Monday, December 31, 2012

The 100 Best Things I Saw, Read, Ate, Heard, Or Otherwise Experienced in 2012 (AND SOME THINGS THAT SUCKED, THROWN IN), numbers 75-51...

Continued from yesterday's first 1/4...Remember, these are not necessarily in order.  Except the top 3.  Which we won't get to today.  It's just more or less 100 great things.  With numbers.

75.   The Mars Curiosity Rover.  People will get mad at me maybe for not putting this higher, but haven't we already landed a bunch of stuff on Mars? I'm including it ONLY because to the extent that we are bothering to explore space AT ALL right now it's amazing, but dropping our space junk on Mars isn't what we're meant to be doing.  Remember when humans dreamed?  Now, we just bicker about how much we should spend on NPR.  I'll put NASA higher when they start earning it.

74.   McDonald's Steak-Egg-And-Cheese Bagel.  So we went on a driving trip to Florida this past year and took the twins and The Boy with us, and taking a trip with a couple of six-year-olds means stopping at as many restaurants that have playlands as possible.  That means McDonald's. Judge me if you want, but the food is good and they put slides in their restaurants.  You put a slide in your restaurant, you get families.  It's algebra.

I was talked into the Steak-Egg-and-Cheese Bagel by The Boy; typically I'd go for a McGriddle, which, on a scale of human achievement, far far outmeasures the Curiosity Rover. As I said: lots of people have thought "let's put a radio controlled car on Mars."  Nobody before McDonalds ever thought "Let's have the pancakes be the bread and somehow taste like maple syrup, too."

But I digress: The Steak-Egg-And-Cheese Bagel was better.  I've bought it for breakfast whenever I go there since then, up until recently when, out of a sense of nostalgia and misplaced loyalty I got a McGriddle and was a little disappointed.  Plus, I felt guilty for cheating on Steak-Egg-And-Cheese.

73.  Her:

72.   Substitute teachers who knit.  Great, aren't they?

71.  Television reporters who run and cook.  Great, too, right?

70.  Zoe Keating on the cello.  Everytime I read or learn about something new, I want to take that thing up, and that goes double for cello, which I have always wanted to play.  Zoe Keating should be a household name.

THING THAT SUCKED, BUT MAYBE NOT?  I thought it was amazingly cool that Fifty Shades Of Grey became such a mainstream hit that housewives would read it at a mall playground and it could be sold in the checkout aisle of grocery stores.  I'm not a fan of the book itself, but I am a fan of erotica going mainstream because I've long thought that people should be able to publish or air whatever they want without worrying about offending someone.  The "no nudity or swearing on network TV" rules were always stupid and now are doubly so, and BDSM porn in the supermarket is a sign that our society is getting mature enough to say "you can choose to read it or not."

What sucked about it was that after it got big, the author signed with Random House to publish a billion copies anyway, even though she already was a big deal.  I see that as an author giving in to the old publishing industry to get "mainstream" recognition, a kind of selling out for indie authors: no longer "self-published," the Fifty Shades author had made it in the door many authors dream of budging open - buying her way in by giving Random House a cut of profits she'd have likely made anyway.

The counterargument, of course, is that Random House had the connections to get her book into the supermarkets, making it more of a mainstream success than it would have been.  I can acknowledge that argument but I don't give it much credence: Random House saw a giant pile of money sitting there, and took it in exchange for conferring "legitimacy" on an indie author.  THAT is likely the wave of the future: "Traditional" publishers will focus on gimmick books like the Lena Dunham proposal -- which cleverly "leaked" only to then see a claim by Dunham that publishing the proposal would wreck her, the literary equivalent of the fake-hacked-cellphone nude pics of a B-list actress, the publicity over the leak providing additional advertisement -- while indie authors struggle to sell their stuff.  Once a book makes it big -- Fifty Shades, or Wool, for example -- the traditional publishers will offer that writer a chance to get inside the club, and will continue to hold up "traditional publishing" as a badge of legitimacy.

On the other other hand, every employee at Random House got a $5,000 bonus, I heard, because Fifty Shades did so well, so there's that.

On the other, etc. hand, while that's great, it's too bad Random House didn't use that money to develop and publish 10, 20, 40 writers to keep books going.
69.  Jim Gaffigan's latest stand-up release which we watched on Netflix over the summer.  It's called "Mr Universe" and is, as usual, hilariously weird:

68.  27b/6: I don't know how many of these things are true, these things this guy says he does or emails or writes about, but even if they're not true at all, they're oftentimes hilarious.

NOTE:  Some of these things I may have known about before 2012.  I may even have talked about them.  What are you, the year-end list police? It's not a big deal.

67.  Argo:  Here's the thing about the movie Argo: I knew how it ended and yet I was still tense as the ending happened.  That and Ben Affleck's hair looked supercool.

66.  Tim Tebow then, and the hope of Tim Tebow in the future:  If you DIDN'T think it was incredible when Tebow threw the game-winning touchdown pass against the Steelers in the playoffs last year, then either you hate football or you played for the Steelers.  Tim Tebow was the only thing exciting about football in the 2011-2012 season, and the chance of Tim Tebow playing this year was the only thing that kept people from forgetting that the Jets exist.  Every football team should be so lucky as to have Tim Tebow play for them.  He's as exciting as Brett Favre was, with none of the downside.

65.  The Higgs Boson:  speaking of things that got us all excited and then disappeared, I'm putting this on the list because apparently Higgs is going to get a Nobel prize for having named something that the supercollider then claimed to have found even though it's not clear that the particle actually exists and at least one study that got ZERO publicity suggested that CERN had not found the Higgs at all.  But, hey,  science, right? In 2013, we can expect the Curiosity rover to announce that Mars is teeming with Higgs Bosons.

64.  Cursing Mommy: the articles that frequently appear in The New Yorker got made into a book this year.  I haven't bought the book because I'm worried that too much Cursing Mommy will be the same as when you have too much Wavy Gravy ice cream.  But in small doses, Cursing Mommy is hilarious.

Here's a sample, from The Cursing Mommy Cooks Italian:

At some point in your past, all of you have no doubt been under pressure to prepare a dinner party in which everything is really special and “just so.” As it happens, that is the very situation I find myself in tonight, when the party will be for only six—two other couples besides Larry and myself. The men are both clients of Larry’s, and Larry, who is as a rule somewhat worried, anxious, and useless when it comes to almost anything, has been talking rather wildly about how he’s going to be fired and we’ll end up on the street. I know, and you know, that this is another of Larry’s whiny manipulations that his mother was always dumb enough to fall for and I’m not, but, in any case, this dinner party seems to be sort of mandatory, which means the risotto had better be up to par. Now, you may ask, will Larry himself be around during the preparations for this important dinner party?

Well, actually, no. Larry will not—beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-

As you see, when I set out to make a delightful seafood risotto à la vénitienne, I always like to get off on the right foot at the very beginning by HAVING THE FUCKING GODDAM SMOKE DETECTOR GO OFF!!! Fucking goddam piece of useless stupid garbage—what could have set it off? The steam from the fucking dishwasher? beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-

Good stuff, that.

63.  Candy canes that taste like other stuff.  It wasn't just Oreos that started mimicking other foods in 2012.  Sweetie got me some candy canes that manage to do away with 90% of what is awful about candy canes -- the peppermint.  Who eats peppermint? Anything flavored with peppermint ends up being like a big mouthful of toothpaste.  There's a reason that nobody puts peppermint out as a condiment.

So this year, candy cane makers found a way to make their candy canes taste like pumpkin pie, or S'mores, or other delicious things, making them at least potentially worthwhile again.  They still have that candy cane consistency, which is what I imagine "ribbon candy" and those other awful, Depression-era "candies" felt like,  but at least they no longer taste like Sensodyne.

