Category Archives: Uncategorized

Happy Belated Birthday . . .

. . . to Polytropos, now two years and two days old.

A “year ago”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/2004/07/birthday_blog.html, I said I could imagine what a blogslump might be like. I think it’s safe to say that since then I’ve fallen into one. Post-election doldrums sort of bled into a general sense of bloggui — which, I say somewhat optimistically, I think I’m pulling out of. At any rate, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I _mean_ to write about in the next couple of weeks. Harry Potter! Boardgames! Grand Theft Auto! There — now that I’ve said it, I’ll have to do it.

Here’s looking to year three: may it be more proliferous than year two!

You Win Again, Alma Mater

“Which theologian are you?”:http://quizfarm.com/test.php?q_id=44116. Via “Ed Hand”:http://edhand.com.

I was a little surprised at my result . . .

You scored as John Calvin. Much of what is now called Calvinism had more to do with his followers than Calvin himself, and so you may or may not be committed to TULIP, though God’s sovereignty is all important.

John Calvin

67%

Anselm

47%

Karl Barth

47%

Friedrich Schleiermacher

40%

Paul Tillich

40%

Charles Finney

33%

Augustine

33%

Martin Luther

33%

Jonathan Edwards

27%

J�rgen Moltmann

27%

Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

. . . since my answers to a lot of those questions have changed since college, when I actually thought of myself more or less as a Calvinist. But, as the blurb notes, the guy himself was his own thing. Kinda quirky sometimes.

Of course, I am in no way qualified to judge the overall integrity or accuracy of the quiz. I invite any reader who is (Jeff? Chris?) to take it a bunch of times with different answers and comment on its tendencies and biases.

Potter In Brief

Time was, when another Harry Potter book was coming out, it was a simple matter to reread the first few in order to remind oneself about what has happened. No longer. I made the mistake of starting Book 5 _without_ having reviewed Book 4, and was constantly losing track of stuff because of names or events I had forgotten. Smarter this time around, I went out in search of a detailed synopsis of Book 5, expecting to find it at one Potter fansite or another. Turns out, though, that the real goods are at good ol’ Wikipedia. Check out their excellent synopsis “here”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter_and_the_Order_of_the_Phoenix.

Not only are we on the cusp of a new Potter book, but Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited latest, _That Is No Country For Old Men_, is due out just a few days later. Maybe I’ll alternate reading chapters from each, just to blow my mind with the contrast. On second thought, nah, the world’s crazy enough as it is.

Ten Year Tattoos

I last met Uncle Charlie seven years ago, so it was understandable that I didn’t realize it was him when we met again last night. Seven years ago it was in College Park, and this was Alexandria, and back then he had more of a beard. I _did_ think it was a little strange that the Virginia branch of the Great Southern Tattoo Company was presided over by a jocular older guy with a warm, no-nonsense wife, just like the Maryland branch had been seven years before. Turns out they were the exact same people.

Back then, it had been Suanna’s and my fifth wedding anniversary, and we got tattoos to celebrate. It was Suanna who had lobbied for the tattoos in the first place, but afterward it was me who lobbied to make it an occasion _every_ five years — successfully, as it turns out. We were two years late this time because she was pregnant at the ten-year mark, and breastfeeding after that. For the past few months, though, the delay was my fault — I couldn’t decide what I wanted for my second tattoo.

But anyway, back to Uncle Charlie. Since the last time I had seen him he had fought (and beaten) cancer and broken his neck. There was no apparent sign of the latter, but it did apparently keep him from practicing his art any longer, so instead he now presides over the parlor, answering the phone, welcoming people as they enter, and keeping the conversation in the place lively. It wasn’t until I’d been sitting in the chair for half an hour that I realized that his constant stream of stories and jokes serves a practical function — it distracts the customers from the fact that their flesh is getting poked and seared, which does, in fact, hurt.

Charlie did my tattoo #1, and his wife Sandy did Suanna’s. This time it was a younger guy named Adam Jeffrey — highly recommended, if you’re ever in the mood for some skin art. I can’t imagine all tattoo parlors are like this — friendly, laid-back, generous, clean, and yet, far from being some whitewashed gentrified version of a tattoo parlor, still authentic and utterly devoid of pretense. But probably more of them are than most people suspect.

