Friday, December 30, 2016

Book 91: Look at least I MENTIONED the book

So obviously I am not going to finish 100 books this year. I am 2/3 done with Friday by Robert Heinlein, and 2/3 done with Secret Wars, the Marvel Collection, and have just started The Integral Trees by Larry Niven, and 1/3 done with The Trees by someone or other, but there are 41 hours left in 2016, and that means I would have to finish all those books and read 5 more in that time. What with having a job to do I probably will not get there.

I've thought a lot about what I might do next year. For the past few years I have set myself a goal each year, not always starting on New Year's Day. (I place no special importance on the start of a new year; if you want to do something, really want to do something, you just start doing it. I recognize that New Year's Day often is grounds for assessing the year or one's life or otherwise trying out new things, though, so I don't fault people who use that as an attempt to improve themselves. I just think people shouldn't wait until New Year's to try something.)

Some of those projects were my story-a-day project, which turned out to be harder and more wrenching than I thought. I once gave up McDonald's for a year, making it 10 months in before I accidentally -- seriously! -- ate some McDonald's. (What happened was this: for 10 months I had not eaten any McDonald's food. It wasn't done as a health project, but simply as a way to branch out; I felt like McDonald's had become a default if I wanted some fast food, and I don't like to feel caught in a rut. Even as I write this I know someone(s) somewhere(s) will be rolling their eyes and saying yeah but maybe you should not eat fast food at all or should resolve to try to eat healthier or something but I don't care about that. I have bigger fish to fry in my life, so to speak, than worrying too much about whether I occasionally eat fast food. Fast food is one of the pleasures of life, and while everything should be done in moderation, I refuse to entirely cut out the pleasures of life, especially when there are many more important things to worry about. Anyway, how it happened was, we had taken a day to have a date, Sweetie and I: I took a day off work while the boys were in school, and we saw a movie and got some fast food for lunch so we could eat and talk without interruption. She got a Big Mac, but doesn't like to have two hamburger patties on there, so she took one off and asked if I wanted it. I was eating a burger from Sonic, and said sure and put it on mine and then took a bite and then realized what I'd done.)  I once spent a year giving up something that I loved for a month at a time (a different thing each month.) Once my goal was to increase my jogging until I could run from my house to the Wisconsin Capitol (7 miles) without stopping.

Reading 100 books in a year was the latest, and when I realized earlier this month that I wouldn't make it, I began wondering what I could do next. I've spent the better part of a month worrying (in a very minor way) about that.

This isn't a new thing. I have enough self-awareness to recognize in part the potential psychological underpinnings of behavior. When I was a smoker, years back (I haven't smoked in 12 years, so the amount of time since I quit smoking is getting closer to being greater than the amount of time I smoked, which was 17 years), I would frequently make attempts to quit smoking. Those almost always coincided with some big upheaval in my life: starting law school, moving to Washington DC, the like. They were, in a way, attempts to control the uncontrollable: I couldn't really control what might happen when I moved to Madison and started law school -- it was too big to do more than tackle one day at a time. So I would try instead to control something that nobody else could affect.

I think the current mania-ish I have about measuring things -- 100 books, a year's worth of stories, that kind of thing-- may have to do with the health issues of the past few years, with the fact of getting older, with the boys growing up, and with my own professional life. They are ways of gaining control, explaining the world, and improving myself that I can still do. When I tried, a few years back, to increase my upper body strength and start doing more push-ups I eventually had to give up (and I remain weak to this day), so physical challenges are starting to be harder and harder. (My recent blood clot in my leg coincidentally happened on the exact day I decided that I would start a new exercise program. I am at war with my body.)

There's a lot in my world I barely understand or control. The other day, talking with Mr Bunches about New Year's Eve, I said that on January 1 it would be the year "2017," and that's why it's a new year. He started crying. When I asked what was wrong he said it had to be still 2016, and I didn't understand why that was upsetting. So I said Why can't it be 2017? He said that in 2017 was when he goes to 5th grade and he doesn't want to go to 5th grade, he wants to be in 4th grade.

