Saturday, August 20, 2016

Operation Sandman: Night 4: “Death, so called, is a thing which makes men weep, And yet a third of life is passed in sleep.”

The purple thing on his head
is a pad I use to rest my arms on
when I'm typing. The blur in front of his face
is his tappers.
I was looking at an article that talked about the evolutionary basis for sleep and came across something that struck me as silly; people think scientists can't be dumb, but they can, and this is an example:

At first glance it would seem that sleep is a bad idea. In most environments animals face the prospect of being consumed by other creatures if not constantly alert to the danger around them. Being unconscious for long periods of time would not seem to offer a selective advantage. And yet most animals seem to sleep in some form. It may be that sleep offers the benefit of conserving energy while focusing on repair of the body, in order to allow an animal to utilize maximum energy while awake for survival purposes. In addition, predator and prey animals generally develop a symbiotic relationship. This is necessary because a predator that developed the ability to hunt 24 hours a day would rapidly deplete all the prey that serve as food. Not only would the prey animal be driven to extinction but so would the predator. Sleep helps even things out.

That is silly for a number of reasons. First, I am not sure that saying "an evolutionary basis for sleep" is even a reasonable thing to say. I mean, I say it, but I'm a lawyer, not a scientist. To suggest that we evolved an ability to sleep is to suggest that at some point we didn't sleep.

Secondly, predators don't hunt every second that they are awake. A predator who didn't have to sleep wouldn't necessarily hunt any more than a predator that sleeps 8 hours a night.

Thirdly, if "sleep helps even things out" that suggests that predators developed -- evolved -- sleep as a method of not extincting themselves by hunting out an area, or prey in general. That seems like the longest possible way to get where you want to go. Say some animal -- sabre-toothed tigers, maybe -- got the ability to never sleep, and began hunting nonstop, cleaning out its hunting area. That animal wouldn't just lay there and die, it would begin to roam farther for more food. This is what deer, for example, do: when their habitat gets all humaned up, they simply range farther and farther (and more into human territory, too.) So evolution might favor an animal not sleeping. But if the goal is to not have to constantly roam into other animals' territories, then evolving to essentially drop dead for 8 hours a day seems much, much harder than evolving to, say, stop hunting when you don't need food.

And, fourthly, "sleep helps even things out" suggests that the prey was already sleeping -- because the predators are 'evened out' by sleeping. So this guy imagined a world where prey have evolved to sleep, despite the obvious disadvantage that puts an animal at in a world where predators do not yet sleep, and then predators, in an effort to deliberately limit their intake of prey, evolve a similar ability. It's an evolutionary version of that one Xmas Eve in World War I where they all played soccer.

Evolution can't explain everything. No one scientific concept can explain everything. That's why people's hunts for a 'cause' for autism -- or insomnia, for that matter -- is so difficult. When a human condition can take so many different forms, it almost certainly isn't purely genetic. Consider height: people have a wide variety of height, and build. Some tall people are very skinny; others are broad. Some people have the capacity to reach six feet, maybe seven feet -- but because of their nutrition, for example, they may only reach 5'6". I am the tallest person in my entire extended family, a good two inches taller than every relative I have.

Autism may be like height: there may be a capacity, in every person, to have the particular combination of neurological, physiological, and psychological traits that make a person autistic. Sensory sensitivity, for example, may be worse in some people than others: the boys only like to wear certain kinds of clothing and are partial to certain kinds of blankets. I myself have come across clothing, as an adult, that I can't stand to wear -- it makes my skin crawl. So we are all three of us sensitive, but I may be better at tuning it out.

We were talking today about why Mr F doesn't sleep, and how he got like this. Mr F, I have lately been saying, escalates. Both boys do, to an extent, but Mr F has a worse problem with it. Here's an example: Starting early last school year, in the third grade, when he came home, Mr F would get off the bus and on his way up the stairs to the porch would stop and pull a bit of bark off a tree.  We didn't think much of it. After a few days, he stopped and pulled bark off two trees. Then one day he also stopped and grabbed a handful of dirt from the edge of the porch and flung it.

Soon, on his way inside, he was stopping at three trees to try to pull bark off, throwing a handful of dirt, taking both our mats off our porch, and taking the sign that says "The Pagels" off the wall and tossing it into the plants. These things crept up, and by the time they became problematic, we were trying to stop him. On many days, if I was working from home, I would take a break and go help Sweetie, sometimes physically carrying Mr F past all these things. Sweetie would try taking him in through the garage, or holding his hands all the way up the walk.

He still sometimes tries to do that, even though it's August and we don't really use the front walk in the summer.

So two years ago, Mr F got upset that we were gone for a night on our anniversary, and after that he wanted someone to sit in the room with him while he fell asleep. Over the past two years, he's slowly moved from that to wanting someone in there all night long with him, even after he falls asleep.

We don't know why he escalates, any more than we know why he taps forks to calm himself down or only eats a certain kind of cheese puff.

A predator almost certainly wouldn't spend all its time hunting, even if it didn't have to sleep, ever. Animals don't hunt for sport and don't waste food. A predator that suddenly found itself unable to, or not needing to, sleep, might use some of the extra time to get more food and grow stronger.

Predators, animals in general, don't seem to live the kind of complex lives we do. Even a 9-year-old boy, living in a quiet house in a suburb in Wisconsin, has a life that is mind-bogglingly complex. Today, we went to a library one town over, a new library where Mr F had never been. He enjoyed it at first, but grew restless after we'd been there a while. We took him swimming at the indoor pool he likes, where the pool was more crowded than usual and, at one point, when he saw a pool toy he liked I had to stop him from using it because it belonged to a little girl playing nearby. His mom left for an hour to go to her exercise class this morning; his dad left for a half-hour to go walking at night. At 5:20, he wanted to play tickling, but 5:20 was dinnertime and the rule is that we don't play during dinnertime. He doesn't eat dinner with us, and doesn't like the food we eat. When he was told he couldn't play tickle he tapped the picture for "Mom's Room" to go hang out there; he likes to climb under the blankets and lay very still, giggling. He was told he had to wait 10 minutes.

