Happy 9th Anniversary, Geralyn!

Geralyn and I have been married for 9 frickin’ years today! I only say “frickin'” because it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was a starving grad school student mooching off her and her parents for free food and laundry service. Which, come to think of it, I’ve been doing again for the last few weeks while we get our housing situation worked out. And according to my Google search, I’m supposed to buy her either pottery or leather for the 9th year. Hmmm…

But at any rate, thanks Geralyn for 9 great years. Let’s go for 9 more!

…I mean at least 9 more. Preferably more. Definitively more.

I’m going to stop typing now.

Sam’s Story: Week 122

If any of you are thinking of throwing a party for Samantha, I recently discovered what it will take to make it a success in her eyes. We went to a graduation party for one of Ger’s cousins over the weekend, and it worked out so that we could take Sam with us. The next morning I sat down with her over breakfast and asked her about it.

“Sammy,” I said, “Did you have fun at the party last night?”

“Yeah! I like the party.”

“Why? What did you do at the party?”

“I blew bubbles and I ate candy and I ate cake.”

So there you have it. All you really need to make a party for two-year olds is bubbles, candy, and cake. This formula also holds up surprisingly well for adults if you throw in a keg of beer.

Here, lots of pictures this week:

There are a good number of pictures there of Sam sporting swimwear, the reason being another party we went to earlier in the week –a pool party that Ger’s godparents throw for her birthday each year. Sam had been to their pool before, so she seemed pretty comfortable around it, though she did exhibit what I would call a healthy amount of respect for the water, probably because I repeatedly told her that the pool was evil and wanted to eat her alive. So when not taking a reassuring hand from Mommy, she would only approach the water on all fours. Also note the lovely Aquatic Life Preservation System, which I like so much I’m going to have her wear it in the bath or when drinking from a cup larger than 12 fluid ounces.

The last thing I’ll talk about this week is Sam’s latest infatuation with Thomas the Tank Engine, which is this kind of creepy-ass toy tank engine from England or Hell or somewhere. The toy tank engine she has isn’t that bad, but the television show really creeps me right the heck out. It’s all done using models and toys with a single narrator speaking the lines for all the characters. All the train engines and other machines all have anthropomorphic faces, and I think what gives me the willies is the way that their faces never move, except for their eyes move and flick around in ways that seem to have nothing to do with what’s going on in the story. It’s more like they loll and roll around in a “OH MY GOD I’M TRAPPED INSIDE THE BODY OF A TRAIN ENGINE HELP ME!” It’s like low-budget children’s television beamed straight from you-know-where, maybe the 10th circle that Dante was too scared to go to, much less write a poem about. I’m pretty sure that one of the special features on the DVD box set is a behind the scenes special that shows little imps with pitchforks running the cameras and train track controls.

Seriously. Creepy.



Hrm. I’m still not quite sure what I think of this book, which is subtitled “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” It’s a radical reimaging of Frank Baum’s Oz books, focusing on the life and times of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Unlike Baum’s Oz books, this most definitely isn’t a book for children; it’s got sex, violence, politics, religion, and complex moral questions about the nature of evil (or, in this case, wickedness). And it’s definitely not as clear-cut as the children’s books in terms of who’s good and who’s bad. The Wicked Witch of the West is presented as a very complex and nuanced character, someone who definitely has faults (she’s stubborn, obsessive, arrogant, and even sometimes cruel), but also has admirable traits (she’s a deep thinker, passionate about fighting social injustices, willing to protect those weaker than she, and loyal to her friends and family). It’s really interesting to see how Maguire takes a caricature like the Witch and turns her into such a complex being.

And it’s not just the Witch. While Elphaba was definitely the focus of the novel, it was also fun to see Maguire’s take on other icons like Dorothy, Glinda the Good Witch, Munchkins, the Lion, the Wizard, and the world of Oz in general. I especially liked how everyone in the book besides Dorothy thought Toto was “an annoying mutt.” So yeah, Wicked transcends fan fiction or schlock like American McGee’s Alice that offer up a crazy reinterpretation for the sake of a crazy reinterpretation. While Maguire’s hook is undoubtedly “hey, this is a crazy, postmodern take on something you loved as a kid, wheee!” it’s a legitimate novel in its own right.

That being said, it did really drag in places. I guess it’s largely unavoidable in this kind of (fake) biographical style, but it really seemed like there was a lot of filler about Elphaba’s life that didn’t serve much purpose. And other times the plot would lurch forward awkwardly, leaving years and years uncommented upon while major changes in the world and the characters just kind of pop out of nowhere. It was definitely longer than it needed to be, but at least we get the complexities of character development that it brings. It’s just that the pacing seemed really off.