I had to explain to him that September in 2017 was 5th grade. He is very scared of growing up, Mr Bunches. Somewhere along the line he got scared of it, and so he will frequently ask us if he can stay a little boy forever.  We tell him he can. What's the harm? He might well stay a little boy forever, our own Peter Pan. He's smart and funny and excited about life and has the maturity of roughly a first-grader, so the odds that he will one day go to college and get a job and get married and live on his own are at the least less than for some other kids who aren't autistic. Mr Bunches still believes in Santa Claus. I still want him to.

When you are walking along one day and get a sharp pain in your leg and two weeks later are in the ER with them wondering if you've maybe damaged your lungs with blood clots, when a discussion of holidays starts your son crying, when your professional life is one of near-constant troubles, it can be comforting to extend your vision out to the horizon, to peer ahead and say next year at this time I will have read 100 books or something similar. It reassures you that there will a next year at this time and that you will be part of it, and that something in your life then and now will be a constant.

Then, too, there is the fact that with much of physical improvement becoming a pipe dream, the mental improvement is a good goal. I like 100 Books Me: I like the guy that reads books rather than fritters away times on things he considers less important. We cannot always be living our life to the fullest extent, cannot constantly be climbing Mount Everest and otherwise exemplifying our best selves, but we can try. When I find myself doing things that I consider a waste of time, I try to rectify that. While I've always read a lot, much of my reading seemed to have fallen into what I think of as the junk food category, reading that didn't really entertain or enlighten so much as it just killed time. It was my equivalent of staring blankly at a TV while it played a sitcom. So I changed that.

The reason I was worrying about what to do next is because I don't like repeating myself, but as New Year's drew closer, I started thinking okay but what if instead of a one-year thing it was an every-year thing? What if you just challenged yourself to be this person all the time?

So that's what I did. I decided that from now on I will try to be 100-Book Me. I hit 91 so far this year, but my goal is no longer a 1-year goal; it's a goal to read 100 books every year, because ... because I want to.

If you're wondering how all this ties into Dune Messiah the answer is it doesn't. I could do something facile and say Oh Paul Atreides was concerned about how his goals and visions impacted his life and junk blah blah blah but I'm not going to bother. The 100 Books has always been more about me than about the books.

Quotent Quotables: The cool thing to do would be to say "And that sums up 2016" but the COOLER thing to do would be to say what I could do and then claim I'm not doing it even though kind of by saying I COULD do it I did it so I get credit either way. (Got all that?)

From The Vision: Little Worse Than A Man.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

I know statistically speaking fewer people will probably see it here than in the comments of the original video but I needed to vent just a little more.

Maybe I was just tired after spending the night before down at the ER dealing with a blood clot in my leg, but last week I watched a video about why we are "so nostalgic" and was offended by the simplistic way it attacked the question, from its lack of defining the question or the basic terms to the junk-science way it then tackled the self-fulfilling prophecy of its so-called thesis.

Here is the video, which originally I saw on Sploid but which is from something called "8 Bit Philosophy," which itself seems to exploit some nostalgia, both of which I would avoid in the future. Following it is the comment I quickly dashed off in my anger.

My comment:

