Friday, May 29, 2009

I think we’ve reached an impasse of sorts—or at least I have, which is sort of the point. Normally at this time of year, I’ve got some sort of creative writing project going. This year, I don’t. I don’t even particularly feel the urge to write. I think it’s because I’ve been using this blog as that creative outlet instead. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing. And it set my thoughts on a particular track: what else is this blog potentially blocking?

As the sidebar proudly tells you, this blog was originally started as part of a school project. We passed that phase a while ago. So what it is for now? What does it do? Well, for one thing, it dwells, or maybe I dwell in it. I use it as a forum to vent my frustrations and dwell on my self-doubts. Ok, there’s not a lot of self-doubt in, say, the HIMYM entries. But if you’ve read every entry year, I think you know what I mean. I’ve brought up some of my issues here. In doing so, have I been dealing with them, or am I justifying not dealing with them on the basis that mentioning them here is enough? I think instead of helping me work through things, the blog may just be another form of perpetuating the self-image I purportedly want to change.

On the other hand. There’s no denying that there’s a positive side to it too. It’s connected me to family and friends, and by its presence gives them a chance to feel connected to me. It’s proven to be a sounding board, and performative stage. And sometimes, it’s fun.

Either way, I think it’s time I stopped saying I want to make changes in my life and start actually making changes. And if bringing this blog to a close would be a positive change, then that’s what will be done.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going on hiatus. After I get back from my trip out west, I’ll decide whether I want to continue doing this or not. If you think you have a stake or an opinion on this issue, contact me and let me know how you feel. Otherwise... thanks for reading. It’s been a slice.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Time to Start the Music

First: ball news. Game 2 is also a loss. I've been switched to catcher, a role that I've fallen into not because I can throw a ball all the way to the pitcher (I can't. It's not far, but I can't. Hence the reason why I'm not great at baseball.), but because I have absolutely no fear of getting hit by baseball. Bring it, ball.

Now, today's main topic. One of the most beloved programs of my childhood was the Muppets. Beyond knowledge of the characters, I remember exactly two things about the show: the general tune of the theme song, and that Muppets are awesome. Based on those two points, I recently tried to secure some episodes of the original series, but, through a miscommunication, would up with the entire series of the '96-97 attempted revival, Muppets Tonight. It's a tv show now, not a theatre, and everything shifts according: Waldorf and Statler heckle from their living room chairs, each episode is run as if it's the production of a late night talk show, and, most significantly, show leader Kermit has been replaced (well, downgraded, he's still there, but runs things from a more hands-off, behind the scenes approach) by Clifford.
This is Clifford:
Oh, sorry. That's internationally-known, adored by generations of children around the world Clifford. THIS is Muppet Tonight's Clifford:And that's a good a place as any to start with the show's big problem: the Muppets are, to me at least, about a dysfunctional, yet caring, family. Muppets Tonight feels like the Muppets designed by studio execs. Clifford's a prime example: he looks and acts like what you'd get if you took a bunch of people, sat them down at a table, and told them you wanted an updated Kermit, something that comes off as current and hip, but without being offensive. And voila--Clifford. I have nothing against Clifford--but nothing for him either. He's just there.

Other problems are also symptoms of this main failing: whoever decided to put their money behind Clifford downgraded the "core" muppets--it's very rare that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Fozzie all appear on the same episode. And their replacements--Jonny Fiamo, Lou, Bobo, and Clifford--are okay, but they just don't have the same dynamic as a group. It seems like the show knows this a weak point, as it tries to gloss over this element and replace it with a huge, gigantic cavalcade of guest stars. I know the original series had its fair share, but it feels like here, the guest of the week is all the plot ever revolves around.

And that's the problem. But there's lots of good stuff too. First, in the area of not so much good as curious, it's interesting to note Statler and Waldorf's changing roles as the series goes by. Originally, it would just cut to them after a scene and they'd heckle from what was very clearly a nursing home. I'm guessing someone felt this was too depressing an end for the two, because all of a sudden, they started doing their heckling from chique locations, such as ocean resorts, pool side views, gigantic foyers, and, once, a ski lift. And they're often surrounded by a bevy of (especially if they're poolside) scantily clad women. That sounds like a good retirement to me.

Next, on the subject of guest stars, most of the stars actually give fairly decent performances. Since the whole operation is financed by Disney now, we see some big (well, 90s big) names, including movie stars like Michelle Pfiefer and Pierce Brosnan, musicians ranging from Tony Bennett to Coolio, and comedians like Don Rickles and Billy Crystal. It's clear that they're having a lot of fun too, which is nice to see.

And with that, let's go into the list of the 4 best scenes in Muppets Tonight.
Number 4: Out of all the guest stars on the show, I gotta say I think Garth Brooks got the most out of it. His schtick for the episode is that he wants to perform song styles outside his usual repetoire. So, we get Brooks hamming it up in renditions of Salsa, a Tom Jones impersonation, and, the best, his rendition of Fiddler on the Roof, complete with gratutious chicken-kicking.

Number 3: Speaking of hams, George Takei delivers, playing himself during Beaker's week long Trek-A-Fari--at least, himself as a long-winded blowhard. He thinks he'll finally get his chance to be captain after their captain abandons ship, but he is preempted by Robert Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo), who reminds him that Keeshan has seniority. Takei: "Mr. Beaker, set ego for 'bruised.'" (I think it's the delivery that really sells this one.)

Number 2: Where would the Muppets be without references that predate 90% of their supposed demographic? During the Bill Crystal episode, we see a remake of When Harry Met Sally's most famous scene, complete with a cameo from a Rob Reiner muppet. Piggy, playing the Sally role, tells Bill that he wouldn't be able to tell if she was faking it--it being a sneeze, of course. Keep your mind out of the gutter. A demonstration follows, which leads to the inevitable punchline: "I'll have what she's having! But with less pepper."