Who knows what he makes of all that? Sometimes, if I have a lot on my mind, I can't get to sleep. I lie awake and think about cases, or worry about money or the car or my sons. Sometimes I can't get my mind to shut off. Once, in law school, I spent an entire night sitting up watching movies because I couldn't even get sleepy. We think kids' worlds can't be complicated or confusing, but even if you're not autistic, there's a lot of stuff in the world to figure out.

But it's 9:13 p.m. and he's been in bed now for nearly twenty minutes. I've been sitting in the hall the whole time. When he came up to bed, he looked a little sad as I tucked him in and said I would be out in the hall. I left his door open, but he can't see me from his bed. He hasn't made a sound at all.

Friday, August 19, 2016

100 Books: A couple more books I started, then stopped.

Someone Could Get Hurt is an unnecessary book. Drew Magary (whose shtick I still somewhat enjoy when I read his Deadspin sports writing) begins this book of parenting essays with a pretty good story of his third child being born, and then having complications with his intestines and needing surgery immediately, but it goes way downhill from there. The opening story is stopped at the point where the doctor is about to give Drew and his wife news on their son's likely survival after the surgery, a cliffhanger that is obviously meant to give the reader a reason to slog through what comes next.

"What comes next" is the standard set of parenting stories that have been told and retold a million times. I made it through Drew & his wife can't sleep because the new baby wakes up a lot and through Trick-or-treating for the first time and ballet school for the first time before giving up. The essays might as well have been computer-generated: new dads miss partying. Moms are great at crafts. Little kids wear cute costumes and get into princesses even though their parents didn't want them to!

Magary subtitles the book "A Memoir Of Twenty-First Century Parenthood" but there's nothing here that's particularly 21st century, or worthwhile.

I skipped ahead to find out how the surgery went. He survived. Now you don't have to read the book.

The Bridge Over San Luis Rey is a book I've wanted to read for a long time. It begins with the unexpected collapse of a footbridge, and five people fall to their deaths. A priest who was near the bridge decides to investigate the lives of those people to see if there is a reason they were all there, or if it was random chance, in hopes of bringing scientific proof that everything happens for a reason. Exactly the kind of book I should like, except it was written in 1928 and is rather oblique in its writing, jumping back and forth from perspectives and the like. I had it on audiobook and couldn't follow the first chapter despite retrying three times. I may give it another go sometime, possibly when I haven't gone sleepless for an extended period of time.

Operation Sandman, Night 3: "O Sleep O gentle Sleep, Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee, that thou will no more weigh my eyelids down and steep my senses in forgetfulness?"

It's 8:48 p.m. It's Sweetie's night, and she is upstairs in the hall, with the boys' door open. Mr F doesn't like it. I can hear him up there, moaning quietly and trying, from time to time, to get Sweetie to come sit in the room.

I haven't gone upstairs yet. I was going to go up and go to bed, but until he settles down, I don't want to walk by his room or have him know that I'm in our room at the end of the hall.

This is why, even though we alternate nights sitting with him, it's not really a break: last night, he got up and went into our room once, while I tried to stop him. Plus you can hear him, and it's hard to sleep when you know at least two people are up and having a terrible time of it.

He's almost crying up there, like just short of actual tears.  Sweetie keeps telling him quietly to go to sleep.

Tonight I'd actually planned, right after dinner, to go up to bed early, at like 6:30. But Mr F wanted to go swimming, and he wanted me to go with him, so I took him and Mr Bunches while Sweetie cleaned up. Then when we got home he wanted a ride in the little car, so I took him on that, too. He and I have both been up for 18 hours now. As I listen to him, I know how he feels.

We don't know why he can't sleep, and he can't tell us. All we can do is keep trying.  If you try to read up on whether there's some sort of connection between autism and insomnia, the facts are all over the place and hardly worthy of the name 'facts.' People give wildly varying statistics about how many kids with autism have sleep problems (one study that is widely cited said "44 to 83%" of people with autism have sleep disorders. That is: 4 or maybe 8 out of every 10. That's not science. That's a guess.) Many studies don't compare those numbers to the general public, and nobody really knows whether this autistic person is really like that autistic person so even when someone can tell you why he or she can't sleep, it doesn't mean that it applies to every person with autism -- any more than everyone gets insomnia for the same reason.

When you have sleep disorders, they do a sleep study. I had to have one done for a life insurance exam a while back. An at-home study has you wire yourself up with various things that measure heart rate and breathing and the like, sleeping with a little electronic pack on you. It's doubtful at best that we could get Mr F to wear one. Clinical sleep studies require that you go sleep in a strange room while people watch. When we went to a hotel last week (Mr Bunches picked that as his big summer thing: we went to a hotel a few miles away), Mr F couldn't sleep and paced the room back and forth, getting so anxious that Sweetie took him back home to sleep while I stayed with Mr Bunches, who was already asleep himself.

When Mr F goes to the dentist, if he needs anything more than a quick peek inside he has to be given general anesthesia at the hospital. The last time he had that, they gave him the stuff they give you to relax you so that you're almost asleep by the time they wheel you in. He fought it so well that it took me and three orderlies to hold him down while they put the gas mask on him.

So we don't think he'd do well at a sleep study, and if he has sleep apnea or something similar we may never know. (He doesn't snore.)  Some doctors will do the tests in the kid's home, spending up to two months prior making frequent visits to get the child used to the equipment and the doctor.

In one recent study, participating kids with autism took 160 minutes to fall asleep and enter REM (or dreaming) sleep. Kids without autism took 100 minutes. While sleeping, kids with autism spend about 10% less time in REM sleep than control groups. Nobody is sure why that is. And some of the results suggest that rather than sleep patterns being caused by autism, they may be a factor contributing to the condition. (One girl with autism had tonsils and adenoids removed to help her sleep apnea; she became more socially responsive and exhibited less problematic behavior after her sleep improved.)

It's 9:14 p.m. now. Things are quiet upstairs.  Goodnight, Mr F.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Operation Sandman, Night 2 Update: Well #@$&%!!*&

3:16 a.m.:

Mr F woke up at 230. I checked with him, helped him lay back down and sat in the chair in the hall reading.

At 250, he was almost asleep but wanted to move to the floor.

At 310 he was asleep and I started to stand up and head to bed but the CHAIR CREAKED LIKE AN OLD HOUSE IN A HURRICANE AND WOKE HIM UP.

