Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Defense of the Finale of Lost

During the last season of Lost, I've enjoyed reading the conversation between Chadwick Matlin, Jack Shafer, and Seth Stevenson after each episode on Slate. However, all three (including the show's biggest defender) have been bashing on the finale. Personally, I was satisfied. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but after reading some of the brutal commentary I think the episode needs some defending. And, unlike these three, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Warning: Spoilers (at least one big un').

Seth Stevenson sums his dismissal up this way: "I've seen the idea posited that there are two kinds of Lost fans: 1) those who watch for the sci-fi twists and surprises, and 2) those who watch for the characters and relationships. If you watch for the mysteries, this theory holds, you were disappointed by the finale. If you watch for the characters and relationships, you were thrilled to wallow in those happy reunion hugs in that nondenominational spiritual venue."

This depends on a false distinction. It was the sci-fi twists that illuminated the characters and their relationships, and in the end, it was possibly the biggest twist of all which brought those relationships to some (schmaltzy, warm and fuzzy) closure. It fit the show perfectly.

I think a lot of folks are missing the element of the finale that was most successful: The show has always been about discovering that our assumptions about characters are wrong because we make those assumptions at a given point in time. Hence the flashbacks that opened our eyes to characters' choices in Season 1 hooked many of us in the first place. That's what sold me on the show at first; discovering that I was understanding what a character did in a previous episode only after learning about their life from a flashback. Then the flashes-forward served this function in a new and really cool way. Then the characters themselves were lost in time, so they were experiencing the same thing we had already grown accustomed to as viewers. The last season seemed to be plodding along, revealing all this information about the island in a more traditional, expositional way while doing the same in an alternate time-line caused by the A-bomb, but both time-lines, on their own, seemed straightforward. Admit it: How many times did you have that "Ah-ha" moment when some event in the parallel world told you something revelatory about the people (seemingly) still on the island? Never. We reveled in the cleverness of the parallel world, noticing the connections to the world we'd come to know, but we didn't gain new insight into the people on the island, as we had before. Only the flashbacks about Jacob/Smokey/Alpert seemed to have that "Oh, now that makes sense" phenomenon. By the end we were all hoping to see how the two stories would intersect because we'd all assumed they were parallel and had begun at the moment of the A-bomb.

And then, in the finale, we're given one of the biggest Ah-ha's yet. The parallel world didn't begin at the A-bomb explosion! It began where the island story ended! It wasn't a flash sideways at all! It was a flash forward that we all assumed was a flash sideways!

Just like in the first season, our assumptions were being exploited. Only this time our assumptions weren't small and limited to specific character's behaviors. Our Season 1 assumptions were small: We assumed "Kim is a jerk because of the way he treats his wife," only to discover that he really loved her and had essentially sold his soul to her father, only to have that blow up in his face and push her to cheat on him. Now his behavior made more sense (and made him more likable). But in the final season our assumption was huge: We'd assumed the A-bomb caused the rift, and someone (Desmond? Jack? Ben? Hurley?) would bring it all back together at the end. When the assumption was revealed to be false, instead of saying, "Oh, I was wrong about that particular guy", we had to reconcile the fact that we were wrong about half the season, and all the moments throughout which had seemed to be straightforward might have been revelatory about the characters on the island after all.

Admittedly, I didn't like the purgatory angle particularly (and I had a real moment of panic where I thought Christian Shepard was going to say it had ALL been purgatory and I would start to froth at the mouth and throw things at the TV) but I realize that my personal agnosticism shouldn't be any more piqued by a reference to purgatory than to ghosts or smoke monsters or magical islands. I'll bet lots of "haters" are frustrated because of the seeming religious (though insultingly vaguely religious) overtones of the finale. But let's face it: If we could accept the elements of the island as fiction, why can't we accept purgatory as part of that fictional universe? Once I can do that, then I see that the great twist of the flash-sideways becoming a flash-forward is not lazy or merely clever, but genuinely earned. This wasn't a deus ex machina ending, but a thematically consistent ending, since the show has always been about betraying our assumptions about its characters. Moreover, it's been about betraying our assumptions about characters to make us like them, or at least sympathize with them enough to care about them, despite our first impressions. So if the ending was schmaltzy (and, hoo boy was it) that fits, too.