62.  "Dumb or Smart: The Test" app. I am through question 77.  It's not making me feel any smarter.  I have the app on my Kindle and lots of nights I would sit and do the test while the boys take their baths.  One question, and I'm not proud of this, I solved simply by process of elimination -- guessing a different answer each time until I finally got it right.  For a few days, I used about 90% of my brain power trying to figure out why that answer had been right.  Now, I can't even remember the question, so I think I'm getting dumber.

61.  The opening of The Dark Knight Rises which if I were going to rank it separately would be one step higher than the rest of the movie but remember the numbers don't mean anything, really.  For one thing, I tend to think of things in categories -- I might remember a game I liked and then three other games, so I arbitrarily space them out.

But the opening to Rises was great; the rest of the movie was okay, which maybe is because the opening of the movie, and the greatness of the earlier one, Dark Knight, were so excellent that the rest of the movie couldn't compare.

Here's an interesting thought: Christopher Nolan has said that the Batman movies were about how one regular guy deals with being Batman, but I think they were completely not about that; the repeated insistence that anyone can be Batman, the way we learn little to nothing about Bruce Wayne's inner turmoil -- at least not anything beyond what everyone knows -- and the focus on outsized villains who at each step of the way represented something specific in our society (the wizened man with a horrible plan to cleanse humanity of crime, the deranged clown who ignores rules of right and wrong, the bulked-up villain who wants to reform our system could be the political movement/issue of your choice, really) make it seem that the movies were not about what it would be like to be a regular man and be Batman at all.

Can a director be wrong about the meaning of his movies?  He can if you subscribe to the My Aunt's Dog Theorem, which, remember, posits that once you let art out, you lose control over it and the viewer gets to put her own meaning on it-- looking at an abstract painting that is meant to represent man's descent from honored creation of God to ignoble servant of the Earth, for example, and saying "That looks like my aunt's dog."

60.  "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" quiz show on NPR.  I got into NPR in a big way this year, as a result of my disenchantment with sports and my driving more and more for work; ever drive through a strange city and try to find a radio station to listen to?  Talk radio is terrible, and FM radio worse.  So I got podcasted up this year, and every week I start out with the Wait, Wait podcast, which is how I know that Paula Poundstone is still doing stuff.

What strikes me most about listening to the Wait, Wait, show -- which is a news quiz about stuff that happened the week before -- is how hard you have to work to be a minor player in show business.  When you see comedians on TV shows, you tend to think "Man, they've got an easy job."  But these guys on the show are playing 5 nights a week AND they write blogs AND they host podcasts AND they're coming into Chicago to be guests on an NPR show every week AND more.  They seem to never stop working.

59.  Haywire.   I can't believe this movie made a lot of "Worst Of" lists -- I loved it.  The movie never stops and rarely slows down and was like those Bourne movies but more action packed and with a better-looking lead.  Great fights, great stunts, and the minimalist plot meant that it was hard to poke holes into it after the fact.

58.  Counting In C:  if you followed my attempts to get in shape this year over on Thinking The Lions you might have already heard this song.   I had never heard of "In C" before hearing about this on a podcast.  Here is how Wikipedia describes the work "In C":

In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times. Each musician has control over which phrase he or she plays: players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. The performance directions state that the musical ensemble should try to stay within two to three phrases of each other. The phrases must be played in order, although some may be skipped. As detailed in some editions of the score, it is customary for one musician ("traditionally... a beautiful girl," Riley notes in the score)[2] to play the note C in repeated eighth notes, typically on a piano or pitched-percussion instrument (e.g. marimba). This functions as a metronome and is referred to as "The Pulse".
In C has no set duration; performances can last as little as fifteen minutes or as long as several hours, although Riley indicates "performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half." The number of performers may also vary between any two performances. 

Which fascinated me when I heard about it because that is letting musicians see their aunt's dog in a piece, first off, and secondly, that is how I played classical music when I learned piano: I played it more or less the way I liked it, in part because I was bad at reading music and in part because that was how I liked it.  So the idea of a piece of music that can be played by hundreds of musicians at once... each playing something of their own invention, really, based on an underlying work... was incredible.

"Counting In C" is by a guy named Jad Abumrad; it includes snippets of talk from a podcast in which numbers were considered, and in which I learned that children don't really grasp numbers until they are four.  I tend to pay attention when people talk about how kids learn, for obvious reasons.  Jad made it as part of a college orchestra's project to update and remix "In C".  

This song, then, combines abstractions, weird new music, thoughts of my kids, and just a great melody:

 57.  Spider-man died?   I haven't read the comic book yet, and probably won't because I'd have to go back and get all the back issues to get the whole story, but here's what I know:  Spider-Man died, or at least Peter Parker did, on December 26.  The storyline apparently was that Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man had switched bodies, and Peter Parker was stuck in Doc's dying body... and was unable to get out in time.  So Peter's dead and Doc is in Peter's Spider-body, and all the stories about it say that Doc uses that as inspiration to become an even-better Spider-Man than Peter was.  Or he'll try.

Apparently, people were so mad about this that the writer got death threats, which, again: REALLY, AMERICA?  First, you people were going to march on Washington or something to protest the Green Bay Packers losing a football game and now you send death threats over a comic book character?  Sometimes I want to resign my human race card.

But anyway: I loved this storyline.  Among the much-hyped "reboot" of the DC Comics and the general mediocreness of comics whenever I see them, this seemed great.  Not just because it killed off a major character; we are about this close (which is really close) to that becoming trite; when George R.R. Martin Presents Lord Of The Rings With Nudity This Time killed off a major character, that just demonstrated that, like having your God be a weird guy or homeless woman or something, killing-major-character was about to lose its cache as a plot device.

So that's not it. What is it is that the idea of a major villain taking over the body of a major hero, a hero he'd vowed to destroy, suddenly decides to become that hero, giving all the glory to the person he hates and trying to keep himself motivated to keep doing that.

Imagine the possibilities, there.  If you thought Breaking Bad was good (I never really watched it) then consider the difficulty of being not a good-guy-gone-bad but a bad guy who owes his very life (and is living the life of) the person he vowed to kill.


I'm sure it'll be a dream sequence but for the moment, Spidey being dead is better than the Higgs Boson.  (So, yeah, the numbers mean a little bit.)

56.   Portlandia:

But first, a THING THAT SUCKED:  TUMBLR.  Or rather, its impact on humor or maybe the way it demonstrated the fallacy of humor.  This year was marked by TUMBLR memes and the death of humor as a thing, in a way.

Here is how 102% of all TUMBLR's work:  See something in the news.  REPEAT IT AN INFINITE NUMBER OF TIMES until your soul is numb.

Eli Manning Looking At Things.  Binders Full of Women.  Mickayla Is Not Impressed.  Drunk Baby.  Texts From Hillary.


The really really bad thing about TUMBLR is this: like about 95% of Saturday Night Live sketches, the joke is not only in the title, but the joke is over and dead by the time you read the title.  "Eli Manning Looking At Things" is an example: To get the joke, you need have no context.  It's just Eli Manning and his cell phone, photoshopped into a variety of photos.  And that's the same thing with all those dumb TUMBLR things.

I have made TUMBLR-type memes mostly to show how easy it is, and I've gotten bored while making them.  But these things have sucked up the Internet in a way that Cracked and it's swearing-lists could only dream of.

