Coming home

Sharing one of my exceedingly rare cigarettes with a friend at this weekend’s SCMS conference in Boston, I joked about writing an avant-garde academic text in the form of a giant palindrome: it would be a perfectly cogent argument up to the halfway point, then reverse itself and proceed backwards, until, on the last page, it ended on the same word with which it had started.

Now that my wife, son, and I are back in our house, I see that the act of travel, of being away and coming back, is a lot like that giant palindrome. All of the preparations we so carefully make before depature — packing the suitcase, loading the dishwasher, turning off the lights — reverse themselves on our arrival home, and the first small acts with which I began (always, for some reason, the zipping-up of toothbrush and razor in my toiletries bag) are the last to be performed at the other end of the experience, shuffling disordered cards back into the familiar and dog-eared deck of our everyday life. For me, there is nothing quite like the pleasure and relief of settling back in at home.

All of this has an added resonance and poignancy, because today marks one year since another act of coming home. On March 25, 2011, my wife and I lost a pregnancy at 23 weeks, after medical scans that showed profound defects in the fetus and left us with little hope for a healthy birth or normal life for the child if it survived. “Fetus,” “child,” “it”; all inadequate but protectively distancing approximations for the boy we named Arlo, delivered as the sun rose outside the windows of our room at the hospital. That room continued to brighten and warm thoughout the morning as we sat with our son, saying hello and goodbye to this tiny pound-and-a-quarter person whose motionless face, after all our weeks of fear and dread, turned out to be not so scary after all: a gentle little visage, like a thoughtful gnome’s, with eyes that never opened.

There was a certain undeniable grace to that morning, a gift of release, but by nightfall much of the spell had worn off, and by the time we got home, the first real waves of pain had started to throb through the cushion of our shock. K’s mother was here to take care of us, and our dog (now deceased) here to need us in turn, and there was mail on the kitchen table waiting to be sorted, shows on the DVR to watch.

I don’t really remember how we got through the next several weeks (though I did have a moment of startled realization not too many mornings later, sitting at the kitchen table with my wife and mother in law, that the world had not in fact ended). We did the things we normally do: cooked meals, went for walks, paid bills. Early in April some robins built a nest outside our kitchen window and filled it with perfect blue eggs from which emerged a gaggle of adorably wrinkled and disgusting beasts that soon enough turned cute, sprouted feathers, opened their eyes, and flew away. In June we submitted our adoption profile. Six weeks later, we received a call from our agency. Two days after that, we found ourselves in another hospital room, meeting the newborn baby who would become our son.

We got home after that experience, too, and I guess the lesson here is that if luck is with you, you get to come home, put the pieces of your life back together, and move on. Sometimes leaving the safety zone is voluntary and sometimes it’s forced upon you, but either way it’s usually something you have to do in order to keep on growing.

Now that spring is here, robins are starting to show up in the trees and on our lawn. Irrational as it is, I hold out hope that one or more of them are the babies we watched through our kitchen window, grown up now and coming home themselves. The nest is still there, waiting for them to settle in and unpack their suitcases.

Hungry for recognition

As usual, I can’t say to what degree the fast-moving currents of vituperation and one-up-manship on the /tv/ board of 4chan summarize the opinions shared by wider communities of fantastic-media fandom. The most one can safely conclude is that this anonymous posting culture, which despite its lack of identifiers screams straight-white-maleness, at least speaks from the heart; and amid the jeering homophobia, misogyny, racism, and antisemitism that function as a kind of chainmail for the ego, the collective seems to feel genuinely offended by the huge box office of The Hunger Games‘ opening weekend.

The gist of the complaints is that the new movie franchise and the books on which it is based borrow freely but without acknowledgement from other cherished fan texts such as Battle Royale and some of Stephen King’s early novels. I ran down this exact list in my post from last week on the icky and ironic parallels between the media makeover the main character, Katniss, receives in the story and the real-life glamorizing of the movie’s star, Jennifer Lawrence — but seeing the same litany of influences played out on 4chan in a more accusatory tone reveals a striking woundedness on the part of fans (and I think I’m talking primarily about fanboys) who feel betrayed by the explosive popularity of a story they believe they have encountered many times before. Particular ire is directed toward the trilogy’s author, Suzanne Collins, who is seen as not simply derivative but dishonest in sourcing her creation to recent developments in U.S. military adventurism and reality-television programming, rather than to Japanese pop culture and pulp dystopian fantasy of the late 1970s.