So, while I’m not sure I’ll run out and pick up the sequel, Son of a Witch, I’d mildly recommend Wicked if the general idea of it sounds even somewhat appealing to you and you don’t mind it being pretty dark. It’s still oodles better than most fantasy stuff out there, and it’s really fun in places.

Sam’s Story: Week 121

I’ve mentioned before my apprehension vis a vis the whole “terrible twos” things, though on balance I’d say that Sam has been a lot more mellow than we could have hoped for. In the last week or so, though, she has shown an escalating penchant for throwing hissy fits when she doesn’t get things her way. For example, the other day she took her shoe off and then demanded that ONLY Mommy could be the one to reattach it to her foot, despite the fact that we were in the middle of a 45-minute car trip to Nowhere, Missouri, Geralyn was driving, and there were like four other willing and able adults in the car with her. When Ger didn’t immediately release the wheel and lurch into the back seat to solve the footwear crisis, Sam started screaming her head off and could only be reasoned with by the power of the lollypop.

So to help alert care givers and innocent bystanders know when Sam is likely to launch into a fit, I’ve taken a page from the Department of Homeland Security’s play book and created the handy Samantha Alert System, which uses sophisticated facial topographical recognition technology (click for larger version):

Samantha Alert System

Feel free to print that out and post it on your wall.

Here are some other pictures for your clicking pleasure:

I especially like Sam’s impersonation of the Swamp Thing, as well as her new appreciation for the daily newspaper.

Sam’s verbal skills continue to outstrip my wildest imagination, thanks in no small part to her habit of parroting practically everything she hears. We try to watch what we say. We really do. But even still, the following is still just a small sample of what we’ve actually heard Samantha repeat back:

  • “I’m not gay.”
  • “Ow, my crotch!”
  • “Quit it, Jamie!”
  • “Shut your word hole.”
  • “No, The Internet is only 80 percent smut.”

Nobody told me that verbal development was such a Catch 22.

Site Tweaks: Sam’s Story Index, Pics, & More

I spent a little time this week improving the site structure and fixing a few things that were broken.

First off, I tweaked the Photos index page to add a link to my Flickr photostream and another link to the Sam’s Story index page for people looking for pics of Sammy.

And speaking of which, I redid the Sam’s Story index page. Before I had maintained a separate weekly gallery of Sam’s Story pictures, with links to the individual blog entries for each week. Problem is, this had to all be done by hand, resulting in tedium and mistakes like broken links. Boo! To save time I set up Movable Type to automatically create an index of stories all on one page. I really liked having pictures on that page, but MT couldn’t recreate what I had been doing, so the compromise is to have one picture from each week accompany a short description of and a link to the blog entry for that week. See for yourself.

And speaking of which, having all 120 (and counting) Sam’s Stories plus 18 Pregnancy Update weeks all on one page with pictures from each week is kind of amazing. I spent a lot of time re-reading some of the early entries and looking at the pictures. Sam hardly looks like the same person. I mean, compare this picture to this one. While it takes a long time, you have to admit –that’s a neat trick she can do.

And speaking of which, I’ve also instituted something I call “The Sam’s Story Restoration Initiative.” In short, I’m fixing stuff that got broken in the last redesign and which I’ve never bothered to go back and fix. Shuffing the directory structure around made things easier for new content, but it resulted in missing images and broken links in some of the older entries. Because of the long tail of Sam’s Story and other categories, I’m fixing one a day until they’re all pristine.

And speaking of which, one of the first targets of my restoration was the Flash slideshow I put together for the 100th Sam’s Story entry. It’s pretty neat (well, I think so) but it got broken in the redesign and I woefully never got around to fixing it. Until now. Here, I’ll even repost the collage I created, just in case you’re the kind of person who only likes to click on images:


Sam’s Story: Week 120

I often like to throw curve balls at Samantha. I mean, not literally, because I’m not that athletic, but when she and I are talking I often like to ask questions that I think may be just outside of her mental capabilities to answer. Take yesterday for example. I held up a stuffed dog and asked, “Sammy, what kind of animal is this?”

“That’s a dog!”

“Yes! That’s right! What kind of animal is Daddy?”

“No…. Daddy isn’t an animal. He a person.”

I was impressed. Somewhere along the line she had learned the idea that objects can belong to multiple classes. An orange and an apple are both round fruits, for example, but a ball can also be round without being a fruit. That kind of strutting down the path of psychological development really fascinates me.

And just as you might have expected, I started to beam like any slightly self-deluded father would. I mean, she also plays chess and the piano for crying out loud (though not well; I can still beat her at chess most games). Have I on my hands some kind of genius? Someone sprinting towards adult intelligence instead of waddling?

No, as it turns out. Apparently not.