We need them to stop.  Here is my rule for when I talk about stuff:  I talk about things when I have something to add to them.  That's how pop culture makes its way onto this blog.  I don't just hold something up and say "Look at this." I hold something up and say "here is something new and previously unsaid about that thing."  INTERNET: If you have nothing unique to say about something, then all you are doing is coloring in a coloring book -- or less.  If I see one more TUMBLR about freaking nothing I am going to die a sad tiny invisible death inside and stare out at the world through soulless eyes.



Anyway: Portlandia is the anti-TUMBLR.  It could have been a TUMBLR because the whole joke is right there:  PEOPLE IN PORTLAND ARE CLUELESS HIPSTERS GAH.

But it's somehow more than that.  From the skit where the guy offers a ride to the cellist but can't get the instrument in his tiny car to the effort to redecorate the police uniforms to the absolutely-awesome one where the two get sucked into Battlestar Galactica so hard that they try to recreate it, Portlandia manages to take the one-thought-joke that is exemplified by EVERY TUMBLR EVER -- again, they just keep telling the same joke, over and over--

-- but Portlandia manages to build on that simple, one-note idea (much like In C! Hey, there's a theme today!) -- and universalize it, making each new skit feel fresher.

55.  Martian Lit, and especially "The Many Lives Of Yelena Moulin.Martian Lit got way better when I could get it on my Kindle, as I'm not crazy about reading on a laptop.  The site features some crazy good sci-fi stories, and as Yelena Moulin was the first one I read there, I'm highlighting it: the story of a sex-performer who is killed and reincarnated as a set of memories inhabiting a computer body to serve as a therapist for a rich man is everything sci-fi should be.

54.  Lightspeed MagazineSpeaking of sci-fi (see why I spread these things out)? Lightspeed Magazine has a free podcast where they read one story-per-podcast, and many of them are great short sci-fi stories.  None of them was greater than "My Wife Hates Time Travel," which I thought was an entirely novel concept and was so good it made me hate that I hadn't thought of it.

53. American DadThere was once a comic I saw that was titled something like "How To Write A Seth MacFarlane Show"; you had to choose from several lines: "Fat Dumb Dad," "Improbably Hot Housewife" "Talking Pet" and the like.

There's no doubt that Macfarlane has a formula -- but I no longer hold that against him any more than I hold it against John Grisham (which is to say: Quite a lot, maybe.)  After not having watched Family Guy for a long time, I got back into it this year via American Dad which, to be honest, I began putting on Netflix on my computer at work as background noise when I got tired of music and had listened to/watched Better Off Ted and Arrested Development too much.  (I always have something on in the background, because otherwise it's just me and my thoughts.  SCARY.)

American Dad grew on me because it wasn't "Family Guy."  There are similarities, sure, but the two shows are different enough that nobody ought to be picking on Macfarlane.  Then again, my rules for picking on people are "If they make lots of money, go ahead and pick on them because they probably don't care."  So make fun of him.

But American Dad manages to be funny and different from Family Guy,  and, more importantly, avoids (so far as I can tell) that number one trap of the cartoon show, the movie parody episode.  THAT is lazy writing.  I hate the movie parody episode.

Best American Dad?  "Stan of Arabia," where Stan the CIA Agent gets transferred to Saudi Arabia, where he decides to give up his citizenship.

52.  The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce.  I talked about this book here.  But it deserves to be on this list.

51.  A Softer World, the comic strip.  I try to start my day by reading these.  It doesn't always help me be in a better mood, but I am more thoughtful.  Weird, funny, and many times, sad.  Here's a sample:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The 100 Best Things I Saw, Read, Ate, Heard, Or Otherwise Experienced in 2012 (AND SOME THINGS THAT SUCKED, THROWN IN): Numbers 100-76...

These are in no particular order, at least until you get to numbers 1-3, which I placed as numbers 1-3 because they deserved it.  So it's more like "Here are the three best things from 2012 and the 97 other things that tied for fourth place."

100.  Burger King's Bacon Sundae

99.   John Cheever's collected short stories, especially The Swimmer and the one about the guy who goes to Russia and falls in love with a tour guide.  Plus the one told from the perspective of a guy's stomach.  I wasn't expecting that.

98.  Pre-lit Christmas trees.  Maybe it's that the holidays are still going on, or maybe it's that my entire Christmas tree took only 10 minutes to put up.  Until they invent one of those Dr. Seuss-style umbrella-esque trees, this is as good at it gets.

97.  Code Monkeys, the cartoon, which I watch on Netflix while I clean up the kitchen at night.  It combines the thrill (?) of playing an Atari 2600 with juvenile humor (?) and has a guy in a Viking cap who is regularly assaulted by the military pretending to be aliens.

96.   The final episode of "Louie" this season, the one where he goes to China.  I think it wasn't a dream.  But it was beautifully weird.

95.  Plants vs. Zombies, the only video game I ever finished, and perhaps not coincidentally the only video game that ever forced people to fight a giant zombie robot on top of a roof by hurling watermelons at the aforementioned zombie robot.  If things don't end with a giant zombie robot, they're not worth doing, is what I always say.

Well, I always say that beginning now.

94.  The Avengers the movie.  IT WAS TOO SHORT.  I'd like to still be watching that movie, but admittedly if that was the case by this point I probably would have lost my job.  Who can just take five months off to watch a movie all in one sitting?  Not me.

93.  There was this sandwich place on the Disney walk, the "Earl of Sandwich" that said it had the world's best sandwiches, and it DID.  Six months later, I can still remember how good that Hawaiian barbecue chicken sandwich was.  Six months later.  The nearest location to me now is in Detroit.  I am going to try to fly to Detroit just to get a sandwich.

92.  The Kindle Fire.  I can't imagine how I lived without it.  I mean, I can but I don't want to.  At one point this year, I was sitting in the ER, being bored, and I finished the book I was reading and downloaded a new one and started reading that one.  Downloading books in an emergency room while waiting for a stress test you know won't show anything because you specifically told them you are not having a heart attack! What will they think of next?

91.  The book The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements by Sam Kean.  If the title alone doesn't make you want to read it, you are dead to me.  Simply the best book I ever read about the periodic table of the elements.

90.  The reprint of "Angels & Demons" on, a true crime story about the murder of a mother and her two daughters on their first and only family vacation.

THING THAT SUCKS: "Safety clicks" that don't matter.  A "Safety click" is a button that pops up asking you if you are really really sure you want to do the thing you just told your computer or phone to do.  It's helpful if you are trying to delete something; when I delete a podcast off of iTunes I don't mind if it asks me if I'm sure because I don't want to delete something accidentally.  (I do mind that I have to delete and then click something that tells the computer to put the file in the recycle bin, which is a stupid name for the trash, but even more stupid is that once I have confirmed that I want to delete a file, why do I have to tell you where to put it? Take some initiative, computer.

But "Safety Clicks" that don't matter are annoying.  When I turn on the wifi on my phone to log onto the internet, it makes me confirm that I really want to do that.  WHY? WHAT IS THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN IF I TURN ON MY WIFI? If I accidentally turn on my wifi and walk around with it on all day, the worst possible scenario is that I am a roving hotspot for internet access.  I am okay with that. We are maybe about two steps away from a toaster that says "Are you sure?" when I hit the bagel button, which is not something I do because why should only bagels get special toaster privileges?

EVERYTHING I OWN: Stop asking me if I'm sure, really sure, that I want to do that thing I told you I want to do.  YES I AM SURE NOW GO DO IT.

89.  What I imagine "Candy Corn Oreos" tasted like, since I never actually found them in the store.  Ah, well, something to look forward to in 2013!

88.  Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl.  Anyone who beats Tom Brady -- the only man jerkish enough to call up the head of JPMorgan and tell him it wasn't so bad that JPMorgan gambled away billions --  is a hero in my book.  Brady cheated his way into three Super Bowl wins, got caught, and never won one again.  Eli Manning = Karma.