So what did I end up getting? A tree, on my right upper arm. The White Tree of Gondor, to be precise — or at least an iconic representation thereof. I wanted something Tolkienian but that would look all right independent of any context, too. Special thanks to our friend Julia for suggesting the tree last week. It’s totally cool. And while I was looking around there I got ideas for Year Fifteen and Year Twenty, so I’m good to go for the next decade or so.

Ella enjoyed her evening spent hanging out at a tattoo parlor, too. Needless to say, she was a big hit with everyone who was there. Charlie was especially taken with her. “Man,” he said at one point, “You got a kid like that and you can put up with any shit job in the world ’cause you know you’ll come home and see her smile.” And then I thought, with my job, I get to see her smile all day. I’m a lucky, lucky man.

But if Ella starts drawing flaming skulls and naked women with demon wings on her Magna Doodle, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

A Season Behind

For the most part, I have no regrets about the current practice at Polytropos HQ of watching TV shows that grab our interest on DVD, months or even years after they first air. No commercials, no VCR or Tivo. DVD extras. No wasting hours on a series that starts with promise but turns out to suck. Hard to go wrong.

But we just watched the new(ish) _Battlestar Galactica_ miniseries and I have no idea how I’m going to last until the first season comes out on DVD. Man, was it good. Hot hot stuff.

Stuff to like: A focus on character with both the acting and dialogue-writing chops to hold it up. Patient, at times even (for a sci-fi show) _slow_ pacing. Far from over-relying on special effects, the show seems to go out of its way to cover a plot point _without_ them unless it’s really necessary.

And those Cylons. Two changes from the original series — 1) humans created them, and 2) they can look like humans now — create a whole new axis for the story to turn on.

And Starbuck.

Stuff not to like: The fact that Adama’s closing speech, on which (presumably) so much of what lies ahead rests, was supposed to fool everyone and, by all accounts, shouldn’t have fooled anyone. And second, why oh why did it have to be Boomer?

Anyway, it’s good stuff. Highly recommended. At times I have felt vaguely out of the loop while segments of the blogsphere engaged in _BG_ chitchat without me, and that will continue, since I’ll perpetually be a season behind. But there’s a big upside: I still get to see the rest of it for the first time.

Vacation in the Shadow of Mount Doom

Not surprisingly, the web page for the beach house we rented a couple weeks ago with friends did not mention the gigantic nuclear cooling tower that dominated the horizon less than a mile away. This was the “David-Besse Nuclear Power Plant”:http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/at_a_glance/reactors/davisbesse.html, near Sandusky, Ohio.

When was the last time you ever gave a thought to nuclear energy? Having never lived in its orbit, I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it that much. I know enough not to be particularly freaked out about it, intellectually speaking. And yet, if it’s something outside your everyday experience, there’s still something freaky about it. Driving past it on Route 2 on the way in, I got butterflies in my stomach. Seeing it every day never made it any less foreboding — we took to referring to it as Mount Doom.

Most of our power plants are hidden from view, one way or another. But a cooling tower is a landmark, especially in a region as flat as northern Ohio. The structure itself is huge, and the plume of steam rising from the top is visible for many miles all around. Though that particular one has had its share of problems, it’s never had a leak or a major accident, and yet I couldn’t help myself from considering what the implications might be of being this close from it in case of a meltdown, and noting with relief that the wind would be coming off the lake and thus blowing the radiation _away_ from is, into the vast uninhabited swampy area that’s (not coincidentally, no doubt) downwind of the plant site.

I’m sure there’s any number of potentially-dangerous power-plant sites, chemical depots, or who-knows-what-else within a mile or two of where I live. But I don’t give them another thought, while the sight of Besse-Davis gives me butterflies. Just something’ ’bout that ol’ nukelear energy, I guess.

Vacation Comics Roundup

(This was started a while back, and finally written and posted now.)

Another May, another week at the beach, with time to kill and a big box of my buddy Joe’s comics to work my way through. Here are some capsule reviews.

