8/24/2006

Are We Not Handymen?


"Measure twice, cut once; that is the Law."
--H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Mitersaw
I've taken several weeks off work to--


--go to WorldCon in LA? Nope, sorry, but we stopped going to the really big conventions years ago. A WesterCon or an occasional World Fantasy Con is about the largest we make it to nowadays, and not many of those. The big conventions stopped being fun; WorldCon is too big, too hectic, too crowded, and too expensive

No, I've taken time off work to get some household projects that have been on The List for years finally done. The major one of which is refurbishing my office; it's the next-to-last room in the house that still has the original paint (icky flat off-white) and carpeting (a hideous eyeball-searing red shag; what were the previous owners thinking?) from when we moved into this house twenty-six years ago. (The master bedroom, which had actually been redone fairly tastefully shortly before we bought the house, is scheduled for a re-do next year.)

I'm repainting the office with a bright-white semi-gloss, replacing the carpeting with vinyl tile, and I'll be installing shelving tracks and brackets along the studs in one wall so shelves can be set up and reconfigured as needed. And probably some new curtains or blinds.

Part of the reason for doing this now is that since I'm still working -- and getting far too many overtime hours -- we have a lot more discretionary income to do this sort of household upgrade than we'd have when I retire in three or four years. The mortgage will be paid off by then, but I'll only be getting about two-thirds of my current base income for retirement and none of the overtime pay; doable, but tighter than we live now. Hopefully, once I retire, I'll be able to do more writing and supplement our income that way; I may not ever make a full income from writing, but I'm good enough that a significant portion of what I write ends up selling, and once in a while even ends up selling for a significant sum. (Thank you, Paramount.)

Conservatism, Sex, Reality and TV Guide

Some recent issues of TV Guide have included material that annoyed me.

In the 8/14/06 issue, columnist Rochell D. Thomas wrote:
Does Gene Simmons' nonwife Shannon Tweed make it harder for the rest of us?

Shannon and the Kiss bass player (aka the guy with the Tongue) have been "happily unmarried" for 23 years. On the one hand, "Yea, them!" The stars of Gene Simmons Family Jewels seem content. They've got two well-adjusted teens, a nice house, etc. But on the other hand: "What the bleep?" Shannon has made it no secret that she wants -- and has always wanted -- to get hitched. Their kids hope they'll tie the knot. Even Gene's mother wants him to make an honest woman out of the Playboy centerfold. But apparently the self-called "rock god" refuses because he doesn't want to have to lie about his, ahem, extracurricular activities. And see, that's right there what freaks me out. Shannon lets the man dabble with other dames as long as he comes home to her. As if that's all that matters. It sets a bad precedent!"
Then, in the 8/28/06 issue, a reader's letter from Karan Ann DeLuca says:
Shame on him for making the married/unmarried distinction to justify not having to lie about his dalliances. And shame on his girlfriend for accepting that. Because if she really wants to be monogamously hitched, after 23 years, there is no difference!
Where to start on this?

Every relationship, married or unmarried, between lovers, spouses, or just two people dating, goes thru a dance of discovery and negotiation. There are "default" modes of relationships, and the one for marriage is usually "monogamous, for life".

But a default mode isn't set in stone; it's not the only option. And, as divorce rates and LifeTime tv-movies repeatedly show, even people who declare their commitment to monogamy don't always keep that commitment.

There's a bell curve for everything, and there's one for fidelity in relationships, too. Most marriages/relationships pretty much fall under that "monogamous" definition.

But not everyone wants that. Not everyone is comfortable with that. Not everyone is sure that they'll be able to keep such a commitment. Not everyone feels that "sexual exclusiveness" is THE most important facet of a relationship.

And if two people are honest with each other, and open about their feelings regarding sex and faithfulness, those feelings will become part of that "dance and negotiation". And they'll modify that default mode to acomodate those feelings. Or not, if they're too far apart on their attitudes and beliefs. (And if that's the case, it's probably best that they not try to become a couple.)

Back about, oh, fifteen years ago, during a local convention, Hilde and I went out to dinner with one of the writers attending the con. During the dinner, the writer mentioned that his impression of Phoenix fandom was that it was "pretty straight-laced". Hilde and I had to smile at that, because probably about 25% of the couples/spouses we knew had open relationships or marriages to one degree or another.

(I wondered at the time if the writer's choice of topic was his way of putting out a feeler to see if Hilde was available or interested. Umm, he was a very interesting dinner companion.)

There are degrees of "open": Some of our friends really were, in deed, monogamous and not seeking other lovers or relationships, but they'd discussed the issue and agreed that if it ever did happen that one or the other of them ended up in bed with someone else, it wouldn't be a marriage-breaker. Some had a "don't ask, don't tell" agreement with each other. Some people "made love" to each other, but had "friendly sex" with some of their close friends. Some found themselves ending up in polyamourous relationships with others. (One friend of ours, part of a 3-person poly group, told us that the nice thing about threesomes was that there was always someone available to run the video camera.)

