Week 196: Singing, Gufawing, and Waving

One of the more entertaining ways of measuring how big an impact becoming a parent has had on my life is to tick off on my fingers the things that I have done that I had previously said I would never do as a parent. Things like using the words “because I said so,” owning a minivan, using my pinkie to pick my child’s nose, and using my pinkie to pick my child’s nose while in public. This week I got to add another item to that ever growing list.

Geralyn, as she is wont to do if I don’t keep an eye on her, signed me up for another after activity after work earlier this week. Actually, it sounded kind of fun: all the dads were to bring their kids to the preschool that we had been hearing so much about and we would carve pumpkins and eat hot dogs. Sam lead me the sidewalk to the school entrance, promising to introduce me to all the “school people” I knew only by name or the occasional nefarious deed. When we got there, she promptly began acting like she didn’t know any of these people from Adam or Eve, but we had fun carving our pumpkin nonetheless.

After the carving we moved inside to dine on some of the most godawful hot dogs I’ve ever tasted, plus cookies and stupefyingly tart lemonade measured out in six ounce dixie cup servings. It was at this point that the teachers unveiled the surprise they had for us: All the kids (like, 30 of them) were called to the front of the room where they lined up and started singing us songs! Halloween songs!

This is the point where I started doing something I had always thought I wouldn’t: I started gufawing and clapping like some kind of moron. By any meaningful, objective measure the performance was dreadful. Half the kids weren’t even facing the right direction, half looked bewildered and thoroughly shocked to be up there in the first place, half were screaming the lyrics at the top of their lungs more than singing them, and several of them actually wandered off to grab another cookie. One girl even started wandering up and down the line, bellowing “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” while bludgeoning the other children over the head with her magical fairy wand.

And yet I sat there, utterly delighted and snapping picture after picture. Despite the rather gauche nature of the performance there was something about seeing my Samantha up there singing to me (well, when she could remember the words) filled me with delight. So, yeah, add that one to the list.

Mandy has her own growing list, mainly consisting of little developmental milestones. She’s started crawling with her knees up under her, and is now capable of achieving alarming speeds, particularly when we leave our various stairs or displays full of antique thumbtacks exposed. She also really surprised me when I told her to “Wave to Sammy” and she complied. Suspecting a fluke, I conducted a few more trials where I told her to wave to Geralyn, me, and the cat. She did them all, correctly, each time. I’d have to check my notes to be sure, but I think this kind of language comprehension is happening sooner than it did for Sam.

And so the comparisons continue…

Book Review: The Innocent Man

The Innocent Man

Seems like everyone I know has been reading this nonfiction book by John Grisham about a pair of men unjustly convicted of murder. I don’t normally read Grisham , but after hearing about the book from Geralyn, my mom, and others I got curious enough to take a look. It also kind of helped that the plot takes place in parts of my home state of Oklahoma that I’ve been to or seen: Ada, Tulsa, McAlister State Prison (only seen that one from a distance, never lived there thankfully), Broken Arrow, and more. So that was a good hook for me.

As far as true crime stories go, The Innocent Man is pretty engrossing just for how outrageous and complicated its characters and plot are, only the roles are a bit flipped around from what you may be used to: the accused (and eventually convicted) murderers are the tragic heroes of the book, while the Ada police, prosecutors, judges, lawyers and did I mention the THE POLICE are painted with varying shades of villainy. The main characters, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, are falsely accused of a ghastly rape/murder and all but framed by the Ada police and public prosecutors, who build cases against the men using flimsy “evidence” like dream interpretation, tall tales from jail house snitches looking for a plea bargain on their own cases, unscientific hair analysis, and other dubious testimonies. The cases are so flimsy and so absurd that you can hardly believe it could be allowed in court, much less lead to a conviction and death sentence. But they do.

And that’s not even all of it. At every turn things just go from bad to worse for Williamson and Fritz. Their court-appointed attorney is incompetent. The man who SHOULD have been the prime suspect (and who was eventually found to be the real murderer) claims to be selling drugs for the cops in exchange for their turning a blind eye. The Ada police officers force unreliable confessions out of the defendants using assault, threats, and lies. Oh, and did I mention that Ron Williamson was clinically insane and nobody involved with the case –not even Williamson’s own defense attorney– thought to bring up the fact that he was incapable of understanding and responding to the charges being brought against him? It’s just ludicrous, and a little scary because the subtext of the whole thing is “This happened to them. So it could happen to you. That’s how screwed up things are, or at least can be.”