*sighs, heads back to Buzzfeed*

UPDATE 330 AM I have moved to the floor & am planning class action suit against chairs.

UPDATE 406 AM: No sound or movement from bed for 36 minutes. Left leg completely numb. I got up to close the door. There was a tiny creak. He's back up. I'm back down.

UPDATE 510 AM: I broke down and we took a ride to calm him down. It didn't. He's laying in his bed, occasionally mumbling to himself or hitting his head. When we got back from the ride, Mr Bunches briefly woke up.

"Dad," he said. "Are you back?"

I said I was.

"I'm sure glad you're back," he said.

"Me, too," I agreed.

After about 20 seconds, he said quietly:

"Dad, when I get up in the morning can I play with my Legos?"

I said he could.

UPDATE 530 AM. I am making coffee.  Mr F is upstairs in his room, upset and trying to calm down. Mr Bunches has woken back up and is watching videos on a tablet from his bed.  Going to be a long day.

Operation Sandman, Night 2: "Sleep lays lightly on the hopeful, as well as on the anxious."

It's 9:08 p.m., and Mr F just got to bed. We were running a bit late tonight because I had to help Mr Bunches put together his new Lego set, and even though it was a small one -- 315 pieces or so -- I didn't finish until 8:30.

Then on the nightly ride we saw lightning, and outside the house right now I can hear thunder in the distance, plus rain pelting the roof. Hopefully it won't wake Mr Bunches.

Mr F is in his bed. I'm in the chair in the hall, door fully open, but not in the room.  That's what Sweetie did last night, and he was okay with it.

He only woke up 3 times last night, about every 2-3 hours, but each time Sweetie said she put him back in his bed and then sat in the chair in the hall, and he fell back asleep fairly promptly. This constitutes progress.

I can hear him in there, tapping his forks and lightly talking to himself. I shouldn't let him take his forks with him to bed, but he's out of sorts tonight. Before the ride, he was having tics, like rolling his eyes or puffing in his breath. He only does that when he's very nervous. So I'm letting him have his forks for a bit.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Operation Sandman: Night 1: "What hatn night to do with sleep?"

It's 8:01 p.m. as I write this. This is Day 1 of the plan. Tonight, rather than sit in the room with Mr F as he falls asleep, Sweetie (whose night it is) was going to sit on a chair in the doorway: inside the room but with the door open.

Things got off to a rocky start: at about 7:30 Mr F couldn't stay up any longer and wanted to go lay in his bed. Although we're supposed to keep bedtime more or less the same, and that generally starts about 7:45 with his ride and then in the room by 8:15-8:30, Sweetie figured this would be okay.

But Mr Bunches and I were drawing an alphabent -- he writes the letters and words, I draw the pictures -- and we were only on 'T.' This was a problem because Mr Bunches really likes to be first, and gets really upset if he's not first. We've been working on helping him handle it and not get so upset but so far it's tough.

So Mr Bunches got concerned that Mr F was going to be first in the bedroom (and Mr Bunches worries that Mr F will turn off the TV in their room, which serves as a sort of nightlight and which scares Mr Bunches if it's turned off.)  So we offered him the choice: he could quit the alphabet and finish it tomorrow, going up to bed now to be first, or he could let Mr F be first and we'd finish the alphabet and then take him for a little ride.

He chose option B, and Mr F went up to bed. We finished the alphabet and left on the ride, the sound of which woke Mr F up a bit. But by the time we got home 23 minutes later, Mr F was back asleep.

The problem was, Mr Bunches, who is 9 after all, reneged on the deal: he got upset again and wanted us to make Mr F come downstairs and then wait so he could be first. (I am going to confess: on other occasions we've done exactly that, but never when Mr F was already asleep.) He was getting loud and upset so I took him back downstairs to my office area, and talked to him.

I offered him a deal: let Mr F be first, and I'd take him to the bookstore tomorrow to buy a book. No.

I upped the ante: let Mr F be first and tomorrow he could to go Target and get a new small toy.  Deal.

We practiced saying his calming phrase: Sometimes [bad thing] but that's okay because [good thing.] As in Sometimes Mr F is first, but that's okay because I will get to get a toy.

He started crying and couldn't get through Sometimes Mr F.  Sat back down, talked more, talked about which toys he liked and how I know he likes being first but he also likes toys and being nice, made the deal again, said the saying, and then for good measure decided that we would help him upstairs and keep his eyes mostly covered so that he wouldn't see Mr F and it would be like he was first after all.

It all went smoothly until the bedroom door where he said, in what he seemed to think was a quiet voice But mom I'm supposed to be first.  Sweetie said shhhhh but it was done.

So: 8:09 now. Mr Bunches is in bed, writing a note to us that he is supposed to be first. That's his way of expressing his frustration: he writes us a note. Mr F is in bed, too, but he's humming and rocking back and forth. Sweetie's in her chair, in the doorway.

Christianity gets the bloody reboot it needs.

Angels Unbound is a series of books by Andrew Leon (The House On The Corner, Shadow Spinner) that takes his writing, and Bible-era history, in a startling -- and amazing -- new direction. It's like Game Of Thrones meets The Ten Commandments.  There's a total of 26 books in the series -- each short, so all together it's like one book in lots of different stories -- and each tells a specific story about a specific angel, but altogether they tell a much larger, more detailed story.  

Barachiel picks up the story where the Book Of Raziel -- the book kept by the Angel who stood by the side of God's throne -- is being brought into Alexandria, and it's hard to imagine just how much story and action Leon packs into such a short story; I read it in about 15 minutes and it had as much going on as any novel might, in that time; it just tore on through it.

I've said before and I'll say again: Leon's stuff deserves to be more widely-read, and would be great turned into movies or television shows; in the past he's done Spielberg-esque modern fantasy and then moved into stranger and darker stories, and this series feels like the culmination of what he's been heading for: a dark, strange, mysterious, epic story that combines fantasy, history, and religion into a heady mix.

