Monday, March 3, 2014

Thought Experiment

The mild turmoil in the markets today, spurred by events in Ukraine, has me thinking.

Let's suppose you want to make a play in the stock market based on a precarious military situation. You're either going to bet that the situation will get worse or that it will get better. (In reality, you're probably going to be hedging any such bet, but let's keep things simple.)

But let's imagine that this precarious situation isn't like the Russians in Ukraine. It's the Cuban Missile Crisis. In other words, the negative outcome isn't on the scale of disruption of European oil. It's global thermonuclear war.

We talk about how markets provide good evaluations of value and even decent predictors of outcomes. When there's money attached, people tend to -- as an aggregate -- make good calls.

But in this scenario, you're better off betting on a positive outcome disproportionate with that outcome's likelihood.

In the wake of nuclear war, all stocks would be worth precisely zero. This huge risk ought to make people respond by pulling out their investments. But other investments -- including gold and cash -- would be worth zero too. If humanity's even still kicking, the hottest commodities would suddenly be secluded underground bunkers and food with long expiration dates. And this is such a shock to the system that it's effectively unimaginable. There's no way to price it into the game.

It's like playing a board game in which, if someone rolls snake eyes twice in a row, you have to flip the board up into the air. It's hard to see how this possibility would affect in-game strategy.

(The analogy isn't perfect, because there's actually a way to hedge against nuclear war. Besides building shelters, you can invest in peace: industries that promote inter-dependence and politicians more interested in peace than looking strong or winning. That's actually a wise business move.)

But there's another reason not to properly price in the likelihood of events like nuclear war. If nuclear war happens, it's not just that your stocks go to zero. It's also that you are most likely dead.

In the cold logic of judging which is more likely, nuclear war might be a good bet. But humans rarely show anything resembling cold logic.

Would you rather make a landfall profit and live in a nuclear wasteland? Or would you rather make a good profit and still have beautiful paradises to retire in?

Put another way, we often treat the markets as if their goal is to identify value. That's often how markets work, because individual investors exploit opportunities, such as undervalued prices. But in fact, every individual investor wants to make money. And whether it's for himself or his clients, whether it's bound up in plans to provide for his family or prove himself or whatever, this is a personal motivation. And should things go south, in the wake of nuclear war, this hypothetical investor likely wouldn't be a person anymore. Whether you win or lose the game doesn't matter if you're dead. Because we're animals, and if making money is the game in this scenario, staying alive and thriving is the meta-game, which is really what we're all playing anyway.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This Morning (Random)

This morning. Shower. Sore throat. Cold brewing. Went out.

Organic juice at the local upscale supermarket. Salad you can smell. Fresh. Wholesome.

And that sunlight. So beautiful it hurt.

I couldn't stop thinking of that Mad Men episode with the three interlocking stories. I felt like I was on drugs, and maybe an experience didn't have to be the best to be good. In the light, everything was okay.

Driving home, NPR made me cry. Again. Not at any horror, but about the beauty of these aid workers, rescued by American soldiers under orders from Obama. They were told to take it slow after reuniting. I love these fascinating implications. And when they spoke, you couldn't hear any resentment in their voice.

At home, I took the leaves down to the compost heap. Didn't mind.

Dragging them up and down the trail, that light through the trees, I thought about how Hawaii had taught me to love life. My throat hurts, and I won't live forever. But there are moments like these.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bush Redux

It was funny today to watch the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. I have to admit I love to see the living presidents together. I'm a sucker for Barbara Bush joking with President Obama. I'm a politics junkie. An event like this isn't exactly heroin, but it's still a bit of a rush.

Still, it was impossible not to note how each president had to struggle for good things to say about the Bush years. Carter was very generous, but he did mention the dispute over the 2000 elections -- which was handled despicably by Bush, and which implicitly argues that Bush should never have been president in the first place. The elder Bush focused on how nice it was to have his family together. Clinton focused on W.'s post-presidency paintings. Obama focused on his predecessor's personality -- but in the process demonstrated how confident Bush is, even when he knows nothing.

