Occult Attire

Last night snuggled in my armchair layered in blankets like a croissant – my house has two central hotspots where people can warm themselves, the rest of the house feels like a frozen TV dinner – I sat chatting and occasionally glancing up at a few key moments in Mark Harmon’s NCIS show when it switched to an ad. Now commercials on Spike, TNT, AMC and several other cable stations target a specific audience with a very specific message. Cash4Gold targets thieves, reminding them that jewelry pilfered from grandmom’s music box will be melted down and thus untraceable. Life insurance firms remind the old and aging that they will die sooner than the rest of us, so be ready! Male enhancement gives ad agencies the chance to drop as many suggestive innuendoes as possible for the amusement and disbelief of all.

Then we have the Snuggie, the blanket with sleeves. Essentially it’s a pagan robe, marketed as a blanket. Coming in three colors – virgin blue, wood sprite green, and goat blood red – the Snuggie is the start-up kit for any would-be cultist or suburban acolyte looking for the ideal attire to dance beneath the moonlight, welcome the blood moon, or sacrifice their first-born to Bedb. Fertility goddess approved and tested. Thankfully it’s machine washable for easy clean-up.

Moreover, if you act now it comes with a free booklight. How else can you translate arcane texts in this economy where candles cost more than incense and dove-cages without your booklight? Act now. Operators are standing by.

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A Musical Pause

A few weeks ago just after posting our trip to the anime convention, Dasad mentioned how much he enjoyed the anime music video (AMV) linked in the blog.  Since then I search about for some other interesting or unique AMVs to show him and others.  This post-convention season churns out many high-quality AMVs that have won awards during the summer at conventions, thus I thought that I would post one or two just for kicks.

Essentially this is what I watch when I’m bored or need a good pick-me-up.  Better than coffee . . . for me at least.

Southeast of Disorder

A Tale from Margarittaville (A True Fiction)

“Ok, Scott, it’s your job to protect your brothers. Make sure they don’t drink or smoke or go near any topless girls, ok?” His mother gives me the speech between swigs of Corona. Aubrey sits beside her on large fold-out chairs munching grapes; their eyes bore into Scott’s like lasers.

“We trust you, ok? Don’t let us down,” Aubrey added, popping another grape. She had not released him from her gaze yet. Scott stood as one transfixed.

“Paul and Mr. Don are walking with us too s-so . . .” Stammering like a child, I mutter a few excuses, trying to pawn off or at least share my impending failure.

“My husband and my father,” Aubrey began with a frown, “will not watch your brothers. They are already too busy drinking as it is, to keep an eye on teenage boys. Dad alone has had six beers already. Meanwhile you’re . . .”

“Sober,” Scott said with a sigh.

“Responsible,” his mother countered. “We can trust you to do what is right.”

Ouch, he thought.

"Particularly the red ones!  They're quite potent."

"Particularly the red ones! They're quite potent!"

The two women released Scott from their grasp and returned to talk of pools and the upcoming school year. He turned around and walks off like a whipped dog, his shoulders heavy. His brother, Matthew’s head had already disappeared through the rows of parked cars, colorful tents, and margarita machines. Scott sped up to catch the group. A few of his father’s friends offered him a drink, in passing, which he declined politely, feigning a headache which he discovered as he sprint to be quite authentic.

“Oh, and keep your brothers away from those syringes,” his mother shouted from under our tent. “Particularly the red ones! They’re quite potent!”

Scott nearly chuckled at the futility of my mission. Avoiding temptation? Preventing the occasional libation? A necrophiliac in a funeral parlor stood better chances of learning temperance than his brothers did of avoiding alcohol at this concert.

He did some basic chemistry in his head:

— Mix together:

1. Our 2008 Jimmy Buffett concert.

2. One bus full of friends, family, beer and booze.

3. One cooler of syringe-packed Jello shooters.

4. Several football fields of tailgating Parrotheads, beautiful co-eds, and drunken cowboys, all eager to intoxicate anyone regardless of age or state law.

5. My three under-age brothers.

— Now buffer the solution with the following:

1. Mom’s orders. NOTE: this step is easily dismissed and forgotten.

2. One non-drinking older brother bestowed with the mission of keeping them all alcohol-free . . . or else.

— Finally stir in my fellow chaperons:

1. Paul and his father-in-law, Don, both buzzed and ready to displace the blame:

“Whatever you guys do, I didn’t see it. I wasn’t there. Ok?”