If someone doesn't like that the show cleverly played with our assumptions, or that it did so to appeal to our sympathies, then I wonder why they have been watching it for the last six years.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Moment of Cynicism T-Shirts

At our school, teachers get to have a casual day each Friday. We call it "Spirit Day", and we have to wear the shirts that advertise for our school. I generally have no problem with this. I prefer a t-shirt to a button-up shirt and tie. But on those days when I'm feeling cynical, I wish I could choose some other shirt that expresses how I feel. In this fit of distemper, I made a shirt on cafepress.com that anybody can buy, and if I sell a few I'll be able to afford to buy one myself. So, my fellow high school teachers, if you're interested, here's my first design:

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Shirt 2 edit 3 sewing shirts - Share on Ovi

Available in all kinds of designs at:


Buy one for everybody on staff!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Will Cell Phone Etiquette Break Down Class Barriers?

Paige and I were just talking about cell phone etiquette, and I wondered about something: Because cell phones are becoming so ubiquitous, as we develop a common sense of propriety about the use of this technology, is it possible we'll see a divide that transcends class divisions? Historically, as manners have developed, they've done so across class lines. Words that were considered acceptable ("shit" as the common term for manure, for example) were rejected by people who sought to establish themselves as refined aristocrats. Aspiring middle class people tried to emulate the behavior of the wealthy. Lower class people were left with behavior and language deemed "trashy" precisely because it identified them as poor. However, when it comes to cell phones, I can easily see a different divide coming into play.

Wealthy, powerful people will divide amongst themselves between neo-luddites who crave more traditional human interaction and business elites who need to stay in constant contact with clients, need to manage investments, need to close deals, etc. Those who reject this plugged-in lifestyle will vary from the "off-the-grid" extremists to those who sneer at people who text in restaurants or talk on the phone in line at the grocery store, but they will share some common skepticism of the merits of the permanently plugged-in lifestyle.

The aspirational middle class might emulate both sets of behaviors in distinct camps. Amongst the poor, some might try to take ownership of their poverty by adopting a bohemian air and emulating the neo-luddite resistance to constant connectedness, while other poor people will see the wired world as a means to alleviate their poverty.

This could lead to cultural symptoms like shared language which transcend class barriers. For example, if a text catchphrase takes off among the constantly connected, it might be rejected by those who hold that dependence on connectedness in disdain. The same might be true of those who reject the constant connectedness, though they are less likely to adopt similar speech patters and behavioral ticks as quickly precisely because they reject the technology that makes such rapid communication so easy.

I don't foresee half the population tootling around in flying cars, whizzing past the other half in covered wagons and Amish fashions. Still, it will be interesting and possibly even socially transformative to divorce the idea of manners from the idea of wealth. Personally, I look forward to the day when a poor person will see a rich person talking on his phone during a dinner date and will call the behavior "trashy" without any thought about how much money is in the rude guy's bank account. I was raised to believe that good manners were unrelated to money (thanks to my grandparents who passed that lesson on to my parents), and maybe the common denominator of the cell phone will make good manners available to everyone, just as they are making bad cell phone etiquette a nearly universal phenomenon.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How I Got Screwed By The Tooth Fairy

Noah needed some oral surgery. This fact alone made my wife, Paige, and me feel terribly guilty. What had we done wrong? Too many sugared snacks? Not enough brushing? A sign of some more fundamental flaw in our parenting? We met with our great surgeon and he confided that his own son had needed the same surgery when he’d been in dental school. That made us feel better. Still, the whole event felt deeply unfair in every way for everyone concerned (except for the dentist who’d be making a few grand from the surgery and the anesthesiologist who charged $600 an hour). The injustice of it all served as the launching point for what would turn into something of an emotional journey, and I think I wanted to stay there on the dock, only mildly irritated, rather than let myself sail off into genuine fear.