What I particularly like is the realistic feel to it; so many religious stories feel sanitized, like they're middle-school pageants. Leon makes angels feel real the way Christopher Nolan made Batman and the Joker feel real: he creates beings and a world around them that you feel could exist (or maybe did). The angels and the humans are full of passion and energy, but even better, Leon makes the angels different. They aren't just humans with greater powers: his angels think and act differently, have different motivations and different passions than humans. Too often, people write superheroes, angels, wizards as though they were just humans with some neat tricks. But an angel wouldn't think or act like a human; they're a different creature altogether, and these books highlight that.

I'll be reviewing them all over time here, but you shouldn't wait: go start the whole series now, with Asbeel and work your way through them. 

Operation: Sandman: Day 1. "Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies Which busy care draws in the brains of men; Therefore thou sleep’st so sound"

Mr F does not sleep.

Mr F has not slept for a long time. I mean almost literally has not slept.

Almost every night, when Mr F goes to bed, we take him for a ride on his 'route.' This is a 4-5 mile drive around Middleton, the same ride every night, to help him calm down. Once home, we take him up to the room he shares with Mr Bunches. Then, as we have had to do every single night since May, 2014, one of us sits in the room until he falls asleep.

That's something that started over 2 years ago when Sweetie and I went and stayed at a hotel as part of our anniversary. Even though his babysitters are his older brother and sisters, Mr F got nervous and after that could not fall asleep unless one of us was sitting in the room with him.

Over the past two years we tried various things to get him out of this habit, but it has never gone away, not a single night. Many nights, it's gotten worse. There have been many many nights in the past six months especially where he hasn't gone to sleep until midnight or later, or where he wakes up at 3.

It used to not be as big a problem though, because at least some nights he would just sit quietly in his room. We could hear him in there, mumbling and tapping his forks, but he didn't wake up Mr Bunches and it didn't cause much trouble other than he was tired the next day. He'd do that four or five days in a row, sometimes, and then, exhausted, sleep soundly the next 2 or 3.

But something changed late in the last school year. Mr F began not sitting quietly any longer, knocking on the door instead. We have to lock Mr F and Mr Bunches in their room at night, with a hook and eye, because if we didn't they would almost certainly come to harm. (In June of this year, a 5-year-old autistic boy piled up two beanbag chairs to stand on, unlocked his front door and left his house in the middle of the night. He had been sleeping in his bed when his mom checked on him, at 2 a.m. He was later found dead.)

If Mr F knocks, on the door, we go see what he wants. He may be thirsty, he may have to use the bathroom or need something else. But this summer he started knocking on the door and then when we opened it -- Sweetie and I trade nights being responsible for Mr F duty -- he would pull us inside and climb back on his bed, and we'd have to sit there again until he fell asleep. Sometimes he never would. On at least 6 occasions this summer, I have sat the whole night in there with Mr F, sometimes laying on the floor and dozing, or trying to read. Sweetie had as many times, if not more.  We took to taking some cushions off an old couch and putting them in there in case that happened.

Even if he does go back to sleep, this might happen 3 or 4 times in a night. Which means that on a good night you might only get woken up once and would get 6 hours of sleep in 3 hour increments. On a bad night, you didn't sleep.

It's left us with times on the weekend or a weeknight where one of us will take the boys out of the house for a few hours so the other one can nap; I did that for Sweetie last night, taking them to swim right after dinner and not coming back until almost 7:30.

Last night wasn't solely Mr F; Mr Bunches was the cause this time: there was lightning and Mr Bunches saw it, around 2 a.m. He got scared because thunderstorms scare him to death. So, it being my turn, I went in there and got Mr Bunches, who wanted to take a ride in the car to calm down. Sweetie slept on while Mr F and Mr Bunches and I took a ride on the regular route, at 2:00 a.m.

When we got back, I sat down in the room to wait for the boys to go back to sleep. Mr F never did. After 45 minutes I figured he was never going to fall asleep -- it was 3:15 a.m. -- so I stretched out on the cushions and tried to get a catnap.

Mr F, though, would talk to himself, or get upset (maybe because he couldn't sleep) or tap his forks, or sometimes just wake me up or try to get out of the room. So from 2 on, I slept hardly at all and when I did it was for only about 10 minutes at a time.

You can imagine what kind of state I'm in today.

Sweetie and I have come up with a plan, though. It'll take about 10 days, to see if it works.  The plan starts tonight. I am going to call it Operation: Sandman.

I'll try to post daily (or nightly) as the case may be, and let you know how it's working.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Summer pics day 5

Got it on the first try:

If you look closely, you can see the water all around his skin: I snapped it just as he surfaced:

One of Mr Bunches' favorite things to do is go to the Capitol. We went there a couple Saturdays ago on farmers' market day. There's a historic church on the square that he likes, but it was locked up. A caretaker we asked said that if we went inside the office people might let us go in anyway, so we did, and Mr Bunches talked us into the church.

The farmers' market, though, was not popular with either boy: the crowds were too much for them. We tried walking in it for 5 minutes, and then Mr F broke loose and went to the Capitol lawn, away from the people. While we were there, Mr Bunches backed himself into the corner, physically as far away and shielded from the crowds as it was possible to be:

So we stuck clear of the market and looked at the Capitol observation deck, then sat outside that church, too:

The hit of the day for Mr F was this bubbler:

After he got over his surprise he more or less treated it as a water park.

Book 61: Which number is higher: Phelps' gold medals or the number of civilians killed by the US in Syria?

I was wondering this week if comic books reflect the concerns of the times, the way science fiction is said to and the way literary fiction rarely does.  Lately superhero movies (as well as quasi-superhero movies like Mission: Impossible, which I rewatched over the weekend and concluded that Ethan Hunt is basically Batman) have focused on the thin line between helping and hurting: The Man Of Steel and Batman vs. Superman both explicitly saw their heroes causing destruction and/or killing (although DC backed off in Batman vs Superman, going to silly lengths to emphasize that nobody was getting hurt in most fights).  Captain America: Civil War had the same subplot, both building on The Avengers: Age of Ultron (an "age" that lasted I think 72 hours) which had a a plot superheroes trying to stop a badguy without hurting anyone.

Whether those consciously reflect the current age -- when the "good" president people love who didn't get us into wars (but who didn't get us out of them, either) admits that US drone strikes have killed at least 116 civilians -- or simply echo them is up to the creators to decide. (Whether people get it, or whether the creator actually meant it, is also up to debate; George Lucas has said over and over that he thought of Star Wars as a 'simple morality tale' but later ramped it up by saying it was part of a 'loose thematic trilogy,' beginning with American Graffiti, then to Apocalypse Now, and then to Star Wars, which he thought of as a Vietnam protest. There's no saying it can't be both, but it seems late in the game for Lucas to aspire to thematic brilliance; meanwhile Ronald Reagan, among others, missed that according to Lucas, America was the Empire.)

Anyway, comic books may or may not consciously reflect the issues of the times. I'm not as interested in the overt attempts, like making Thor a woman -- I haven't read any of those, so I can't comment -- but more interested in books that build on or grow out of an issue, like how Broken Harbor distilled the economic collapse by focusing on one family's destruction in a terrible way, but did so without hammering the point home.

Identity Crisis was a series of comics that came out in December 2004. In psychology, an identity crisis occurs when adolescents grow up with no firm idea of who they are or their place in the world (which some might say is adolescence, period). It can be caused by kids being forced into a particular identity or where kids lack a commitment or a desire to explore, either of which can cause kids to hit adulthood without any sense of direction.

In Identity Crisis the comic, the storyline begins with the mysterious killing of Sue Dibny, the wife of Elongated Man. Elongated Man is one of the few superheroes whose identities are publicly known, so everyone knows Sue, too.  When she is killed with no trace of how the killer got by all the security, various heroes set out to locate the villains who could teleport in or kill at long distance, but a small subgroup of heroes goes immediately after Dr. Light, a villain who (they knew) had earlier raped Sue Dibny and threatened to do the same to all the heroes' wives, as he'd learned their secret identities.

These heroes know to suspect Light because after they stopped him, they used magic to wipe his mind out and erase the knowledge of their identities, which caused a split among them, as well.

The storyline is pretty good, with a few twists and turns and some red herrings that probably mean more to someone with a more detailed knowledge of comics than I have. It focuses mostly on Green Arrow with a subpart by The Flash, and some appearances from other heroes. It's an interim story that leads into a later set of comics, Infinite Crisis, which I actually read some time ago.

All in all, if you're a comic fan, it's pretty good and worth reading. I always enjoy these massive crossovers so I can see some other heroes beyond the ones I enjoyed as a kid, and who can't pull off a whole book series by themselves.

Does it reflect the times it was written in, though? (Which is where I began.)  The big moral issue in Identity Crisis is, as you'd guess, whether the heroes were right to use magic to alter the mind of a person to protect their families-- so that they could protect the rest of the world.  At one point, Green Arrow justifies their actions by saying that no matter what "the [Justice] League endures."  Asked whether the two big guys, Superman and Batman, know, Arrow says that Superman "hears what he wants to hear" and Batman "knows what he wants to know."

The year 2004 included the Madrid bombings, the release of 5 British prisoners from Guantanamo Bay (only to have them immediately arrested in Britain), Al Qaeda decapitating an American civilian in Iraq, the conviction (in state court) of Terry Nichols, who helped with the Oklahoma bombing, the theft of The Scream, and of course the 2004 election between John Kerry and George "Worst President Ever" Bush, among major developments.

You could, if you wanted, draw a direct parallel between the Swift Boating of John Kerry -- remember that? -- and the re-election of George W. Bush. You could even wonder if, like Nixon did with South Korea withdrawing from peace talks, Bush engineered or allowed violence to assure his re-election: presidents serving during wars have always been re-elected.  On October 8, 2004, suicide bombers in Egypt killed 34 people. On October 21, the US requested that the "Black Watch" infantry from Scotland be deployed to Iraq and moved out of the British-controlled zone; against heavy opposition the UK did so and for the remainder of October the Black Watch was under attack.  On November 2, Bush won re-election by 35 electoral votes, with a narrow margin of just over 3,000,000 of the popular vote. People voting for Bush cited terrorism and "national values" as their reasons.  Bush had been trailing in the polls until the Swift Boat ads, which ran in August and September, gave him a lead in the polls.

Batman solves the mystery in Identity Crisis by asking who benefits? He posits that to solve a crime you have to track down the person who would gain the most from the crime. There have always been rumors that presidents have allowed attacks to occur to bolster their own programs -- FDR was accused of it -- but history has shown that they do these things. If you consider the misleading of the American electorate a crime, asking who benefits will not lead you to the presidential candidates themselves, any more than Batman was led to Dr. Light to solve this mystery.

Then again, the loved ones of the Justice League had perhaps grown a bit complacent, relying on technology to protect themselves and sure that no villain could ever catch them. Sue Dibny died when she spent the day preparing an elaborate birthday party for her husband. Batman and Superman had no real idea what was going on because they never stayed around for the aftermath, the clean-up.  A big event occurs, the public goes nuts, everyone wraps it up, and then in the shadows afterwards while we are all going about other business, the people left behind get to shape the situation to their own ends.

While Bush was president, "big oil" made $600,000,000,000 (and now get a movie with Marky Mark recasting them as heroes.) The Iraq war saw the US paying $138,000,000,000 to private companies, 52% of which went to just 10 different corporations. Nearly 1/4 of that -- $39,500,000,000 went to Halliburton, which in September 2004 was the subject of a New York Times article noting that the company had risen from 22nd in overall government money to 7th -- and that then-VP Dick Cheney held stock options in the company, meaning that he would be allowed to buy stock at a predetermined price regardless of the then-current market price. Cheney worked at Halliburton when he was selected as Bush's VP nominee in 2000. Cheney's stock options were worth $241,000 in 2004, and $8,000,000 in 2008. 

MBNA was one of Bush's largest campaign donors.  During Bush's presidency, bankruptcy laws were altered to make it more difficult to get rid of credit card debt.  The list goes on and on. While people debated whether John Kerry earned his Vietnam medals and Chechen soldiers shot planes out of the sky, the American public voted for George W. Bush, and got economic collapse and a recession we are still in. Now, we spend our time considering whether Donald Trump actually intended to have Russian hackers break into Hillary Clinton's email, we spend almost no time discussing whether Hillary!'s plans to slightly regulate large banks and risky investments would pass Congress or even be funded and enforceable.