87.   Happy Endings' "Turkey" Fist Bump.  I tried to teach it to Mr Bunches.

86.  The Imaginext "Eagle Talon Castle," with dragon and ogre.  This is a kids' toy, okay, and it costs $140 for the whole set but MAN IT IS COOL.

85.  Bill Barnwell on Grantland.  Apparently he was going to be the GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but instead ended up writing for a website, which is great for him because, not working for the Jaguars and great for me because I like reading his stuff.  Even though all sports writing is nonsense, his manages to be 1% less nonsensey than the rest of the universe's.  And while I'm at it.

84.  Rembert Narrates The 80s on Grantland, too.

83.  Josh Reads/ The Comics Curmudgeon.  I used to read this site and then I didn't and now I do again.  I like to look at it at the end of the day and let someone making fun of simple things ease me out of my troubles.

82.  Regina Spektor's Ne Me Quitte Pas.  I bought her latest album because I like about 90% of what Regina Spektor does.  The album itself was full of darker, but still lushly beautiful and strangely-exotic songs, but none matched up to this one:

81.  Dana Zemack:  She's a cartoonist.  She's wonderfully good at it.

80.  The movie The Cabin In The Woods: I actually almost forgot about this one until I read about it on Rusty Webb's blog, which is not at all a criticism of the movie but instead a demonstration of how cluttered my mind is.  I read prior to the movie coming out that the makers had wanted to completely "subvert" (a word I hate) horror movie cliches, and so I was skeptical of the movie, but it was one of the best movies I've seen in ever.

79.  John Mulaney:  I used to laugh at him when he was on Best Week Ever before they wrecked that show by letting that one gaptoothed guy run it and then took it off the air.  This year, I listened to a John Mulaney stream on Pandora a lot, which led me to one of the single funniest stories I have EVER heard:

78.  The song Friday, in both the Rebecca Black and the Stephen Colbert versions.  Look, it just wasn't that bad, okay? I know it was stupid but was it any stupider than "Jump Around?" Or "Who Let The Dogs Out?" or anything Duran Duran ever recorded except "The Reflex," which was okay,

77.  The blog "Hyperbole and a Half."  Ordinarily, when another blogger achieves that benchmark of extreme blogging success -- getting a book deal -- I am overwhelmed by jealousy and immediately hate that blogger.  But Allie Brosh's weird blog with great illustrations and excellent stories deserves to be wider read than it seemingly already is, and in addition, as soon as she unveiled the news that she was getting a book deal, she published this post and nothing since then, and periodically I check back because while I don't know her, the post is still worrisome.  To really get a feel for her best writing, start with the post "Please Stop."

THING THAT SUCKED:  Cracked.  I used to read this site almost daily, but then, this year... I gave up.  How many times can you read the same post over and over and over and over?  ALSO: Using the f-word in a post doesn't make it funnier.  At least not the 77th time you use it.  Somewhere along the lines, Cracked went, in my mind, from cool, funny site to "Blog version of Andrew Dice Clay."

76.  The New Yorker's fiction podcast. This was the year I really got into both podcasts, and short stories.  This podcast managed to fill both those needs.  The best story of them all? Emergency, by Denis Johnson.  The story probably deserves its own numbered item on this list, but that would feel like cheating.  You can listen to it here, but be forewarned: Listen to it only if you are ready to handle one of the most amazing stories EVER, and feel a little less significant in your own efforts thereafter.


Friday, December 28, 2012

I bet Jesus would agree with me that "A New Hope" was better than "Empire."

Allana Harkin, who plays a hot mom on a sad television show about a little boy who can't distinguish reality from fiction and so believes that he's living in a terrifying world populated by dinosaurs, recently said on Twitter

"I'm looking forward to the Holidays being over so I can stop thinking everything is a Star Wars reference."

Which is funny because she's from Canada. 

It's understandable for Allana to think that she can avoid things being a Star Wars reference, but it's also wrong because everything is a Star Wars reference, up to and including that cloud formation above, which was claimed to be a real cloud formation by the guy who posted it.  (IO9, my source for the picture, wasn't so sure.)  But even saying that every facet of Western culture -- and I am 64% sure that Canada is a part of Western Culture in that (a) it is located in the Western and (b) it has a culture, I'm sure, possibly -- is based on Star Wars (as superhero book author PT Dilloway noted) doesn't accurately describe just how bad it has gotten.

At least for me.

Here's what happened.  Every week, I listen to the Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me podcast on NPR, because I pay good tax money for that service and if we are going to pay $178,000,000,000 to support it, as most people in the public incorrectly guess, then dang it, we'd all better listen, oughtn't we?

(Most of the public thinks that 5% of the federal budget goes towards NPR, as that link will tell you.  Some think  it's as high as 10%, which tells you that most of the public has no idea what the federal government does or how it spends its money,  which tells you in turn why the Tea Party is still a thing.)

I was, as I said, listening this week to Wait Wait, and they got to the segment where they read three news stories but only one of them is a real story, and the listener/contestant has to guess which story is the real one.

This week, the three candidates were a story about how yacht owners are protesting a nominal increase in dock fees by not holding a Christmas parade, a story about a grocery co-op having a skinny Santa to send kids a healthy message, and this story read by Bobcat Goldthwait, who is also still a thing and, I believe, also Canadian because why not?

Port Talbot, Wales, like many towns all over the world, has a manger in its town square, with animals, wise men and baby Jesus. And after requests from another religious community in town, the Jedi, it now has a manger showing the medical deck on the asteroid colony of Polis Massa, showing the birth of Luke Skywalker.

However, local vandals did not take too kindly to the space-themed nativity and stole baby Luke Skywalker from his cradle.

Jedi Porter Barron, the group's leader, turned to the local media in an effort to have Baby Luke. "It disturbs the force, in these times that all faiths are not respected equally, and myself and my brother and sister Jedi knights have been deeply hurt by the lack of sensitivity and attention that has been shown by the local authorities in helping return Baby Luke."

Mr. Barron added, "Also, the Luke doll wasn't even ours. It was on loan to us from a Jedi chapter from Hartford."

The correct answer, as it turns out, was the yacht owner thing because rich people with yachts are subhuman jerks who ought to be forced to live on that island from Lost so they can explain to the Smoke Monster why they are worthy of saving, but the real moral of this story is that I so badly wanted that last story to be the real one.  I wanted it so badly I could taste it, feel it.  I wanted it so badly that I almost spontaneously evolved a new sense just to be able to want it with that sense, too.

But, alas, that was not the real story.  Despite the fact that Star Wars now permeates even the holiday gatherings of Canadiers (where they call the holiday Canadian Christmas, and hold it a month earlier to prove they are different than us), it has not replaced the traditional Nativity in our mythology and religion.

Only, it turns out, it hasThe LA Times did a story over two years ago on just that thing.

Here's a jungle moon one:

Here's one that gets credit for having Luke and Leia be born without making Leia and Han somehow the parents because that is messed up mythology, people:

And here's one with R2D2 as our future lord and savior because let's face it, that's where Lucas was going with it and what do you expect from Disney Star Wars in the future?

Gritty space realism? Not when there's cute droids to merchandise:

I have a way with words, you might say. Or I might say it. Using those words that I have a way with. "WAY WITH". That's fun to say.

There I was, bottom of the ninth, so to speak, and everything was on the line, 'everything' in this case being $12.60.  Time was clicking away, which I realize doesn't make sense in a baseball analogy so let's change this to football.  There I was, bottom of the Fourth Quarter... no,that's not right.  Try again.  There I was, 2 minute warning having just sounded, and 99 yards to go for the game winning touchdown... with...

