Sugar, Sweat and The Vanishing T-Zone

Our experiments in snake-oil continue apace. The Boy slipped a bit in his adherence to the program, so we’ve kind of been hanging fire for a couple of weeks. Even so, he’s using half the per-meal insulin he was a couple of months ago, and starting to lower his daily insulin.

The interesting thing to me is how exact the predictions have been. Just as predicted, his blood sugar dropped low, and he had to lower his insulin. Then it came back up, so he had to raise it again. Just as predicted, he started spilling sugar in his urine; when it stopped we were to lower his insulin till it started again. And the cycle of stopping and starting was supposed to speed up, which it has done.

He’s still not quite in the zone where things are really kicking in, which is a sort of frightening thought. Although diabetics are controlling for high blood sugar, the short-term danger is from low blood sugar, which can happen if his pancreas suddenly starts creating insulin while he’s injecting insulin. (We’ve had a few rather low readings since starting this, but mostly The Boy has been very aware, very cautious and very diligent.)

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few interesting phenomena arise. My weight’s held steady after dropping those 20 pounds (and the doctor looks concerned about me dropping more) though even though my weight hasn’t changed in a month, people seem to be noticing more. So, I think something is happening. (I haven’t gotten to my mom’s gym for a fat test yet.)

On anther front, my “T-Zone” vanished, sort of. This is kind of amusing, because I can’t seem to find anyone who remembers the “T-Zone” commercials. If you have oily skin (which I always have) but you have dry skin over your eyes, and down your nose, you have a “T-Zone”. I forget what they were advertising, exactly, but it was probably some sort of moisturizer. (No, I didn’t do anything about it. Why would a guy care if he had a “T-Zone”?)

Well, mine started getting extreme (as had happened occasionally before) with all kinds of dry, flaky skin, and then, over the course of a week, it started shrinking, until it was sort of an “i-Zone”. Now it’s just sort of the dot (the tittle, technically speaking) over the lower-case i.

The doc says, “Oh, that’s just vitamin A deficiency.”

Also, I’m sweating. I’ve never been a sweater. Em. I’ve never been one who sweats. I mean, sure, when working out in 100 degree heat in our tiny dojo back before it got A/C, I did some sweating. But not as much as other people by a long shot.

The theory being batted around at the time had to do with playing a lot of sports as a kid and developing your sweat glands at a young age. It’s not a crazy thought, really: The body does a lot of things in reaction to activity. (You’re not born with hip sockets, for example. They’re created by the action of crawling.)

The theory might even be true. But my doctor offered another theory, since she has lots of guys who are suddenly sweating a lot: The body doesn’t sweat because it’s dehydrated.

Well, duh.

That’s one of those things that’s so obvious when you think about it, you feel stupid for never having thought of it yourself.

Weirdly, I’ve written a fair amount of (unpublished) fiction. At one point, when I took stock of what I had written, I became aware of how much I wrote focused on water. People being thirsty or dehydrated. (I even thought at one point of collecting all my water-themed stories together to make a movie.)

Wild, huh?

Even more interesting, according to this program, once you’re up to snuff, your body actually makes most of what you need. You only take a couple of calciums (which are not in our foods, unfortunately).

“Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…”

I stumbled across this post from Althouse–the premise of which I agree with–but which contained the above quote: “Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…” My response was:

What? No! The Golden Era of Science-Fiction was steeped in optimism. It was gritty sometimes, and foresaw many unpleasant ends, but the underlying principle was a faith in technology to help man conquer time, death, etc. You could debate the roots of SF, that Verne and Wells and Gernsback were more agnostic but that’s more complicated. They’re certainly not dystopic in the modern sense.

Movie sci-fi was much the same way until post-”2001: A Space Odyssey” (which itself is far from dystopic). Yes, there were alien menaces, but they were conquered by heroic man and his gigantic human brain. Dystopia became fashionable in the ’70s and “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max”/”Road Warrior” had the advantage of being stylish and cheap to evoke, especially the latter.