The big story in pop culture has been the movie Suicide Squad, in which a rogue US operative organizes a strike team of psychotic criminals, who she controls via deadly neck implants. The team is deployed to rescue its leader and stop a member of the team who has gone crazy and is destroying a city, and the world.

Most of the debate about that movie is about whether it's any good, and not whether it reflects our times or what is happening in our culture. In fact, we heard more about the green water at the Olympics this week than we did about the presidential policy which allows drone strikes on unspecified targets without direct approval by anybody.

Remember when Obama declared that drone strikes on US citizens were allowable even without a trial, because he was the one who would make the decision? I do. But, then, I've never been a big fan of the Olympics.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Summer pics day 4

This is from the first day we went wading in the river, just after a big rain the night before. The river was deeper and faster than it's ever been, so we only ventured in at a few spots and I made the boys hold my hand. No kid of mine is getting washed away in a flash flood.

This shows the uneasy truce between Mr F and my grandson. Mr F isn't sure he likes the little guy, and my grandson for his part is not quite sure what to make of the fascinating Mr F, who is always doing something interesting but who is also loud and fast and strong.

 I had to go to a court hearing in Green Bay, so afterwards, having a bit of extra time, I drove to find where Packer Quarterback Aaron Rodgers lives. I found it, too. (It's a pretty regular-looking house in a fancy subdivision.) That house wasn't as scenic as this horse.

And this is a picture I had a stranger take, that same day, of me sitting on a bench with a statue of a man who was identified as "the Packers' biggest booster." I believe he was a reporter, but I don't remember his name and I can't find it on the website.

The sportcoat I am wearing in that picture was a gift from the boys for Father's Day. I am 5-0 in it and have never lost a hearing while wearing it.

This next one is a picture of Mr F and Mr Bunches in front of the window on the 8th floor of the Dane County courthouse, where we'd gone to file some stuff late one day:

This is a duck. (But you probably would've guessed that.)

Mr F in a solemn moment, swimming in Lake Mendota at Picnic Point, a promontory that juts out into the lake on university grounds:

I call this picture "Yep!"

Lily pads and branches, Picnic Point:

This is the eerie sky one night during a lull in some terrible terrible thunderstorms:

One of the things I get sad about is that I love thunderstorms. But Mr Bunches is terrified of them, so when they come around he is too scared for me to take any pleasure in them anymore. Mostly during thunderstorms we have to drive around in the car, because Mr Bunches is scared the power will go out. (It went out 1 time, long ago, but he has never forgotten.) This night, we drove a bit but then when things got really bad there was flash flooding and other severe weather warnings, so we had to go back home and sit in the basement where I have my home office. Mr Bunches had a terrible night.

Update On Parents

There is a website called "UrbanBaby."

It gets worse. I learned about this site from a Hamilton Nolan article on Gawker, in which he shared that a mom recently asked whether it was possible for her son to have friends even though they were only going to live in a 1,600-square-foot house.

So I went and looked at some general questions that are so urgent, and yet unsolvable, for the kind of parents that post on "UrbanBaby." Real actual questions like:

Need to Name baby dd before I leave hospital. What girl name have you always liked, wished you used or heard recently? I don't like anything too crazy (kaymden) or too classic (Elizabeth) though "bit classic" is fine (like Helena). Sorry for sounding crazy, please help out.

OK first, "dd" is one of the common abbrevs on UrbanBaby, as is "dc". They mean, respectively, "dear daughter" and "dear child." So this woman literally said "Need to Name baby dear daughter..." These are people who want you to know their child is dear to them, yet not so dear that they can spare the extra time to type that out.

Secondly, is kaymden a name?

Thirdly, what kind of criteria are those? Names you always liked, or wished you used or heard recently? "Hey, is there like a classic name that you think would be awesome for a kid? No? Well, have you heard any names recently that I could use?"

Here is how the response started for Ms. Kaymden:

Why do you need to name her before you leave? We did for DS then changed it a week later. If you really need ideas, how about Helen, Ellen, Jane, Maria. Hard to know if you have any naming constraints with last name or other sibs. Congrats on the baby! 

Yeah why do you need to name dd before you leave the hospital?  Or even right away? Maybe you don't name dd until she enters preschool at Yale University at age 2, after you do a survey of the other dc's enrolled to make sure dd doesn't have a name even remotely like anyone else's. Maybe you never name her.  *gasps, rushes to trademark concept of not naming kids.*  I think they should name the kid Soda. or Bisquick.

But maybe you are thinking well there's no rush to name him, either, you certainly don't need to before you leave the hospital, it's not like it's a law or anything.

Ms. Kaymden responded:

Op. Thanks! Need name for ssn I was told. Hyphenated last name, American

If there is one thing that will not stand on a board like this, it is an opinion that contradicts another opinion. BabyNameLawyer shot back:

Must you?

Which gave poor Ms. Kaymden the vapors:

Please don;t do this.

Sorry Ms. Kaymden it is for your own good:

They tell you this, but in reality you can wait and file the paperwork yourself. I was so upset when I heard this, because I needed more time. Take your time, but there are some great names listed here! Congratulations!

Congratulations! On your baby! Or possibly on the great names you have to choose from! Or perhaps simply on learning that "THEY" cannot make you DO THINGS RIGHT NOW.

Now for some comic relief! Ssome sort of interloper from like Twitter or something shows up:

You had 9 months wtf. In the end it's not that big a deal 

NOT. THAT. BIG. A. DEAL. Who are you even? What you name your baby is CLEARLY. THE. MOST. SIGNIFICANT. DECISION. YOU. WILL. EVER. MAKE. YOUR BABY IS A REFLECTION OF YOU and if people see a Paul or a Donna walking around with your surname you MIGHT. AS. WELL. DIE.  Quick someone jump in and talk some sense for God's sake

Claire, or Clare would be perfect

Thank god that was close. Wait, though, I don't think we've resolved all the thorny legal issues

You don't have to apply for a SSN for your kid until they earn income

Is it possible that someone else on has some slight knowledge of tax or government law?

You need it if you're using them for a tax deduction.

Well, that settles that. *Brushes hands briskly* Wait what?