And most of these people were, in public, "normal". With very few exceptions, they didn't make a public proclamation that their relationships were "custom", rather than "default".

Science fiction fandom tends to be a bit more liberated and open to alternative lifestyles, so the 25% figure I mentioned is probably higher than in the general populace. But the guess I would hazard to make is that probably around 10% of marriages/relationships at large have private agreements that occasionally having sex with other people isn't that big of a deal.

(Sometimes, though, it is, despite best intentions. When that 3-person poly group I mentioned above broke up, it broke up very publically, and very VERY ugly. But I'd still have to say that overall the sexually-open relationships I've known of have tended to be more stable and long-lasting than the couples who've promised faithfulness to each other in public, and cheated on each other in private. Like Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the sex wasn't the big deal, the lying about the sex was the big deal.)

That "harder for the rest of us" part of Thomas' TV Guide column is particularly annoying. Sorry, Rochelle, but the rest of the world is not going to believe what you believe, act like you want to act, have the relationship or marriage that you want to have, just to make it easier for you to get what you want. Deal with it.

8/20/2006

Shatner Roast: 350 Degree Oven, Baste Frequently With Ego Sauce



The William Shatner Roast will be on television later tonight. The occasion moves me to tell my favorite William Shatner story; this is one of those stories that, if it isn't true, ought to be:


Everyone knows that Bill Shatner has, as he's gotten older, had some problems with his weight.

Part of this was because of a habit of sneaking midnight snacks from the refrigerator. So his wife, as a motivational aid, got ahold of some of the slash fanfic-zines published by some of the more uninhibited Star Trek fans, unstapled them, and removed some of the more explicit illustrations from them.

That night, Shatner snuck downstairs to raid the refrigerator again. When he turned on the light, there, taped to the refrigerator, was a double-page drawing of himself:

Young, slim, lean, totally nude, and spectacularly endowed.

Shatner stared at the drawing for a long moment. Then, he turned his head and shouted back up the stairs:

"Honey, do we have any bananas in the house?"

A Shocking Display of Utter Geekitude



I've been watching the Sci Fi Channel's reality series Who Wants To Be A Superhero? since it premiered earlier this summer.

The premise is that participants create a superhero character and portray that character themselves during the course of the show; the payoff is that the last surviving superhero will have a professional (Dark Horse Comics) comic book produced about their character, written by Stan Lee. Participants are eliminated in each episode via tests and trials for the proper characteristics of a superhero: helpfulness, courage, self-sacrifice, honesty, etc. The judge for the elimination process is Lee.

This is not a great reality series; I'd like to see more of the personal interactions between participants (a la The Real World) when they're not being tested; the editing is rather lacklustre and the seams show at times.

But it's been interesting, particularly to someone who's been reading comics on a fairly regular basis since childhood, daydreamed about having superpowers himself, and when he got older and started writing fiction, made a few attempts toward breaking into actual comic-writing.

(In fact, the very first real story I wrote, when I was fourteen, was a superhero story. Actually, more of a supervillain story: The character was a scientist who was repeatedly turned down for research money, had to do his experiments on the cheap, and had them blow up in his face as a result. Good news: the chemical explosion gave him superpowers; bad news: they also drove him insane and turned him into a compulsive bank robber. Even back then, I tried to put a twist into my fiction.)

When I saw the announcement of the show earlier this year, my first thought was "No way would -I- ever dress up in a costume and let myself be filmed wearing it for weeks." Writing about superheroes is one thing; dressing up like one for more than a convention masquerade or the like is another.

And, if I created a superhero character that was going to have an actual comic produced around the idea, I wouldn't want it to be written by Stan Lee. I'd want to write it myself, dammit!!

So I had no urge to participate in the show. But it's been interesting to watch. It's coming close to the end of its run, and only three superheroes are left: Major Victory, Feedback, and Fat Momma.

I'm going to predict that Feedback will the the final winner of the series, barring some boneheaded error during the remaining trials.

The reason I say this is that in terms of character (courage, honesty, etc), the remaining participants are on about equal footing. So I think the final choice will be determined by one question: Which superhero will be the most interesting hero for Stan Lee to write a comic about?

Major Victory is a hero out of the Big Strong Doofus school of superheroes. (Superman, Captain Marvel, etc.) Admirable, but... in the end... boring.

Fat Momma is a "novelty" superhero, with a limited cause of action. (She defends the "differently sized".) Again, admirable, but not that interesting as a character.