Oh, heck.  Forget it.  I'm just trying to give you an idea of what it's like to shop for yourself or others on the Deal Dash penny auction site, which is where I spend most of my time these days, because unlike YOU I want to get a 16GB Apple iPad for way lower than list price.

How low?  Try free, which is what one iPad just went for on their site.

DealDash makes shopping fun, and does more than that.  It's a penny auction site, but a fair one, where you buy bids and each bid raises the price of an item by one cent, and resets the clock for bidding to a maximum of 30 seconds.  Win your auction, get an item for as much as 95% below retail.  There are $25 gift cards going for a couple bucks, Xbox games selling for under $3, utensils and kitchenware and more more more

I get excited.  Sorry.

DealDash also helps you out a lot of ways. That link above takes you to a video that teaches you bidding tips and helps make sure you'll get the stuff you want.  DealDash lets you as a first time bidder bid risk-free: get your item or you'll get those bids back, newbie.  And on any auction, if you don't win the auction you can buy the stuff from the DealDash store anyway and get your bids back -- so you'll either get the item for way below list, or you'll just pay about what you'd have paid at the store.

Either way: you win.  Or you will if you can get those 99 yards before the buzzer sounds at the third out.

Nailed it.  ANALOGY ANALOGIZED.  Now go to DealDash.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I'm still wondering why the Gods didn't just fly Ulysses home. It wouldn't have to be first class or anything. (Sundays With The Classics)

Today's installment might be called "Lifestyles of the Rich and Vaguely-Related-To-The-Gods," with a subtitle of "Seriously, Gods, WTH?"

I read The Odyssey again today, and it picked up where Book VI or whatever left off: Ulysses outside of town while Nausicaa sneaks into town to prepare for him to get to the palace so he can ask for help.

At the outset of Book VII, Nausicaa does that, in about two lines of verse, and Ulysses then waits a while before he himself sneaks into town, at which point the glaring error in Nausicaa's plan can be seen because Ulysses is apparently, without any royal help at all, supposed to go into a strange city, find his way to the palace which admittedly ought not be hard to do, and then get into the palace to get an audience with the local rulers, which seems like it ought to be very difficult to do.

Granted, Greece hadn't had 9/11 when Homer wrote The Odyssey, but I have to assume that it was at least somewhat difficult for a complete stranger to walk into town and get an audience with the local ruler:

GUARD: Sire, this man was found wandering in borrowed clothes, lost.  Nobody knows him.  He wants to talk to you.

KING:  Well, does his hair look as though it has been styled by the Gods?

GUARD:  Now that you mention it, yes.

KING: Show him in.

 Luckily for Ulysses, and unluckily for anyone who wasted their time reading Book VI, Nausicaa's plan is completely irrelevant, as Minerva has shown up to help Ulysses, which she does by first taking mortal form and then guiding him into the city past all the strangers and helping him find his way, and then by cloaking him so he is invisible, allowing him to sneak into the palace and right up to the Queen, where he is able to (following Nausicaa's directions) grab the Queen around the legs, at which point Minerva makes him visible and he begs for help.

I have to say: the Phaecians in the palace treat the sudden appearance of a complete stranger hugging their Queen around the legs with a nonchalance that is admirable, if a bit sociopathic.  Rather than immediately stabbing this guy through the heart -- remember, Great Britain thought about criminally charging the guy who used a telephoto lens to snap topless photos of a Duchess-- the guests are all "Oh, well, here's something new," and Ulysses tells them he's had a really hard time so they give him some food and do a little bragging about how they,  the Phaecians, are descended directly from the Giants by way of Neptune (there is a little sequence where Homer tells you how that worked) but Ulysses gets a bit whiny and points out that he's really hungry and would they just let him eat, for the love of Pete.

That's where I left off today, after a quick twenty minutes of reading, most of which was marked by elaborate descriptions of the way the palace looked, the way the food looked, the lineage of the Phaecians,and then some descriptions of how the wine-bearers poured out their libations, all told in the kind of loving detail you could imagine being in "House and Parthenon Magazine" (this week: 13 tips for removing olive oil from marble!) but none of which advances the story very far.

Keep in mind: There were about a billion chapters of Telemachus getting ready to go look for his dad, and that all led to his first stop.  Then, in one chapter, the Gods meet, send an emissary to the island where Ulysses is being held, tell that nymph to let him go, he sleeps with her, builds a raft, sails across a stormy ocean, and ends up in Phaecia.

In one chapter.

Then, it takes two chapters to get him into a meeting with the King, and one of those didn't even need to happen.

But at least I know how they poured out the wine. God forbid that historical detail be lost to the mists of time.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

You'd expect me to make a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reference in this post but I COMPLETELY AVOIDED THAT. Until I wrote the title. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

Drew Magary's Jamboroo on Deadspin is funny in a vulgar kind of way; reading it makes me laugh and then feel guilty about laughing, like how I used to feel when I  watched a Jackass movie with the kids, or how I felt when, in an attorney meeting earlier this month I said "GFE," and everyone stared at me blankly and then I had to explain that it stands for  "Google F***ing Exists," which is another, Dan Savage-y way of saying "Why are you asking me instead of just looking it up?"

When I said that in the meeting I did not, mind you,  swear; I said "Google Effing Exists" and yet some of the people still acted as though I had sworn, which was just like the time I said a guy was a "dick" and Some Guy At Work said he never hears me swear, which I guess means people think I'm a Mormon or something.

Anyway, I was reading Jamboroo today and Magary after a story about how he threw up in public said this about one of the games:

Giants at Ravens: One of the stupidest NFL cliches is when a team wins the coin toss, elects to receive the ball, and then one of the analysts is like, "Coach Harbaugh wants his offense to set the tone for this game," or some other stupid bullshit like that. I can't stand it when my team wins the coin toss and then takes the ball. You should always defer. Here's evidence from SI's Jim Trotter back in November:
Since the start of the 2010 season, flip-winning clubs that have opted to receive first are 185-209 (.470), versus 140-115 (.549) for those deferring.
Obviously, deferring doesn't guarantee that your team will end up with more possessions than the other team by the time the game is over. But announcers act like getting your offense on the field first in the first quarter is some kind of amazing confidence builder. It's not. You're just eating your dessert before you have dinner. In fact, once the giddy rush of having the ball first wears off, you have to sit there knowing the OTHER team gets the ball first in the second half. And if that team has the ball at the end of the first half and goes right into another possession after halftime, it crushes your spirit. DEFER, dammit. Always defer.

Let me first say that I do not understand how Magary is ranking the games, and nor do I care.   People rank games in lots of ways and for lots of reasons, all of them stupid.  Here is how to decide how good (meaning you should watch it) or bad (meaning the opposite) a game is, in three easy steps:

1.  Do you care about one of the teams in the game, or at least one of the players?
2.  Does the game matter in the scheme of things, meaning will it affect that team's/player's chances to get into the playoffs and/or championship?
3.  Is the other team any good?

The answer to all three of those questions has to be yes or the game is not worth watching.

And if the answer is "yes" and at any point the game gets out of hand, the game is again not worth watching.

So by that standard, very few games are worth watching for me, although last week I did put the Green Bay-Chicago game on the radio to listen while I Christmas shopped but that was only to see if maybe the Packers would lose because I'm sick of them this year.

Anyway, I was reading Jamboroo today and I got to that and I wondered is that true?  Should you always defer? Because it would seem on the one hand that it would be important to get the ball first in the first half, there being only a limited number of possessions in a game.  You can guarantee, I suppose, that there will be at least two possessions per game, that being the minimum: if Green Bay gets the ball at the outset, and holds it for 30 minutes, and then kicks to Chicago at the start of the second half, and the Bears hold it for 30 minutes, that's the minimum number of possessions in which case it wouldn't matter at all if you deferred or not.