Runaways: Volume 3, by Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona

I fell in love with Runaways during last year’s beach reading, and thoroughly enjoyed Volume 2 in the meantime. Volume 3 was written under the assumption that the series was cancelled, and while apparently its future is a little more hopeful, the final issues did suffer from having to rush the plot to its resolution. Too much comes too fast, and the worst of it is that the motivations of the traitor aren’t at all convincing. It would have been nice to see this story take a fuller form, but as it continues from here it’ll still be well worth reading. The post-Buffy mannered speech of these teen and pre-teen heroes is still great fun—something to smile at on every page.

Hellboy: Weird Tales Volume 2, by various authors and artists

There’s some good stuff in here, but all in all both this volume and the first one serve as reminders of how cool Mike Mignola is, and how rare his genius. Nothing here quite measures up, except Will Pfeifer and P. Craig Russell’s “Command Performance,” which has Hellboy going toe to toe with the French theater. Shiver.

Astro City, by Kurt Busiek and Brent E. Anderson

I enjoyed Busiek’s introduction more than the book itself, I think, but that’s a compliment to the intro and not a detriment to the stories themselves. They consist of a series of vignettes about not just the superheroes of Astro City but also the ordinary people, from those who live in the heroes’ orbit to the everyday bystanders.

A couple of somewhat tangential thoughts came from reading Astro City. First, it’s a little ironic that a comic whose focus is explicitly on the characters in this superhero-inhabited world, and their emotions and relationships, doesn’t end up fleshing any one character out in much detail (with the exception of the Samaritan). This is because another, unstated focus of the book is to make the setting come to life by presenting it from the perspective of a whole bunch of different people. So while plenty of characters have cameos or figure indirectly into many of the stories, only a few actually appear on more than a few pages, and only the Samaritan gets enough attention that we feel we really get to know him.

In the intro Busiek also praises one aspect of superhero comics that I’ve never liked as much. It’s present in Astro City and in the classic Marvel and DC lines, and been pastiched in plenty of places more recently, from The Authority to Top Ten. The aspect I’m talking about is the over-the-topness of the setting, not in terms of what sorts of weird things are present (aliens! weird science! magic! time travel!) but the sheer volume of it. Busiek notes that this tendency is at odds with what he refers to as a more science-fictiony approach to the setting, which would attempt to make sense of the implications of, say, time travel, alien visitors, magic, undersea civilizations, and whatever else are present—to imagine what effect these things would have on society, and describe that society accordingly. This doesn’t happen at all in any high-volume settings I can think of—instead, the fact that these things all somehow exist in the same world while most people go about their lives the same way they do in our world is just one of the conventions of the genre.

The other extreme would be something like Moore’s Watchmen, which has it easy in that it only introduces a handful of heroes (and almost no super powers) into the world in the first place. In that world, the U.S. won the Vietnam war, and cars are all powered by electricity and juice up at little hubs on the sidewalk—both thanks to the existence of Dr. Manhattan. Reading Astro City I realized that I like that sort of low-volume, consider-the-effects approach to a superhero setting, like Watchmen or Rising Stars.

Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms, by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco

Many aeons ago, when the roleplaying game Shadowrun first came out, my buddy Ed would describe it, with mock enthusiasm, this way: “It’s cyberpunk: WITH MAGIC!” That certainly wasn’t the first instance of the “just add magic” school of setting formulation, and it definitely won’t be the last. Arrowsmith is the most recent example I’ve encountered—it’s World War I: WITH MAGIC!

Cynical take: So you want to tell a story about a young man coming of age in a time of war, and having to face the awful brutality of one of the most terrible conflicts of last century? Fine. Do it. But magic? Come on. The only purpose it’s serving is as a plot crutch—and your “sorta real” setting, with Albion instead of England and Columbia instead of America, is only there so you’re not obligated to do your historical homework.

Generous take: Infusing the setting with magic works, and Tolkien could tell you why—he’d call it “recovery.” When those soldiers in the Great War saw poison gas rolling toward them in the trenches, or a tank rumbling forth from between the trees, these were things so new and terrible that it might as well have been magic. It’s impossible for us to understand how it must have seemed to them, and it’s difficult in any case for us to get outside what we think we know about a period of history we’ve probably studied many times. Tweaking the setting helps us to see the thing anew, to gain a new perspective. Ditto the “sorta real” setting—giving a place a new name makes us think of it, however slightly, as a new place, and therefore to discard some of our accumulated assumptions about it. We get a fresh look.