Until last week's episode, I'd have said the same thing about Feedback. But in that episode, we learned that Feedback's real-life father had committed suicide during Feedback's childhood. (And that, in part, was why Feedback became a heavy-duty comic fan, seeking a better, more understandable world there.)

And that was the point at which Feedback became an interesting character, one that a writer would want to write about. His father's suicide, like Uncle Ben's death in Spiderman, could be the starting point for the comic book's origin and motivation.

So I'm calling Feedback to be the winner of the series.

8/16/2006

Catblogging -- Special COTD Editon


A few days ago on Cat Of The Day, the featured feline was one Memo, from Chile.

Besides being a strikingly handsome black cat, the accompanying text reported something unusual about Memo: returning from an outside foray, he had returned to his owners' doorstep carrying a young abandoned kitten in his mouth.

Most of us have heard of mother cats going to extrardinary lengths to rescue their own imperiled kittens (see Scarlett Saves Her Kittens), or of nursing cats accepting orphaned kittens from another litter... but this is the first time where I have ever heard of a male cat rescuing a kitten.

(Among feral cats, at least, the more usual reaction would be for a tom to attack and/or kill kittens not from its pack.)

8/15/2006

PATCO 1981: A Postal Perspective



Over at Firedoglake, there's an interesting post on the 25th anniversary of the 1981 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike.

When that strike occurred, then-President Ronald Reagan fired all 11,000 air traffic controllers. They were temporarily replaced with military ATCs (I believe some of the striking ATCs who belonged to National Guard units actually got called to duty and ordered to replace themselves), and "permanent replacements" were hired and rushed into expedited training (which sounds a lot better than "crash course", in this context).

This was the first, and most drastic, attack on unions by Reagan's right-wing administration. As the Firedoglake article points out, the number of strikes by organized labor dropped drastically afterwards, and union membership in general has also dropped dramatically. The successful firing of the PATCO members also set the groundwork for rollbacks on benefits (pay, pensions, hours, insurance, virtually every benefit labor had gained in previous years has come under strong attack since PATCO).

The firing was also a high-risk gamble by Reagan's administration; they were gambling that they'd be able to get replacement workers trained and in place without having an air disaster take place in the interim. They won that gamble. But boy, I (and a lot of other members of the public) was aghast when the PATCO members were fired and suddenly air traffic was in the hands of (considerably fewer) military ATCs, and then in the hands of quickly trained replacements; I could scarcely believe that Reagan and company could place so many innocent travellers at such high risk.

Thinking back on it now, I believe that Reagan and his chorts saw the action against PATCO as, literally, an act of war. The PATCO firing was their own, earlier, version of the "Shock & Awe" attacks on Baghdad at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And if there had been an airliner crash, if there had been hundreds of people killed because of an error by the replacement ATCs... I think the Reagan administration, while publically regretting the loss, would have simply considered hundreds of dead Americans as "collateral damage" in their war to "protect American business interests".

As it happened, the year 1981 was also the year in which the NALC's (National Association of Letter Carriers) contract with the Postal Service had, several months before the PATCO strike, come up for renegotiation.

It was a very tense period for letter carriers. The talks between the NALC and management were light in conversation and compromise, heavy in confrontation. And the general consensus among letter carriers seemed to be that a strike would have to take place before management would bend. The day before the current contract expired, the word being passed around amongst employees was that a call to strike would almost certainly be issued by the NALC the next morning.

I was highly anxious about the prospect of a strike. I wasn't a union member back then. And I didn't believe that a strike was, quite, necessary yet. I thought that the union and management should issue a temporary -- for a month, or a week, or even just a few days -- extension on the current contract, and keep talking. Keep talking, until an absolute stonewall impasse had been reached. Then, and only then, could I see a strike being justified.

And if I thought that a strikecall was not justified... then I couldn't see myself making any other choice than to cross the picket line if that strike were called.

When I mentioned this to a couple of the other employees, they were aghast. I was warned that my car's tires would be slashed, that my wife and son would receive obscene phone calls, that if I was ever in the wrong place alone I might be badly beaten.

(None of this was told to me as if the teller would be the person doing all these things. A sort of amorphous "They" would be the people doing all these horrible things. But this sort of intimidation, and other reports of corruption and violence in unions that I'd seen in the news for years, was one of the major reasons I hadn't felt comfortable joining the union.)(And didn't, until more than ten years later, in large part because of those intimidating remarks made to me in 1981. And when I finally did join the union, it wasn't so much that the union had cleaned up its act, but that management had grown so much worse in the intervening years.)

