Meatball Soup, photo by stu_spivack, CC-BY-SA 2.0

My household has lately been enjoying The Witcher 3 a great deal — it has picked up the long-disused banner last carried by Fallout: New Vegas as a compelling and well-written “triple-A” game that we enjoy playing together, treating like a TV series. (And a bingeable one, for good or ill.) That said, I find myself needing a break from it, even though after six weeks of almost daily play we’ve arrived at the main storyline’s final act. While my partner plays solo for a while, gladly hoovering up all the earlier sidequests we’d left behind, I ponder why my attention ebbed over the game’s vast middle — especially compared to its extremely interesting prologue.

Even as I played through it, I knew exactly what grabbed me so successfully in White Orchard, the relatively small world-map that holds the game’s first few post-tutorial hours. Just as you start getting your bearings, you receive your first major quest: slay the griffin pestering a local army garrison, in exchange for information that’ll gate you into the midgame. This comes after foreshadowing about the monster’s power and rapacity — one of the very first NPCs you meet is a hapless merchant, stranded in the woods after the terrible creature turned his horse into salad.

More crucially, you accept the contract many real-time hours before you get to lay eyes on the fearsome thing yourself — but you work your way up to it, steadily, in satisfyingly paced steps. You interview townspeople about the attacks, then visit the sites the witnesses mention, looking for clues about its methods and habits. You research griffins’ known weaknesses, then gather ingredients and shop for recipes to make the specific potions and oils that will work best against this particular prey.

All this tension reaches a delicious height when you find the monster’s nest, discovering the motivation for its unusual aggression and completing your pre-fight checklist. When you feel ready, you set the trap, and at long last face the creature down, and it feels awesome. Those last few violent minutes cap what, all by itself, feels like a small, self-contained (and surprisingly large-budget!) adventure game about an episode in the life of a fantastic monster-hunter. I loved all of it.

And then the game set me free in the enormous mid-game world map, and… well, I have willingly spent dozens of hours slumming around in Novigrad and island-hopping across Skellige so I’m not going to suggest that I haven’t had a good time. But I never did recapture the feeling of White Orchard, even though I find myself going through the same motions, again and again. What Witcher 3 sees as a training exercise, I saw as the main course! Why did this happen?

A lot of it, I think, comes down to how the game handles your character’s personal resources. Crafting potions and oils (buffs and debuffs, respectively) plays a central role in Witcher 3, but unusually — and in stark contrast to Skyrim, especially — once you brew a consumable goody, you keep it forever, able to use it repeatedly. Each bottle or bomb has only a handful of “sips” or charges or whatnot, but you completely recharge used-up stock every time you rest.

Certainly I found this refreshing, when I first figured it out. No more hours slaving over a hot alchemy table between dungeon sorties, or having an inventory screen resembling a liquor store’s stockroom. Just carry one of everything, easy!

Alas, this style carries a fun-deadening drag of its own. Just as Witcher 3 does not escape the typical single-player CRPG problem where your character quickly becomes so absurdly wealthy that in-game commerce becomes meaningless, his ever-ratcheting collection of anti-monster alchemical tools means that you never again experience the oddly immersive joy of assembling a task-tailored toolkit from scratch to face down your next big contract. Odds are, you already have the stuff from all your last jobs, and you don’t even have to go home to fetch it first. You read the bestiary to find out which oils to slather on your sword this time, and head straight to the lair.

All that is still pretty fun, mind you, and the writing is good — not just “good for a mainstream big-budget videogame”, but as good as a higher-end long-arc fantasy teleplay. And every so often, part of it does manage to feel, once again, like a compelling adventure game that rewards deep attention. Several hours into the midgame, for example, I found Geralt’s encounter with the Bloody Baron and his “botchling” a solid work of fantasy horror, startling and meaningful and wrapped up in unexpected grace. It, along with the whole White Orchard sequence, are two of several rewarding Witcher 3 sub-stories floating in a sea of far more passive play that otherwise stretches on for hours and hours.

I would have felt at least as happy had the game somehow served up these isolated episodes as all its playable content, rather than offering me a whole landscape in which to dwell. I know that level-uppy triple-A games just don’t work that way, and more’s the shame. I’ll take what delight from this one, once I’ve spent enough time away from it to start missing its world — one which, for all the fun I’ve had, I really don’t wish to feel too familiar with.