The book isn’t without its flaws, though. Drawn as it is from a true story the book has a sup-optimal structure for maximizing dramatic impact. The most intense part of the book is when Williamson and Fritz are convicted, yet one would think that their eventual exoneration would be the climax. Instead, the latter is kind of flat and lackluster, and then followed by quite a bit more relatively dry material detailing the aftermath and short-lived celebrity status the men find. The overall effect is that things start to sputter in the last quarter of the book, lacking the drama and forward momentum that made the first three quarters so readable.

Still, the events are so outrageous and upsetting to one’s sense of fairness that it’s pretty captivating on balance. And one thing I’ve learned for sure, the second a “routine” interview at the police station turns into a spittle-filled, screaming demand that you confess to something you didn’t do, ask for a laywer. Right then. This whole story might never have happened if these guys had done so.

So Long, PC Gaming

If any of the weekly updates get delayed, here’s the reason:

New 360

Not pictured: My new copy of Bioshock. Big thanks to my sister, my brother-in-law, my mom, my in-laws, Geralyn, and Google for giving the money to buy this as a birthday present.

Having had some time to play around with the Xbox 360, I’m pretty impressed and forced to admit that I probably should have saved up some more money and bought one instead of buying a Nintendo Wii last year. The 360 looks really good on my big HDTV, with true HD graphics instead of just widescreen. Bioshock in particular looks fricking fantastic. It sounds great, too, with things blaring through my 5.1 surround sound system.

What gave me the biggest, pleasant surprise, though was the content and features that one gets after connecting the 360 to a local area network and going online. In addition to online matchmaking from Xbox Live (which I haven’t even had occasion to try out), Xbox Marketplace offers a ton of stuff like movies (as in, entire movies you can buy and download), trailers, game demos, and more. There’s enough free stuff there to keep me occupied for quite a while, and tons more if you want to pay for the good stuff.

Of course, I can hear you saying “Yeah, I already have a machine that can download trailers, demos, and movies from the Internet. It’s called a computer.” And you’d have a point, even if you were being a bit condescending about it. But I didn’t buy the 360 to download stuff, even putting aside the fact that you can’t download Xbox 360 demos or games on a PC. I bought it for the games, and for the guarantee that when I pop a disk into the Xbox’s tray and press “Start” I KNOW the damn thing is going to work and that it’s going to work as advertised. I got sick of not having that guarantee with my PC.

This is actually the terminus of a long slide from PC gaming to console gaming that started in 2001. I bought a PC game called “Tribes 2” after seeing impressive movies and screenshots. I even saw it run on some people’s machines at work. When I got home and loaded it on my middle of the road machine, though, it choked and chugged when any of the graphics settings were raised above rock bottom. It also had bugs and performance issues even then. So I went out and bought a Sega Dreamcast, my first console I’d owned since my old Atari 2600.

Now this was a big deal for me, since i had ALWAYS been a PC gamer. I’ll spare you the usual attempts at geek cred, but suffice to say I grew up playing Wizardry and Ultima games on my Apple ][ Plus, and it was my experiences with and writing about games like Quake and Unreal Tournament that landed me a brief career inside the gaming industry with GameSpy. I could rattle off tons of games for which I have great nostalgia and great affection and they’d most be PC games –Grim Fandango, Battlefield 1942, NOLF, Warcraft II, Counter-Strike, Baldur’s Gate 2, Planescape, Starcraft, Doom, Age of Empires, World of Warcraft, Quake, Half-Life, SimCity, System Shock 2, Team Fortress Classic, The Sims, etc. You get the idea.

But enough was enough. Scenarios like the one above with Tribes 2 kept happening, and I kept playing more console games. I just got sick of not knowing if a game was going to run on my machine, or how well it was going to run. Or if it would crash. And upgrading a computer can be really expensive, even if you know enough to just do it piecemeal and assemble it yourself.