The change in attitude was so drastic, that by the ‘80s series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, an exasperated Gene Roddenberry had to write–well, let me quote Ed Driscoll:

Almost 20 years ago, I remember buying an early version of the guide handed out to writers on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s. In order to prevent another round of episodes where Evil Computers Run Amok and the heroic captain of the Enterprise must destroy them, Roddenberry inserted a passage that reminded his writers that the crew of the Enterprise aren’t Luddites: technology is what got them into space and keeps them there, so avoid writing anti-technology screeds.

Ed has his ideas about what caused this, but it’s interesting to note that the series didn’t stop with the anti-technology and humans-are-evil memes to its ending day. I seem to recall one of the last episodes being about how warp-drive technology caused damage to the physical universe.

Conceptually, this is as amusing as global warming, raised to an infinite power. (Space, it seems, is really, really big. Damaging it would seem to be problematic.)

A late Ray Bradbury story, “The Toynbee Convector” is actually a perfect analog to what science-fiction (at least during the Golden Age) was meant to do. Basically, John Campbell and a bunch of writers felt that the only thing they could do to keep Man from destroying himself was turn his attention outward, to the conquest of the nature and the universe.

Some dystopia is, of course, quite good. The classics (Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) are good reading, for example, based on some fairly sound observations. E.g., what we now call “Political Correctness” was identified by Bradbury decades ago, though he mistook the form it would take. (He also describes iPods and cell phones pretty well, though they seem so much more sinister when he did it!) 1984 stabs at a similar totalitarian control, from the angle of a Soviet-style state. And Brave New World is not entirely unimaginable, though horribly, I could see it evolving at a social level. (Not just people all wanting to have super-babies, but people wanting their children to be just like them–including having all their limitations.)

But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m particularly hard on dystopic visions, particularly post-Apocalyptic ones. I found Haldeman’s recent book to be interesting, for example, but he leveraged some heavy-ass technology to explain his world. A good dystopia has you wondering about human nature. A bad one has giggling or thinking maybe the author has an axe to grind, like Handmaid’s Tale. A good one extrapolates reasonably from observable human characteristics (the desire to no be offended nor to give offense, as in Fahrenheit 451, a bad one works backward from some creepy setting and makes a statement about Man’s general bad-ness, as in Children of Men, where the end portrayed doesn’t follow logically from the bad circumstance.)

But I digress. One of the reasons dystopia is so common is that it’s easy. It’s the science fiction equivalent of “clap humor”. Make a dystopic future where religious fanatics have taken over, or men are oppressing women, and you’ll get readers believing you’re soooo profound and have such a good grasp of things.

In any event, the perversion of science-fiction into a shopping list of all the ways we might fail is just that: a perversion.

Cleansing the Palate: The Accidental Time Machine

I’m up finishing Joe Haldeman’s novel The Accidental Time Machine. It makes a perfect palate cleanser after Wicked.

You might ask why-oh-why would I bother finishing Wicked after starting it last year and knowing pretty much instantly that I wasn’t going to like it. I’d probably have to argue OCD or something in defense. Wicked almost had me convinced my reading speed was slowing. I did manage to Machine in three days–two of those very busy workdays.

This is a good book. I actually haven’t read much science-fiction of the past 40 years, preferring “the Golden Age” between 1935-1955. (A prejudice perhaps picked up from my father.) It’s nice to read a story that avoids a lot of the common pitfalls: there’s no apparent agenda to the book; it touches on a lot of interesting and important human issues without wallowing in a quasi-philosophical/emotional mire; it has an interesting premise based around an easily grasped (reasonably plausible) scientific premise; and it uses that to build suspense from the opening pages.

Rather embarrassingly, I think the only other work of Haldeman’s I can actually summon to mind is the ‘90s schlock-fest Robot Jox. Not a high point for the highly talented Stuard Gordon, either. I’m sure I haven’t read his Forever War, but it’s on my list to read now.

Wicked!? Eh, not so much.

So I sat down last year with Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. I managed to force my way through to the end this week.

I picked it up out of interest because we had just read the first six Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and it seemed like there could be an interesting, modern treatment of the incredibly inconsistent world LFB dreamed up as a vehicle for nightmarish puns. (Seriously. Puns abound in the books.)

I suppose I was thinking of, for example, American McGee’s Alice, the third-person platformer that takes place in a darker imagining of Wonderland than Lewis Carrol’s. I’m not good at those sorts of games, so I didn’t play much past the first level, but I did like the visuals. And for Wonderland, all you need to do is take things slightly more literally, and it becomes very dark indeed without much alteration. (The Cheshire Cat’s “We’re all mad here” isn’t much off from Norman Bates’ “We all go a little mad sometimes”.)

But Baum’s Oz was not at all dark. I think by the end of his series, no one ever died in Oz, or even grew older, and there were peaceful, happy (or at least minimally violent, with combat involving rotten eggs) solutions to everything.

Now, Baum was a vigorous retconner who had turned the Wizard from a benign humbug in the first book, to a tyrant who had sent away the rightful ruler of Oz in the second and possibly third book, to a benevolent trickster later on, as the fans clamored for more Wizard. So, there’s a lot of slack.

I knew within the opening chapters of Maguire’s book that I wasn’t going to like it. But this is fairly construed as a matter of taste. I’m sure, for example, I would find his use of the 3rd Person Omniscient and the occasionally extremely casual prose delightful if I were enjoying the book otherwise. Instead I found them jarring, and kept going back to re-read those sections to make sure I had correctly understood them.

So, you know, take wht I say with a BIG grain of salt.

I was a bit put off with the book in the initial chapters, when we’re introduced to Elphaba’s mother. (Elphaba, from ElFrank-Baum, apparently, is the name given to the witch, who had no name in LFB’s books, or barely a mention after the first one.) She’s a woman of casual attendance to her marriage vows.

Great. Let’s start our “re-imagining” with sexual indiscretions. Adultery plays a huge part in the book, which doesn’t normally bother me, but rubbed me the wrong way here. It’s a cheap gateway to making a book “adult”, I guess.

I would say it wasn’t necessary for advancing the story but I’m not sure I got the story at all. I guess it’s supposed to be about the nature of good versus evil, but the Wizard is never portrayed as anything but evil (Hitler/Stalin-esque, really), and the Witch could mostly be described as unpleasant, even as she’s willing to kinda-sorta stand up to the Wizard.

It’s sort of like the Gnostic interpretation of the Old Testament as being written by the Devil. It almost works, what with the God of the OT being so vengeful and wrathful–but then there are all those commandments about not killing, stealing and lying, which make it hard to really follow through on the whole idea.

There’s virtually no morality and very little good to be found in the book, which sort of leaves us with a joyless story about an evil world where evil ultimately triumphs. (Though presumably the Wizard’s exit at the end is a win, but Elphaba cannot even be said to have knowing facilitated that.)

In this interpretation, Dorothy is basically the Wizard’s stooge in helping him kill Elphaba, however accidentally it happens. The magic that powers a lot of the books is dubious here. There’s magic, but it’s not good for much. The ruby/silver slippers (ruby in the movie, silver in the books, cleverly skirted here) may or may not be actual magic, but act as a symbol.

Lotta symbols in this book. It’s basically about appearances.

But here’s the thing: LFB books make me smile. For all their (numerous) flaws, they’re fun. This largish tome gave me little to smile about. There were a few references to the books that did. And in the final 100 pages of the book, when it finally crosses with the first Wizard of Oz book, it picks up a bit.