Looked at another way, it matters a lot: wouldn't you want the ball first,  I always figure, so you can score and put pressure on the other team to keep up?

Looked at a third way, if you can defer and then stop the other team and get possession, then you've guaranteed yourself two possession to their one, because you get possession from stopping them, and then you've got a guaranteed possession at the start of the second half.

And then there's this: wouldn't you decide that based on which aspect of your team you think is the best? If you've got a great defense (or them a bad offense) defer and play the odds and get that guaranteed extra possession; if the alternative, then take the ball and score first.

So I figured someone somewhere has done a study of this, right? I mean, if there are cards that tell coaches when to go for 2 (which they should do all the time no matter what because if they did they would get better at it and would force other teams to get better at it or fall behind) and if Bill Barnwell on Grantland can always be saying something like "Going for the first there would improve Seattle's odds of winning to 6.3%" which seems scientific but I don't know where that math comes from, then someone somewhere must have studied whether teams should defer if they win the coin toss, right?

This is still America, I mean.

The first article I found when I googled "study should teams defer" was this one on something called "Total Packer", which said:

Deferring the decision to the second half after winning the coin toss is the correct decision about 95 percent of the time for any team. The reason is simple: knowing that you get the ball first in the second half is a tremendous psychological edge. It calms the nerves when you’re behind and it makes a small lead seem even larger.

Which is awesomely unscientific in that it does not explain

A.  why the other 5% of the time deferring wouldn't calm the nerves, and
B.  why you wouldn't get an edge from knowing you get the ball first in the first half.

That lapse in judgment could be explained by the fact that Packer fans are never ever ever objective about the Packers.  If Aaron Rodgers were to be caught eating puppies for breakfast Packer fans would start publishing blogs about how puppies are a known sports energy factor and anyway puppies don't have souls.

The Packer blogger went on to cite (and attack as nonsense) an article by John Clayton on from 2011 that argued that deferring doesn't make sense:

 To support my theory, the team that received the opening kickoff was first to score 59.8 percent of the time. Even more telling is the team that received the opening kickoff scored 34.8 percent of the time on that first possession, netting 53 touchdowns and 36 field goals.

If a strong offensive script can fulfill a long week of practicing and scheming and produce a lead on the opening possession 34.8 percent of the time or eventually provide field position to get the first score almost 60 percent of the time, why give that up?

Clayton's theory is just as he said in that second paragraph: you practice all week and script the first 15 plays, so why give that up?

(As an aside: I always heard that the reasons for scripting the plays were first to take emotion out of the beginning of a game, and second to test how the defense reacts to them in order to adjust throughout the rest of the week.  You could therefore run your first fifteen plays whether you receive the opening kickoff or not.  There's no rule, John Clayton,  that says you can only run scripted plays if you get possession first.)

(Sports nonsense is the nonsensiest nonsense of all.)

 Clayton goes on to add, immediately after that quote:

 For supporters of the deferred kickoffs, 55.8 percent of the teams that deferred the kickoff won games.
I mean, so there's that.  It reminded me of the time, on King of the Hill, that Dale Gribble had to testify and said "If all you're going on is my testimony, forget it.  I'm just not credible as a witness."

Another study showed that teams that win the coin toss win 52.8% of the time, which is essentially meaningless: teams that correctly call the coin toss win almost half the time, so teams that lose the coin toss win almost half the time.

The rule that allows a team to defer to the second half has only been in place since 2008.   Officially, the rule right now is that if you win the coin toss, you to choose both 1. whether to kick or receive, and 2., which goal to defend, and winning the toss gave you the right to defer option 1 until the second half -- meaning, technically, that a coin toss winner who chooses to defer could still get the ball, because deferring means that you are letting the other team choose "kick, or receive."  So someone could turn the tables on Drew Magary and when his teams defer, they could opt to kick to that team (but would be giving up a possession.)  Pre-2008, the rule was that you got to choose only whether you wanted to kick off, or receive, right then. 

I wasn't, in the end, able to find a study that showed whether it makes sense to kick or receive when you win the coin toss, except for this fact: in the old NFL overtime rules, teams that won the coin toss won the game only 40% of the time. 

That seems significant to me, in that the old rules were sudden-death, single-possession rules in which winning the toss would mean you could opt to play offense first and in a sudden death situation you almost always want your offense on the field, making it seem a natural to opt to receive.

Except that those teams won only 40% of the time.

Which proves this: the coin toss and option to defer or not is almost meaningless in light of the many, many other factors that play into winning a game, since winning the coin toss is nearly imperceptible in its impact on the outcome of the game in regular play, and winning the toss correlates with losing the game (under old rules) in overtime.

There is another logic that goes into play, though, and that is playing to fan's expectations.  In 2002, the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears.  In overtime, Detroit's coach Marty Morninwheg opted to receive after winning the toss because he wanted the wind at his kicker's back.  Chicago scored on the first drive of overtime, and Morninwheg was fired.

Had Morninwheg opted to receive,and his team failed to score, and Chicago won, the odds are at least as good as a coin toss that Morninwheg would've been back the next year (or maybe not; he went 3-13 that year.)

But fans failed to blame Detroit's defense for not stopping the Bears, instead blaming the coach for not making the right call -- just as Packer fans never blamed the Packers for giving up 10 sacks to the Seahawks and ending up in a position where the Worst Call Ever could affect them, and so the coin toss decision will continue to be seen as a hugely important one, and defensible or indefensible based not on its impact on the game but on how you want to view the evidence.

FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY, and other things I thought about this week...


... updated 'Twas The Fright Before Xmas, or A Visit from AIN'T Nick," my ongoing Xmas story about sentient Xmas trees, BLOOP!s and Sexy Cop, over on  lit ...

...discussed how Plato would have loved the Internet, over on pop...

...and, of course, on Thinking The Lions I got all philosophical and maudlin about my boys and whether they know who Santa and God are before I then took pictures of them climbing around snowdrifts in a blizzard because there's a time to think deep thoughts and there is a time to have your six-year-old hit you in the face with a snowball, and never the twain shall meet.

Other things you want to check out include:

Rusty Webb deciding whether or not to decide. That's still a choice, Rusty, or did you forget what Rush taught us all in their prog-rock heyday?

Andrew Leon mentioning The Hobbit, and Men In Black 3.

Michael Offutt wants you to promote his book, but it's totally worth it just to see the tweets he's coming up with.

PT Dilloway took a strong stand in favor of people not being stupid. Gutsy move.

And Liz knit some great stuff which you ought to buy even if it's too late to get it to your wife for Xmas, and then she mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey but not in the "let's get people to read this sense" that I would've mentioned Fifty Shades.

I'm shameless that way.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Plato would have loved The Internet. (Sundays With The Classics.)

Something happened, I think, in Ulysses but I'll be darned if I know what.

I'm 28% of the way through this book and it feels like I have been reading it for my whole entire life.  For today's portion, I started on what seemed to be an exciting part: Bloom has left lunch and is walking around and he sees someone or something or whatever.  Bloom comes to the library and then:

Straw haw in sunlight.  Tan shoes. Turneduptrousers. It is. It is.

His heart quopped softly . To the right.  Museum. Goddesses. He swerved to the right.

Is it? Almost certain.  Won't look.  Wine in my face.  Why did I? Too heady.  Yes, it is.  The walk. Not see. Get on.

 And I can't figure out what happens after that.  I think Bloom ducks into the library for a second, but to avoid someone? To see someone? Who knows? Because immediately from there we're sent back to the lunch that Bloom has just left and I can't tell if Bloom went back or if it's just a change of scene, that Bloom is in the library or the museum.

