Sunday, November 22, 2009

Explanation Excavation

As time rolls by, so I have changed. This is the normal course of things, as solidification of the personality is a slow, if not interminable, process. The change slows like everything does with age, but there rarely comes a time when the old dog is incapable of learning a new trick. Or at least capable of learning about a new trick.

Me? I used to be an explainer.

Allow me to explain.

There was once a point in my life where--but wait. Let's stop right there. As discussed before, there really is no such thing as a point or a line at which one thought becomes another; where one mindset becomes its antithesis. My struggle to de-emphasize explanation, to dethrone personality-wide apologetics, from the way I interact with people is ongoing.

I used to believe that if I could explain my feelings and my actions in a sufficiently detailed and rational way, they would seem--indeed become--rational. If I could wrap my opinions in a cloak of rationality, they would carry more weight, and given sufficient effort, I could imbue them with transformative power!

This is not an entirely misguided idea. There are many times in your life where having a firm grasp on your opinions and a ready explanation for your actions will save you a lot of trouble. Especially if you believe yourself to be clear-headed enough to qualify as a "leader". (Be very careful with that!)

But think of those people who do something, especially something hurtful, and have no explanation for it! You ask "why did you do that?" and they just shrug and say "I dunno." People like that can be immensely damaging if you allow them past your perimeter defenses, and the worst part is that they don't even seem to realize it.

So even if you're a shithead, it's good to at least have a working knowledge of your own shitheadery. That way you won't take people by surprise, and they will respect you (to a certain extent) for your honesty.

Explanation can be a useful tool. It IS a useful tool. But only to those who actually want one. Where it falls entirely short, however, is when you try to wield it against emotion.

Emotions are amorphous, ethereal things. Like big, slow moving, blind elephants. You can present them with a clear picture of reality, and they just stand there. Or they wander off in a totally random direction. Or they smash head on into it.

In addition, they can be unnervingly, unexpectedly sly. They can be in the driver's seat, masquerading as fact, and it's only when you see the red and blue strobes in the rearview mirror that you realize you've been duped. Try explaining your way out of that one! Can there really be a rational one that takes into account the fact (hindsight reveals it as fact) that you had no idea what you were doing at the time?

Probably not. But storytelling is innate human nature, so we usually give it a shot anyway.

These days, I'm a happier man for my ability not only draw up arguments, but now to limit their broadcast range. It's emotional beamforming; the molding of an explanatory broadcast in an attempt to provide the strongest coverage for those most interested.

Because otherwise, all you're doing is talking about yourself. Excavate only when needed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Captain Zoloft Lands His Spaceship
With apologies to Douglas Adams

The empty vastness of space stretched endlessly in all directions, like a big ink spill. A big ink spill that occupied four dimensions. An ink spill that was somehow dented by gravity. An ink spill with stars in it.

Some of these stars had planets orbiting them. And of those planets, a very few were host to living things. One such planet, orbiting a binary star system known locally as Scrotus Epsilon, well within the habitable zone, had bugs on it.

One of these bugs was a fuzzy caterpillar named Jeff.

Jeff looked into the hazy sky of his world, and was not entirely unsurprised to see a spaceship in flames make a screaming entrance. The machine, easily the size of a billion Jeffs (as this was his only reliable reference scale), plowed through the thick atmosphere, trailing shrapnel and a sonic boom that knocked Jeff from his leaf.

That was fine with Jeff. That leaf was getting boring anyway. He twisted himself back onto his stubby little caterpillar legs and started climbing another plant. The ship was gone now, over the horizon, and was already beginning to fade from Jeff's primitive memory. In another few minutes, the memory would be gone for good. Unless stuff landed directly on top of him, Jeff didn't really much care.

For the occupants of the ship, things were a little more dire. Their situation started its decline some hundreds of thousands of miles away.

"Jim!" bellowed Captain Zoloft. "We appear to be on fire! This is less than optimal!"

"Mmm hmm," Jim grunted. He opened a package of space crackers. "You were the one who thought it would be fun to dunk the ship in those plasma storms. Shoulda known they'd melt the hull."

Zoloft swirled his cape in the most captainlike manner he could manage. "They were reckless," he said, his feet tangling in a cape swirl. He hit the deck in a heroic bundle of red velour with a reverberant bonnng.

"I suppose you want me to scramble out a hatch and spray the fire with something?" Jim crammed a cracker into his mouth, dusting a brightly lit display cluster with space crumbs.

Zoloft didn't hear him, for he was engaged in a desperate struggle for survival with his cape. "We meet again, velvety menace!" he screeched, kicking wildly and thrashing helplessly on the ship's polished chromium deck.