Number 1: Leave it to the old school to show you how it's done. The very best, most awesome, incrediblistic thing to happen in the entire course of Muppets Tonight was performed by the macdaddy, K-Frog himself. Watch below, as Kermit sings a cover for Talking Head's "Once in a Lifetime."

And that's why the frog will always be king.

Later Days.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More Like... Co-Wreck!

Back at good ol' Where Else High, I played in the Co-Rec league, on the fine team of Taurus. And even in the undergrad days, I managed to get on a few rec leagues. To date, I've played on: (high school) the basketball team, floor hockey team, soccer team, slowpitch team, handball team, and the steal-the-sticks team. And in undergrad, I played in three different volleyball leagues and on a soccer team. I have played, then, with approximately 75 different team mates, in hundreds of games, over the course of past ten years.

I have never, ever won a game.

There's been some close calls. Games that went into overtime, extra innings, final shootouts. Games that were close, but not quite. And huge, monolithic blowouts. Ever lose a volleyball game 25 to nothing? Ever lose a soccer game 25 to nothing?

But you keep trying. And you keep playing. Because sooner or later, that glorious title of 'game not lost' will be yours.

And all of this is preface to today's Event, the inaugural baseball game of the English U of Blank graduate students. I'm glad to be on the team. Let me put that out there, front and center. They need the numbers, and if there's one thing I can do, it's arrive and take up space. But out of all the sports that are not my bag, baseball is not my... you know, there's nothing that really comes to mind when you try to think of "something bigger than a bag that you put things in." But if there was, baseball would not be that thing for me. I'm an average hitter, an average catcher, and Lord knows I hustle, but I cannot throw more than ten feet. Which is a problem in an outfielder.

But I'm in good company. There's no real all-star on the team (ok, maybe one, but as long as he bats directly after me, I'm not going to complain), and our errors are more or less a team effect, so it's fun. It was a beautiful day for a game too--sunny, but not so much that it was quite scorching. I'm probably going to be burnt tomorrow, and I have a throbbing skinned knee from a slide at first, but both of those are my own fault (especially considering the rule that you can run past first is designed especially so that people don't slide and skin their knees.) We really started to click in the end too--the score for the last inning was 4-0, so really, we won 1/5 of the game.

Of course, that leaves the other 4/5, which we did not win. Not even slightly. In fact, the final score was 17-8. The game, while not a blowout, did not really leave the outcome in doubt at any particular point. (Maybe at the first pitch. But I had my doubts.)

Our second game is tomorrow. Stay tuned, and see if the Consequence curse holds up for yet another term of sporty action.

Later Days.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Reviews: 3 Perspectives on Video Game Theory

As you heard earlier, one of my many, many questionable decisions as of late included an attempt to compress a lot of theoretical reading in a very short period of time. Mission accomplished! As of last Tuesday, (the same day as the great pancake experiment) I finished reading 800 pages of theory in under 72 hours. For a while there, my head was so full of knowledge that it threatened to slosh off the top if I turned too quickly. The knowledge is fading veeerrry fast, but I’m glad I did it---and glad that the aformentioned friend gave me the opportunity.

But how were the books? Why, I thought I'd never ask.

This is going to be a little less detailed than the usual reviews. If anyone really wants more info, feel free to request it in the comments.

The Medium of the Video Game. Edited by Mark J. P. Wolfe & Ralph H. Baer. Out of the three books, I’d say this one was the simplest, more or less. Essentially, it’s a run-down of the history of video games, with particular attention paid to early developments, and a quick evaluation of some video game elements: time, space, narrative, and genre. It’s all fairly basic and fundamental—except for the last two chapters. The first, “Play It Again, Pac-Man,” by Charles Bernstein, looked at video games as expressions of sexual desire. The second, “Archetypes on Acid: Video Games and Culture” by Rebecca R. Tews, takes a psychoanalytic approach to video games. Despite having titles that shed very little light on their subject matter, both papers are worth reading.

The Video Game Theory Reader. Edited by Mark J. P. Wolfe and Bernard Perron. Wolfe again. This guy gets around. This book is a lot like Medium, but a little meatier in terms of diverse points of view and theoretical complexity. It starts with a brief sketch of video game theory history, rather than just video game history, which is a welcome switch. In its 13 chapters, it runs the full gamut from ludology to narratology, and also delves into film theory, interactive story telling, and a gender-based investigation of Final Fantasy IX (which endears it to no end in my mind. Mia Consalvo is entirely right: Zidane’s hypermasculine adorability disturbs me in strange ways.). There are also chapters that deal fairly well with postmodernity and pyschoanalysis, which is nice. While there was no break-out piece, the majority of the book is solid. I hear there’s a second volume, and I’d be interested in reading that.

First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. This book, on the other hand, is nearly Medium’s polar opposite. It’s set up in the format of a series of conference papers and panels, which means that each essay is very short—some clocking in at under eight pages. That means you don’t get a lot of depth, but you do get a lot of different viewpoints: there’s twenty-five different writers here, representing some of the best thought in the field, from ludologists Eskelinen, Aarseth (reviewed previously here; Aarseth has the added advantage in scholarly writing in that his name will always appear at the top of a works cited list), and Frasca, to the other side of the debate with narratologists like Jenkins and Murray. Even digital media superstar Katherine Hayles contributes a piece.

The book has eight sections: cyberdrama, ludology, critical simulation, game theory, hypertexts & interactions, the pixel/ the line, beyond chat, and new readings. As you might imagine from the book’s subtitle and subsections, it’s not all on video games, but it is all fascinating. The downside of the book is the choice of format. The beginning of each essay is split, top and bottom, so at the bottom there is a reply to the main essay. Then another reply. Then the author’s reply to the second reply. What you get is a real sense that there’s an evolving conversation going on, which is an impressive effect for a print medium, but it really disrupts the flow to have to either flip back after reading the article proper, or mentally switch back and forth between the two points of view. That said, I probably want to get my own copy of this one. Already, I’m planning on using the Utterback piece on text-based installation art for a conference proposal—more on that if and when it develops.