So I didn't sleep very well that night. But woke up to the clock-radio announcing the news that a tentative agreement on a new postal contract had been reached at the last minute (literally, at sunrise) after all-night talks, and that there would be no strike. *whew*

But if a strike by letter carriers had occurred that year... I think it would have been the NALC, rather than PATCO, that would have been made an example of, with thousands of letter carriers, rather than air traffic controllers, being fired and replaced. I think Reagan was looking for a union to destroy, and it was just luck that letter carriers dodged that bullet, with PATCO taking it instead, a few months later.

8/14/2006

Answer: About Two Friggin' Hours



Question: How long does it take to clean up about two gallons of liquid laundry detergent off a laundry room floor, sufficiently that the floor doesn't act like a Slip'N'Slide?

8/13/2006

Threat Levels



In the wake of the recent British roundup of suspects in an apparent plot to smuggle explosives onto airplanes, the US Department of Homeland Security brushed off its "threat level" color code and declared Red, its highest level.

At the same time, it was reported that individuals in the Bush administration and other Republicans welcomed the news of the plot's foiling, not because suspected terrorists were behind bars and lives had potentially been saved, but because the news could be used to Republican political advantage in campaigns for the upcoming midterm elections.

Can I make a suggestion here? Rather than referring to the DHS' categories as "threat levels", let's call them what they really are: "anxiety levels".

Because the Bush White House, and the Republicans as a whole, want the American public to be anxious, they want us to be afraid, they want us to live in fear.

Because the more anxious, fearful, and afraid the public is, the more inclined they'll be to not vote for a change in elected officials come November.

8/08/2006

Eddings' Heir Apparent, Alas



In spite of David Eddings' popularity, I never read more than a portion of the first Mallorean book.

What kept me from continuing wasn't the story itself, but several stylistic tics of Eddings' writing that kept jarring me out of the actual story. In Eddings' case, it was running across repeated instances of starting a paragraph with "However," or "Unfortunately,". These were not only unnecessary words, but they were the author's voice intruding on the story.

It was sort of like going to a movie, only to have the rude kid sitting behind you keep kicking the back of your seat. After about forty or fifty pages of the first Eddings book, I put it down and never went back to the series again.

I have found the new Eddings, and the magic word this time around is "Now".
p.17: "Now Lord Hasha turned his attention toward me"
p.19: "Now Maram's knuckles grew white around his bow"
p.21: "Now Lord Hasha swallowed the last of his beer"
p.25: "Now both Lord Hasha and Asaru -- and Joshu Kadar as well -- looked at me in amazement"
p.38: "Now Asaru examined the arrow"
p.40: "Now a fire burned through me"
p.68: "Now my father looked at Asaru with puzzlement"

Which was about as far as I got. I don't object to starting a paragraph with "Now", when properly used. But my idea of proper use would be to use it when there's been a break in the narrative to refer to past events, and use "Now" as a time-check to restart the present-time flow of the narrative again. That didn't apply in any of the above instances.

(There's also a heck of a lot of "And then"s that, to a lesser extent, also kicked the back of my seat.)

So congratulations, David Zindell, The Lightstone wins you my judgement as "Heir apparent to David Eddings". (Out of context, that will make a great blurb for a paperback edition.)

(Endnote: I see from the copyright page of Tor's American edition that The Lightstone was originally published in England in 2001, and that "The Tor edition has been specially revised by the author." I will refrain from comment.)

8/07/2006

Drive-By Posting



Still working far too many hours at work; over twelve today.

Thus largely accounting for the paucity of postings here of late. Working long hours means that 1) I have less time available at home in which to try and get done all the things I struggle to get done after ordinary eight-hour workdays, and 2) that trying to keep up means I tend to stay up later and get less sleep. (Rule of thumb: Each hour of overtime worked means half an hour's less sleep that night. Which frequently means I'm using "energy drinks" to get thru the next workday. Why, yes, this is an example of "diminishing returns" in action; thank you for pointing that out. So the next time you see a postal vehicle driving down the street, get out of his way just in case the driver's about ready to pass out over the wheel.)

I've had several postings in mind, but it may be another few days, or more, before I actually have a chance to write them here.

(I haven't even noted how I came home about ten days ago to the news that we had running water in our kitchen. Unfortunately, it was running from the ceiling. The furnace/blower combo that had been installed in the attic as part of our new air-conditioning system included a large drip pan to collect condensation from the coils, plus PVC piping to direct the excess drippage out the side of the attic and onto the ground. Unfortunately, not only did the drip pan not drain properly, but one of the joints in the PVC piping leaked, badly. End result: sodden attic insulation, a soggy kitchen ceiling, and about half a dozen steady drips from various points on the ceiling. Good thing I have a fairly large number of stockpots. The A/C company fixed the leaks and drip pan the next morning, and is sending someone over this week to inspect and repair the damage to the kitchen ceiling. Good for them, but I'd rather they'd done the job right the first time.)