Later that night when I gave Sam a bath I finished off the bubble bath bottle and threw it into the tub along with her other toys. A few minutes into the bath Sam took the cap from the bottle, scooped up a generous portion of soapy water and bubbles, and attempted to snort it all right up her nose while looking me square in the eye. This action was followed by the immediate reactions of choked coughing and the explosive expulsion of what seemed to be several cubic feet of Elmo’s Wet ‘n Wild Watermelon Bubble Bath from Sam’s sinus cavities. And apparently the makers of this fine bubble bath mixture put “For External Use Only” on the bottle because snorting it hurts like blue blazes despite the wonderfully fruity scent. So Sam was sputtering and crying and I was freaking out over the fact that she had just tried to inhale water, an act that tends to be taboo in most human cultures.

So that’s my Sammy: Generally a perpetrator of whit and sophistication studded by acts of inexplicable goof-balledness. She’s definitely her father’s daughter.

Here’s some pictures.

Let’s hope next week is a little better.

The House of Leaves

House of Leaves is really a weird book. So weird, in fact, that any discussion of it pretty much has to be dominated by its structure. Basically, there are 6 “layers” to the story, each of which the reader is directly or indirectly exposed to:

  • Layer 1: Photojournalist Will Navidson and his family move into a new home. To procure content for a documentary he wants to make on the experience, Navidson sets up cameras everywhere a la some reality TV show. He soon discovers that, impossibly, the house is bigger inside than it is outside, and that it contains an entrance into a city-sized –maybe even planet-sized– labyrinth. The maze is constantly shifting its dimensions and it kind of wears down and eats people who enter it.
  • Layer 2: Navidson uses his film footage to make a series of films about the house, the longest of which, The Navidson Accord, becomes a kind of underground Internet and art house sensation.
  • Layer 3: An old, blind man named “Zampano” somehow writes an overly academic study of The Navidson Accord documentary, replete with obtuse footnotes and references. It is Zampano’s document that constitutes maybe half of the real-world book that the reader is plodding through.
  • Layer 4: A Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee named “Johnny Truant” finds Zampano’s document after the old man dies and begins reading it. Truant starts to go crazy and makes copious footnotes on Zampano, the Navidsons, his dwindling sanity, and his own debaucherous lifestyle. These footnotes comprise roughly the other half of the novel. But it’s not like Part I and Part II. Truant’s footnotes are literally footnotes — comments on the text called out by a number and printed at the bottom of the page.
  • Layer 5: An ucredited editor makes further notes about all of the above, including Truant’s own footnotes. So you sometimes get the editor’s footnotes on Truant’s footnotes on Zampano’s footnotes on the manuscript about a documentary about a family moving into a crazy house that eats people. But wait, we’re not quite done yet.
  • Layer 6: In the new and expanded version of the book that I read, Johnny Truant’s mentally unstable mother adds another level of complexity by writing letters to her son, commenting on and adding a different perspective to many of the things Truant discusses in his footnotes.

Did you get all that in one read-through? If so, you’re a freak. If not, take another look so you can appreciate the complexity of what I’m talking about here. This is one challenging (in a good way) book to get through, what with its demands to keep track of two ping-ponging storylines. Truant’s footnotes would often start right in the middle of one of Zampano’s sentences and go on for several pages about his life of drugs, sex, and sickness before dumping the narrative right back where it was before he interrupted. Zampano’s parts, in harsh contrast to Truant’s, are stuffed with academic language, long passages in German or Latin, and obscure references to essays, books, and other sources.

The other noteworthy thing about The House of Leaves is its typography. This novel really pushes the written word to its limits as a medium by how it uses white space and the orientation of the text to correspond to what’s going on in the story at the time. For example, in one part Zampano is describing an expedition into the gargantuan innards of the house. While he writes about how the endless passageways twist and turn back on one another and constantly shift so as to obliterate any sense of direction, the words on the pages actually change orientation so that they are presented sideways, upside down, or even backwards. In another section that describes an incredibly large open space above the characters’ heads, the pages contain only one line each at the bottom, above which is nothing but empty white space. There’s other weird but meaningful stuff, like using blue font for every instance of the word “House” and tying that back to larger meanings. It’s really cool stuff.

You may notice that I’m not saying much about the actual story or characters in the book. That’s because with the possible exception of Will Navidson, there’s not much there to talk about. The story is kind of interesting, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be handled by a short story rather than a 700+ page novel. It’s pretty straight forward and not very complex in terms of plot or character development. It’s also not as scary or thrilling as you might expect from something shelved, as it was for me, in the “Horror” section of the bookstore.

The thing about The House of Leaves, though, is its bizarre structure and its avant-garde typography. Those, along with the sense of mystery that they create, are the main things to appreciate and applaud about this book. I’m not saying that the story isn’t cool or interesting in parts, but it’s not what’s going to get you through this tome. And I do recommend that you do get through it. You’ll probably be glad you did.