Awesome! Cereal-box psychology! It makes sense as long as you don’t think about it.
If “nostalgia” doesn’t change, then changing the past to adapt our views of the new world — adapting Star Trek to terrorism — isn’t consistent with the definition of “nostalgia” they give. There was no talk of the Industrial Revolution-era workers ‘adapting’ King Arthur to address their more modern fears.
Also, it seems like ‘nostalgia’ is a pretty broad idea, if Mussolini’s nostalgia for fascism and modern people’s nostalgia for Full House are the same concept.
The ‘nostalgia’ feeling people get has a lot more to do with branding than with nostalgia or fear of an information revolution. The ‘revolution’ people are talking about is 17 years old, at least, and the things people are ‘nostalgic’ for include movies that are only 20 years old. A far cry from the nostalgia for the Roman Empire, which wasn’t so much nostalgia as it was adoption of a rallying cry and motif, the way our soldiers might put sharks on planes; it’s not that they’re secret icthyologists.
It’s just plain easier to sell a rando space opera as “Star Wars” branded ( than it is to create a whole new market: the old business adage that selling more to existing customers is easier than finding new customers applies no less to pop culture than to potato chips or cars (if “nostalgia” is so big why are there no retro cars?).
Moreover, where are the facts that we are any MORE nostalgic these days than in say the 1970s when Lucas was creating “American Graffiti” or the 1980s when they were making Indiana Jones movies — updating the old “serials” — and remaking ‘Clash of the Titans’ using old fashioned techniques.
I guess if you loosely define a word enough, and then don’t care about the comparisons you make, you can make ANYTHING sound smart. Watching this was a waste of 4 minutes (I stopped early.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

At the time, it was 4:40 in the afternoon, the temperature was 17 degrees, and snow was falling.

Maybe his roof was broken? Sweetie conjectured. But: wouldn't it have had to be working at some point when he set out, and then he put the roof down, and then it broke and couldn't go back up?

So in other words, this man decided that winter in Wisconsin was a great time to let that top down!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Book 90: So it's a REALLY GOOD comic book is what I'm trying to say here.

I am currently reading Marvel Secret Wars as my "light" reading, and I of course just finished book 90, The Vision Vol 1: Little Worse Than A Man, and the difference between them is light-years.

The Vision is a good example of what comic books can aspire to. Or I should say graphic novels. The phrase "graphic novel" is frequently used to mean 'any sort of comic book that's longer than a single issue,' but I think that there is a distinction between a comic book and a graphic novel.

A long time ago (just over four years) I wrote a lengthy and very boring post about why people bother putting the words "a novel" on their books. I wondered so much that I spent some time looking it up, and learned that "novels" originally were books that (as the name suggests) were new kinds of stories: stories that focused more on character than plot, with a 'plausible' storyline.

That description now more aptly applies to what would loosely be termed "literary fiction," although even that category is getting too broad; when I went to look for new books on sale on Amazon the other day, I first clicked on "Scifi/fantasy," and got about 12 books. I then clicked "literary" and got about 2500 books, and the 12 books that had been in "scifi" were also in there. Some of them were Kurt Vonnegut books, which I would agree is a very literary form of scifi, but I think you ought to pick a genre and stick with it. If everything is literary fiction, nothing is.

So not every 'comic book' is a graphic novel, but The Vision is a graphic novel as I think of novels: novels are still to me books that are more concerned with a character's personal arc than plot. In a thriller, say, a character may learn something or grow a little, but in the end you're reading it to find out who the serial killer is or whatever. In a novel, you're reading it to see how the person the story is about develops.

The Vision is all about the latter; it begins with a weird unexplained thing about how The Vision wiped his memories of emotions, or something, and moved to suburban Washington DC with a family he had created: a wife, Virginia, and twins Viv and Vin, who are teenage synthezoids created in part from the Vision's and his wife's brainwaves and so must go to school to mature their minds.

From there, the plot proceeds almost along Fargo-esque lines: Behind the scenes of this regular life there are serious fatal goings-on. The Vision worries about money (for some reason he's not being paid by The Avengers even though he still fights with them and advises the President about Avengerish things. This is a plot point that seems thrown in for the specific reason of getting his wife out of the house at one point, as it is otherwise mostly ignored so far), and wants his family life to be perfect or as perfect as possible. Neighbors, meanwhile, behave in more or less rote fashion -- some like the Visions, some want them gone, some fear them, etc.