"Space Christ," muttered Jim. He jabbed a thumb into one of the thousands of flashing buttons. A small hatch opened in the console and a jar of space peanut butter slid smoothly out on a little tray.

"Space peanut butter deployed,"
announced the ship's onboard computer in a soothing, British-accented female voice.

"Just why in the hell does everything on this stupid ship have to be motorized, light up and announce its arrival? I can see the peanut butter right there. I pressed the button a whole goddamn second ago. My memory's better than that," Jim muttered, spreading some on his cracker. He shoved the jar rudely back into the console.

"Complaints registered. Archival to commence next solar cycle. Space peanut butter retracted, internal re-docking successful. Enjoy!"

"And why does everything have to have 'space' in front of it?"

The sizzle of proton pistol fire echoed through the bridge, startling Jim and causing him to drop his space knife.

Zoloft had freed himself from the devilish constrictions of his beastly cape. He stood over its defeated, shredded remains heaped upon the deck, his pistol in one fist, a space Thermos in the other. He shot the cape again.

"That will teach you to meddle in the affairs of greater men!" he hooted, brandishing the Thermos in quite a fierce manner.

"Captain upright and de-caped," announced the computer. "Bioscan commenced for no particular reason."

"This wouldn't be so bad if you wore more than a cape," Jim said, shielding his eyes with a hand. "Put on some space pants for crying out loud."

"I'm the captain and I will do as I please. Computer! What is the status on this fire we seem to be experiencing?"

"Heat-accelerated oxidization still underway."

"Computer! Translate that last message!"

"Still burning, Captain."

"What are our options?"

"Extinguish fire or crash and die."


Jim threw a bunch of toggle switches all in a row. The chk-chk-chk they made as they snapped into position was followed by some rapid-fire machine twitter as text flickered across the monitors and whole panels of buttons flashed in different patterns.

"Since when does everything that happens onscreen have to have sound effects?" Jim grumbled. "Just moving this freaking window around, even!" He slid a status display from one side of the screen to another. It went "swooooshwoop!"

"Did those many switches stop the fire, Jim?" demanded Zoloft, tugging on a pair of silver space pants, complete with accordion-like rubber boots on the knee joints. The belt was holographic and wholly useless.

"Hell no. I have no idea what that did. There are thousands of little glowing switches over here, and the only ones that do anything as far as I can tell is the one that dispenses peanut butter and this one that makes a little animation of a gyroscope appear on the monitor." He pressed that button.

"Space gnomes! A gyroscope!" bellowed the captain.

"Now entering orbit around Scrotus Epsilon system. Calculating trajectory now,"
announced the computer.

"Jim!" screeched Zoloft. "Fire the ion drive and decay orbit! We'll have to find a good place to set her down and begin repairs. Do you still have your space pliers?"

Jim favored Zoloft with a withering look. Zoloft duly withered. Jim pressed a button on his console, and a little hatch opened up next to it. A jar of space peanut butter slid out on a little tray.

"That's the best you're gonna get from me," he said, nodding at the jar. "Anything else impossible you'd like me to try?"

De-withering himself quickly, as befits a man of strong moral fiber and ineffably courageous leadership, Zoloft scampered to the front of the bridge and wrestled violently with some joysticks.

"Trajectory calculation complete. Impact with Scrotus Epsilon V in six minutes," said the computer.

"Onscreen!" shouted the captain. A little animation of a gyroscope appeared in the center of the huge, curved forward screen.

Jim thumbed through his space atlas. "Looks like that planet's not entirely hostile to life. Says it's kind of humid, though, so if you don't mind, I'm staying inside on this one." He tossed his pair of space pliers to Zoloft, who missed them.

"Leaving me to carry the day again, eh Jim? Naturally! Why, day-carrying is what made me the man I am today. I do not blame you." He picked up the pliers and tucked them into his belt. They wafted through the hologram and clattered back to the deck.

"Impact with Scrotus Epsilon V in four minutes."

"Incredible!" said Zoloft. "Jim, if you need me, I will be in the balloon room awaiting our arrival on this new and uncharted world. If anything else breaks, I trust you can handle it."

"Mm hmm," mumbled Jim, unbelting from the ship's holographic seat belts and shuffling towards an escape pod hatch. "I'll let you know how it turns out."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Few Things More Depressing

There are few things more depressing than a white LCD wasteland, its only denizen a lonely cursor blinking away in the upper left corner. If one were to stare at it long enough, one might imagine it blinking out Morse code; B-L-O-C-K.

