Kari's Page of Rants

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This page was born of Kari's desire to fill in the blanks while waiting for Brenda to produce her first batch of recipes.  It really consists only of Kari's random thoughts.  In the beginning, the random thoughts were all about food, but Kari now seems to be moving away from food and towards Life, the Universe, and Everything.  However...if you like blog-like documents about nothing in particular, keep reading.

The page will be updated whenever Kari feels like it.  She may feel like it every Monday, but she's not really sure about that yet.

Monday, May 20, 2013:  I Need a TARDIS

Dear Doctor:

Would it at all inconvenience you if I borrowed your TARDIS for a bit?  I don’t have to keep it; I know you need it to save the universe with, plus occasionally to visit Shakespeare and Winston Churchill.  However, what interests me about it is that it’s bigger on the inside.  My apartment, you see, is not.

Cleaning is tedious at the best of times, but when you have completely run out of shelf space, it becomes an exercise in frustration.  You “tidy things up” by moving your possessions from one pile to another.  You can’t put them away because there isn’t anywhere for them to go.  When you sit down to start figuring out what to throw out or recycle, you cart bag after bag out of your apartment, then turn around to survey it, only to find that it looks exactly as messy and chaotic as it did before you got rid of all that stuff.  Perhaps all you want to do is move your decrepit old couch, which has a hole twice the size of your head in it, out so you can get another one in, but you have been working at “cleaning up” for days, and it’s still impossible to extract the couch from the teetering piles that surround it.  You have also breathed in about a pound of dust.

If I could just have the use of your TARDIS for a few days, I could shove a bunch of crap into it, get the damn couch out, then retrieve the crap before it inconvenienced you much.  I know using the TARDIS as a glorified storage locker is probably kind of demeaning for a machine that is basically alive and has been designed to plumb the depths of time and space, but I’m desperate here.

If you could get back to me yesterday, which I know you’re perfectly capable of doing, that would be appreciated.




Monday, May 13, 2013:  ...As the Shark Recedes in the Distance

Oh, Community, Community, Community.  What has happened to you this season?

Admittedly, I've been a bit determined to see Season 4 of Community as in a negative light.  I don't entirely trust my own reaction because I know I'm inclined not to look on the bright side.  However, I'm pretty sure that last week's episode, "Advanced Introduction to Finality," was genuinely bad.  It didn't just rub me, personally, the wrong way; it broke some of the fundamental rules of good storytelling.  Today's Rant will be spent complaining about this.  I need to get it out of my system somehow.

There will, of course, be spoilers.  Read on at your own risk.

One thing I've noticed about all the 2013 episodes is that they appear to be going through the motions.  It's as if the writers like Community but don't really understand what makes it tick.  They've retained all the parts, but those parts aren't fitting together to make a coherent whole.  The writers know parody has become an integral part of Community; therefore, almost every episode has been a parody.  They know fans like Abed and his "meta," so Abed has been transformed into a socially dysfunctional manufacturer of meta who cannot cope in society at large for more than a few minutes at a time.  The characters act like their old selves, but here's the kicker:  their old selves have evolved over the seasons.  Season 4 has had Season 1 Britta confronting Season 2 Jeff in one episode and Season 3 Shirley and Pierce going up against Season 2 Abed and Season 1 Annie in another.  Annie has apparently fallen back in love with Jeff for no discernible reason.  Chang has become entirely pointless and has gone through a sudden and seemingly artificial arc that makes no narrative sense.  Pierce does nothing but make racist comments and draw attention to the fact that he's losing his memory (ha ha haaaaaaaa...isn't dementia hilarious?  I.  Don't.  Think).  Every episode ends with the group learning a lesson that draws them closer together and Jeff making a heartwarming speech about it.

But next to last Thursday's episode, all this stuff seems positively Shakespearean.  We start out with Jeff on the verge of early graduation but having second thoughts about returning to his old firm.  Yeah, okay, but the Jeff we're given here is nothing like the Jeff we've been seeing lately.  He's far too nice to everyone.  He doesn't use irony.  He asks for a graduation party.  As far as I can tell, he's acting as he does simply to further the plot.  His attempt to replicate the die throw in "Remedial Chaos Theory" is weakly explained.

Then everything goes mad.  The end of the previous episode hinted at the pending return of the Darkest Timeline, but here's the thing:  in Season 3, the Darkest Timeline is handled in such a way that it doesn't break the fictional world.  It may or may not actually exist.  For instance, in "Remedial Chaos Theory," Abed catches the die in the "real" timeline...but it is never confirmed that the other timelines do or do not absolutely ever happen.  The hints that they do may be a product of Abed's imagination.  Evil Abed is seen only once (in the tag of "Remedial Chaos Theory") exclusive of Abed himself.  Point of view is maintained, and the rules of the show's world are not violated.  They're prodded, but they remain intact.

"Advanced Introduction to Finality" seems, at first, to violate the rules of the world.  Various Darkest Timeline characters, primarily Evil Jeff and Evil Annie, begin turning up and messing with the prime timeline.  They thus confirm the reality of the Darkest Timeline (yes, I know this will change, but bear with me for a moment), which was always ambiguous before, and smash point of view to smithereens.  Jeff Prime has no idea that Evil Jeff has arrived.  The Evil Study Group has scenes at which no one else is present.  Someone viewing the episode for the first time has two choices at this point:  1) to believe that the rules of the show have suddenly and inexplicably changed or 2) to anticipate an "it was all a dream" ending.  Both choices are narratively problematic.  In "Remedial Chaos Theory," the ending works because everything remains ambiguous.  In "Finality," however, there can be no ambiguity; the writers are going to have to make a choice.  The point-of-view issue complicates matters.  If the entire episode were from Jeff's perspective, an "it was all a dream" ending would be weak but comprehensible.  In "Finality" as we have it, whose dream would it be?  It would need to involve someone in the study group imagining scenes in which he or she was not present and somehow being okay with that.

The episode goes with the "it was all a dream" ending.  Specifically, it uses Abed as a sort of spirit guide who explains to Jeff that he's making this entirely plotline up.  We soon learn that Jeff is imagining it all in the moments before he throws the die.  If Jeff is fully conscious, why is he confused as to the reality of what is happening?  Is it all meant as a metaphoric representation of what is going on in his head?  We've seen Jeff daydream before, but we haven't seen him invent a complex story inside his own head in the space of about two seconds while everyone is staring at him expectantly.  This kind of ending is already very weak storytelling, but here, it makes no sense at all.  It allows Jeff a chance for another heartwarming speech, though.  Yippee.

I have a hard time understanding how experienced writers could choose to go this route.  There are twelve-year-old children who know the "it was all a dream" plot is cliched.  Worse, it takes away all character growth gained during a storyline...except, arguably, for the person having the dream.  This episode could easily have been about five minutes long.

Community is a shell of its former self.  Sure, it's "only a TV show," but it used to be a rather intelligent one.  I guess I'll go back to watching paint dry for a bit.  I do find that fascinating.


Monday, May 6, 2013:  Sleepless in Toronto

The fun bit about having over 200 students and no marking support is that at the end of the term, all the assignments come due at the same time.  Have you ever tried to mark 200 term papers, 30 presentation essays, and 200 exams in a two-week period?  It’s hard.  There is crying.  And towards the end, you come to the inevitable but worrying realisation that if you go to sleep for even a few minutes at any point in the next forty hours, you’re not going to finish on time.

Everyone has a different strategy for coping with the dreaded all-nighter.  As I don’t drink coffee, mine involves Pepsi and jelly beans, neither of which are good for me but both of which give me just enough of a rush that I can stay away for a few minutes more.  Staying awake all day and all night and all day again by drinking gallons of Pepsi was a bad strategy, but it was all I’d got.  I also posted updates on Twitter every time I finished ten more exams.  I’m not sure this accomplished anything besides annoying all my Twitter followers.

I finished marking with an hour and a half left before the grade-submission deadline.  You would think this would have been a good thing, but not really; I still had to create a grading spreadsheet, enter 200 participation marks, and submit 200 grades to four separate pages.  This ended up taking me an hour and twenty-nine minutes.  I got the grades in with one minute to spare.  By that point, I was seeing little creatures move around on the other side of the room, and when I stood up, I bumped into walls I hadn’t realised were there.

When you’re really tired and saturated with Pepsi, you’re also really hyper.  Despite my condition, I stayed up until 10:00 p.m.  My entire brain hurt.

There’s no real moral here beyond “Marking systematically destroys one’s sanity,” but, you see, I’m still tired.  I would like to experience the sensation of having a T.A. eventually.  That would be nice.


Monday, April 15, 2013:  Marking Time is Here Again

Updates may be spotty for a while, as the worst of marking season has begun.  In the course of the next two and a half weeks, I must mark over four hundred assignments.  All I really have to say about that is:  aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.  It basically seems impossible, but we shall see.  Tomorrow, I need to buckle down and tear through as many essays as possible.  There may be some crying.  Pieces of furniture are likely to be punched.  All I can hope for is not to go mad before I finish.  I’ll see you all on the other side.


Monday, April 1, 2013:  When You Wish Upon a Star

You guys are never going to guess what happened to me yesterday.

It’s really been an insane long weekend.  I answered sixty-odd student e-mails and finalised plans for two CDs.  In the end, though, none of that mattered because on Sunday evening, I finally fulfilled my destiny.

I was sitting in my favourite sushi restaurant, waiting for my take-out order, when it happened.  Across the room, our eyes met.  He was tall and dark-haired, with dreamy black eyes and just a hint of stubble.  The connection was instant.  Immediately, I knew I had been wasting my life.  What was I drawing all those comics for?  Why did I want to write novels?  What was with all the amusing songs about Batman?  What good was I doing teaching two hundred students per term to appreciate literature?  All along, I had just been waiting for a nice man to come along and take me away from all this.  It was blindingly obvious.

Of course, no good love story is complete without an initial misunderstanding leading to tears and eventually forgiveness.  We got through all that in the first two minutes.  The waitress brought me a bag of takeout first, and I was almost out the door when I realised it was too heavy to belong to me.  I had been given his sushi!  Shamefaced, I brought it back to him, then succumbed to my fate as a woman in love.  The wedding will be in Paris two weeks from now (because, of course, he’s rich as well as cute).

Farewell, Toronto.  I’m off to live the life of a bored socialite, since that is what success entails.*

*On April 1st, at least.


Monday, March 25, 2013:  Let It Snow?

The weather is going all weird again.  Okay, it’s true that where my parents live, there’s still two feet of snow on the ground and a daily average temperature of -15 degrees Celsius.  Here in Toronto, however, it’s often a bit more spring-like by, well, the first day of spring.  This year, it snowed like mad on March 20th.  It’s supposed to snow again today.  I think the groundhog may have lied to us.

I don’t actually mind long winters, mostly because I have Allergies from Hell and don’t react well to spring.  When I lived in Vancouver, the allergies started up in mid-Febrauary and lasted until late November.  Here, they don’t begin until late March, and they end in early November.  I suppose that’s an improvement.  However, there’s also no ragweed in Vancouver.  There’s definitely ragweed in Toronto.  We hates it, precious.  We hates it forever.

For the first time in years, I’ll have a classroom course this summer, which means I’ll experience the joy of teaching in allergy/smog/humidity season.  I’m curious as to whether my office will remain as freezing cold in the summer as it is now.  It’s basically the only office in the entire English department that isn’t ten degrees hotter than it should be.  Instead, it’s at least five degrees colder.  No one can explain this.  I sometimes think that architects deliberately construct university buildings to be as maddening as possible.  Don’t even get me started on the six classrooms I’m using this term and their seemingly random approaches to how the light switches work.*

At any rate, this Rant is meandering all over the place, but it’s mostly about the weather.  It was going to be about stage fright, but that attempt got extremely pompous.  I am once again reduced to discussing snow…in Canada…in March.  And, you know, ragweed and stuff.

Soon, it will be April.  I guess we’ll see if the snow will stick around until then.

*You would think they would work by turning the lights on and off.  You would be wrong.


Monday, March 18, 2013:  On Endings

As many of you know, I’m wending slowly but surely towards the ending of West of Bathurst.  It’s a strange and sometimes fascinating process that isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever done before.  I’ve written plenty of endings, but none for a work I’ve written serially over the course of seven years.  There’s something about creating a serial that sets it apart from other kinds of creation.

For instance, serials are published bit by bit, with no option for going back to change things around if you have a brilliant idea about something later on.  This is not a new observation, of course.  Serial novels, comic books, comic strips, and TV shows have been around for a while.  I’m sure Dickens looked back on early portions of his novels and muttered to himself about how he wished he’d left a particular character out of the story altogether.  I’m pretty nearly certain that the writers of Lost held at least one meeting per year in which someone went, “So when are we going to deal with those damn polar bears?”  Stories change and evolve as they’re written.  Authors shopping out manuscripts are often advised to rewrite so many times that the final (for now) version bears little resemblance to the first draft.  Serials, on the other hand, force writers to accommodate their own errors and false starts.

I’ve included plenty of elements in West of Bathurst that haven’t gone anywhere.  Morgan, Barbara’s stroppy former friend, was originally meant to be a major character, as was Fred, an early character who only ever got about six lines.  Other elements have come out of nowhere and taken centre stage.  Rahim was supposed to be a background character.  Jackie didn’t even have a name until a friend of mine observed how much the character resembled her.  Barbara’s Sherlock Holmes outfit originally appeared when I was on a bit of a Holmes kick, but it kept coming back and has recently become a pretty important part of the plot.  Marie’s tendency to lose her mind when she stays up all night just sort of happened, but it’s currently figuring into her Ph.D. defence.

Then there are the bits and pieces that appeared briefly early on but later became major plot elements, some on purpose and some by accident.  Nico was first mentioned a few months into the comic’s run.  I always knew what his deal was, but I didn’t bring him properly into the comic until Christmas of 2010, almost exactly four years after his name first came up.  I don’t know now whether or not I was ever planning to introduce him as a proper character.  After a while, everything sort of blurs together.  It’s possible to convince yourself that you know precisely what you’re doing, even if that isn’t true.

The hardest bit is the ending.  I’ll freely admit that when I started the comic, I didn’t know where it was heading, let alone how it would end.  Every once in a while, I would think, “So how am I going to resolve this?  Eh…I have plenty of time.”  Eventually, you wake up to the realisation that most of the time is gone now.  That’s when you discover whether you really have been setting things up for an ending all along…or whether what you have is a snarl of disconnected elements and a bunch of extraneous polar bears.  Sometimes, not even time travel can save you.

It remains to be seen whether I can pull this off.  West of Bathurst has been accused of being rather Lost-like in its tendency never to answer any of the questions it proposes.  I do know how it’s going to end, and I guess all I can hope for is that it’s not completely terrible.  If it is, then it will, I suppose, simply be echoing many other serials.

Endings are also rather sad.  I wish they didn’t have to happen.  But old stories do end, polar bears and all, probably so that the new stories won’t feel so very crowded.


Monday, March 11, 2013:  The Road to Oz

I have not seen Oz the Great and Powerful.  I’m not sure whether I ever will.  I feel uncomfortable about commenting extensively on it without seeing it, but I also really don’t want to have to experience 127 minutes’ worth of uncontrollable rage just so I can knowledgeably light into a Hollywood movie.  However, I’ve heard a few things about the film, and I shall use those few things as a springboard to discuss my own relationship with the Oz material.  I get a bit upset when people do silly things to the story that defined my childhood.

I’m not talking about the film, either.  My dad read me The Wonderful Wizard of Oz long before I could read myself.  I must have been four or five the first time he did it.  At that point, like any pre-literate child confronted with a marvellous story, I virtually memorised it.  My dad, forced to read the novel to me over and over, started amusing himself by changing the words around.  The Scarecrow became the Crowscare; the Tin Woodman became the Wood Tinman.  I was particularly indignant over this second change.  “No, Dad,” I would say, “it’s the Tin Woodman.”  I loved everything about the story.  I had my own copy, which was illustrated with brightly coloured pictures I still visualise when I think of the novel.  In my imagination, Dorothy isn’t Judy Garland; she’s the little girl in the book.  When I did learn to read, I expect that book was one of the first I got through on my own.

I never got into the sequels, mostly because I didn’t know they existed.  We did eventually acquire a copy of The Marvelous Land of Oz, which I liked too, albeit not as much as the first book in the series.  No one ever told me there were more books.  However, by the time I saw the film (as well, later, as Return to Oz), Oz was part of me.  I played Dorothy in our grade seven production of the musical, and even though the Cowardly Lion refused to hug me on stage because I was unpopular and he didn’t want his friends to mock him, I had a great time doing it.  I had always identified with Dorothy.  Until grade 4, when I cut off most of my hair, I had even looked a bit like her.

The story is, on the surface, a very simple one.  L. Frank Baum, in his introduction to the book, frames it as aspiring “to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”  In his opinion, the “horrible and blood-curdling incidents” in fairy tales could be dropped, as modern children, with their strong moral educations, didn’t need them.  Funnily enough, however, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains plenty of heartaches and nightmares.  The protagonist, Dorothy, is an orphan who spends the whole book yearning to return to her dour aunt and uncle.  Her companions all long for attributes that they already have, and in the end, they have to be tricked into acknowledging these attributes within themselves.  Throughout the story, Dorothy’s life is in danger; several times, she nearly dies, and twice, she inadvertently commits murder.  Oz is far from a safe, happy landscape.  It’s a land in which half the population is enslaved, and everyone respects and fears a charlatan whose main power is his ability to put on a show.  The simplicity of the story runs up against the complexity of Oz.  This supposedly safe, sweet little children’s tale has teeth.

In addition, it has a fantastic heroine.  I’ve heard that later books in the series (which I’ll soon be reading, as I’m on a bit of an Oz kick now) tend to focus on female protagonists too; in fact, Baum himself was a feminist with a bunch of strong women in his life.  The one other book in the series that I’ve read seems to focus on a boy but actually doesn’t (and if that sentence confuses you, I can only suggest that you go find The Marvelous Land of Oz, which, like the other Oz books, is in the public domain and thus available for free online).  In the first book, Dorothy is really just an ordinary little girl, and this ordinariness is what makes her extraordinary.  She’s just some kid who happens to be swept away into a strange land.  She doesn’t have the tortured, complex backstory of more recent young protagonists—except, of course, in the hint that her parents are dead—but she doesn’t really need it.  What’s great about Dorothy is the way she simply keeps rising to the occasion.  She wants to go home, but she doesn’t waste time whining about it.  When a Scarecrow winks at her, her reaction is not to question her own sanity but to walk up to it; when a Lion threatens her little dog, she whacks it on the nose.  Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Dorothy has a certain practicality that allows her to cut through the Wizard’s bluster and figure out what’s really going on.  She’s not the Chosen One, but she kills two witches and discovers the truth of the Wizard.  She doesn’t need to turn up surrounded by prophecies or urged on by destiny.  She’s iconic without being a pointlessly blank slate.

Part of the reason I don’t want to see the new film is that from what I’ve heard, it turns the Wizard into the Chosen One.  Never mind Baum’s heroines; let’s tell the same tired story of the young man who is, despite his own apparent laziness, destined for greatness.  Let’s also turn the four powerful witches of Oz into potential love interests.  What a good idea that will be.  There’s no way, after all, that a story about a girl could appeal to anybody but girls.  This interesting logic, which appears to drive the entirety of Hollywood these days, ignores not just the popularity of Baum’s books but the popularity of The Wizard of Oz, the fiercely loved 1939 film that inspired this new “prequel” in the first place.  A sequel to this prequel was apparently green-lighted before the film was ever released.  Oh, joy.

Do yourselves a favour and pick up the original books.  They’re not in 3D, and they don’t have special effects or James Franco mugging for the camera, but unlike the Tin Woodman (in his own mind, at least), they certainly have a heart.  In many ways, everybody, no matter what gender, is a version of Dorothy Gale.


Monday, February 25, 2013:  And That's How It All Began

So as some of you know, I'm trying desperately and in vain to get a publisher, any publisher, to take a look at my novel.  This is a soul-destroying process through which many people have gone, so I won't whine about it here.  I do, however, want to say a little something about the expectations of agents and publishers when it comes to openings:  particularly, the openings of Young Adult novels.

I do recognise that my book's opening needs work, and I'll get on that.  However, I'm also wondering if current expectations aren't a teeny bit restrictive.  I understand why these expectations exist.  An opening, saith the Experts, needs to provide an instant "hook."  The reader must be drawn immediately into the story.  In the first 250 words or so, the writer must introduce the protagonist and the protagonist's situation.  The characters should be "in the moment"; there shouldn't be much, if any, exposition.  Starting with pure dialogue is kind of cheating but is better than starting with a description of the setting, which is boring.  It must be instantly clear to the reader what every element in the opening means; if anything is vague or incomplete, the reader will undoubtedly lose interest and wander away to play video games.

Okay, yes, we live in a culture in which everything must happen NOW.  Our attention spans are fragmented; we consider a five-minute YouTube video too long to watch and complain vociferously when our profs assign us more than one short story to read per week.  I'm wondering, however, if we're not getting a bit too dictatorial about the whole "If you don't capture the reader in the first three words, ALL IS LOST" thing.  It wasn't that long ago that openings were allowed to be gentler, more mysterious, with fewer explosions and less of an expectation that the protagonist's personality would be laid bare in the first paragraph.

I am thus going to take a look at three openings of well-known children's novels (from back before YA was a thing, mostly) to see if they pass the 250-word test:  that is, the expectation that after the first 250 words (more or less) of the novel, the reader will be invested in the protagonist and know exactly who all the people, places, and concepts mentioned in those 250 words are.  I'm not saying that the 250-word test is wrong or not at all useful.  Expectations do change over time.  I'm just saying...well, let's see what happens.

Example 1:  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937):  First 244 Words

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors.  The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.  No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage.  The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

Mythical editor's comment:  This is all exposition.  Moreover, it's vague exposition.  What on earth is a hobbit?  I get no sense of what kind of creature this is.  Or is "hobbit" a job description?  You spend two whole paragraphs describing his "hole" (why is he living in a hole?), but you give me very little sense of the hobbit itself; all you really say is that he likes clothes and has a nice house.  You completely lose me with this description, which is without context.  I don't even know what kind of story this is supposed to be.  It's only in the very last line that you mention the hobbit's name.  You've given me no reason to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  This may be one of the best-known openings in children's literature.  It tells us little about Bilbo; it doesn't even tell us that his name is Bilbo.  It does not plunge us into the story.  Frankly, Tolkien doesn't begin to set up the initial conflict until three pages in.  However, there's something to be said for a gentle approach.  The opening contains hints about Bilbo's personality, and those hints will eventually come to define his approach to his adventure.  We don't know his name, but we know that he's a comfort-loving clothing fanatic with multiple pantries.  We know that his house matters to him.  The description of the setting is, in fact, a description of Bilbo; the author just doesn't come out and say so.

Today, Tolkien would be expected to spice all this up.  An editor would probably suggest that he cut the first three pages altogether and begin with the encounter between Bilbo and Gandalf.  This would undoubtedly be more exciting.  It would also deprive us of that initial hidden description of Bilbo as indistinguishable from his comfortable surroundings.

Example 2:  E.B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952):  First 266 Words

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."

"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight. "Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."

"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."

Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern's sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.

"Please don't kill it!" she sobbed. "It's unfair."

Mr. Arable stopped walking.

"Fern," he said gently, "you will have to learn to control yourself."

"Control myself?" yelled Fern. "This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself." Tears ran down her cheeks and she took hold of the ax and tried to pull it out of her father's hand.

"Fern," said Mr. Arable, "I know more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now run along!"

"But it's unfair," cried Fern. "The pig couldn't help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?"

Mythical editor's comment:  At first glance, I liked this opening.  You did a good job of putting the reader in the moment; the conflict between Fern and her father was nicely laid out, even if the setting could have been clearer.  However, I was impressed enough that I flipped ahead a few pages, and I was very surprised to see that Fern was not, in fact, the protagonist of this story!  Suddenly, without warning, you switched to the perspective of the pig I had initially thought was just a plot device.  The opening is highly misleading.  A reader expecting a realistic story about a girl growing up on a farm is, as of the second chapter, expected to accept a whole other reality in which animals can talk and a pig is befriended by a spider.  When I moved on past the opening, I felt cheated, and I lost all desire to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  Charlotte's Web is another children's classic, and it certainly does contain this abrupt shift in point of view.  Fern returns and is even an important character later on, but the bulk of the story concentrates on Wilbur, her pig, and his life on the farm.  Under present-day rules, this opening would be seen as a "prologue" (i.e., not a proper part of the story) and thus discouraged.  However, beginning with a realistic story about an eight-year-old girl and her compassion for a runty pig allows White to do some pretty essential things.  He sets up the novel as a coming-of-age tale; Fern learns here that life isn't fair, though sometimes exceptions can be made.  Wilbur will learn both lessons himself later on.  Fern's changing priorities as she grows are also a major thread of the story; as Wilbur comes of age through his relationship with Charlotte and his hard lesson about letting go of someone who cares for him, Fern is undergoing a parallel coming of age as she spends less time at the farm and more getting interested in boys (yes, okay, the novel was published in 1952).  Fern and Wilbur learn in different ways that things change, not always for the better.

Today, White would be encouraged to drop the first chapter entirely or perhaps to ditch the talking-animals angle and stick with Fern throughout.  Both approaches would take something from the story.  It is quite possible that despite the testimony of generations of readers who first experienced the mourning process vicariously through this book, Charlotte's Web would be considered unpublishable by current standards.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997):  First 261 Words

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.  They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills.  He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache.  Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.  The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.  They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.  Mrs Potter was Mrs Dursley’s sister, but they hadn’t met for several years; in fact, Mrs Dursley pretended she didn’t have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be.  The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbours would say if the Potters arrived in the street.  The Dursleys knew that the Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him.  This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

Mythical editor's comment:  This opening is all exposition.  Show, don't tell; if you want us to get to know the Dursleys, let us see them interacting with each other.  I'm bewildered by the point of view here.  Are the Dursleys your protagonists?  They don't seem very likeable.  Is Dudley the main character?  Is the Potter boy?  If you hadn't sent me the title of your novel, I wouldn't be able to tell.  A glance through the rest of the chapter demonstrates that you jump from point of view to point of view, throwing a bewildering number of characters at a reader who has no idea who they are.  Then you skip ten years.  You should begin with your protagonist, not tease the reader with the introduction of characters who will soon be relegated to secondary roles.  I'm just too confused to want to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  If you thought I was just bringing up novels written before I was born, think again.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the book that arguably began the rise of YA fiction as we know it today, starts with a whackload of exposition and is--in its first chapter, at least--written in the slightly condescending tones of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, who produced children's literature back when it had different conventions associated with it.  You might argue that Rowling was just starting out and needed to find her rhythm, and that would be true.  However, though the condescending tone didn't stick around, the exposition did.  She often started her novels by explaining that Harry Potter was a wizard and outlining, point by point, what that meant.  She continued to like beginning with the point of view of a secondary character as well.  She didn't call these initial chapters prologues, but that was what they were.

Do I have a problem with any of this?  Hell, no.  The Harry Potter novels work beautifully.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is essentially writen for eleven-year-olds, and it borrows its tone not just from Tolkien and Lewis but from Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbitson, both of whom have produced wonderful literature for that age group.  Starting with the Dursleys allows Rowling to introduce the Muggle world as the apparent norm, then subvert this norm with her colourful, eccentric wizards.  Harry is not the only one who starts surrounded by the mundane and must make his way into the world of magic; the reader joins him.  Chapter 1 allows us to gain knowledge Harry doesn't have--knowledge of the existence of wizards--and then wait in delicious anticipation for him to figure out what is going on.

Today, ironically, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone might easily be asked to lose its first chapter, due largely to the increasingly rigid rules that have developed since its publication.  In fact, the film of the book leaves out the bit with the Dursleys and skips to Dumbledore's first appearance late in Chapter 1.  Chapter 2 is more "in the moment," it's true, but the introduction of the Dursleys gives us the essential conflict between the Muggles and the wizards; it's also quite funny.  A swifter beginning would lead to a less entertaining story.


So yes, these examples are more or less arbitrary.  They do, however, demonstrate that there's more than one way to begin a novel without causing young readers to give up immediately.  All three of these books are still in print, after all.  Sure, the in-the-moment technique is probably the one it's easiest to get right; that doesn't mean other techniques are automatically not even worth trying.  For crying out loud, Watership Down begins with a two-page description of rabbits in a field.  And if you haven't read Watership Down, you need to go do that now.

Publishers exist to sell books.  It's probably easier, theoretically speaking, to sell books that are exciting from the first sentence onward.  However, by discounting stories that begin more quietly or subtly, we may be losing out.


Monday, February 18, 2013:  Study Week:  An Exercise in Frustration

Every term, the university at which I work holds a “Study Week” in which students do not attend classes.  It’s pretty nice for students.  It isn’t quite so nice for instructors.

You see, Study Week follows the fifth week of classes.  There are twelve weeks’ worth of classes per term, meaning that Study Week is more or less in exactly the wrong spot.  Profs who set their midterms for week 5 have only four weeks to work with as far as material is concerned.  Profs who set their midterms for week 6 or 7 can’t mark during Study Week.  I tend to go with Option 1, and therefore, I do mark during Study Week.  It’s very practical, but it’s not very fun.

I haven’t had a Study Week that counts as an actual “break” since I was an MA student.  I usually goof off for the first several days, at which point I realise, with rising panic, that I have 220 midterms to mark in the course of a week and a half.  The pattern is always the same, but do I ever wise up and start marking on the first day of the break?  No, I do not.  That would be far too easy.

I have pledged to start my marking tomorrow.  Of course, tomorrow is a holiday, and I have a lunch outing at noon.  And there’s laundry to get through.  And I should work on Wednesday’s comic.  And I’ve written one of my songs for March now, but I need to think of a concept for a second one as well.  And I should practise the first song.  And I should play my tenor guitar a bit.  And…

Damn you, Study Week.  Damn you to Hades.  I always succumb to your lure.


Monday, February 11, 2013:  The Hierarchy of Snow

When it comes to winter, Canadians get a little bit strange.  We take pride in our winteriness.  We collect scarves, tuques, and pairs of mittens.  We brag about cycling in the snow.  Two-inch snowfalls prompt middle-aged women to haul out their cross-country skis and use them to commute to work.  The more snow there is, the more we rejoice.

This attitude tends to lead to what you might call a "hierarchy of snow," which we may notice only when we leave one place in Canada for another place in Canada.  We get very...regional...about our snow.  The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; the snow, on the other hand, is always less impressive.  When it comes to winter weather, Canadians shed their stereotypical politeness for outright bragging.

I grew up in Vancouver, which is automatically at the bottom of the hierarchy.  Vancouverites don't think of their snow as being less, well, snowy than everyone else's, but living in Toronto has taught me that the rest of the country views Vancouver's snow with amused contempt.  Everyone who doesn't live in Vancouver believes that Vancouverites are completely unable to cope with snow.  The story runs as follows:  in Vancouver, it rains for 364 days of the year.  On the 365th, it snows, and the city shuts down because no one in Vancouver is capable of dealing with frozen water falling from the sky.  Vancouverites can't drive in the snow.  Vancouverites think that an inch of snow is the worst thing ever.  How funny and silly those Vancouverites are!

Of course, the truth is that Vancouver, while quite temperate, does sometimes get a substantial amount of snow.  Vancouverites, who live their lives surrounded by quite tall mountains on which the snow accumulates to a degree that would utterly alarm someone from Toronto, are as capable of driving in the snow as anyone, though they are sometimes defeated by Vancouver's steep hills.  A Vancouverite's knowledge of snow acts somewhat like a secret superpower.  Though I hail from the city at the bottom of the hierarchy, I grew up cross-country skiing and snowshoing, and I knew what a tree well was and why it was a bad idea to fall into one by the time I was eight.

Currently, I live in Toronto.  Toronto sees itself as well up in the hierarchy, and consequently, many Torontonians are shocked to learn that the rest of the country regards it as well down in the hierarchy.  Former mayor Mel Lastman didn't help this general impression by calling in the army during Toronto's 1999 blizzard.  Only about a week ago, I saw an online comment from a Torontonian who indignantly complained about mockery of Lastman's decision, even though, in the commenter's words, Toronto had sustained a "90 cm." snowfall at the time.  In actual fact, the snowfall was probably no more than about 40 cm., or a foot and a third.  There have been some snowy Toronto winters, but total accumulation rarely goes beyond a foot and a half.  And yes, other Canadians think that Toronto shuts down under such conditions.  As Vancouver is to Toronto, so is Toronto to everybody else, though Torontonians, unlike Vancouverites, often lack mountain-related experience.

I spent Christmas in Prince George this year.  Prince George is in northern British Columbia, and it gets quite a lot of snow.  In fact, when I was there, I never really saw actual pavement, as Prince George sands its roads rather than salting them.  In Prince George, snow tires are a necessity, not a luxury.  Vancouver and Toronto are both full of wimps as far as the people of Prince George are concerned.  Even though I was there for only a week and a half, I find myself inclined to snicker smugly at Toronto's comparatively teeny snowfalls and balmy temperatures.  The hierarchy of snow sets in quickly.

There are doubtless places further north that regard Prince Georgians as soft.  That's how it goes in Canada:  everyone's snow is better than everyone else's snow.  Just about the only thing everyone agrees about is that even Vancouver is hardier than most of the United States.  And that's pretty Canadian too.


Monday, February 4, 2013:  Prelude to a Kiss

So for some reason, I've entered a small, lighthearted Internet writing contest that involves posting a kissing scene from some story or other.  I'm obliged to post this scene on my blog; I have done so here.  However, in this week's Rant, I would also like to muse a bit about my attitude towards kissing scenes.

I've written a lot of novels (most of which no one will ever see) and a fair number of short stories, plus a towering pile of comics.  How many kissing scenes have I got through in the course of my life?  Well, that would be three.  Two of them are in West of Bathurst, and one of those is a single panel long.  I have created exactly one prose-fiction kissing scene.  It appears in a novel I wrote a few years ago.  The existence of this novel now embarrasses the hell out of me, but I did quite enjoy writing the kissing scene.  There may have been a wee bit of meta in there somewhere.

The longer West of Bathurst kissing scene doesn't exactly play the trope straight either.  I don't seem to be able to write a conventional kissing scene, probably because I tend to get rather impatient with such scenes myself.  Some works handle kissing very well and actually make it relevant to the plot, which is always nice.  Others include kissing for the sake of kissing.  If an author is going to spend a page and a half describing a lingering kiss, it needs to have something to do with the story.

On the other hand, I do often wish that I didn't shy away from writing kissing scenes.  My reaction reminds me of the reaction of a certain actor who was playing a part in a musical a friend and I had written together.  The play contained an "almost-kiss" scene, which is not quite the same thing as a kissing scene.  The two characters needed to lean in towards each other at the end of their duet, then break apart before anything happened.  The female actor simply couldn't get through this scene.  The almost-kiss embarrassed her.  To cover up her embarrassment, she pretended to be running towards the male actor in slow motion; when we asked her to stop, she just kept squirming away from him in the middle of the scene and declaring that the whole thing made her feel stupid.  We finally persuaded her to be a little less awkward about it, but she never quite got into the spirit of the scene.  I think maybe I'm acting like her when I avoid kissing scenes.  Perhaps I should learn to embrace the power of the Kiss.

As West of Bathurst is a comic, it's not eligible for the kissing-scene contest.  However, I'll reproduce the relevant plotline below because I can.  Those of you who read the comic may remember that that particular kiss was hugely relevant to the plot, albeit maybe not in the way you might expect a kiss would be.  At any rate, it was fun to write.  I may not be addicted to kissing scenes, but when I do use them, I am satisfyingly cruel to my characters.

Here is the West of Bathurst kissing scene, which originally ran between September 8th and 19th, 2008:

No one knows why, but the likelihood that the heavens will open and deluge you with pollutant-laden water increases tenfold if the movie you just saw sucked beyond all belief.

Coincidentally, it poured rain today.  I am actually currently sitting in my office, waiting for the damn rain to stop so that I can bike home without becoming covered with mud.  I feel for Marie; I really do.

Oh, damn...now Barbara can't add this conversation to her book-length list of Satan evidence.