Bush himself talked about freedom and liberating people -- without a single mention of Iraq or weapons of mass destruction, which was the stated reason for invasion, despite all this rhetoric about freedom. Bush joked about how he didn't use to hang out at libraries -- as if to underline how truly odd it is that Bush, not exactly an intellectual or deep thinker, would have a library. Shockingly, Bush even referenced Katrina -- as an example of the resilience of the human spirit, ignoring that people wouldn't have had to have been nearly so resilient if, you know, Bush had done his job the way every other president present had done in their national emergencies.

It's amazing to see how absurd the apologists for Bush are. Bush mostly kept us safe! Well, except for 9/11, which happened after he'd ignored cries from the intelligence community about an impending attack. Bush stood on the World Trade Center rubble -- a great moment! Except that he promised the culprits would "hear from all of us soon," then ignored bin Laden and said he wasn't even a significant concern, while attacking Iraq instead. Bush liberated peoples! Except that both Afghanistan and Iraq were botched wars, with almost no realistic planning and, in the case of the latter war, massive lies to the American public, fear-mongering about "mushroom clouds," and bullying of foreign nations to support the effort. Then there's Katrina. Then there's becoming the world's leading proponent of torture. Then there's the massive illegal wiretapping program. Outing a CIA agent because her husband told the truth about weapons of mass destruction. Turning a budget surplus into unprecedented deficits to pay for this nonsense, plus tax cuts that almost exclusively favored the rich. The failure that is abstinence-only education -- which the Bush administration even forced on other governments, if they wanted foreign aid. Appointing as U.N. representative a nincompoop idiot who wanted to end the U.N. Oh, and then there's presiding over the biggest crash of the U.S. economy since the Great Depression -- a crash caused primarily by the deregulation Bush endorsed. There's incompetence, and then there's George W. Bush. There are disastrous administrations... and then there's George W. Bush.

I'm sure he's a nice guy. And yes, he did make decisions, as his apologists love to point out. Bush even titled his post-presidential book Decision Points. There's a gallery in the new library with the same title. Well, they were decisions. So is burning your house down. Which, if you tried to do to the nation, probably would have performed slightly better as a strategy than the presidency of George W. Bush.

Let's try a thought experiment, shall we? It's 2020 or so, and Barack Obama is opening his presidential library.

Is there a single speech, talking about how, um, Obama sure can paint? Or how it's so charming that he doesn't know anything but is confident anyway?

Instead of "we didn't have a terrorist attack -- except for the worst one in our history, which we don't blame him for," you have "he got bin Laden." I mentioned him earlier, but you might not remember him. He's that guy who masterminded that terrible terrorist attack on Bush's watch. He's the guy Bush said didn't matter. Instead, Bush got Saddam Hussein. Bush might have stood on the rubble, promising the culprits would pay, but he didn't deliver on that promise. Quite the opposite. Obama did.

Instead of helping to cause the Great Recession, Obama helped America recover from it.

Instead of getting us into America's longest war, or the quagmire of Iraq, Obama got us -- or is getting us -- out. Maybe it's not fast enough, but at least it's movement in the right direction, as opposed to the wrong one.

When they dedicate Obama's library, someone's going to mention that he got health care reform -- which most presidents since World War II have called for, yet failed to accomplish.

No, there won't be any of this nonsense when it comes to dedicate Obama's Presidential Library.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Updates

I've done an interview about EVERYTHING for David J. Rodger, who's been incredibly kind and thoughtful. I encourage you to check it out here.

Sequart has published Tom Shapira's Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston's The Filth in the 21st Century. It's an amazing book. Tom's insights are excellent. And the book has previously unpublished work by Weston, including preliminary artwork and censored pages. Plus, the book has interviews with Morrison, Weston, and inker Gary Erskine. It's great stuff.

I'm also glad that my own examination of Alan Moore's Miracleman resumed yesterday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why I'm Down on Moffat


I love Doctor Who, but I've soured on Steven Moffat.