— The product: a slightly alcoholic solution producing mass euphoria or headaches, depending on blood-alcohol levels. Mixing the products with volatile mothers can result in severe burns or lacerations . . . for us all.

. . . like a refugee camp for gypsies.

. . . a refugee camp for gypsies.

Nevertheless, Scott caught up to boys as they plotted our course through the menagerie of camps and people. Tailgating at a Jimmy Buffett concert is much like watching a circus pitch tent or a first-grader finger-paint, he thought.   You start with something dull and lifeless and simply add a bit of color and spectacle. Originally much of the land surrounding the concert pavilion is desolate and dead, covered in dusty asphalt or loose apocalyptic-gray earth, the kind that easily kicks into clouds when trampled. Scott remembered a raucous punk festival held at the same pavilion one year. Afterwards everyone including Paul and himself walked back to car covered in dirt like mutated dust bunnies.

The Buffett fans – festively called Parrotheads – typically arrive early to unfold large blue or green picnic tents, portable barbeques, and several coolers-worth of beer and snacks. Their campsite sprouts colorful leis, tropic music, and even kiddie pools. Some load sand in the back of their truck beds for makeshift beaches. The odor of generator exhaust and gas grills perfumes the air, mixing with sizzling cheeseburgers, steamed shrimp, and succulent pork barbeque. Scott spied carven ice sculptures for drinking games and paper-mache volcanoes fitted over port-a-potties – appropriately entitled “Wastin’ Away.”  Tropical birds from nearby pet shops and zoos squawk from chalk-colored campers. Cars and vans were fitted with plywood shark fins, biplanes, and palm trees; hammocks stretched out between bumpers. It was like passing through a refugee camp for gypsies, and Scott and his brothers soaked in every sight, sound, and skimpy bikini.

. . . every sight, sound, and skimpy bikini.

. . . every sight, sound, and skimpy bikini.

The girls were the least of his problems. As long as all the important parts were covered, the boys could stare at bikini-clad beauties all day long, Scott thought. My worries rested on the cup of Corona they are carrying.

Of course the concert pavilion does maintain cops and security, watching for drunken brawls, passed-out party-goers, and underage drinking; however, the general rule was that while yellow bottles of Corona attracted attention (not to mention had potential use as a weapon) the ubiquitous red drinking cups did not. Most Parrotheads learned to pour their beers into cups before consuming – or at least before walking around in plain view of the authorities or their mothers.

His one younger cousin, Jessica, was even ingenious enough to spike her orange Gatorade bottle, from which she casually sipped with no fear of discovery.

“I drank only half of it,” she confessed to him as they walked with a giggle. “Then I added one of orange Jello shooters to it. You swirl it around and no one notices.”

Scott’s brother Brian emerged from among a beer pong game, still celebrating his twenty-first from a few months ago. He had snuck a few bottles of Corona from the bus and filled his siblings’ empty cups – after a stern word from Paul – once the group had traveled well out of range.

“Believe me, guys,” Paul whispered scanning from side to side. “You don’t think Mom’s listening, but she is. Women have spies everywhere. It’s best to wait until we turn the corner here . . .”

By this juncture as the sole non-drinker and solitary voice of maternal authority, Scott had few options. Simply asking his teenage brothers to stop drinking and give the beer to him could not succeed. They would kill him. Politely requesting them to pour the beer out onto the ground and replace it with non-alcoholic iced tea or sparkling mineral water from Greenland was not going to work either. A party foul of that stature would ignite a mob. Nonetheless for the sake of futility, he tried both anyway.

“Hey guys, why don’t you stop drinking and give your beer to me?”

“Come on Scott. It’s just one,” they smiled.

“Yeah, but wouldn’t you like to try some delicious iced tea that I made before we left or this sparkling glacier water which they collected from the melting ice caps? Just think, until global warming, these water molecules had stayed frozen since the last ice age . . .”

“Scott, it’s just one beer, and it’s a Jimmy Buffett concert. It’s almost a law to drink.”

Paul ambled over with his father-in-law, who looked severely buzzed. Brian had injected green Jello into his mouth seconds before and Mr. Don now seemed to stumble over blades of grass. Paul wrapped his arm around me and smiled a big goofy drunken smile.

“Scott, you worry too much,” he said. “This is a rite of passage. I remember years ago when I was just a young pup, a wee lad inexperienced with the world, parties, and beer. My godfather changed all that one weekend at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Yes, it was true religious experience.