I suspect that the emotional stakes here are those of ownership as a byproduct of fannish familiarity and knowledge; /tv/’s readership feels sidelined by the mainstream success of material in which they were formerly the sole experts. It’s an interesting exercise in cult guardianship and the ethics of a citational economy in which Collins’s apparent refusal to give credit where credit is due flies in the face of fan practices predicated on the competitive display of intertextual knowledge. It’s another kind of hunger game, this appetite for the mantle of mastery, fought in the vertical arena of replies to replies on a website. Collins’s fiction and its cinematic adaptation commit the unpardonable crime of neglecting that arena outright, making up their own rules, and thinking outside the box, just as Katniss does to win her victory — and 4chan’s media fans find themselves in the angry position of Panem’s repressive government, fighting an insurrection that threatens to undo the grounds of its authority.

Conferencing

Big academic conferences have a strange energy — which is to say, they have an energy that is palpable and powerful but exceeds my ability to understand or, more importantly, locate myself within it. It is, in part, a concentration of brain power, the collected expertise of a scholarly discipline (in this case, cinema and media studies) brought together for five days and four nights in a Boston hotel. I experience this first aspect as a kind of floating cerebral x-ray of whatever room I’m in, the heads around me overlaid with imagined networks of knowledge like 3D pop-up maps of signal strength in competing cell-phone ads.

But there is another, related dimension, and that is the sheer social density of such gatherings. The skills we develop as students and scholars are honed for the most part in isolation: regardless of the population of the campuses where we work, the bulk of our scholarly labor transpires in the relative silence of the office, the quiet arena of the desktop, the soft skritch of pencil against paper or gentle clicking of computer keyboards still a million times louder than the galaxies of thought whirling through our minds. (Libraries are a good metaphors for what I’m talking about here: quiet spaces jammed with unvocalized cacophanies of text, physical volumes side by side but never communicating with each other save for their entangled intimacies of footnotes and citations.)

Bring us all together for a conference and instantly the silence of our long internal apprenticeships, our walkabouts of research, converts to a thousand overlapping conversations, like a thunderstorm pouring from supersaturated clouds. We’re hungry for company, most of us, and the sudden toggle from solitary to social can be daunting.

When we arrived, the hotel’s computers were down, and the lobby was jammed with people waiting to check in, dragging their suitcases like travelers waiting to board an airplane. A set of clocks over the reception desk read out times from across the world — San Francisco, London, Tokyo — in cruel chronological contrast to the state of stasis that gripped us. Amid the digital work stoppage, I met a colleague’s ten-year-old son, who proudly showed me a bow and arrow he had fashioned from a twig and a taut willow branch found outside in the city’s public gardens. Plucking the bowstring like a musical instrument, he modestly estimated the range of his makeshift weapon (“about six feet”), but all I could do was marvel at his ingenuity in putting wood to work while electronic technologies ground to a halt, stranding all of us brainy adults in long and weary lines. Maybe the whole conference would run better if we swapped our iPads and phones and laptops for more primitive but reliable hand-fashioned instruments; but then, just as our scholarship can’t proceed in a social vacuum, maybe we need the network.

30 days

Today marks one month of blogging every day. It’s a little hard to believe; since starting this blog in August 2007, I racked up something like 100 posts, and if I was in the mood to do the math, it would probably work out to a depressingly low frequency — a far cry from the promise I made myself when I started (two posts a week, I believe, was the goal). Yet in the last 30 days, I’ve added almost a third of that total again.

It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. My method for achieving it, if this earlier post didn’t make it clear, is to consciously lower the threshold for my own writing, making myself OK with contributing less-than-stellar content every time. It’s been a way of knocking the chip off my own shoulder, an exercise in getting over myself, and in that sense quite healthy — if humbling. (Are the humbling experiences of life always the healthiest? Tricky question, given that my phases of self-aggrandizing overconfidence are premised on, and interleaved with, deep insecurity.)

That it has resulted in the regular production of words and ideas in a more modest vein aligns this exercise with a long history of writing and engaging in different forms of writing practice: I’ve kept a diary since 1984, when I was eighteen, and between 1990 and 1991 I made a point of writing every day for a solid year. On nights when I was too wiped out to open one of the black-and-white composition books in which I preferred to write, I would scribe sentences in the air with my finger. Was that writing? Sure, if what counts is only the commitment to the act, a playing-out of internal monologue. But definitely not, if the measure of writing is to record something outside oneself, externalizing a record that thenceforth coexists with you and even splits away to find a new audience.