"Hey, whatcha writin' on that thar scribblepad o' yourn, Dreyfus? S'more a yer girl poetries? Hurr hurr haw!"

"Why don't you go keep an eye on the cattle, Bart. They look lonely." Dreyfus snapped the lid of his notebook computer shut. He set it down on a barrel cactus and glared up at Bart. Bart was a little weedy guy in denim and chaps and a giant belt buckle that looked like a gold-plated tin of Altoids. He had guns on his hips and tattoos of guns on both biceps. Gun guns.

Only two more days, if the weather held, and Dreyfus could be done with this. Just another two days.

"Yew want me to show you a trick?"

"No, I don't."

Bart rolled up the sleeves of his gingham shirt and flexed his biceps anyway.

"Lookee thar. Kinda looks like the barrels is revolvin', don't it?"


"Aww, you don't know what neat is, pardner," Bart spat, returning his sleeves. "So, you writin' some kinda novel? You gonna be a rich famous scribe, you thinks?"

"Look. Bart. I know you're taking this gig pretty seriously, but this is 2009. Nobody says 'scribe' anymore. Not even cowboys."

"Cowpokes," Bart corrected, spitting again.

"Why don't you leave him alone, Bart?" The booming voice came from a PortaJohn® in the back of a pickup truck. It glowed a majestic shade of beige in the late evening Colorado sun and contained a big man in great discomfort.

"Why don't YOU come outta that thar portapiddle, Chuck? You been in there all day, and you ain't even took yer turn out fronta the herd."

There was a brief silence in the camp. A cattle lowed. A tumbleweed tumbleweeded. Chuck made some horrible gastrointestinal noises.

"Hold on now," he boomed from his fiberglass cubicle, "it was that...that...whatever it was you cooked for breakfast this morning that did this to me. You have no right to complain."

Bart kicked at the dust, sending a plume toward Dreyfus' laptop. "Aww, it'll man ya up. You two could use a little mannin' up. Coupla city boys whut ain't never kicked no horses nor slapped a mongoose. A faller goes soft on that kinda life. Ain't whut the Good Lord intended."

Dreyfus snatched his laptop from the cactus and tucked it into his vest before the cloud of dust blew over him. "Said the fearless suburbanite, with a garbage disposal in every sink in his house."

"Shet yer yap, Dreyfus. At least I drive a truck."

"Yeah. An extended cab with bug guards, reclining bucket seats and a DVD player. Real hard core there, Bart," added Chuck.

"It's an automatic, too," added Dreyfus. "At least my Fusion is a stick."

"Oh, God. I think I'm gonna be in here all night," grunted Chuck. "What the hell did you put in that pot?"

"Aw, don't be such a limp tortoise. It was just beans and some other stuff from a can. Yew two are both setch old ladies, I tellya."

"Is Scooter still back in town, you think?" Chuck said through gritted teeth.

"Naw, Chief. I'm afeard ol' Scooter took buttsick and we had ta set him to dancin' with the laughin' bats. Damn pity, too."

Dreyfus sighed. He tugged his laptop free of his vest and set it down on a flat rock. "What our colleague is trying to say, I think, is that Scooter is indeed still out. Probably at Wal-Mart. Did you want me to give his cell a call?"

"Would you? Ask him to bring me some Pepto or something. Lordy, here it comes again."

"That guy's so fulla theatrics. You know whut? I'mma go rassle the dawgs. You kin go back to writin' yer fruity novella. Good luck with your work too, big guy," he said, slapping the side of the PortaJohn as he passed. Bart faced the setting sun, squinting intrepidly into the firey distance, and unholstered his cap pistols. He spun them around his index fingers by their trigger guards and dropped them both in the dust.

Dreyfus brought the laptop out of sleep mode.

There are few things more depressing than a man out of his element, except possibly one who does not realize it. A man who attempts to answer a primeval yearning in our age does so clumsily, as if he were trying to breathe through vestigial gills. All he does is make a total doofus out of himself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

FooDaddy; Tinkerer

You know that expression, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"?

That is a stupid expression. If you look hard enough at anything, you can always find something that could do with a little bit of improvement. It all depends on how hard you're looking.

As a nerd who tells himself he's a writer, I spend a good deal of time looking at my computer. That's why I went from a perfectly serviceable Vista installation to a fresh one of Windows 7. Was I having compatibility or speed problems? No. Was there a must-have feature of Windows 7 that I couldn't live without? Hell no.

It was shiny and new and hyped and I had to have it. Plus, Microsoft approached me in the street, wearing a black trenchcoat and nudged me in the ribs with its elbow.