“Your problem is that you need to relax more.  Mom won’t know. I’ll see to that . . . though if she does happen to know (somehow she and Aubrey always find out . . . eventually) let us be clear that I did not know what was in those cups.”

“Wha-what cu-cup-ups,” hiccupped Mr. Don.

“Right,” Paul smiled. “Let them walk around. One beer won’t even give them a buzz, man.”

“Ok, but just one beer and tell Brian to hold off on syringes. They get no more from this point on. Mom will kill me if she smells beer or Jello on their bodies.” This was Scott’s idea of compromise, the middle path between prudish authority and youthful hedonism.

Drinking games

. . . take a shot, kiss a girl, howl at the moon, get lei'd . . .

They continued walking through the maze of stalls, passing a bevy of partiers playing various drinking games: beer pong, quarters, ice luge, and flip cups. On the other side of the avenue, a girl in skimpy pirate gear spun a large wheel with various instructions: take a shot, kiss a girl, howl at the moon, get lei’d, etc . . . Crowds of men, women, and old ladies crowded around the wheel and laughed, occasionally whooping as two of the younger ladies French kissed. The boys momentarily ignored the beer and stared, rather curious about these provocative rituals.

A few Parrotheads lounging under a plastic palm tree cheered Scott and the group as they passed. Each of Scott’s younger brothers had donned a grass skirt and walked through the parking lot bare-chested adorning matching pairs of coconut bras – all except the youngest, Chris, who sported a colorful A-cup, festooned with plastic blossoms. Every now and then, the boys would stop to take pictures with someone or coyly lift their man-ziers to flash their cheering fans.

Wastin' away again

. . . paper-mache volcanoes fitted over port-a-potties . . .

Brian and his girlfriend walked ahead, pockets brimming with spare Jello syringes. Every now and then he would offer a ‘shot’ to some reclining partygoers or a fellow tailgate-traveler. The band of brothers stopped near a group of older ladies, who whooped and hollered at our arrival, shouting “Ooo . . . here comes the party boys!”

The ladies, made-up in tropical war-paint, stood with open mouths as Brian dribbled the alcohol-infused goo into their mouths, like baby birds eager for their next meal. The shots as his mother had promised were strong, and the old girls settled back into their lawn chairs with a raucous cackle, teasing their benefactors as they continued their trek:

“Hey, fairy-chest, next time bring some more of the red shooters. Try stuffin’ your chest next time too!”

Chris blushed and removed his floral bra, clearly hurt by the women’s savage mockery of his cross-dressing talents.

“I think your chest looks very nice,” Tony – a high school senior and Scott’s fifth younger brother – teased Chris. “Very seductive.”

“Thanks,” sighed Christ. “But it doesn’t help.”

By now, Scott had relaxed a bit, noticing that the boys’ had finished their beers. They could return to the bus now, and his mother would not be any wiser. Suddenly strange girls ambushed Scott and his brothers from a nearby stall and offered the young boys drinks from plastic flamingos (actual lawn ornaments transformed into ersatz beer bongs). Chris smiled and accepted the long draught, kissing the flamingo’s lips and lifting its body high in the air. Within moments, the beer raced down through the creature’s neck, surprising Chris who dribbled foam and beer onto the ground. The girls cheered. Another young lady appeared, wielding a large squirt gun and a wet T-shirt.

and my license to fly

They continued walking through the maze of stalls . . .

“Would you like a little squirt?” she asked laughing. Matthew opened his mouth wide in response. The others only stared at the young lady’s white T-shirt. The girl pumped the gun and room-temp vodka shot into his mouth like those water pistol games at carnivals. “Was that good for you?” the girl asked, giggling. Matthew grinned foolishly, and the girls gamboled off, leaving the boys smiling ear from ear and Scott feeling quite anxious.

The brothers walked back to bus, passing close to the entrance to the pavilion. Surprisingly enough, Scott spied a Starbucks tent near the ticket counters and strode over for a free sample of their newest Chocolate Banana smoothie. Thank the gods of industry for the ubiquity of coffee shops.

Paul strode up behind him, and slapped his elder brother on the back. The other boys had spied the bus, and weaved quickly through the growing crowds to grab their tickets. Nearby Mr. Don danced between the crowd, wobbling from side to side and laugh, his shirt wet with room-temp vodka and green Jello.