The final straw was when the demo for the PC version of Bioshock, a game by one of my favorite development teams, wouldn’t even run on my computer because I didn’t have some fancy pants video card. I decided to cut the PC upgrade cycle off at the knees and put the money towards an Xbox 360 instead. I did so, bought the Xbox version of Bioshock, and it runs great. Especially with the online and high definition capabilities of the current generation of consoles, there just wasn’t enough good reasons to put up with PC gaming’s flaws any longer.

I won’t say anything stupid like “PC Gaming is doomed!” World of Warcraft alone has guaranteed that there’s going to be some market for PCs, and there are some genres, like real-time strategy games, that just won’t work well on consoles. And I won’t say that I’ll never buy another PC game –I’m actually enjoying the hell out of Team Fortress 2 on my PC right now, in fact. But I can say that it’ll be a long time before I upgrade my PC again, and when I do it probably won’t be to play games.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll even buy a Mac. 🙂

Oh, and by the way, my Xbox Live gamertag is “hjmadigan.”

Week 195: Flu, Rockets, and Tombs

Ah, flu season. We should have known that something was up when Sam wanted to go to bed at 6:00 last night, and sure enough she started feeling miserable shortly thereafter. Fever, cough, runny nose, general piss-offedness. And about 3:00 this morning I was in her room trying to console her when she climbed into my arms, pressed her forehead against my lips, and promptly barfed all down the front of my shirt. Copiously. Actually, though, she did say “Um, sorry,” afterwards and seemed to feel a lot better.

That aside, it was a fairly uneventful week. Ger and I both had child unfriendly things to do on Saturday, so we tag-teamed the kids and hung around the house. Sam’s new favorite thing to do is “play rockets” which involves building rocket ships out of her snap together blocks, then attach poor animal astronauts to the top and take them on a ride. It’s a ride, by the way, which always ends the same way: with Sam shouting “OH NOES!” and the rocket plummeting back to Earth, where it breaks apart. Sam’s version of NASA never suffers a setback, though, as wave after wave of animals are sent up and brought back down in flames.

As far as Mandy goes, I don’t think I can deny any longer that she’s mobile. She still won’t get her knees up under her when she crawls, but her kind of “scootching” works just fine, and allows her to traverse where she likes. Well, except hardwood floors, which rob her of the friction needed for forward momentum. I started to do some baby proofing, but quit. This house just doesn’t seem to want us to baby proof it. First I put some latches on a bathroom cabinet, only to discover that the way the doors were kind of countersunk that I had, in effect, sealed the thing with the kind of permanence probably hoped for by the architects of ancient Egyptian pyramids.

After much cursing, yanking, and snapping of plastic, I finally had access to my hair gel and deodorant again, but it’s obvious that a new approach will be called for. My Plan B currently consists of just babyproofing the hall closet and then restricting Mandy to that space when outside of her crib, but this proposal has yet to really garner much support among committee members.

Book Review: Time Enough for Love

Time Enough For Love

After enjoying Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I looked for other books by the science fiction author to enjoy. Time Enough for Love came fairly well recommended, so I gave it a shot. It’s the far-future (mostly) story of Lazarus Long, the oldest human being EVAR. Long has, he thinks, come to the end of a very protracted life and is ready to die. But first, he talks about some of the crazy stuff he has done to some kinky lab assistants.

Honestly, I didn’t care for it. The book takes the form of several novellas, most of which focus on a different adventure from Long’s past. So you get stories about when he helped colonize a new planet, when he bought and freed some crazy space slaves, and when he did some other stuff that wasn’t terribly interesting. You can see common themes about love, humanity, responsibility, and survival running through all these stories, and it’s admirable how Heinlein has more going on under the surface than you think at first, but really — I found it all just boring and not particularly thought provoking.

I’m not saying that all science fiction has to be space operas with evil galactic overlords and zapp-o ray guns, but there was WAY too much “talking head syndrome” going on here, with Lazarus Long just blathering on and spitting out pearls of wisdom all over the place until they made a slimy carpet two inches thick. And don’t even get me started about the time travel shenanagains that happen towards the end of the book. Let’s just say that Heinlein’s weirdo sexual proclivities soar to new heights when Lazarus Long goes back in time to meet his mother. Bleh.

So, not one I’d recommend, though I’m sure others will disagree with me.