The mysterious Mike from episode 6 of Twin Peaks Returns, saying: Don't die.

My doctor diagnosed me with hyperlipidemia in January. Presumably my blood, run through the lab, resembled the disagreeably pond-scummy claret illustrating that condition’s Wikipedia page. Doc gave me a deadline: If I couldn’t fix this situation through diet and lifestyle changes within one year, then I’d have to accept a lipid-thinning drug regimen. Heart disease crippled my father and killed my father’s father, so I knew that would submit to statins that if I had to. But I would really rather not have to. This cut my work out for me.

I took another blood test last week, about six months after the first, and received the results the following morning. I can report that all my blood-numbers have adjusted, for the first time since I began having them measured, to generally acceptable levels. I feel pretty happy about that. While I naturally cannot point to any one thing I did as the cause, I can summarize the salient changes I made in my behavior since the winter.

Honestly, it comes down to two factors: I significantly cut back on processed sugars, and I started visiting a professional dietician.

More to the first point, I stopped eating sugar mindlessly. Better phrased, perhaps, as I started eating more mindfully. But I really do feel I set myself up poorly through decades of eating sugary treats whenever I felt like it — and, often, when I didn’t feel like it, but something sweet lay in reach so I ate it anyway because eh why not.

Like, when I went out to get my morning or afternoon coffee, of course I’d get a little something to nibble on too, a frosted scone or a big cookie or a chocolate bar or whatever. I wouldn’t even think about it. And I did this for years and years.

For the last six months, though, unless I feel very sure that my body requests a sugar hit — not never, but also not more than once a week or so — I just get the coffee.

I brought my experience from earlier food-quantifying experiments to bear, here. I had already learned both the possibility and the benefits of simply acknowledging what I eat. With those earlier efforts, I didn’t tune my intake in any particular way, other than capping my daily calorie-ingestion.

This time, I left the food-diary closed, instead just paying attention to my sweet-toothed fingers, willing them to hey maybe not automatically pick up the donut just because it’s there and it’s morning. It worked — over the course of mere months, one could cater quite the gala celebrity wedding with all the treats I didn’t eat.

And, friends, processed sugar is very bad for you. It’s so very bad. I have known this for some time. I think I was ready to let it go at last, but I needed a greater push than scary news articles to get me to act. So that’s what I got in January.

I must admit, though, that I arrived at this place indirectly. When I shared the diagnosis and my fears about it on Twitter, a friend — and, it happens, a stroke survivor — recommended the book Grain Brain to me. I ate up its confident insistence on a low-carb, high-protein diet, and it launched me into an extremely enthusiastic and very brief gluten-free phase. While I couldn’t maintain that more than a couple of weeks, it gave me an wholly unexpected side-effect: my “sweet tooth”, my lifelong shrugging excuse to myself for eating sugar all the time, vanished.

The happiness that lovely breads and cereals and pastas give me triumphed over my experimental rejection of them. But somehow in that struggle my always-on background-desire for sweets, left unfed for just a couple of weeks, simply guttered and died. When I realized this, and recognized the significance of the life-improvement I had stumbled into, I drew up a peace treaty with carbs and ordered a pizza. More than enough territory gained, for one war.

This mood for accepting modest gains over radical redefinition continued to help when I started seeing a dietician, beginning a couple of months after the diagnosis. Every other change I made flows from this activity. I didn’t need to shop around or anything; I scheduled an appointment with the dietician that happened to base their practice in the same building as my primary-care physician, and we took it from there.

I have sat down with this dietician twice, so far. First, we sketched out my current lifestyle as seen through the lens of the food I eat — what, when, how often and how much — and established what about myself I wished to change through changes in my diet. (In this case: righting those terribly askew blood-numbers.) They gave me homework, thus:

  1. Instead of eating breakfast out literally every morning (as I did indeed do), try cutting that back to every other morning. I received a shopping list of nutritious and filling breakfast components, and friends I have really learned to unironically enjoy mixing up my own greek yogurt parfaits.

  2. Create and keep a big container of oat bran and flaxseed mix in the fridge. Sprinkle a spoonful onto all those homemade breakfasts, and also any other meal where I could get away with it.

  3. Start taking over-the-counter plant-sterol supplements with my meals.

  4. Maintain course on the good habits I’d managed to pick up myself: my still-regular dives into the seven-minute workout, and my aforementioned shunning of sugar. Continue my frequent appreciation for fibrous greens, cultivated by prior reading.