Pic of the Week: Bay Beach Cafe

Bay Beach Cafe

So I’m going to try something new. I have a lot of pictures of things that aren’t Samantha, and while there are sometimes enough of them to post a whole gallery, oftentimes it’s just a one-off shot that I thought was kind of cool. I used to do a “Pic of the Day” feature, but a new photo every day was hard to keep up with and it meant people had to suffer through a bunch of lousy photos.

So I’ve decided to try out, on a trial basis, a Pic of the Week, the first of which you see above. These will be pictures of (relatively) higher merit and typically will not include Samantha. You people get enough of her in the Sam’s Story updates. As a further twist, though, I’ve also decided to use Flickr.com to host the full-sized images. For those of you who don’t hang with the cool Internet kids, Flickr is a pretty nifty online photo sharing service that lets you do things like add tags to photos, add “sticky notes”, let viewers comment on them, and add to groups. I thought it might be a good way to get a slightly wider audience and maybe –hopefully– some constructive criticism. We’ll see.

In the meantime, click on the picture above to get the full-sized image and leave a comment. There are also already over a dozen other photos in my stream that you can check out.

Sam’s Story: Week 119

The Cool New Thing I’ve noticed about Sam this week is that she’s starting to make up little stories to entertain herself while playing with her cornucopia of toys. I really get a kick of out just sitting there and watching her make stuff up in a stream of childish consciousness. Tonight’s bathtime brought something like this when she got her Elmo, Cookie Monster, and two plastic frogs:

Elmo is walking Cookie Monster is walking jumping let’s go get on the train here’s the train Cookie Monster dropped something where did it go where did it go here it is he puts it in his pocket let’s go to the train oh HI FROGGY IT’S FROGGY let’s go to the train and Elmo is hop hop hop and he goes to the train AND NOW IT’S MY FOOT!*

*Translated from the Samineese.

Great stuff. Soon she’ll be able to write sitcom scripts for CBS. If my cam corder weren’t packed away with most of my other worldly possessions I’d get some audio. But alas.

Here’s some pictures.

So while Sam is learning how to talk, she’s not quite learning to be picky about when she discusses certain topics. The other night, Ger went out with her mother to a party, so Sam, Grandpa, and I went out to dinner together. With Mother’s Day coming up, we stopped in to a certain store so I could look at a couple of things I was considering getting Ger for the occasion. I made the mistake of telling Sam what was going on, which immediately elicited a nonstop torrent of “We buying Mommy a present! Where Mommy’s present go? Where Mommy’s present go?” No amount of shushing or cajoling would put a stop to this (rather one-sided) conversation. In fact, it just seemed to encourage her. The next day when I came home from work Ger gave me a sly smile and asked how the shopping had gone last night. I’m going to have to watch what I say around Sam.

…Either that or use her to disseminate false information and propaganda. Hmmmm, she may be useful yet.

Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson is one of my new favorite authors. His spectacular A Short History of Nearly Everything was really enough to cement that position, but I’ve recently discovered his set of travel diaries. Notes from a Small Island discusses the tour of the United Kingdom he takes as he and his family prepare to move away. Bryson strikes me as a infinitely interesting character, the kind of guy who just likes to poke around and explore places, taking in the views, the food, the drink, and the people so that he can later recount them for your pleasure. He has the uncanny ability to make every point of so-called interest along a tour much more fascinating than it has any right to be.

His sense of humor is also superlative, a quality he repeatedly demonstrates as he constantly interjects his travel stories with material that most stand-up comedians would probably like to crib. I’ve recently added all of his other books to my Amazon.com wish list and plan to make my way through all of them. I’m particularly interested to see what he has to say about returning to America after living abroad for so long.

Bait and Switch

I loved this book. In it, Ehrenreich explores unemployment and desparation not from the perspective of uneducated and chronically destitute blue-collar workers, but from that of educated and accomplished white collar professionals squeezed out of their cushy positions by downsizing. She changes her name, lines up colleagues to provide phony references, and dives into the applicant pool as a public relations expert looking for a nice middle management job.

Ehrenreich’s wry sense of humor and attention to detail when describing the various characters she meets prevents this from being another ho-hum story. I particularly liked the sections where she lampoons so-called “Job Search Coaches” who want to charge hundreds of dollars to endlessly revise her resume or subject her to personality tests (such as the ever present Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) to tell her what kind of job she should be looking for. Despite how, you know, she just spent ten minutes telling the guy she was looking for work in the PR field. It really highlights how at least some of these coaches and consultants are really just sharks going after freshly spilled blood.

Perhaps this wasn’t the right choice of book for me right as I’m initiating my own major changes in employment, but the obligatory anxiety aside, it’s a fun ride that guides you towards some really interesting questions about the job search processes and the absurdity of the cottage industry that has grown up around downsized professionals.