“I love you, Scott,” he said, finally finding a solid RV to lean against. “I’m glad some-somebody here knows where he’s . . . er, we are going.”

Scott could not help smiling. “That’s why I’m followin’ you, sir.”

“Oh no!” the old man laughed. “Oh no, don’t do that! Ha, we’ll never get to . . . to . . . wait, where do we go again?”

“Yeah, man,” Paul said. “Don’t worry about it. Mom won’t notice a thing, if the kids don’t say anything. And they’re not stupid.”

“I love both of you,” Mr. Don cheered. “And that guy over there with the tattoo on his chest too . . . he’s great.”

“Mom will never know. Just don’t write your blog about any of this stuff, ok? If we agree to that, no one will ever know.”

“Sure . . . just don’t tell Aubrey I got coffee without her.”

“Agreed,” Paul laughed, offering him his last Jello syringe. “Come on, let’s hurry up. We only have a half-hour before the concert.”

“Wait, do I even know that tattooed guy?” Mr. Don whispered. “Anyway he has some nice tits . . . er, tats. Good tit-tats. HA!”

Scott sucked down the Jello and strode off after his brothers. As Jimmy sings it’ll end up on the “coconut telegraph” eventually, he thought. Hopefully long after Mom’s forgotten her death threats.

THE END OF THIS PURELY FICTIONAL ACCOUNT

Good Service Nowadays

“One ninety-four!”

“One ninety-four!”

The Panera Bread near the boys’ school is located in an old outlet center under construction. Golden bulldozers and backhoes decorate the parking lot, former Laundromats and Dollar Stores collapse into dust while steel skeletons of new stores emerge from their ashes, and hardhatted construction workers cut thick patchwork pieces from the asphalt like haberdashers into fresh fabric. Once finished, they trim the entire site, barricading the cut edges and broken piles with a neon-orange mesh. Driving through to as-of-yet untouched parking lot before Panera is akin to competing in an off-road obstacle course, skidding over uneven road and avoiding the sweeping necks of monstrous machines. Nevertheless, the ensuing chaos and haphazard construction does little to disrupt the flock of young businessmen and women, who congregate before Panera every morning.

I arrive at the bakery quarter of eight in the morning, after dropping the boys off at football practice, to grab a breakfast sandwich and some cold tea. The suits are all there, mingling outside the store and gossiping inside around coffee and bagels, bedecked like fashionable New York models. I order my food and within a few minutes they leave all at once, flying off to their jobs like startled pigeons migrating between park statues. The café empties and I am left with the Panera staff and an eclectic group of seniors. Most look either relieved for the return to silence or totally oblivious to the change at all.

The chef behind the counter calls my number, shoving a rolled up bag across the counter. Oblivious myself, I continue to sip iced tea and hum old tunes from the 40s, recalled from years of Bug Bunny cartoons:

“You musta been a beautiful baby, you musta been a beautiful child, when you were only startin’ to go to kindergarten I bet you drove the lil’ boys . . .”

“One ninety-four!”

“Right!” I shout and the chef glares at me simultaneously muttering “Have a nice day” with programmed absence.

Maybe my dress is not on par with the rest of the café’s patrons, but it is early on a Monday morning so I cut the guy some slack. Other encounters have not been so warm. Fast food cashiers for example never seem particularly energized. The low pay and long hours without thought probably does little to boost moral. Yet I wonder sometimes whether people work their jobs or whether people’s jobs work them. Sometimes it falls to the customer to galvanize those who serve him into action:

“WelcometoWendysmayItakeyourorder?”

Nothing about my cashier suggested anything but loathing toward me and the food consuming public as a whole. The family and I had stopped on the way down to Florida at combination gas station-Wendy’s-DairyQueen-market for food and ice cream. She – let’s call her Wendy – seemed like she wanted to kill herself and the most of humanity in one fell swoop. Her monosyllabic greeting slid from her mouth like a crash victim, slowly and with great pain. Normally I would have been taken aback. However, Wendy had mumbled the programmed welcome with such perfect fluidity and indifference that I paused before announcing my order, clearly impressed and thus resolute to pester her with cheerfulness.

“Hello, how are you today?”

“Fiiinnne . . .” she moans with a sigh. Success! Already I had struck a nerve.

“Could I get a . . . um, a chicken sandwich and . . .”

“Fried, spicy, grilled, or sautéed?”

“Oh . . . well, what would you recommend?”