"Hey, buddy," Microsoft said. "Thinkin about upgrading?"
"Maybe. I mean, I guess so," I said uncomfortably.
"What if we was to let you have some 7 at half price? Huh? Eh?"

I took Microsoft up on its creepy offer and ordered 3 copies of 7 for my houseful of computers. They all arrived on the same day and piled out of my mailbox like a troupe of clowns coming out of their little Volkswagen Beetle.

I took them into the house.

Bad idea.

As soon as I let them out of their packaging, the Windows Sevenses wriggled out of my hands and skittered away across the carpet.

"Hey! Come back here! Get away from that! Stop installing yourself on my toaster! You'll invalidate your activation key!"

7 was more than happy to install. Positively eager. Just riddled with ho-code.

The laughing discs rolled around my house, installing Windows on everything. I spent a good couple of hours on the phone with tech support trying to get it uninstalled from my lamps, my vacuum cleaner and both cats. The cats were a particularly tricky case, as they kept minimizing themselves, and fading through the floor and into the basement. Had to reboot them back up the stairs I don't know how many times.

In the end, I managed to get 7 to hold still long enough for me to shove it onto a few hard drives, where it sits happily today, surprising me with its new features and its reluctance to do anything I want it to. It's even more likely to forcefully suggest ways for you to use it than Vista was. It's like that maven friend of yours, who is so full of information that he can't help splashing some of it on you.

"You wanna put your files there? Why not over here?"
"Because that's where I had them last time, Seven."
"I really think they'd be happier over, Yeah. Here."
"But, I--"
"Too late! They're over here now."

Why, you might ask, did I go through all the trouble? Because I'm a tinkerer. This is also why my PCs are home-built conglomerations of reluctantly cooperative parts. Every now and then one of them goes rogue and holes up in the basement with the cats, and I have to set traps for it.

That's all part of the fun. I shall most likely continue to "fix" working things, telling myself that I'll buckle down and get to actually using the computer as a tool as soon as I'm done treating it like a cross between a video game and a science experiment.

Anyone looking to install Windows 7 on their computers? Be sure to have plenty of paper towels and some butterfly nets handy. It's sneaky.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Crossing the Opinionated Line

Lines, and where they're drawn, is something that has fascinated me for quite a while. In this case, I'm not talking about lines on paper that, when joined up at their ends, form a drawing of a yak, although that's fascinating in its own right.

These are philosophical lines I'm talking about. The arbitrary division of continuously variable reality into one category or another. When does a kitten become a cat? At what age does it become socially acceptable (or at least socially tolerable) to become a horrible old man? What age, indeed, does one become "old"?

In most cases, especially the kitten one, the lines are extremely fuzzy.

The FooDaddy's Question of the Day today is "at what point does someone's expression of their opinion go from admirable to annoying?"

Everybody is opinionated, differing in passion from person to person, about something, and again on a continuously sliding spectrum, everybody is willing to share them under certain circumstances.

I'm sure you all know that one "opinionated person" in your circle of friends. They may not be the most educated one in the group. In fact it's quite likely that they are not, which makes this little philosophical journey even more fun.

Opinionated people are great, aren't they? It doesn't matter what you're talking about, they've always got something to say about it. It may be amusing, and it may be insightful, but it probably won't contain any actual information about the subject at hand. That takes talent.

"Yeah, I heard you mention reciprocating piston engines. I think those are stupid. Did you know that my aunt believes that one of them gave her diabetes? Ain't that a crying shame! Someone ought to do something about those things. Pass a law or something. Hey, look! Gum! Gum's the best. Especially blue gum because it tastes like ice crystals should. Where's everybody going? Can I have your gum?"

As fun as they are, there's a limit. Given enough exposure, you will probably go from thinking that this person is a wonderfully open individual, admirable for their willingness to "speak their mind," to really wishing that a movie theater usher would magically appear and escort them from the room.

Let's go a step further, and try to think of two opinionated people you know. Pick the pair most likely to disagree with each other. If you put them at opposite ends of a line, it is unlikely that you will fall exactly in the middle. You will naturally tend to agree with one more than the other.

Now set up your stopwatch again and see how long it takes you to get sick of hearing their opinions. Bet you last longer with one than with the other, don't you? Weird, huh?

All of this assumes that the opinionated people we're dealing with are ones who readily share said opinion. The scale is totally different for more timid (or, depending on your opinion, tactful) opinionateds. Again, the line gets fuzzier.