Double gosh.

Of course, this is happening at midnight on a residence floor.  Several tired people are really going to hate Marie in the morning.


Monday, January 21, 2013:  Glee vs. JoCo:  A Slightly Different Angle

I won’t bore you with a repetition of the details of the Great Indie Cover Scandal of 2013.  If you want to read about how the TV show Glee helped itself, practically note for note and possibly even duck-sound for duck-sound, to Jonathan Coulton’s acoustic cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” I would suggest you try here.  Or here.  Or here.  Or here.  If you want to listen to the two tracks simultaneously (one in one ear and the other in the other), go here.  Heck…Google “Jonathan Coulton Baby Got Back Glee.”  Lots and lots and lots of things have been said about this already.  Seemingly, the only people who haven’t weighed in are those affiliated in any way with Glee itself.

But I shall not Rant fruitlessly about Fox and arrogance and whether covers are copyrighted.  Instead, I shall simply say:  I told you so.

I write about Glee sometimes.  I don’t like Glee.  Admittedly, I stopped watching it a couple of seasons ago; perhaps it has miraculously improved in the interim, though from what I’ve heard, it’s actually done the opposite.  The main reason for my loathing of the show isn’t entirely the same as that of many of people.  Sure, it is an insult to the very idea of musical theatre; its plotting and characterisation are inconsistent; it has populated a fictional high school with yet another group of beautiful thirty-somethings; even its moments of mild cleverness lead nowhere.  What I regard as its biggest problem, however, is the way the impetus of its writing clashes with its supposed mission statement.

Glee is apparently the story of a group of misfits who struggle against their own unpopularity as they attempt to negotiate the horror that is high school.  As I’ve posited before (on the Rants page before I started posting the Rants on this blog; check the entry for September 19, 2011), the Glee characters read more like popular kids in disguise.  My theory (which may, of course, be vastly unfair) is that the writers were all popular in high school themselves.  They know what unpopularity is like in theory, but they’ve never actually experienced it.  They thus give us a bunch of cheerleaders and football players, have some cardboard bullies throw slushies at them, and announce that they are telling a story of empowerment.  Empowerment, in Glee, seems to equal the attainment of–you guessed it–popularity.

Glee‘s apparent theft from an independent musician whose fan base consists largely of geeks and nerds is not thematically inconsistent with the tenor of the show.  Some have theorised that the musical directors simply didn’t realise that anyone would know who Coulton was.  He is not, after all, a studio musician; he hasn’t signed with a huge label.  Don’t kids these days listen only to really popular music?  It’s a mistake along the lines of thinking that unpopular kids are just socially awkward carbon copies of popular kids.  Sure, some of them may be.  However, it’s probably fair to say that quite a few of Coulton’s fans remember being genuine misfits in high school.  Coulton’s ideal fan is the shy outsider who spends large chunks of time online and thinks about the world in a twisty sort of way.  The Glee kids don’t seem like the kind of people who would ever have heard of Coulton.

That is, in a way, too bad.  A Glee that dealt with genuine misfits could do a Coulton-themed episode without a problem.  “The Future Soon” is the perfect high-school song:  a cheerful ditty about a hopeless nerd enduring the shame of his daily existence by imagining his future as a vengeful cyborg scientist.  “Big Bad World One” and “Code Monkey,” though not set in high school, deal with the crushing defeats of the workplace and unrequited love and could easily fit into a better version of the show.  If the writers were even a little bit brave, they could use “Shop Vac” in relation to the home life of one of the characters.  If you must borrow other people’s music in order to tell your story, borrow the music of somebody who bears even a remote relation to the kinds of characters you’ve got in your story.

I am not advocating a JoCo-themed Glee episode; Glee is doing everything so wrong that it just wouldn’t work.  However, it’s pretty telling that this show about “misfits” has gone and alienated a goodly number of geeks and nerds, most of whom are not afraid to wield the Internet as a mighty weapon.  Whether or not Jonathan Coulton deserves and/or will receive either acknowledgement or compensation for his cover, by opening itself up to the wrath of his fans, Glee has really just demonstrated what it has been all along:  a show by and for people who have never fantasised about conquering Earth with an army of violent robots as revenge for being humiliated in high school.


Monday, January 14, 2013:  There's Something About Adler

I’ve been wanting to Rant about Irene Adler for a while.  Inevitably, someone much more prominent has beat me to it; Esther Inglis-Arkell has an interesting article in io9 called “Why Can’t Any Recent Sherlock Holmes Adaptation Get Irene Adler Right?”.  I agree with many of the sentiments expressed here.  As Ms. Inglis-Arkell points out, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler is actually less old-fashioned than the versions of the character that have appeared in the film Sherlock Holmes and the BBC series Sherlock.  Unlike the later versions, the original Irene is not a pawn of Moriarty, and she is actually quite honourable.  In Inglis-Arkell’s words, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a “clever, unconventional, take-charge, and seductive woman is, unreservedly, a good thing.”

We simply don’t deal well with her any more, and not just in the two examples cited in the article.  I would like to take a look at the other side of the coin:  the Irene Adlers who appear–or, significantly, who don’t appear–in two American takes on the Holmes material, House, M.D. and Elementary.

There are two characters in House, M.D. who can be seen as versions of Irene Adler.  One, Rebecca Adler, appears in the pilot episode.  She is the patient of the week; the only truly remarkable thing about her is that she refuses treatment until House can demonstrate that his diagnosis is correct.  They have a conversation in which she quizzes him about himself and his hang-ups; perhaps her insight into his personality is a tribute to the original Irene and the reversal of power in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  However, once she is cured, she vanishes from the show.  Even this brief appearance may constitute the most accurate recent Adler.  Yet the show involves an actual “Irene Adler” as well.  In Season 5, Episode 11, Wilson (apparently) lies to House’s team, telling them that House used to date a woman named Irene Adler.  As far as we ever know, this really is a lie.  Irene thus appears in the show as a figment:  a lost love who never existed in the first place.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” is in no way a love story; Holmes is fascinated by Irene because she has beaten him, but there is no hint in any of the stories that Holmes is capable of falling in love.  In that same story, in fact, Watson writes:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

It’s nice that Irene turns out, in House, to be a lie rather than an actual lover, but that still removes a certain reality from her; she can be either a love interest or no one at all.  If Rebecca Adler had been allowed to stand, she might have been a decent, if uninspired, substitute, but Irene-as-figment takes over.  Irene is allowed no independent existence outside House.  Even Rebecca is saved by him.

In Elementary, it all gets ever so much worse.  (Spoilers follow, incidentally; if you don’t want to find out what happened in last week’s episode of Elementary, stop reading now.)  It is possible there will eventually be some sort of massive plot twist involving the revelation that Irene is still alive.  For the moment, however, she is 1) Sherlock’s former true love, who 2) was murdered by a man who 3) turns out to have been Moriarty.  If Irene is still alive, she is doubtless in cahoots with Moriarty, which would put her in the same category as the Irenes of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock.  If she truly is dead, she has been reduced to the role of the dead girlfriend/fiancee/wife/lover (or, in some stories, daughter/sister/mother) whose murder motivates the hero.  She commits the further offence of making it necessary for Sherlock Holmes, a character who is notoriously single and singular, to have a love interest.  In the context of this particular show, this then creates the potential for unresolved sexual tension between Sherlock and his female Watson.

Why not give Irene Adler her due?  Have we really reached a point at which the two options are “sexy, untrustworthy vixen who serves as the catspaw of a male mastermind” and “dead girlfriend”?  Despite her brief role in the Holmes canon, Irene Adler has pretty clearly made an impression, rather like Moriarty, whose role is equally brief.  Moriarty is, famously, Holmes’s intellectual equal.  Irene Adler beats Holmes.  Yet in the adaptations (even, in a way, in House, in which a character named Moriarty shoots House and then effectively invades his mind as he lies on the verge of death), Moriarty becomes almost unimaginably powerful, while Irene is demonstrated to be inferior to both Holmes and Moriarty.  It sometimes seems a concerted effort to deprive her of her original power.

I would like to see an Irene who truly stood as a modernised version of the character in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” not as either a “strong” woman who was really just a minion and who relied entirely on her sexuality or a mere name tossed around to motivate the male protagonist.  She needs her chance to beat Holmes all over again, and not just in name.


Monday, December 10, 2012:  Fear of Bicycle Repair:  A Morality Tale

I took a bike-repair course once.  It was kind of fun and gave me a sense of accomplishment; I was, it seemed, capable of doing mild bicycle maintenance without physically hurting myself.  I had gained knowledge that was actually useful.

Then the course ended, at which point I learned a hard truth:  no matter how many things you learn in the repair shop, you will eventually not have access to said repair shop any more.  Deprived of the tools, the expertise of your teachers, and even those thingies you stick bikes on to lift them off the ground and make their bits easier to get at, you will be almost back to where you started:  incapable of anything more complex than tire inflation.  I had the added problem of entirely lacking in upper-body strength.  Even after I acquired a multi-tool, I was frequently incapable of using it.  No amount of knowledge will allow you to loosen a bolt when you have the muscle tone of an undernourished eight-year-old.*

But I do like the idea of being able to look after my own bike.  I always feel a creeping sense of shame when I have to take my bike to the shop to get a tire changed because I'm not strong enough to take off the wheel.  And yes, I have done this more than once.

I recently ended up in one of those incredibly stupid situations that affect only people who are fantastic procrastinators.  My brake pads were worn down to the point that they were hardly working any more.  When I say "hardly working," I mean that I was having to drag my left foot along the ground every time I wanted to stop.  Stopping on a hill involved me jamming on the brakes as hard as I could half a block before the intersection, then dragging my foot for at least thirty feet.  Calling this situation "insanely dangerous" would be putting it lightly.  It was not smart of me to continue riding a bike that was incapable of, you know, stopping.

I made all the usual excuses.  I was too busy to fix the brakes.  I didn't remember how.  I was going to screw something up, and I would get the bike into such a bad condition that I would be forced to take it to the shop, and then the people at the shop would laugh at me.  It wasn't that bad.  If I pumped up my tires, the brakes would almost work again.**  It was nearly December; I wouldn't need the bike for much longer anyway.

None of these excuses obscured the fact that I was putting my life in danger every time I got on the bike.  Finally, I stopped procrastinating and fixed the damn brakes.

It turned out that I did remember how to do it.  I didn't have all the tools that would have made it a painless operation, but I had enough to get by, and as far as I know, I didn't destroy anything.  My brakes soon worked again.  Once more, I felt that sense of accomplishment.  Small victories can be very satisfying.

The day after I fixed my brakes, I was cycling along Bloor when an absolute idiot in a huge white van made an illegal left turn in front of me, nearly killing another cyclist and forcing me to jam on the brakes.  It wasn't the kind of illegal left turn you could excuse with, "He must not have seen the sign"; this was someone swerving across three lanes of traffic onto an off-ramp usually only accessible to people driving in the opposite direction.  You don't explicitly watch out for that sort of thing because ninety percent of drivers just aren't that freaking insane.  All I can say is that I'm really glad I stopped procrastinating and fixed my brakes.  I'm not sure the foot-dragging manoeuvre would have helped much in that situation.

The next time my brakes stop working, of course, I am probably going to do exactly the same thing.  But for now, it's nice to know that I can fix my brakes if I need to.

*I don't enjoy being this wimpy.  A lot of my problems do seem to be bike-related, too.  The university at which I work has recently got rid of several banks of bike racks and replaced them with these horrible plastic things that are meant to hold bikes placed almost vertically.  In principle, they save a lot of space.  In practice, all they mean is that people with no muscles in their arms are forced to take their bikes elsewhere.  I cannot for the life of me get my bike into one of those racks.  At one point, I was flailing around in a futile attempt to make the damn thing stay, and a couple of students were standing nearby, laughing at me.  I don't even try any more.

**This was actually true.  Full tires are fatter than soft ones, and the brakes are thus marginally tighter.  In this case, "marginally tighter" means:  "For the first day after I pumped up my tires, I had to drag my foot for only the last ten feet, not the last thirty."


Monday, December 3, 2012:  Twenty Days of Horror

I do actually like teaching.  I don't actually like marking.  I know I'm not exactly alone in this, but sometimes, the obvious just needs to be restated.  Marking is the devil.  Because of marking, I haven't written a Rant in a month.  I've finally got a small amount of time for Ranting, and what am I Ranting about?  Why, marking, of course.

Starting on December 1st, I had about 300 assignments--180 essays and 120 exams, not to mention 160 discussion responses--to get through by December 20th.  I'm now finished 25 of the essays.  At this rate, I'll be almost done by next March.  I also have to write, memorise, rehearse, and perform two songs, rehearse and perform two other songs, do something about this whole album thing, draw eleven comics and a Christmas header, and not go mad.  And that isn't even considering the Christmas shopping.

Next term, I'm teaching four classes instead of five, but they'll have more students in them.  The course I'll be teaching (four times over) is one of the university's most popular, mostly because it can be used as an elective by students in a wide variety of disciplines.  Also, it's got comics in it.  My classes will start out full, though I'll doubtless terrify many students into dropping out a few weeks into the term.  To begin with, however, I'll likely be teaching between 220 and 240 people, in contrast to the 145 or so I have at the moment.  Crying is going to be happening quite, quite soon.  The fun bit?  The university considers my job "part time."

At any rate, the next eighteen days are sure to be filled with joy.  If I run into many more apostrophe faults, I may try to swallow my own tongue, but that's par for the course.


Monday, November 5, 2012:  Being Busy is Terrible

I skipped the last two weeks' worth of Rants, and I can see myself skipping next week's too, so I'd better get this week's in here somewhere.  The truth of the matter is that I've bitten off a wee bit more than I can chew.

The Official Sessional Instructor Mantra is:  take the work when it's available, since you can't know when it won't be.  This is true, and it's all very well, but it doesn't take into account the fact that the work takes actual time.  I have five classes this term.  Three of them are for the same course; the other two are for two different courses.  Of the three courses I'm teaching, two are ones I've never taught before.  That means that I have to put together two three-hours lectures from scratch every week.  In addition, I have to mark for five classes, three of which are on essay writing and thus involve more assignments than usual.  It's got to the point where I'm marking the essay-writing class's third assignment second because I don't have time to do the second assignment and the third assignment, the latter of which is an essay proposal that is going to need to be handed back to the students this week.

The only reason I've been able to keep up with my comic is that I do need to take breaks occasionally, and on those breaks, I draw.  I haven't mailed out the prizes I owe people from this summer.  I haven't done some increasingly urgent late marking of summer assignments.  I haven't cleaned my apartment in forever.  I've somehow managed to record an album, but I'm still not sure when that happened.  I have a concert at a convention on Saturday, as well as a small performance with my band on Friday, and all I can think about is how much trouble I'm going to be in if I spend all weekend not marking.

I have heard that "full-time work" is supposed to involve, you know, free evenings and stuff.  I laugh in the face of that assumption.  I'm sitting here surrounded by essay proposals and wondering just when I'm going to find half an hour to mail my nephew's birthday present.  I also have to reapply for my job at some point very soon.  I don't understand how people do NaNoWriMo in November.  November is appalling.  It needs to be cancelled.

At any rate, I'll Rant when I can, but the only reason I'm able to Rant tonight is that I'm on a break from marking twenty-five essay proposals in a single day.  I have ten to go.  I also practised with my band for two hours today.  When the guitarist asked why we couldn't meet twice more this week, I nearly punched him in the eye.


Monday, October 15, 2012:  And Then I Killed Another Tree

The first thing you learn when you are teaching five classes in a single term is that the piles are eventually going to win.

Even in the electronic age, teaching involves a lot of paper.  You'd think it wouldn't.  Universities tend to operate on the assumption that we're moving towards a "paper-free" format.  A couple of years ago, my university's English department stopped printing out course outlines on the understanding that students would easily be able to access the outlines online and, if necessary, print them out themselves.  The result has often been that students don't even look at the course outlines and then complain when their profs say, "The answer to the question you just asked me is in the course outline."  However, the issue of handouts is even more problematic.

Three of my classes are focussed on analytical essay writing.  Such classes tend to require a lot of handouts.  Theoretically, I should be able to post them online and let the students bring them to class.  Realistically, when students are asked to print something out, a large proportion of them don't.  Many of my students don't bring their weekly readings to class even though they know we'll be discussing them.  I generally just print off the handouts myself.  The result is that I'm always carrying around mountains of paper.  A given weekday will see me lugging several class lists, two or three textbooks, six or seven lectures (some of them old ones I just haven't removed from the pile yet), six to eight course readings (ditto), thirty to eighty assignments (either newly collected, newly ready to be marked, or newly ready to hand back), and about two hundred sheets of paper including assignment instructions and various bits of helpful advice.  As soon as I shed a portion of the pile, another vast sheaf of paper arrives to take its place.  My backpack is as appalling heavy as it is mostly because of all the paper.

I'm not sure there is a solution besides, of course, tears.  I suppose a tablet might help, but somehow, I doubt it; I would still have to print most things out.  Perhaps someday I'll be able to dive into a room full of paper the same way Scrooge McDuck dives into a room full of money in the intro to Duck Tales (woo-ooh).    I doubt that would be particularly fun, but it would be better than carrying the stuff around.


Monday, October 8, 2012:  Elementary, My Dear Sherlock

With the advent of Elementary, the American television show that is oh-dear-me-no-not-at-all a ripoff of the BBC’s Sherlock, the current Holmes craze can be seen to have reached what is probably going to be its tipping point.  We’ve had so much Holmes lately that it’s hard to see how anything more can be wrung out of the poor man without sending him into space or switching his gender, both of which have already been done.  In a strange but somehow logical counterpoint to the superheroes who have also ruled the last decade, Holmes has provided us with a sort of intellectual superherodom, with Watson tagging along as the audience surrogate.  One pleasing element of the recent rerise of Holmes is, in fact, the prominence of the intelligent Watson figure:  not the bumbling moron of earlier portrayals, but still a nice counterpoint to Holmes and his superbrain.

I’ve watched the first two episodes of Elementary and am slowly forming an impression of the show.  Full disclosure:  I’m a fan of Sherlock and am not entirely convinced that Elementary is necessary, though not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think.  Sherlock is a great show, but it’s not the only possible approach to a modernised Holmes.  I would actually argue that there’s already been a successful American modernised Holmes:  Dr. Gregory House of House, M.D.  That show, which ended last spring, never hid its debt to Conan Doyle’s character.  Sure, the show got steadily worse as the seasons progressed, but early on, it was a brilliantly incisive take on Holmes, an exploration of the detective as outsider.  The show also picked up towards the end of its run when it began focussing more intensely on the relationship between House and Wilson, the Holmes and Watson stand-ins.  The cleverness of House as a Holmes adaptation lay not in its exact parroting of the Holmes stories but in its work with character, which was almost fan-fictiony (in a good way); the writers reimagined Holmes as an obnoxious American doctor and set him loose on the world

Sherlock‘s approach is entirely different but just as clever.  Like House, it does plenty of character work, but it is also about the mythology of Holmes.  Within the world of the show, we see an echo of the process that happened in the real world in Conan Doyle’s day.  The voracious readers of Holmes’s adventures in The Strand appear in the show as the voracious readers of John Watson’s blog; the problematic iconography of Holmes’s deerstalker and Inverness cape, which originated in an artist’s illustration rather than in the text of any of the stories, turns up in the show when Sherlock tries to hide his face behind a deerstalker that doesn’t even belong to him, gets his picture in the papers, and is known forever afterwards as favouring that particular hat.  The show deals with Holmes’s real-world fame by giving his fictional counterpart a fictional variant of it.  In fact, fans of the show have taken it further in the “I believe in Sherlock Holmes” campaign (I wouldn’t advise clicking on the link unless you’ve watched to the end of Season 2, but the article does make interesting reading).

I say all this in token of my acknowledgement that there is more than one viable approach to a twenty-first-century Holmes.  I enjoy both House and Sherlock.  They are doing different things, and they are doing them well.  Elementary, on the other hand, has problems of its own.

It doesn’t go the same route as Sherlock, likely deliberately; it is very much not about the mythology.  So far, the show has been focussing on the relationship between recovering drug addict Sherlock Holmes and “sober companion” Joan Watson, who has her own dark past she is trying to escape.  A marked difference between Sherlock and Elementary lies in the Watsons.  Sherlock‘s John is damaged and, at first, in denial about the fact that he still craves the danger and excitement of war.  His growing but difficult friendship with Sherlock forms the emotional core of the series.  Elementary‘s Joan seems mostly to have informed damage; the characters keep mentioning that she’s kind of screwed up, but all we see is her dealing fairly competently with a rather aggravating person.  The show is pretty clearly going to usher her into bed with Sherlock at some point, so obviously, it needs to start off with her unable to stand him.  Startlingly for a Watson, her interference in the cases appears so out of place that it seems wrong that the other characters don’t comment.  Again, the characters keep telling us that her presence is necessary, but we don’t see her being necessary.

None of this, however, is the real problem with the show.  The real problem is that we’ve seen everything here before.

It’s likely more than a bit ironic that the latest Sherlock Holmes adaptation seems like a ripoff not of Sherlock but of House, Monk, Bones, Lie to Me, The Finder, The Glades, Numb3rs, The Mentalist, and even Psych, which is a parody of most of the above.  All the works on that list owe something to Holmes, even though only House acknowledges it overtly.  We’ve had Holmes as a misanthropic doctor, a genius with severe OCD, an emotionally stunted forensic anthropologist, an abrasive British expert on micro-expressions, a brain-damaged former soldier, a police officer capable of driving his partner to murder, a math prodigy, a former fake psychic, and a current fake psychic.  All of these characters are hyper-observant, hyper-intelligent, and not very good at playing by society’s rules.

What the producers of Elementary appear to have done is to create yet another of these socially dysfunctional geniuses and happen to name him Holmes.  The only elements I’ve noticed so far that have been taken directly from the stories are Holmes’s violin, his drug addiction, and his belief, stated in Episode 2, that his brain contains a finite amount of space and must not become cluttered with trivialities.  Otherwise, there seems no reason that the characters should be called Holmes and Watson.  If they were named Dixon and Jones, the show would seem just another in a long line of procedurals, most of them featuring a detective and his or her more ordinary sidekick.  Not even the “radical” move of making Watson female is an innovation.  Sorry, guys, but Mulder and Scully did it first and best, with Scully adding some sober common sense to Mulder’s brilliant maverick behaviour.  In the animated 1999-2000 TV series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, Holmes gets a female Lestrade and a robot Watson, with the female Lestrade acting as the audience-identification character.  So much of what Elementary is doing has already been done that it seems derivative not of the original stories but of the many, many knock-offs.

I’m going to continue to give it a chance; I do have a soft spot for procedurals.  However, I think it may be time for the world to take a deep breath, step back a bit, and leave us to develop the incarnations of Holmes we already have.  I’m not sure it’s an accident that three versions of “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” the Holmes story in which the great detective dies, appeared between December of 2011 and May of 2012.  Holmes did have more adventures after fan pressure forced Conan Doyle to bring him back to life, but they were never quite as good as the early ones.


Monday, October 1, 2012:  Reserving This Space

I do have something I want to write about this week, but it's nearly midnight, and I've just now finished tomorrow's lecture, which I must deliver at 8:00 a.m.  I'll try to write you a Rant on Monday afternoon (though whether or not I finish it depends on whether or not any students show up to my office hours).

Addendum:  I'm sorry about all the inadvertent lying here.  I never did write that Rant.  Instead, I saved the subject for the Rant of October 8th.

Monday, September 24, 2012:  This Is Just to Say

I have bypassed
the Rant
that was on
my "do" list

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
it was astounding
so long
and so mean*

*If you have no idea what the hell is happening in this Rant, go here.  I'm afraid I'm too tired for anything but parodic poetry tonight.  Also, I have to get up at 6:00 a.m.


Monday, September 17, 2012:  Cinderella Had It Easy:  The Search for Shoes That Fit

My hatred for the activity of shoe shopping, which has, for some reason, become a stereotypical "female" activity that people use to demonstrate how frivilous those womefolk are, is deep, with spiky bits.  I cannot stand shopping for shoes.  Ordinary people who need shoes can pop into the nearest discount shoe store and grab the least offensive $10 pair of whatevers off the shelf, or so I've heard.  Those of us with oddly sized and shaped feet tend to share such stories with each other in tones of awe.  It is the Weird Foot Person's version of an urban legend.  We are unfamiliar with the concept of cheap and abundant shoes.

My father, who needs size 15 shoes, had to wear size 12s for years; size 15s were simply not available to a Canadian family of modest means in the 1950s.  He has spent his adult life frequenting specialty shoe stores, even going to the States occasionally because there's more selection there.  My mum's feet have been, at various times, 10 1/2 and 11 (the equivalent of 9 and 9 1/2 in male sizes).  Mine are 11 AA:  in other words, 11 extra-narrow.  They're like really skinny clown feet.  Everyone in my family except my sister, whose feet are of average size, has a hard time finding shoes.

When I was in Calgary for the summer, my sandal strap broke.  Anyone else would have regarded this as a minor annoyance.  I, however, knew what was coming.  I must have visited every shoe store in Calgary.  None carried anything over a 10.  A few said they might have an 11 somewhere (none did), but 11 M, not 11 AA.  Most ordinary shoe stores stick mostly to M widths.  Even Tallcrest, which used to be a good place to find mid-priced shoes, dropped its wide and narrow fittings six or seven years ago.  Calgary was a wasteland of shoe stores that entirely lacked shoes I could wear.  I finally located a Birkenstock store and coughed up an appalling amount of money for a pair of sandals.  Admittedly, my Birkis have been my most comfortable sandals ever, but I wasted hours trying to find something less expensive before I finally went crawling to the specialty store.

Those of us with weird feet belong to a sort of shoe-related sub-culture.  Many or us will, in desperation, wear our shoes until they wear out, and when I say "wear out," I mean "fall completely to pieces in at least six ways simultaneously."  The sandals that broke in Calgary had already more or less lost their soles.  My Birkis are on their last legs (so to speak), being cracked in several places and having lost chunks of cork.  Only the straps have held up.  My five-year-old walking shoes self-destructed in the spring; the soles and toes were already in bad shape when one of the soles came semi-detached from the shoe, meaning that every time I took a step, I tripped over the flapping sole.  This, of course, happened at a convention in a hotel in the middle of nowhere.  The only people who understand the trauma of losing a pair of shoes are themselves the victims of very small or very large feet.  We nod at each other in the street and exchange world-weary stories in speciality shoe stores.

There are clans within the larger group.  I was in Harry Young on Saturday, replacing my unsalvageable walking shoes.  Harry Young is one of the only places in Toronto that carries shoes that fall outside the magic 6 - 10 M size range.  I like the selection, though not the prices.  It's not the store's fault, though; no one makes cheap shoes in unusual sizes.  As I waited for my salesman to finish up a phone call, the woman next to me started talking to me about her shoes.  Her feet were size 5 1/2; she insisted that my own problems finding shoes were nothing compared to hers, as "most stores" carried 11s.  I tried to tell her this wasn't the case, but I don't think she believed me.  The Little-Footed People and the Big-Footed People sometimes regard each other with suspicion.  Each group is convinced it's got the short (or overly long) end of the stick.

Harry Young also stands out in having shoes that actually look nice.  I've looked over the 11s in Winners.  They're all Ms, for one thing.  For another, they're the ugliest shoes I've ever seen in my life.  The lower sizes get some nice-looking shoes; the 11s get shoes covered with sequins and artificial flowers.  This happens with clothes in general, actually:  the bigger the piece of clothing, the less attractive it is.  I don't really care what my shoes look like, but I draw the line at sparkles.  I would also like to point out to the shoe designers of the world that women who need size 11s often prefer flats to heels.  Many of us don't need to be any taller; we also find high heels painful.  Winners' selection of six-inch size-11 platforms makes my brain cry.

I sincerely hope that my new walking shoes hold up as long as my old ones did.  Shoe shopping is never going to be my favourite activity.


Monday, September 10, 2012:  An Open Letter to 8:00 a.m. Monday Three-Hour Classes

Dear 8:00 a.m. Monday Three-Hour Classes:

I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say I cannot help but feel very strongly that you shouldn't exist at all.  I do understand that there are 1) only so many hours in the day and 2) only so many classrooms in the university, but forcing first-year undergraduates to attend a mandatory critical-analysis class that early on a Monday morning is simply cruel.  It's cruel to the instructor as well.  I am used to running three-hour classes, but I find that even one held at a sane time of day leaves me drained.  An 8:00 a.m. class renders me boneless and incoherent for the rest of the day.  Oh, I'm fine in the class itself, but I pay for it afterwards.

Only once before have I had an 8:00 a.m. class to teach.  Coincidentally, it was also on a Monday, though it was about television rather than critical analysis.  The students used to line their Tim Hortons cups up on the desks in front of them.  There must have been thirty Tim Hortons cup in the classroom at any given time.  The day at the end of the term on which I brought doughnuts, I cracked that we would have made a great commercial for Tim Hortons.  Such observations seem hilarious at 8:00 on a Monday morning.

I haven't met my Monday morning students yet this year, but chances are I'll have done so by the point you read this Rant.  I just hope they're awake enough to form coherent thoughts.  They may not be.  I may not be.  I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

Perhaps someday, someone will ban 8:00 a.m. Monday three-hour classes.  Until then, dearest 8:00 a.m. Monday Three-Hour Classes, I suppose we'll all just have to learn to live with you.  Damn it all anyway.

Sincerely yours,



Monday, September 3, 2012:  In With the New (Term)

September is icumen in, which means that thousands of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed undergraduates are about to buy their grossly overpriced textbooks and trek with varying degrees of enthusiasm to their new classrooms.  Hello, undergraduates.  I am a sessional instructor, meaning that I will be teaching hundreds of you in five classes.  Below please find an impassioned plea for a few tiny little classroom-related favours.  Fulfilling them won't take a huge amount of effort on your part, but it will make the lives of your instructors less miserable.  What is the benefit of having less miserable instructors?  Wouldn't you rather your papers be marked by cheerful people liable to hum "Happy Working Song" as they buzz through your essays than half-insane academics at the ends of their ropes who are more inclined to thunder out a rousing chorus of "Hellfire"?*


1)  I do understand how devoted you are to your cell phone.  I know you find it difficult to go ten minutes without checking your messages or sending someone a text or even just playing Angry Birds.  Perhaps I am a terrible fuddy-duddy for trying to deprive you of the pleasures of your phone.  However, there is very little as distracting as a classroom full of students staring avidly at their phones as one attempts to engage them in the critical analysis of a nineteenth-century poem.  Please put the phone away.  Please.  Put the laptop away too.  I don't really buy the whole "I can't take notes by hand" excuse, since you're not really taking notes with your laptop anyway.  Just go unplugged for a few hours.  If you want not to pay attention for a bit, doodle.  Perhaps you will discover some exciting new artistic technique.

2)  Before you e-mail your instructor asking about that assignment you simply don't understand, please read the instructions.  Odds are the assignment sheet answers most of your questions.  I know it's easier just to shoot off an e-mail to your instructor, but you need to understand that every other student in the class has had the same idea.  Your instructor spends hours replying to e-mails that ask questions answered on the assignment sheets.

3)  Read the assigned texts.  Maybe you're pressed for time.  Maybe this course is "just an elective."  You still signed up to take it, meaning that you implicitly agreed to take it seriously.  English classes do tend to have fairly heavy reading loads, so be prepared to spend some time every day reading.  Reading the summary on SparkNotes and/or watching the film adaptation of the work is not going to be adequate, and your instructor is not going to be fooled.  Even if she can't prove that you haven't done the reading, the quality of your papers will suffer, and you may find yourself reading pointed comments such as, "There is no real evidence in this essay that you are familiar with the contents of the novel."  Do not let this happen to you.

4)  Don't ignore the course outline.  Like the assignment sheets, it contains information that will be useful to you.  In particular, pay attention to the bits on late papers and extensions.  An instructor who writes in the course outline, "Extensions will be granted only in exceptional circumstances involving documented medical or compassionate excuses," will likely not look kindly on pleas for extensions that arrive two days after a paper is due and hinge on the words, "I've been having a lot of personal problems this term."  An instructor who specifies that there is no make-up work in the course may be driven to frustrated tears by multiple requests for make-up work or, in fact, for a "slight" tweaking of a C grade so that it becomes a B-.  Take the outline as gospel.

5)  Your instructor is not out to get you; please don't treat her as if she is.  If you need to request a favour or appeal a grade, be polite about it.  If you are called in for a plagiarism meeting (which is designed to allow the student a chance to explain apparent problems in an assignment and thus does not constitute an outright accusation of wrongdoing), do not draw yourself up in righteous indignation and imply that your instructor is a certified idiot who has quite appallingly dared to call your honour into question.  Unfairness happens, usually by accident.  Assume an accidental cause (extreme fatigue is always a possibility), and be gentle and open-minded.  Despite appearances, instructors are people too, and their feelings can be hurt, especially when they are genuinely trying to help the students showering them with abuse.

If you follow these simple rules, students, your instructors will appreciate it, and all manner of things will be well.

*Both of these are Disney songs.  One of them is satirical, but it's still a happier song than "Hellfire."


Monday, August 27, 2012:  Let Us Pause for a Bit

I’m in BC visiting my parents at the moment.  Consequently, alas, I haven’t had time to write a Rant.  Let us simply take a bit of a break until next week.  The clock says “11:20 p.m.” at the moment, but my brain says “2:20 a.m.,” and it isn’t at all happy.


Monday, August 20, 2012:  My Nemesis, the Guitar

I should really be marking, of course.  Instead, I’ll offer a few thoughts on my struggle with the one musical instrument everyone and his dog can play:  the guitar.

Technically, I can play the guitar too.  I took lessons when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I learned enough to strum my way through most three- or four-chord songs.  I should clarify that I’ve taken lessons for relatively few of the instruments I play.  I took piano lessons when I was a little kid, but I got bored with the inane repetition.  Eventually, I taught myself how to play the piano on my own.  I had the guitar class and another class on the harmonica, and we learned the recorder in elementary school.  The only instrument I really studied classically was the flute.  The ukulele, accordion, mandolin, melodica, and tin whistle I picked up on my own.

The guitar has always been the one that has given me the most trouble.  Partly, it’s that my first love is the piano, meaning that I am more comfortable with keyboards than I am with fretboards.  However, that’s not entirely it; I can manage the mandolin, and I can do some crazy stuff on the ukulele.  The guitar is just too big for my hands.  My mum’s classical guitar has too wide a neck; my own acoustic guitar has a narrower one, but I still struggle to make bar chords.  My hands are pretty big for a woman’s, so I’m wondering if my fingers are just not thick or strong enough.  It seems pretty clear that guitars are made with guys in mind.  Ukuleles, mandolins, and even banjos have narrower necks than guitars, and I can play them more or less all right.  I do have problems with bar chords on any instrument, but never to the extent I do with the guitar.  I don’t understand how some players make bar chords look so effortless.  I really think there’s something wrong with my fingers.

At any rate, until recently, I’d just sort of accepted that guitars and I didn’t get along.  It’s always been a bit embarrassing.  People will express incredulity when I explain that I play everything but the guitar.  Some accuse me of joking or lying.  I’m not sure why this is.  Guitarists who play nothing but the guitar never seem to get met by accusations of lying when they confess they can’t play anything else.  I play the piano, accordion, ukulele, mandolin, flute (two different styles), piccolo, recorder, harmonica, melodica, and pennywhistle (numerous sizes), but there’s something wrong with me because I stay away from the guitar.

Summer is the time I am most prone to spend money on musical instruments.  This summer, I became a bit more aware than I had been before of the existence of the tenor guitar.  This instrument looks like a slightly smaller guitar but has only four strings; it is tuned CGDA, like a cello, tenor banjo, or mandola.  It isn’t a very common instrument, and it hasn’t been around for even a century; it was invented as a transitional instrument at about the time the tenor banjo began to go out of style and the six-string guitar gained in popularity.  Lately, it has been enjoying a small renaissance in the US, possibly related to the Rise of the Ukulele; this renaissance has not made it to Canada, and it is virtually impossible to find a tenor guitar here.  I therefore ordered one online.  It just struck me as the perfect instrument for me.  I’m already familiar with circle-of-fifths tuning from the mandolin, and though I am comfortable with my ukulele, I sometimes, when playing with a group, miss having access to notes that are not, well, really high.  The tenor doesn’t go as low as the six-string, but it’s strung with steel and works well as both a rhythm and a solo instrument.