Even toward the end, I was holding out for some great closure that never came. If it was supposed to show how symbolic perceptions can be misinterpreted or spun into evil, I wasn’t convinced that there was any real mastery of the subject. Indeed, the disjointed nature of the narrative (split into Elphaba’s childhood, college years, post college years, early witchdom and demise) never coalesced for me into a moment where I could say, “Yes, I see. She was good, but portrayed as evil because of a few understandable events.” Nobody in the story seems to take her seriously as evil, either, but perhaps we’re just supposed to infer how the masses would view her as evil, as they did her (far more evil in practice) sister.

If this is really spun in the musical as a you-go-girl-teen-spirit, I would consider it damned ironic.

But, as noted, this is just not my kind of book. It’s mostly thinkin’ and yakkin’ and little action, and frankly, I can get that from blogs. A book that gets this sort of thing right, in my opinion, is The Mists of Avalon. There, you’re given a convincing demonization of a character for understandable reasons, and with the story itself staying mostly true to the source.

It probably would have been more interesting to me to have Elphaba be a powerful rival to the Wizard divided by political beliefs, rather than the sort-of underdog/loser she was. (I mean, really: There is an implication that she could be powerful but she doesn’t even know it, though the Wizard does and fears her. She’s basically a bystander to the events of her life.)

Up next is Joe Haldeman’s latest The Accidental Time Machine, which I already like better.

De gustibus, you know.

Waukegan

Our 1000th visitor was from Waukegan.

I can’t imagine going to Waukegan. I’m a Ray Bradbury fan–it was The Martian Chronicles that inspired me to become a writer–and no city could live up to his nostalgic depictions of Waukegan.

Of course, he’s been living in L.A. more or less since he was 13. You didn’t think the significance of rain in Something Wicked This Way Comes was a coincidence, did you?

Brokeback Mountain vs. Wuthering Heights

Deep in the comment section about Heath Ledger’s death over at Althouse, the discussion has turned into a debate comparing Brokeback Mountain to Wuthering Heights. The “Brokeback” fans are claiming that it’s exceptional in the way that it shows Ledger’s character’s complete confusion about his attraction to Gyllenhall’s character. Althouse parried with the point that Cathy’s attraction to Heathcliff (Merle Oberon and Lawrence Olivier) is as completely alien, that Heathcliff is like a different species to her.

Now, you could argue that her idea of Heathcliff is just fanciful, and that Wuthering Heights is just another cheating spouse story. But then, the same logic can apply to Brokeback Mountain.

When we relate to stories strongly, we want to feel like they’re exceptional, and we rarely want to step back and realize that we relate to triteness. (That’s how things become trite in the first place.)

I haven’t been in the mood for Ang Lee–well, since The Hulk–and Brokeback struck me as pretty trite. As Ace pointed out, if the same dialog came from a traditional cheating-on-spouse movie, it would be roundly mocked. And the concept really didn’t seem that shocking (or interesting) when Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin did it in 1982.

I should point out that I didn’t (and don’t) get Wuthering Heights, either. I haven’t read it since I was a kid but my fallback for a lot of the romantic angst stuff is that scene in Moonstruck when Nic Cage tells Cher he loves her, so she slaps him and yells “Snap out of it!”

Of Indian Burial Grounds and Killer Satellites

Ace makes this point in his review of Cloverfield:

Any explanation they could have provided would have been trite or stupid or both anyway, so what’s the point?

Bingo.

You’d think Stephen King could figure this out after 35–no 45!–years.

The Overlook Hotel in The Shining? Indian burial ground. Pet Sematary? Indian burial ground. Tommyknockers? Haven’t read it or seen the movie (did they make a movie out of it yet?) but I’m told it’s that old Indian black magic yet again.

The ancient indian burial ground was such a cliché back in 1979 when Kubrick’s movie version of The Shining came out, that grade schoolers were mocking it. King keeps trucking along, though, happily trotting that out as the “explanation” for whatever horror is being visited on his poor characters.

Speaking of trucking along: Maximum Overdrive? Army experiment gone wrong. The Mist? Army Experiment Gone Wrong. There are probably more but I haven’t read much King since the early ‘80s.