I thought I was on the fence about what interpretation was mine, but having written them out, I’m sure the latter one is closer to the truth. Pacheco’s art helps immeasurably here—it’s crisp and down-to-earth, so it keeps the dragons and ogres and sky-duellers from seeming at all ethereal. This is only the first volume of the story, and I’m eager to read more.

The Dark Horse Book of the Dead and The Dark Horse Book of Witches, by various authors and artists

Much of the stuff in these is forgettable, and a lot of it held promise if it was worked into a proper length story instead of crammed into four or five pages, but as it was, didn’t quite work. My memo to a good number of the authors represented here would go like this: You can end a story on an ambiguous or suspenseful note, but still with some sense of completeness. Or you can simply not end a story because you’re too lazy or puzzled to figure out how it should end. Please learn the difference.

The glowing exceptions in each volume were (not surprisingly) the Hellboy story by Mike Mignola, and the dogs ‘n’ cats tale by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. I loved the Dorkin & Thompson stuff especially—each story is told from the perspective of a merry band of neighborhood dogs who must contend with the neighborhood cats and their inevitable involvement with witches and other supernatural troubles. Great fun—and I say that as a cat person.

Castle Waiting: The Lucky Road, by Linda Medley

After a long week of gothic horror, gritty espionage, and the horror of war, Castle Waiting came along as both a breath of fresh air and as the highlight of the week, comics-wise. This was also the only black-and-white one in the batch, and I was surprised at what a difference that made—its clarity, contrast, and simplicity were accentuated in comparison to everything I had read before.

The story takes place in a mythical land where all the characters you’ve ever heard of in a nursery rhyme or fairy tale has a home. A pregnant duchess leaves her castle in the night and travels east to Castle Waiting, a place of sanctuary. We’re left in the dark about just what prompted her to leave, and there’s a bit of plot tension concerning what danger she may be in, but the real focus of the book is on the diverse cast of characters inhabiting the Castle and their everyday, bumming-around lives. It’s told with a light, humorous, and oh-so-deft touch.

At the opposite end of the fairy tale spectrum you have Fables, which I read volume two of last year, but have read 1, 3, 4 and 5 since. Fables takes a certain perverse glee in having the Three Little Pigs strung up as revolutionaries, or Little Boy Blue beat up in an alley by Pinocchio’s younger brothers. But the fidelity to the old tales is just as strong, in its own way, and for all the differences between them, I enjoy Castle Waiting and Fables equally.

(I also read the following, though they’re not worth particular mention: Black Widow: Homecoming by Richard Morgan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Goran Parlow, and H.P. Lovecraft by Hans Rodionoff and Enrique Breccia.)

A Post-Calvin Commencement Thought

Via “Ed”:http://www.goesping.org I read Jim Wallis’ “post-game analysis”:http://www.sojo.net (registration required) of Bush’s commencement speech at Calvin College (first Polytropian mention “here”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/2005/05/commencement.html). It included a particular notion that I’ve come to consider an error, to whit:

Rove expected the evangelical Christian college in the dependable “red” area of western Michigan to be a safe place.

The implication here is that Rove expected Calvin to be a _conservative_ institution, and that going there was part of a “massaging the base” strategy. I think, though, that Rove knew full well that Calvin was a more moderate institution, and that _that_ was his political goal — broadening Bush’s image from just being an icon of the Religious Right. I _do_ think Rove made a miscalculation, but it wasn’t because he thought Calvin was something other than it was. Reasons:

1. Rove is very smart and does his homework.
2. As noted in the “Grand Rapids Press”:http://www.mlive.com/search/index.ssf?/base/news-22/1116602310294150.xml?grpress?NEG, he has family connections (albeit distant ones) to Calvin, and so has an even greater chance of knowing the culture there.
3. He arranged this shindig through Congressman Vern Ehlers, a former Calvin prof and Republican moderate, who certainly would have been able to accurately describe what Calvin was like.

So I think Rove was deliberately targeting a moderate institution. Nevertheless, I’m sure he wouldn’t have gone ahead with it had he known the amount of controversy it would stir up. Not anticipating the controversy has little to do with apprehending or misapprehending Calvin, and more to do with misapprehending the fact that lots and lots of people oppose this President not because of their spot on the political spectrum, but because he’s been a disastrous President.