So that happened, maybe, and then the rest of today's reading was all the guys sitting around talking about Shakespeare, and maybe one of them has an idea that he's going to rewrite Dante's Inferno.  Again, I can't really follow it.  They are talking about Shakespeare being immortal, or not, and they seem to be making fun of him sometimes, and other times to be reverent, but there is also a fair amount of reference to Plato and Aristotle and whether a horse has enough horseness, which I understand a bit.

Plato had been popping up in my life this week, first as referenced by Andrew Leon's supersophisticated comment to the latest Mr F, Chair Pioneer, and then in today's reading, when Bloom or someone -- Joyce jumps around a lot from mind to mind, and it's never clear to me who is thinking or talking.  He doesn't use quotation marks, for one thing. Talking is denoted mostly by a dash in front of the line:

-- Monsieur de la Palice, Stephen sneered, was alive fifteen minutes before his death

is an example, and one that sidetracked me because it's another one of those things I'm just supposed to know about, because all of Bloom's hyperliterate friends know about it.

Monsieur de la Palice was a French nobleman, and one with a remarkable career, it seems.  Battles, held hostage, becoming a vice-roy, and all that.  The saying that Stephen, Bloom's friend, quotes, appears to be based on a parody that rose from la Palice's tombstone, which reads

Ci gît Monsieur de La Palice: Si il' n'était pas mort, il ferait encore envie.
("Here lies Sir de la Palice: If he weren't dead, he would still be envied.")

But which was mistranslated as

.il serait encore en vie" ("...he would still be alive")

and which later was made into what Wikipedia says were a series of humorous quatrains, the Song of la Palice, which contained this phrase:

Monsieur d'la Palisse est mort, Sir de la Palisse is dead,
Il est mort devant Pavie, He died before Pavia,
Un quart d'heure avant sa mort,   A quarter hour before his death,
il était encore en vie. He was still quite alive.

Which Stephen is obviously quoting, which means that even back in Bloom's day, people's conversations consisted primarily of quoting things.

source: XKCD.

 And Plato is referenced in this chapter as Bloom wonders about the horseness of a horse, a reference to Plato's ideal objects, the theory that somewhere out there is a perfect chair, for example, and that we know that perfect form and our memory or knowledge of the perfect form allows us to see the imperfect recreations of those things around us: we recognize a tree as such because we see how different it is from a tree.

(Plato, by the way, would disagree with people like Rusty Webb and Michael Offutt, I bet, about whether it's okay to look up an answer in a quiz.  Plato's hypomnema was a written record of everything he and his students had seen, heard, read or thought, and Plato viewed that as a proper subject for later reflection.  So Plato probably would have search engined the answer.)

In the course of discussing Plato and the fact that Aristotle was once a student, the gang goes on to come up with some sort of mockery of Hamlet and then offers up this gem that I love and which ought to be on a t-shirt:

A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.
 That should be on a t-shirt.  And it WOULD BE but the site I use to make my t-shirts is acting up today so you'll have to wait, I suppose.

The installment finished up with the guys making fun of Ann Shakespeare and Socrates' wife or one of them.  Did Socrates have more than one wife? I don't know.  But I do know that Wikipedia says that "Xanthippe" means "blond horse," which does not sound like a flattering name, but apparently putting -hippo or a derivation of that into a name denoted an aristrocratic heritage, so there was a time that being compared to a horse was a social status thing, just like being fat was in the 1800s.

And that is all for today.  Seacrest out.

PetCareRX cares about how you care about your pets. (Got that?)

Look, we all get it.

You want to take care of your pet.

But you want to not spend a lot of money.

But you want to take care of your pet.

So okay, you can do BOTH now, thanks to PetCareRx.  PetCareRx is a service that lets you get prescriptions for your pets at lower costs.  It's the same prescriptions you'd get from the vet, but you don't pay the vet's markups or other costs that get added on by the time you see these things.  Instead, you get them cheaper, and shipped right to you.

PetCareRx is the experts in pet care.  They know that you want to treat your dog, or cat, or parakeet, or marmoset... can you have marmosets as pets, and am I actually thinking of marmalade? Yes, and yeeeeessss.

I'm back.  PetCareRx knows you want to take care of your pet.  That's why they give you tips on pet care and reminders that the holidays are dangerous for pets, and that's why they make it possible for you to get the medicines your pet needs shipped right to you for less.  So check out that link and start saving money... and the animals you love.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Santa, Viking (Short Stories You Really Ought To Read)


Don't you think short stories are a neglected art form?  Me, too.  This feature might help rectify that.

Christmas stories can be hard to write.  It's easy to go too schmaltzy, "schmaltzy" being a real word as far as this guy is concerned.

(You can't see it but I am pointing both my thumbs at the Christmas tree behind me.  I don't think schmaltzy is a real word but the tree does.)

It would be supereasy to write a Christmas story that hits every note that's expected: kids and snow and Santa and presents, and some sort of redemption at the end that's on par with a guy not killing himself because he lost all the bank's money.  Isn't that what happens in It's A Wonderful Life?  I'm not sure.  I did have the It's A Wonderful Life cookbook for a while, until I threw it out this year, because we no longer use cookbooks, much, and so I didn't need it taking up space.  But I had used it, once, to make popovers.  Did you ever make popovers?  They're superhard to make. But mine turned out incredible.

On the other hand, you could go the exact wrong way with a Christmas story: you could make it too disturbing, using Christmas as a lazy tool to make things more shocking, the way some filmmaker does about every five years, setting a slasher film on Christmas Eve and having the killer dress as Santa, just to get a rise out of people.  As creative efforts go, Christmas-slasher films are nothing.  It's too easy to take two completely opposite things and mash them up for an effect:

Santa = psycho killer

Isn't creativity, it's putting stuff in a blender.

While typical, ("schmaltzy") Christmas stories can be okay if done well -- I'm thinking Bad Santa or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation or Love, Actually -- they're also kind of boring, in that we know perfectly well what to expect: something bad happens and then Christmas fixes it up.

What I really like are stories that use Christmas in an unexpected way.  (I like that in any story, but this is a post about Christmas stories.)

Take Home Alone, for instance.   

Home Alone was set at Christmas, but it wasn't a Christmas movie, the way we think about it.  The plot didn't revolve around Christmas, but simply used Christmas as an atmosphere, heightening the emotions a bit and giving the entire story a reason to exist with a little bit of extra oomph, but you can watch the movie in July and not feel particularly weird about it, the way watching Bad Santa in July would.

("Christmas in July" is shorthand for one of my favorite ideas.  I dream of someday being able to celebrate Christmas wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sitting outside on my deck, basking in the warm sunshine and ocean breezes.  I'm getting closer to it.  As of right now, I'm missing only the deck, the sunshine, and the ocean breezes.  I have the shorts/t-shirt and the Christmas.)

Another interesting and little-known Christmas story is Markheim, a story I read last year during SUPERXmas when I was looking for stories that were about Christmas but were a little different.  In Markheim, a man goes to a rare-goods dealer on Christmas Day, supposedly to get a present for his girlfriend, but a death and a visit from... something... create an entirely different story that also happens on Christmas but doesn't necessarily need Christmas to happen.

It was in the course of reading those stories that I came across "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by Frank Baum, a story about Santa getting taken hostage and having to fight his way out with knooks and such on his side, and so I was not entirely ignorant of this tougher, martial side of Santa when I sat down to read Christmas On The Corner, by Andrew Leon.