At first, I get no response. Wendy glares at me incredulously. Clearly – and probably wisely too – she does not eat here. Nonetheless, she musters a response: “Um if you like spicy hot food and heartburn, get the spicy chicken. The sautéed chicken is greasy. Grilled is decent, and crispy, well . . .”

Here she paused and for a moment I spied a slight grin, mischievous and rebellious. “. . . is God-awful,” she whispers.

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh. “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh.  “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

Fast food cashiers by in large are like that, moaning and groaning like the titular characters in a George Romero zombie flick. Of course, I saw “SuperSize Me” too. If my job involved knowingly feeding the general populace fatty sauces and questionable meat, I would try to frighten away future customers far from our value meals. That reminds me, have you heard the new advertising for McDonalds’ chicken strips: now guaranteed with 100% real meat! Should we ask what kind of meat? Moreover, what exactly did I ingest several months ago? Was it animal, mineral, or vegetable? I do not envy any fast food worker, accosted with these heavy questions.

Fast food workers however are not the only ones afflicted with occupational depression. Take my recent encounter with the drink girl at the local golf course for example. Typically these maidens with their roving oases exude a pleasant cheerfulness, offering liquid hope to the heat-irradiated sportsman, yet this story involves a rare specimen. The girl seemed pleasant enough, if you ignored the bug-eyed sunglasses, petulant sarcasm, and Sunday-morning face of the late night drinker. As she drove near the green, my brother Shannon repositioned the flag and asked for a sandwich:

“Ummm . . . it’s eight o’clock in the morning,” she explained.

“Oh ok, well . . . thank you,” Shannon replied, taken aback. “But do you have any sandwiches?”

“No . . .” she sighed. “We have only few snacks and muffins. That’s it.”

“Iced tea for me,” I clamor after missing my putt.

“I’ll take a muffin,” Shannon’s friend, Chuck, says handing her a hundred dollar bill. For the next year or so, until he finishes his senior year at high school, Chuck is staying with us. The large bill represents the entirety of his spending money for the next six or so months. However, the girl clearly interprets his eagerness to pay for their drinks as futile attempt to flirt.

“I’m not impressed,” she responds, hurriedly passing him his change and driving off.

Clearly alcohol and early mornings mix as well as beer before liquor (never sicker). This alarming trend concerning those individuals in my life who prepare my food gives me pause. Luckily enough, I can always depend on those wonderful folks at my local bookstore cafe. After grabbing my daily egg sandwich at Panera, I read for a bit and then visit the book emporium before retrieving up the boys from practice. This has become a daily routine so much so that the baristas ready the iced tea as I walk in:

“Mornin’ Murph, your usual? Large iced tea again today?”

“You got it, Joel, but with a splash of raspberry syrup if you got any,” I respond, momentarily distracted by a large table of novels. “Buy 1, and purchase another for ½ off.” I remind myself to scour the titles before I leave.

“No problem, man,” Joel responds, energetically. “Scone? We just got a fresh batch of cinnamon and apple . . .”

“Well . . .” I love scones. “Oh, what the heck. Heat it up for me.” I sip my tea while Joel throws the triangular pastry into the oven.

“Did you manage to see any movies over the weekend?” Joel asks, as soon as the oven chimes. Of all the baristas who work at the café, Joel loves discussing comic books, movies, and all things geeky. Moreover, he is the epitome of the perfect barista: energetic, efficient, and friendly. I anticipate our morning discussions every day.

“I took my folks and a few of the siblings out to see “The Dark Knight” for the eighth time. Did you see it yet?”

Joel pauses and frowns. “Yeah, but I didn’t like it. The costume was all wrong, more like a SWAT gunmen than a superhero. They totally forgot about Harvey’s dual personalities, and I lost track of the characters after a while. It was all so confusing. I nearly walked out halfway through . . . Hey, dude, don’t you want your scone?!”

"I didn't like it."

"I didn't like it."

I gasp and mindlessly stagger out into stacks, my fanboy pride in tatters. No disillusioned fast food cashier could have hurt me more. Quickly, I buy a stack of novels, childrens’ lit, and five or so volumes of manga (Buy 4, Get the 5th Free) to ease my pain.

I take a long sip of iced tea to cleanse the bad taste from my mouth. Yes, it truly is a shame: the blended raspberry and the iced tea were delicious, perfectly delicious.