There you have it—three books, three days, one sore head. And if this experience has taught me anything, it’s always to put off for eight months what can be done in 72 hours. Which I’m sure is the best possible lesson here.

Later Days.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Deep Philosophical Discussion on HIMYM.

WARNING: Heavy spoilers follow from the season 4 finale of How I Met Your Mother.
Posted below is a facebook conversation I had with a friend over said finale. And by conversation, I mean I ranted for a good long time. His comments are in italics, mine are in normal font.

So the TV season is wrapping up and I have a few questions. This one specifically is about how i met your mother, so if you can't keep up with your torrents consider yourself spoiler-warned.

wtf was with the mini-arc about stella?? it was a two episode story that ted phrased as having a huge contribution in meeting the mother, and yet by it doesn't seem to have played any role in his decision to become a professor. is this just bad writing or will the break up... and immediate consolation of stella still play some part in the eventual conclusion of the story?
Oh, dude, strap yourself in, 'cause this is going to take a while.

First: there is a minimal connection, in that it was Stella's ex/current guy that pulled the strings to get Ted the job. (Incidentally, I do hope it's exactly that easy to get a sessional position.) But, more importantly, you've put your finger smack dab on the biggest flaw of the show this season, (besides the high levels of fecundity in its female cast) and maybe its biggest flaw period.

TV shows face a constant problem: they need to be seen as fresh and innovative, and progressive in their storylines, but at the same time, they need to stay as static as possible, so that whatever attracts current fans is still there. Comic books face the same problem: there's no suspense in the battle to replace Batman storyline, because you know Bruce is coming back. There's just too many people who won't accept anyone else as Batman. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a problem for any serialized product marketed towards consumers: you need an innovative product, but you don't want to lose your base. As much as people like the next new thing, they don't like change in general.

It's particular problem for TV shows, because they're so cast-based. You can't easily add or remove characters, so shows continue long after every possible permutation of relationships have been performed and every plot run into the ground. And it's an even bigger problem for HIMYM than most. The show is set up around a single premise: how Ted met the Mother. Theoretically, every episode of the show should be moving towards that goal. But at the same time, the show is ongoing, so it can never actually reach that goal. So instead, we get things like Season 4, where, when all is said and done, we spent an entire season on How I Met Someone Who Wasn't Your Mother.

The last 3 episodes of this season have been basically dealing with the fallout of this problem. To salvage the narrative thread of the season, Stella HAD to connect to the Mother in some way, even if it's this ridiculous, barely there connection. But now the law of diminishing returns sinks in--viewers get tired of being screwed around with "Look! It's the Mother!" and then being told ", it's not, but we spent the last six episodes on her anyway." (Or at least, I am.) And considering the entire series started on that joke ("And that's how I met your aunt Robin"), it's wearing a little thin, and viewer tolerance won't stretch that far again. Next season, for example, they can't have Ted get seriously involved with a woman NOT in his class, because the long-term viewers will dismiss the relationship.

It's an ongoing problem. In a lot of ways, to get the most satisfactory story out of HIMYM, you need to stop watching right at the point where Ted meets Victoria for the first time--that was actually where the series was first intended to end, because that's how many episodes they were originally slotted for. (Note that I said story; in terms of awesome, the show doesn't really hit its stride till season 2 and the slapfight.) For the next season, they're going to need another focus--probably either a pregnancy with Marhsall and Lily (although they can't do that too soon, because of the fake/not fake pregnancy shout-out Monday), or a heavy focus on Barney and Robin. Putting Barney into a committed relationship is probably the biggest game-changing move they could have done without definitely naming the Mother, so it'll be interesting to see if they pull it off.

Well, that was a long way from your original question. I hope you've learned a valuable lesson about questioning things that will aid you in your academic future.

PS. Can I post this on the blog? It feels like something I want to post on the blog.

He let me post it on the blog.

Later Days.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

They're Not Clouds, But They Are Fluffy and Soft

My family is not one given to many traditions. Of the few we have, some are bitterly, bitterly contested. (You know who you are, Christmas Holiday Cracker. With your loud noise, your festive hat, your little toy, and oh-smug-riddle. Pick one thing and be it!) But there's one that stands out as memorable: Sunday is pancake day.
Granted, as the great Consequence family diaspora took hold, the tradition has fallen into disuse. And even at its height, it was a series of careful negotiations and opposing ideological stances. Substance. How much syrup is too much? Is it time we got a waffle iron? Is cheese whiz an acceptable condiment? Is peanut butter an acceptable alternative? And time. Do we have pancakes before Church, or after Church? Are we going to church? Do we have to go to church? I know there are pancake, but how do I know there is a God?

Theology and food. What more could a family ask for?

Second stream of thought: I have recently decided to add cooking to my skills. (Purely to attract women. Every improvement I have ever made in my life has been to this end. And if I ever tell you any differently, I'm lying.) I started with eggs (to align myself with previous conversations, I think the chickens that laid them were free range. Probably. The picture on the carton hinted as much. Look, I'm not trial here.). Results have been mixed. So far, I have "mastered" three types: scrambled, runny, and burnt. Rather than refine this effort in any way shape or form, I decided that my culinary difficulty stemmed from a lack of ambition. Thus, I invited my postcolonial class to come over to my place next Thursday to watch the movie version of our first novel--and to attend a pancake dinner. I also promised I make "a damn good pancake," which I assumed must be true. It's practically my family heritage. That, and squinting.

Ultimately, I decided not to leave everything up to fate. I called up my brother yesterday, and got the pancake recipe he used when I was last living with him. And I tried a trial run. And again--mixed results. See, I forgot that the recipe my brother used was for when he was living in a house with four early twenty male bachelors--and even then, the proportions were chosen so that there'd be plenty of leftovers. I live alone. Problem. To compound matters, I accidentally put in twice as much milk as was required into the batter. That meant the only way to save the batch was to double all my ingredients--and double the amount of pancakes I'd produce.