Leon, who wrote The House On The Corner, (reviewed here, with 10 1/2 questions for the author) revisits the world he created in that first book with his main characters, three kids (Sam, Tom, and Ruth) kids who just happen to play important roles in a series of linked universes in which magic exists; the kids (and their parents) live in our Universe, but their house is the fulcrum of sorts separating all the universes.  (I know I've got that wrong, but if you read the book it's all clear.)

Christmas on the Corner is something between a long short story and a short novel, but, like the rest of the stuff I've read from Leon is not only a great read, but could always be longer; it's one of those stories (and he's one of those writers) that you don't want to end.

Here's what happens: at the outset of the story, the family is a bit on edge as increasingly-angry son Tom has caused some minor trouble, and at the same time, Dad Will reads some stories about elves and Santa, stemming from letters by J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is all taking place just before Christmas, and before long, the story kicks into high gear with what seems like an innocuous (albeit weird because it's down South) snowstorm leading to an invasion by goblins and a need for the family to step into their roles as Guardian and Wizard and help defend their town.

What I liked best, and what surprised me most about this story was the amazing depth of emotion.  I'm not crazy about YA fiction, which is what Leon claims his books are -- but I read his because I don't think they're YA, really.  Like J.K. Rowling, and Tolkien, Leon manages to write a story that can be enjoyed by younger readers, but the depths and range of emotion, as well as the darker elements in this one particularly, resonate with older readers.

There is a scene, for example, that particularly struck me: As the blizzard, and goblin attack, worsen, Sam (who is 10, I think?) and Ruth, who is 6, and their mom, have set out to fight the goblins, and Mom, who should be in charge, has to grapple with the fact that she has no particular power in this situation: Ruth is the Guardian, Sam the Wizard, and her?

She's just the mom.

Leon walks us through her thoughts in stunning, brisk fashion, as she decides that she has to cede authority to Sam, and that scene and the implications honestly stunned me.  He doesn't overdo it but it sunk in to me with its simplicity: a mom, standing in a blizzard with an almost-unimaginable horror, has to tell her 10-year-old son You make the decisions, here.

The book/story is full of surprisingly adult moments like that and, as I said, that makes it all the richer a read.

Ultimately, Leon ties Christmas back in in a way that is both surprising and not, pulling together elements of Christmas with a style that makes them seem fresh -- I won't spoil that more than the title of this post did by talking much about it, but I will say that the more traditional a piece of Christmas is in the story, the more glancingly Leon talks about it, which is an effective way of making those things seem fresh and more real.

And while this is a Christmas story, it's not A Christmas Story, in that it could have existed at any time of the year, in its fictional world; the Christmas elements make it more dramatic but not in a cheesy way.

I have yet to read anything bad by Andrew Leon.  You really ought to read this story.  (Buy it here for just $2.99.)


REMEMBER: Leave a comment and you can win a free (e)Book!  (Blogathon winners who have already won are ineligible.)

Shree Kripaluji Maharaj demonstrates real spirituality and leadership.

Remember when I mentioned Shree Kripaluji Maharaj a little while back?  Sure you do.  If you don't, just check your notes.  You ARE taking notes on this, aren't you?  This is ALL going to be on the test.

I'm mentioning Shree Kripaluji Maharaj again because he's worth bringing up again.  He's only the fifth person in 2,500 years to rise to his level (his level being more or less equivalent to the Pope of the Catholic Church, and there've been a lot more than five Popes.)  And he did that when he was only 34 years old, impressing 500 scholars so much that they elevated him to his post.

He's not just a spiritual leader, though: Shree Kripaluji Maharaj has helped create an institution that since 2005 has been giving 100% free educations to underprivileged girls in rural India, helping better their lives through education.  You can click the link to find out more about that mission, and the man himself.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Off The Top Of My Head: Every Christmas Episode Of Every TV Show I Can Remember Without Looking Them Up (and their plots)

The other day, I watched every single episode of The Office that dealt with Christmas, a task that was far harder than it ought to have been.  Why don't TV show producers put those out at this time of year, on Netflix or pay-per-view or something, all in a neat package?  And why, for Pete's sake, are we still not able to just watch any TV show from any era at any time?  Why, in short, can I not see Herman's Head online anytime I want?  Stupid future.  I hope the Mayans were right.  It would serve you all.

That got me thinking, though: How much of an impact on me did TV show Christmas episodes make? Are they lodged as firmly in my brain as the song lyrics to If I Had A Boat, by Lyle Lovett?  I love that song:

So here goes: all the episodes I can remember without researching:

1.  Modern Family: the episode where they hold Instant Christmas or whatever it's called because everyone's going to be away on the 25th.

2.  Friends: The episode with the Holiday Armadillo.  Also there was one where Rachel was giving stuff she could steal from the office and Ross said "Should everyone expect presents you can steal from your office?" and she said "You shouldn't," because they were fighting that season.

3.   Growing Pains:  They had a Christmas episode.  I don't remember the plot.

4.  Family Guy: the Christmas episode where Brian and Stewie fill in for an exhausted Santa and kill someone in their house is what got me to start watching the show again.  They also had that one where Peter wanted to watch A KISS Christmas which was about a pterodactyl.

5.  Seinfeld:  I can count Festivus, right? Because it was about Christmas, partially?

6.  Futurama did those episodes with Robot Santa terrorizing people.  I think there were two.

7.  The Simpsons:  They got their dog, Santa's Little Helper, when Homer bet the Christmas money at the racetrack, losing it but taking the dog he bet on as a present.  That episode changed the usual arc of a Christmas story by taking a family, making them worse off, then not quite putting them back exactly where they started and calling it a happy ending, because the Simpson family was a little worse off, if you ask me.  I don't want to own a dog.

8.  The Office which honestly I don't know why this wasn't first since I mentioned it in the header but they did a bunch of them including this years, with Dwight's weird Santa.  The best one was the classic Dutch Christmas episode where Michael got Ryan an iPod and they all kept trying to trade presents.  That was The Office at its greatest.

9.  Spongebob Squarepants:  I know he had a new special out this year but we started watching it and the first few minutes was a claymation thing that was boring (to me) and frightening (to Mr Bunches) so I'm not counting that one; I'm counting the one where Spongebob finds out about Santa and all of Bikini Bottom writes letters to Santa, who then doesn't show up and Squidward has to pretend to be Santa because Spongebob cries.  It had a really good song in it.

10.  Phineas and Ferb: Again, they had a Christmas episode and again I can't think of what it was.  How can I remember that a thing exists without remembering a single thing about that thing? Way to be on the ball, brain.

11.  Didn't Three's Company have to have a Christmas episode?  I want to say they did but my mind is a blank.  So the list is done and I'm going to go look that up...

 ...they did:  It was called Three's Christmas.  Wikipedia, which I am really starting to rely on despite my longstanding skepticism of it, says:

The trio decides to celebrate Christmas at home because they haven't been invited to any parties, even by their neighbors the Stevens. The Ropers invite them downstairs for a party, and they accept, but moments afterwards the Stevens call to reconfirm their invitation to the party, which must have gotten lost in the mail. Jack and Janet want to go, but Chrissy makes them go to the Ropers. The evening is spent listening to Roper sing silly songs, till finally the kids are able to excuse themselves. They go off to the Stevens' where they run into the Ropers, who also found out too late that they had been invited. Roper had spent the evening trying to bore them into leaving so he and Helen could go to the party. 

That sounds awesome.  It's the true spirit of Christmas: not being able to stand being around the people you are around.


Growing Pains DID have a Christmas episode:

"A depressed department store Santa consulting Jason decides to commit suicide by leaping down the Seavers' chimney."

FESTIVE!  I couldn't find it online, so here's a Kirk Cameron Ice Capades video I haven't watched: