Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Comic books are like glaciers: majestic marvels of [nature/culture], and an important, unique thing about them is the fact that the bit you see at any time is actually just the visible portion of a really really huge body, but they're both in the middle of a pathetic decline and ultimately doomed due to changes in their environment.

Well, "doomed" is too alarmist, and "changes in their environment" is so vague that it glosses over a lot. And while comic books may be better than they sound, calling them "majestic marvels" is admittedly ridiculous.

OK, so no analogy is perfect, but after spending a lot more time and money and thought on comic books recently than I used to because that store moved to my neighborhood, I think a comparison of the industry to glaciers in warming waters really is apt.

Of the new stuff I'm reading, Wolverine and the X-Men (WatX) stands out. It's impressive. One of the unique, special things about this medium and genre is the continuity of a shared universe and WatX uses it well. It blends one decades-old storyline with another that has never been connected to it before, in such a way that a new reader could appreciate this month's story for its face value while making a longtime reader squee with delight. As for the stories, they're fun, in a crazy-adventures way, the kind of thing that gets called "juvenile" even if there's blood and guts all over the place. So far the book is completely embracing the way absolutely anything can happen in a comic book. One type of enemy among several in the first storyline: multiple Frankenstein's monsters armed with flamethrowers. Wow.

It's not just zany cartoon stuff, though. The characters are well-handled. Before I'd ever read any of it, I was interested in the lineup. I'd estimate that the characters are roughly equally divided between old and well-established characters being used in innovative ways, old and underused characters that are finally getting some exposure, and truly new characters. It's not for everyone, because some people want their fiction more serious, but for people who can laugh at themselves and their icons, it's great. And it's well-written. The grownup characters have grownup problems, but fun remains the priority, so those problems get a sly, tongue-in-cheek treatment. When Kitty says she'd rather be eaten by aliens than deal with adult life and a normal job, it both makes sense in context and seemed to me like a metatextual joke about how so many characters haven't changed since they were created decades ago.

But that's one thing that bugs me about WatX: it's hard to ignore how unoriginal it is. When the X-Men were created in 1963, they started out as a school for mutants before drifting into general superhero action. A team called the New Mutants were created in 1982, the year I was born, and their concept was "back to the X-Men's roots." Since the New Mutants there have been at least three titles based on the same concept, characters or both.

The series is a rehash in more ways than just the concept. The art is part of what drew me in. The first storyline was pencilled by Chris Bachalo, who drew the first 30 or so issues of the series Generation X (another one of those "back to the X-Men's roots" series). I liked that series and have every single issue of it. It ran from 1994 to 2001 or so. Apparently Bachalo was just on WatX for the first storyline, and after he left Peter Nauck took over. Nauck pencilled Young Justice, another series about teenage superheroes I liked and collected, and that started in 1998. So both the artists so far on this new series were doing the same thing 14 and 18 years ago, respectively. As for the characters, I really do think the new ones are original overall, but I have to admit that so far the two best-established of them are just "like this other guy, but younger" and "like this bad guy, but good." Finally, the use of Wolverine himself is problematic, but in a slightly different way.

I have no complaints about him being here. He's one of the old characters being used in a new way. Casting him as a teacher is genuine character growth. The problem is when you look at everything else he's doing. Within the past five years Wolverine has been in two series at a time about superhero teams plus his own solo title, all of which feature extended storylines about globe-trotting, world-saving adventures, and that is continuing right now. That's not because it particularly makes sense for the character. There's no explanation at all for how he does it other than nonsequential storytelling - comic book time. As for why he does it as a character, sure, they've written an explanation, but I'm pretty sure everyone knows it's just a pretense. The real reason is simply because he's Marvel's most popular character, so they use him as much as possible to sell as much as possible. That's not a good sign. Where's the originality, the risk-taking?

I suppose I shouldn't complain about a series that's apparently targeted at me in every way, but it shows a lot of problems with the industry in general.

Monday, March 26, 2012

I was busy this past weekend. Among other things, T. and I went to the Reason Rally, a rally on Saturday by a union of atheist, anti-theist, freethinking and related groups, a gathering of the godless.

We didn't stay long due to the nearly constant rain, but it was fun. There was good people-watching lots of intentionally funny signs, some unintentionally funny signs by protestors, and some good speakers. In addition to a few dozen Christian protestors, there was one guy exhorting people to worship the Almighty Cthulhu. I don't think I've ever heard of Tim Minchin before, but his show this weekend was funny.

Admittedly, the idea of organized atheism is a bit of a contradiction, and atheist evangelism is annoying, just like other kinds. So the basic concept of the rally seems kind of weird. But then, it's easy for me to say that. I was raised Christian but not devoutly. When I started skipping church as a teen to sleep in on Sundays, my parents cajoled and guilt-tripped me a bit, but that was it. I didn't face further punishment, didn't get ostracized, didn't even lose anything except for that weekly commitment. Since then I've gone from calling myself Deist to agnostic to atheist. T. is in a similar position, and I'll bet most people I know are too - they might call themselves "agnostic" or even "spiritual" rather than atheist, some of them might identify with a particular denomination, but I only know a handful of people to whom their religion is really important.

So it's easy for me to say that atheist evangelism is dumb because I never needed it in the first place. But some people with different personal backgrounds really do get ostracized for it, and all major successful politicians in this country either pay lip service to or actually believe in dogma handed down from Bronze Age cultures. The alternatives need to get more play.

Too bad about the weather, though. But hey, at least no one got struck by lightning, right?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

So how has biking gone so far? Overall it's gone well, but there are a few caveats.

  • It took a while to work the kinks out. I got that new bag, and it's fine overall, but figuring out the how to use it took a little work - which pocket is the most convenient to put my ID in, etc. The first day I changed clothes to bike home, I absent-mindedly packed gym shorts instead of regular shorts, and my gym shorts don't have pockets, so I had to reach into my bag to get my keys and stuff.

  • I'm at the mercy of the crowd. The first day I planned to bike home I couldn't find any bikes at the usual station. It probably won't be as bad this year as it was last year, though, because a new station was built over the winter just two blocks away.

  • My hopes of biking in the morning through the spring and still being presentable may have been overly optimistic. When I started it was a bit too cold to bike comfortably. It's already warm enough and, worse and more importantly, more humid in the mornings. Even though it's downhill most of the way to work, I still work up enough sweat that I'm damp by the time I get on the shuttle. No one has complained so far, but if nothing else I'm self-conscious about it.

  • I'm not sure how to handle the weather. If I'm going straight home I don't need to worry about the weather unless it's literally dangerous - either so hot that 25 minutes of light exercise could give me heat stroke, or so rainy that visibility is bad or the streets are slippery. When I'm coming in to work, though, just a little bit of rain can generate mud on the road, which splashes.

  • What I said last time about other bikers being cavalier? I've become more cavalier this week myself. Well, I'd prefer "confident" to "cavalier," because "cavalier" implies "reckless," and there's really, really nothing dangerous about disobeying traffic laws sometimes. If I'm on a bike, it's an intersection with good visibility, and there are literally no moving cars in sight, waiting for the light to change would be just stupid. If traffic is bumper to bumper in the street and there's no bike lane but the sidewalk is empty, I might as well hop up there for a block or two. As I biker I have better reaction times than a driver, I have no blind spots, my top speed is much lower, and if I do hit something I weigh about a fifth as much as a car. Officially I'm supposed to obey traffic laws like a car, but that's very often unnecessary and in some cases it's probably actually more dangerous.

  • Events have conspired to keep me from biking home too regularly. I only actually did it once last week. Like I said, a bike shortage prevented it Monday. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I had plans in the evening that I didn't want to show up sweaty for and I didn't have time to go home, change, and shower first. This week so far I've been good, but tonight I have similar plans and might or might not tomorrow, I'm still not sure yet.

  • Now that I write this down, I realize that "I've been good" is an unhealthy way to think of it. I'm nowhere near in such bad physical shape that good health requires it. Self-discipline is not always a matter of virtue. My sister actually seems to enjoy exercise, but I shouldn't compare myself to her so much. For people who actually enjoy physically demanding sports or physical perfection as an end itself, more power to them. I've always found both of those as inscrutable as fundementalist religion.

Monday, March 12, 2012

I biked to work this morning and plan to make it a routine, weather permitting.

Last year I biked home from work almost daily from spring until it got too cold, but I very rarely biked in the morning. The morning metro ride had become a big chunk of the time I spent reading for fun, and showering at work or even just changing clothes in the morning would be too much of a hassle, but I have to admit that the biggest reason is simply that I was in the habit of gelling my hair in a kind of spiky way, and I liked it like that, and wearing a bike helmet would ruin that.

However, I have to admit that getting exercise in the morning and saving metro fees would be worth giving up some reading time and a freaky hairdo. So I'm planning to bike as much as I can this year.