My tenor arrived last Monday.  It has not disappointed me.  My girly fingers still find some of the chords a bit of a stretch, but at long last, I can play the guitar, or something resembling the guitar.  I do find I’m more comfortable with four strings (or eight strings in four courses, as on the mandolin) than I am with six.  I’m still loyal to all my other instruments, but it will be fun to play a stringed instrument that is more or less audible in a band and doesn’t sound as if it is being played by one of the Chipmunks.  I would highly recommend it if it were, in fact, possible to find tenors in Canada.  Oh well…perhaps someday.


Monday, August 13, 2012:  My Mind is Completely Blank

For some reason, I cannot think of any subject worthy of a Rant tonight.  I think I may have used up all my Rants this afternoon, when some of us gathered at Massey College to watch Donna Vakalis compete in the Modern Pentathlon.  I ranted to Davin about the frustrations attendant on the desire to write a young-adult fantasy that was not, in fact, a romance.  I ranted to Barry about this same subject, plus also marking, Twilight, and the fact that I couldn't stop ranting.  I ranted to Heather about Twilight as well, then to Heather and Alexandra about fairy tales.  All in all, a lot of ranting happened today.  I skipped the closing ceremonies of the Olympics and went home because the ranting had made me tired.  Therefore, I'll need to end today's Rant here.  I suppose it was really only a matter of time before I wrote a Rant about my own ranting.


Monday, August 6, 2012:  70,000 Steps Forward, 3,000 Steps Back

I've written over 55,000 words in the past six weeks, bringing my current novel up to about 70,000 words in length.  Because I've been doing this writing for a write-a-thon, there's been a certain pressure (mostly just from me) to bull on ahead and not backtrack.  I've discovered that I'm not entirely comfortable with this kind of writing.  Sure, it's invigorating to see the word count build up.  Yet the first thing I did once the write-a-thon was over was go back and delete about 3,000 words.  In fact, I nixed a whole scene involving a terrifying climb over a pile of loose rocks at the edge of a cliff because it was entirely unnecessary, added nothing to the development of the plot or the characters, and brought the actual story to a juddering halt for several pages while the characters spent about an hour of their time engaged in a purely physical activity that allowed them to accomplish something that five minutes of walking could have done just as well.  It can be heartbreaking to delete that much work, but some scenes really just have to go.

A lot of my students skip the editing stage when they're working on their essays, and I know perfectly well why.  Editing is tedious.  It draws your attention to the glaring flaws in the work you thought you just spent hours or days perfecting; it demonstrates that what you believed were clever turns of phrase are, in actual fact, clunky and embarrassing.  It takes up time that could be better spent sleeping, eating, or surfing the Internet.  If you wrote it that way the first time, didn't you do it for a reason?  Isn't editing like second-guessing yourself on a multiple-choice test?

Above all, editing hurts.  Your writing is your baby.  This may be less true for essays than it is for works of fiction, but I've still seen students behave defensively when called out on confusing writing or problematic logic.  Your writing is perfect in your head; it may be less perfect on the page, but surely some of the staggering genius of that brilliant story that has lately been seething through your brain has emerged onto the page.  It seems wrong to regard your baby with a critical eye, then hack it to pieces in the interests of "improving" it.  You may also, of course, believe that you are Wordsworth and feel quite strongly that writing is meant to spring full-grown from the head of Zeus.

In my experience, however, editing isn't just the boring, uncreative process of cutting bits out of what should apparently have been a breathtakingly spontaneous piece of Art.  There's a certain creativity to editing too.  It allows you to go back over your story and make the connections you missed the first time, adding in the details, the subtext, the references that will cause your readers to weep at the beauty of your words or, at the very least, not throw the book against the wall in disgust.  It allows you to make your story leaner.  It gives you a chance to regret your love affair with the common adverb.  It shows you at least some of your typos, and then it shakes its head at you.

Towards the end of my 55,000-word marathon, I was feeling wretched about those 3,000 words.  I knew they were there; I knew there was no reason for them to be there.  Because of all the obsessive counting I was doing, I didn't feel free to get rid of them until after the need for the counting had stopped.  They bothered me, though.  They were still there.  I kept having to remind myself that the scene would be gone soon enough.  When I finally got around to editing the offending chapter, it was the easiest cut I had ever made; I didn't even miss the words when they were gone.

It's a good idea to remember that progressing towards a writing goal is about more than churning out words.  (This goes for you too, students.)  Getting the words down is a necessary step, but so is laying into them with the pruning shears.  Writing feels like inspiration; editing has its Eureka moments too.


Monday, July 30, 2012:  All the Girls in Fairy-Tale Land

A while ago, I wrote a post on how fairy-tale heroes, far from being the bland princes who tend to grace Disney animated features, were actually a bunch of murdering bastards hacking and cheating their way through the Other World.  It's time the womenfolk got their due as well.  Are fairy-tale heroines more Disneyesque than the princes?  Do they typically spend their time languishing, waiting for their princes to come, and singing wistful songs about wanting much more than this provincial life?

Well...the answer to that one is kind of complicated.  The heroines whose exploits were recorded by such personages as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm aren't necessarily the same heroines rampaging amorally through actual tales of the folk.  Monsieur Perrault was a courtly gentleman whose views of women seem to have been rather strict, despite the fact that he wrote in a tradition shared by many highly intelligent and opinionated ladies who could probably have run intellectual circles around him, singing "Fa la la" all the while.  In Perrault's small but extremely influential collection of fairy tales, female agency is Bad.  When Little Red Riding Hood is so foolish as to go off and pick some suspiciously metaphorical flowers, she dooms herself to a short future as wolf chow, and the narrative voice chimes in with a chiding comment about silly young ladies who allow themselves to be seduced---I mean eaten---by charming gentlemen---I mean wolves.  Cinderella wins through mostly because she just sits around and lets everyone else do stuff for her.  Bluebeard's wife makes the colossal mistake of wondering what her husband keeps in that there mysterious room, and she nearly dies for it.  Sure, her husband is a psychopathic serial killer, but as the narrator makes clear, it's really all her fault for not obeying him in the first place.  Silly Bluebeard's wife:  if she'd just not unlocked that door, she would have had a long and happy marriage.  But you can't stop them womens and their terrible curiosity!  Hahahahaha!

The Grimms were less, well, brain-meltingly misogynistic, but they were also recording their stories in an era in which fairy tales were beginning to be considered appropriate mostly for children.  We have this idea of the Grimms as the purveyors of gore, and it's true they didn't shrink away from a little light cannibalism, but they did edit out a lot of the sexy bits.  They also played up the moral elements, meaning that their version of Little Red was in trouble not because she was metaphorically in danger of losing her virginity but because she was literally disobeying her mother.  If you disobey your mother in the Land of Grimm, bad things happen.  But since a lot of the Grimms' stories were told by women and were thus women's stories featuring girls, what we ended up getting were all these stories in which little girls were rewarded for being obedient.  It wasn't quite the same kind of passivity as that idolised by Perrault, but it was still passivity.

These are the fairy tales we know now:  the ones in which the ideal woman is Snow White in her coffin or Sleeping Beauty in her castle or Rapunzel in her tower.  There are exceptions, but we tend not to notice them.  A lot of people who read the Grimms' version of the Cinderella story are surprised to see the protagonist running in and out of pigeon coops to escape a father who goes after her with an axe.  Perrault's Cinderella has won out over the Grimms' more active version.

However, if we hop over to England and take a look at the fairy tales of Joseph Jacobs, we see something a bit different.  Jacobs, like the Grimms, was a folklorist; also like the Grimms, he was collecting stories expressly for children.  However, though he undoubtedly did a bit of careful editing, he was more likely than the Grimms to preserve the batshit insanity of his heroines.*  Obedience is less likely to be a driving force in the lives of these girls.  Some of them, such as Molly Whuppie, have as much of a claim to the title of "murdering bastard" as do the heroes.  Others, such as Kate Crackernuts and Cap o' Rushes, know what needs to be done and damn well go and do it.  Most of them end up married, but to be fair, most of the heroes end up married as well.  Jacobs's girls are just as liable to be clever or wily or brave or completely mad as his boys are.  Jacobs's stuff offers only a hint of the material out there; there are many collections that haven't been edited for children at all.

Disney is no more likely to get anywhere near these girls than it is to tell a story of a boy who isn't genuinely good at heart and just needs a bit of a push into true heroism.  Brave takes a stab at it, but when all is said and done, Brave is still the story of a princess who learns to listen to the wisdom of her parents.  It would be interesting to see what happened if someone tried to do something filmic with some of the more amoral fairy-tale heroes and heroines.  What if you don't win through because you're good and kind and obedient?  What if you win through because you're lucky and a really good liar?  Some of the heroines are also pretty handy with the murdering, just like the heroes, and they're not really in it for love.  Winning a husband or a wife is not, in fairy tales, the same thing as falling in love and living happily ever after.  The husband or wife doesn't even have to be particularly willing.

I get tired of everyone assuming fairy tales are all about morals.  To Hades with morals!  Have you read Perrault's morals?  They're all "Don't get 'eaten' by 'wolves,' if you know what I mean"** and "Why are you not obeying your murderous husband, silly woman?"*** and "As long as a kid's wearing pretty enough clothes, all the girls will want him, obviously."****  And then you go look up the Grimms, who were writing explicitly for children, and you find this story about a woman beheading a small child, framing her own daughter for the murder, and feeding the boy's flesh to her husband.  Fairy tales are all about stories.  If I want to learn to be good, kind, and obedient, I'll read sweet little condescending picture books about anthropomorphised turtles.  Hands off my fairy tales, bowdlerisers.  Let their protagonists, male and female alike, stab and con themselves all the way to gloriously undeserved happily ever afters.

*This is somewhat of a simplification.  The Grimms do have some heroines who are batshit insane; they just aren't as well known.

**"Little Red Riding Hood."


****"Puss in Boots."


Monday, July 23, 2012:  The Future of West of Bathurst

This is not going to be an easy post for me to write.  I have been aware for a while that this moment has been coming, but I’m still rather in denial about it.  I know that West of Bathurst may not be the Internet’s most popular comic, but it’s kind of my baby, and I very much enjoy creating it.  Oh, look, I’m crying already.

This is more or less an announcement that the comic, in its current incarnation, probably has about a year left to go.  I’m including all those “more or less”es and “current incarnation”s and “probably”s because I’m not entirely certain how long the GRIPPING CONCLUSION is going to take to write.  The rough plan is for everything to come to a close around and about the fall of 2013, near the point at which the new term begins.  I like it when stories go around in circles, you see.

I’ve always thought of seven years as being the natural length of WoB.  It’s basically a fairy tale, after all (not a Disney fairy tale but a girl-goes-out-into-the-world-to-confront-monsters fairy tale, albeit in a somewhat unexpected form and with the monsters not quite where you think they are).  Every once in a while, I’ve rebelled against this natural length.  Why not have a ten-year comic?  What’s wrong with continuing indefinitely?  But one characteristic of WoB that sometimes attracts readers, sometimes repels them, and sometimes maddens them with helpless rage is that it is a story.  Despite its newspaper-comic-y form, it isn’t really a gag-a-day comic except in the sense that there is, in fact, a gag a day.  It’s just that all the gags are sort of joined together into this monstrously huge storyline that goes on and on and on like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, and it’s still not entirely clear whether the Cylons do have a plan.  And since monstrously huge storylines are still storylines, the impetus is always towards some kind of an ending.  This does sometimes cause problems, as it did with, oh, let’s say Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

At any rate, WoB is going to have to end.  I don’t really want it to, but it wants to.  Like the characters of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, WoB is figuratively screaming, “Get on with it!”  I do kind of see its point.  I’ll therefore attempt to get on with it as best I can, on the understanding that the story will most definitely be ending.

After that…who knows?  I can’t give up comics, so there will be some other project.  My friend House has made a suggestion I like at least as a transitional project to get me through what is, for me, probably going to be quite an extensive grieving period.  House has pointed out that there are many WoB-related gaps that can be filled in in a series of shorter graphic stories.  Characters such as Weird Beard, Kenneth the Porter, Sara, Steve, Basil, Morgan, and Ursula are crying out for their own stories.  Periods of time have been skipped.  And who knows what Evil Marie gets up to on her own when Marie isn’t around?  Maybe even poor neglected Fred will finally get his due.  (If you do not know who Fred is, that’s because he hasn’t really had anything to do since the first couple of weeks of the comic.  He was originally meant to be a major character, but Rahim, who wasn’t, shunted him aside.)

I’ll have to figure all that out over the course of the next year and a bit.  Until then, it’s worth saying that I really appreciate you guys sticking with me all this time.  I know I’ve lost a lot of readers (while gaining some new ones), but that’s how webcomics go.

Tomorrow is West of Bathurst‘s sixth birthday, so stop by for an extra comic panel, a giveaway, and possibly some unnecessary snivelling on my part.  Try not to be distracted by the shiny object.


Monday, July 16, 2012:  Well, This is Just Completely Ridiculous

I would like to ask the weather to go back to Hell.  Clearly, that's where it has come from.  Is it really necessary for it to be above 30C and humid every freaking day?  I had to get up yesterday at 2:00 a.m. and take a cold shower.  I can honestly say that I've never done that before (cold shower, yes:  at 2:00 a.m., no).  People keep saying the temperature will go down in a few days.  Environment Canada claims it will be 34C on Tuesday.  Damn it all to Hades.

On Saturday, I was foolish enough to board the subway without a bottle of water.  When I transferred at Yonge, I found that the train I would otherwise have been on had broken down.  Apparently, the only way for the subway workers to remove this train from the tracks was to tow it all the way to Finch.  As a result, the trains ​behind​ the broken train, one of which I was on, kept on stopping for long stretches of time to let the broken train limp halfway across the city.  I was standing for half the ride and probably would have been standing for most of the rest of it if I hadn't come so close to passing out that I had to hunker down on the floor of the train.  Some nice lady eventually offered me her seat.  I felt as guilty as if I'd been faking it, which I absolutely hadn't.  This was exactly the second time in my life I had almost fainted on public transit; the first time, I had the flu (which had only made itself apparent earlier that day while I was in class), and I asked someone for her seat.  It was so freaking hot on Saturday that I had the same symptoms I had that one time I caught the flu.

There was a thunderstorm today.  It didn't help.  Nothing helps.  Everything is hot and sticky and disgusting.  I'm supposed to be marking, but I start getting tired at about 1:00 p.m.  I would like to punch the weather in the face.

Yes, I do realise that 32C "isn't that bad."  I know that people from Louisiana are laughing at me right now.  You know what?  I don't care.  It may be worse in other places, but it's bad enough here.  I think I need to go stand in the shower for an hour or so.


Monday, July 9, 2012:  Bravely Done (Now Onward and Upward, Please, Pixar)

I've posted my feelings about Pixar's seventeen-year run of male protagonists before.  Basic summary:  my love of Pixar and my huge frustration with Pixar's apparent inability to write female characters who are not relegated to secondary roles have been at war with each other for the last decade or so.  The frustration peaked around about the time of ​Ratatouille​ and ​Up​, both of which I adored and both of which could easily--​easily​ --have been written with female leads.  The writers wouldn't have had to change anything but the pronouns.  As far as I am concerned, the substitution of female characters here wouldn't have affected the meaning of either film at all, but (as I am sure everybody is tired of hearing me reiterate) we have this maddening way of seeing "male" as the default and "female" as a special category that automatically limits a work to a special audience.

Oh, Pixar, I do love you so.  I appreciate your fresh, innovative, character-driven plots; I delight in the way you surprise me almost every time (the ​Cars​ franchise doesn't count).  I'm just kind of tired of the dudes.  I realise that all of ​you​ are dudes, but if you genuinely believe that you are incapable of writing female characters, even though I fail to see why this is the case because women are, in fact, human beings too, you do have the power to hire female writers.  It isn't hard.  Do you know how many female writers would gnaw off their own limbs to have a chance to work for Pixar?  Would you like my freaking phone number?

At any rate, Pixar has, at long last, produced a film with a female protagonist.  It actually has more than one prominent female character and is probably the second Pixar film to pass the Bechdel Test (with ​The Incredibles​ being the first). I recall reading something somewhere on the Internet about men complaining that ​Brave​ relegates the male characters to the background.  Welcome to our world, gentlemen.

​Brave​ has been treated quite harshly by critics, who usually fall over themselves to praise Pixar films.*  When I say "treated quite harshly," I mean that it's at 77% on Rotten Tomatoes instead of Pixar's usual twenty kazillion percent.  Personally, I really enjoyed it.  Sure, Pixar has chosen to make its first female protagonist a damn princess.  Sure, the film offers us the tired old "I'm a tomboy who just wants to be as good as a man!" theme.  Yet it manages both these elements well.  Merida is, to my absolute delight, a fallible character who creates her own dilemma and takes the bulk of the film to realise that what has happened is, in fact, her fault.  This may seem a strange thing to be delighted over, but let me explain.

There is a fundamental difference between a "strong person" and a "strong character."  Some writers and filmmakers set on creating strong female characters--not all, but a good portion--apparently subscribe to the belief that strength is equivalent to an absence of all but the most superficial faults.  Last year, for instance, I read a young-adult novel that I won't name because I really don't want to go around slagging it without doing so in a proper review.  The female protagonist is beautiful, kind, and intelligent; she also has magical powers.  A hunky young man is in love with her, and her only fault seems to be that she doesn't realise this until he spells it out for her.  She ends up in terrible danger through no fault of her own.  Frankly, she's boring as hell.  I've already forgotten her name.  The beauty, kindness, intelligence, and magical powers serve only to make her appear fundamentally unreal.

Merida's faults seem, at first, a little too typical of a teenage girl as imagined by Hollywood.  However, then they land her in hot water, and instead of instantly learning her lesson and vowing to change, she just keeps on screwing up in the same way.  She's appealing not because she's a woman fighting to belong in a man's world but because she's an individual, a smart kid who does stupid things sometimes.  Her main conflict is not with some sneering baddie--unlike Ariel from Disney's ​The Little Mermaid​, whose arc is also predicated on a boneheaded choice--but with her mother, who is neither saintly nor villainous but just as stubborn as Merida, and just as in need of a shift in perspective.

​Brave​ is not Pixar's best film.  It's less original than many of its predecessors, and it lacks my favourite Pixar ingredient:  those heart-smashing moments of silence in which character development happens without a word being spoken.  However, I can forgive it its lack of originality because it takes its atmosphere from fairy tales, which do not need to be original to be meaningful.  In fact, it's in the lack of originality that a fairy tale's meaning is often found.  The familiar motifs of ​Brave​ raise echoes, especially in the treatment of otherworldly spaces not as realms of evil (as in some Disney films) but as places in which both danger and knowledge can be found, sometimes simultaneously.  I won't tell you about my favourite bit player, as that would be a major spoiler, but let's just say that this bit player does an excellent job of embodying what the Other World means.

All in all, then, I am happy with ​Brave​; I don't agree with a certain friend of mine who places it just above ​Cars 2​, which he hasn't seen, on the Pixar spectrum.  I would say it's quite respectably situated.

Now that Pixar's got its feet wet, however, I hope it will consider creating a film in which the whole point is not that OH MY GOD, SHE'S A GIRL.  Just give us a character who happens to be female and is allowed, in true Pixar fashion, to be not a type but a unique individual trying to make her way in the world.

*Let us just take it as a given that when I say nice things about Pixar, I am never ever ever including Cars or Cars 2.


Monday, July 2, 2012:  Productivity is Terrible

I notice this every time it happens, and it continues to baffle me:

I am more productive when I have more to do.  I don't mean I'm more productive at what I should actually be doing; I'm more productive at ​everything​ , including work for which I am not being paid.  When deadlines are looming and I am panicking at how much work I have left to complete, I do plenty of work, but I also write thousands of words' worth of fiction, build up a buffer of comic strips, and even produce a song or two.  I feel guilty about this because I am not working at my "real job" when I'm doing these things, but the truth of the matter is that I need breaks from my "real job" if I'm going to produce anything coherent for it.  As long as I'm working frantically at ​something, I always eventually return to the course I'm creating, and I probably write a lot more of it every day than I would if I took no real breaks at all.

On the other hand, sometimes I have relatively little to do.  This happens very, very seldom, but it does happen.  These periods are characterised by almost zero productivity.  I could be writing stories or cleaning my apartment or getting ahead in my comic, but it just doesn't happen.  In fact, I find I am more likely to have a comic buffer when I am bound to produce more comics in a shorter time.

This is all a little bewildering, and it sometimes makes me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork, but I guess all I can do is accept it and get even busier every time I'm busy.  My brain makes me sad.


Monday, June 25, 2012:  Scooped! The Musical

Full disclosure:  I have no right to be complaining about this.  Actually, I'm not truly complaining as such.  It's more that I'm shaking the Fist of Frustration at the Goddess of Amusing but Ultimately Insignificant Coincidences, twin sister of Annoia, Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers (all credit to Mr. Pratchett).

So I've been writing a lot of songs lately, mostly fantasy- and sci-fi-flavoured bits of amusing fluff.  I perform some of them at a monthly SF reading series, and people do seem appreciative.  I've never put any of them online, since I've only really been working on them since last Christmas, but I've always planned to do so, despite my complete lack of knowledge of how to make a half-decent recording or video.  In fact, I was sort of thinking of working on that this weekend.

For the last few weeks, I've been refining one particular song that covers a subject that will be recognisable to many fantasy fans and, nowadays, HBO viewers,all in anticipation of a performance this coming Wednesday.  Perhaps I was a little too pleased with this song and am now being punished for my hubris.  On Friday, less than a week before the performance, Paul and Storm released their own single on more or less exactly the same subject.  You can, and should, watch the video here (or, in fact, on their website, which is linked above).  It's very funny.  I am unhappy with Paul and Storm.

This sort of thing does happen, of course.  It's not even that it happens only to struggling unknowns; Pixar probably has a few choice things to say to Dreamworks about Antz, released a month before A Bug's Life.  And I can hardly complain that a brilliant comic duo has scooped my song, considering that I've never, you know, released any songs, ever.  It's just that coincidences do sometimes make one fall to one's knees in a rain-soaked meadow and scream, "Whyyyyyyyyyy?" to the heavens.  One generally goes for ice cream afterwards.

At any rate, my vaguely directed indignation has now been put to relatively good use:  I have recorded four of my songs, damn it, including the scooped one.  I did the scooped one first in an attempt to prove, if only to myself, that I was not a freaking copycat but simply a victim of Fortune's whims.   The recordings are not, shall we say, of professional quality.  Basically, I had one microphone, my voice, and a ukulele.  My voice can charitably be described as "untrained."  Nonetheless, feel free to listen.  Do go find the Paul and Storm video first, though, since it's got fake beards in it and is hilarious.  Then go find other stuff by Paul and Storm.  I especially recommend "Frogger! The Frogger Musical."

I apologise beforehand for the weird format below; I can't seem to fix it.

Here's my scooped song, which may baffle you if you do not know who George R. R. Martin is:

"Dear George R. R. Martin"

This one may appeal to those who believe that Twilight is the devil:

"Kids These Days"

This one is (literally) self-explanatory:

"Love Song"

This one is an affectionate poke at my city of origin:

"We Protest the Robot Occupation"

There will eventually be more.  I've got about ten at the moment.


Monday, June 18, 2012:  Waiting for Rejection

When you are trying to get a novel published, you spend an awful lot of time sitting around waiting to be rejected.  Sometimes, this happens even when you are not, in fact, sending anything to publishers.

As someone who has been writing since she first picked up a pen in her chubby little hand but who has, in fact, spent the last two decades not sending her work out to publishers, I am a slightly weird example of a newbie wannabe writer.  During my undergrad, I just knew I was going to be published someday.  I even sent a partial manuscript to a small Canadian publisher when I was in my early twenties.  It was, of course, rejected; the rejection was personalised, but it still hurt.  I did know I wasn't going to give up.

I did, though.  Oh, I kept writing.  I've lost count of the number of novels I've written.  I would always pound them out, edit the hell out of them, and put them carefully away on the Shelf of Shame.  I did plan to start sending stuff out again.  I did.  But this manuscript had problems in the climax, and that one was too sentimental, and I had to write a synopsis, and how was I supposed to write a synopsis?  My synopses always ended up being about ten pages long.  And then there was the query, or the cover letter, or whatever.  Was there a difference between a query and a cover letter?  How long was an excerpt?  Why did no Canadian publishers accept children's fantasy?  (This was before Harry Potter.  Eventually, it was also after Harry Potter.  Canadian publishers took a while to catch up on the whole children's fantasy thing.)

Oh yes:  Harry Potter.  Before Rowling's books, no one wanted fantasy; it was all about gritty realism.  After Rowling's books, everyone wanted fantasy, but everyone who wrote fantasy was a Rowling copycat.  And then there was Twilight.  Oh God, was there ever Twilight.  Suddenly, there was no more "children's literature";  there was "YA" and "middle grade."  YA was all dark and gritty, with pouty girls on the covers.  My stories didn't have romance plots; no one would want them.  There was no use in even trying.

I did this for decades.  I made all the excuses.  I made it to the age of thirty-six without having sent out a single manuscript or even a single short story or poem since that one novel I had finished when I was twenty or so.  It was easier to deal with the rejection when it was only happening in my head.

I finished another novel when I was thirty-six.  This time, I was determined to do something with it.  I mean, I was thirty-six.  Never mind that I hadn't been trying:  I was still someone who had meant to be published by her mid-twenties and had made it to thirty-six without gaining a single publication credit.  Writing had always been what I wanted to do, and here I was, avoiding sending stuff out because I was afraid of failure.  So I edited until I could edit no more, and then I actually did write the damn synopsis and the damn cover letter and eventually an agent query and so on.  And I've sent the novel out a few times.  Two publishers and a few agents have it at the moment.  I've had some rejection letters and a lot of ringing silence from the agents (agents often don't respond at all unless they're interested).  I do feel crushed and despondent and as if I'm attempting to climb a ridiculously high mountain with no gear.  I've got a short story out as well.  I know I could receive a rejection at any moment...or I could wait for months and months and then receive a rejection.  I know in my heart that all the replies will be rejections because I am so very used to thinking of myself as failing at everything.  Yes, I realise that huge numbers of people go through this; I am not claiming uniqueness in any way.

But you know what?  At least I'm trying now.  Even if I'm eventually rejected by every agent and publisher in the world, I'll have tried.  I spent so long not trying that trying feels weird.  All I really know is that I can't stop writing, so rejection or no, there will be more novels.  If they sit forever on the Shelf of Shame, so be it.  I guess the fact that I'm thinking like this now instead of just telling myself that there's no use in even researching publishers is, in its own topsy-turvy way, a kind of success.


Monday, June 11, 2012:  SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM

I just took a look at my WoB Talk spam folder.  A few months ago, I would generally have had between five and ten comments in there at any given time.  Lately, however, the spambots have been taking notice of the blog.  There were 100 spam comments yesterday.  Today, there are 121.  Considering that comments are deleted when they're more than thirty days old, that means I received at least 21 and quite possibly many more spam comments just today.  One even got through the filter, though it was pretty obviously spam, and I deleted it immediately.

The spambots have really been trying hard lately.  Gone are the days of all-caps spam detailing which bits of the male anatomy the spammer is proposing to perk up; such messages have fled to the Gmail spam folder, where they languish in dusty obscurity.  No:  the blog spammer is a more sophisticated creature.  A spam comment on a blog is designed to look like a genuine comment, though it is couched in the sort of vague language that fake psychics use to convince their marks that they really can see beyond the mysterious veil.  The secret to a successful spam comment is to word it in such a way that the spam filter and/or the blogger may be fooled into thinking there's a possibility that it's genuine.

Take an example from today's appalling load of spam, all of it directed at the Rant I posted two weeks ago, "Not Exactly a Handsome Prince."  Apparently, all the spambots have been telling each other about that one.  Here is the latest comment (spelling and grammar reproduced faithfully):

Thank you so much for providing individuals with such a nice possiblity to read critical reviews from this site. It is always so excellent and also stuffed with a lot of fun for me personally and my office mates to search your blog at a minimum thrice per week to study the new secrets you have got. Of course, I’m just certainly fulfilled with all the surprising hints you serve. Certain 2 ideas in this posting are honestly the most efficient I have ever had.

The commenter mentions "critical reviews," often a safe bet for blog content.  He personalises the comment by mentioning his "office mates" and their thrice-weekly blog search.  "Surprising hints" also turn up on many blogs, and calling two of the blog's ideas "efficient" is a savvy idea, as it praises something that, again, many bloggers aim for; it also suggests a certain specificity.  Other spam comments mention daughters, friends, or spouses.  Some are short and vague; others are long and detailed.  The former often work better, as they are less likely to get stuff wrong.  Two seconds of analysis will, of course, direct you to the spam link accompanying the "personalised" comment, but I'm sure many people are fooled just long enough to click.

It's probably only a matter of time before spammers find ways past the filters by creating programs that can borrow actual content from blog posts, plugging key words into the spam and thus personalising comments to the point where the filters can't distinguish then from genuine comments posted by genuine human beings.  We'll know the machine world is imminent when the spambots begin posting fake comments that are more insightful than the real ones.  Perhaps the spambots of the future will be able to construct fluent paragraphs extolling the virtues of a certain blogger's cat or agreeing with another one that the ukulele is a noble instrument.  Bloggers will start writing to attract spambots, with whom they will be able to have much more intelligent conversations than they do with thirteen-year-old trolls who clog up their comments pages with such gems as, "LMFAO STFU IM SLEPING WITH UR MOM."

I, for one, welcome our new spambot overlords.  Maybe if I ask nicely, they'll help me with my marking.


Monday, June 4, 2012:  On Not Being a Guitarist

It's a funny thing about being a musician:  the guitarists have it easy.

If you're a guitarist, you're expected to be, well, a guitarist.  You play the guitar.  If you're a really high-level guitarist in a high-level band, you may have a lot of different guitars for different kinds of music, but you will probably also have someone to carry them for you.  It is likely that you own some sort of truck.  If you're just any old guitarist who plays with people sometimes, you may take only one axe to any practice...maybe electric, maybe acoustic.  If depends on the gig.  A guitar is not a small instrument, but it can be carried with a fair amount of ease in a light gig bag.  Your music probably fits into this gig bag too.

If you don't play the guitar, you may be a keyboardist.  A keyboardist runs into a few more problems.  Your keyboard, if it has, say, 61 keys, is about the size and weight of an acoustic guitar but more awkward to carry.  You will need a stand and possibly a stool.  It is also probable you'll be using an amp.  So will an electric guitarist, but the latter won't need the stand.  A keyboardist just has more to carry.

You may also play the drums.  You're really in trouble now, especially if you don't have a truck or a van or any kind of vehicle.  You probably want to practise in some place that already has a drum set.  On the day of the gig, you'll get a friend with a car to help you out.

Then there are people like me.  By "people like me," I mean "people who have learned a few too many instruments and end up playing all of them at any given gig."

The guitar and the keyboard are both versatile instruments.  Better:  they're regarded as fundamental.  I can play the guitar a little and the keyboard a lot, but I am usually in kinds of bands where the keyboard is not, in fact, a standard instrument:  for instance, folk and bluegrass bands.  No worries:  I can play the accordion.  And the mandolin.  And the ukulele.  And the banjolele.  And various flutes and whistles.  And, if necessary, the bodhran.  I own a banjo but don't yet play it well enough to gig with it, and I am sometimes kind of grateful for that fact.  Banjos are heavy.  Mandolins and ukuleles are not, but if you are carrying one of each, plus most of the other instruments just listed, the weight adds up.

A couple of days ago, two friends and I played at a book launch.  It was a lot of fun, and I loved the music we were doing.  The one problem was that I was playing six damned instruments in eight different songs.  We rehearsed every Saturday.  I got to haul an accordion, mandolin, ukulele, wooden flute, low whistle, and C whistle back and forth across the city.  One week, I had a bodhran too so I could lend it to our singer, who also doubled as a percussionist.  On the day of the gig itself, I added a music stand, a ukulele stand, and a guitar stand I had converted into a mandolin stand to the load.  I also had to take the bodhran and assorted other percussion with me on the way home.

I'm still in pain.  The accordion was on wheels, but accordions are heavy, and even rolling one along the sidewalk takes strength.  I do not want to talk about getting on and off buses and the subway.  It got to the point where I was physically incapable of lifting the accordion a few inches off the ground.  The "light" instruments seemed less light when I was carrying them all at once.  The guitar/mandolin stand was this big awkward thing I strapped to the accordion case, and it kept getting caught in doorways.  I was constantly worried that I was going to squash the ukulele or sit on the flute.

The problem is that it's nice to have instrumental variety in a band.  When that band has only three members, it's not the guitarist who ends up providing that variety:  it's the "other instrumentalist," the idiot foolish enough to have more than one instrument available.  It makes sense.  Not every song needs an accordion.  Sometimes, a ukulele is just too quiet or a mandolin too shrill.  When you're playing a certain kind of bluegrass without a fiddle, a flute can make a half-decent substitute in a pinch.  I could easily have said, "I'm going to stick with the mandolin this time around," but I'm a fan of mixing it up.  I do find that when I do ridiculous stuff like this, I end up kind of regretting not being able to drive.

The gig went well, incidentally.  Johnny Cash and the accordion make a surprisingly good combination.


Monday, May 28, 2012:  Not Exactly a Handsome Prince

I'm authoring an online course on fairy tales at the moment.  Last week, I wrote the heroes module.  I kind of love doing the heroes unit in a fairy-tale course because the students absolutely don't expect the content.

Go up to someone on the street and ask that person to describe a fairy-tale hero.  Seven out of ten people will say something about a handsome prince; the remaining three may bring up the Beast from ​Beauty and the Beast​ or Aladdin from, well, ​Aladdin​ .  It is worth noting that by the ends of these Disney movies, the Beast and Aladdin have become, well, handsome princes.  We don't really have any other kind of fairy-tale hero any more.  Every once in a while, a rogue with a heart of gold turns up.  There's also Shrek, but Shrek did start off as a deliberate deconstruction.  If the handsome prince weren't already regarded as the norm, Shrek wouldn't work as a character.

I tell my students that the Disney films constitute a continuation of the storytelling tradition in filmic form and in a twentieth- and twenty-first-century American context, and I do actually believe that.  However, I also believe that the almost universal association of Disney and fairy tales has caused us to lose a lot of rich material, which has been shunted aside for a very few stories with some very definite messages.  This has all been observed before, of course.  Volumes have been written on what the whole "Disney princess" thing has done to the brains of little girls.  But also worth noting is that the concentration on princesses has obscured the vast amount of fairy-tale material out there, much of it not concentrating on princesses at all.

I could say a lot about stories in which the female characters actually ​did stuff​ .  There are plenty of those.  Yet today, I think I shall take a look at the heroes instead, simply because we tend to treat them as if they don't exist.  Disney has turned fairy tales into stories about girls dreaming of meeting pretty boys and living happily ever after.  Those pretty boys have become our fairy-tale heroes.  In the source stories, the pretty boys are mainly prizes for the heroines; many of them do very little.  If you want heroes, you have to go to stories with male protagonists, which, conversely, tend to involve princesses only as prizes.

What can be said about fairy-tale heroes?  Well...generally, they're jerks.  Don't get me wrong:  so are fairy-tale heroines.  Most fairy-tale characters are jerks.  It's how they survive.  The heroes tend to be underprivileged, sometimes to the extreme.  They're usually youngest sons.  The rich ones are still regarded as useless because they have older brothers; the poor ones often spend all their time sitting in the ashes, pretending to be stupid.  When the crisis comes, the older brothers are going to try and fail, whereapon the simpleton youngest brother, all covered with grime and never having worked a day in his life, will stroll in with a magic axe and win the princess without trying.  That stereotype about heroes being good and kind and generous?  Yeah, right.  They're assholes.  They rescue princesses only if there's something in it for them.  A lot of the time, the princess doesn't even need to be rescued; she's just sitting on top of a glass hill waiting for a bunch of random knights to ride up and get her because her father has never heard of such concepts as "courtship."