  5. For two weeks prior to my subsequent visit, keep a food diary.

My second visit began with my handing in that latter assignment. On the dietician’s instructions, rather than carefully measure out amounts and calorie-estimates, I simply wrote down what I ate, and when I ate it, every day, for days. We reviewed it together, and the dietician circled things here and there — oh dear, still eating one or two sugary treats per day, I see — and we fine-tuned my habits a little further.

I have a third visit coming up later this month. My homework this time: take a six-months-on blood test, and bring in the results. So here I write, with an LDL of 124 mg/dL — down from January’s 151, and for the first time thrillingly below the good-range ceiling of 130. (My triglyceride and HDL measurements also both find themselves sitting pretty.)

I think I may have a hard floor of one sweet treat per day. Given the undeniable reality of my progress, I enjoy that single big buttery oatmeal-raisin cookie with my 4 PM coffee, and apologize to nobody. We’ll see where we stand next January.

On a recent episode of the Do by Friday podcast, co-host Max Temkin voiced dismissive disdain for all contemporary superhero films, decrying their preordained outcomes — the hero will surely triumph in the final act, the canonical romantic interest must survive for the sequel, and so on. I can’t disagree in principle, even though I have enjoyed so many recent super-movies. I therefore found my joy at Spider-Man: Homecoming boosted by keeping this criticism in mind, feeling delight in the ways that the story flourished within these very present constraints.

Personal background: Spider-Man is very important to me. My middle-older brother Pete and I had a secret language based on the bizarre and often psychedelic 1960s Spider-Man animated series, the source of the immortal theme song everyone knows but so many more memorable moments for kids watching it in re-run. For instance, this Spider-Man would fall from great heights a lot, due to both the machinations of foes as well as the necessities of a limited-budget re-use of animation cels. Every time he fell, trumpets would blare a desperate, descending scale until the moment Spidey managed to at last snag an overhang with his web and fling himself back to safe altitudes. So Pete and I would sing this to each other, DA-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da, whenever we wanted to say “this thing we are both observing bespeaks a poor outcome”, or just “I am about to tackle you”. And so on.

I read the comics too, from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. Spidey, his company of friends and villains, and their already decades-old lore became intimately familiar to me. Even in those days before the web, resources existed to aid any obsessed young comics-reader in eagerly soaking up decades of past continuity. And all this plays into why I referred to the 60s animated Spider-Man as “this Spider-Man”, because even during his first decade or two the character’s official handlers would re-invent him again and again — here for that crazy cartoon, but there too for his frequent cameos on The Electric Company, or for a spate of TV movies throughout the 70s and 80s. Each vision of the character tweaked and adapted him to better fit into the medium at hand. It all seemed perfectly sensible to me!

As such, I don’t see the 2017 film as a “reboot” in the way that the post-Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies represented. Homecoming’s Spider-Man isn’t any sort of do-over, a rewind of the character back to his starting place for yet another retelling of the origin story, bouncing it through reset cultural contexts and audience tastes and hoping enough will stick to bankroll a couple of numbered sequels before the next team of handlers reels him back to square one for another go. Instead, the new movie — paired with its prologue, embedded in last year’s Civil War — pours the spirit of Spider-Man into a wholly new vessel, like like all the perfectly normal multiplicity of cross-media Spider-Men of my youth.

That vessel being not movies in general, but the contemporary “Marvel cinematic universe” specifically. They could have given Spidey the Doctor Strange treatment, clean-slating him yet again. The film’s producers instead did the character and his audience such a grand service by overtly hand-waving away his origin — look, you bloody well know it by now — and while they still rewind him back to dorky teenhood, they set his context not merely to “whatever year this movie is filmed in”, but the nearly decade’s worth of begging-your-pardon worldbuilding that the studio has exercised since Iron Man.

And the two films let that already-established world gleefully pervert the canonical Spider-Man origin arc from the get-go, having a slickly agenda-driven Tony Stark of all people swooping into Peter Parker’s flat and replacing poor old Uncle Ben, smooth as a snake, and forking this universe’s Spidey far away from the oft-told self-reliant versions. Stark charms Aunt May off her feet, then fast-forwards poor Peter’s crimefighting career far more than his feeble experience and maturity can balance. It was perfect, I thought; a fresh, invigorating and completely believable (within the excesses of superhero fantasy) take on what should happen to the Spider-Man archetype when injected into this particular world. It feels like a Marvel “What If” story — What if Spider-Man™ showed up a few years later than he did? — allowed to flourish into full, wonderful character.

In the end, it is character that sets the best of the current Marvel movies apart, allowing them to overcome the strictures of Temkin’s complaint. Yes, we know Spidey can’t die, we know that New York won’t get toasted by the villains, and of course he’ll end up with MJ. But: will Peter, a naive teenager, willingly remain in Stark’s shadow (as he very much remains at the end of Civil War), or will he find a modicum of self-definition? I feel certain that my long love for this character encouraged to me care, but — thrilled by the topsy-turvy opening configuration — care I did, and I loved seeing Peter find his way through the question in Homecoming.

The film also breaks from formula in the way it ends. Going all the way back to 1989’s Batman, and up through the first two Maguire Spider-Man movies and beyond, the “big bad” super-villain inevitably straight-up dies at the end. Homecoming, aware of this grim tradition, raises the stakes by handing poor Spidey a reason to not let his nemesis get killed — not even ironically! No, not even as the result of his own hubris, the “oh well, I tried” excuse that has served silver-screen supers so well for so long! I feel it no spoiler to say that the villain, doomed from the start, tries his best to exeunt in this dully typical fashion just the same, and it falls on poor Peter to find a less explodey ending. And I thought that was pretty great, too.

I presented BumpySkies: A Passion-Project Postmortem at The Perl Conference 2017 in Alexandria, Virginia last month. It remixes my !!Con 2017 talk from May, adding five minutes of newer stuff at either end. In this 20-minute talk I tell more or less the complete tale of how I spent much of 2016 making BumpySkies, a commercial-flight turbulence forecaster. While it works just as I’d hoped, I kind of dunno what to do next with it — and the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the country that provides its data gives me concerns for its longevity that I didn’t have when I began the project.

For some reason, the sound recording came out very soft. You can still hear me speak if you crank your volume or use headphones, but I nevertheless created the following alternative version using Keynote’s recording feature. (It’s the same text and pictures as the TPC recording, just louder. I speak a bit more slowly, so it’s a little longer as well.)

And here’s a whole-slideshow PDF, with a slide-by-slide text transcript included. I see now that I should really save a text-only transcript, since my flipbookish presentation style doesn’t make this easy to read. I shall endeavor to do this in the future.

I really enjoyed TPC 2017, by the way, and hope to push out at least one however-belated blog post about what I learned there. First, though, I’m going to watch all the keynote presentations I missed, via the conference’s YouTube channel; I had a client emergency explode on the event’s first day, and ended up missing a lot of the in-person content.

The next major tech conference I plan to attend is All Things Open, this October in Raleigh, where I shall present nothing at all, because all of the above’s enough for this year. I suspect that two mutually different talks in one year, even on the same topic, represents one too many for me. I loved putting the initial !!Con talk together, but making the TPC version felt like a real drag — even though it came out well — and explains in part my blogging very little last month. As I say in that very talk, building things tends to fire me up far more than just describing things.

Photograph 'What's Wrong With the Kids These Days?' by André Hofmeister, CC-BY-SA 2.0. (A close-up of a few small, unexploded fireworks sitting on a gravel sidewalk.)

This holiday finds me feeling penitent.

Thinking back to last year’s American Independence Day, I see how my nation has fallen, seemingly overnight, from robust and rambling health into a shockingly debilitating illness. While it survived the initial trauma, I find my desire to celebrate its bedridden birthday quite muted. And while I hope it will recover, and even help it work towards this recovery, I know it will never be its old self again. My heart aches with both sadness at all the potential wasted with a single, violent stroke, and guilt at feeling that I myself could have done more to help prevent it.

Later this month I’ll have a blood test to determine whether, after six months of significant dietary changes on my part, my doctor will tone down the hyperlipidimia diagnosis they hit me with in January. The lab measured my LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol level at more than 150 mg/dL, fully half-again higher than optimal. This shock, and the personal struggle since, have done a lot to define my outlook this year — perhaps about as much as the terrible leadership that assumed control of my country on nearly the same day as that doctor’s appointment. I can’t help but mingle the threads.

And I think maybe the U.S. had something like a heart attack, the day of Trump’s election. While nobody deserves a traumatic and debilitating health event, so many who suffer them could have avoided the disaster by paying attention to early warnings and taking the trouble to change course. By dropping processed sugars, popping plant-sterol supplements twice daily, and making other sacrifices, this is the path I try to put myself on now. After forty-odd years of disregarding the chasm whose lying in wait for me my personal genetic history implies, I hope I have enough room left to veer away from it.

A heart attack killed my grandfather, and another forced my father into a different lifestyle than his chosen one. He lived a reasonably healthy quarter-century after that, thanks to modern medicine, whose ministrations he accepted daily for the rest of his life. But he never worked at his beloved sales job again; the stroke took away the stamina required for his life as an ever-traveling company man, and no exercises or blood-thinners could replace it.

I have no doubt at all that this describes America’s health in terms of its global standing. I join countless others in resisting the current administration in its campaign to tear down every neighborly and far-sighted facet of American law and culture that its can get its claws around. Our efforts, hard-fought, bring results, and I have great hope that we can at least contain the damage. You can be sure that I’ll continue materially contributing to causes I believe in after leadership passes to more competent hands.

But all this represents the medicine and attention that comes after the stroke. It’s good that it’s there, it extends a life that would have otherwise been cut far shorter — but it bespeaks the preventative care that could have obviated the need for all these years of painful and expensive crisis-management. I pat my own back about all the dollars I donate, but where were they before last year?

No matter what comes after Trump — no matter whether we can elect baseline-decent leadership again, and maybe even keep it for more than a single cycle — we have become the country that elected Donald Trump to its highest office. A permanent condition, by definition. No future good works or promises will ever erase that, and none will restore the trust we lost, and the leadership roles we ceded, and a result. Just as my father never again saw the open road after his stroke, so America will never again lead any great global effort.

And it feels, heartbreakingly, like damage that we deserve.

This photograph shows the area behind my televison, as of a couple of weeks ago. I must confess that it has become a bit hairier since, with the addition of some new toys I intend to write about in the near future. But I can also state that the depicted tangle has nothing on its prior state, before I applied those black, tube-shaped cable-bundlers you see snaking among the nest. I had purchased them last year, but didn’t figure out how to use them before this month. My key insight came when I realized I had to draw a map.

I will get back to the map! First I will tell you about the tubes. They did not even look like tubes, at first. I purchased these things many months ago on Amazon, clicking the one-clicker on the search result for “cable organizer” that had the most obviously apparent intersection of high rating and low price, crossing my eyes such that all the other words and pictures would not trouble me. So when I found myself the owner of four black neoprene squares with zipper-halves along the edges and no documentation, I found myself confused and adrift. I put the squares into my desk drawer and forgot about them until last week, when I found myself alone at home for a few days, expecting the imminent arrival of yet more HDMI-leeching black boxes, and a freshly rediscovered resentment for the rat-king squatting behind my television.

With fresh motivation, I poked around for some free-floating documentation, and found this video, which, though depicting a fancier accessory than that of my own purchase, makes clear the squares’ intended destiny of transformation into open-ended cylindrical sleeves. After grasping a fistful of cables into a sort of loose sheaf, one wraps one edge of the square around the bundle and then fastens it with the zipper, like a collar. This takes a modicum of manual dexterity, but I found it doable after a bit of practice. You then zip it shut, and find yourself with an overflowing cable-burrito. Then — and this is a subtle point I didn’t understand at first — you repeat the procedure on a different point along the sheaf you made, using another square.

I find that, for a typical household A/V cable, two such meta-claddings along the cables’ length suffice to transform an unruly tangle into a still-twisty yet significantly rulier bundle, with a hydra-spray of plugs at either end. And since I owned four squares, that implied that I could create two of these monsters. But I still didn’t know quite where to start, and this then led to the map.

A hand-drawn map of my cable situation.

On this map, each box represents a device in the vicinity of the television — including the TV itself — and each line a physical cable connecting two such devices. The special “⚡️” box, of couse, represents the overburdened and ungrounded power outlet found behind the TV, subject to both multi-tap power strips and three-to-two-prong adapters to allow electronics made within my lifetime to use this weatherbeaten New England home’s doddering sockets.

This map revealed that the power cords represented, far and away, the strongest one-to-many relationship among my media-nest. So it came to pass that — after disassembling the whole thing — I rebuilt the stack of boxes such that their power sockets practiced sufficient mutual vicinity to receive the plugs from one end of a single eight-headed cable-monster, whose tail end spread semi-neatly into a pair of power strips.