Some notes on the process:

  • At this point, arriving at work sweaty isn't even a concern; the trip to work is mostly downhill and it was probably below 50 degrees this morning, so I dressed normally and was still perfectly presentable. When things get a bit warmer, I might wear shorts and a t-shirt and then change in the bathroom. When things get so warm in the morning that I'd be too sweaty even if I dress comfortably, I might start taking the metro again, but at least I'd still get exercise and save metro fees for a few months.

  • I had planned to bring gloves, but I forgot, and I wish I hadn't. It's still cold in the morning, and when the wind is on your hands because biking is windy, it's really cold.

  • No matter how well I plan, though, there's always something out of my control. This morning the very first street I would have taken was blocked off by police tape for some weird reason. I took a roundabout route instead - nothing too complicated, just turning at a different time on the grid, but still, it was annoying.

  • I was struck by people being careless. (Obviously, a sample size of n=1 is small, but still.) Other bikers running red lights that I was waiting for, and walkers jumping out in front of me or walking against the lights. I think I tend to be a bit more conscientious about traffic laws than the average biker, but the average biker this morning seemed even worse than last year. As for other bikers, I'd guess that most fair-weather bike commuters haven't started yet, so the only people doing it now are the people who are so serious about it and experienced at it that they get cavalier.

  • Getting a little light exercise in the morning is really nice. I've never been in the habit of it. Getting balls-to-the-wall sweaty and winded isn't nice, but just getting the blood pumping a bit between breakfast and work would probably be worth quite a bit.

  • I want to get a bigger bag. I get around in general with a satchel. Last year I just barely managed to squeeze my biking gear in it, often by leaving the brim of the helmet sticking out or hanging the helmet strap off the satchel strap. But over the winter I started bringing lunch in to work more often rather than going to the cafeteria, and now there's just no way everything will fit. I resist buying one, partly because my satchel was a gift from my parents and it would feel rude to put it aside, and partly because it's perfectly good but just a tiny bit too small, but I have to admit the main reason is that having multiple bags would feel too much like my girlfriend choosing which purse goes better with her outfit - it would be, ewww, girly. (No, having a satchel isn't girly, it's practical!)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

You know what I like the most about living downtown in a city? The convenience.

Grocery shopping, for example. I regularly go to three different places depending on the circumstances. I live four blocks south of a metro stop and there is a Target just around the corner from that, so that's the most convenient option. However, I don't like it all that much. Its selection isn't great for some things, and it has all the usual box store problems like huge lines, so I only go there when I'm really in a rush and/or am planning on getting non-grocery stuff you can find at box stores. Instead, I probably go to the Yes! organic grocery in the other direction the most often. It's a little bit further out of the way, but not too much - to go there I just get off the metro one stop early. It's definitely most "fun" of the three locations: there's often a wine tasting, it's usually easy to find what I want, lines at the register are quick. But it's a small grocery that just doesn't have some stuff at all, I go to a Harris Teeter a few blocks west almost as often. It's the farthest option from home by a hair, and there's a busy street to cross, and some of their stuff is arranged weirdly (for example, they have two cheese sections on opposite sides of the store), but still, I could happily do 99 percent of my grocery shopping there, it's just that other options are quicker.

Now, that might sound complicated as I write it down, but in day-to-day life it's so simple I don't think about it - Target occasionally if I'm in a real hurry and/or if I also need non-grocery stuff, Yes! twice a week or so for the basics, Harris Teeter for anything else.

All that is within half a mile of my apartment. My parents have to drive 10 minutes to get to the closest store of any kind, let alone the closest real grocery store, and even the closest grocery store to them probably doesn't have all options at the stores I've discussed here. When they lived closer to a larger but still rural town, the distance was shorter and selection within a convenient trip was better than it is now, but still probably not as good as it is for me and they still had to drive to eat. I get by just fine without a car, which means much less expense and time committed to it.

So by living in a city (or rather, in a nice neighborhood of a city with good public transportation) I can get basically the same quality of groceries within convenient walking distance as I'd have within convenient driving distance somewhere else. But what if I don't feel like walking anywhere? This happened to me not long ago. It was a weekend morning, I wanted to make omelets for brunch for me and T., but we had no eggs in the apartment. Even walking down to Yes! or up to Target seemed daunting, once I factored in getting boots and my winter coat and stuff. More work and preparedness than I wanted to go through for a common brunch at home.

But then it occurred to me - there's a gas station around the corner, just one block away. I checked it, and sure enough, they had eggs, as well as some other basic groceries. I didn't go in my pajamas, but I easily could have. Now that is convenient.