And then there are the real tricksters:  the heroes who wander into the Other World and immediately start murdering giants.  In many fairy tales, giants exist solely so they can be murdered by trickster heroes.  The heroes tend to be kind of small and weak, so they'll often just get the giants to murder each other.  Occasionally, they get the giants to murder their own children.  Heroines sometimes get in on this sort of thing too, but the heroes really go to town on those giants.  If there aren't any giants around, there are always the witches.  The more subtle heroes treat the giants and the witches carefully and end up with supernatural goodies that they can use later in their stories, but the trickster heroes just go, "Hey, there's a giant.  I think I'll trick him into strangling his seven daughters."  It's all good clean fun.

If these guys run out of giants and witches, they tend to start in on their neighbours.  A common trick is to fool the neighbours into murdering their grandmothers.  Heroes are really all about the murdering.  If I were in a fairy tale and had a choice between encountering a hero and the devil, I'd pick the devil every time.  He has rules; the hero doesn't.

Of course, it may not be his fault.  A lot of heroes are born after their mothers accidentally sleep with: a) trolls, b) bears, c) elves, or d) bulls.  Some women accidentally ingest bird poop that apparently has the power to impregnate them.  It occasionally goes the other way around:  a human man will impregnate a cow or a female troll.  And every once in a while, someone just makes a colossally stupid wish, such as, "I would give anything to have a child, ​even if it were a hedgehog​ ."  Take a look at the Grimm Brothers' "Hans-My-Hedgehog" if you think I'm making that up.  Hans annoys everyone he knows, demands his father buy him bagpipes, tortures and disfigures his first wife, and eventually lives happily ever after with a girl who spends the first part of their relationship terrified of him.

Oh...you thought these guys found true love?  Ah ha ha ha.  Silly mortals...fairy tales aren't about true love.  The Grimms made their fairy tales all nice and moral for little children, but what counted as "all nice and moral" two hundred years ago is not what counts as "all nice and moral" now.  The Grimms' story "The Brave Little Tailor" ends with the titular character tricking his way into marriage to a princess who is not at all pleased with him and tries to have him kidnapped.  When that fails because the tailor uses his Intimidating Voice, they just stay married.  Whenever mention of "true love" turns up in a fairy tale, odds are it has been inserted by a transcriber who feels that he or she has to justify all those princesses being handed out to peasant boys like candy.

I'm not complaining, incidentally.  These heroes are far more interesting than the Disney princes, who ride around waving their little decorative swords and being good and kind and generous and very, very boring.  When we come across characters who resemble fairy-tale heroes nowadays, we generally call them "anti-heroes" and imply that they're contradicting thousands of years' worth of stalwart heroes fighting for the Forces of Good.  In reality, many of our anti-heroes can't hold a candle to the murdering, princess-stealing bastards who gleefully pillage their way through our fairy tales.  I guess it isn't all that surprising that Disney leaves these guys alone.


Monday, May 21, 2012:  No Happy Ending for Community:  The Adjectival Complexity Test

On Friday, it was revealed that Dan Harmon, the showrunner of the struggling but critically acclaimed NBC sitcom Community, had been fired by Sony and replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port, two consulting producers on the ABC sitcom Happy Endings.  Admittedly, this is not a world-changing issue that will bring Western civilisation crashing to its knees, but some elements of what has happened are still worth discussing because of what they tell us about some pretty problematic trends in television.  These are not new trends; their pervasive nature is part of what bothers me.

Some aspects of the Harmon ouster should probably be discussed by someone eventually, if they haven't been already:  for instance, the devaluing of the work's creator (Community is pretty specifically Harmon's baby), the debate as to whether Harmon's reputedly difficult behaviour justifies him getting the boot without consultation, and the issue of whether a generally good but struggling show should be forced to have wider appeal so that it can stay alive for a bit longer.  These issues tend to come up sooner or later when Community is the subject at hand.  I would like to take a slightly different angle---one that not many people have dealt with yet---by concentrating on Harmon's replacements.

Harmon's devoted online fans have had a lot to say about Sony's little coup.  However, when Guarascio and Port come up, the comments become rather cautious.  Some people admit that they haven't seen Happy Endings but have heard that it's "quirky" and are glad the new showrunners do not, for instance, hail from the much more middle-of-the-road The Big Bang Theory.  Others express trepidation that the choice means Community will become less geeky and odd.  I do get the sense that relatively few Community viewers also watch Happy Endings.  I watch both, not entirely by choice.  Last term, I taught a course on television in which my students took on a home-viewing assignment for which they needed to choose their own shows to watch.  Since several groups went with Happy Endings, I decided to work my way through its run.  Descriptions of it online do generally contain the word "quirky"; they also imply that it's a lot like Community in tone.  The premise has potential:  six good friends struggle to adapt after one of them leaves the other at the altar.  I was cautiously optimistic about the show before I started the first episode.

I could say a lot about many aspects of Happy Endings, but that isn't really my intention here.  Instead, I would like to apply one concept to it as a demonstration of why I think the appointment of the new showrunners is even more of a step backward for Community than everyone is implying.  In short, Happy Endings fails the Adjectival Complexity Test, which will hereafter be referred to as ACT.  It actually goes beyond failing it.  It kind of cuts it up into little pieces and then dances on the bits.

ACT, which I have invented just now, is a system for evaluating fictional characters.  It can be applied to anything from Dora the Explorer to The Wire, and that's just taking television into account.  The premise is simple:  any given character can, theoretically speaking, be described with a series of adjectives.  ACT measures character complexity, which can be determined via how many adjectives are necessary for a complete, accurate description.  The simplest "flat" character may need only one adjective.  A slightly more nuanced but still flat character may require a string of adjectives.  As a character becomes "rounder"---that is, more capable of change and development---a string of adjectives will become inadequate and give way to adjectival phrases, then complete sentences explaining motivations, back story, contradictory behaviour, and change through time.  The most complex characters will need paragraphs.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with one-adjective characters in certain contexts.  Many background characters will be one- or two-adjectivers.  Some shows are populated entirely by such characters.  I would argue that the series 24 contains mostly flat characters, and it works very well.  Even the protagonist, Jack Bauer, can generally be characterised by the adjective "tough"; it's one of the major reasons he has become so popular.  You might add "patriotic," "intelligent," "rebellious," and, in the final season, "vengeful," but you really don't need much more than that.  Jack's character arcs tend to be shallow, if not non-existent.  Again, this is not a criticism; the show does exactly what it sets out to do.  None of the characters is particularly well developed because the action is really what matters.

A show will often begin with one-adjective characters who eventually become more complex, not an uncommon strategy in fiction; it is useful to start with a set character type, then gradually add nuances to it.  The sitcom How I Met Your Mother gives us "lovelorn" Ted, "commitment-shy" Robin, "womanising" Barney, "naive" Marshall, and "acerbic" Lily.  Several seasons in, it is impossible to describe the characters with even just a few adjectives each.  HIMYM is, in many ways, a fairly traditional sitcom, but it has some innovative aspects such as an unreliable narrator and an eventual slide from comedy to dramedy without reliance on the tradition of the Very Special Episode.  The characters have grown.  More importantly, the characters have grown at the same time.  All of them started out as one-adjectivers, and all of them are now full-sentencers.  ​Admittedly, the sentences are not very long.  Though ​HIMYM does some neat stuff, it does not take it nearly as far as it could.  It goes for the easy laughs.  It chooses safety over innovation.

The Community characters are full-sentencers too, and it almost invariably chooses innovation over safety.  The show is one of my favourites, but I am capable of admitting it isn't perfect.  Its quality is uneven.  When it's good which it frequently is, it's transcendent; when it's less good, it's just sort of meh.  The characters have grown and developed throughout, but they sometimes seem in danger of sliding into ruts.  Of the seven protagonists, Pierce and Shirley have been neglected a bit, though I would argue that Shirley has had a lot of development this season and has gone from a several-adjectiver to a full-sentencer.  The best thing about the Community characters is that they are not necessarily defined by their categories.  One danger that ACT highlights is that the single adjective will be something like "black" or "gay" or "married" or "female" or "disabled" or "old."  Community mostly avoids such tokenism, despite---or, perhaps, because of---the fact that its cast is so diverse.  The characters are individuals; what matters is not what they are but who they are.  ​Community​ somehow manages to weave meaningful character growth into a continued, and often viciously clever, attempt to take the piss out of sitcoms in particular, television in general, and all forms and genres of fiction in ​really​ general.

Happy Endings, like How I Met Your Mother, begins with a series of one- and two-adjectivers.  Dave is "wounded," Alex is "confused," Max is "gay" and "sarcastic," Penny is "needy," Brad is "married," and Jane is "controlling."  To be fair, some of these adjectives fragment pretty quickly.  Max's sexuality, for instance, turns out not to be his defining attribute but simply a part of who he is, as with the sexualities of the other characters.  Max is portrayed without the stereotypical attributes generally assigned to gay characters in American television shows, but conversely, his sexuality is not hidden either; he has a healthy sex life, and his friends discuss it with him as openly as he discusses their sexual escapades with them.  Max develops throughout the show, eventually attaining full-sentencer status as he explores his fear of disappointing his parents, his inability to commit, his secret yearning for a long-term relationship, and his underlying common sense, which is masked by his sarcasm and apparent callousness.  Dave and Brad follow suit.  None of them, please understand, is likeable---in fact, all six protagonists are reprehensible human beings who behave like entitled brats most of the time---but Max, Dave, and Brad are not without complexity.  Attributes of naivete, arrogance, over-confidence, and a tendency towards the romantic emerge in Brad as the series continues.  Dave's initial hurt eventually gives way to determination, ingenuity, a need to get his life together, and a constant inability to do so.  The three men demonstrate both positive and negative qualities; each is an individual who fits into more than a single category.

At the beginning of the show, as I said, Alex is "confused," Penny is "needy," and Jane is "controlling."  As the show continues, Alex is revealed as "stupid," Penny as "needy," and Jane as "controlling" and "manipulative."

The problem with Happy Endings is not that the characters remain undeveloped.  As I demonstrated with 24, some shows work well without character development; in fact, sitcoms are known for doing so.  The real problem here is that one large category of characters---men---is allowed development, while another large category of characters---women---is not.  Alex's adjective changes, but that's mostly because we get to know her better.  Jane gains a second adjective once we have seen her in certain situations.  Penny's adjective remains the same throughout.  Moreover, the adjectives that fit the women are all negative.  All six characters are unlikeable, but Max, Dave, and Brad have positive qualities, while Alex, Penny, and Jane don't (or none strong enough to act as defining adjectives, at any rate).  The best that can be said about them is that Alex and Penny are "cute," and in Penny's case, "cutesy" fits better; she is trying so hard to come across as cute that she makes herself repellent.  Subtly, the men become the point-of-view characters, while the irrational, incomprehensible women are shrugged off.

The episode that really sums up the problematic nature of this discrepancy is called "The Kerkovich Way."  At the end of the preceding episode, Alex slept with Dave for the first time since their non-wedding.  "The Kerkovich Way" begins with Dave telling Alex they need to talk about this.  However, Alex says the encounter never happened; Dave dreamed or imagined it.  Investigating further, Dave finds a lot of evidence that Alex is telling the truth, including Brad's memories of watching a movie with Alex and Jane on the night in question.  Brad confesses that he can't quite remember watching the movie, but he has chronic problems with his memory, to the extent that he has to have regular MRIs.  He points out that he even has popcorn stuck in his teeth, proving that the movie viewing took place.  Dave eventually uncovers a crucial piece of evidence, and the truth comes out:  Alex and Jane together made up the whole story and convinced Brad to believe them.  Jane confesses that she does this sort of thing to Brad all the time and even went to the trouble of planting the popcorn between his teeth; she calls it the Kerkovich Way and claims it was invented by her grandmother.

The whole situation is presented as light and amusing instead of bloody freaking horrifying, considering that Jane habitually manipulates Brad into believing he has serious memory problems.*  The Kerkovich sisters are even demonstrated to have manipulative behaviour in their very DNA.  Ah, those womenfolk!  Who could ever really understand them?  Hyuck hyuck hyuck.

This attitude towards television writing is not uncommon; gender roles are pretty strictly delineated even in the otherwise fairly well written How I Met Your Mother, in which men who demonstrate stereotypically "female" traits are mocked, while women who demonstrate stereotypically "male" traits are praised.  Some other sitcoms, such as Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, play on the assumption that gender creates personality.  Happy Endings, however, is one of the worst I've seen outside shows from the 1950s.  The show is a sort of nightmare rip-off of Friends and Coupling in which the male viewpoint is so strongly privileged that the female characters may as well paint their skin green and fly off, cackling, on broomsticks.  It is "safe" in a much more ominous way than ​HIMYM​ is safe, as it implies not just that gender roles are inherent but that one gender is more worthy of attention and sympathy than the other, and it mines the inferior gender for as much condescending, contempt-based humour as it can.  If Guarascio and Port have any meaningful influence over the content of Happy Endings, Community is truly going to be in trouble.

Dear Sony and NBC:  screw the ratings.  Screw the status quo.  Screw appealing to the widest possible audience.  Community is good TVHappy Endings?  Oh, hello, cultural hegemony.  How very much I have missed you.

*Before you start upright in righteous indignation and cry, "But you used this very plot machination in ​your own comic!", let me just say:  yes, I did, and I presented it as appallingly cruel, a fact that was driven home by Marie when she pointed out to Casey that she had already been worried she was going crazy because of her confused and contradictory memories of her parents' deaths, and his callous screwing with her wasn't helping.


Monday, May 14, 2012:  See You Next Week

I had the flu this week, and now I'm sick and tired and behind on everything.  Rants will return next week.  Happy middle of May, everyone.

Monday, May 7, 2012:  Kari Vs. the Watches

I often Rant about my long, futile struggle to find a computer that works and doesn't hate me.  I spend less time complaining about my problematic relationship with watches.  I expect I've done a Rant on this relationship (or bits and pieces of it) at some point, but if so, it was long enough ago that an update may be in order, especially in light of recent development.

I've always been, for want of a better phrase, a "watch person."  I do remember stretches of my childhood during which I didn't wear a watch, mainly because it was summer vacation and I didn't need one.  However, I did get my first watch when I was just a kid, and if you discount those summer vacations of yesteryear, I've worn one more or less steadily ever since.  I love watches.  Actually, I love clocks of all kinds.  There's something about the idea of this intricate machine full of delicate little cogs that just makes me happy.  For that reason, my watches have rarely been digital.  I know a lot of people can't read clock faces any more--my students are often sheepishly puzzled when they ask me the time and I automatically show them my watch--but I prefer them.  I think it may be because I'm one of those strange people who think of time as having a shape.  When I picture the months of the year, for instance, I see them going around in a sort of wonky elipsis.  The hours of the day have a shape too.  The clock face mimics that shape.  A digital clock is easier to read but divorces the sense of time from the sense of space.

Despite my fondness for watches, I have a hell of a time with them.  I've owned a ridiculously large number of them.  I seem to be very good at making them not work.

My childhood $30 Timex was actually a decent watch that worked properly for years.  It lost about half a second a day, but I just had to remember to fix the time every once in a while.  I wore it into my twenties.  Then I graduated with an M.A., and my long watch-based nightmare commenced with a graduation gift of a Tissot.

It was a lovely watch.  An automatic, it ran without a battery and didn't need to be wound.  It was just too bad that it kept time so badly.  Swiss watches are, of course, supposed to be the best, but my Tissot lost far more time than my Timex per day.  It wasn't a regular amount, but it was often around a minute.  Sometimes, it would simply stop, then start again later.  Automatics are wound by movement, and I don't think I was moving so little that the watch was winding down; I tend to move a lot, even when I'm supposed to be at rest, and I swing my arms enthusiastically as I walk.  My parents and I took the watch in for repairs something like three times.  No one could figure out what was wrong with it.  The final time, it was out of warranty, and it cost far too much to "fix."

The thing is...I hate not being able to trust my watch.  The Tissot was the least trustworthy watch I had ever owned.  Sorry, Tissot makers.  I'm sure your products are usually very nice, but mine was a dud.  I still have it, and it's still very pretty, and it still keeps absolutely appalling time.

I eventually gave up on the Tissot.  I would have gone back to the Timex, but my parents had moved in the interim, and the Timex had vanished.  I made do with a gift watch that was too small for me and hurt my wrist, but when its battery gave out, I found another cheap watch that was relatively accurate.  The really bad watch times had begun.

The new watch worked fine, but the band was one of those faux-leather things, which never last for long.  The band eventually broke, and I got another one, which was itself on the verge of breaking when the watch went from "working fine" to "rather resembling the Tissot."  It didn't seem to be the battery that was the problem; the watch itself was breaking down.  Fortuitously, this happened shortly after I found a Timex Ironman in the middle of the street.  The Ironman is a digital watch, but a good one.  My wrists are surprisingly skinny, and the Ironman, which was made to fit a man, could barely be cinched tight enough.  I managed.

I'm not sure how long all these watches lasted.  I think I had the Timex for at least ten years, the Tissot for maybe six, the too-tight gift watch for one, the watch with the cheap strap for four or five, and the Ironman for maybe one and a half.  Then its strap broke too.  I replaced the watch with a cheap Shoppers Drug Mart watch, which I told myself was good enough.  It ran for a few months before stopping.  Again, it didn't seem to be the battery; to this day, it runs sporadically for a few minutes at a time.  I found myself making do with a wind-up steampunk pendant watch.  It was a cool watch, but it wasn't the sort of thing you wanted to wear every day.  It was the middle of the marking period, and I had no time for watch-hunting, so in desperation, I found another Shoppers watch.

That was the nadir of my Great Watch Adventure.  The second Shoppers watch lasted for three days.  It kept time well, but the last straw came a few days ago, when I rode my bike down to the university.  It was a fairly humid day, which meant that perspiration happened, and the perspiration triggered an allergic reaction to the watch.  I don't know if it was the cheap acrylic band or the (assumedly) nickel buckle that was to blame; I know I have a nickel allergy, so it could have been either.  That was the day I decided I needed a real bloody watch, damn it.

I have a decent watch now, or so I hope.  The band is stainless steel, so I'm not allergic to it, and it isn't likely to break.  The watch is keeping time well so far.  I really hope it lasts.  I do like watches a lot, and I am tired of not being able to keep one for more than a few years at a time.  If my new watch outlasts my new computer, I shall declare victory.


Monday, April 30, 2012:  More Crunchy Marking

Grades are due on May 3rd.  I have been marking almost non-stop for weeks now.  I've got through thirty exams today and may try for up to ten more tonight (I may not; my head is going thumpy-thumpy-thump); there are ninety left to go.  Last week, I gave you five ways in which huge piles of marking altered one's life.  They were all sort of quirky and lighthearted.  I have passed the quirky-and-lighthearted stage now, and I just want the marking to go away and leave me alone.

I have, however, always found it ironic how much easier it is to get other work done when the marking is at its most heinous.  This must be how workaholics feel all the time.  I'm not sure how they keep it up.  Maybe they secretly cry a lot.

In the last week, despite--or, perhaps, because of--the mountains of marking, I have accomplished the following on my "breaks" (read:  the periods during which I have to stop marking because my head hurts too much):

1)  I have held an initial meeting about creating a short film for the online course on fairy tales I am authoring.

2)  I have paid my taxes.

3)  I have sorted out my banking situation, something made necessary by the teller's gasps of horror and astonishment as he processed my taxes and, in the process, discovered that I had not set foot in the bank for about ten years.

4)  I have published a comic every two days.

5)  I have reapplied for my job, a process that takes way too long and involves a lot of typing.

6)  I have come close to finishing the first chapter of another novel that I have been writing entirely during fifteen-minute breaks from marking.

7)  I have written this Rant.

As soon as the marks are in, I shall be returning to my usual sloth.  I wish I were capable of being productive without also being too busy to eat.


Monday, April 23, 2012:  Crunchy Marking

It's marking time, so I would merely like to mention five ways in which huge piles of marking alter one's life.

1)  Time slows down.  You would think it would be the opposite.  Wouldn't the contemplation of appalling piles of essays and exams make the clock race?  Wouldn't the thought "There's no way I can finish all this in time" actually prompt the second hand to zoom around in a brisk little circle, destroying all hope of finishing before the deadline?  But no:  suddenly, unexpectedly, there is enough time for everything.  An hour becomes a vast blank space in which ever so many things can be accomplished.  I believe this is called Being in the Zone.  I believe it is also called Sheer Desperation.

2)  Procrastination becomes less urgent.  It's sad but true:  during Marking Panic Mode, you just work more efficiently.  The breaks you used to take every fifteen minutes become the breaks you take every four hours (but only if you finish a certain number of essays during those four hours).  You become a marking machine.  Two weeks from now, you will not understand how you did that.

3)  Sugar becomes a necessity.  Forget caffeine; it's all about the sugar.  If you have nothing sweet around, you will go shopping and come home with several mammoth containers of Sour Cherry Blasters and Gummy Worms.  You will eat way too many of them as rewards every time you finish a paper.

4)  Creativity happens.  Despite--or, perhaps, because of--your relative lack of procrastination, you will start to have a series of ideas.  If you like to write, they will be ideas for stories.  If you are musical, they will be ideas for songs.  If you paint, they will be ideas for art.  Ideas will teem within your brain, and you will have absolutely no time to do anything about them.

5)  Everything that goes wrong will seem both inevitable and trivial.  Your watch stops the night before the exam?*  Meh.  Your shoe's sole comes loose?**  Whatever.  An alien spaceship lands on your balcony?  Okay, sure, but I have to mark this essay on television sitcoms.  The world could be coming to an end; it wouldn't be worse than those 150 essays sitting on your desk.***

Happy marking, fellow instructors.  Reality will reassert itself eventually.

*It is, in fact, the night before the exam, and my watch has stopped.
**This one happened last weekend.
***Or, more accurately, on the floor beneath your desk.


Monday, April 16, 2012:  Introversion 101:  The Trouble With Sherlock

I spent this weekend at Ad Astra, a sci-fi/fantasy/horror/etc. convention, and somehow, I ended up on six panels.  The first and the last, which technically had nothing to do with each other, have set me thinking.  The first panel was "Introversion is not a Bad Word"; the last was "So Much Sherlock."

Introversion has been coming up a lot lately in various articles and books, as well as a TED talk by Susan Caine.  People are beginning to observe that introversion is not the defect many have assumed it to be for the last century or so; introverts simply have a different way of approaching the world and generating ideas about it.  The old Myers-Briggs cliche is that extroverts get their energy from social interaction, while introverts get theirs from being alone.   Cliche or not, it's a pretty good definition.   As the people on the panel observed on Friday evening, extroverts also tend to develop their ideas by talking, while introverts develop theirs by thinking.  The results are the same in both cases, but the extroverts end up praised as indulging in "constructive conversation" and being "proactive," while introverts are criticised as anti-social, not team players, and even slow on the uptake.  In a world dominated by extroverts, introverts are treated almost as handicapped.

My first panel dealt with this frustrating social situation.  My last was devoted to a discussion of Sherlock Holmes and the current revival of Holmes-focused stories.  One topic that came up more than once was our apparent need, especially in North America, to diagnose Holmes and other Holmes-like characters with brain damage or some sort of mental illness.

I have no problem with telling stories about people with mental illnesses; in fact, I think there should be more such stories and much less of a tendency to treat mentally ill people as diseased and contagious.  However, there's a difference between a story of a person who happens to have a mental illness and a story of a brilliant but eccentric man or woman whose eccentricities are automatically explained away as something that in a less useful person--one who didn't solve crimes every Monday evening at 8:00 p.m., for instance--would need to be cured or controlled.  Even if we just stick to television, we find this impulse everywhere.  In the BBC series Sherlock, some characters describe Sherlock as a psychopath; Sherlock calls himself a sociopath.  The title character of Monk has OCD, Walter of The Finder is brain-damaged, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is broadly hinted to have Asperger's, and House of House is occasionally diagnosed by other characters with Asperger's or sociopathy.  Temperance Brennan of Bones went through an extremely traumatic childhood and can probably been seen as suffering from PTSD.  It would not surprise me if in the pending American show Elementary, which transplants the Holmes story to New York, Holmes were portrayed as having something the matter with his brain.

On the Holmes panel, someone observed that Holmes wasn't a sociopath; he was an introvert.  In both the original stories and the BBC series--even, in fact, in the Guy Ritchie movies--Sherlock Holmes goes inside his own head to reason out the answers to the problems with which he is presented.   His powers of deduction work because he does, in fact, think and act like an introvert.  A good contrast (again sticking with TV, since we're already there) would be the Doctor of the British series Doctor Who, currently being produced by Stephen Moffat, who is also responsible for Sherlock.  In at least his last two incarnations, the Doctor has been the epitome of an extrovert; he is a genius who needs to talk everything out, and he draws his energy from his relationships.  Holmes is the opposite; in the original stories, he frequently keeps his deductions to himself until the big reveal at the end, and though he does have a sort of symbiotic relationship with Watson, he usually has his ideas sorted out before he confides in his one friend.  He doesn't tend to launch into long, rambling speculations during which he has a series of revelations.  The revelations happen before he opens his mouth.

I wish we could just let Holmes be Holmes.  Yes, he's outside the norm.  He's eccentric.  He's interested in the wrong things; he can differentiate between different types of tobacco ash but doesn't know that the earth travels around the sun.  His fascination with puzzle solving borders on obsession.  But it's his position outside the norm that allows him to be as effective as he is at what he does, and arguably, it's why so many readers angrily cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand when Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off.  Without his eccentricities, Holmes would just be a very smart man with a cocaine addiction.  Moreover, without his introversion, Holmes would not be able to solve crimes at all.

Is it really necessary for eccentricity or introversion to be explained away as something that could, in an ideal world, be "fixed"?  Holmes marginalises himself; why do we have the urge to portray him as someone marginalised by disease or defect?  Does the impulse to stand apart even have to be a defect?  As Caine says in her TED talk, for millennia, we have revered people who remove themselves from civilisation and go out into the wilderness.  We call them mystics, sages, prophets.  I would take it further; look at folklore and mythology, and you can see that we also call them heroes.  The hero is the one who goes off alone into the dark.  There are very few stories about heroes who are the life of the party.  Yet nowadays, being the life of the party is "healthy."  Internality makes one a little bit weird.  It's more important to talk than to listen.  Mental illness is clearly the only explanation for the urge to go off alone into the dark.

Let the brilliant, eccentric problem solvers of fiction have both their brilliance and their eccentricity, please.  Why shouldn't they be different because they want to be, not because they have to be due to some tragic accident of genetics?  In a way, "eccentricity" is only another word for "creativity"; the eccentrics of the world just look at things from their own beautifully wacky perspectives.  As far as I'm concerned, there's no reasons we shouldn't let them do so.  If we don't want to live in a universe full of little clones who never deviate from the norm, we'll stop trying to find something fundamentally wrong with Sherlock Holmes.


Monday, April 9, 2012:  Teeny Tiny

I am the first to admit that I like tiny little musical instruments.  I play a number of them, from the ukulele and the piccolo to the harmonica and the pennywhistle.  I also play some particularly huge and ungainly instruments, such as the piano and the accordion, but there's a certain appeal about being able to stick an instrument in your purse or sling it over your shoulder and carry it around all day without suffering major back pain.  Portability means greater ease of access.  In the case of instruments, it does sometimes have its drawbacks.  Playing the piccolo is fun, but people tend to run away whenever you get it out.  I am happy to argue that the ukulele is a viable musical instrument capable of complexity and beauty (take it away, Jake Shimabukuro), but I'll also admit that it has much less sustain and resonance than a guitar, and the fact that it has a short scale and four strings instead of six can be seen to limit it as well.  Devotees of tiny instruments love them because of what they can do; others shun them because of what they can't do.

However, a trend that sometimes rather baffles me involves an apparently endless series of attempts to make already small instruments even smaller.

Let's stick just with the ukulele for now, simply because it offers us so very many example.  The ukulele comes in four standard sizes:  soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.  The soprano is the size most people think of when they think of the ukulele; the larger sizes are tuned more or less the same (except, occasionally, for the baritone), but they offer longer scales and larger, more resonant bodies.  A typical soprano is about 21 inches long and weighs so little that it can easily be balanced on a single finger.  Even a tenor uke, at around 26 inches, is small enough to treat as carry-on luggage.

And yet there are compact "travel versions" of even the soprano ukulele.  Kala makes a thinline travel uke that simply reduces the depth of the body, making the instrument easier to stow in a bag.  Ohana has a sopranino size that is about 19 inches long and is generally tuned a bit higher than the soprano.  I own one of these, and it's fun and kind of cute, but it is really just taking something that's already very small and making it even smaller.  Kala has gone Ohana--and itself--one better and produced a pocket ukulele, which is 16 inches long and tuned even higher than the sopranino.  The KoAloha Noah is 3/4 the size of an ordinary soprano.  The Kala pocket uke is usually considered the smallest playable ukulele, but there are smaller ones out there; Tangi makes a tiny model that is supposed to be mostly decorative (though some do try to play it), and a few independent makers, such as this guy, make miniature ukes that are meant to be played.  A few higher-end uke makers also do sopranino, sopranissimo, and miniature ukuleles.

But that's just the beginning.  Eleuke, which makes electric ukuleles, has the Peanut, a soprano-scale solid-bodied instrument that is much slenderer than a standard uke.  Risa also has a tiny electric uke.  An independent maker sells kits for making foldable ukuleles; they sound pretty terrible, but they do fold up quite small. Another independent maker has come up with a very small and not very nice-sounding travel ukulele made from scrap lumber.

I could go on.  Over and over, people are taking an instrument that is already about the length of a grown woman's arm (hand not included) and making it even smaller.  Sometimes, it becomes so small that the sound quality is entirely compromised.  Sometimes, it sounds okay.  But the impulse to force the instrument into teenier and teenier packages remains.

My personal theory, which I have expressed before, is that ukuleles and other small instruments are a bit like puppies; they have the "awww" factor on their sides.  This does not detract from the fact that they can sound absolutely gorgeous at times, but it does make some people take them less seriously.  We try to compensate, in a way, by accentuating the convenience.  You laugh at my tiny instrument?  Look how easy it is to carry around!  How do you feel about your double bass now?

I do enjoy my sopranino, though if I want the best possible sound, it's not the instrument I pick up first.  I don't think I'll ever own one of the Kala pocket ukes.  They remind me too much of those little wee dogs rich women carry around in their purses.


Monday, April 2, 2012:  Hail?  Really?

I know I write about the weather too much.  However, it's just been weird lately.  When you get 26C temperatures in March, that's odd.  When they are followed three days later by snow, that's freaking bizarre.  Today, it hailed...with "today" being April 1st.  Perhaps the universe has a sense of humour after all.

While we were roasting in Toronto, it was snowing on Vancouver Island, where spring habitually begins in mid-February.  On March 31st, a friend of mine living in St. John's was forced to shovel his driveway.  The weather forecast for the next week shows temperatures varying by 17 degrees within the course of a single day.  It's as if the season is having a genuinely hard time coming to terms with its identity.  Someone should write a coming-of-age YA novel about it.

One problem is that it's impossible to know what to wear.  If it's -2C when you leave in the morning, 15C when you go out for lunch, and 6C by the time you start to make your way home, are you just supposed to keep donning and/or shedding layers all day?  Do you wear boots?  Sneakers?  Walking shoes?  Sandals?  Do you need a tuque?  Gloves?  A scarf?  Is the wind blowing, making it seem ten degrees colder than it really is?  What if the wind stops blowing?  Should the windows be open at night?  During the day?  What if everything changes five minutes from now?

Are the wild fluctuations in pressure and humidity harming my musical instruments?  Do they account for the fact that I'm tired all the time?  Can I blame them for my reluctance to start marking?  Why have I not started marking?  Why do Cinnamon Pops not taste like cinnamon?  Are people going to try to kill me again after they read this week's West of Bathurst comics?  Has the weather affected my attention span?

What is the meaning of life?  Why do dogs have wet noses?  What if you gave God a sandwich so big he couldn't finish it?  What did I do with the driver disk for my portable scanner, and why is there no way to find the driver online?  Why are old clocks and old keys so wonderful?  What would happen if I decorated my apartment with old clocks?  Could I recreate the opening scene of Back to the Future, and would there be dog food involved?  Am I subconsciously a steampunk fan?  Why are tiny little musical instruments so appealing?  Why does everyone sneeze in a different way?

Damn you, weather:  this is what you've done to me.


Monday, March 26, 2012:  Reality Television Week (*Sigh*)

Well, it's here again:  the one week per year in which I must lecture on reality television.

Don't get me wrong:  it's a fun lecture to give.  It's always easier to generate discussion with controversial subjects.  Some of my students hate reality television, while others watch almost nothing else.  The reasons behind the popularity of the genre are pretty fascinating, and I really like talking about the wish/shame complex the shows use to draw viewers in and keep them hooked.  These shows tend to be cleverly put together and structured in ways that do get people addicted; a given reality episode is structurally similar to a news broadcast or, interestingly, a soap.  The continually deferred fulfilment is, in part, what keeps people glued to these shows.

That's not why I *sigh*ed in this entry's title.  I *sigh*ed because in order to talk about reality TV, I have to watch it.

I Ranted about American Idol a bit over a year ago (February 28, 2011), so I won't go deeply into my feelings regarding that particular show.  I am following it again this year, as well as The Amazing Race, and I've watched some episodes of Kitchen Nightmares in the past.  That's about as far as I'm willing to go.  I feel as if reality TV is trying to devour my soul.  Even The Amazing Race, which is relatively harmless and at the very least introduces a bunch of Americans to the fact that they are not, in fact, living in the only country on the planet, is awfully fond of dwelling lingeringly on the contestants' meltdowns and interpersonal abuse.  Emotionally abusive boyfriends, shrewish wives, brothers who can't stop fighting, liars and cheaters and people who end up in hysterics because they can't taste the difference between six distinct types of tea:  sometimes, I think the show's main purpose is to demonstrate how awful all people everywhere are.  Leave the poor taxi drivers alone, guys, seriously.  You ran up out of nowhere, stuck a camera-person in the front seat, and are now screaming abuse at your driver because he doesn't understand English and is unwilling to drive like a lunatic so you can win a million dollars.

These shows delight in showing us how horrible people are.  Even when they pretend to be "educational," they are really just voyeuristic.  If someone starts a "documentary" reality series called simply Dirty Underwear, I won't be at all surprised.

I was therefore delighted this week when the usual American Idol parade of soppy ballads sung by desperate teenagers who believe that they will fail at everything if they don't get to move into the mansion was interrupted by the fantastic Idol contestant Heejun Han, who has so far utterly failed to take the process at all seriously.  Despite the fact that Heejun's voice is just sort of okay, he is wildly popular because he is a very, very funny guy, and not in an extroverted LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME kind of way.  If someone sets him up, he will say something hilarious.  He does it every time.  In a group of earnest kids fixated on their images, he is extraordinarily refreshing.

Last week, which was Billy Joel themed, Heejun started with what seemed to be one of his usual ballads, then apparently lost his place.  He turned to the piano player and asked for something faster, then tore off his suit jacket and went running all over the stage, singing "My Life" in what was really an extended comedy routine.  His singing was all over the place, but it didn't matter.  The judges were not as happy as I was; Stephen Tyler was clearly furious and felt Heejun had disrespected the song.

Well, why shouldn't he?  Good lord...do we really need to treat American Idol like sacred ground?  It involves a bunch of kids crooning pop songs for months.  Apparently, music is not allowed to be fun; it's a deadly serious business.

This is what damn reality TV does to me; it makes me care about stupid things.  I even know how it does it.  I just can't stop it from happening.  For now, therefore, I'll just quietly raise a glass to Heejun and his increasingly entertaining attempts to deconstruct the entire Idol process.  More power to you, Heejun.  There should be a Heejun in every episode of every reality TV show ever made.  At the very least, he thoroughly shatters the illusion that this stuff is as immensely important as it claims it is.


Monday, March 19, 2012:  The Computer Curse Continued

For once, there's actually nothing wrong with my laptop.  However, the reason there's nothing wrong with my laptop is that it's brand new, and the reason it's brand new is that it's replacing another brand-new but defective laptop, and the reason I had the brand-new but defective laptop was that the laptop before that one, which was well under three years old, had finally died completely, a year and a half after its hard drive was replaced.

I really don't know what it is about me and computers.  I've complained about my Acer before, and I would like to reiterate the complaint now.  I got off to a bad start with it because I wasn't used to either Vista or the new style of keyboard (with extra "\" keys everywhere and a tendency for the keyboard to turn French without warning and without any way of making it go back to normal).   I took a couple of months to figure out how everything worked; then the computer started malfunctioning.  It crashed constantly.  The DVD drive stopped working.  One of the keys fell off, and I couldn't get it back on because the key itself was broken.  Other keys jammed (this was near the beginning of the Really Flat Keys Phase, and the manufacturers hadn't yet figured out that it was a bad idea to leave space under the keys so that bits of crud could lodge themselves in there).  Finally, about fourteen months after I had purchased the computer, it stopped working.  A friend helped me pull a few files off it, and I got the rest from Future Shop (though not without giving them about eighty bucks for the privilege).

As I had wisely bought an extended warranty,* I was able to get the computer repaired.  However, I was without it for nearly two months.  When I finally got it back, it was basically a new machine.  Again, it worked for a few months, then deteriorated.  In the winter of 2012, it once more ground to a halt.  I was able to rescue all my files myself in safe mode, though it took a while.  Then the real fun began.  My desktop computer, which is four years old, has dysfunctional USB drives (at one point, they fell inside the computer; now they're just sort of hanging out of the tower, and they work when they feel like it).  I simply could not get the USB drives to recognise my external hard drive, and I was therefore unable to access any of my files, even though I had technically rescued them from the Acer.

I had to go to Future Shop the next day and find another computer.  I had listened to my brother-in-law's advice but ultimately chosen another laptop, which did turn out to be a better deal.  However, almost as soon as I started using it, the power cord started to malfunction; the computer wasn't getting any power half the time.  Every time I jiggled it, it would stop charging.  It took thirteen days for it to get so bad that I had to take it back.  Future Shop will replace your laptop if you return it within fourteen days.  As it turned out, the store had sold out of the Samsung model I had bought.  Hasan, the guy who had sold me the Samsung, remembered me and found me a Lenovo for the same price.  Hasan was very nice all the way through this process.  He was a good salesman, but I forgave him for that because, well, he was a good salesman.

I now have a Lenovo to replace my Samsung, which replaced my Acer, which replaced my Toshiba, which replaced my Compaq, which replaced my other Compaq.  I have had more laptops than most people have had dental procedures.  I honestly don't do anything to these computers; they just don't like me.  I really hope the Lenovo lasts for at least a little while.

*This would not count as wisdom for most people, but computers really hate me.


Monday, March 12, 2012:  Weather Weirdness, Go Away

I used to do this thing where I would write open letters to either summer or winter, phrasing them as if they came from a committee of senior bureaucrats taking issue with the abuses the season in question was perpetrating on the system.  This little conceit has now pretty well played itself out, and I haven't used it in a few years.  However, I do have to say:

What the hell has been up with the weather lately?  It's been bouncing from 16C to -2C to 16C to -10C, back and forth and back and forth.  One day, everyone dresses for spring; the next, we're back in the depths of winter.  My allergies have been coming and going.  On one of the cold days, a friend and I noticed some frozen crocuses that had half-emerged from the ground before being blindsided by a small blizzard.  I have been alternating between a heavy down jacket and a windbreaker.

Is some consistency too much to ask for?  Pick cold or warm; I don't even care which.  Just pick one.  The constant zig-zagging is bewildering.  Do I need my tuque or not?  Should I be wearing boots?  Is it cycling weather?  Nobody knows.  It's as if the weather is deliberately trying to bewilder and distress us.  With the addition of the daylight-savings-related spring forward, I have become tired, grumpy, and certain I'm wearing the wrong clothes all the time.

With luck, the weather will eventually settle down and figure out exactly what it is.  It's just too bad that until then, everyone has to go around dressed in layers and wondering which spring is going to be the real one.


Monday, March 5, 2012:  Potted Potter:  A Plea for Actual Parody

I saw Potted Potter with a couple of friends this afternoon.  If you haven't heard of it, you are in good company.  A lot of people in Toronto have heard of it, as there are banners advertising it all over the city right now.  Briefly:  it's a 70-minute dramatic Harry Potter parody that purports to get through all seven Potter books.  All the parts are played by two guys, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who appear on stage as "Dan" and "Jeff."  I believe the play was born at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; the two actor-creators have produced other "potted" (i.e., condensed) plays as well.

I had neither high nor low expectations going in.  I am quite fond of another Potter parody, A Very Potter Musical,  which successfully makes affectionate fun of the Potter series while simultaneously forming a coherent narrative and even offering actual character development (and not just of Harry).  I am thus aware that it is possible to parody Harry Potter well.  When I first saw the poster for Potted Potter, I was pretty dubious, but it seemed to be getting good reviews, so I decided to give it a chance.  I enjoy good parody and am always happy when I stumble across some.  Unfortunately, Potted Potter is not good parody.

Okay, admittedly, it's definitely for kids.  The subject matter is taken from a series of children's books, and the creators have decided to aim their play at the prime Book 1 crowd (8-11-year-olds) rather than the prime Book 7 crowd (15-18-year-olds).  I do not accept the whole "but it's aimed at kids!" thing as an excuse.  Certain children's entertainers, especially those who wander on over to Hollywood, seem convinced that children are incapable of paying attention to anything that doesn't involve a lot of screaming and frenetic physical comedy.  Clarkson and Turner yell at each other, spray silly string everywhere, and at one point organise a theatre-wide Quidditch game that ends with them shooting half the audience with a huge water gun.  I would have no problem with any of these elements, which are potentially fun, if they were accompanied by some sort of narrative coherence.  Instead, we have a setup in which straight-man Jeff attempts to retell the seven stories while wild-card Dan constantly undermines him.  There's nothing else here.  Jeff sometimes "plays" Harry for ten or fifteen seconds.  Dan "plays" all the other characters, though none of them get much time on stage; Voldemort and Ron are really the only two who appear more than once or twice and actually interact with Harry.  A scene involving Dumbledore goes on for far too long, encompassing a gag that becomes reminiscent of Family Guy, and not in a good way.

There are certainly funny bits; the oversized Golden Snitch is amusing, and the dissection of Book 3 on a series of PowerPoint slides works well.  The big problem is that this isn't parody.  It's a couple of guys yelling about Rowling's books for an hour and a bit.  Parody comments intelligently on the original work, often pointing out its inherent flaws by exaggerating them.  It doesn't have to be nasty.  Some of the best parody is written by people who love the original works on which the parodic adaptations are based.  Potted Potter points out the flaws in the books, but it doesn't do so via exaggeration; it does so via the two actors explaining to the audience that the books have flaws.  A retelling involving the storytellers putting on deliberately inappropriate voices and mannerisms does not really have anything to say about the original.  Potted Potter should be billed not as a parody but as a comic recap.  When all your jokes come from you running around frenetically and being silly for reasons not connected to the actual story, you're not writing a parody.

It's also worth noting that children are not stupid.  Sure, it's fun to watch someone get covered with silly string or be forced to dress up a a Golden Snitch.  However, if there's nothing more to watch, all the zaniness gets kind of boring.  I've seen some great children's shows that acknowledge the intelligence of all their viewers, child and adult both.  Entertainment that just goes BWAAAAAAAAAAAA will catch a child's attention for a time but will prompt only cheap laughs.  Give kids a chance to become involved in the story, especially when it's a story they already love.

I'm sure plenty of people have enjoyed this show.  I'm sad to say I'm not one of them.  However, if an actual Potter parody ever makes its way to Toronto, I'll be the first in line.


Monday, February 27, 2012:  The Secret World of Twittiquette

Cards on the table:  I fell into the Twitter craze completely by accident.  I don't even remember signing up; I don't know why I did it, and I don't think I even knew what Twitter was at the time (this was way back before Twitter had catapulted into popularity).  I forgot about the account soon after I had created it.  Eight months later, someone followed me on Twitter, and I got an e-mail.  I went, "Er...what's Twitter?"  I tried signing in with a password I thought I might have used, and it worked.  This weirded me out a lot.

I've used Twitter sporadically ever since.  Lately, I've been using it more often.  By "using it," I don't really mean "posting."  I post every once in a while, generally in reply to the posts of people I know personally.  Mostly, though, I just read.  I find Twitter a useful source for links to information that interests me (often about genre fiction).  Occasionally, a webtoonist or blogger I follow will post whenever he or she updates; these links are useful too.  (I don't do this with my own comic or blog because I am terribly, terribly lazy.)  I suppose I am failing to optimise my Twitter experience, but I don't want to optimise my Twitter experience; I just like the way it enables procrastination.

However, I've got to say:  some people really don't know how to use Twitter.  I mean, they really don't know how to use it.  As far as I can tell, what they're doing with their Twitter accounts is assuring that all sane people conceive violent dislikes for them.

I'm not going to use any names because I'm not the devil,* but I do want to describe two examples of How to Ensure That Everybody on Twitter Hates You.

1)  I suppose this first one isn't really about "hatred"; it's more about "mild annoyance."  I follow two prominent fantasy authors, both of whom shall remain nameless.  One of them posts prolifically but relatively sanely; she mostly just links to things that interest her and alerts followers whenever her books go on sale.  The other posts every single tiny detail about his personal life.  He has a lot of followers, so people apparently enjoy this.  He does have some good tweets, so I continue to follow him, but I could do with fewer details about his relationship with his wife.  I get this with a less prominent author too; some of his tweets verge on uncomfortable, as he occasionally insults his wife and announces to the world whenever they're having a fight.  He also hates everything everywhere, as far as I can tell.

2)  I follow some webtoonists as well.  Most are fine; they just post links.  One, however, has driven me to loathe him.  I like his comic, but I'm on the verge of unfollowing him because he cannot shut up about himself.  Every time he pencils, inks, or letters a new comic...every time he has a brilliant idea...every time he worries that he doesn't have enough readers (this happens constantly)...every time he decides that he is a misunderstood genius...every time he has either more or fewer readers than usual exploring his site...every time he wants to explain how much he deserves success...every time someone follows him on Twitter...every time someone unfollows him on Twitter:  I must get hundreds of tweets per day from him.  I mostly just skip over them.  Dude, please just draw your damn comics and stop whining about how wonderful you are.  I understand that self-promotion is important in the webcomics community, but there's a fine line between "self-promotion" and "overweening arrogance."  The only reason I still follow him is that I do like reading his comic, but eventually, my irritation with his tweets will win out over my need to follow his work.

Long story short:  Twitter can be kind of neat, and some people really know how to use it.  If you are not one of these people (I know I'm not), consider backing off.  Do you really need to post seventeen tweets within ten minutes?  It may be cute if you do it once, but multiple times a day?  If you have that much to say, why not just start a blog?  Think of it as like being at a party.  If you sit in the corner and don't say anything, you're not going to make any friends, though it's possible you may still learn something interesting.  If you politely take part in a few conversations, you may make some friends; you will certainly be able to exchange ideas and opinions with others.  If your ideas and opinions are particularly witty, you will make even more friends.  If, on the other hand, you shove your way into every conversation and never let anyone get a word in edgewise, you will drive everybody away, no matter how brilliant your thoughts are.

*Or so I claim.


Monday, February 20, 2012:  Leggo My Lego

Okay, yes, admittedly, I just drew a comic on this very subject.  However, a number of people have responded to it, and I, in my turn, have responded to them with some mini-Rants that have threatened to turn into non-mini-Rants.  I know it's a silly thing to rage about when the world is plagued by actual problems, but then, I rarely deal with actual problems in this blog.*  So here we go:  Why I Want to Punch Lego in the Face.

The basic situation is as follows:

Lego has been around since the 1940s.  Unbeknownst to many North Americans, the toy actually originated in Denmark, but it has since become popular worldwide.  Lego's current marketing strategy, in place for the past seven years or so, has almost exclusively targeted boys, despite what I would characterise as the gender-neutral nature of the basic toy.  I mean, it's a bunch of plastic bricks you can use to build stuff.  Are we really going to claim that girls will be naturally less interested in this sort of thing?  Why, exactly?

As of late (i.e., over the course of the past few decades), Lego has become more and more interested in producing "themes" instead of just plunking a bunch of brightly-coloured bricks down into a huge tub and letting children have at them.  A visit to the Lego site will give you something like thirty-five thematic options, each containing sub-options.  Some of these themes allow the toys to be broken up and added to the glorious piles of loose bricks; others are less adaptable.  Lego has occasionally come out with "girls' lines," some of which combine with the regular bricks more easily than others.  The latest girls' line, Lego Friends, involves a number of female characters--all of them differing in several ways from the regular Lego minifigs--who are apparently bestest friends with each other and spend their days hanging out in beauty parlours and cafes.  The marketing for this line involves a lot of pink and purple and seems to imply that it will allow little girls to emulate the exciting lives of the Desperate Housewives.

Lego Friends is just one of Lego's thirty-odd lines.  The other lines are marketed to boys.  This includes the Harry Potter line and the Spongebob Squarepants line.  I was not aware that Harry and Spongebob did not interest girls at all.  The minifigs in these lines are mainly male, with some token females scattered about here and there.

The mere existence of Lego Friends is not what has me Ranting and making frowny-faces.  Some girls are, well, girly.  They like frilly princess dresses and play house a lot.  If that's what floats their boats, more power to them.  Some girls, however, do quite like, well, building things.  They like adventure.  They like running around with imaginary swords.  They like imagining that they are princesses who outwit dragons while dressed only in paper bags.  They are fond of pirates.  I wouldn't actually identify any of these "likes" as normally being exclusive to boys.

Why is it necessary to have a "girls' line," anyway?  Why not advertise all Lego for all children?  Ads that exclude girls are going to drive girls away.  Are you afraid, Lego, that ads that include girls will drive boys away?  Why do we simply accept that it's okay for boys to be ashamed of being associated with "girly toys" and "girly books"?  What would be so terrible about just making as many female minifigs as male instead of including a few female ones as tokens?  Would the whole concept of a toy with which both boys and girls could identify, not because it was specifically gendered but because it offered scope for children to imagine out stories involving male and female characters, truly be that much of a problem?  Is the idea of a gender-neutral toy really such a revolutionary concept?

People who disagree with me on this one tend to ask what the problem is.  If girls want to play with Lego geared towards boys, these people say, there's nothing stopping them.  The Lego is there; they can skip Lego Friends and go straight for the space stuff.  What these people are disregarding is that lack of female minifigs.  It could be pointed out that there's nothing stopping little boys from playing with Lego Friends, but many would probably agree that there is something stopping them:  the fact that all the characters in this line are female.  Even if a male character were introduced, he would be a token, like Ken in the Barbie pantheon.  We tend to assume that boys should never be expected to identify with female characters and may, in fact, be incapable of doing so.  Simultaneously, little girls who want the more adventurous Lego are assumed to be fine with playing with mostly male minifigs.  Lego is thus, again, framed as a boys' toy; girls who buy the sets on sale in the "boys' aisle" of the toy store are deviating from the norm of their gender instead of just choosing to play with a neat toy.  The fact that they have fewer characters with whom to identify shouldn't be a problem because everyone should be able to identify with male characters.

Incidentally, why not encourage male interest in Lego Friends?  There are, heaven forbid, some little boys who might be attracted to the idea of going to the beauty parlour and then chilling in the cafe with their BFFs.  Why not do Lego Friends with minifigs so it can be combined more seamlessly with other sets, and "Emma" and "Olivia" can hang out with "Harry Potter" and "Voldemort"?  Why not introduce a few spin-offs?  Lego Friends in Space!  Lego Friends in Their Time-Travelling Ice-Cream Truck!  Lego Friends Discover a Dystopian Otherworld in the Sewers of Heartlake City!  If you're going to embrace themes, Lego, don't stop with the boring stuff and claim you're covering the female demographic.  Let the girls have their adventures too.  Also, consider using a bit of green and dark blue in the bricks used to construct the beauty parlour.  Better yet, build a comic-book store next door.

The possibilities here are actually limitless, and no, I am not being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek.  I hate Lego Friends at the moment, but the hatred doesn't have to last.  The line seems limited because Lego appears to have set limits on it.  If it tried, it could do more than simply assume that all girls were alike and should be exposed to only one type of play.

*Unless the actual problems involve bullying in some way.


Monday, February 13, 2012:  My Name is Kari, and I Hate Valentine's Day

I know perfectly well that it's a cliche to hate Valentine's Day.  Worse, it's a cliche that everyone expects from me, as I am, in fact, a thirty-seven-year-old single lady.  I should point out that I don't hate Valentine's Day because I am a thirty-seven-year-old single lady.  I hate it because it is fun to hate it.  I expect it's much more fun than it is to participate in it.

I mean, come on:  you're expecting me to believe that you actually look forward to a day on which couples obsess over making everything perfect?  Is it really enjoyable to spend hours looking for a piece of jewelry that says "I am very fond of you" without adding "and I think we should get married relatively soon"?  Do you look forward to dissolving into tears because you couldn't get a reservation wherever?  Is this actually a necessary part of your life?

I'm sure some couples have fun on Valentine's Day.  I'm also sure that even more secretly long for it to be over.  As for us supposedly sad, lonely singles:  why should we care?  It gets the schmoopsy couples out of our hair for one night, and the next day, there's half-price chocolate at Shoppers.

I plan to spend Valentine's Day marking, mostly because I plan to spend every day this week marking.  I'll also probably edit part of an MBA thesis and update a lecture on sitcoms.  Then I'll burn some sparkly pink hearts and chase nuzzling couples around Toronto with a laser.  All in all, it will probably be quite a good day.


Monday, February 6, 2012:  No Rant Today

I just spent all day on a plane, and I'm tired.  Tune in again next week for more meandering randomness.

Monday, January 30, 2012:  A Rowse by Any Other Name

I'm at my parents' place at the moment.  Yesterday, I answered the phone; the called said, "Is that Jan?"  Jan, my sister, had been staying with my parents for a week and was just about to head home.

I said, "No, it's Kari."

"Oh," said the caller, "Carrie!"

I was so used to this sort of thing that I didn't even notice what had happened.  My sister, on the other hand, did.  She could hear the caller's voice, and she laughed out loud.  Admittedly, it's pretty amusing when someone corrects my pronunciation of my name.

I really don't understand why people do this.  I know some names are difficult to pronounce or remember, and that's fine; what baffles me is when an otherwise sane person will immediately respond to my name by telling me what it's supposed to be.  Frankly, my name isn't even that difficult to say.  You can pronounce "car," yes?  Then you can pronounce "Kari."  But there seems to be a sort of general disbelief that I am getting my own name right.

When I was a little kid, I would correct people all the time.  My dad picked up on this little quirk of mine and called me "Carrie" just to get a rise out of me.  I now frequently just let the error stand.  It's too exhausting to go around explaining the proper pronunciation of my name to everyone I meet.  And I haven't even mentioned my surnamed yet.  No one can pronounce my surname.  Those who try and fail generally ask me why I pronounce it the way I pronounce it.  "Because that's how it's pronounced" is not a reply that goes over well.

I recognise that mistakes happen and people mishear things.  However, I would ask you not to correct the pronunciation of an unusual name immediately after the person to whom it belongs utters it.  There's something just a teeny bit insulting about the whole situation.


Monday, January 23, 2012:  Unrantiferous

I'm afraid I'm too worried about actual problems at the moment to feel justified in writing a long Rant about imaginary ones.  I suppose I could do a short list instead.  Here, then, are the Top Six Reasons I Am Unhappy With My Boots:

6)  When I put them on, my left big toe begins hurting like crazy.  I don't know why this is.  It doesn't hurt at all when I'm not wearing my boots.

5)  I have a bad habit of dragging my heels.  I do it so persistently that I generally end up wearing the heels of my boots away.  The heels of these particular boots are so worn that they can probably most accurately be described as "completely gone."  If I rock backwards on my heels too far, I fall over.

4)  I'm not sure what the point of boots that height is.  They're too low to keep the snow out but too high to count as ankle boots.  They certainly aren't a fashion statement.  I don't really get them.  They were the only ones in the entire store that fit me.

3)  They are always covered with salt, meaning that...

2)  They are beginning to leak.  I think the salt has eroded the leather.

1)  Because of my weirdly shaped feet, they cost about the same amount one would pay for, say, a banjo, and they haven't lasted nearly as long.  I wish I wasn't always being disappointed by my boots.  That's life, I suppose.


Monday, January 16, 2012:  Open Letter to the Jerk Who Drenched Me in Slush the Other Day

Dear Jerk:

I understand that it's probably a great deal of fun to drive as close to the sidewalk as possible so that you can hit the puddles that have formed right next to the curb and therefore shower pedestrians with freezing cold water and small chunks of ice.  It probably feels good to see someone standing dripping on the pavement, screaming imprecations, while you drive away in your toasty automobile.  Why do pedestrians expect anything different, after all?  They choose to walk instead of driving like sensible human beings.  They want to expose themselves to the elements.  They therefore deserve to end up covered in grimy liquid that can really only be called "water" by an optimist.

Yes, there are bigger problems in the world.  One of them is your car, dear, dear jerk.  Your car is a polluting money pit that is a danger to everyone who encounters it without being enclosed in--in point of fact--another car.  It's lovely that you are contributing to the destruction of the environment, endangering the lives of cyclists and pedestrians, and ensuring that the contents of puddles are forever spraying gracefully over sidewalks instead of remaining in the puddles themselves.  Thank you ever so much for not driving in your actual lane.  Why would you want to?  The pothole-riddled bit of the road next to the curb offers you a much smoother ride.  If you're lucky, perhaps you'll kill a cyclist.

The funny thing was that you were the fourth jerk to splash the sidewalk on the day you got me.  I escaped the first three but thought I saw a window of opportunity once they had passed.  I was wrong.  Thank you for showing me the error of my ways.

It's much colder now, and there are no longer any puddles for you to drive through, which is sad.  Let us both hope for warmer days so that you may return to your campaign to terrorise those pedestrians who, obviously, so richly deserve it.

Yours sincerely,


Monday, January 9, 2012:  On Negativity

I've been sitting here trying to figure out what to Rant about today.  Every time I come up with a possible topic, I end up telling myself, "No, I can't write on that; it's too negative."  I try something else, and it's too negative too.  This has been going on for a while.

So now I'm wondering:

What is it about negativity, exactly, that makes us assume it makes someone's opinion less worthy?  I know I'm often a bit too much of a pessimist about things, but people do sometimes use that fact to dismiss what I say.  On the other hand, people who are unrelentingly cheerful and optimistic are taken very seriously and assumed to be in the right.

This may seem like the beginning of another Kari is Feeling Sorry For Herself Again session, but it's actually not.  I'm genuinely interested in this phenomenon.  What makes Pollyanna more reliable than Eeyore?  Why is someone who always expects the worst automatically less accurate than someone who always expects the best?  As far as I know, there is nothing in the physical laws of the universe that says that sunshiney beamers who see the good in everything are more likely to be right about what is going on than grumpy sulkers who are always looking for problems.

Maybe the myth of Cassandra is more than just a clever bit of classical irony; we really do tend to regard the Cassandras of the world as mere naysayers and Negative Nellies.  Frankly, it's probably self-defence.  Sure, maybe the volcano is going to erupt and kill us all, but if we're always harping on it, we're missing out on enjoying the three or four hours left before it happens.  If we sing and dance through life, we don't end up paralysed by the knowledge that no one lives forever.  People who do nothing but point out the negative tend to be unhappy themselves, and they can be seen as spreading their unhappiness.

On the other hand, it may not be entirely fair to place less of a value on negativity.  The people who launched the Titanic were pretty optimistic.  The people responsible for maintaining aircraft might, in contrast, be regarded as having pessimism built into their very jobs; if they just smiled and trusted that everything would turn out okay, there would be a lot more plane crashes than there are.  The devout belief in Murphy's Law ultimately leads to stringent safety standards and a lot of double-checking.  Perhaps this double-checking is unnecessary 99% of the time; it's the remaining 1% where it comes in handy.

The prejudice against pessimism also prompts some people to look askance at the grieving process.  Mourning leads to tears, denial, rage, confusion; certain perpetually happy individuals think it should be possible to skip over all those inconvenient reactions, and they express puzzlement when this doesn't happen.  The emotions somehow become the fault of the mourner and stand as signs of weakness.

I am fully aware that it is bad to be negative all the time.  However, I don't accept that the opposite--being positive all the time, whether or not the situation warrants it--is an improvement.  Optimism is not strength, especially when it persists in the face of the facts.  Perhaps the ideal would be a mixture:  the ability to be either positive or negative at need.  I do think we should be able to recognise the necessity for sadness and anger and suspicion of "too much of a good thing."  Sweeping negative emotions under the carpet may make them less visible, but it doesn't make them go away or solve the problems that have provoked them.


Monday, January 2, 2012:  To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

Well, it's early 2012.  It is a time of resolutions, apparently.  Let me make one.  But first, a story:

John Troutman, the creator of the webcomic Lit Brick, which I follow and admire, has made a resolution himself. Basically, he has declared that since his comic has existed for over a year and has gained what he has declared via Twitter to be "1000ish readers," which he doesn't regard as anywhere near enough to count as success, Lit Brick will be "entering a hiatus" that Mr. Troutman's tweets are pretty much implying will last forever.  This makes me rather sad, as Lit Brick--which I discovered a few months ago, and which, due to a combination of laziness and a complete lack of spare time, I have not added to my links page--is devoted to reproducing the contents of the Norton Anthology of English Literature four panels at a time.  Mr. Troutman regularly describes his readership as "niche," but I prefer to think of it as consisting of people capable of finding this funny.  Okay, maybe it is niche.  If you remember the end of Beowulf even a little bit, you will likely understand why that strip gives me the giggles.

I completely understand the need not to continue with a project in which one has lost faith; several of Mr. Troutman's comments have hinted at a general discontent with the episodic nature of Lit Brick and the frustration of not having a proper continuing storyline to work with.  However, the "my readership isn't growing" argument is one with which I must respectfully beg to differ.  I suppose this makes me a masochist or maybe just delusional, but I've got to say it:  West of Bathurst has been running for five and a half years, and it has a few hundred readers at most.  Does this mean I am going to abandon it?  Hell, no.  I shall continue with my aggressively niche comic until the story is finished, whenever the heck that might be, or until my computer bursts into flame, which may very well happen first.

Which of us has the right of it?  I honestly don't know.  Do low numbers mean a project is no good?  Do they mean that the person gaining them should give up and try something more likely to be popular?  It's true that "success" in the webcomic world equals "ability to gain enough readers that one can make a living via merchandising and advertising," and it's also true that only a very few webcomic creators possess such an ability.  There are some fantastic comics with huge readerships.  There are also some terrible comics with huge readerships.  Conversely, there are some fantastic comics and some terrible comics with small readerships.  Meh comics can be found in both categories, as well as in between.  Does popularity equal success, and does success equal worth?  Am I an idiot to spend all this time creating a comic that, in the larger scheme of things, hardly anybody reads?

I don't care if I am.  As far as I'm concerned, West of Bathurst doesn't have to be Penny Arcade.  (You know, now that I think of it, I've never even portrayed characters playing video games.  I think Baldwin is probably a gamer, though.)  It has only a few hundred readers?  Well, they enjoy it, and so do I.  It's kind of fun to be a little fish in a big pond.  If you do something outrageous, there will be a mere few hundred people who want to kill you.

I don't mean this as a criticism of Mr. Troutman, though I am disappointed that there will be no more She-Jesus (don't ask).  He's got to do what he's got to do.  His declaration just got me thinking, and it has prompted me to declare:

I hereby resolve that West of Bathurst will stubbornly continue, even if its website keeps going down and its readers forget about it for months at a time.  Have a happy New Year.


Monday, December 26, 2011:  Another Week of Not Ranting

It's 10:30 p.m. on Christmas night, but since I was in Toronto two days ago and am now in BC, it feels like 1:30 a.m. on Boxing Day morning.  Also, there have been small children going mad with excitement all over the place since 5:00 a.m.  I am tired and need to skip the Rant.   Next week, however, things should return to normal.


Monday, December 19, 2011:  The Joy of Marking

I'm afraid I don't have time for a Rant this week.  I have marked 146 exams in the past two days, and I still have about twenty essays and several hundred discussion responses to go before the mark-submission deadline on Tuesday afternoon.  Why didn't I finish my marking earlier, you ask?  That would be the fault of the 200 essays I had to get through before I started the exams.  "I just want to cry" is probably the most coherent thing I'm capable of saying right now.  I do hope everyone else is having a great break.  Imagine me simultaneously glaring and weeping as I type that.


Monday, December 12, 2011:  Bullying Mark Two

First of all, I would like to thank everybody who has commented, both publicly and privately, on last week's Rant.  The subject is one that is important to me.  A lot of you have had similar experiences, some much worse than mine.  Some have been witnesses of bullying rather than victims themselves.  I have heard from nobody who claims to have been a bully, but one of the interesting--and terrifying--things about this issue is that the categories are not mutually exclusive.  In a recent Globe and Mail article, a number of kids were asked to speak of their experience; the majority of them identified themselves as belonging to at least two of the three categories of "bully," "witness," and "victim."  Some claimed to be all three.

When you're ten years old and people are hurting you, you want to hurt them back.  Sometimes, you want them to die.  But the truth of the matter is that they're not monsters.  They're kids.  They're louder or physically stronger or more charismatic than you are.  Often, they're just as scared, and of the same things:  of being singled out.  Of being laughed at.  Of being bullied themselves.

If we want to solve the problem, we need to stop treating the categories as entirely separate, and we need to stop focusing solely on the victims.  Yes, the victims certainly need our help.  They need support; they need to know that the teachers are not just "letting kids be kids."  They need some assurance that they are not alone.  But bullying is not a natural disaster.  If we simply teach the victims to cope, we are accepting bullying as a fact of life, something that will happen no matter what.  We have to start talking to the bullies too.  Punishment isn't enough.  Punishment doesn't teach empathy.  It also tends to drive bullies to revenge.

Perhaps there will eventually be some way for us to change our definition of "strength."  Our society tends to view the loudest, pushiest people as the strongest; we do not highlight the strength necessary to choose not to kick and shove one's way into the alpha position.  In actual fact, it's braver to refuse to taunt a classmate--thus risking scorn oneself--than it is to join in on the ridicule.

In the last couple of weeks, I have noticed two sitcom episodes that have dealt with bullying, one on The Big Bang Theory and one on Community.  They are worth looking at briefly because they offer, respectively, very conventional and rather unconventional portrayals of bullies and their victims.  There will be some spoilers below.

The Big Bang Theory, a traditional multi-camera sitcom, offers a familiar portrait of childhood bullying.  The now adult victim, Leonard, is about as typical a Hollywood nerd as it is possible to find:  small, weak,  smart, glasses-wearing, suffering from various digestive ailments.  In the episode, he is contacted by a former bully who wants to have drinks with him.  The majority of the episode consists of Leonard describing all the things the bully and various other bullies did to him, to uproarious laughter from the studio audience.  The bullying incidents, some of which are genuinely horrifying, are played for laughs.  When the bully turns up, he is a large, crude alcoholic who is clearly not very bright.  His drinking features heavily, implying karmic retribution for the bullying.  When Leonard finally confronts him, he seems remorseful, though it later turns out that the remorse stemmed from the drinking; he has forgotten it by the morning, at which time the bullying--again played for laughs--resumes.  The B plot involves Leonard's next-door neighbour Penny being forced by her much nerdier friends to realise that she was herself a bully in school.  She phones her former victims to try to pacify her conscience, but they all reject her overtures.  She continues to mock them (for laughs, of course) even as she apologises.

Community is a less conventional comedy, and it takes a less conventional approach.  One of the protagonists, Jeff, is bothered by some loud, obnoxious foosball players at his community college, and when he tries to get them to stop, they humiliate him in a game of foosball.  He tries to persuade his friend Shirley, who is a foosball genius but never plays, to teach him how to beat them.  Neither Jeff nor Shirley has played since childhood; both were once devoted to the game but eventually driven away from it.  In the course of their training session, they discover they have a linked past:  at twelve, Shirley was the bully who tore into ten-year-old Jeff during a game of foosball, abusing him so violently that she made him wet his pants.  He quit foosball because of the bullying; she quit because the incident made her recognise herself as a bully.  The coincidence is, of course, contrived, but it leads to a foosball-themed shouting match in which the two of them both scream out their anguish, Jeff pointing out what the bullying did to him and Shirley countering that she was trying to divert attention from her own difference.  The interesting bit is that the adult Shirley is a devoutly Christian mother of three, while Jeff is an outwardly arrogant, manipulative lawyer; in most stories, their positions as bully and victim would be reversed.  They reconcile at the end of the episode.

Community trumps The Big Bang Theory here by focusing on both bully and bullied without stereotyping either.  Both are portrayed as human beings, neither overly kind and good nor ridiculously mean and rotten.  Shirley has not been overtaken by karmic retribution, and she is not identical to her twelve-year-old self.  Jeff, despite his seeming confidence, has been haunted by the incident well into his thirties; by the end of the episode, the viewer realises that Jeff's motivation for attacking the foosball players in the first place must have been linked, perhaps subconsciously, to his memories of Shirley's bullying.  In The Big Bang Theory, on the other hand, everything is black and white.  The bully is a cardboard cut-out; I watched the episode only a couple of days ago, but I've already forgotten his name.  The bullying itself is clearly meant to be hilarious.  In Penny's plot, Penny's obliviousness is mocked, but the audience laughs just as loudly when she is making fun of someone's stutter as it does when she is demonstrating her own selfishness.  Leonard's lists of the bully's physically violent treatment of him elicits more laughter, and the episode ends with the bully once more asserting his physical superiority by chasing both Leonard and his roommate down several flights of stairs in their own apartment building.  The episode gives us the bully as natural disaster and simultaneously provides us with the false but doubtless comforting fiction that bullies will end up as alcoholic losers (unless they are female and pretty).  Community offers no karma and, in the actual bullying scene, no laughter.  It's still a very funny episode, but it doesn't take the easy way out.

I'm sure I could write on this subject for another year or so, but I'd better stop now.  Please do keep thinking about this issue.  If nobody thinks about it, nothing will ever be done.


Monday, December 5, 2011:  "Kids Will Be Kids":  A Refutation

Note:  I'm going to start posting my weekly Rants on the WoB Talk blog as well as on this page.  Some people do like to comment on them, and these comments tend to confuse people who just want to talk about the comics.  I'll continue to post the fortnightly comics threads, but Ranty threads will be appearing on Mondays as well.

The permanent link for today's Rant is here.

This week's Rant is likely to be less goofy and sarcastic than usual.  I apologise for the lack of ironic humour.  However, this issue is one I've been thinking about a lot.  It seems to be ending up in the news quite frequently lately (I think the Toronto Star may have just done a series on it, but I've seen it elsewhere too).

I have an unfortunate habit of reacting to social situations with impulsive and bitter references to Bad Things That Happened to Me in High School.  When I do so, my acquaintances tend to respond by telling me to get over it.  High school was a long time ago; why am I still complaining about stuff that happened to me when I was fourteen?  I should grow up and move on with my life.  Theoretically, these people are correct.  I'm thirty-six, not fourteen.  I was in high school decades ago.  There is no logical reason I should still be harping on that time of my life, which is over and done with.  My references to the "unfairness" of high school doubtless come across as self-centred and pointless.

The fact that I can analyse my own behaviour like this is actually a symptom of what I am about to tell you.

I was bullied--viciously, unrelentingly, mercilessly--between the ages of eight and sixteen.  I expect that in realistic terms, the bullying began in a minor way in kindergarten and didn't truly end until I graduated from high school, but I have a crystal-clear memory of what I think of as the beginning of the terror:  the moment in grade 3 when one of my classmates discovered that my last name sounded quite a bit like "moron."  In grades 11 and 12, on the other hand, I was still ostracised somewhat, but I also managed to find some similarly ostracised friends, and we formed our own nerdy little defensive group of outcasts.  It was in between these two periods that my life became a living hell, and no, I do not use that term lightly.

"Kids will be kids," adults say indulgently.  Of course there's some bullying, but it's harmless; it's just children squabbling amongst themselves.  Adults who talk like this were rarely ever bullied themselves.  Being the class pariah is terrifying.  There is no other word for it.  The pariah is despised.  She is ugly, fat, stinky, clumsy, nerdy, stuck-up.  She spits when she talks, and that's hilarious.  She is blamed for every fart, every belch.  Her clothes are wrong.  Her opinions are stupid.  She has no right to speak; she has no right to play.  If she has a friend, that friend must be weaned away from her.  She must be singled out.  She must be made to see how worthless she is, how incredibly lame her achievements are.  Anyone who treats her kindly must be ostracised too.

I wasn't the only kid in my cohort who was treated like a worthless piece of garbage by the others; there were a number of us low on the totem pole.  We weren't friends.  A couple of girls who were mocked for being poor stuck together, but because they were sticking together and therefore counted as a group, they saw themselves as superior to me.  I was rejected even by the other nerds.

I did play with some other kids in my neighbourhood; they tolerated me but didn't really like me.  None of the members of this loose neighbourhood gang were in my class at school.  I had one "best" friend between grades five and seven.  Let's call her Amelia.  She wasn't academically gifted, but she was nice; we used to play together almost every day.  In grade seven, when the bullying was at its height, one of the boys made a loud, crude joke about me in front of the class, and Amelia laughed.  That was the end of my single real childhood friendship.  Looking back now, I realise that Amelia's reaction was probably spontaneous and that she may not even have thought about how it might have affected me.  At the time, as a lonely twelve-year-old who spent every day in an atmosphere of hostility and mockery, I saw Amelia's laughter as the worst sort of betrayal.

The bullying took many forms, most emotional rather than physical.  I couldn't open my mouth without being mocked.  Everything I said was proof that I had no right to exist.  I was "Kari Moron," the ugly, fat, smelly nerd.  I wasn't athletic, which made the boys laugh at me.  I wasn't pretty, which made the girls laugh at me.  My parents told me that junior high school would be better because all the bullies would have something else to occupy them and would lose interest in me.  In fact, the bullies made friends with other bullies and graduated from name-calling to physical intimidation.  One boy walked past me in class and violently punched me in the arm.  A group of boys followed me home from school, throwing rocks at me, aiming for my bum, since that was "funny."  A boy grabbed the front of my shirt, yanked it open--breaking my necklace in the process--and shoved a handful of holly leaves down my front.  A couple of girls took me aside in class and described in detail what was wrong with me and how I could fix it.  A group of girls sat in front of my locker and refused to move.  I occasionally felt in physical danger from my classmates, the people I was expected to interact with on a daily basis.  A lot of this stuff may seem relatively trivial, but imagine enduring it day after day for eight years.

There were periods when I cried every day.  I hated going to school; I told my parents I wanted to stay home.  Contemplating another day as the class punching bag made me feel nauseous.  There was nothing I could do to stop it.  My parents advised me to "ignore" the bullying.  Any bullied child will tell you that ignoring the abuse just makes it worse.  So does fighting back.  If your classmates want to bully you, they will bully you.  Complaining to a teacher is one of the stupidest things you can do.  Snitches do not prosper in elementary or high school.  I occasionally had to beg my parents not to phone the parents of the children who had been tormenting me.  In retrospect, I suppose I was just enabling the bullying, but I was also afraid of what the bullies would do to me if their parents punished them.

When I was a very little girl, I was happy and outgoing, probably almost obnoxiously so; I wasn't afraid to insert my opinion into any conversation.  I even remember having a crush on a boy and actually telling him to his face that I liked him.  Adults tended to describe me as "precocious."

By the time I graduated from high school, I was seething with internal rage that I didn't quite dare express aloud; when it escaped, I was ashamed, immediately assuming that I was in the wrong.  I had no self-esteem or self-confidence.  I knew I was a failure.  Even when I was good at things, I knew these things were essentially worthless.  I would never have dreamed of telling a boy I liked him; I would have expected to be laughed at and publicly humiliated if I had.  I hated almost everything about myself.  I thought of myself as grubby and ugly and insignificant.  I was aware that my opinions were always wrong, that my ideas were always stupid, that I didn't really deserve to win at anything.  I did become resentful when I felt I had been treated unfairly, but the resentment was always accompanied by the thought:  "But was it really unfair?  Maybe it wasn't.  Maybe you're wrong again."  I knew my natural state was to be wrong about things.

I can look back on this time of my life and see why I felt the way I felt.  What I can't do is stop it from affecting the way I feel now.

I still feel like a failure.  I still feel as if my thoughts are worth less than everybody else's.  When I express my opinion aloud, I expect it to be rejected; I expect everyone to be wondering at my presumption.  Even now, as I write this Rant, I am worried that its readers will roll their eyes and assume that Kari is just being Kari again.  I tend to get clingy with my friends; when they draw away from me, I take it as personally as I did the day someone made a joke about me in elementary school, and my "best friend" laughed.  I have never been in a relationship.  I would never in a million years announce to a guy that I had a crush on him.  I still feel ugly.  I'm incapable of small talk or of interacting comfortably with strangers, especially strangers I see as being superior to me (which would cover almost everyone).  I become angry very easily, and I react badly to the anger in public, then assume any confrontation is almost entirely my own fault; I also assume that everyone else is blaming me as well.  I expect not to succeed.  I approach the world so negatively that everybody sees me as a pessimist.  In reality, the pessimism is my way of steeling myself against the inevitable disappointment.

I am never going to "get over it."

It's hard to "get over" eight years of being told by the people you see every day that you don't matter.  It makes you who you are.  Maybe it shouldn't.  Maybe kids really will just be kids; maybe the fact that it still bothers me genuinely means that I am weak.  Maybe if I were a better person, I wouldn't let my appalling childhood shape me like this.

Or maybe that appalling childhood is something I need to accept, not so that I can forget it but so that I can acknowledge that it is part of me.  Many people seem to be willing to admit to the influence of the past only when that past is a happy one or involves positive aspects such as a personal, individual triumph over a bully.  Many others will even now be thinking that my experience wasn't that bad.  I didn't grow up in a dictatorship.  I didn't see family members tortured or killed.  I had rights and privileges; I had enough to eat.  I had a loving family and a place to live.  I had an education and teachers who cared about me.  This is all true.  But you can't take a happy little girl and spend eight years telling her she is a waste of space, then expect her to remain a happy little girl.  If you dismiss her experience because she never got over it, you are implying that you could have withstood similar abuse without effect.  I would invite you to try.

Kids will be kids; that doesn't mean kids will be reasonable or kind, and it doesn't mean their "play" is harmless.  It also doesn't mean that their victims will ever "get over it."  For better or for worse, the bullying made me me.  I'm not trying to excuse my own bad behaviour or claim I shouldn't take responsibility for being cowardly and, occasionally, anti-social; I just want you to know how hard some things are to overcome.  I can't even say that the current me is any worse a person than a non-bullied me would have been.  She's certainly a different one, and most likely a much sadder and more bitter one.  She is undoubtedly less well adjusted and more difficult to get along with.  But she is probably also more empathetic, more willing to see the point of view of the underdog, even if she doesn't always show this side of herself to her acquaintances.  She is a better critical thinker, since she approaches everything from at least two perspectives simultaneously.  When she takes refuge in sarcasm, she does feel bad about it; in fact, she feels a bit like a bully herself.  She hates this aspect of her personality more than all the others combined.

And she does very much hope that children--or adults--who find it necessary to mock the "weird kids" in order to make themselves feel better will put themselves, for just an instant, in the shoes of the girl sitting alone in the corner because she is "different" somehow.

Monday, November 28, 2011:  Zombie Season

I've been sick for two weeks now; I'm getting better, but my voice is still not 100%, my nose remains stuffed up, and I occasionally go off into violent bouts of coughing for no particular reason.  What I've mainly noticed, however, is that I'm not by any means alone.  In fact, it sometimes seems as if most of the people around me are sick.

I go to class, and half my students are away.  Sure, some of them are skipping because it's the end of term and they are getting really tired of Canadian short stories, but about seventy-five percent of the ones who do show up are cough, sneezing, and/or rasping.  There's a guy coughing--that hollow, desperate sort of coughing that denotes more than just a polite clearing of the throat--in the grocery store.  The streets are full of coughing and sniffling and general misery.  People give each others sad, knowing smiles.  I have an appointment that involves both me and the other person clutching tissue boxes and blowing our noses every two minutes or so.  Nobody seems to be feeling very well.

I know it's flu season, but it doesn't seem fair that this illness has hit in mid-to-late November.  I'm so far behind on my marking that it isn't even funny.  My students are preparing for their exams.  Presumably, retailers are rather busy at the moment too, despite the lack of Black Friday in Canada.*  Why do we all have to get sick now?

If I end up with another cold before Christmas, that will be my third this term, and I shall be very angry and make vague, impotent threats.  It's all we can ever really do when we catch colds.

*Except online.  Why did I receive so many Black Friday ads from Canadian retailers last week?  There is no Black Friday here!  Christmas shopping starts in Canada on November 1st!  Nobody in Canada is going to put all the waffle irons on sale for $2 apiece at midnight, causing a riot!  We have to wait until Boxing Day for that!

Monday, November 21, 2011:  Speechless in Toronto

A few minutes ago, I had got quite a ways into a bitter Rant about how when you have laryngitis, people tend to pretend you're not there.  However, realising that it was probably an unfair accusation born of frustration, pain, and the knowledge that I was going to have to give a two-hour lecture on Harry Potter in a whisper, I deleted it.  It's true, however, that people don't know how to deal with someone who has laryngitis.  I expect many of these people have never had laryngitis themselves.  How does that even happen?  I've had it (the full-blown variety, whereby the voice vanishes entirely) at least four or five times.  I wouldn't describe it as "fun"--in fact, I would describe it as "maddening to the point where if I still had a voice, I would scream loudly and try to knock down a wall with my head"--but it's a fact of my life.  How are there people who have escaped it?  If they are smug in my presence, am I allowed to hit them?  My first impulse would, of course, be to yell at them, but somehow, I'm expecting that wouldn't work out.

One thing I learn anew every time I have laryngitis is that when you can't talk, your facial expressions become progressively more exaggerated.  The necessity to communicate entirely with your face and hands leads to some truly remarkable grimaces and a lot of fruitless flapping.  During the Massey Belles' performance of "The Night Pat Murphy Died" on Friday, one of our singers started on the wrong note, and I apparently terrified him into stopping dead when I whipped around and scowled at him silently.  I shall doubtless lose this superpower when my voice returns.

Tonight, I have some limited voice function back.  I sound rather like Mickey Mouse, and I doubt I'll be able to speak for more than a few seconds at a time before my vocal chords begin to swell again, but it's nice not to be totally silent any more.  Now just watch these be Famous Last Words; I'll probably wake up in the morning to find I've caught another cold.  If anyone has something I can punch, let me know.

Monday, November 14, 2011:  Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid...

I'm sick again.  I think I need not to write a Rant today.  My head hurts, and my throat hurts, and everything is stupid.

Monday, November 7, 2011:  Marking is Pain, Princess

In the course of the last ten days or so, I have marked about 155 midterms.  On my best day, I got through forty; on my second-best day, I managed thirty-four.  By the time I finished up yesterday, my right arm hurt so badly that I was only able to write notes for about ten seconds at a time.  I had to lug my accordion around today, and I learned, in doing so, that even my elbow hurt.

I know marking is a necessity, but I wish there were some way of doing it directly with my brain without getting my hand involved at all.  Why has this technology not yet been developed?  Hordes of teachers the world over would be grateful if someone invented a way to beam thoughts directly onto exam papers.  Of course, there would be problems, but I'm sure the program could be taught to translate "This paper has no redeeming qualities and may yet cause me to weep in despair at what is apparently the current state of the human race" as "You may need to work a bit on your verb tenses."

Monday, October 31, 2011:  Once Upon a Graaaaaaargh

For some inexplicable reason, television has caught the fairy-tale bug lately; two new fairy-tale-themed shows, Once Upon a Time and Grimm, have recently launched.  I am passionate about fairy tales and am always willing to try new fairy-tale adaptations.  Despite common belief, I'm not really a purist; I don't think it's possible to be a purist with fairy tales, which have changed constantly down through the centuries in order to retain relevance to the societies in which they have been told.  My discontent with many of the Disney adaptations lies not with my feeling that Disney has "adapted the stories wrong" but with my disagreement with Disney's forced imposition of some rather repellant morals onto the stories, especially where female characters are concerned.  I do very much like some of Disney's films, but others make my want to punch things.  I also get agitated when people equate "fairy tales" with "Disney cartoons," as if the older material has been erased by the popularity of the Disney films.  Many people who have grown up with Disney have no idea that "good vs. evil" is actually not an inherent property of fairy tales or that the "handsome prince" is less a typical fairy-tale hero than he is a minor character who acts as a reward for the protagonist of the female-centred story.  At any rate, while I don't object to Disney's adaptations per se, I do object to their dominance, which is so prevalent that when people talk about creating "darker and edgier" fairy tales, it is assumed that they are doing something new, not returning to something very old.

I say all this because I want to make it clear that I was quite happy to view the pilots of Once Upon a Time and Grimm, both of which I thought would probably be fun to watch.  My impression, after having watched the first episode of each, is as follows:

Once Upon a Time infuriates me to a degree I associate with Glee, only more so.  It's not so much that the show works on the assumption that the Disney versions are canon--though that's certainly a distracting element--as it is that the show's writers are apparently setting out to vilify everyone involved in the adoption process.  I don't really like the word "offensive," which is used far too often in ad hominem arguments, but I'm not sure what other word applies here.  The writers have apparently set out to insult birth parents (the birth mother in the show is accused of throwing her son away like trash; a kinder character also implies that she has caused permanent damage to him by abandoning him), adoptive parents (the adoptive mother is the patented fairy-tale Wicked Queen, and she all but states that she doesn't love her son), and adoptees (who are apparently deeply troubled and desperately in need of their birth parents).  As an adoptee, I am used to a certain amount of prejudice in American film and television, but this is more blatant than anything I have ever seen.  The writers also treat fairy tales with contempt and laziness by not bothering to go beyond Disney's black-and-white world view, but for me, the fairy-tale idiocy is eclipsed by the cruelty of the adoption plot.  The show's basic set-up is also stolen quite blatantly from the excellent comic series Fables, incidentally.

Grimm is an improvement on Once Upon a Time, though frankly, almost anything would be.  It has a lot of good bits, but it could be better.  Basically, it's Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a forgettable male Everyman in the lead.  Part of the reason Buffy worked was that the protagonist was a teeny blonde cheerleader-type high-school girl who found herself thrust to the margins by her unwanted role as the "chosen one."  Buffy was simply an appealing character, and at the time, no one had seen anything like her before.  In Grimm, Nick has no real personality; he is characterised mostly by his bafflement.  Every other character presented thus far has been more interesting than him, from his partner to his girlfriend (who has had perhaps one line) to the "big bad wolf" he is obviously on the way to befriending.  However, what frustrates me the most about this programme, which does have plenty of potential, is that I want Nick's Aunt Marie to be the protagonist.  Aunt Marie is fantastic.  Who wouldn't want to watch a show about a little bald cancer-ridden old lady who goes up against scythe-wielding death-faces in hand-to-hand combat?  Why hasn't there been a show about a little bald cancer-ridden monster-fighter before?  Marie is clearly going to pop her clogs very soon, which is simply too bad.  I would take her as a main character over Nick any day.  As for the fairy tales:  so far, they seem like an excuse for the show to line up a bunch of monsters to be slain.  Where are Xander and Willow when you need them?

I'll continue to give Grimm a chance, but I'm not sure about Once Upon a Time, which left me crying with anger after I viewed the pilot.  I know I shouldn't take TV shows so personally, but I'm a bit tired of the convention that makes it all right to treat adoptees and their parents like freaks of nature.

Monday, October 24, 2011:  And Now I Have a Terrible Headache

I don't think I shall be able to Rant much tonight.  Just looking at the computer screen for more than thirty seconds at a time hurts profoundly.  The headache is basically the culmination of my many activities today, from marking to cartooning to random poster creation to make-up-exam composition to essay-assignment-sheet production to lugging five instruments halfway across Toronto and playing most of them for an hour and a half on an empty stomach.  It's all sort of added up.  I do need to do more marking tonight, but I'm honestly not sure I can.  This is the kind of headache that just makes me want to cry.

Ah well.  Maybe there will be a real Rant next week.  I would like not to have another headache like this any time soon.

Monday, October 17, 2011:  Well, This Isn't Working

I have attempted to write a Rant today.  Every try has come out bitter, vindictive, and swimming in terrible wrath.  Since everything I have done this week has apparently been wrong, I see no reason this Rant should turn out any differently.  I thus leave you with a picture of a tentacled monster from a LARP I was in a couple of years ago:


His mouth is made out of a toilet seat, a fact that pleases me very much.  I got to work a couple of the tentacles.  None of this has anything to do with anything going on in my life right now, a fact that is also good.  Frankly, this was simply the most random photograph I could find on my computer.  I need to go put a new drum in my printer now.  I hope everyone else is having an okay week.

Monday, October 10, 2011:  On Pie

What is it about pie that's so comforting?  I don't mean just apple pie, either.  I actually can't stand apple pie, and I'm not all too fond of that other standby, cherry.  I am allergic to both apples and cherries in their raw forms, so it is sad that I find it difficult to choke down the cooked versions as well, but cooked apples and cherries tend to make me gag, not figuratively but literally; I am actually unable to chew and swallow them without having to fight an almost uncontrollable urge to hurl.  Other types of pie are generally fine, as long as they're fresh and have not yet begun to dissolve into mush.  Blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, pecan, pumpkin, chocolate:  they are so very, very bad for me, but they taste so very, very good.  Eating a nice piece of pie fresh from the over is like being hugged by your mother, only in the form of food.  Yes, this sounds slightly odd, but you know what I mean.

I generally spend Thanksgiving alone.  My family is on the other side of the country; my friends have their own plans.  I have a hard time getting through Thanksgiving without shedding an awful lot of tears, actually.  The only good bit of the holiday is the pie.  I don't bake it because that would take effort, but pumpkin and apple pies abound at various grocery stores.  Luckily, pumpkin pie is one of my favourites.  When I was a kid and went for Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents', there would always be pumpkin pie smothered liberally in whipped cream.  My sister went for the lemon pie, but I always chose the pumpkin.  There were other things served, of course--turkey, stuffing, ham, corn, potatoes--but the pie was the meal's crowning glory.  To me, pumpkin pie tastes of those evenings with my family.

I may be alone in wishing that Thanksgiving weekend would hurry up and end already.  However, at least I have my pie.  Seeing as there's only one of me, I'll be eating it for some time to come.

Monday, October 3, 2011:  Ode to the Accordion

After limping along for a year and a half with a broken accordion, I finally got my act together and took it in to be fixed.  The problem was that the air-release button (which allows one to expand or contract the bellows without making any sound besides a sustained "FSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS") had fallen inside the instrument, resulting in a breach in the airtightness of the bellows.  I could still play the accordion, but every note was accompanied by a hissing noise, and the bellows would leak air constantly if I didn't hold them in place.  The problem was getting the accordion to the out-of-the-way repair shop, which required an appointment and a lengthy subway trip.  I could have done it ages ago, but I just never did.

I got the repaired instrument back yesterday, and today, I have been happily playing at full volume during lecture-writing breaks.*  I know nobody else cares, and many people think I am insane, but I just need to express my affection for the accordion.  I've been playing for sixteen or seventeen years now.  Unlike the ukulele, an instrument I have also been playing since long before anybody began to realise it was anything other than a toy, the accordion is still not particularly well regarded in North America and frequently substitutes for the bagpipes in jokes about musical instruments as instigators of unbearable torture.  I've lost count of the number of comic strips, comedy routines, television shows, films, books, stories, and probably even songs designed to mock the accordion.  I remember even catching a glimpse of some episode or other of The X-Factor or Britain's Got Talent or something similar, probably while I was researching reality TV for my television course last winter, in which the Requisite Acerbic Member of the Judging Team claimed, after a tiny this-is-supposed-to-be-hilarious clip of two people quite competently playing a duet on their accordions, that the very fact that they were playing accordions at all disqualified them.  The only positive pop-cultural accordion references I can think of are:  1)  Weird Al Yankovic plays one, damn it; 2) so does Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket; 3) the short-lived British sci-fi spoof Hyperdrive includes a character who plays a sort of space accordion, but frankly, he isn't very good and generally uses the instrument's "automatic" setting, which corrects his errors or simply plays the music for him.  Two of these "references" are cheats, as they are really just the names of prominent people who play the accordion well, and the third isn't really positive at all, as the accordion in question is played incompetently by a buffoon.

I find all this quite sad, as the accordion is actually a pretty versatile instrument.  What people do often seem to object to is the kind of music often played on it.  Who says a particular instrument can only be used for a particular kind of music?  Am I restricted forever to polkas because of my chosen instrument?  Why is the harmonica considered so much cooler than the accordion, though they do, in many ways, produce similar sounds?**

At any rate, I shall continue to play the accordion, and if you insist on laughing at me, that's up to you.  If you want to give the poor slandered accordion a chance, however, I encourage you to do so.

*I hope my neighbours are not preparing to break down my door and kill me.
**I'm sure there is a legitimate answer involving jazz and note-bending and things like that, but I'm still going to be sulky about it.

Monday, September 26, 2011:  Negative Rant, Positive Rant

I do Rant negatively quite often, so today's Rant will contain one negative item and one positive item, just to prove that despite my reputation, I can be both negative and positive about societal change.  So there.

Negative Rant:

Dear City of Toronto:

You know what?  Not everybody has a freaking cell phone.  Your systematic removal of public telephones from the city is more than a little maddening for those of us who don't go around with tiny mobile devices in our pockets all the time.  Last weekend, I ended up towing a huge accordion up and down Bay Street, crying, because I couldn't find the building in which I was supposed to meet my friend; I also couldn't find a phone so that I could call him and ask him where the hell the building was.  I understand that Bay Street is occupied mostly by well-off businesses and ridiculously expensive condominiums, and you are thus probably assuming that everybody who sets foot on the street owns a cell phone, but thank you ever so much for making less flush people feel unwelcome there.  I've noticed that there are still public phones in subway stations and, in fact, in my neighbourhood, both of which tend to be frequented by people who cannot afford million-dollar condos.  It's nice to know we are encouraged to stick to our kind and not soil the hallowed monied neighbourhoods with our despised presence.

The lack of public telephones in, you know, public spaces would be a bit more understandable if the idea of the public telephone were brand new, but you have actually been systematically removing phone booths from the streets of Toronto for years.  In other words, the booths were already there, but you've taken them away because they cost you money, and you don't know anyone who needs them.  I hope your damn phone battery runs out on Bay Street next week, Faceless Public Servant.

Positive Rant:

I am continually amazed by the inventiveness of the clever people who have realised how trendy cloth shopping bags have become.  These bags have been around for years, but the tax on plastic bags has propelled them into the spotlight and shifted the public perception of them from "Oh, that's a good idea...I should get one of those eventually" to "I MUST HAVE CLOTH BAGS IMMEDIATELY."  When I was in Calgary for the summer a couple of years ago, I noticed that these bags were very difficult to find.  In Toronto, they're everywhere.  I own far too many of them.  They're just so very difficult to resist.  Also, Sobeys was giving them away in a promotion last month.

The thing is...companies have realised that these bags offer endless possibilities.  You can make them in different shapes and sizes.  You can print different images on them.  They must be absurdly cheap to produce.  Sobeys has the bags in at least three different sizes and at least six different patterns; it also offers "thermal" versions of the bags designed to keep your food warm, plus an entirely different sort of bag that can be folded up into a tiny little package and tucked away into a pouch.  Sobeys is really quite enthusiastic about this whole bag thing.

But no one beats Shoppers Drug Mart for Cloth Bag Ingenuity.  Shoppers has the various sizes, the various patterns, the pouch bags, and the thermal bags, but yesterday, I discovered yet another permutation of the Shoppers cloth bag.  I had gone to Long and McQuade for a sale and had foolishly taken my bike with me; the foolishness became apparent after I went mad and bought some bongo drums.  I had always wanted bongo drums, and these ones were bright red, damn it.  I have a thing for bright red instruments.  I own two bright red accordions, a bright red low D whistle, a bright red high C whistle, a bright red djembe, and a bright red simplified melodica, plus a deep red Xaphoon (bright red wasn't an option).  I once tried to purchase a ukulele that was half bright red and half white (all in natural wood, interestingly), but someone sniped me on eBay.  As far as I'm concerned, happiness is a bright red musical instrument.  The bright red bongos were impossible to resist.  However, they were also extremely heavy and did not come with a carrying case.  I knew I would have to get home via subway, and I needed some way of carrying the bongos in one hand while guiding the bike with the other.

Fortunately, there was a Shoppers across the street from the music store.  I went there in the vague hope that I would be able to pick up a couple of cloth bags and double them up for strength.  I would have done so if I hadn't spotted Shoppers' latest attempt to suck in people like me who simply can't resist those damn bags:  a cloth bag with wheels.  With wheels, I say.  It works like those shopping carts you see everywhere, except without the actual cart.

Well, it was inevitable:  I had to have the wheely bag.  As it turned out, it was the most practical possible way of getting the bongos home intact, as they were too heavy to hang comfortably on the bike's handlebars.  It's probably a good thing I didn't go for the congas instead.

Yes, I realise that these bags are a cynical cash grab capitalising on pseudo-environmentalist populism, but I still like them, and I approve of the idea of bags with wheels.  Long live cloth-bag creativity.

Unexpected Positive Addendum:

At Word on the Street this afternoon, I spent quite a lot of time sitting on the ground drawing comics.  At one point, two girls who looked about ten started peering over my shoulder and commenting on my work.  They eventually sat down beside me and told me all about the comics their parents had bought for them; they asked me what I was drawing and what my various pens were for.  They were very excited about seeing someone actually drawing comics, and one of them called her dad over to see.  The dad did ask me a question that always infuriates me--"Why do you pronounce your name 'Kah-ri' and not 'Carrie'?"--but I suppose it wasn't his fault.  He probably thought I was just being pretentious until I explained to him that my family was, in fact, Norwegian.  At any rate, it is oddly awesome to have two small girls deciding you are their new best friend because you have been quietly drawing comics in a park.  It kind of made my day.

Monday, September 19, 2011:  Fun with Formulae (concl.)

For the thrilling conclusion of my series on how it is actually possible to create original stories that people will like, I shall move away from film animation and, in "honour" of Glee's third series, which begins this week, deal with television for a bit.

I know I have Ranted about Glee before, and I'll try not to repeat the same tired old arguments.  In this case, however, Glee seems to me to exemplify the problem I highlighted in Part 1 of this little collection of essays:  the tendency of writers, producers, and directors to substitute "new" and "exciting" surface details for fundamental originality.  While Up takes a common plot--the coming-of-age adventure--and adds a unique thematic spin to it by delaying the coming of age by about seventy years, films such as Igor and Robots merely sprinkle equally common plots with crazy, crazy settings, assumedly on the assumption that most eight-year-olds aren't going to notice they're watching the same story over and over again.

, in my opinion, does something similar.  It presents itself as an "edgy" show that provides a clever, ironic look at American high-school life...in song!  By drawing on popular music from a number of genres--from straight pop to hip-hop to Broadway--Glee explores the dynamics in what is assumedly meant to be a typical high school.  We get all the high-school-related issues covered decades before in the various incarnations of Degrassi (teen pregnancy, cliques, drugs, alcohol, dating, homosexuality, you name it), plus an extra focus on the hang-ups and foibles of some of the teachers.  However, we get these issues as filtered through pop music and sprinkled with Magic Realism Dust.  Many viewers and critics call Glee a satire.  It does have the requisite elements; it portrays a larger-than-life version of one aspect of American society, in the process revealing the cracks in the surface of both that one aspect and the society as a whole.

However, I do see Glee as leaning more towards Igor than it does towards Up.  As I have previously posited, Glee pretends to be from the perspective of freaks and geeks while actually giving us jocks and cheerleaders.  One of the reasons Canadians are proud of the old Degrassi, despite its inherent corniness, is that while American teenagers were eating up the plastic, skewed Beverly Hills 90210, Canadian kids were watching a fourteen-year-old who was not from an appallingly rich family get preggers and deal with the consequences.  Glee follows Degrassi rather than 90210 in giving us mostly kids from lower-middle-class families, many of them broken, but it pushes the American Dream so hard that after a while, it begins to feel as if an anvil is repeatedly being dropped on our heads.  LOOK, says Glee.  THESE KIDS ARE DISADVANTAGED.  DO YOU SEE US MAKING THEM DISADVANTAGED?  DO YOU NOTICE THE WAY WE ARE CLEARLY BEATING THEM DOWN INTO THE DIRT?  WON'T IT FEEL SO MUCH BETTER WHEN THEY FINALLY WIN?

It kind of won't.  The Glee characters feel like popular kids in disguise.  They're walking around with little signs on their foreheads--"poor" and "gay" and "unpopular" and "fat" and "handicapped" and "delinquent" and "pregnant at 16"--but they're not convincing in the roles.  Their collective goal in the show is to get the rest of the school to realise that they're worthy of being popular too.  While they claim they've accepted their outcast status, they never stop working to shed it.  Realistic?  Sure.  Sending a message that unpopular kids are people too?  Not so much.  Unpopular kids are potential people who will eventually emerge from their cocoons as beautiful butterflies and take the American Dream by storm.

There is a difference between surface and essence.  Too many popular films and television shows choose to change the former rather than the latter, paying lip service to an "edgy" idea but really just telling the same tired old story that has been told for decades.  I find it sad to read newspaper comics now, but at least many of them are honest about being stuck in the 1950s forever.  I do hope we can eventually dig beneath the surface and produce more original works with popular appeal.  If Pixar can do it, so can others.

Monday, September 12, 2011:  Fun with Formulae (cont.)

Last week, I discussed how recent animated films seemed to be substituting quirky surface details for actual creativity.  This week, I would like to take a brief look at a recent animated film that has done (almost) everything right so that with luck, the difference becomes clear.

I'll start with the negatives first, just to get them out of the way.  I love Pixar's Up to bits, but I do find the lack of female characters frustrating.  This film fails the Bechdel test with a resounding crash.  Yes, I know that not every story ever told has to include female characters, but the point with Up is that it so easily could.  There is no reason we couldn't follow Ellie's story rather than Carl's.  There is no reason Russell couldn't be a girl.  I've heard people claim that an old man / little girl combo would be creepy, but gosh, thanks for the double standard.  Old man / little girl is creepy, but old man / little boy isn't?  What about old woman / little boy or, heaven forbid, old woman / little girl?  There is nothing in the story that requires the protagonists to be male; they simply are because "male" is considered a neutral category in Western literature.  The only female characters in this film are a dead woman and a large bird.  Even the many talking dogs are exclusively male; it's difficult to see how there can possibly be so many of them, as Muntz doesn't seem to have a single bitch in his pack.  Pixar, I adore you, but come the hell on.

However, what Up does well, it does very, very well.  It is known for having audiences howling with grief within the first ten minutes; the introductory montage is extremely nicely done and allows the audience to establish a connection with Carl without really ever hearing him speak.  Carl himself is a refreshingly unexpected hero, a cane-wielding old man who just wants to be left alone with the memories of his dead wife and his regret that he was never quite able to give her what she wanted.  This is, please note, a children's film, and it has an elderly protagonist who has given up hope.   Carl is a far cry from the quirky-outsider-young-man-with-talent who keeps popping up as the Patented Animated Hero these days.

When a young character sets off into the world to seek his fortune, we know what's coming.  He'll go through many trials and tribulations, then slay some sort of monster and settle down for a nice happily ever after with a princess equivalent.  When an eighty-year-old curmudgeon sets off into the world to seek his fortune, we're less sure what to expect.  Carl's journey is also complicated by the presence of a Wilderness Explorer named Russell who is determined to "assist the elderly" and earn himself a merit badge.  The interactions between Carl and Russell are those of a reluctant mentor and his protege, but whereas in a traditional plot, Russell would be in the spotlight, here, it's the mentor character whose growth is important.  One reason it's slightly tragic that Carl is not female is that he is, in a way, sending himself over the rainbow, an elderly Dorothy setting grimly out for Oz even though he half believes it's too late to get there.

As with most good stories, Up offers not only external conflict--mainly between Carl and his idol Muntz, but also between Carl and Russell--but internal:  Man vs. Man but also Man vs. Self.  Carl has to learn to let go, not of Ellie herself but of his own rigid association of Ellie with their house and the dream that never did quite pan out.  What Ellie always really wanted was adventure, and in the end, Carl begins to live for the present, not the future or the past; he accepts that he is on an adventure now, even if it isn't quite the one he thought he wanted.  His growth is not hammered into our heads; we see it gradually in the sacrifice of the house and its contents.  Yes, Carl's redemption is predictable, but by the time it happens, we are so invested in him that we don't care.  Since Carl himself is a unique, living character, the plot grows from his personality instead of forcing him to march to its beat.

Up is not perfect; it does contain some pretty cliched elements, and it's got that worrying lack of gender diversity.  However, its imaginative plot and reliance on character development allow it to transcend the dreariness of Hollywood animation and give us something simultaneously old and new.  I just hope that Pixar continues in this direction instead of going the lazy Cars route.  I'm looking forward to Brave.


To the guy who sarcastically shouted, "Work it, baby!" at me as I biked home tonight:  you know which part of my anatomy you can bite, right?  I'll give you a hint:  it's behind me, and it's made of shiny metal.

Monday, September 5, 2011:  Fun with Formulae

A couple of days ago, when I was slogging through the boring bits of my colour comic, I watched a pair of animated films, Dreamworks' Megamind and Exodus's Igor.  Though the films are rather different in subject matter (despite the quirky evil-is-good theme, which has become a little too tediously popular in animated movies lately), they follow similar plot trajectories and have thus made me think about how very, very many other animated films have exactly the same plot.  I honestly think animators are missing the point.  They are attempting to copy Pixar in being inventive and imaginative and fun, but they're really just telling the same story over and over again.  Even Pixar falls into the trap occasionally, though admittedly, less often than the other studios.

Let's take a look at this plot, which I sometimes feel applies to the great majority of non-princess-centric Western animated films:

1)  Enter our hero.  For the sake of argument, let us call him a young man, though depending on the film, feel free to replace the word "man" with "robot," "alien," "insect," "rodent," "monster," or any other appropriate term.  In human terms, he is equivalent to someone in his teens or early twenties.  We shall, for the moment, call him--and yes, he is invariably male--"Bob."

2)  Bob is well-meaning but misunderstood.  He is very talented, but his talent is unrecognised or unappreciated by his peers.  He is regarded as an outsider, a rather odd person who doesn't know his place and is unable to accept his fate, which is usually to follow his parents/ancestors/predecessors/etc. into a job as a menial worker.  Bob wants to please his parents and teachers, but he can't give up his unsanctioned activities.

3)  Bob has an unrequited crush on a girl.  He may have known her since childhood, or he may meet her in the course of the adventure that follows.  In either case, she is spunky and slightly quirky.  She has guts and brains, and her current boyfriend, if she has one, is a meathead.  At this point, she sees Bob as "just a friend" or even as an enemy, if she knows he exists at all.  As per tradition, let us call her "Alice."

4)  Bob is driven from his society.  It is his own fault; he gets carried away while trying to do something helpful (usually, he is trying to avert a disaster that he has seen coming but no one else believes is going to happen) and causes some sort of catastrophe.  He finds himself alone.  Alice will believe the worst of him and reject him outright.

5)  The disaster that Bob has foreseen occurs.  This new threat puts Alice in immediate danger.  Despite her spunk and intelligence, she is kidnapped / staked out to appease a monster / used as bait / etc.

6)  Using the talent everybody originally scorned, Bob saves Alice and eradicates the threat.  His actions are witnessed by many people, all of whom realise that Bob was right all along and deserves to be allowed to follow his heart.