What I’m talking about is publication, a concept that’s been much on my mind since becoming an academic, and even before. As a kid, I wrote scripts for short science-fiction movies I planned to shoot in Super 8, synched to the vinyl records I listened to in my bedroom: Stravinsky’s Firebird, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and just about every film score composed by John Williams between 1977 and 1981. (My all-time favorite, though, was James Horner’s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) These screenplays morphed over time into scripts for plays I envisioned staging at my high school or in college, where for the first years of my undergraduate career I pursued a major in theater. Halfway through the eight years it took me to earn my B.A., I became an English major, and from there my writing ambitions recentered around short stories and novels. I would chase that dream throughout the 1990s, until I abruptly came to the end of the dream in 1997. The next year, I started graduate studies at the University of North Carolina.

Long story short, I’ve always been a writer, always wanted to be one, written a lot of words in pursuit of that dream. For the last six years, as an assistant professor at Swarthmore College, writing has become laden with the pressures and expectations of the tenure track, a challenge to which I’ve risen only sporadically, and often resentfully — as though, deep down, I’m still happier to sketch ideas in the air than commit them to paper.

The blog is yet another space, I understand: not quite a diary, not quite scholarship, but something in between. I struggle to locate myself within it, even as I try to find a magical bridge between the words that come so easily (well, fairly easily) to the screen and those I need to convince an academic press to accept. It’s an ongoing adventure as well as something of a slog. I don’t know if success is out there (or readers, for that matter). But for now I will keep posting — every day.

NBC’s pleasant surprise

For fans of NBC sitcoms, the return of Community is surely the week’s big news — but thanks to a packed DVR and a baby pushing the boundaries of his bedtime following a daylight-savings shakeup, I haven’t yet watched it. Instead, another and somewhat lesser show caught me by happy surprise. Whitney, still in its first season, featured an episode in which one of the side characters comes out of the closet. Neal — played by Jack’s former assistant on the increasingly moribund 30 Rock — finds himself confusedly but unerringly attracted to another man, and as the news travels around his circle of friends, I braced for stupidity, or worse, a conservative return to the status quo by story’s end. But none of this happened; Neal was allowed his realization, and his pals, usually a reliable generator of quippy sarcasm, took the announcement in stride. Not the most earth-shaking development, perhaps, but a victory nonetheless: a small bit of sanity and compassion amid an overheated political season and a television programming block otherwise prone to doofusy dismissals of difference and a disdain for the messiness of actual life. Bravo, Whitney, for doing something right.

Face Off’s practical magic[ians]

With the finale of Face Off airing tonight, I wanted to quickly share my fondness for the Syfy series, which pits fledgling special-effects artists against each other in timed challenges to create fantastical make-ups. Now in its second season, the show is notable for the way it eschews (to the point of rarely acknowledging the existence of) digital effects, which within the industry increasingly augment and substitute for old-school prosthetics, blood and wound creation, and creature design. For many who grew up watching SF and fantasy film and television in what we now recognize as the analog era of special effects, there is an irreducible beauty to such practical magic, no matter how realistic or unrealistic such effects might currently appear; indeed, our celebration of the artistry involved arguably cannot flower outside the passage of time — and advances in technology — that render older special effects visible precisely as tricks, in turn demonstrating the bankruptcy and uselessness of standards for screen illusion that hinge solely on those illusions’ undetectability.

The deeper import of Face Off, running beneath its highly entertaining races to design, fabricate, apply, and paint prosthetic appliances, is that such processes preserve an individual, artisanal ethos that is vanishing from the contemporary effects industry; CGI takes more people, and more time, than the rigors of reality-show competitions allow, which is one reason why the digital era of visual effects has yet to produce an auteur on the level of Stan Winston, Dick Smith, or Ray Harryhausen. (Instead, that auteur function has reverted to the director, himself [so far always a “him”] a crossover between artist and technician a la James Cameron.)

The other thing I dig about Face Off is that it is one of the few reality competitions that don’t focus on beautiful people — what Brenda Weber calls the “afterbodies” of makeover TV — or on unbeautiful people as a problem in need of solving, as in The Biggest Loser. Instead, the contestants of Face Off, like the judges, are a wonderful miscellany of folks bearing the styles and decorations of subcultures who rarely receive air time except as oddities. The gender (and, between the lines, queer and transgender) identities are welcomely mixed, though so far pretty uniformly white. It’s an almost accidental showcase of diversity that makes perfect sense given the communities of fandom that populate Face Off: a group whose self-conscious display of difference is, itself, a celebration of the modified and colorful body, encased in its cleverly bizarre social prosthetics.

The new iPad

I’m neither an automatic Apple acolyte nor a naysayer, but the company and its technologies do go deep with me: my first computer, purchased back in 1980, was an Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, and between me and my wife, the household currently holds six or seven Apple devices, including multiple MacBooks and iPods. That I integrate these machines with a powerful PC that is my primary workstation and gaming platform does not dilute the importance of the role Apple has played in my life.