What about people who don't seem to have any opinion whatsoever? Ask them about anything, and they respond with a shrug and go back to standing there with their mouths open. Those folks worry me. I always assume that they're waaaaay smarter and dastardly than they appear. Trust me--they have world domination plans stashed away somewhere.

How long can you converse with someone like that before you want to check their pulse?

Congratulations! You've managed to get to the end of this post without wishing that a theater usher would magically appear and click your browser to some other page.

This means that I have not yet crossed the line.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Assorted Boozewaters

Listen to some people talk. Go on! Give it a try. You will be amazed at how stupid some of them are.

(Conscience: Was that necessary?)

Beyond that, however, you may notice that among a certain demographic, any talk of the weekend inevitably includes discussion of alcoholic beverages.

"The lads and I got right skonkered last night! It was a blitz."
"Dude, I was so drunk I couldn't find my house! I spent the night draped over the rafters in some stranger's garage."
"Bluuuughhh. I'm still recovering, man. Don't even get me started."
"Who are you?"
"Me? Stan. Wait. Who are you?"
"Mike. You must be new here."
"Isn't this LemurSponge Industries?"
"Um... No."
"Shit." (Vomits and runs unsteadily away)

We human-types put these little files of experience in a folder labeled "Fun" and so it has been for as long as I can remember. Or at least as long as I was allowed to know that booze existed. I was raised rather conservatively, you see. I was twelve before I found out about "ideas".

Mom's on Facebook with me now, and every mention I make of alcohol is met with a comment warning me not to become a drunken hobo. True, at least 90% of the impetus behind these comments is sheer jocularity, but she IS my mom, after all. Nobody wants their kids to turn into drunken hobos. Or even sober ones.

(A side note: If I am ever to become a hobo, I want to be the grizzled kind that carries around an empty Krispy Kreme box and yells at moths and has epic battles with invisible panthers. I think that could be a rewarding life in its own way.)

She needn't worry herself, though. I don't like the taste, and alcohol's effect on my mood is to turn me into a morose slug. Not exactly the party fuel it is to a lot of folks. If I find myself around these people in one of those places where it's dark and loud and smoky and drinky, I always draw a blank when the waitress asks me what I'll have. Partly this is due to my wasting a good ten minutes trying to figure out why everyone seems to be so happy. Also, the drink menu is as thick as a Tolkien novel.

There are tons of them! And everybody else always seems to know exactly which one they want.

"I'll have a striped nun, heavy on the Jack."
"Minty badger, and could you go easy on the Scope®? Last time it was so minty I couldn't taste the orange peels."
"You got any Stumpy Walrus lager on tap? Bottles? That'll be fine."

Mixed drinks get all the funniest names, but even their components, should the menu name them, are a mystery to me.

"I can't deal with this paucity of information!" I hoot, slapping the menu with the back of my hand. "Do you have anything that doesn't taste like it could fuel a snowmobile? I am a weenie man, if you follow, and I live entirely on various flavors of dew and the prettiest salads imaginable. My delicate, sequin-studded digestive tract cannot handle such caustic fluids. Take this menu from my limp little hands and go burn it, please!"

Well, at least that's how it feels when you're the one ordering coffee or Dr. Pepper at a bar. By the way, don't ever order coffee at a bar. If you like coffee, bar coffee tastes so awful it will make you sad enough to fall down.

All is not lost, though. I've found that hard cider and certain types of beer are not only tolerable, but actually pleasant. They still don't make me confident, witty and attractive to women, but I'm hoping that will develop later. The best part of all is that they have funny names. Woodchuck Cider. Honker's Ale.

Honker's Ale! A friend of mine discovered it in the supermarket refrigerator, sitting there like it was a serious beverage, surrounded by other real drinks. Preposterous bottles of ridiculous beer with pictures of a goose on them! And the silly swine didn't buy any. Didn't want to take the chance on it tasting like farty old wooden park benches. Pah! You don't buy stuff like that because of the taste. You buy it because it says "Honker's Ale" on the bottle! You giggle and snort when you pay for it.

"Can I see your ID, sir?"
"What, for this? This is Honker's Ale, for crying out loud. It comes from Chicago."
"It's beer, so I'm going to have to check your ID."
"Seriously? Some outfit that had the balls to call itself Goose Island made it. It's even got a picture of a goose right on the label! See? Goose."

Well, after I showed them my ID and snickered my way out of the store, my friends and I actually drank it. And it was surprisingly palatable.

In closing, I am becoming more sociable when it comes to alcohol. I'm still not a fan of the way most of it tastes, and how it makes people miss doorways and bonk into walls, but I'm learning.

I do have one rule, though. I will only drink it if it has a funny name. Any suggestions?