The night before Noah went in for his oral surgery, Paige and I realized that neither of us have ever been put under for any medical procedure. She didn't tell me she was worried, so I didn't tell her, for fear I'd cause her concern. That was ridiculous. Paige is a worrier. I should have assumed she was concerned. Instead, I stayed up long after both if them were asleep, wrestling with my fears alone. I kept myself occupied with my normal late night insomniac pastimes; reading the op-ed pages of a digital handful of newspapers, listening to podcasts, opening just one more can of caffeinated soda and expecting to curse myself for going to bed with it half full, then cursing myself for finishing it. When I finally lied down I went into full-freak-out mode, allowing the worst kind of fantasies to play themselves out as waking nightmares in the darkness.

The next morning, we brought Noah in to the oral surgeon’s, after a forty-five minute drive from our small town to the slightly larger town up the highway. We were escorted into a little room and Noah sat on my lap while the anesthesiologist deftly gave him a shot before he knew what was going on. I held him and asked him to read the names of cities on a map of the U.S. on the wall, but in less than a minute his eyes glazed and his head lolled. He looked amusingly confused, but wasn't quite asleep when I laid him on the chair and left for the waiting room.

I couldn't sit still there for long. I stepped outside to grab some air, and I called my mom. When I confessed that I was nervous, she told me that Paige had posted a status update about her nervousness on her Facebook page before we'd left the house that morning. In a way, that made me feel better. My anxiety was validated, but it also gave me a job. It's my roll to be the one who says, "I'm sure it will be fine." Paige handles the worrying. Now I could focus on actively feigning confidence. I'm not sure how better poker players view bluffing, but for me a large part of bluffing involves not turning my brain off (which might appear different) but really turning it on and using the focus to make sure I don't do anything out if the ordinary. I did tell Paige about the call, and that I knew about her nervousness. Part of me wanted to let her know just how much I shared the feeling, in order to let her know she wasn't alone, as I'd felt the night before. I split the difference, telling her I was also nervous, but betraying nothing more about my anxieties with my voice or gestures.

To pass the time, I tried to shift my nervous energy to anger and disdain for Reader's Digest. I noticed a cover article about "The 100 Reasons Why We Love America". I flipped to the article, expecting a piece of piss-poor journalism. List articles are notoriously lazy. Also, I thought the theme of the piece would dictate something either painfully schmatzy or infuriatingly jingoistic. It tended toward the former, but it didn't disappoint in the piss-poor journalism department. I took notes to rail about it later on my blog, but when I told Paige about it she said it just sounded cruel. Which it was. But I still stand by my disdain for Reader's Digest.

Unfortunately, with the air drained out of my anger balloon, and with all the gears whirring in my head, I found myself contemplating the most horrid possibilities, outcomes so terrible I can't bring myself to describe them fully here. I wouldn't go so far as to say this was some kind of preemptive grieving. Instead, I imagined my own inability to participate in that kind of grief. It was like an extended trailer for an epic film about catatonia.

Then, Noah had the gall to draw things out further. The surgeon came out to tell us all had gone well, but Noah was choosing to take his sweet time in waking up. He came out a few more times to give us updates on Noah's continued unconsciousness. At this point I'd stopped worrying, but my anxiousness to see my boy grew and grew. It reminded me of those nights before my family would go to Disneyland when I was a kid; I'd lie in bed and remind myself that I needed to sleep to maximize my fun the next day, but I'd also be aware that every passing second of consciousness brought me closer to that moment when I'd see the Matterhorn rising above the skyline of Anaheim. Noah, half awake and wanting to be held by his daddy: That was my Matterhorn now.

Eventually the surgeon told us that, though most kids take about twenty minutes to wake up, in some cases it could be much longer, and the anesthesiologist had even called a colleague who told her about a case where the kid slept for seven hours. Noah didn’t break any records, but he slept for 900 more dollars of the anesthesiologist’s time.

After putting four grand in his mouth, Paige and I now had to calculate how much the tooth fairy would leave under his pillow that night for the teeth we’d paid to have removed. My next task is going to be haggling with my dental and medical insurance companies to convince them that they should take on some of these costs. So far they’ve covered $1500 (the $4000 is beyond that) of the surgery and refused to touch the anesthesiologist’s bill, on the grounds that it was elective, as though a five year old would have sat still under local anesthetic while a couple of his teeth were removed. I think, in the name of justice, the insurance companies should not only pay for the surgery and anesthetic, but because of their initial refusal, the time it will take to argue with them, and the stress at having our savings entirely depleted, if and when they finally relent they should have to hire someone to break into my house in the night (with any costs of damage added to the total) and silently slip a check under my pillow. That would really be the only fair way for the story to end.