Week 194: Hay, Mazes, and Patty Cake

Sorry, folks, things have been very busy lately. And also, there has been Team Fortress 2 (look for me as “jmadigan” on Steam!). So it’s mostly pictures this week.

Sam and Mandy went to two pumpkin patches this week. Actually, it was the same one once. They went during the week with one of those crazy Mom’s Group things, then on Saturday I went back with them for photo ops. Unfortunately it rained, but we still got some fun in. They had these huge pyramids of hay bails built, which served dual purposes. First, kids could climb up the 30 feet or so to the top. Second, the dark interiors of these structures actually had mazes built into them so that you could foolishly wander in and possibly die in there.

Sam wanted to go in one of the mazes, so I decided to go with her. You know, to keep her calm. Let me tell you something: It’s DARK inside a mountain of hay bails. And when you get good and lost in there, with your arms flailing around in front of you and a nervous toddler clutching at your extremities, you start to think about things. Like whether or not the guy who build this thing had any kind of engineering degree from a certified 4-year college. Or how soon the dozens of kids clomping up and down its exterior will cause its inevitable collapse. Or if that would happen before or after you get eaten by a grue.

Eventually, we turned a corner in the dark and found another intrepid hay explorer who had thought to bring a flashlight into the darkness, which was SMART, as opposed to not bringing one, which was STUPID. We latched onto them and finally found the exit.

Let’s see, Mandy, Mandy. News about Mandy? Not much, except that she’s really getting more interactive and actually able to play, both with us and her big sister. Geralyn is teaching her to play patty cake, with surprising effectiveness. I’m way overdue on babyproofing, aside from moving all our razor blades and scorpions to higher shelves. I really need to put up a gate.

Week 193: Cooking, Heights, and Sitting Up

Over the last year or so Geralyn has developed a mild addiction to what I call her special happy fun time classes. These are events offered through local churches, schools, and other family-oriented organizations and they include swim classes, parents as teachers classes, sibling fun classes (whatever that is), play dates, and a group called Moms of Preschoolers Just Get Together to Hang Out, which is probably the most honest of them all. Up until this week my involvement in these events has been limited to sitting through debriefing meetings, which when Sam ran them were largely incomprehensible so I really never got the full picture.

This week, though, Geralyn took the initiative to sign me and Sam up for a “Cooking With Daddy” class one evening after work. I assumed the idea was that I and a bunch of other dads would trek to the local Happy Fun Child Development Center of Happiness center and stand around while our kids turn a table full of cooking supplies into something that looks like a cross between 30 Minute Meals with Rachel Ray and The Three Stooges. I wasn’t far off.

The “cooking” in the class ranged from the lame —piercing fresh fruit with a stick to make “fruit ka-bobs”— to the only slightly more advanced French toast. Children were not allowed to go near the grill for the latter, which is a rule that I think most of the dads should have also followed based on the general level of cluelessness I observed. Watching these dads (and in one case what I took for a little girl’s “other mommy”) was pretty interesting, though. Most of them seemed to hover parents, in that they stood about 1/16th of an inch away from their kids at all times, taking pains to direct every activity and make sure that the kid didn’t do anything objectionable by 18th century Puritan standards. I, on the other hand, had long ago decided that when a kid is placed in a room full of toys, books, games, and a giant tub of dry oatmeal that the best thing you can do is just stand the hell back and let ‘er rip. Especially if you’re not the one who’s going to have to clean up. At any rate Sam seemed to have fun, and the French toast was pretty good in a sickeningly sweet mush covered in raw egg kind of way.

The other big even this weekend was a “Safety Fair” that my employer put on. Think a huge company picnic with lots of booths where people tell you how not to get yourself killed or maimed on the job or at home. In addition to free food and really good giveaways like bike helmets and backpacks, they were offering free rides up in “bucket trucks,” which are those huge things that lift utility pole repairmen into place in these little buckets, up to a hundred feet in the air. Since I had volunteered to work at a booth where I was telling people that they should really avoid being shocked to death and Geralyn had Mandy in a stroller, Sam had to go up in the lift all by herself. At first Ger thought this would terrify her, but Sam calmly let herself be strapped into a harness and lifted into the tiny bucket to be raised about 80 feet up in the air. Instead of the expected shrieking and hysteria, Ger craned her neck to look up and see the Sam poking her face over the side of the bucket and waving at her. I tell you, this girl is unflappable. She CANNOT be flapped.

