this entertaining is out there. I can always track down the DVD collection some day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

SSDD

I’m just going to go ahead and keep talking about work today, because there’s more to talk about and because Tuesday’s one of my more free-form blogging days anyway. I’ve made it known previously that I don’t (and in no way want to) define myself in terms of my job, so it sometimes surprises me just how much room the whole working thing can take up in my head and my life. I think sometimes I just ignore it for as long as I possibly can, claiming that there’s nothing going on at work, same old same old, and then every so often it finally reaches critical mass and the floodgates burst open and here we are.

So I have two new co-workers who started maybe a month ago, maybe a little longer, which is approximately the right amount of time for me to decide that they really aren’t going anywhere, they’ve decided to stick it out with these new positions and not quit for a better offer before the ink is dry on their building pass applications, and so on. I have them as co-workers in the sense that they are both sub-contractors to my contract, which means I was tasked once again with helping get them up to speed around the office, although of course neither of them has the same day-to-day duties and responsibilities as me, so I remain a team of one. This might sound a little bit familiar but this is actually a completely separate pair of new hires from the previous pair, who are also still around. The first pair was a man and a woman, both approximately my parents’ age, both white; the second pair is also a man and a woman but both closer to my age, maybe a little older, and the man is vaguely Middle Eastern ethnic and the woman is black. At the risk of protesting too much, I swear I never get hung up on skin color or accents and racism’s only function in my life is an easy target to be mocked and derided (racism itself, that is, not other races) BUT I might as well throw it all out there now because it actually is going to factor into things as I go along here.

So the newest guy has been assigned the last remaining workstation here in the converted closet (which you may recall I used to have all to myself). The new gal somehow managed to get a cubicle all to herself out in the main open floor of the office, which I think happened purely by luck of the draw as other people retired, left, and switched seats. But the new gal comes into our closet to ask questions or get things she needs to do her job and whatnot, so I see her a lot and all in all this bit of space I call my own has become a little bit of a claustrophobic cloister, with much potential for awkwardness.

Example the First: as it turns out, the new gal knows Mr. Garrulous from a previous gig they both were a part of. For any normal human being that would probably mean that interactions between the two of them would be pretty smooth, and for the most part they have been. But a week or so ago the new gal was standing at Mr. Garrulous’s desk talking to him (remember, this is about four feet away from me) and the subject came around to how Mr. G used to live in South Africa for a while when he worked for the State Department, and then Mr. G started telling a story about how his office tried one time to get some musician to come play a concert there, but the musician declined. And Mr. G’s stance toward that disappointment was discomfitingly earnest, as he said, “And you would think that he’d be all about it, with the Africa connection and all!” To which new gal, with no small amount of opprobrium, snapped back, “Why, because he’s black? Not all black people automatically feel a connection with Africa, you know! I certainly don’t!” AWKWARD. I know that Mr. G somehow defused the situation without it escalating much further but I have no idea exactly how because I was cringing so hard that the blood pounding in my ears was deafening. (In all likelihood, now that I think about it, the new gal probably talked herself down as she realized and/or was reminded that Mr. G is a total boob who says dumbass things as a simple matter of course all the time.)

Like this but minus the merchandisability and the punchlines
Example the Second: so meanwhile on a completely different day, the new guy was talking to … I hesitate to say “frigid” because that’s a loaded, sexist kind of word so let’s call the woman who’s been my area-mate for several months Ms. Unpersonable. (Again, this conversation is occurring in acute proximity to me, four feet south as opposed to four feet west.) New guy was trying to get himself signed up for some kind of training or orientation and the whole process involved approximately nineteen more hoops to be jumped through than it probably absolutely needed, just in terms of getting a form from one persona nd having it countersigned by another and sending it in to another, all just to get access to the website where you could sign up for the training if they had any openings, and so on. New guy was somewhere in the middle of that convoluted process and was asking Ms. U what he was supposed to do next, or if he wasn’t supposed to do anything, what he could expect next. Ms. U basically blew him off with a curt “I don’t know” and suggestion that he go ask someone higher up the chain of command. Me, personally? I would have taken the hint. Not so the new guy, though. I teetered on the brink of unconsciousness from holding my breath while the new guy came at Ms. U again and again and AGAIN with the same questions varied ever so slightly, as if in hopes of getting her to divulge some crucial information. His position was that she should know the answers she was claiming to be ignorant of, because she had already been through the training and therefore should be able to walk him through it, and no matter how many times she said “well I’m sure it’s different for everyone” or “I don’t remember exactly, it was a while ago” he kept trying to pin her down. I think my favorite (read: oh kill me now) was when he said, “So if I go talk to our mutual boss, and ask what happens next, and the boss says ‘Go ask Ms. U’ … should I just tell our boss ‘Ms. U doesn’t know’?” Seriously??? Between the two of them there was enough passive-aggression to inspire the furniture to rise up and start wailing on people. (Salient Question: Does any of this have anything to do with new guy being from a Middle Eastern culture that quite possibly thinks women should always give men what they want or at the very least make men’s lives easier? Or is that me being way more prejudiced than I want to be?)