7)  The story ends happily.  Bob gets the girl, the villains are killed or imprisoned, and society adjusts to accommodate Bob and his unusual talent.

This plot is a version of the rather common hero's-journey pattern; it is not surprising that it turns up so often.  However--and here's where I have a problem--there are other plots.  Honestly:  this is not the only story out there.  I was never surprised by Megamind or Igor.  I knew exactly what was going to happen and exactly when it was going to happen.  Megamind was quite amusing to watch, but it was also drearily predictable.  Have you Hollywood writers ever taken a peek at actual children's literature?  There is a lot of it.  It varies widely in tone, and it involves all sorts of different plots.  Why can't you film some of those?  I know I go on about this a lot, but what about letting Alice into the limelight every once in a while?  Not Princess Alice, mind you:  just plain Alice.  Why not leave out the love story?  Does every film need a love story?  Do you really think the average eight-year-old is sitting there longing for a romantic subplot?  Look at some of the Pixar films that buck this formula:  notably, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, and Up.  The first one concentrates on the relationship between a big furry monster and a toddler; the second and third acknowledge the importance of love stories but certainly don't make everything about saving the girl.  (Admittedly, Boo in Monsters, Inc. eventually ends up in need of rescue, but she is, after all, barely old enough to speak.  Saving a baby and saving a grown woman are rather different propositions.)

There are many stories out there waiting to be told.  It seems to me more than a little bit unnecessary to keep telling the same one over and over again.  Simply changing a story's setting does not make one "edgy" and "inventive."

Monday, August 29, 2011:  On Humidity

I'm in Prince George visiting my sister at the moment.  One thing that has really been striking me lately is how effective humidity is at making one feel like a weepy, exhausted puddle of slime.

Prince George is the kind of place that tends to have quite high temperatures in the summer and quite low temperatures in the winter.  I realise that everybody who lives easy of Calgary believes that British Columbia is continually drowning in rain and that British Columbians wouldn't know a proper snowfall if it walked up to them in the street, but the truth is that British Columbia is actually quite a big province.  What holds true for Vancouver does not necessarily apply to the rest of it.  Prince George gets very heavy snowfalls in the winter, while its summer weather isn't typically particularly wet.  In both summer and winter, Prince George lacks humidity.  Unlike Toronto, which is achingly dry in the winter and bone-meltingly humid in the summer, Prince George produces both a dry heat and a dry cold.

Yesterday, I was outside in 28C weather.  It was warm, but I wasn't sweating at all.  It was actually kind of freaking me out.  28C in Toronto is likely to have me sitting five inches from my fan and wringing out my shirt every forty-five minutes.

Toronto, why can't you have dry heat?  I really wish you could.  I like you pretty well by now, but I can't freaking stand your weather.  When even a thunderstorm doesn't clear up the oppressive humidity, you know there's a problem.  You hear that, Toronto?  There's a problem.  You are the problem.

Prince George also makes me tired, but that's a whole other story.

Monday, August 22, 2011:  Marking and Why It Should Be Banned Forever

I'm not quite finished living through this terrible, terrible nightmare, but no matter what happens, I'll be done by 4:00 p.m.  Luckily, I somehow managed to mark something like 150 essays this week, and I now have mostly the grade collation left.  It will still take me at least three hours, as I need to go through the old discussion responses to make sure the students have earned their participation marks.  I've done one class and have two left to go.

What I Have Learned This Summer:

1)  When you are teaching three sections of an online course, and the institution for which you are working suddenly raises class sizes from 45 to 65, the outcome is not going to be a happy one.

2)  When one of those classes is condensed (seven weeks instead of fourteen), which would work better if one of the course texts were not the seven-hundred-page-long The Shining, you will experience a great deal of stress.

3)  In university-speak, "part time" means "seventy hours a week, though you only get paid for twenty."

4)  Being sad makes marking harder.

5)  Well, okay...blinking makes marking harder.  Eating potatoes makes marking harder.  Everything makes marking harder.  Marking is hard.

6)  When the people who are in charge of designing Blackboard claim they have introduced "modifications" to make it "better," you can bet your bottom dollar that what they really mean is:  "We have made the interface more difficult  to use and hidden all the useful commands."

I think I need to go to sleep now.  Tomorrow, I must slay the mighty Beast of Collation.  Farewell.

Monday, August 15, 2011:  Another Short Note about Why This Note is Short Again

Once more, I am frighteningly far behind on my marking.  I'm also desperately tired.  I am thus going to skip the Rant and cry myself to sleep.  The Rants will expand once I'm finished this cursed, cursed marking.

Monday, August 8, 2011:  I Think I'd Better Cheat on the Rant This Week

I do need to get some damn marking done tonight, so I'm afraid today's Rant is going to be a repetition of what I've already got over on the West of Bathurst portion of the website.  See...I recently finished getting a novel ready to send out to be rejected by publishers.  I didn't mean to Rant about this on the WoB site, but it just sort of turned out that way.  However, that's all the Ranting I have in me right now.  I'm tired and headachey, and I seem to have contracted some strange variant of the flu.  Also, I really need to mark until I cry tears of blood.  So I'm just going to paste the Rant I did over there over here

The Rant in Question:

I have finally whipped one of my novels into shape.  Lemme tell you about me and novel writing.  I've been doing it since the age of 17 (technically, I wrote my first "big" work when I was 15 or so, but it was only about 40 pages long.  The next one was something like 600 pages in longhand).  However, while I can churn out a fantasy epic on my summer vacation, I find writing query letters nigh on impossible and can spend weeks agonising over a one-page synopsis.  I sent out a mauscript to one publisher once when I was twenty or so.  It was, of course, rejected, which I knew would happen, but I apparently decided that the emotional turmoil involved wasn't worth it, and subsequent manuscripts ended up hidden away forever.  I'm also a perfectionist who can always find something wrong with my writing.  I tend to like my stories for about three days after I'm finished writing them; then I start ferreting out the flaws.  Most of the time, I decide that these flaws are huge and unfixable, and I let the story languish because I know it would be rejected if I sent it out.

This latest story is flawed because, let's face it, what isn't?  However, I've persevered and pounded it into shape.  And you know what?  Even if it isn't good enough to be published--even if it's rejected by everyone and his dog--I'm proud of it.  This time, I didn't take the easy way out and give up on it.  I rewrote Chapter 1.  I picked away at the other chapters until most of the plot holes were plugged and the protagonist's motivations were much clearer.  I added stuff and took stuff away and got rid of a lot of unnecessary adverbs and most of the appearances of the word "realised."  I wrote the bloody synopsis--twice--and wrestled with the page-numbering weirdnesses of WordPerfect.  And I am going to send it out.  I am not going to hide it away.  So what if I get rejected?  Everyone gets rejected.  It's better than not trying at all.

Monday, August 1, 2011:  A Short Note about Why This Note is Short

Alas, it is 2:30 a.m., and I am nearly too tired to think.  I'll have to skimp on the Rant today.  Tomorrow, I get to mark some more.  HURRAH!

Monday, July 25, 2011:  Enough About the Weather Already

I did think about writing another open letter to Mr. Summer, but what's the use?  Mr. Summer has clearly gone mad.  It was on the day it hit 37C (48 on the humidex) that I finally gave up.  This is not being a happy sort of summer.  This is being, quite literally, the summer from Hell.

There is no need for it ever to hit 37C.  Do you know that when it's that hot, standing in the sun genuinely feels like standing in an extremely large, extremely moist oven?  Australians may love that kind of weather, but I think they may all be crazy.  Also, on the horrible day in question, this happened:

The night before, the City of Toronto turned off the water in my apartment building so it could tear up the street and hack the water main to pieces.  The workers were planning to be finished by eight, meaning, of course, that they spent all night operating heavy machinery beneath my window.  Was the water back in the morning?  It was not.  On the hottest day of the summer thus far, my apartment building was bone dry.  The City issued a notice "apologising for the inconvenience."  To their credit, the bureaucrats in charge did leave some portable sinks in front of our building, but it would have been much nicer to be able to bathe.  I eventually escaped to my office, which I'm supposed to be moving out of very soon but which at least has air conditioning.

If the temperature doesn't go down soon, I am going to punch a wall hard enough to break it.  Damn you, Mr. Summer.  Damn you.

Monday, July 18, 2011:  Did I Say the Weather Was Sucky?  I Meant the Weather Sucked

Last week, I whined about how consistently warm and sticky the weather had been lately.  It cooled down ever so slightly this week, meaning that the median temperature was probably around 25 instead of up near 30.  I didn't really plan on doing two weather-related Rants in a row.  Today, however, the temperature hit 35C.  It's 8:30 p.m., and it's gone all the way down to 31.  It's 29 inside my apartment.  I walked to the drug store to buy allergy medication at 1:00 p.m. and nearly melted.  Some friends and I had been planning to see a Fringe play tonight, but after realising that we would really only have a chance at tickets if we lined up for three hours, we decided to wait for the Best of Fringe next week instead.  I'm kind of glad.  I'm not convinced I would have survived the bike ride.

It's the humidity that really does it.  Sure, it was 35 today, but it felt as if it were at least 40.  It also felt as if I were moving through a swimming pool filled with sweat.  When I lived in Vancouver, I hated wearing sleeveless shirts and really only regretted this hatred on three or four days every summer.  Now I have a vast collection of tank tops and short skirts.  Even shorts are too warm for this weather, and pants are out of the question.  I see people walking around in jeans and cardigans, and I think they have probably gone mad.

Could someone please punch the weather in the face for me?  I would do it myself, but I'm not a very good puncher.  I need someone with real muscles in his or her arms.  This weather is stupid.  It's just stupid.  There's no reason for weather like this to exist.  Stop laughing at me, Australians.  You can have our summers in exchange for your winters; I don't mind at all.

Monday, July 11, 2011:  How Consistently Sucky the Weather Is

The suckiness of the weather has really been extraordinarily consistent this week.  You may remember that last week, I nearly killed myself while attempting to buy an eraser from Staples on very hot, very humid day.  The heat and humidity have continued for eight days straight now.  I have come to hate the feeling of clothing in general.  The temperature inside my apartment has been averaging 27C.  I went to play ukulele with a bunch of people in a pub last Wednesday night, and I didn't even bother to take a jacket.  I cycled home at 11 p.m.; it was probably still about 25C out.

I have some acquaintances who hail from very hot and humid parts of the world and who can't for the life of them understand why I find 33C plus humidity uncomfortable.  The Australians are my favourites.  The typical Australian tends to talk like this:  "33C?  33C is cold.  I wear my winter coat went the temperature goes below 30.  Once I had to walk half a mile when it was 27 degrees and windy; I almost died.  When the temperature drops below 25, my hands get so cold that I can't type.  Seriously, I have to type in gloves.  Anything below 20 is like being in Hell shortly after it has frozen over.  I'm cold just talking about it.  Could I borrow your duvet?"*

I'm not sure I would survive in Australia, a land in which 35C is considered "pleasantly cool" and all the flora and fauna are trying to kill you.  Maybe I should just count my blessings.

*Not even slightly exaggerated, trust me.

Monday, July 4, 2011:  Adventures in Heatstroke

1)  So this afternoon, I run out of mechanical pencil erasers.  As I use these erasers constantly, I decide to pop down to Staples and get some more.

2)  The closest Staples is at Gerrard Square, a 15-minute bike ride away.  That's 15 minutes to get there, as it's all downhill.  It probably takes twice that long to get home from there.

3)  I ride to Gerrard Square.  I do notice as I do so that it's rather warm out, but I am, after all, zooming happily down the hill the whole time.  It's not until I'm actually inside the mall that I realise how very dehydrated I have become.

4)  Staples may be the devil.  You go in to buy erasers...and then you see the double-sided Sharpies.  And the key-ring Sharpies.  And the pencil lead.  And the external hard drives.  And...

5)  Realising that it is, after all, not exactly cool outside, I stop at the dollar store, which inexplicably carries every type of sugary drink known to humankind but no bottled water.  I buy a sugary drink.  I reason that it isn't that far back to my apartment; I should be fine.

6) Every time I visit Gerrard Square, I end up biking home down a road that eventually turns into a one-way street and forces me to take an awkward detour onto Pape.  This time, I decide to get onto Pape right away so that I don't have to take the detour.  I forget about my own complete lack of a sense of direction.

7)  Thinking I am biking north on Pape, I cycle along for ten minutes or so.  "Hey," I think, "this isn't so bad.  The slope is a lot gentler than I expected."  This is, in hindsight, remarkably stupid of me.

8)  It is only when I have reached Coxwell that I realise I have been going east the whole time.  Coxwell is three subway stops beyond Pape.

9)  I go north on Coxwell.  In this part of the city, all the north-south streets have slopes ranging from moderate to steep.  Coxwell has one stretch that doesn't quite count as properly steep but lasts for some distance and is punishing in 30-degree heat.  A number of us are biking up it at the same time.  I see one woman get off her bike and walk.  She later passes me, as I have had to get off my bike and sit down.  The sugary drink sort of helps but may also be contributing to my impression that my chest may explode at any moment.

10)  At long last, I reach Danforth, but my legs have turned into rubber, and I have to find some shade and sit down for ten minutes.  I don't even care that the only place to sit is the sidewalk.  I come pretty close to fainting.  There are a lot of dubious gentlemen hanging around this particular corner.  It's a pretty seedy intersection, actually.  The sugary drink is giving me chest pains.

11)  I get on the bike again and make it to Pape and Mortimer before I have to take another break.  This time, I manage to find a seat on a bench in one of Toronto's tiny parks.  One of the other benches is occupied by two women, one with a guitar and the other with a banjo.  They don't play anything while I'm there because they're talking to a couple of friends.  I finish the sugary drink.

12)  I arrive home nearly two hours after I left.  I have spent about $110 more than I expected to spend, almost passed out twice, and developed a repulsion towards orange-flavoured pop.  From now on, I'm just going to stay inside.

Monday, June 27, 2011:  On Adverbs

I have a love/hate relationship with adverbs.  I suspect this is not uncommon.

In a way, adverbs--that is, words or phrases that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs--are useful beasts.  I can write, "He ran down the road, his legs pumping, his lungs straining, the sweat trickling down his face," or I can write, "He ran desperately down the road."  The first version, which is adverb-free, offers a more detailed picture of the scene.  The second version is in a sort of literary shorthand.  The reader interprets "desperately" herself, filling in the pumping legs, the straining lungs, and the trickling sweat.  Different readers may have different ideas of what desperation entails.  The version with the adverb is more concise but also less precise.

The occasional adverb can be useful.  Problems arise when adverbs multiply beyond control, at which point even the conciseness is lost, and the writing comes to seem both vague and flabby.  "Joan eased back the safety on the small gun and turned to face Ryan" is a stronger sentence than "Joan gently eased back the safety on the ridiculously small gun and defiantly turned to face Ryan angrily."  Too many adverbs will have the opposite of their intended effect, lengthening a sentence instead of trimming it down.  Adverbs also tend to be a way of cheating on the "show, don't tell" rule.  There is a difference between a sentence that describes what a woman looks and acts like when she is furious and one that explains she is doing something "furiously."

I often write with too many adverbs, then go back and take most of them out later.  My favourites are "probably," "actually," "possibly," and "apparently."  They have become crutches for me; they sneak into my writing without me meaning them to.  They're not even particularly (there's another one) descriptive adverbs.  I think I use them mostly for the rhythm.

Please treat your adverbs with respect.  Don't abandon them altogether, but don't lean on them either.  A few adverbs go a long way.

Monday, June 20, 2011:  The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

I have nothing good to say about last week.  It was hideous in multiple ways.  I'm technically glad it's over, but realistically, I spent it avoiding all the things I have to finish by tomorrow.  Therefore, this week is probably going to suck too.  Joy.

I wish I had something else to say, but I think I'd better leave it at that this time around.

Monday, June 13, 2011:  I Am Ahead on My Marking.  What the...?

This has never happened before.

Usually, my marking strategy goes as follows:

Day 1:  Papers are due.  I can't start marking on the day the papers are due.  That would be wrong.

Days 2-12:  I can't start marking now.  It's too late in the day / I have to write a lecture on How I Met Your Mother / I'm behind on my comic / Ooh, pretty website.

Day 13:  I promised I would hand the essays back in two weeks!  Why haven't I started yet?  What's wrong with me?

Day 20:  I hand the essays back.  Apologies happen.

This time around, to my vast and unending surprise, I started marking the day after the papers were due.  I marked ten papers that day.  I finished the first class's papers in four days; the second class's took seven.  Even so, I managed to hand back the second class's papers eleven days after I had collected them.

It feels so strange not to be frantically marking twenty-five papers a day.  The lack of stress is kind of stressful in and of itself.  I just don't know what to do with myself.  How did I manage to mark nearly one hundred essays in eleven days?  Have I been possessed by aliens?  Why is it that marking essays during the first eleven days is so much less soul-destroying than marking essays during the last eleven days?

I hope I'm able to force myself to do this again in three weeks when Assignment 2 comes due, but I wouldn't bet on it.  I can't seem to stop myself from making my own life difficult.

Monday, June 6, 2011:  GO, 'NUCKS, GO

Okay, I admit it.  Sad but true:  I am a die-hard fan of the Vancouver Canucks.

It's not as if I have even watched hockey much lately.  It's just...well, I remember 1994.  A lot of Vancouverites remember 1994.  That was the year I was dragged unwillingly into the insanity that was sports fandom.  I don't watch any other sports.  I am genuinely terrible at playing sports.  But the year the Vancouver Canucks made it all the way through the Stanley Cup playoffs, only to lose to the New York Rangers in game 7, I was hopelessly ensnared.

I wasn't even watching the games.  I listened to them on the radio, then wrote bits of a story on my computer during the breaks.  My parents were watching the game downstairs; every time someone scored a goal, I heard them yell.  Either the radio or the television broadcast--I can't remember which--was slightly delayed, and so there was a slight difference in when we would react.  I know I liked the radio commentator better than the TV ones.  The radio guy would get very, very excited.  Yes, the TV guys would raise their voices whenever a player neared one goal or the other as well, but the radio guy sounded as if he were enthusiastically peeing his pants.  He could scream the word "SCOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORE!" for about a minute without taking a breath.  I got to know the players by their names, not the numbers on their ugly orange jerseys.  Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, was the Canucks' golden boy back then.  I did see him skate more often in subsequent seasons, and man, was that little guy fast.

Of course, the Canucks did eventually lose, at which point Vancouver actually erupted in a riot that lasted all night and into the next day.  I found out later that my seventeen-year-old sister was there.  She had told my parents that she was going over to a friend's place to study,* but she had actually gone downtown to party.  She and her friends did not find it easy to get back home, but they didn't get arrested, either, so that was a plus.  Possibly the most galling thing about the riot was the reaction from New York; newspaper articles proclaimed New Yorkers to be "shocked" at the antics of the Vancouverites, and also rather smug about their own peaceful celebrations.

At any rate, the exciting progress towards the final, accompanied by the rather less fun excitement of the riot, permanently warped my brain.  After that, I liked hockey.  I cheered for the Canucks.  I could speak hockey speak.  For the first time in my life, I was a sports fan.

It's happening again this year.  I do hope it goes right this time.  My sister hasn't been seventeen for seventeen years.

*Do teenagers even need any other excuses?

Monday, May 30, 2011:  Where Did May Go?

It seems wrong that tomorrow is the last day of May.  My memory is telling me that the old term just ended; the calendar is telling me that there are only three months left in the summer term.  I am upset about this.  Time is not supposed to move this quickly.

Week 4 of my summer course started two days ago.  The Canadian election happened four weeks ago.  I bought a banjo a fortnight ago.  Doctor Who just had its sixth episode, and most of the American shows had their season finales one, two, or even three weeks ago.  The Stanley Cup playoffs ended three--no, wait, those are still going.  It may be just a little bit silly that the hockey season extends into June, but let's leave that aside.  Go, Canucks.

I would like time to stop for a bit; I need to catch up.  The hell that is marking starts for me on Tuesday.  I haven't had even a month away from it.  Time really sucks sometimes.

Monday, May 23, 2011:  SPROING

I'm sorry I've forgotten about Ranting for the last couple of weeks.  This is the first Sunday in a while on which I've finished my Monday comic relatively early and have thus had time to write a Rant before bedtime.

It has been a rather odd week.  Last Monday, I bought a banjo.  Last Friday, my soprano ukulele committed suicide.  A friend has suggested that these two facts might be connected; his theory is that the ukulele was so jealous of the banjo that it caused its own bridge to become unglued and fly violently across the room.  I'm not entirely convinced that he's right, but who can really say what might go through the mind of a small string instrument as it leans quietly against a piano bench?  Perhaps it was actually aiming for the banjo.  Perhaps it was a David-vs.-Goliath sort of situation; a banjo is, after all, several times the size and a great many times the weight of a ukulele.  Perhaps the ukulele was anticipating the supposed end of the world the next day.  I don't know.  At any rate, it was very sad.

I do like the banjo, though I'm still very slow at it, and I'm afraid my neighbours may hate me; it is the loudest instrument I own, and that includes the accordion and the electric piano.  I've ordered a mute so I don't get lynched by a mob.  The banjo seems to exist for the express purpose of drowning out every other instrument in the world.  It's feisty.  I approve.

I just hope my other instruments don't explode any time soon.  If they all decide to attack the banjo, there are going to be strings and keys and bridges flying around in here, and it's really not a very big apartment.

Monday, May 2, 2011:  Third Monday of Panic

You know the feeling you get when it's three days before your marks are due, and you still have nine essays and one hundred and fourteen exams to mark, plus the summer course you're teaching will probably be online as of tomorrow, and you haven't modified the course's two websites yet, even though this modification will take hours because the people in charge of cloning the website always erase over half the discussion forums you use, and for some reason that escapes you, the university has gone and raised the cap for this course from 45 to 65, and since you're teaching two sections, that gives you forty extra students, plus you haven't paid your rent yet, and two of the exams you need to mark by Wednesday afternoon are probably in your box at Ryerson right now, except you don't know when you'll have time to go and get them, and you've had a miserable cold since Thursday and wish you could just curl up in a corner and cry*?


*There is a reason I have ended all three of my most recent Rants with a similar question.

Monday, April 25, 2011:  Second Monday of Panic

You know the feeling you get when it's one day before half your marks are due and two days before you have to hold an exam for 112 people whose term papers you have still, for the most part, not yet marked because you had to finish marking stuff for two other classes first, and now you have to collate the marks for those two classes, which is going to take hours because it will also involve calculating participation marks in a particularly cumbersome way involving 65 separate searches and probably a lot of crying, and you are still taking breaks to play the ukulele, only it's a different ukulele this week, since you own more than one, and this one's plinkier and thus more conducive to angry strumming, and you start getting tired every evening by 7:00 or so and have a hard time concentrating on the everlasting marking that you will never ever finish, and it's way too easy to get distracted by the Internet, which you cannot switch off because half your marking is on it, and damn it, maybe you should just play the ukulele for a bit again while you ignore the huge pile of essays that is making you want to cry?

I really want it to be May 5th.  My brain hurts.

Monday, April 18, 2011:  First Monday of Panic

You know the feeling you get when it's the last week before half your marks are due and also the last week before you have to hold an exam for 112 people whose term papers you have not yet marked because you need to mark 65 term papers for two other classes first, plus an untold number of discussion responses, and you've just given yourself a headache marking ten essays in a row, and you keep taking little breaks to play the ukulele because it is a small instrument that you can easily keep next to your chair and that doesn't hurt your head as much as the piano probably would if you played it, which you don't, because you should be marking, and the ukulele seems like less of an outright procrastinatory instrument, though that's probably an illusion fostered by a desperate need to do anything other than mark, and it's eight o'clock p.m. and the headache is already really bad and you know that you will need to mark for at least four more hours before you go to bed and you also have to create an exam because the lady who photocopies stuff needs it a week ahead of time and you really just want to throw yourself down on your bed and cry?

That is the feeling I'm having right now.

Monday, April 11, 2011:  Last Monday of Doom

I just spent all weekend becoming very, very tired, so this entry will be brief.  I would like to celebrate the fact that today is my final Really Early Monday of the semester.  From here on in, I may go insane from all the marking, but I shall do it at a relatively decent hour of the day.  I like my Monday class just fine, but I'm pretty sure that everybody in it just wants the pain to end.  There should be some sort of law against classes being scheduled before 9:00 a.m.  I long to punch Monday in the face.  Luckily for Monday, I'm currently too tired to do so.

Happy Random Day in April.  Enjoy things.

Monday, April 4, 2011:  April is the Cruelest Month

Over the course of the next month, I must do the following:

1)  Mark 57 2,000-2,500-word papers.

2)  Mark 40 4-5-page papers.

3)  Mark 112 6-8-page papers.

4)  Mark 65 1,500-2,000-word papers.

5)  Mark 650 discussion responses.

6)  Write a three-hour lecture on Pleasantville and deliver it twice.

7)  Deliver (twice) a three-hour lecture on Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

8)  Create a two-hour exam about television.

9)  Mark 112 two-hour exams about television.

10)  Sit on three panels at the SF convention Ad Astra, thus occupying an entire weekend I should really be devoting to #1-9.

I think my brain is going to explode.  I'm going to go sit in a corner and cry now.

Monday, March 28, 2011:  Saturday, March 26, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones died on Saturday.  You may not have heard of her, but she was one of my favourite authors, the creator of many strange and wonderful fantasy books for children, teens, and (occasionally) adults.

There's no way I can say anything about this that doesn't sound both pretentious and presumptuous, so I'll let people infinitely more qualified do it for me.

Neil Gaiman's tribute is here.  Emma Bull's is here.  Diana Wynne Jones's official website posts the news of her death (and talks about her last two books, which will be published later this year and next) here.

All I can really say myself is that Diana Wynne Jones is one of the reasons I write children's fantasy.  She is, simply put, one of the best fantasists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and I am going to miss her brilliant stories.  Please read her books if you can.

Monday, March 21, 2011:  Random Notes

1)  My package arrived in Prince George on Tuesday, which happened to be my niece's birthday.  I suppose all's well that ends well.  However, Canada Post can still kiss my shiny metal posterior.

2)  Saturday was not a good day until I ended up on the TTC in tears, at which point three complete strangers were unexpectedly nice to me on three separate occasions.

3)  One of the better parts of Saturday was actually the bit where my band fell spectacularly to pieces in the middle of a song.  It was largely my fault; I had neglected to open my music before we began.  Realistically, I didn't need it; psychologically, I did.  I lost my head and played wrong chords all the way through, prompting everyone else to screw up in various intriguing ways as well.  The overall effect was so charmingly hilarious that the flautist and I ended up giggling through our final duet.  I'm not sure how she even managed to retain her embouchure.  Possibly the best that can be said about the performance is that it was "wacky."  Even so, I had a surprising amount of fun watching the song implode.

4)  I have to finish writing a lecture about a TV show involving a lunatic who talks to a dead man and keeps chocolates inside a skull.

5)  Have a good week.

Monday, March 14, 2011:  Canada Post Has Done It Again

One thing I frequently feel guilty about is my tendency to send birthday gifts and cards to my sister and her family so late that I almost might as well just wait for the birthday in question to come around again.  I don't like the fact that I do this, but I can't seem to stop myself.  It is a type of procrastination of which I am ashamed.

Therefore, I decided that this year, I was damn well going to send my niece Lindsay her birthday present ahead of time.  I was not going to become known as "Aunt Kari, who gives me my present in August, even though I was born in March."  So I bought Lindsay's present in mid-February.  I made her a card.  Secure in the knowledge that Lindsay's birthday wasn't until March 15th, I wrapped everything up nicely and had the package on its way by February 25th.

Well, I talked to my sister yesterday.  Had my package arrived yet?  No, it had not.  As of this Monday, it will have been on the road between Ontario and British Columbia for seventeen days.

Seriously, why?  Is the package hitchhiking?  Is it relying on transport by carrier pigeon?  If one were completely insane and willing to survive on no sleep at all, one could drive across Canada five times in seventeen days.  Where is my bloody package, Canada Post?  For once in my life, I was on the ball; I mailed the present in good time.  You charged me twelve freaking dollars for it.  It wasn't even a very big package.  It would, of course, have cost me thirty-six bucks to send via Express Post.  Since I sent it so early, I didn't think I would need Express Post.

With great good luck, the package will arrive by the 15th.  If it doesn't, I suppose my reputation as "the late Aunt Kari" will be upheld.  I'm just a wee bit frustrated because this time, I really did try.

Monday, March 7, 2011:  Not Cleaning My Apartment:  A Justification

1)  Wow...my apartment is a mess.  I'd better clean it.

2)  First, though, I should finish writing this lecture.  The class is tomorrow, so it can't wait.

3)  I've written a page and a half of my lecture.  I should take a break.  Maybe I could do a bit of cleaning.

4)  No, that's not fair; I've worked really hard, and I deserve a real break.  Ooh...TV Tropes!

5)  Okay, I'm done my lecture.  Now I need to finish my comic.

6)  I'm finished my comic, but I've got some marking to do.  If I don't start it now, I'll be doing it all at the last--

7)  Ooh...TV Tropes!

8)  Now I'm behind on my marking, and I still haven't cleaned my apartment.  I think I'll have a snack.

9)  I wonder if my ukulele is still in tune.

10)  It is!  That was fun.  Time to clean my apartment.

11)  Damn it; I have to answer e-mails from students.  I should also really start in on this marking.

12)  This reminds me of that episode of Castle where the investigation kept being delayed for various reasons.  I should try to find that episode.

13)  I was right; it was a good episode.  Of course, I had to watch four episodes before I found the right one.  Time to clean my apartment.

14)  I haven't called my sister in a while.

15)  Damn it all, I keep forgetting about the marking!

16)  It's really, really time to clean my apartment.

17)  Too bad it's two o'clock a.m.

18)  I'd better go to sleep so that I can give my lecture tomorrow.  After I get back from the university, I'll clean my apartment.

19)  For sure.

Monday, February 28, 2011:  Reality TV:  A Question for the Universe

I am teaching a course on television at the moment, and there's a unit on reality TV coming up.  I am not exactly the world's greatest reality-TV fan, so I decided I had better force myself to follow one show, then watch single episodes of some of the others the week before the class.  The show I chose to follow was American Idol.  Perhaps I should have followed Jersey Shore, which half my students seem to love, but American Idol is about all I can handle, and frankly, it's bad enough.

I understand that a lot of people like this stuff, but it just makes me so very, very angry.*  The thing that makes me the most angry is that I can tell that the show is manipulating me.  I don't mean that I loftily see past the manipulation and am not affected by it; I mean I am affected by it, and I can actually watch myself being affected and know exactly how and why the manipulation is happening and yet still feel the damn feelings that the show is making me feel.  It has even made me cry a few times, mostly due to the heartstring-tugging backstories of certain candidates.  Idol presents these backstories in such a way that they have to cause tears.  They've got the swelling music, the slow-motion shots, the interviews with proud, weeping family members, the lingering focus on the fresh young candidates tearing up over what they see as the only chance they will ever have to escape from the horrors of Real Life and become famous.  I can almost see the show's editors sitting around calculating the most effective ways to present these sob stories.  I know exactly what they're doing to me.  The fact that I still bloody well cry makes me want to punch someone.

Even more fury-inducing is the fact that this show has somehow pushed an entire generation of talented young people into believing, fiercely and wrongly, that American Idol is the only way for someone to become a musical sensation.  Quite frankly, a lot of these kids are good musicians, or they will be in a few years.  They're not just singers, either; they play guitars and pianos and a myriad of other instruments.  One candidate this year plays the melodica and has twice accompanied himself on the double bass; he also has a fantastic voice.  Yet over and over, they say the same things:  "I want this so much."  "This is my last chance."  "I need this."  "This is my dream."  "If I get voted out, I don't know what I'll do."

Guys.  You're kids.  Some of you are kids who don't know who the Beatles are (really).  Go out and play music in pubs.  Form bands.  Experience rejection and defeat.  Practise.  Buy a CD of music by the freaking Beatles.  There is not only one road to the top.  Sure, the Idol road is shorter.  Why should you have it easy?  You say again and again how "hard" Idol is, but it lasts only a few months; most successful artists try for years before they gain fans.  Why must success be instant?  Why must the words "I'm sorry, you didn't make it" mean that you will never make it?

Reality shows are about wish fulfilment.  I know that.  But when the "dream" becomes tied explicitly to the show, problems arise.

Dear American Idol:  I recognise your entertainment value, but gosh, do you ever make me angry.  Also, you've got me addicted to you, completely against my will and even though I know exactly how you did it.  Damn you, American Idol.  Damn you.

*Sort of like Glee.  Clearly, there is something wrong with me.

Monday, February 21, 2011:  Why Phones are Terrible

For a couple of months now, I've been receiving phone calls from people who clearly cannot accept that I am not someone else, despite the fact that I cannot speak their language and tend to get rather abusive when they wake me up for the twentieth time in a row at four o'clock a.m.  When I say "the twentieth time in a row," incidentally, I a) am not exaggerating and b) am actually meaning that they wake me up twenty times in a single night, at five-minute intervals.  I have absolutely no idea why.  If I don't answer the phone, they call back.  If I do answer the phone, they call back.  They speak no syllable I can understand.  Occasionally, they leave long, incomprehensible messages on my answering machine.  I call them "they" not because I am finally embracing the singular "they" but because there are several of them.  It's usually a man on the phone, but there are always numerous people in the room with him.  Sometimes, I hear nothing but muted voices speaking in the background, while the person who presumably made the call remains silent.

I don't understand any of this.  Their area code is 909, so they must live in California, but they generally call me between 4:00 and 8:00 a.m., which would be 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. on the west coast.  Yesterday, they made only a single call at 6:44; the day before, they called me twenty or thirty times between 6:00 and 8:00.  Do they stay up all night dialing my number?  Why would they do that?  Why would anyone get up at 3:00 a.m. to make twenty phone calls to a very tired person whose responses ranged from, "You've got the wrong number.  Bye" (call #1) to "LISTEN.  It's SEVEN FORTY-FIVE IN THE MORNING.  You have been calling me for TWO FREAKING HOURS.  I hate you.  Leave.  Me.  Alone'" (call # 20)?  When you get a wrong number, don't you generally check to make sure you've written down the right number?  When someone doesn't answer the phone at 5:00 a.m., is your first impulse to call again?  If the person who answers the phone screams imprecations at you in a language that is nothing like the one you are speaking, might you possibly deduce that you are talking to the wrong person?

It's 3:25 a.m.  I am fully expecting the phone to ring in an hour or so.  Perhaps I should give in and turn off the ringer, but damn it, I shouldn't have to do that.  I would like to gather together the numerous people on the other end of those calls and punch them all very hard.  It's probably just as well that I have no idea who they are.

Monday, February 14, 2011:  Oh, Goody, It's Here Again

Dear Valentine's Day:

How happy I am that you have come around again!  I look desperately forward to you every year.  There is nothing I love so much as watching happy couples goo-gooing along, hand in hand, with little pink hearts all over their sweaters.  If only you happened more than once a year!

Some people call you a cynical holiday devoted to leaching as much money as humanly possible from hapless young men who want to keep their ladies from nagging them.  I think these people are wrong.  You are a great little time of year and not at all designed to make single folk feel like crap simply for existing.  You are also clearly not a way for popular girls to keep score.  No, of course I am not still haunted by the trauma of high school.

Keep on keeping on, Valentine's Day.  May you spend many, many centuries provoking nausea in those terrible spoilsports who don't buy into your beautiful message of love and folded squares of cardboard for six bucks a pop.

Yours with a great deal of gush,

Monday, January 31, 2011:  Because 6:00 a.m. is Such a Happy Time

Again, I apologise for skipping Rants.  The problem is that I now have to give a three-hour lecture every Monday at 8:00 a.m., meaning that I spend all weekend scrambling to complete it and generally end up without time to finish my comic and Rant.  By Monday afternoon, I'm too tired to do more than finish my comic.  This goes for today as well, but I'll do a Rant anyway.

Today's Rant constitutes an open letter to the Canadian version of Netflix.