Good news: by the time next Thursday rolls around, I will be as good a pancake expert as I pretended to be.

Bad news: There is no time in the forseeable future in which I will not be eating pancakes. I have made a dozen so far, and barely made a dent in the total batter. It's a good thing pancakes are loaded with nostalgic value for me, 'cause I'm going to be dining on nostalgia for quite some time.
Cooking Rule of Thumb #1: If your recipe involves 8 eggs and you're cooking for one, there will be leftovers.

Later Days.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Today’s theme, children, is masochism. Specifically, the well-worn theme of how I seem to go out of my way to make my life more difficult. Or, in other words, it is the story of what I did this weekend.

First up is this blog entry itself. As I said previously, my home keyboard is on the fritz, as the spacebar is no longer functioning. This entire post was composed by using the letter qtwice where every space went, then using Word’s search and replace function to make the switch to something more legible. All because I really felt the need to vent RIGHT NOW and couldn’t be bothered to buy the damn replacement keyboard.

Exhibit B: What I did Friday night. I stayed home and did my readings for the next week. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, on occasion. But honestly don’t know how much of my motivation was actually not wanting to go out, how much of it was a feeling that I’d be imposing on someone else if I tried to shoe in on their plans, and how much was sheer pride: no one calls me? That’s fine, I didn’t want to go out anyway. And that’s a problem.

Exhibit C: what I did the rest of my weekend. So far, I’ve read 300 pages of video game theory, with another400 to go. See, way back in September, a friend very generously lent me a few books on the subject, and now, after enough time that it’s become pretty clear I won’t be giving them back of my own accord, they very reasonably asked for me to return the books. Suddenly, I’m convinced that I must speed my way through them all before returning them. It’s ridiculous, because I’m sure they’d allow me a few extra days if they knew I was honestly putting theqbooks to good use, but I can’t seem to do it any other way. Added question: given that I’m fairly certain the person in question reads the blog, what really is my motivation for writing this? Couldn’t I just ask for the extension? Or am I doing that now?

Exhibit D: my plane ticket home. I wanted to change the date of my trip home so I could make my mother’s retirement banquet. Now, if I had done it the night I heard about the banquet, it would have meant about a hundred dollars to make the changes. ,Now, because I waited, it’s two hundred. I paid it, but it still makes me feel foolish for yet again making things harder for myself. And the change itself was a nightmarish process. (Additionally, the word verification phrase was ”you Judiasm”, which is weird, right?) First, westjet needed my credit card security code, which I had forgotten. Then, to have that changed, I needed to get into my credit card account. Which I was locked out of for getting the my own date of birth wrong twice. Then after I called the representative to get that changed, I spelt my mother’s maiden wrong, and so was lockedaaout AGAIN. I can honestly say I never had so much trouble spending $200.00. But again, every step was my own damn fault.

On top of everything else, I twisted my ankle running on Thursday, so I spent the entire long weekend in my apartment, trying to stay off my foot. So I couldn’t even exercise to let off steam.

Sometimes I think that’s why I’ve stayed in school so long: it’s the one aspect of my life I can manage well on a regular basis.

Ok, this has been a pretty downer post. Things aren’t that bad for me: as the Holloways put it:” sometimes you get so low, you don't know why, or a little upset all inside. May I remind you that you don't live in poverty, you got your youth, and you got food in your belly.”

So I’ll post back in a few days about, I don’t know, fluffy clouds or something, and hope this funk will pass.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Random Thoughts Day

This is one of those occasions where I felt like doing a post, but didn't have any topic that really jumped out at me. So: Random Thoughts Day.
--The spacebar on my home computer has decided to start a new employment era were it only works part time. Soallmysentenceslooklikethisnow.It'sreallyveryannoying.Onthehand,
But experimental writing aside, it's probably time to get a new keyboard. I am resistant to this. I'm exactly the sort of person who holds on to antiquated, half-broken technology forever (just ask my bike)--not because I fear technology or change, specifically, but because on some fundamental level, I believe that a failure in the objects I own translates into a failure on my part. "What kind of a man can't take proper care of his possessions?" Etc. (You can fill in the rest of the "poor little white man" speech as you see fit.)

--Building on that vein of misogyny, I came up with a line on Tuesday that I'd like to work into a story or some other creative endeavour at some point: "If Woolfe has taught us anything, it's to be wary of women who fill their pockets with stones." I like the phrase, but I can't decide whether it's more pretentious or profound--I can use it in a story either way, but the context would have to be very different.

--Just finished the second week of my graduate classes: one is on art & persuasion (the connection between art and rhetorical activism), and the other is a gender & postcolonial, with an emphasis on travel narratives. In a perfect world, I'd do a paper on Dr Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog for the first one, and a paper on the presentation of colonization in the Civilization computer game series in the other one. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to settle on something less interesting in both cases.

--Along the same time I was making light of the tragic suicide of a great writer, I got the idea that I wanted to write a shortstory about someone who could tell the future. That's it, that's as far as I went. Then I started thinking about what kind of life such a person would live, and the etymology of the word clairvoyent--really, it breaks down into "clear" and "voyage". And suddenly the purpose of my story was set: I wanted to write about the clarity of the voyeur, and what it is gained and lost when you choose to set yourself apart. (The future telling bit's there to draw in the sci-fi crowd.)

--As I discovered writing this post, I apparently have trouble with the difference between etymology and entymology. Everyone take a moment to appreciate the irony in having difficulty in remembering a word that basically means remembering what words meant.

I think that satisfying my blogging crave for the moment.

Later Days.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch

I know I did the "I'm bored" post earlier, and it's certainly true that with the start of the latest term, I have more to do these days, but... it's just not filling the hours. Usually, at the end of winter term, I buy some blockbuster video game that occupies my time in the summer months. But there just isn't anything that appeals to me at the moment. And the TV season's wrapping up, so no help there. What do I do with my time?

What? Fill it with outdoor activities and social engagements? Honestly, do you even read this blog?

We'll save that alternative (AKA "normal person" response) for plan B. At the moment, the solution is books, books, and more texts. Hence the reason I managed to read 300+ pages in the short time since the last book review.

Last time, I talked at great length about the significance of the path that leads a person to a book. I came across Green Knight as part of the research I'm doing for a story I want to write on Sir Gawain, of the Knights of the Round Table fame. Murdoch, apparently, is a writer recognized enough to be considered "scholarly," as her book was one of the first things to poop up in the university library records. The connection to Arthurian legend is fairly tangential here, but it was still worth reading.

Murdoch is similar to Weldon in tone: there's a slight "fable" quality to her writing, and a definite British sensibility. The focus is not quite so much on gender issues; it's really more on character. It's certainly not on plot--without giving too much away, the plot of the novel is that A mysterious stranger stops a potential fratricide, receives a life-threatening blow for his trouble, and insists he is accepted into the brothers' family as part of the reparation. Before it's through, we've essentially reached almost Dickensian levels of coincidence.

The draw to the book is the strong set of characters Murdoch creates. Strong in the sense that they're extremely interesting, not in the sense that they personally have any strength, as the males particularly are one step away from being basket cases. Here's a list of the primary characters: there's Louise, the solid, unprepossessing mother, dominated by the three girls she's raising on her own; her best friend, the wild and flamboyant Joan; her daughters: Aleph, the eldest; Sefton, the middle child, obsessed with history; Moy, the youngest and much concerned with art and animals. Also starring is Harvey, Joan's son, who's coping with his feelings towards his pseudo-sisters; Tessa, a social worker/friend of the family who hangs around the periphery; Bellamy, a friend of the family, who's toying with the idea of giving up all his possessions and joining a monastery; Anax, Bellamy's dog, entrusted to Moy when Bellamy gave up his possessions; Clement, another friend of the family, who is in love with Louise, but slept with Joan; his elder, adopted brother Lucas, who is aloft and solitary. And finally, there is Peter Mir, the titular Green Knight. And, to just go with the cliche, after he enters the lives of these characters, they will never be the same.

As I said, it's a book where the plot exists only to bring about new reactions to the characters, and that's far better than the opposite case some books use, where the characters are just cogs for the plot. On that level, the book is very compelling: it deals credibly both with the middle age encounters facing the older set of characters, and the coming-of-age stories with the younger set. It also features some of the most moving canine scenes I can recall outside of a Herriot book. The latter parts of the book are marred by a series of increasingly eye-brow raising "shock" revelations, many of which don't quite work because of Murdoch's choice of narration--thanks to the limited third person perspective, we've been inside these characters' heads, and know they weren't harbouring secrects like this--or we should have known. There is also an annoying embracing of the "everybody marries" syndrome that so plagued the 17th century comedies. Have we learned nothing?

The bottom line though is that these characters seem real without seeming boring, which is largely what I look for in my fiction. At 476 pages, Green Knight is a worthwhile read--though if it shed the last 50 or so, I wouldn't have shed any tears.

Later Days.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: the Spa by Fay Weldon

To the dedicated reader, how you find a book becomes almost important as what you're reading. If a book is recommended to you as a friend, your relationship to that friend colors how you read it, and vice versa--if the book is complete excrement, you're not going to look at that friend in the same way. That's why buying a book as a gift can become an overthinker's nightmare--you have to consider not only what the intended receiver means to you, but what you mean to them, what the book means to you, and what the book will potentially mean to them. Other methods of book searching carry similar issues. Usually, if a book recommendation comes to me from some sort of scholarly article, I read it in full scholar mode, noting all the little issues that arise that would make an interesting paper. That's not to say that I enjoy the book more or less than if I had come across it otherwise--just that the reading experience is different.

One of the ultimate thrills of the reader connoisseur, then, is the book, or series of book, that is discovered through serendipity. It's akin to the horticulturalist who finds that rare flower growing by the side of the road, or the antique collector that finds the last piece of a set at a garage sale. I deliberately choose random books on occasion, hoping for just this outcome. Of course, to say that the choice is random is a sort of willing blindness--if you are looking for books in a bookstore or a library, there is some sort of organizing principle at work, and, like it or not, your search becomes a part of that system. (Idea I'm too lazy to flesh out: this is very much what de Certeau's talking about in The Practice of Everyday Life, both in terms of consumerism and reading.)

As you've probably gathered, this digression eventually leads to the book at hand. My first Fay Weldon book came from the result of a random search in a Someplace Else public library. Of course, it wasn't entirely random: I was looking for a book that caught my eye in the fiction section, because I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction, and I chose the book--A Hard Time to Be A Father largely based on the comic strip-esque cover. The book turned out to be a collection of short stories by Fay Weldon, with heavy overall emphasis on postcolonialism (in the New Zealand form) and gender issues. It was an all right collection, good enough that I took out another of Weldon's books,Mantrapped. As an entirely tangential note, this book belongs in the small category of books I read from beginning to end in the cardio section of the University of Someplace Else's gym in the summer of 2008. And while Hard Time was okay, Mantrapped was exceptional. The plot itself--a middle aged woman switches bodies with a mid-twenties man--is handled well enough, but the real ingenuity comes from the book being half fiction, half autobiography: Weldon regularly interrupts the plot to deliver a metacommentary on what events in her own life led her to include or reject certain elements, and how the progression of her life mirrors the progressions of her novels.

This book took Weldon, in my personal estimation, from an interesting writer to someone with something really unique to say, and led me to make the crudest estimation of her scholarly significance: I looked up how many books the university library had by her. The result was a whopping 41 (75 at my current university). It doesn't really compare to, say, Atwood or T. S. Eliot (both at 100 or so, btw), but it's very respectable. And yet, because I discovered the author entirely independently, the books mean something very different to me than Oryx and Crake or The Wasteland.