You’ll note, of course, that in both stories above I am staying out of things, because that is a code of conduct I am pretty hardcore committed to. Of course there’s always the potential for me to inadvertently cause awkwardness on my own dumb behalf. Last week I was trying desperately to sort out some hosting issues with one of our secure applications, and of course I can’t directly do anything myself except formulate requests that get all the technical background details correct (more or less) and nag people about them until they get fulfilled. Late on Friday a request actually got fulfilled, and as I was looking over the results I belatedly realized that my request should have been a two-parter. So I quickly shot off the second half of the requirements but shortly thereafter the day and the workweek were over and I went home, and loathe as I am to admit it, the situation was irritating me in the back of my brain all weekend. I came in Monday morning, checked where things stood, and was pleasantly surprised to find the second half had been fulfilled and things were more or less restored to normal. I was more than pleasantly surprised, actually, I was elated. So very elated that I executed a mortifyingly unironic double fist pump to celebrate this mundane victory, accompanied by a quiet “Woohoo!” Of course, at a range of four feet, anybody could have heard that “Woohoo!” and that might very well have been awkward. But fortunately I was alone in the mini-office at the time. Small favors and all that.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Times and tidings

Clocks fell back in the wee hours of yesterday morning, which did not exactly have an immediate, appreciable effect. In our household, no amount of sleep ever really seems to constitute “enough” even when an extra hour is repaid. It was much more noticeable to me today; I should really come up with a proper name (used only by me, of course, but still) for the Monday after Daylight Savings Time ends, because that’s the day when my commute inverts itself, in terms of the rays of the sun (or lack thereof). By the end of October I’m getting up, getting ready for work, leaving the house and just about making it all the way in to the office under the cover of darkness, then coming home in the late afternoon with slanty, searing pre-solstice sunshine right in my eyes (and the eyes of everyone else heading west on 66). Then the time zone hitches backwards by 60 minutes in early November and suddenly come Monday my morning has more of the daystar to it than the previous Friday did, and my evening commute is the one with a foreshortened period of light. It is ever-so-slightly disorienting.

Of course that’s just a prelude to the days’ illuminated visibility continuing to get briefer and briefer, until it’s dark when I’m on my way to work and just as dark when I get home. But I don’t mind that so much, or perhaps more accurately, there’s so much else to recommend this time of year that a drag like shrinking windows of sunlight kind of gets lost in the shuffle. (The six weeks immediately following the shortest day of the year, as opposed to leading into it, are by contrast much harder to endure.) On the work front, especially, it’s always nice to settle in for the long, comfortable slide into utter languor which November brings. Working in government contracting pushes the needle all the way into downright torpor.

The Hibernation Timezone
In the private sector there’s always a chance that the turning up of the month part of datestamps to 11 and/or the return to Eastern Standard Time will make people slap their palms to their temples and say “Wow, I gotta get some of this junk cleared out of my inbox before Thanksgiving.” Would that it were so in DoD offices but where the spirit may be willing, the calendar is not so accommodating. Veteran’s Day is this Thursday, and that has the capacity to torpedo an entire week, what with people combining holiday leave and personal leave to create extra-long four-, maybe five-day weekends. For my part, I’m trying to save up my accrued PTO for next spring when the baby comes, so I was planning on working every day this week including Veteran’s Day, which is a federal holiday but not a paid one for my company. However, my contracting boss has discretionary powers to give his team time off, so he informed us today that we could all stay home on Veteran’s Day without it costing any of us any leave, a plan I am definitely not going to argue against.

So I’ll work four days this week and some other people around here will only work two or three, and then next week will be an island of normalcy followed by a three-day week for everyone courtesy of Thanksgiving, and the week after that will usher in December already. And at that point the rest of the year is just a lost cause. Some things will get done, some work will get logged and not everything will come to a grinding halt, but there will be far more stuff that just kind of limps along, its progress essentially neglected, until next year dawns and the excuses for not getting around to it have come and gone.

And I know it probably seems a bit early to be contemplating the manhour losses associated with the festivities of December, but I swear to Kringla the following is true: today I got the official Outlook invitation for my office holiday luncheon, which is scheduled for the Wednesday afternoon before Christmas. (I, of course, accepted immediately. I offer absolutely no resistance to this co-opting of the last two months of the year by Yuletide concerns.) So it’s not just me.