Of Comics and Creeps

A haven from reality

A haven from reality

Like its patrons, comic book shops come in all shapes and sizes. In the years since I fell in love with comic books and super heroes, my travels have carried me to many a comic shop, many of which proved to be brightly lit, clean, and otherwise respectable havens from the drudgeries of reality. Others, dark dens devoted to fandom, fit the stereotype all too well. In college Dasad and I spent our Friday nights walking the malls, wasting time in the arcades and the popular comic shop, Another Universe.

Unlike most shops, owned or operated privately, AU was a legitimate chain, specializing in comic books and other comic-inspired merchandise. No dingy obscure dungeon was this, but a well-kept store equipped with freshly paint, ordered shelves, employee uniforms, an immense collection of comics, graphic novels, and figurines, as well as a knowledgeable troop of female cashiers.

Anyone who has ever donned the robes of geekdom knows the horror of talking to girls about your hobby. This is true of any male obsession – even the more socially acceptable ones like sports. Their eyes gaze, lips part to utter an impatient sigh, your final comment on the latest Batman movie is ignored as she and her girlfriends drift away, laughter and the occasional quip echoing in their wake. Not so were the female members of the AU staff:

“Big Batman fan?” the pretty cashier asked, looking at me and smiling.

“Uh yeah, I was a long time ago, and only recently started collecting again.” Typical ambiguous answer, which I mastered long ago, allowing the female in question a polite but disinterested out: “Oh that’s nice” or “Well, good luck.”

Instead she responds, holding up my issue of Batman’s “The Killing Joke:” “This is an awesome book. Great storytelling. Have you read Waid and Ross’ ‘Kingdom Come?’ yet”

“No,” I respond, excitedly. “No, I bought it the other day, but haven’t got a chance to read it yet.”

“Go home tonight and read it. Then come back and tell me what you think. I loved Ross’ art, all painted, you know. Beautiful. Go read it. I want to hear what you think.”

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A girl geek. A pretty girl geek. A pretty girl geek who wants to talk to me about geek stuff. Not since fire and the invention of movable type has man stumbled upon such a wonder.

Unfortunately the store was bought out by a larger company weeks later and subsequently shut down. Afterwards I found a shop closer, Alternate Worlds, less mainstream and hip, but with staying-power. No girls either, but in such establishments you become accustomed to the girls to geeks ratio (0:1) and simply end up buying more Japanese comics. Nonetheless, the owner proved to be a sweet forty-something Swedish immigrant, the quiet aunt-type, who though plainly ignorant of the hobby always kept the store bright and cheery. Here I did not find a comic store but a bookstore that sold comics, a comfortable place that refused to emulate someone’s parents’ basement.

However, not all comic stores are like these. The owners and cashiers, most regrettably and all too frequently, fall into the old stereotype. The worse offenders – by which I define those who truly seek to embarrass and oppress the customer – evolve over years of seclusion and obsession, like Gollum in his cave. For these reasons, while growing up comic-buying always felt a little sketchy. In high school and college, few guys my age bought comics, so the act of collecting or even reading felt much like sneaking through your father’s Playboy collection:

“Murphey, what are you doin’ in there?”

“N-nothing, Mom, j-just reading!”

“I hope that you’re readin’ Hemingway, if I find another Batman under your bed . . .”

“H-h-haha, funny Mom!”

So when the owner of the nearby Cosmic Galaxy (for some reason all comic stores on the East Coast gravitate toward corny space epithets) began deriding me on my purchases, you felt even worse about yourself and your habits. Many geeks are like that though; lacking interest in society-approved activities, they seek to master the minutia of their own niche and thus prove their worth by abusing the less-informed. Justifying their worth to the world, they attempt to degrade it. In my mind, a bully is still a bully, regardless of interest or appearance. Still, the engine of self-promotion and public humiliation powers most modern businesses, fan conventions, and scientific research, so I suppose it was a necessary – if painful – experience.

But back to our disgruntled worker:

"This arc is horrible . . ."

"This arc is pathetic . . ."

The local comic guy seems to emulate his tragic counterpart on the Simpsons: pale complexion, lank unwashed hair, condescending demeanor, and a tight blue T-shirt pox-marked with grease. His pot belly blocks the faint light from door as I stand before him, like an astronaut watching the planet eclipse the setting sun. His fingers glow orange, permanently stained by the entrails of countless cheese doodles. I cough politely, and he stands. Slowly. Waddling over to the register, he coughs and prepares himself for business, simultaneously cleaning his fingers and decorating his shirt in one swift move. I say hello. He nods, sipping grape soda from his over-sized Big Gulp. Purple droplets escape down his cheek, eventually collecting at his chin like a grotesque wart. He rubs away the residual pimple with the back of his hand, glaring at my purchases as if they displeased him.