I've read one other Weldon book since coming to Blank: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I'm not going to say anything more about it here other than the fact that it dealt with gender and misogyny in an intelligent manner highly reminiscient of Patricia Highsmith at her best, and, despite that, I found it to be the most repellent book I've ever read.

So: book at hand. The plot is that the narrator, Phoebe, stays at a spa over Christmas and the New Year. She and the other nine women there spend the time telling each other their life stories. In other words, it's a 21st century feminist restructuring of Cantebury Tales. (Not that you'll find any direct reference to it in the book's jacket. Would it have been that hard?) It's an interesting inversion of the formula: a decadent retreat instead of a religious pilgrimage, and a redefining of the essential positions of society: rather than miller's wives and knights, we get the trophy wife, the stepmother, the judge, the surgeon, and the manucirst. (The best title of the bunch has to go to "The Vicar's Ex-Wife's Tale.") Essentially, it boils down to the elements Weldon has made herself famous for: an uncomfortable examination of gender roles and a conscious evaluation of what makes a story. On that level, many of the tales are hit and miss--"The Conspiracy Theorist's Tale" is a really abrupt shift to modern social theory, and the "Company Director's Tale" is a little too heavy on shock value. The hits, on the other hand, are a lot of fun: "the Journalist's Tale" and the "Brain Surgeon's Tale" are respectively stories of how nasty people can be to each other, and how we try to hide things, and "The Screenwriter's Tale" is a wonderful piece of metafiction that blurs the line between life, story, and screen play. Most important of all is the narrator's story, the text that binds all the individual tales together, much as in the original. Phoebe provides some further judgment and evaluation of the stories and characters, so that we feel we are colloborating with her--and becaue Phoebe is basically a thinly vieled stand-in for Weldon, it creates all sorts of issues regarding response to the individual works and the book as a whole. It's a good read.

And that's it. I suppose current blog readers may complain that they've travelled a very long path to reach that conclusion.

Now you know how I feel.

Later Days.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Still Worth It

I am feeling really good about things at the moment. It's interesting how quickly emotions can flip like that, because I was NOT feeling that way about 12 hours ago.

That's because about 20 hours ago, I made a Bad Decision: to scan an entire class worth of secondary reading in a single sitting. Difficulties ensued (basically, an antique scanner, file size restrictions, and about 600+ more pages than I had thought), and my own stubbornness insisted I see it out rather than let common sense prevail, and, long story short, I was not a very happy camper when I finally got home last night (and very nearly this morning). As a sort of reward for myself, I decided to stay up even longer and watch the season finale of a show that I was saving for just such a down-in-the-dumps moment.

And man, I'm glad I did. The episode had a lot of truly great scenes, but the crowning moment was the montage at the end. And the accompaniment was perfectly chosen-- I honestly haven't been that moved by a piece of music in a TV show since Seinfeld's brilliant use of Time of Your Life. It was so good, I'm not even going to tell you what show it was--I'd like to keep it to myself a little longer. (Do feel free to guess.)

The other thing that has me in a good mood is that I FINALLY received my final mark for last term. It's really, really good, so I'm not going to complain, but I imagine anyone that didn't do so well would be rather displeased at having wait quite this long. I also find it kind of odd that I do much, much better in my 18th century courses than my supposed specialty, but again, I'm not going to complain.

The third (and least; some people build up, I build down) reason I'm in a good mood is that I talked to the grad chair yesterday, and I finally feel like I've got a firm direction mapped out for my studies. I'd be more pleased about this, but he was convinced I should learn Japanese for my language requirement, which seems... foreboding. I mean, since my area is video games, it would be the most useful, but still... but that's jumping ahead a bit. Next step: finding a supervisor.

So. It's Friday, the weekend's ahead, and it's a beautiful day outside. (20 degrees. Enjoying your snow, Saskatchewan?) I'm feeling good. How are you?

Later Days.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Merry Slapsgiving, Everyone

I've been meaning to do a longer post on How I Met Your Mother. And after Monday's epsiode, here it is.

Quick outline: The premise of the show is that Ted Mosby (narrated by Bob Saget), in the year 2030 or so, has sat down his kids to tell them the story of "How I Met Your Mother." That started four seasons ago. Since then, we've been following the antics of Ted and his friends. Ted is a helpless romantic/architect; his original love interest and now platonic friend is the tomboyish Canadian Robin Sherbotsky; his old college roommate/best friend is the eminently huggable Marshall Erikson; Marshall's wife is the elementary school teacher/artist Lily Aldrin; and the cast is rounded out brilliantly by the brilliant Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Ted's other best friend, the amoral, philandering Barney Stinson.

There's a lot to like about the show, but I'll limit myself to three main things:

1. The Flash Format. Since Ted is telling this story to his kids, the entire thing is clearly a flashback. But it's never as straightforward as "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this." Instead, each episode is told more of a broken manner: Ted jumps back to elaborate on some events, forward to mention what's going to happen, and at times, makes the story up entirely. The flashback has become more or less commonplace in cinematic story telling; jumping around like this is a very different technique, and one rarely used in primetime television, especially on such a regular basis. One of my favorite applications of the method is when Ted admits that he's sometimes just making things up: at one point, he can't remember a girl's name, so for the episode, everyone refers to her as "blah blah." The show maintains an ongoing balance between oral storytelling and mainstream eposodic television; in that sense, I can't think of another show that better uses the conceit of a narrator, and the notion that the story before us is not only being shown, but being told.