The second-most populated cable-destination, as shown on the map, was the HDMI switchbox (here labeled SWITCH), and so I repeated the procedure there. And in the end, I had reduced thirteen spaghetti-strands to two thick cable-sausages. While it still looks a bit of a terror back there — those sausages still resting in a bed of pasta, and all — I must once again assure you that the situation has proven so much easier to work with than before, enough so that I found myself quite able to wreck the whole new setup by adding a bunch more devices, threading their own cables into the newly opened lacunae. But at least I could!

Time to buy a few more squares.

Cover art of The Library at Mount Char

I began to think of this novel as Neil Gaiman’s Shitty Endless shortly after beginning to read it. It bore the tag proudly right through to the end. I rather liked it.

In the template epitomized by The Sandman but also seen in countless other fantasy sagas — my own first exposure being Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality, cheesy but thrilling to early-teen me — Hawkins’ novel presents us with a family whose members each represent, supernaturally, some universal concept or archetype. But where Gaiman’s pantheon stands for various aspects of the human condition, the Mount Char clan serve a monstrous higher power, existing on a plane above human concerns. While they walk among mortals, they live and fight unbound by human morality, with neither cognizance nor caring of how the human world works.

This makes for an entertainingly bananas introduction, and then the author rather completes the parody of The Sandman’s subtle and years-long tragic arc by irrevocably smashing its whole universe against the cliffs within a couple hundred pages — and then, somehow, piling the shattered mess into a pleasingly graceful ending.

One pseudo-parallel with Gaiman’s work stands out in particular, for me. A key plot point of The Sandman concerns Destruction, one of the “Endless” entities who, alongside Death, Dream, and others, embodies a core human experience. He spends most of the series mysteriously absent, his cosmic siblings having no clue where or why. They do find him, of course, making for an unexpectedly quiet and contemplative resolution to his thread before the whole series begins to wrap up.

Destruction’s analog in Mount Char is David, the “Pelapi” (a sort of omnipotent witch-librarian) of war and murder, in so many words. Where Destruction is a deeply introspective warrior gone AWOL, David is a batshit-bananas thrill-kill supersoldier who serves as the story’s most active antagonist, taking cues in both behavior and blood-drenched fashion sense from Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit comics. He ends up shaping the path of the novel to a degree that I, with my prejudices, found a bit disorienting at first.

Once I surrendered to the fact that I was not, in fact, reading The Sandman, I found myself enjoying the ride, feeling free to let subtlety take a spear right in the eye socket. I suppose this book caught me in the mood to read something maximally violent and absurd, right now.

Context: I bought this book after one of my favorite SF authors recommended it, via Twitter, during a Kindle sale.

The five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm. Photo grabbed from the project's official website.

I just wrote an email to the mayor of Newport. Perhaps I should follow it with a phone call — I’ve proven to myself I can call my representatives in Washington — but email seems like an acceptable starting place, at this level of government.

The text of my letter:

Mayor Winthrop,

Good afternoon. I am a full-time Newport resident, working as a freelance software consultant, and married to a librarian at the naval base.

I would like to ask that your office issue a statement formally asserting the city’s commitment to upholding the tenets of the Paris climate accord.

I see on the city’s website that flood protection is a permanent and prominent concern for Newport, so if nothing else I would expect that the city’s geological reality encourage this stance, regardless of any recent federal political actions.

I feel fortunate to live in Rhode Island, which through projects like the Block Island Wind Farm sets a renewable-energy standard for the rest of the country to follow. It would do me proud to know that this attitude is espoused by my city as well as by my state.

If there is anything I can do to assist the city in this pursuit, please let me know. My phone number is 617-792-3829. Thank you.

I knew nothing about my city’s mayor before today, neither his name nor his famously prominent facial feature. As I write this, I don’t know his political affiliation, and I rather don’t care. Like countless Americans right now — and as with the events of last autumn — I find myself driven to increase my direct involvement in politics by another degree, and that’s why I have learned about Mayor Winthrop’s moustache.

I take as inspiration the spontaneous, still unnamed coalition of American states, cities, and businesses who, starting yesterday, saw the federal government’s decision regarding the Paris accords as damage, and began immediately to route around it. They seek to open dialogue, to the UN and to the world in general, that empowered American states and institutions will step up where America’s nominal leadership cannot. They declare that they shall do everything they can to maintain this country’s course into a sustainable future, and to hell with the wishes of a White House not interested in looking past the next election. (Or, indeed, past the previous one.)