So far this would all be a run-of-the-mill Spider-Man or X-Men comic, but those are just plot mechanics that help keep things moving. What's going on is informed more by the fact that the Visions are not human, quite, and are also fairly new at even existing, and also that they were created by Ultron, who is after all an evil robot that intended The Vision to be used to destroy the world. That's a heavy load of problems to carry for anyone, and it helps determine how the Visions react to the events that unfold.

(Imagine, if you can, not only knowing your creator for sure but knowing that your creator was evil and intended to use you for evil. I think even the Catholics would have to concede that would be a bit much guilty baggage to unload on someone.)

The idea of being nonhuman, or alien, often is sugarcoated or ignored or painted in stark contrasts in the comic world. One reason I've enjoyed the new take on Superman in The Man Of Steel (which took some coming around to on my part) and Batman vs. Superman is that in fact it makes Superman a real alien; he looks human but he's not, and he doesn't always incorporate our own thinking into his alien morality all that well, either. That's a more subtle thing than the X-Men's we're mutants so they hate us so we hate them  version of nonhumanity, and something like that is at work in The Vision.

The Vision is a human of sorts: he is organic, but was created rather than born, and is therefore something weirder and more scifi even than a 'test-tube baby' (I can remember when there was an uproar over test-tube babies? Scientists estimate that 5,000,000+ babies have been born via "in vitro" fertilization methods, with the first-ever being born in 1978.) Test-tube babies, though, can't be picked out by sight, while a 'synthezoid' can, what with being red-skinned and having glowing eyes and all. Since humans primarily discriminate on the basis of what we can see, and then on the basis of what we fear, looking different often translates into problems. Looking different and being different at the same time is trouble, doubled.

The Vision's plan is to more or less mimic human activity in hopes of making himself more human: they decorate their house and have guests over and wear clothing and the like because doing so will make them act more human.  This all falls apart when early on in their attempt, a bad guy attacks the house while The Vision is out. (There's a backstory there that I suppose regular Avenger readers know but I won't get into it as it doesn't matter much.)  Virginia defends the family by killing the bad guy and burying him in the backyard, then lies to The Vision about this. Viv, the daughter, is injured in the attack and Vision must try to save her at Avengers HQ while, predictably, Virginia's decision to kill and lie has bad consequences that anyone who has watched Fargo (the series) or read or seen similar stories can predict: someone saw her, she confronts that someone, there is lying to the police, etc.

What raises The Vision above those stories is more than the mashup of crime drama with superhero story; it's that the story isn't just 'people in over their heads' but 'people (?) trying to fit in and getting over their heads.' Near the end of the first volume a subplot involving someone predicting the future winds up, and the problem with The Vision's plans becomes clear: if he continues on the path he's chosen, he is going to have to try to destroy The Avengers themselves.

The Vision isn't evil; this is one of those stories where each step seems reasonable enough until the ultimate effect of those steps is to be unreasonable (a type of story I enjoy immensely anyway) but it's layered with meaning here: The Vision isn't just trying to hold onto a life he's carved out; he's trying to carve out a life in the first place, so he is violating all these rules in hopes of achieving something that may not even be worth what he thinks it is; if it's easy enough for us to imagine going to great, even criminal, lengths to protect our families and middle-class lives, it's harder to imagine doing criminal activity just to get there, while we go through the motions of pretending we have it in the first place.

I haven't finished the entire series yet -- it's three volumes -- but already the first volume is one of my favorite things I read this year (and it's a quick read).  What sets the story apart, too, is that the pictures inform the story: they are more than the typical comic book panels: they're moody and artsy and serve almost as movie sets.  Many times when I'm reading comics or graphic novels the pictures are a distraction or don't add to the story, and the medium makes the story awkward: characters having to declaim their motivations, for example (or in some cases describing what's in the picture even though there's a picture) but that's not the case here; the artwork adds to the story and makes it more engrossing.  I can't wait for the next two to arrive at the library.