2. Barney Stinson. The key to Barney's character is that, essentially, he's a horrible person. Or, maybe more accurately, he's a caricature--the hyper-cool, supersexualized urban elite, obsessed with surface appearances and scoring women. The writers get a ridiculous amount of mileage out of just the concept behind him. Here, for example, is one of his greater pick-up line set-ups:

Actually, Barney has always reminded me of the Sheldon character from The Big Bang Theory. Not because they share any particular characteristic; Sheldon is a barely functional misanthrope with extreme OCD tendencies. But both are essentially extreme outliers of normally accepted social behaviour. As far as comedy goes, it's one of the oldest methods in the book--you see the same thing in the characters of 18th century rake heroes, Shakepseare's Falstaff, and as far back as characters in ancient Greek plays. The difference between those forms and the sitcom is that in sitcoms, the joke can't wear thin--or if does, the entire series becomes dry and repetitive. (I'm looking at you, Erkel.) Or, it resorts to increasingly outlandish premises. (Again, Erkel.) From interviews, I've read that the writers are very aware of the fine line they walk with Barney: in order to have him be outrageous, they feel it's necessary to show a more balanced side of him as well. I know some people who hate the idea of 'humanizing' the Barnacle, but so far, the show's done a great job of walking the line between the two.

It helps, of course, that Neil Patrick Harris is one of the best comedic actors of his generation.

3. Continuity. Every sitcom has some loose continuity; if the character changes from a neat freak buddy cop to a put-upon lazy dad between episodes, there's a problem. But HIMYM (the abbreviation for How I Met Your Mother) takes the continuity to extreme. It's not just a matter of running gags, although there's plenty of those too: Barney's endless Bro Code rules, Marshall's Fish-based comedy routine, and the greatness that is the Slapbet. (You better believe you're getting a clip for that.)

These gags are really the heart and soul of the show, and the commitment to them goes far beyond the average TV series. But what I'm talking about more generally is the epic feel of the series, the sense that there is a direction, a final destination that the show is moving towards. It's a focus that's missing in television series in general; in sitcoms, you're lucky if one episode follows the other, and even in dramas, you rarely get more than a single season build-up. Here's where the conceit of the series really comes into play: you know, theoretically, at least, everything is building up to meeting the mother. Of course, that's a double-edged sword: once Ted reaches the Mother, the story is over--or at least needs severe redefinition. The first season shows this coherency most clearly, and the current season shows its lack pretty strongly as well--it's been a long time since we've had more than a hint of the series' supposed impetus. But that changed last Monday, in the epsiode "Right Place, Right Time," which is what prompted this post to begin with. I don't want to explain everything, because really, it's building on multiple seasons of hints and flashforwards, but it looks like they haven't forgotten that sooner or later, there's a wedding in the works.

And I think that may be what I like most about the show--not that there's a wedding, specifically, but the certainty that the story ends there connects it with literally centuries of literary precedent in the comedy genre--and yet, it still manages to feel like something fresh and different.

Plus, they totally did the Doogie Howser reference.

Later Days.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tiny Dancers

In preparation for a return to scholastic living, I went to the university today to do a bit more than the running back and forth. I picked up some books for my American Lit course that I ordered online. It's the first time I've used online services to order books, but since it saved me some money ($10-$15), I'll probably be using it again--got to start putting money away for the next bicycle disaster. (I just got it back from the shop--$90 for a new chain, new brake chords, and other sadly necessary repairs. Anything goes wrong with it now, it's going to the "farm.") The books had all arrived and were waiting in my mailbox, which is nice. I'm a little nervous about the course--I looked back over my past academia, and I haven't looked at any 20th century American Lit in a course since 2002. How did that happen? How has it not come up?

At any rate, I ran into the ongoing dancers on my way out. (Is it a dancing camp? Do they have those?) And, it seems I owe someone an apology. In an earlier post, way back in the halcyon times of two days ago, I mocked a sign warning people not dance in university hallways. As it turned out, I should be the one who is mocked. In flagrant disrespect for black and red signs put on bulletin boards, there was a little girl pirouetting in the halls as I left the building. Another asked me if I was dancer too. (No, dear. Not in any way, shape, or form. Never, never, never. No.) And a third had the absolute audacity to run ahead of me, hold the door open, and wish me a nice day! They must be stopped!

Oooh, I wish I had a lawn, so I could tell them to get off it.

Later Days.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

And Whatever Anyone Else Might Say About that Night, *I* Have Never Desecrated a Cemetary

So I felt it was time for a blog post, and here it is. Now all I need is a topic. Topic. Topic, topic, topic.


Anyway, this presents a good opportunity to transcribe for the record last Wednesday night. Since school starts again for me *next* Wednesday, this is probably the end of my "party" themed posts for a bit. Technically, I could have gone out tonight, since a bunch of people are going out for a last hurrah to the local cowboy karaoke bar, which closes for good this Monday. But as regular readers know, I already went recently, and I feel I got the whole experience then. This time, it would be filled to the rosters, and I just don't feel up to dealing with that many people right now. It's even a little hypocritical, since the last time we went, one of the ladies in our party was kind of reluctant, and I gave a big, flowery speech on the importance of seizing the opportunity, going for the experience, and living for the moment. And now that she's putting together the event, I'm wussing out. Sorry, dear, to you and the rest of the group: I know I'd be in great company, but I also know I wouldn't be good company, not this time out. Regrets, and a promise that Stick-in-the-Mud PoC will be out next time.

But right, Wednesday night. It was a grad house party, and I never know how long I'm staying at those things, especially if I didn't come with anybody. This time, I stayed until the dying embers, and had a great time. I think it was party the composition: there was somewhere between a dozen and twenty people there at its height, and I think that's a good number: just right to allow a bit of circulation without being overwhelming. It also helped that the majority of the party was MAs from another non U of Blank program--the remaining PhDs and I banded together a bit, and mixed a bit. It also probably helped that I spent the entire night nursing a six pack of Vex Hard Lemonade. As I was told (repeatedly, in an increasingly slurred tone), it may be the preferred drink for 40 year old female divorcees, but at 7%, it gets the job done.