I’ve shared thoughts along these lines on Twitter, and several friends and strangers proved quick to question my assertion that I see something brand-new here. How is this different, they ask, from the way the deepest parts of “red states” resisted certain federal directives during the Obama administration? But I maintain that something about today feels very different from that; this doesn’t seem a mere antipode of some rural town clerk refusing a same-sex marriage license, or whatnot.

Maybe the difference is one of addition versus subtraction. Deeply conservative communities rankle under new laws demanding that they recognize and apply alien social norms, ones that often feel pushed onto them from far-away outsiders, way out in Washington. They want to reject all that stuff as foreign intrusion, and so they claim their right to live as they please, however much it isolates them from the changing world outside.

Whereas the pushback against the Paris pullout feels opposite in every way: an effort to maintain global outreach and partnership, despite the federal government’s work to diminish it. American states and institutions, long accepting the Paris agreement as a key part of any state’s long-term social and financial security plans, have been told at the highest levels that it no longer applies, that they have lost claim to membership of any group outside the national border. And so the body of the Union rejects its objectively incorrect head, and says: Yes, we still belong, we accept reality just like you do, and we will still work with you towards a better future.

And I want to add my voice, and my city’s voice, to that.

Cover of David Ferry's Gilgamesh Found this one on a remaindered-books table beneath The Strand during my most recent Manhattan trip. I’d never read the Epic of Gilgamesh in any format other than Wikipedia summaries before, so it seemed an apt purchase for the train ride home. Ferry’s work reads as smoothly as its cover-copy promises. Through it I found the epic to resemble, more than anything else, a thoroughly relatable black comedy focusing on ol’ Gil’s larger-than-life cluelessness: Derek Zoolander as demigod, too thrillingly stupid to know the futility of seeking immortality.

I’m not sure where Ferry’s work, published in the early 1990s, stands among contemporary Gilgamesh translations as far as reputations go. Both its preface and the author’s own endnotes go out of their way to note that this iambic-pentameter rendering of the ancient epic takes many liberties with the surviving tablets and fragments, basing itself on translations and inventing likely content of the sources’ lacunae. Indeed, now that I look again, the cover states “A new rendering in English verse”, avoiding the word “translation” entirely.

In this volume, as in every telling of the tale, the gods create for Gilgamesh his wild-man life-partner Enkidu, so that he’ll stop mistreating his own citizens due to his boundless boredom. And inevitably, instead of staying put to manage his city, Gil and his new buddy immediately run off whooping to carve a gory path through the gods’ own menagerie of boss-fight monsters, hungry for immortality on the cosmic leaderboard, heedless of responsibility or retribution.

When the gods respond to their violent idiocy by ban-hammering Enkidu, Gilgamesh, mournful and trembling, decides that immortal fame does not suffice: he wants to shed his mortality entirely. And so he tromps off to go find Noah, the Ark-builder, because he thinks he maybe heard somewhere that he and his lady figured out how to not die. (He is here named Utnapishtim, but clearly borne from the same source-legends as the biblical Noah.) And Gilgamesh succeeds in finding Noah, who tries to talk sense into him (and, by some scholarly accounts, inspires the Book of Ecclesiastes in the process), but this makes mighty Gilgamesh’s eyes glaze over. Noah and his wife then try to trick Gil into leaving, but he’s so thick-headed this doesn’t work either.

Finally at wits end, Noah says: “Look… there’s, uh, a magic youth-restoring plant out yonder. Way far away from my house. Go find that and bring it back to your city. No, no need to bring it by here first.” And Gilgamesh says: “Well why didn’t you say so! Thanks, gramps!” And then he finds the plant, and then a snake eats it.

So he goes back to his city empty-handed, and in a striking moment of grace pauses to quietly contemplate the walls of Uruk, describing them using the very same language that the epic’s narrator uses to set the scene for the listener way back at the start of the first tablet — back when Gilgamesh, bored and lonely, was ignoring his kingship and raising hell. Perhaps this means that Gil finally worked his ya-yas out and is ready to sit still and actually run the city that he seems to see for the first time? I get the impression from subsequent reading that Ferry did not wholly invent this lovely and unexpected cyclical callback, and that the original Sumerian tablets hold it as well.