“This arc is pathetic,” he says scanning my first issue.

“Huh?” I stumble, pausing at his condemnation.

“This story arc, the one you are buying, is pathetic. I hear Parker makes a deal with the devil here, some dues-ex-machina crap. Quesada is over-rated anyway. If you really like Spiderman, toss away everything written in the last twenty years – especially any title that begins with “Ultimate” – and devote yourself to Romita’s work of the early ‘70s.”

He passed me an old comic, wrapped in plastic. I felt like he was trying to pawn off some pot. The fading colors, heavy price tag, and cheese-doodle smears turned my stomach; I politely declined. Some people collect comics for individual issues, encasing prized books in plastic and then display them in locked case on their dressers next to yesterday’s change and that pyramid diorama from third grade. I am just in it for the stories. Owning rare individual copies – groundbreaking and valuable though they may be – seems pointless if I cannot read them.

The comic guy sniffs at my refusal, and then ignores all but my money. I sneak out, darting my eyes about the parking lot, an instinctive search for girls and anyone who might recognize me.

Most comic stores have that feel to them: hole-in-the-wall shops squeezed in between laundromats and liquor stores. One such institution near the lab where I worked felt more like an opium den than a bookstore. The shelves seemed handmade by unskilled hands. I reach for an old issue of Batman but happen upon a splinter instead. I nearly trip over someone. Bodies of potential customers lay strewn about the floor next to piles of discarded back issues, reading silently, lost in alien worlds. Death metal bands screamed from behind the counter, where the gaunt pierced lips of the emaciated clerk mouthed ambiguous lyrics. Any moment I imagined tear gas to crash through the windows while my face is pinned to the floor by some rookie cop, trained on old episodes of Starsky and Hutch.

“Listen . . .” I would shout, as steel cuffs bite into my wrists.

“Scum like you should just die. Tryin’ to sell this stuff to kids . . .”

“Hey the writing has really improved in the last thirty years. Have you ever read Gaiman’s ‘Sandman?’ ‘Kingdom Come?’ I hear they teach ‘Watchmen’ in college cl . . . ow!”

“I don’t want your excuses. ‘Sandman?’ Happy dust? Is that what they call it on the street now?”

As they haul me away, I suppose it good luck that no one caught me reading the Japanese comics . . . but that’s another story for another time.

Disbelief

“Why on Earth do you read them more than once?”

The questioner’s tone of voice drips with shock and disbelief as if I had casually admitted to sniffing white-out. Moments prior I had casually mentioned to the girl sitting next to me (a beautiful freckled young lady equipped with a British accent, a passion for Jane Austen, and a wedding band) that I habitually reread some novels every year. She nods rigorously chewing tuna salad, when a question breaks into our conversation.

I drop my sandwich onto the lunch table, swallowing before I answer. The rest of the lunch table has now turned their attention towards me and David, my fellow student-turned-interrogator in this week-long summer class on digital libraries. From nine to five, we sit and listen to technical lectures about our future careers, while I daydream about summer movies and dinosaurs. If a giant scaly monster crashed through the projector and ripped me in half, I could save several excruciating hours trying in vain to remain awake.

I take a sip of room temp Pepsi.

“Yeah,” I shrug. “It’s like revisiting old friends. Some books like The Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Pride and Prejudice, I read about once every year.”

“Ugh, why?” David scoffs this time. And I am reminded why I do not like him much. Like me, David has admitted to some previous experience as a scientist – philosophy apparently. Unfortunately like many scientists, he retains a personality akin to the man in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” never bothering to develop an imagination or a sense of humor.

“I guess that I just enjoy reading,” I laugh. “I can be quite passionate about my stories sometimes.”

“But when do you find time?” he persists with such astonishment that I pause, wondering if I had misunderstood the question. When he speaks, he shakes his head with wonderment revealing a thick furry beard, the barbershop love-child between Chuck Norris and a muppet.

“Um . . . I don’t know,” I say. “On the metro, before bed, during my free time . . . uh lunch. I guess that I just make time to read.” After all, stories are important to me. Like taking showers in the morning or putting on your shoes, you learn to piece reading into your lifestyle.