This is incorrect

Can't debate that kind of solid argument, but could someone give me a more concrete example? Like did someone give birth in Soviet Russia?

They made me lock name before I could be released. 

OK but still there's got to be a more expensive complicated solution here, right? Right?

easy to change the first year

No problem-o, as the help probably says. Just give your kid whatever old name you have to in order to sneak him past the Imperial Guards at Maternity Central, then hire a lawyer, file the paperwork, take out an ad in the paper, appear before a judge, re-do the birth certificate, and EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.  But hey what happened to that Twitter guy?

Dumb. Just pick a name. 

I swear to God that's not me posting. But I like him. I'm assuming it's a him. It's a him. But, guys, ladies, DHs and DWs and DSOs, things are not that simple or we would not need

 I named dd before we the left hospital because my dh and I are terrible at paperwork- we were afraid she would be "Baby Girl Last Name" on her college applications. 

You know one day you're going home with DD and totally planning on giving her a name and all but then things happen, you had to go get those heirloom tomato seeds at the flea market for Bonnie The Gardener to plant and then there was Book Club and it's not like you ever interact with DD until she lets you help pay for her wedding so these things are easy to lose track of.  I started to suspect that "dd" and "ds" were not actually abbreviations. Perhaps these posters had simply forgotten their kids' names.

What follows after that is about two pages of the whitest possible names you can imagine, including "Ardith," "Bronwyn," "Theodora," "Anais," and more.

I know you are dying to know what the poster picked, and I will tell you:



She picked Agatha.


Four lines after Ms. Kaymden Agatha picked that name, one person couldn't help herself and put up this whole list:

Evelyn Elaine Juliette Ava Eva Aria Fiona Vanessa Bridgette Susanna Sadie Tressia Raquel Katherine Bianca Violet Julia Simone Naomi Nina Willow 

I would pay all the money I have on my desk ($28) to have Ms. Kaymden name her kid every one of those.

But she picked AGATHA folks we're all done here so long drive safe

Christelle Cecily Cadence Christiane Josephine Sylvie Yvonne Valentina Valencia Veronique Zara Natalia 


Constance Harmony 

Done here! SO LONG THANKS! I picked the name like ages ago!


absolutely not. pretty awful.

like your initial instinct of Helena.
Love : )
India, Karrena, Erica 

Somewhere in Connecticut, after this thread closed, a thousand lonely women went to their open bedroom windows, stared up at a starry quiet sky, and chanted baby names long into the night. Sated, they fell into a sleep that lasted a hundred years, and when they awoke, the heirloom tomatoes were in full bloom.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book 60: If a tangle tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Demons Don't Dream was a pretty good installment in the Xanth series; not quite up to the par of the original 6 or 7 books but better than some of the duller ones that have popped up during this 100 Books thing; this one at least didn't feel like a recap, but it did again feature people from Mundania, which is alway sort of hard to get into.

There's a definite genre out there of regular folks like you and me fall into a fantasy story. It's called "Portal Fantasy" and is apparently something fantasy writers are supposed to avoid. (Nearly a year ago, Charlie Jane Anders posted on IO9 a list of 10 "rules" they wish SF/F writers would break more often, and the rule "No Portal Fantasy" is one of them.) "Portal" fantasies include Narnia, The Magicians series, the So You Want To Be A Magician, and in part the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was where I first realized that portalling into our world can be a drudge.

In His Dark Materials the first book focuses on Lyra in her world as she travels from Cambridge to the North Pole (-ish) to find out why children are being stolen by a group called the "Gobblers," and it's a phenomenal book. The second one, The Subtle Knife opens in our world with a kid who ends up traveling into a different world, and that alone was almost enough to make me stop reading; only the strength of the first book kept me going long enough to enjoy the second book once I got past that. And it helped that the story picked up pretty quickly.

I think the problem is that often, in setting up how 'real' the world is, writers get bogged down in describing regular stuff, trying to I don't know I guess explain to readers just how awful/boring/drudgeish our world is? We get that, though. We live in our world and even if our world is a lot of fun and has exciting times like mine does from time to time, it still involves dishes and cleaning out garbage cans (one of my chores today, and I can't tell you how much I resent having to clean a garbage can. I need to make a container clean enough to hold the things I throw away. *sigh*.)  So spending dozens of pages on how terrible the world is only drags things down.

Anthony doesn't do much of that here, although there's a lot of "I don't want to go back to Mundania!" stuff. Then again, there's a bit of a twist at the end in that regard, so I shouldn't fault him too much because where I thought he was going with this was not where he was actually going with this.

The basic storyline is: Dug and Kim are Mundanes who get to play a computer game that literally has the power to put them in Xanth. They're playing to settle a bet between two Demons, these being the cosmic sort of demons that exist in the far background of Xanth -- some worldbuilding from (primarily) The Source Of Magic that I don't think Anthony gets enough credit for, as I've said before. The demons, Earth and Xanth (denoted with more mathematical writing) have made a bet in their own cosmic game, and it must be played out by Dug and Kim; if Earth's avatar wins, Xanth has to leave the planet and there will be no magic in Xanth.

It's a great concept that is almost entirely wasted here, in that it sets up the story (a story that's actually been building over several books, in the background) and then is ignored until literally the last chapter, where it crops up again -- at which point I'd almost completely forgotten the premise of the story. The reader has no idea who is the player for which demon, so there's no real suspense there as players get distracted from or focus on the game, and the Xanth world beyond has no idea what's going on: they're aware of the game but don't seem to know that it is so important, or if they do they do a really good job of hiding it.

I think it could have been a more epic story, with all of Xanth trying to figure out who was playing for which demon and trying to help or hinder them; but maybe that's not the story Anthony wanted to write. As it is, the lack of connection to the overall purpose doesn't hurt the story, which is pretty solid and got exciting at the end. It's not the greatest Xanth story but it's not the worst, either.

In the author's note, uncharacteristically short this time, Anthony says that he wrote this story because he can't write computer code but wanted a Xanth computer game. (I can attest how hard coding is; I've twice tried to learn how to write code, because I have some ideas for computer games, but after weeks of trying I found it frustrating enough to not continue. I expect if I went back to school for it I might learn, but since I just wanted to do it as a hobby, going to school for it doesn't make much sense.)(Anyway, someday I'll just hire a programmer to make the game.)