Is it just me, or do people tend to default back into certain stories and modes of behaviour when party time comes? I suppose part of it has to do with the whole performance aspect: you want to impress people, to a certain extent, or at least make an impression, so you go to what's made an impression on you. In my case, there's a few different things: "racy" Greek myths (I'm looking at you, Tiresias), the Grad student field trip to the morgue, and, the geekiest of them all, the formula.

Every now and then, when I'm inebriated, bored, melancholic, nostalgic, happy, confused, bemused, or feeling abused, I trot out this little gem, aka Person's Law:
2x+2 + 2x = 2x-1 * 10
Now, don't go running to the patent office or anything, because it's actually a fairly banal, basic application of powers. But it's always been a favorite of mine, because I came up with it myself way back in grade 11, from looking at a series of sums another class had left on the board. So, sometimes at parties, or a few other places, I get myself a pen, and play around with some other sums to see if I can come up with any other interesting power/sum relationships.

Arguably, this act may seem antisocial, or arrogant, or showing-off, and I'll admit those are all valid interpretations. Personally, though, I think it's a different form of what I was talking about above. When you go to a party, when you go to connect with old friends and make new ones, you impress with the things that have been impressed on (and in) you. That may be a favorite drink, or a favorite dress. You may show it by pulling out a guitar or pulling out a photograph.

Me? I like stories and numbers. And as far as I'm concerned, that's enough.

(And no; no, beyond the title, you're not getting any more on what happened at the end of that night. Ask someone else. Or buy me a pack of Vex.)

Later Days.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Comic Book Wednesday: Doom's Day

I thought to make things interesting, I'd do a 2 in 1 feature: for the entire blog post, I'd alternate between a comic book review and what I did Wednesday night, switching between topics with each sentence. Then I realised that wasn't so much interesting as annoying, so I'll do the comics now and a party post at a later date.

The loyal returning comic book fans may have noticed I skipped last week--which was a little odd, since I actually enjoyed most of the comics I read. This week, on the other hand, nothing in particular jumped out at me, and yet, here's a review, all the same. Truly, the universe is a strange and wonderful place.

Doctor Doom and the Masters of Evil 4. By Paul Tobin and Patrick Scherberger & David Baldeon. This was the final issue in a mini-series that saw Doctor Doom slicing through the Marvel Universe's villain rosters like a scalpel through butter. Here, he teams up with Magneto to fight Selene, and the resulting battle is nothing short of epic. What's at stake? A chance to rewrite the universe, and remove the one biggest threat to the bad doctor's existence. Any guesses on what that threat is? Tobin's mostly known for his work on the Marvel Adventures series, the all-ages comics Marvel puts out that manage to be consistently more entertaining than the "proper" books most weeks. This can be a fairly damaging label: it's taken other MA writers, like Jeff Parker, considerable time to "break out" of it. Tobin's shown here he can write a good story: the various villains are all in character, even relative blank slates like Princess Python. (We also get the reason that Doom decided to cart Python around with him for the past few issues, and again, it's not what you'd expect.) If I have any complaint with the series, it's that I'm not sure I like the ending--Doom's wish seems to limit future story potential to a certain extent. But, as this guy says, it's the best Doom story since at least the Waid/Wieringo Fantastif Four run a few years ago. It's a series worth reading, if you can track down the issues.

Dark Avengers 4 By Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato. This, on the other hand, has yet to prove itself as a series worth reading. After multiple issues of proving themselves to be largely ineffectual, the Dark Avengers continue to be largely ineffectual in doing anything other than distract Morgan LeFay--and since she apparently has the ability to be simultaneously aware of everything in multiple time periods, that didn't work so well either. Finally, Doom, the guy they were sent to rescue, rescues them, in some very, very shady time travelling logic. The rest of the issue fares a bit better, as Osborn deals with some consequences that have cropped up while they were gone, and realizes he may have bit off more than he can chew. And Bendis finally seems to have gotten a handle on Doom as a character. It's okay, but since it's supposed to be one of the flagship titles for the "Dark Reign," it should really be better.

Dark Reign: The Cabal. By Various. This oneshot is an example of one of the oddities that crop up under the current state of comicbook crossovers. It can't tell a big story, because that would be handled in one of the big titles. But for whatever reason, the stories it does tell are stories that didn't fit in any of those titles, so we get a bit of a mixed bag of five stories, each using the POV of a member of Osborn's Cabal. First up is Doctor Doom, in Hickman and Granov's "And I'll get the Land." Essentially, it's an extended daydream in which Doom considers exactly what he'll do once it's time to "renegotiate" the Cabal's current roles. Again, we have a well-characterized Doom--albeit one who spends a little more time staring off into space, ala JD from Scrubs. Next is Emma Frost, in Fraction and Acuna's "How I Survived Apocalyptic Fire." It's a quick recap of Frost's history, and how she got to this point. It's nice to know that Fraction has really done his research with the character, although the entire thing is essentially an extended flashback. Third is the Hood, in "Family Trust" by Rememnder and Fiumara. Out of the Cabal, the Hood is the least known, so this story presents a different side of the character as he presides over the funeral of one of his fallen members. It hasn't even remotely convinced me that the Hood is a worthwhile character, but it's not actively bad. Namor, in "The Judgement of Namor" by Kieron Gillen and di Giandomencio, makes a regal decision involving the fate of his subjects, which may or may not wind up being a plotline in the X-Men at some point. And in the last story, Loki has dinner with Doom in Milligan and Zonjic's "Dinner with Doom." In which, as a set up for a plot line that started LAST week in Thor 601, Loki asks permission to move Asgard to Latveria. Again, it's okay, but when your story is late compared to Thor, one of the most perennially late titles in the Marvel line... that looks like a big mistake. So, overall, we have a handful of tie-in stories that are, for the most part, well told and very well told, but really only worth purchasing by the Dark Reign completists.