And, of course, “the government” is the villain of other King novels, whether it be the army or a CIA type group or what-have-you. Who could forget Firestarter’s evil “The Company”…or “The Business”…or maybe it was…“The Co-Op”…“The Shop”! That’s what it was! (“The Shop” had a super-secret hideout with horse stables! That’s right: The guys cleaning out the stalls had to be thoroughly vetted for mucking! But I digress.)

Explanations aren’t always bad. In horror fiction, they can create atmosphere. Lovecraft formed a very suggestive background out of the snippets he put into his Cthulhu story. For horror movies (which are really quite separate from horror fiction in tradition and style) the explanation can serve as a plot hook.

In Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy’s roots as a pedophile provide a satisfying base for the attacks, and a hook for the heroine to ultimately escape him. (Said hook thoroughly trashed by the tacked-on ending designed to facilitate sequels. But that’s another subject for another day.)

The horror movie Unearthed tries for meaningful explanation, both to sort-of explain the why and provide a hook for the heroine to kill the monster. It’s not well handled but it’s not tacked on.

There’s a reference to satellite-caused radiation in Night of the Living Dead but it’s never verified and comes as part of what would be inevitable discussion about causes on TV or radio. By contrast, Maximum Overdrive, which used the exact same explanation (killer satellites), does so as a groan-inducing tacked on post-script to an already groan-worthy film.

Someone (presumably King) had to sit down and say that, “Yes, this post-script makes the movie better. This will make sense of the previous 90 minutes of abuse we’ve inflicted on the audience.” The audience will say “Oh! That wasn’t as bad as we thought while we were watching it!”

The rule should be very simple to follow: If the explanation wouldn’t matter to your characters in the course of the story, it won’t matter to the audience either. Just skip it.

Stay In The Phone Booth With The Gorilla

In Robert Newton Peck’s useful and straightforward Secrets of Successful Fiction, one of the chapters is called (something like) “Stay In The Phone Booth With The Gorilla”.

“Bob was making a phone call when suddenly a giant 400 lb. gorilla barged his way in, fangs bared, hot breath on Bob’s face….

It reminded Bob of his times at the sea, when his mother would put zinc oxide on his nose and the hot breeze would blow his hair…

Which of course had been badly butchered by crazy aunt Amelia, who had flunked out of Beauty School and gone completely mad…

Madness ran in the family, and–”

To belabor the obvious: You’ve put the reader in the phone booth with the gorilla, have the decency to tell him what happens.

In modern cinema, the violation of this rule seems to come in two forms. One is the Peter Jackson violation, where it takes an hour to get to the freakin’ gorilla in the first place, when your movie is supposed to be about a freakin’ gorilla.

However, the more common form these days is the time shift. Remember Memento? That clever and suspenseful story that’s told entirely backward? That was great, wasn’t it?

Once. And it’s already been made.

If you can get motion sickness from time shifting, that might partly explain my nausea over La Vie En Rose, where at some point they seem to completely abandon linear time and the constraints it tries to place on them.

In Atonement, we get this bouncing about in time which has one legitimate use: To show the same scene from two different angles. (Rashomon it ain’t, but this is legitimate. We need to see how the 13-year-old sees it versus how it actually was.) After that, let the story play out in sequence. Don’t show us a scene, then flip back six months earlier, than go forward three weeks, then branch off into an alternate reality.

Just don’t. OK, you can do a flashback at the end to clarify.

You can, Saving Private Ryan style, bookend your movie so that the whole thing is a flashback, though a lot of people felt that was hack sentimentalism. You can, to a limited degree, do an Awake style flashback, where you’ve presented the seeming end of the story at the beginning to get a twist at the end–but that’s really hack, and you better not be relying on that to carry your film. (Remember The Sixth Sense? Good movie, eh? Even Shyamalan can’t pull another rabbit like that out of his hat.)

Time shifting is generally another way to not stay in the phone booth with the gorilla, or a confession that your story, told in linear fashion, just isn’t very interesting. The audience will not be fooled. It may be confused however.