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Peak Oil vs. Peak Terrorism

I love the Political Gabfest, Slate Magazine's weekly political podcast. But I do have a small quibble with a point I heard on the last episode.

Slate's chief editor David Plotz made the point that we need oil to power our carbon based economy, so, rather than ban drilling on our own coasts just to buy oil from elsewhere, we need to accept a certain degree of risk and get on with it. He's made this argument in relation to terrorism before, and I found that far more persuasive.

When it comes to terrorism, we cannot possibly stop every nutcase without accepting a police state that's so invasive it's worse than the threat posed by the terrorists themselves. We fight terrorism as best we can, but we tolerate a degree of risk. That argument makes a lot of sense to me.

Now, if we are going to remain on a carbon based economy, with gasoline dependent infrastructure, I think Plotz is right to point out that the risk will always exist, and the notion that we can't drill on our shores is similar to sending our garbage to third world countries; we're exporting the risk of environmental disaster instead of the material itself, but its morally equivalent. It's also equivalent to the regular refrain about nuclear power plants and, to a lesser degree, coal fired ones: We want the power, but we don't want the potentially dangerous or immediately polluting plant in our own back yards. On these grounds, I'd be in with the "Drill baby drill" crowd.

But I'm not. Because oil is different than nuclear power, and it's certainly different than terrorism. Nuclear power, despite its (minimal) risk and the (significant) problem of nuclear waste, is a far more efficient and less environmentally hazardous source of power. We should be shifting to it until we can create the infrastructure for cost-effective solar and wind power. So, in the case of nuclear power, we should encourage people to tolerate the risk because we want to incentivize the behavior.

In the case of terrorism, homicidal crazy people are a depressingly renewable resource. Encouraging people to tolerate risk in regards to terrorism does not encourage terrorists or eliminate them; they will exist regardless. Instead, some tolerance of risk might actually disempower terrorist. The people out on Times Square the day after the failed bombing last week showed this. A terrorist is someone who has given up on winning through attrition or conquest, and can only win by generating fear. Encouraging people to tolerate some risk diminishes that fear to some degree.

Our dependence on oil, on the other hand, is a behavior we want to stop precisely because its supply can't hope to last as long as our supply of homicidal nutjobs. Since we will inevitably hit peak oil and the price will cripple the market, fear of the dangers of pumping oil might increase the price, which then encourages investment in solar and wind by creating economies of scale. It's true that always looking for oil somewhere else is irrational (and incredibly expensive, in blood and treasure, when one considers the unstable and evil regimes propped up by oil and the wars fought over it), but this irrationality does serve to elevate the price, which is far too low. If we want to ween ourselves from oil rather than going cold turkey when peak oil hits, we should be looking for every means to raise the price incrementally. Fear of pollution causing increased production and transportation costs is a crummy way to increase the price. A tax would certainly be better. Unfortunately, it's political suicide for any politician who proposes it. There are two times when higher gas taxes will be opposed: during an economic expansion (which could be threatened by higher gasoline prices) and during an economic contraction (which could be prolonged by higher gasoline prices). So we're stuck with gas prices that don't keep up with inflation and no tax dividend to spend on creating the infrastructure to move beyond oil. Higher prices caused by searching for oil beyond our shores might help push us toward a less dependent economy. Also, when we do hit peak oil, we'll then have a reservoir of gold under our continental shelf. Even when we drive electric cars powered by solar panels and wind farms, we'll still need plastic. Why burn up all of the precious resource to keep prices artificially low, when we could benefit from higher prices and save the resource until it's far more valuable?

So, be afraid of the massive oil slick in the gulf coast. Refuse to allow another rig to be built off our shores. And if the price at the pump continues to rise, be grateful (as best you can), knowing it will make solar and wind power cost effective that much sooner.