I think I vaguely knew that the Epic of Gilgamesh held its own telling of the Great Flood legend, but I had no idea that it fanfictioned right into it by supposing a meeting between monster-slayer Gilgamesh and ark-builder Noah, and I found this surprising and delightful and — in this particular rendering — hilarious. I feel very curious to see how it all comes across in a more direct translation.

The rabbits of "Watership Down".


I recently watched Watership Down, the 1978 British animated feature following a warren of rabbits as they seek a new home, having fled disaster. I had seen it before, sometime in the early 1980s, in a format that I imagine modern children have no touchstone for: it just appeared on television one night, with no warning or fanfare.

Watching the film today, I impressed myself with how clearly and exactly I had recalled so many of its words and images. What really drove me to see it again, though, were freshly unearthed memories — bubbled up due to some passing stimulus — of the bus-ride to school the following morning, where the broadcast was all anyone could talk about. What had we seen? A completely unanticipated treasure dropped on us, utterly unlike any of the Hanna Barbera junk-food American cartoons we all ate daily. (And understand that, this being the past, a handful of TV stations represented the entirety of at-home video entertainment options for myself and my peers. We all saw this, together.)

I have no idea how wide that long-ago broadcast was — a national-network special, or just a local UHF station’s filler-content for the evening? Either way, I wonder how many professional animators or film producers sharing my age and city of upbringing began their careers that very night, electricity arcing from this unlikely story of animal life and death and failure and triumph and searing their spirit with a lifelong calling.

Today the film seems to retain equal reputation as a classic and an aberrance. In a funny coincidence, after mentioning my seeing the film to a British friend, they linked me to one of several local-to-them news articles about a recent airing of the film on UK television, and the outrage it engendered. The writers of these articles tend to cast the cartoon as nothing more than a source of cruel nightmares, focusing on the film’s shockingly frank scenes of red-in-tooth-and-claw violence and death. Of course I myself recalled well that aspect of the work, and how I felt quite disturbed by the film’s more subtle horrors — particularly the acid-nightmare imagery of Fiver, the scrawny and traumatized seer-rabbit, whose liquid, swirling visions of blood and terror set the warren on their flight.

But even more than all that, I remember the film as seeming very grown up, and not because of the rip-tear gore but because of its utter lack of condescension towards its audience. The intrinsic cuddly qualities of the small furry protagonists invite children to approach and watch, but the story sees them acting like adults. They clearly have goals and plans and live in a complex society, and at no point do they stop to explain any of it to the kids at home. It felt, in other words, like the real world did from a child’s perspective, but an entirely different world, and even better: a world within the real one, hidden, where the animals can talk, letting us listen in to their own animal-world ambitions and grave perils. I know that I found this absolutely riveting, at age eight, even if I couldn’t put into words why.

An example: there is a scene where the rabbits’ leader becomes caught in a snare, his confused struggles only drawing the cord tighter. Believing him near death and unable to save him, the others gather around in helpless shock. One of the rabbits breaks the silence, muttering something in a poetic meter, and after a beat his comrades solemnly join him in recitation. Today of course I immediately recognized it as a deathbed prayer to their rabbit-gods, and one that of course they’d all know by heart just from the rote practice that frequent death within their community would bring. I don’t think I processed all that as a child, because this was not among the details I had remembered. But I know that I saw it, and that it contributed to the literally other-worldy wonder I saw that night in front of the TV.

Among the scenes I did remember, almost word for word: the rabbits come across a paved road, an anonymous squashed critter by its curb, and have no idea what any of it means. One of the older refugees hops forward, recognizing the tableau for what it is, and tells the rabbits that they can cross safely with a modicum of cautious attention, for “the Hrududu runs along it”. Thus occurred my first unchaperoned exposure to invented language, even if only a trivial vocabulary, and without the thousand excited explainers that surround any utterance in Elvish or Dothraki that one encounters in today’s thrice-meta media environment. What delightful perspective that one scene zapped me with, all by itself, letting me feel so bright and involved for realizing all its implications on my own!

And the whole movie holds treasures like this, for a kid. In researching this blog post, I learn that a new adaptation appears imminent, and I’ve no feelings on that. I was glad to find the version I remembered very easily in my local pubic library — and held in the children’s section. On review, I feel safe calling this film a timeless achievement, and I hope that eight-year-olds will continue to stumble across it, utterly unprepared, for a long time to come.