I tried to remember if I'd ever heard of a Xanth computer game, and then began to wonder, again, why Xanth hasn't made a bigger hit in pop culture.  Lev Grossman's The Magicians has a TV show (and it's really good!), they're making another Narnia movie soon, Ghostbusters got remade, Star Wars has a jillion things going on, every comic book character ever is getting his or her own series and movie, Game Of Thrones somehow still holds people's interests. Why not Xanth?

The book actually got made into a game, in 1993, called "Companions Of Xanth." You can find videos of a guy playing it on Youtube. For 1993 it looks okay: a text-based adventure with still pictures. But that appears to be the only Xanth product ever produced. There's no t-shirts, stuffed animals, cartoons, nothing. There's a Xanth boardgame that you can't buy new anymore and is out of stock on Amazon.  And two graphic novels adapting the Isle Of View storyline.

Just like I wondered why Soon I Will Be Invincible hasn't been made into something -- at least an ongoing comic series -- now I'm wondering it about Xanth.

The problem is not an easy one. It's the difference between what makes a cool kid in high school and what makes a nerd or loser or however your school described the people who were not cool.  (This isn't about whether that's right or wrong and largely I take the stance that people who had a great time in high school probably peaked there as the skills required to maximize high school fun are skills that do not translate easily to the adult world).  A review in Salon in 2000 described reading Piers Anthony as fun but 'not cool.'   That same writer said she "like everyone" read Harry Potter, but asserted that critics look down on series authors and poorly review or don't review such books. That will come as a surprise to JK Rowling, George R R Martin, and the guy who wrote His Dark Materials as well as the Narnia books.  She also said that Anthony's skill in consistently delivering a book in his brand made critics dislike him. Tell that to John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, JRR Tolkien, etc etc.

It's not just that the Xanth books aren't all that serious on the surface. Invincible was a "serious" superhero book, ripe for pop-culture taking.  And Armada wasn't "serious" at all but is already being made into a movie.

It's possible Anthony just didn't want to develop Xanth into a larger phenomenon. Bill Watterston wouldn't let Calvin & Hobbes be merchandised, and Doonesbury didn't get into merchandising until 1991. (Even then, Gary Trudeau held out and tried for street cred: he donated all profits from that early merchandise to charity. It's hard to say if he licenses anything now; I couldn't find anything on Amazon, though.) But Anthony seems to have wanted wider distribution.

In 2004, they announced a Xanth movie would be made. They had a director and everything, and that seems to be as far as it went. In 2013 the blog Signature ruminated on why Hollywood didn't discover Xanth yet, although apparently Hollywood had, and decided that Xanth wasn't cool enough to sit at its table. That same blog said that On A Pale Horse, the first book of Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality (where regular folks become Death and Time and the like) had been optioned for a TV series -- another one that never happened.

Some people carp on Anthony's attitudes; apparently a lot of critics or readers find him sexist or antifeminist, which I don't really get (but I'm a white male, so I don't get lots of stuff. White males don't get how it feels to be someone who is not a white male. Every movement you see for equal rights or equal pay or anything is essentially that group of people saying please treat us like you treat white males. White males don't work for 70 cents on the dollar, don't get shot by cops just for existing, have bathrooms set aside for them, and make up 99% of the presidency, 3/4 of the Supreme Court, and most of the Senate and House of Representatives. We don't get discriminated against, because we run things. So it's harder for guys like me to understand how a woman or minority might feel reading Xanth. [Which, I should point out, got its first African-American character in this book, Sherlock, a member of the "black wave," a group of African-Americans who moved to Xanth to settle.].  Other people find the books to be creepy, like this Reddit thread where they discuss the obsession with 'panties' and similar problematic (in their opinion) things. I think some of that is in the eye of the beholder, like when authorities arrest parents for pictures of breastfeeding or bathtime.

Other people (my mom when she was alive) think the books are too silly, and aren't worth reading, to which I reply: Harry Potter had a character eat a candy that was booger-flavored. Besides, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is getting a TV series this year, and Adams' Hitchhiker books got made into a movie that apparently only I thought was okay.

There is a built-in audience for Xanth. They're at 39 books and counting, the last one having been published in 2014. Anthony placed 135th on this list of all-time best selling SF/F authors, at 2,000,000+.  (Although that's 2,000,000+ over nearly 40 years; Hugh Howey's Wool is over 1,000,000 even though it was originally self-published not all that long ago.) So it's possible that Xanth is just a niche book series.

When I was a runner at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel back in the early 90s -- when Demons Don't Dream was published -- I was a fan of Arena Football, which never got reported on in that paper. My area (runners don't get desks they get areas) was right next to sports, and one time I got into a debate with a sports writer about why they didn't write about Arena Football.

"Nobody cares about it," he said.

"But if you wrote about it people would start to like it," I said. He laughed and said that's not how it works.

I sometimes wonder if I were to put a million bucks into advertising one of my books, would it matter? Would I make $1,000,001, at least? People say advertising can't make you buy something, but there is an almost-direct relationship between advertising money and sales, so people are, in a word, wrong. But that's direct advertising: selling this thing to the public. Indirect sales are a bit harder. To get a movie, a product, a cartoon, a comic book, made, you've got to sell your idea to a very limited audience, which requires you to get their attention first, and then show them how they can make money off of you.  Anyone can put a book on Amazon, but not anyone can get a book on Stephen Colbert's desk, or into the hands of a head of Sony or Disney.

It seems likely that anyone with 2,000,000+ sales could get a meeting with someone somewhere to sell this product; they've got to want to take it and re-sell it to someone else.  If they look down on the product, it'll never get re-sold, unless they can perceive a market for it despite how uncool it is. (Fifty Shades Of Grey might not have been picked up by a major publisher had it not been perceived as a book popular among 30-something housewives, the same people to whom romances are marketed, and romances are a big deal.)

Anthony's problem (if it is one for him) may be what the critics say: He's just not cool. Just like in high school, what that means is mysterious. Why Harry Potter and Fifty Shades are okay for adults ot love, but Xanth is not, is as open to guesswork as why some kids in high school spend all their time on the fringes of the lunchroom.