Lest I neglect Mandy in this week’s update, it’s important to note here for the historians of future ages that this is the week she started to sit up. Ger went in to fetch Mandy from her crib one afternoon to finder sitting up and looking quite pleased with herself. She’s also crawling, if you can call dragging herself along like a secondary and thoroughly wounded character WWII film epic crawling.

I also tried to feed Mandy something more solid this week in the form of these little rice puffy things that are supposed to taste like sweet potatoes, but which my experimentation reveals to taste more like monkey butt. I demonstrated to Mandy how one is to take one of the rice puffs and place it in one’s mouth, but she apparently decided that cramming them in her nose was close enough for our purposes. After tasting the things, I can’t say I blame her. So I just had Sam make us some fruit-ka-bobs.

Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Chronicles of Amber

This is the first book in Roger Zelanzy’s Chronicles of Amber megaseries, which I bought on impuls in one supercondensed tome. It’s kind of hard to describe the book. See, there’s this guy, Corwin, and he’s a Prince of Amber, which is this city that’s kind of a Platonian ideal of all cities, of which every other city is just a pale imitation. Oh, and not just cities in our world, but in the totality of an infinite number of parallel worlds. And Corwin is feuding and scheming with the other Princes and Princess of Amber (his siblings, just to keep it interesting) for control of Amber, and they can do all kinds of zany stuff by walking between alternate universes and also they have super powers and smell really pretty.

So it’s kind of fantasy, kind of sci-fi, kind of weird. And it didn’t really grab me in any case. I think the main problem was that Zelanzy just dumps you, the reader, into the middle of the action without much narration, then makes it worse by having Corwin, who tells the story from a first-person perspective, suffer from amnesia. So he’s trying to figure out what’s going on while you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, and the result was less intrigue and more confusion.

Still, I may read another book or two in the series to give it a fair chance. They’re short and fairly fast paced, and can thus be knocked out pretty quickly. We’ll see.

Week 192: Skwarulls, Bellowing, and Sisters

As you might expect by this point, Sam does pretty well with her speech most of the time. We can understand her, at any rate. Occasionally, though, she’ll pronounce something in a way that completely baffles us, and now that she thinks she knows how to spell it just gets all the more confusing. The other day we were driving in the car and she pipes up, “Daddy! I saw a skwarull!”

“A what?”

“A skwarull!”

“A school?”

“No, a skwarull.”

“A floor?”

“NO! A SKWARULL!” And then she spelled it out, “S-P-O-O-G. Skwarull!”

“You saw a spoog? What’s a spoog?”

“No, don’t say that! Not a spoog! A SKWARULL! He climbs trees and eats nuts!”

“Oooooohhh. A squirrel.”

“That’s what I SAID.” This said in a tone that suggests I am Chief Admiral Moron of the Nincompoop Brigade.

“Okay, I understand now.”

Several minutes later: “Daddy?”


“What’s a spoog?”

Mandy isn’t quite at the same level of shenanagains, but she has recently rediscovered the power of her voice. For a long time Ger and I considered ourselves fortunate that Mandy was exteremely even tempered and never cried without a clear reason. This is still mostly true, but she has in the last couple of weeks decided to harness the power of “YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRG!!”

It’s not crying per se, but a kind of sustained bellow that she’s getting more and more comfortable with. Dare to walk away in the middle of a feeding? YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRG!! Fail to quickly retrieve a toy that she just ignanimously swept to the floor? YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRG!! Just standing there? YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRG!!

Other than that, though, you can tell that Mandy really wants to start talking. She’s making all kinds of babbling sounds, and she has Mama and Daddy down pat, plus there’s this kind of unintelligible sputtering that I think is supposed to be “Sammy.” The two of them are interacting more every day, what with Sam constantly wanting to give Mandy hugs and retrieve things that she repeatedly throws to the floor. Mandy has started to pay attention to Sam, too, as evidenced by how she erupts into glee spasms when Sam wanders into the bedroom every morning. I’m hoping that soon they can pretty much just take care of each other and I can get out there and mow the lawn.