Despite my explanation, David does not appear to understand, which honestly shocks me a bit. What must he do in his own free time to merit such incredulity? Although as I recall, David excels at asking awkward questions. Once during a cataloguing class, he felt inspired to reveal his revulsion of the social tagging site, del.icio.us.

“Why do all these websites have such stupid names?” he would ask. “Meaningless names that have nothing to do with what they do. Google, del.icio.us, Yahoo. They don’t make sense. They don’t mean anything. It’s stupid.”

Silence.

“Um . . .” someone remarks. “Unusual or quirky names, I guess, help people remember, right? Like cereal brands or detergent names.”

“But the websites names are asinine. Why can’t they tell us something about the site? Or what it does?”

No arguments concerning marketing and memory could convince him. Someone even mentioned that Google was now a verb in the dictionary. People after all who can easily remember site names are more often to visit them.

“It’s still makes me sick,” was his only reply.

Lunch ends, and as we leave I ask David what he enjoys reading.

“Nothing,” he says. “I don’t read. Or watch movies. I don’t have time.”

“Oh,” I blurt, surprised at his answer. I mean who does not have time for a book or movie every now and then? Oh but maybe he means fiction . . . “Well, I have a cousin who doesn’t care much for stories or fiction either, but he’s a great fan of news, biographies, and histories. Did ever read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone?”

“No, I do not read,” David reiterated, emphasizing the ‘read’ as if I had just been rendered deaf.

“Oh.” In the end that was all I could say.

Children don’t read to find their identity, to free themselves from guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology…. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff…. When a book is boring, they yawn openly. They don’t expect their writer to redeem humanity, but leave to adults such childish illusions.

— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Systems Analysis

The instructions on the assignment bore into my brain like a drill. Look through Flickr. After finding three photos, derive your own tags for the photos and then compare them with others’ tags and the metadata provided by the Library of Congress.

Gah . . . every word tightens my nerves like another turn at the medieval rack. My sinews stress, my jaw clenches, I yearn to visit Florida and sip pina coladas with Michelle, my masseuse, professional model, and online guild leader. I read another sentence of instructions and feel my stomach clench.

Summarize the main points of the following articles. More PDFs which discuss adapting information retrieval tools to the digital age flash onto the screen, now rendered dull and soporific with words like “utilize,” “protocol,” and “incremental process.” I wonder how many authors collapsed writing these sentences, whether the end of each paragraph was toasted with a long draught of cooking sherry, followed by a primal scream atop a high balcony, a fleeting desire for sun-baked beaches and lengthy breezes before turning back to the laptop for another page.

Slowly I begin to type my own summary.

You see, I am a big fan of universality. Two thousand years from now Shakespeare will still remain a genius, two plus two will still add to four, and unless the moon jumps from its orbit to collide with earth, a feather and a brick if dropped will still accelerate at the same rate – minus air resistance.

Yet a mere five years from now, the tagging and metadata methodologies of today will not exist. These systems will not matter. The conventions, abbreviations, and technology that I use, memorize, and ultimately reiterate using my own words today will cease to matter then. I have a big problem with that. Mom and Katie simply tell me to act like a man and suck it up.

“These are simply the hoops everyone has to jump through in order to get that diploma, honey. I know it’s a pain, but it has to be done.”

Yeah, but once again the professor is asking me to memorize facts for the sake of a test and then jettison the material afterwards, a strategy I have tried long and hard to abandon since grade school: learn for the sake of a grade then forget everything. If I follow Mom’s advice, I will have spent nearly fifty-thousand dollars for a piece of non-recyclable paper and tabula rasa.

I suppose that even a semi-blank mind supersedes abandoning amino acid tables, Shakespearean sonnets, and those few memorized lines from Casablanca. Nonetheless, the assignment makes me cringe like the sound of an anxious cat thrown against a chalkboard. In the end, you are left irritated and slightly befuddled, questioning the sense of it all.

“Hold on,” you ask. “What purpose did hurling the cat serve?”

“It’s part of the curriculum,” they respond.

“Why not then hurl her at something softer, less irritating, like a mattress or at least mildly interesting like a flock of geese or a pool of Jello?”

“Who knows?” they respond again. “Just be sure to fill in the circles completely with a No. 2 pencil. You have five minutes remaining.”

Sigh. Well, no one said education was going to be easy.

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

— Rick

Sigh. Yeah, someday maybe I will too . . .