Dear Canadian Version of Netflix:

I quite like the idea of you, and yes, I have subscribed; you're not that expensive, after all.  However, are you ever going to acquire any actual content?  It's getting a bit wearing to see the words "X is not available" over and over again.  So many films and TV shows are "not available" that I sometimes wonder if you're really worth it.  I mean, okay, you have The Republic of Doyle, so good for you, but I could get that perfectly legally via the CBC's website.  You don't have Lost, which I do want to watch, or any film that isn't zany fun and dates from 1982.  I'm hoping you will improve over time, but so far, you haven't really.  The most I can say for you is that you have acquired a few more British TV shows, some of which I'll probably try.  Have you thought of adding some current American TV shows that haven't yet been cancelled?  It would be awfully nice if you did.

I saw the musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels this weekend (not bad if you like that sort of thing), and I attempted to get the original film on Netflix, but no.  The film is twenty-three years old, and you can't get the rights to it?  You don't have The Shining either; it's thirty-one years old.  The "recommendations" you toss at me every time you reject one of my requests aren't appreciated, either.  I can't get Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but I can get Dirty Dancing:  Havanna Nights?  How does this help me?  What is wrong with you?

I'll stick with you for now, Canadian Version of Netflix, but please build up your collection a bit.  Republic of Doyle is not going to sustain me forever.  It would also be nice to be able to find at least one of the shows I'm teaching in my TV class in your database.  At the moment, I can't.

Monday, January 10, 2011:  Evil, Evil Early Classes

Sorry about not writing a Rant last Monday.  I tried, but I kept falling asleep.  I need to stop leaving everything to the last minute.  Yet again, it's 12:45 a.m., and I haven't finished proofreading the syllabus for the course I have to start teaching tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.

Why is there such a thing as an 8:00 a.m. class?  Why must such a class run for three hours?  I'm not good at mornings.  I like evenings quite a lot, but mornings are not my friends.  The only good thing about this particular 8:00 a.m. class is that it is not in Peterborough.  I can therefore get up at 6:00 instead of 4:00.  Hurrah...?

8:00 a.m. classes exist solely to torture people.  They don't discriminate; they torture both instructors and students.  Everybody has to get up way too early and spend three hours thinking longingly of bed.  I don't mind teaching the course, but why 8:00 a.m.?  Why not 9:00 a.m.?  9:00 is a relatively sane time of day.  I don't mind being awake at 9:00.

The infuriating thing is that those of us who don't like rising at 6:00 are generally labelled lazy, even if we've stayed up working until 2:00 a.m., whereas people who enjoy popping out of bed at 5:30 are praised as go-getters, even if they went to bed at 7:00.  I would like to lodge a protest, please.

I must finish preparing for tomorrow.  Note that I am up working.  If you must think I'm slothful for not being pleased that I'll be getting maybe four hours' worth of sleep tonight, please go right ahead.

Monday, December 27, 2010:  I Think I've Gone Critical (Again)

I really need to stop falling in love with various musical instruments.  It's getting a little worrying.

This past year, it's been mostly whistles, flutes, and ukuleles, all of which are instruments with which I have a lengthy history.  I've been playing the uke since I was eight or nine, the flute since I was eleven, and the whistle since some point in my teens.  In fact, I have long relationships with all my instruments:  the piano (since I was a toddler), the accordion (started at about twenty), and even the mandolin (been playing for eight years or so).  I should really just quit while I'm ahead.  However, I've recently been given a little harp by someone who can't play hers any more.  It's a cheap one made by Mid-East Instruments,* and regrettably, the wood is splitting in several places, but I've played it a bit, and now I really want a bigger one.  I'm not talking a twenty-thousand-dollar concert pedal harp here...just a decent standing lever harp.

This actually isn't a new desire.  I've been wishing for a harp for most of my life.**  However, harps are expensive, and I've never quite been able to justify spending food money for a year on one.  I nearly gave myself a heart attack eleven years ago when I spent something like three thousand bucks on an electric piano; I'm not sure I could handle the harp thing, though since I have no way of getting the tiny splitting harp back to Toronto, I'm sorely tempted.  I'm sure playing all these instruments can't be good for me.

There's no real point to this Rant.  I simply feel moved to observe that I am probably addicted to musical instruments.  I suppose it's better than being addicted to crack, though you never do know.

*Very prolific, instrument-wise, but does not have a fantastic reputation, justifiably so.
**Yes, I realise the harp is a floaty sort of instrument and doesn't seem my style.  I have been making my little one do some decidedly non-floaty things.   My theory is that harps don't have to be exclusively floaty any more than accordions have to play exclusively polkas.

Monday, December 20, 2010:  IN THE ZONE

In the past five days, I have marked, on average, thirty exams and/or essays per day.  Panic is a fantastic motivator.  I am now slightly ahead of where I thought I would be at this point, though that doesn't mean that tomorrow is not going to be just as frantic as today was.  It just means that there is a slim possibility that there won't be very much crying.

It's funny how in the middle of the term, I struggle to mark two papers per day, while at the end of the term, I fly through twenty in an afternoon.  I think I need to be under extreme stress to get anything done.  Ironically, I don't actually have any more fun while I'm struggling with the two papers than I do when I'm zooming through the twenty.

I am taking a short break tonight, and I already feel guilty about it, even though I marked eighteen pieces of work and collated an entire class's grades today (I only did fewer papers than usual because I ran out of papers.  Tomorrow is all about the collation).  I do hope I don't end up working right up to the last minute on Tuesday afternoon, though knowing me, I probably will.

Have a good break, everybody.  I shall resume my whining shortly after Christmas.  Hurrah!

Monday, December 6, 2010:  Four Bloody A.M. Again

I really have to stop doing this.  I would be truly pleased if I ever got to bed before 4:00 a.m. on what should be a Sunday night but is actually a Monday morning.  Next term, I'm going to have to change my habits, as I've got an 8:00 a.m. class on Mondays.  Hurrah...?

The horror is going to continue for at least two more weeks.  Frankly, I can't believe I have only two more weeks to mark all this stuff.  If I stop and think about it, I'll start screaming and looking for things to bang my head against.  It's much nicer to be in denial.  I can even pretend that I'll have time to do my Christmas shopping.*  I have about sixty essays to mark in the next two days so that I can make room for the ninety coming in on Tuesday and the sixty exams I'll be picking up on Wednesday.  In the meantime, I get to deal with the Joys of Bureaucracy.  Just don't even ask about that one.

Looking forward to the break would be nice, but I get to spend the break frantically reading up on television.  I have to teach a course on television next term.  I need to learn the relevant terminology really, really quickly.  I can rag on Glee, but when my office-mate started talking to me about "flow" and "simulacra," I got lost very quickly.  (She taught the same course this term.  I shall be reading all the books she read, I think.)  I have other things to do as well.  Nothing ever ends, ever.  Dr. Manhattan was right, albeit not in the way he thought he was.**

Tomorrow, ideally, I should mark about thirty essays.  Ha ha ha ha ha.  I need to go to bed and cry now.  I hope you guys are having a good December.

*I won't.
**I am allowed to make Watchmen references at 4:00 a.m. when I am really grumpy and tired.

Monday, November 29, 2010:  Hitting Stuff Alleviates Stress

Whenever life gets to be a little bit too much for me, and I need to resist the urge to fling all my marking off the balcony and then lock myself in the bathroom and cry, I purchase a small rhythm instrument, and suddenly, everything seems all right.

I cannot explain this.  I like all musical instruments, and I play several, but rhythm instruments have a special place in my heart.  It's not as if I know how to use most of them properly, either.  I can hit stuff with other stuff in patterns, but until recently, I didn't know the correct way to hold my claves.  As well, it's generally other people in my band who end up playing my various shakers and clickers and boomers, as I am needed to play instruments capable of making actual melodies.  The members of the band keep comparing me to a kindergarten teacher, possibly because I tend to wander around with bags of maracas.  I have actually lost count of the number of castanets I own.

For some reason, however, just knowing that I have access to a vast array of objects that go CLICKETY-CLICKETY-CLICK is comforting.  My latest acquisitions include a bell tree, a cowbell, finger cymbals, and a triangle; I think I'm feeling loud and clangy at the moment.  The bell tree is particularly delightful; it has twenty-five sleigh bells on it, and the sounds it can make range from "distant, delicate jingling" to "Santa Claus has lost control and is about to crash in my front yard."

It is possible that percussion makes me happy simply because it gives me something to hit productively.  It's actually a pity almost all my percussion is at Massey at the moment; I feel like shaking something vigorously right about now.  Luckily, I do have some castanets and a couple of güiros shaped like toads hanging around my apartment.

Monday, November 22, 2010:  Why Do I Hate Glee So Much?

Last week's Rant was written more or less on autopilot; I was so tired that I didn't even remember afterwards exactly what I had put down.  Reading the document over this week, I am startled to see that I actually wrote in complete sentences that made a certain amount of sense.  I'm not entirely sure how I did that.

Since it is now morning and I am fully awake, I am able to reflect more coherently on Glee and why it is that I really want to punch it in the face.

I have always had an odd relationship with Glee, about which I have written before.  I don't like it, but I still watch it faithfully every week.  I really don't want to be one of those people who follow a show just to be able to rip it to shreds; however, it kind of seems that I am, albeit only in terms of Glee.  Watching Glee is kind of like eating Sour Skittles right after a tooth extraction.  You know it's going to hurt, but you just can't freaking stop yourself.

My current source of rage is the episode that aired two weeks ago.  In it, Kurt, the only "out" gay student in his high school, has to deal with a bully who keeps smashing him into the lockers and flinging homophobic insults at him.  As it turns out, the bully is himself deeply in the closet, and he eventually plants a passionate kiss on Kurt.  A parallel storyline has the school's rather masculine female football coach, Shannon Beiste, finding out that the kids have been cooling off during their heavy petting sessions by imagining her in lingerie.  Coach Beiste is deeply hurt, but this hurt is apparently assuaged when the ultra-cute Spanish teacher takes pity on her and gives her her first kiss (followed by a comradely hug).

The twin storylines insult everyone.  Seriously...the writers have outdone themselves this time around.  What the bully is doing to Kurt is actually quite violent physical assault, but the teachers just stand around and watch; the most proactive of them talks to Kurt about one of the incidents, but no one actually thinks to talk to the bully.  What seems to have happened, as per usual, is that the writers are so focused on their little group of central characters that they have completely forgotten to deal with the implications of what they are doing to the minor characters.  Bully walks on...bully does something that proves he is a deeply confused individual...bully walks off.  Oh, and we don't need to develop him at all, besides hanging a huge "REPRESSED HOMOSEXUAL" sign over his head.  That will do for character development, right?

The bit with the coach is even worse.  Dear writers:  has any of you ever been a forty-year-old female virgin?  No?  Nothing wrong with that.  It's hardly a universal condition.  However, has any of you ever talked to a forty-year-old female virgin?  No?  Has any of you ever gone on the Internet and read a blog written by a forty-year-old female virgin?  No?  Is there a single one of you who believes in forty-year-old female virgins?...No...?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if a forty-year-old female virgin who had just been thoughtlessly insulted by a bunch of spoiled idiot children with no conception of how the world worked had had her cute friend, the kind of guy who generally had to fend off hot women with a stick, kiss her in the locker room just so she would know what a first kiss felt like, her reaction would not have been tender tears and a hug but instead a vigorous attempt to strangle said cute friend and dump his body in the sea.  First kiss?  Cool.  First kiss given out of pity by someone who probably had his own first kiss when he was twelve?  NOT FREAKING COOL.

Dear Glee writers:  stop pretending you know anything at all about unpopular people.  You don't.  You really want to be writing about the jocks and the cheerleaders, not the freaks and the geeks, but you think your approach is "ironic."  Please go watch Freaks and Geeks.  Hang around in a real high school and condescend to talk to actual losers.  It's very difficult to write an effective satire when you don't understand the reality of what you're satirising.

Monday, November 13, 2010:  Well, It's Only 4:30 a.m. This Time...

...so let's do a list:

Five Reasons We Should Take Matters into Our Own Hands and Burn Glee to the Ground

1)  It thinks it's satirical, whereas ninety percent of the time, it's really not.
2)  It presents as an "ideal" teacher, apparently without irony, a man who habitually lies, changes his mind for no reason, gets distracted by the incidental deails of his life, is willing to put on a high-school production of The Rocky Horror Show in which he himself appears half-naked while he tries desperately to seduce someone else's girlfriend, and apparently never ever teaches the subject that the school is paying him to cover.
3)  The writers may very well have been popular in high school, as their idea of "misfits" is a group of football players and cheerleaders with the occasional obnoxious lunatic sprinkled in.
4)  The writers are also clearly not forty-year-old female virgins, as their treatment of Coach Beiste has been astoundingly condescending.
5)  The characters are driven by the plot to such an extent that they will sometimes change their personalities without warning, just so that a particular plotline can go through.

I could go on for a while, but it's now 4:45, and I need to go to bed immediately.

Monday, November 8, 2010:  I Need to Stop Staying Up Until 5:30 a.m.

There is something terrible about 5:30 a.m., especially when the clocks have just turned back.  I would prefer never to stay up until 5:30 a.m. again.  Since I am going to have to start marking once more on Tuesday--after a one-day break--I am somehow doubting that my wish will be granted.  I'm afraid I'm too tired to write a real Rant.  I hope you all had good weekends.  I remember when the word "weekend" meant something to me.  Farewell.

Monday, November 1, 2010:  I Think I Am Losing My Mind (Again)

1)  Today, I shall be visiting the dentist's office for the third time in as many weeks.  I have a fourth appointment next week.  I am tired of going around with my jaw frozen.

2)  I have nearly finished one mountain of marking, albeit about two weeks after I should have done so.  I now have to get through sixty midterms in the next four days.  I also have to write a lecture on The Hobbit, which, incidentally, I have not yet finished rereading.

3)  Last "night," I went to bed at 5:30 a.m.  I was woken up this morning at about 9:15 by the sweet sounds of a pneumatic drill.  Could I get back to sleep?  No.  Has the drilling stopped yet?  Nuh-uh.  Is it going to stop at any point today?  I don't freaking think so.

4)  I cannot for the life of me play a C#m chord that does not sound like the noise a cat makes when you dunk it into a bath.

5)  I have heard there are people who go out and have fun sometimes.  I would like to be one of those people.

6)  Did I mention that I had a "part-time job"?  HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

7)  Oh, right:  I have to reapply for that part-time job this week.  You know...because I have all this free time in which to do so.  The interesting bit is that I must fill in a separate form for every single class I apply to teach.  I am going to bang my head on the wall and sob.

8)  If that GODDAMN DRILL does not shut up RIGHT THE HELL NOW, I am going to DICE somebody.

9)  What a lovely sunny day it is.  I remember when I used to have the time to go outside for five seconds or so late in the afternoon on every second Thursday.

10)  Maybe in a hundred years, I shall actually have a very short break.  That would be really, really nice.

Monday, October 18, 2010:  Ode to the Toothache That Has Destroyed My Weekend

O toothache,
you are quite unpleasant.
I think it is possible that you
have moved beyond mere "discomfort"
Of course
you had to do this on the damn weekend.
All the dentists are home doing whatever dentists do when they have
no access to instruments of sublime torture.
Possibly they watch a lot of TV.

O toothache,
I think it is possible you are causing my throat to hurt too.
I do not know how you are doing this,
but I suspect you of being behind everything
that is currently wrong with me.
Why can't you leave me alone?
Yes, I probably eat too much sugar.  I KNOW.
I can see another root canal in my future.

O Monday morning,
please come swiftly
so that I can beg my dentist for mercy,
plus lots and lots of painkillers.

Monday, October 11, 2010:  How I Didn't Quite Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Retail

I skipped last week because I finished my comic at something like 6:00 a.m. and just couldn't bring myself to write a Rant as well.  This week, I may be finished the comic as early as 3:30 a.m. (speedy), so I can squeeze a Rant in here.  It's funny how little time I always seem to have, especially as the most productive thing I actually did this weekend was teach myself how to play "Skullcrusher Mountain" on the ukulele.  Yeah, I need to re-evaluate my life.

I paid a visit to Long and McQuade (a musical instruments and supplies store) on Saturday.  The experience made me think--as per usual after I have had to enter any retail establishment that does not sell books or food--about phobias and how very much I wish I didn't have any.

I am mortally afraid of shopping.  I know it is something that has to be done, but I have never liked it or been able to handle it well.  Aggressive salespeople love me; I am easy to bully into spending money because I am reduced to a jelly of terror every time I enter a store.  In fact, an aggressive salesperson I met on Friday is indirectly responsible for my adventures with "Skullcrusher Mountain," since he sold me the ukulele on which I played it.  Granted, I had been wanting a new uke for a while (my old one is made of laminate and plastic and generally sounds rather as if it is being played off-key under water), but I wasn't sure I was willing to commit until this guy started haggling with me.  I don't deal well with haggling; I freeze up and let the other person make all the moves.  I did check up on my new uke online afterwards, and as it turned out, I got a fairly good deal on it (unless it has yet-to-be discovered flaws)--and it is pretty, and it plays in tune, and I love it very much--but the thing is that even if it hadn't been a great ukulele, I could easily have let myself be herded into buying it.  I've had this happen with computers and extended warranties, though admittedly, my luck with computers is so bad that I should go for the extended warranty every time.

The problem is that this phobia, which is as about as stupid a phobia as has ever existed anywhere, is in play all the time, even when the salesperson in question isn't aggressive.  I know it's supposed to be possible to conquer one's fears, but the effect this particular fear has on me doesn't seem to be under my control.  Whenever I address a salesperson, I lose the ability to form coherent sentences in English.  I get flustered.  In the music store (not Long and McQuade but a smaller store) on Friday, I lost my ability to tune a ukulele, an instrument I have been playing since the age of eight or so, and I broke one of the strings on a baritone I was trying because I had wound it too tightly.  In Long and McQuade on Saturday, I found myself unable to articulate the sentence, "I need a gig bag for a tenor ukulele."  As often occurs in such situations, I was reduced to using sign language and stuttering incomprehensibly.  The salesperson was very nice and did eventually come to understand what I wanted; this just made me more ashamed of myself and thus more incoherent.

I don't know if there is a technical term for the Fear of Shopping, but damn it, it's crippling.  I sometimes describe it as the "fear of people behind desks," as it extends to any situation in which I have to approach someone in charge of something.  People occasionally tell me to get over it.  I wish I could, but the problem is that even when I tell myself I am going to be brave and boldly storm a store, I end up losing my head and behaving like an idiot once I'm actually inside.  My intentions are always good, but there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between my intentions and my brain.

Ah well.  The experience was excruciatingly painful, but I did manage to make purchases on Friday and Saturday without dying of embarrassment.  I really hope I don't need to buy anything else for a while.

Monday, September 27, 2010:  I Try to Make My Peace with Technology

I realise I am always complaining that technology--specifically, computer-related technology, but also just technology in general--hates me.  I have had so many problems with computers, printers, scanners, tablets, modums, DVD players, VCRs, space heaters, electric pianos, toasters, ovens, refrigerators, staplers, watches, clock radios, remote controls, lamps, phones, answering machines, harmonicas, harmoniums, accordions, piccolos, bicycles, bike locks, and sliding closet doors that I'm pretty sure inanimate objects that contain fiddly bits are out to get me.  My watches are an interesting case in point.  I had a perfectly good Timex that lost maybe half a second a day until my parents gave me a really good watch for my B.A. graduation.  It never worked properly; it lost at least thirty seconds a day, stopped for no reason at random moments, and was generally untrustworthy, even after several sessions with the Really Good Watch Doctor.  It is now in my parents' house somewhere; they were going to try to get it fixed again, but I suspect they finally gave up the whole business as a bad job.  I now have a Caprice (i.e., a really cheap watch).  It worked fine for two or three years.  Then, about a month ago, it decided to mimic the really good watch and lose time for no reason every once in a while.  I thought the battery might simply be in the process of dying, and I took it off...but no, it has run perfectly ever since.  It only loses time when it is on my wrist.  I am now wearing a digital watch I found on the street.  I don't particularly like digital watches, but I seem to have no choice.

At any rate, I thought I would try to escape from my depressing and almost wholly negative relationship with technology by finding some technology that has improved my life instead of making it deeply frustrating.  It hasn't been easy.  This is what I've come up with:

1)  My hand-binder.  Many years ago, I bought a little machine capable of punching the holes necessary for a comb binding.  My reasoning was that it would a) save me on three-ring binders and b) just generally be cool.  I have used the binder frequently over the years, completely justifying the purchase.  It is a little decrepit now, but it still gets plenty of use.

2)  Books.  Books count as technology.  I like books.  I read them a lot.

Actually, that's it.  I can't think of anything else.  Even the chair on which I am currently sitting is problematic.  Even my couch is falling to pieces.  I don't think this Rant has helped me escape from my depressing and almost wholly negative relationship with technology after all.

Monday, September 20, 2010:  End of the Epic Computer Saga

And lo, late on the Day of Thor, a messenger did come to me bearing glad tidings.  "Rejoice," quoth he, "for thy patience has profited thee.  Seven weeks and two days have passed since thou broughtst thy computer to our realm for repair.  At long last, 'tis ready for pickup!"  My heart wept with joy at these words.

On the Day of Frigg,* two days and fifty after the computer was submitted to the Lords of the Machine, 'twas returned to me.  "O laptop," quoth I, "how I have missed thee.  I hate thee with a fiery, all-consuming passion, but still I have missed thee.  Do not ask me to explain this."  My gladness was somewhat tempered by the fact that my new hard drive meant that I had to reload every single damn program onto the machine, but what are hours of boredom next to the joy of a cheap Acer laptop that actually turns on every once in a while?  Cry huzzah!

If my laptop breaks again, which I am suspecting it will, I shall weep tears of terrible sadness.  Alas for the grief that the future imposeth upon our miserable lives!

*Or perhaps of Freyja, or perhaps of both, assuming that the two names are cognates.  I shall stop talking now.

Monday, September 13, 2010:  Random Thoughts About Nothing in Particular

1)  As of Tuesday, I will have been waiting for the return of my ailing laptop for exactly seven weeks.  My dad tells me that if the lovely people who currently have my computer sitting in a warehouse somewhere take more than sixty days to return it, the store officially (according to store policy) owes me a new one.  The fact that this may actually end up happening kind of appals me.  What can possibly be taking so long?

2)  I have stumbled upon more excellent British TV (for some reason, I seem to be doing that a lot lately).  The BBC has produced a three-part series called Sherlock; it is a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, and it is much better than it sounds.  Actually, I'm going to have to go out on a limb here and call it excellent.  The Holmes story fits surprisingly well into twenty-first-century London; the updated elements are tastefully done (i.e., the writers don't point at them with giant neon arrows and go, "Eh?  EH?  LOOK AT THE CLEVER THING WE HAVE DONE HERE!").  It is oddly logical that Watson should be a blogger and that Holmes should obnoxiously text Lestrade the word "Wrong!" in the middle of a press conference.  The writing is very good (no wonder, as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss of Doctor Who fame are in charge), the portrayals of Holmes and Watson are spot on, and the show does not forget to be funny.  Showcase is currently airing it; it is also available online, rather less legitimately.  The DVD will be available in Canada in November.

3)  Since I've somehow got onto British series, you might also consider checking out Blackpool, which is, unfortunately, impossible to view in North America by legitimate means.  It's a 2004 six-episode musical that is a little too odd to describe accurately; however, once you get used to the strange format (the characters sing along to pre-existing versions of well-known songs that somehow manage to fit perfectly into the plot), it becomes absolutely mermerising.  It tells the story of a man who is attempting to turn his two-bit Blackpool arcade into a Vegas-style casino; complications arise when a body is discovered on the premises, and these complications multiply after the investigating officer falls for the arcade owner's dissatisfied trophy wife.  You can see one of my favourite sequences, the opening of the second episode, here.  North Americans are probably most likely to recognise Tenth Doctor David Tennant, but frankly, all the actors in this one are great.

4)  The school year has started again.  This is really my favourite time of term, simply because the marking hasn't begun yet.  However, it will be upon us soon enough.

5)  I don't actually have anything more to say, but I wanted a fifth entry.  Have a good second half of September, everyone.

Monday, September 6, 2010:  Definitely a Curse

It is once again 4:30 a.m., so in the interests of easing myself towards a more sane sleep cycle, I shall do only a short Rant, this one a follow-up to last week's.  I am still waiting for my computer, which has now been in the shop for six weeks.  The Puture Phop people have finally given me my data back, but the machine itself is absent.  In the meantime, I am stuck with my desktop.  This computer is actually better than my laptop because it does not have Vista on it, but it has its idiosyncrasies.  For instance, the display occasionally turns pink or yellow for no apparent reason.  The useful USB ports on the front of the tower actually fell inside the box a year or so ago, meaning that I had to knock out one of the front panels, pull the loose ports out the front of the machine, and plug a USB extension cord into one of them (the other had somehow become completely bent out of shape and now works only sporadically).  My scanner does not like the extension cord.  When I plug it in, it will often decide that it is going to disconnect, then reconnect, then disconnect, then reconnect, and so on forever.  Of course, the computer goes ding every time this happens.  I am sometimes able to force a connection by squeezing the plug and the extension cord really firmly together in my hand, but not today.  Today, only plugging the scanner into the defective port worked.  In the meantime, my DVD drive has gone wonky and will not reproduce sound properly (it's definitely the DVD player's fault; if I play something off the Internet, the sound is fine).

I just don't know what to do any more.  I can make a computer or piece of computer-related equipment self-destruct simply by looking at it funny.  I would really like to punch technology in the mouth.  Since I can't, I think I'll retire to a corner and weep gently for a bit.

Monday, August 30, 2010:  It's a Curse, I Tell You

In late July, my one-year-old laptop stopped working.  This is not exactly an unusual state of affairs for me; I don't seem to be able to keep a functional computer for more than a year at a time.  Fortunately, I had gone for the extended warranty, which tends to be a scam unless you're, you know, me.  I should always go for the extended warranty.

I took my computer in for repairs on July 27th.  I had bought it from a well-known chain whose name I shall cleverly disguise so that no one will possibly be able to guess what it is.  Let's call it Puture Phop.  The guy at the desk told me I would have my computer back in a week to ten days.  He also charged me seventy-nine bucks to back up my data.  Good old Puture Phop.

'Twas exactly one month later that I returned to the Phop to inquire into the fate of my computer.  I could have phoned, of course, but I find phone conversations with people in computer stores very frustrating.  No one listens to anything you say, and when you arrive at the store, the person at the counter contradicts everything the person on the phone told you.  There is no record anywhere that you have spoken to anyone at all.

Events at Puture Phop played out as follows:

I approached the repairs/set-up counter.  There were two people being helped, so I stood a few feet back and waited.  Ten minutes later, the same people were still being helped, and when I came out of my daydream, I noticed that some guy had calmly cut in front of me.  The two people left, and the jerkwad started talking to one of the clerks.  The other one left the desk and went to talk to about six other Puture Phop employees who were just standing around, doing nothing.

About twenty minutes passed.  The jerkwad kept on being helped.  A couple started hanging around near the desk, but they eventually got impatient and left.  At long, long last, the jerkwad was satisfied, and I moved up to the desk, though by this point, there was no longer anyone behind it.  There continued not to be anyone behind it for a good five minutes.

At last, an employee, Bob (Not His Real Name), wandered up to the desk and asked me what the problem was.  I explained that I very much wanted to locate my computer, please.  Bob said a month was excessive for a repair job and promised to check.  Meanwhile, just like magic, another employee had appeared to deal with the enormous line that had formed behind me.

Fifteen more minutes passed.  I could see what was going on off in the staff area, and it was instructive.  It went something like this:

1)  Bob checked a computer for my information.
2)  Bob moved to another computer and checked there as well.
3)  Bob returned to the first computer and did yet more checking.
4)  Bob called over two other employees and showed them my receipt.
5)  The three of them opened a huge cabinet that looked to be full of laptops and went through it.
6)  They went through it again.
7)  They went through it a third time.
8)  They stared at the receipt a bit more.
9)  Bob returned to one of his computers and checked it again.

By this point, I was pretty sure that Puture Phop had lost my computer.

Bob eventually returned to the desk and informed me that my computer was off somewhere, probably "waiting for a part."  He would photocopy the receipt and ask someone senior about it.

To his credit, Bob (who actually was quite helpful) phoned me today and told me that my computer had been located and really was waiting for a part.  He said I would probably get it back in about a week.  I'm not holding my breath, but it was nice of him to call.

I seriously think I'm under some sort of curse.  Computers make me sad.

Monday, August 16, 2010:  It's Five Fifteen in the Bloody Morning

I would love to write you a real rant.  I truly would.  However, when I go out on my balcony and look east, I can actually see the damn sky getting light.  I've stayed up all night again.  I expect this (very short) little document is going to be full of typos that I shall miss because I am too tired to proofread.  Under the good points, I was able to watch last week's episode of Futurama while I was finishing up the last boring mechanical aspects of my comic.  It was about evolution, and it actually made me laugh more than once.  There is hope for Futurama.  I'm not sure there's any hope for me, on the other hand.  I have three classes again this fall, two of them online and one with sixty students in it.  I plan to break down and weep very, very soon.  The West of Bathurst book will probably be finished in the year 10,000,000,000 or so.

It is currently 5:25, and I think I need to go to bed right freaking now.

Monday, August 9, 2010:  An Open Letter to the Perpetual Construction on Bloor Street

Dear Perpetual Construction on Bloor Street:

We have known each other for a long time, you and I.  I can't remember exactly when we first met, but I know it was many, many years ago.  Ever since, you have been a presence in my life.

I have to admit that I never thought we would be together forever.  I was initially under the impression that you felt the same way; in fact, I expected you to stick around for a few months, then move on.  I knew that ours was a casual relationship, not meant to last.

Yet as time went on, you seemed to settle in.  Oh, you weren't entirely anchored in one place; you progressed slowly down Bloor, transforming the roads and sidewalks into pretty much exactly what they had been before, only with more planters.  However, your apparent movement was really an illusion.  You were clearly in it for the long haul, while I was still not ready to commit.

We have now, I think, reached a crisis point.  You have spread out over several blocks in one of the busiest parts of downtown, reducing traffic to one lane in each direction and causing bicyclists to go in constant fear of their lives.  I, alas, am one of these bicyclists.  I just don't think we mesh any more.  We have grown apart.  Your interests directly contradict mine, and your stubborn refusal to get the hell off my bike route demonstrates an extreme lack of sensitivity.

I really think it is time for us to spend some time apart.  I know you mean well, but you seem to want to stick around forever, and I would like my freedom.  Perhaps you should consider retiring to the suburbs.  Surely there is someone there who will be willing to love and appreciate you.

Goodbye, Perpetual Construction on Bloor Street.  For both our sakes, please consider finding some new interest a very long way from here.

Yours temporarily, with luck,

Monday, August 2, 2010:  It's Official:  Computers Hate Me

I went to Newfoundland last weekend.  It was a good trip, though I fear I was grumpy enough to make several of my friends quite angry with me.  I would like to apologise to these friends.  I know I should hide my bad moods and not impose them on others, but I find it difficult to do this.  I can see myself being a jerkwad; I just can't stop.  The result is that I feel bad about it not just afterwards but also while it is happening.  This is difficult to explain to normal people, who are generally able to control how they behave.  Clearly, there is something wrong with me.

At any rate, one of the things causing the grumpiness was the fact that the second I arrived in Newfoundland, my laptop stopped working.  I had wanted to get some comics finished so that I didn't fall behind and could mark without interruption once I returned home; instead, I got hours of fruitless frustration.  One of my friends eventually managed to revive the computer, but only for an evening.  It is now in the shop, and I am using my other computer, which is slightly less dysfunctional.

I do not understand why computers hate me so much.  Perhaps they sense my computer-related weakness and go wrong simply because they can.  Other people keep their computers for years; I go through laptops the way most go through Kleenex.

I just want a computer that will turn on and do stuff.  That is all I ask for.  I'm tired of the inexplicable freezing and the data loss and the blue screen of death.  I'm tired of not understanding why neither my mic or my headphones work on my desktop any more.  I'm infuriated by Vista, Word, and all their little friends.  If Future Shop charges me for any aspect of these repairs beyond data recovery, for which it is already bleeding me dry, I shall punch someone.  You sold me this utter piece of crap, Future Shop.  You fix the damn thing.

I shall probably wander off and cry now.  Have a good holiday, Canadians.

Monday, July 19, 2010:  The Unfortunate Thing About Board Games

Last weekend, some friends and I were reminded of one of the unofficial Rules of All Board Games:  no matter how fantastic a game is, if no one in your group knows how to play it before you start, you will all hate it forever afterwards.

It's always advisable to learn a board game from someone who understands the rules.  These things tend to come with twenty-page-long rulebooks badly translated from German or Chinese; you can certainly read them, but they will answer your questions in the wrong order, if at all.  An experienced player will explain the rules as they come up.  The first ten minutes of the game will involve some fumbling, but people will probably catch on after that.

Sometimes, however, you will find yourself with a game everybody assures you is "good" but nobody knows how to play.  Such was the case last weekend with my copy of Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot.  My sister gave it to me for Christmas about two and a half years ago.  She usually plays the games she gives me with me, but this time, she was banished from my parents' house because she was pregnant and they had been exposed to German measles.  She told me the game was a good one, but I didn't have a chance to try it out until last Sunday.

I'm sure it is a good game.  I'm not sure we'll ever play it again.  We seemed to spend endless amounts of time looking stuff up in the two instruction booklets, often fruitlessly.  There were all sorts of fiddly rules that went along with certain types of cards, and we kept doing things wrong, and friend #1 cluelessly used what was probably the nastiest card in the game to give us all Ebola Virus and basically bring the game to a standstill, which, as we discovered later, shouldn't have happened because we were actually using the Ebola card wrong.  Friend #2 decided early on that he hated the game, and he actively tried to lose.  Friend #3 played skilfully and with intent to win, only to be taken down accidentally by friend #4.  I won, mostly by virtue of staying quietly under the radar throughout the game; I had no idea what I was doing and was employing no strategy whatsoever.  The effect was basically what you would get if five people who didn't know what nutmeg was were turned loose in a kitchen and commanded to bake a pie.  Any resulting edible substance would probably be a fluke.

I am a little sad about this game, which I suspect is actually kind of neat, and is certainly no more complicated than Munchkin, which it resembles.  At our next games night, however, I hope we stick to games at least one of us knows.  It is hard to keep track of one's bunnies when one doesn't know what they are for.

Monday, July 5, 2010:  Free Music and Other Sad Stories

I apologise for not posting last week.  Marking and the comic conspired together to eat my life.  They should also be eating my life now, of course, but I am currently pretending they shouldn't.

Since nothing besides marking and the occasional film* has happened to me in the past two weeks, I shall simply reflect briefly on the nightly concert at the pub across the street from me.  The place has a live band on the patio just about every night of the week in the summer.  I dimly remember the days when it stuck to Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.  Those days are gone now.

It's not that I particularly mind; I quite like the whole thing with the free music.  It's just that some of the band choices are...odd.  Back in the days of Monday/Thursday/Saturday, it was all jazz, all the time; now we get various styles played on various instruments.  Tonight, it's jazz.  Occasionally, there's old-fashioned rock and roll or country.  On Canada Day, it started in the middle of the afternoon and was just freaking weird.

I mean, okay, give me Elvis all you like, but a jazz version of "On Top of Old Smokey"?  Whose idea was that?  Was your band bored?  It's bad enough that you felt obliged to turn it into jazz; the fact that it's purely instrumental is just going to make people think of the much more commonly known parody, "On Top of Spaghetti."  It was a kind of strange thing to find myself listening to, to tell you the truth.  I was waiting for you guys to segue into "London Bridge is Falling Down," but you never did.

I seem to remember that there was other odd music that afternoon as well, but now, of course, I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.  At any rate, I'm sure there will be odder stuff some evening soon.  Tonight's rather anonymous jazz is relaxing in comparison.

*Damn you, Pixar.  Damn your ability to make me sob for ten minutes, even though I know perfectly well how you are doing it.  Damn your sad music and poignant moments of silent character interaction.  And damn you, M. Night Shyamalan, for taking what could have been quite a good little story and trapping it forever in Expositionland, where it falls prey to such deadly lines as, "It is time we show the people of the fire nation we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs."  Damn you.

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