All that said, today’s announcement of the latest iPad strikes me as a letdown, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. A Retina display with four times the resolution of the current device is nothing to sneeze at, and I’m glad to see a better rear-facing camera. But the quantum leap in capability and, more importantly, a certain escalation of the brand are missing. I am the happy owner of an iPad 2, brought a year ago during a difficult time for Katie and me; March 2011 was a profoundly unhappy month, and I am not embarrassed to say that my iPad was one of the small comforts that got me through long nights at the hospital. Perhaps if I was going through something equivalently tragic now, I might again turn to a technological balm, but I doubt that the new iPad would do the trick. It’s a cautious, almost timid refinement of existing hardware, and I daresay that were Steve Jobs still around, Apple might have taken a bolder leap forward.

I was struck by one statement in the promotional video I watched: the assertion that in an ideal Apple-based technological experience, the mediating device disappears from consciousness, allowing you to concentrate on what you’re doing, rather than the thing you’re doing it with. True enough, I suppose — I’m not thinking about the keyboard on which I’m typing this blog entry, or the screen on which I’m reading my own words. But such analyses leave out the powerful effect of the brand that surrounds those moments of “flow.” The iPad, like so many Apple innovations, is a potent and almost magical object in terms of the self-identifications it provides, and in off-screen moments I am always highly conscious of being an iPad user. It’s a happy interpellation, one I accept enthusiastically, turning with eagerness toward the policeman’s call. It’s anything but a transparent experience, and the money I give Apple goes at least as much to support my own subjectification as to underwrite a particular set of technological and creative affordances. The new iPad lacks this aura, so for now, I’ll stick with what I have.

A shift in method

Some years ago, at lunch with an esteemed senior colleague from the English Department, I complained that blogging had split me into two kinds of writer, like the good and evil Captain Kirk (above) created by transporter malfunction in TOS Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within.” The bad writer summoned into existence by the blog was awesomely verbose and driven by the craven need to flaunt his cleverness; the good writer was more modest in his claims and diligent in his methods of researching and composing projects. But he was also, like good Kirk, something of a weakling, his lack of confidence inversely proportional to the excessive force of personality his diabolical twin radiated. During the first several years of this blog I found it easy to sit down and compose brief, grand essays and pronouncements; but I couldn’t get a major research project or a publishing venture off the ground.

I’ve learned a few things about writing, and about myself, since then. I return to this blog with the need for a thought-space somewhere between the ephemeral public bursts of tweets and status updates and the glacial excavation and terraforming of printed academic publishing: the fast and slow time of the mediascapes at whose intersection I find my home. I return to this blog with a renewed sense of its potential for experimentation and evolution, and a new concept of myself as not needing to prove my intellect at every turn. I want, in short, to blog like a normal person — to speak honestly and without needless ostentation about this world and this life.

Night terrors

Z’s cough turns out to be just that — a cough — but while daylight, a trip to the pediatrician, and the purchase of a cool-mist humidifier have brought calm to our roiling first-time-parent worries, the strange noise that started it all continues to echo in my mental hearing: in the amber nightlit nursery, as my hands moved as deftly as a surgeon’s, tucking Z into a new diaper like a pickpocket in reverse, he emitted a rising squawk that registered as a more primal distress — not just discomfort but existential dread.

Of course I’m reading too much into it. (That seems to be what first-time parenting is all about.) Z’s weird noise, I see now, reactivated some part of my brain that’s been dormant for decades, a nerve cable buried deep in my cerebellum stretching back to my own childhood, when I lay awake many nights gripped in fears that were the residue of too much scary TV, too many horror movies, and one too many skims through the best — which is to say, the most extreme and upsetting — parts of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

These materials were my prepubescent pornography, an irresistible lure of the forbidden and transgressive that was fun enough to consume by day, but with sundown turned toxic, a kind of slow acid bath for my imagination. Probably because I was raised as a Catholic, it was the devil stories that got to me the worst: The Omen, The Devil’s Rain, Beyond the Door. I envisioned myself being possessed by a demon, and would play out in my head dialogues between God and Satan about whether my nine-year-old soul was worth the trouble of fighting over.

These fears may be in Z’s future, though I expect my wife and I will be more careful about leaving copies of The Exorcist lying around. (The youngest of five, I inherited all manner of cultural detritus, including the Batman comics with which I learned to read.) For now, I’m relieved to know the tickle is in his throat, and not in his mind.