I really didn't want to write this, because I've really enjoyed Moffat's Doctor Who. But I've long had deep reservations about it. I've kept these thoughts to myself, although I kept feeling them bubble up, wanting to get out. I resisted and resisted, and now I can't anymore.

Moffat's an incredibly clever and entertaining writer. I have a great deal of admiration for much of what he's done. So the last thing I wanted to do was demolish everything he's done on Doctor Who. Yet once the floodgates opened, the river came crashing out.

The length of what follows is a testament to how much I've thought about this, as well as to how disappointed I am. And that disappointment is a testament to how much good there is in Moffat's work, despite everything I'm going to say.

I'll explain, but first a warning: as River Song would put it, "Spoilers!"

Season Five

When Russell T. Davies stepped down as showrunner of the revived Doctor Who, after four seasons (or series, though I'll stick with "seasons" here) and several specials, he had no doubt as to who should replace him: Steven Moffat, who'd written one or two episodes during each of the four seasons. These episodes include "Blink," which introduced the Weeping Angels, and "Silence in the Library," which introduced River Song -- both classics of the Davies era.

In fact, Moffat's association with Doctor Who goes back to 1999's wonderful 20-minute parody, "Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death." It's wonderfully fun, undeniably smart, and delights in paradox -- all traits Moffat brought to his work on the serious show, once it was revived under Davies.

Moffat's reign on the series, beginning with the 2010 fifth season, was marked by the introduction of a new Doctor -- the 11th, played by Matt Smith. Moffat's first episode, "The Eleventh Hour," also introduced Amy Pond, the so-called "girl who waited" for the Doctor from childhood. The episode has a pretty convenient conclusion, but Amy Pond's story is so unique and emotionally resonant that she saves the episode. Her story is a perfect example of how time travel can be used cleverly, in ways that embrace rather than avoid its implications, in order to produce moving entertainment. And her story rooted the new Doctor in childhood imagination and wish-fulfillment in a way that ought to resonate in even the most bitter heart.

For my money, Matt Smith took some time to adjust to the role. He looks awkward in his early episodes, like he's still feeling the character out -- especially after David Tennant's Doctor. Moffat's quick humor feels a bit off, as if Smith's struggling to adjust to it. The real standout is Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, who not only grounds the new Doctor's stories emotionally but who instantly takes her place as one of the most memorable companions. Davies had focused much more on the companions' perspective than the old Doctor Who show ever had, but Moffat's Amy Pond did Davies one better -- and seemed to do so effortlessly. This was special stuff.

Moffat's first season had high notes -- here, I'd mention his own two-parter, "The Time of Angels" / "Flesh and Stone." It also had low notes -- for example, "The Vampires of Venice." Like Davies, Moffat chose to unite the season with a loose storyline, culminating in the season finale. (For me, "Vincent and the Doctor" was a mixed bag: nothing short of terrific for Vincent's arc, but really silly for its monster-based plot and for the way everyone seems to agree he was the best artist of all time.) This season's time rift, tied to the phrase "Silence will fall," was adequate, and Moffat had this plot actually develop during the season (with Rory's erasure from history and foreshadowing of the TARDIS's destruction) in a way Davies hadn't.

And then came Moffat's two-part season finale -- indisputably packed with drama. Almost all of time and space were destroyed, after all. It featured almost all of the Doctor's enemies, united against him. And an appearance by the still-ambiguous River Song. And a really cool idea, in the Pandorica, a cube-shaped super-prison constructed for the Doctor. Here, too, were time paradoxes and surprises, producing a great deal of fun.

It was clever. It was dramatic. And it was ultimately a mess.

Personally, I'm always annoyed by stories that seem to make Earth the center of the universe -- a more egregious violation of the pathetic fallacy, it's hard to imagine. I think this has real psychological implications for viewers, all of which are very bad indeed. Season 5's conclusion unmakes the entire universe, outside of Earth, and you can guess how that rubs me. But let's ignore that, assuming it's just my own personal bugbear.

But how was Rory, after being erased from time, displaced into the Roman era with evil cyborg modifications? Because he loved Amy so much? When did he get those cyborg modifications removed? Were we supposed not to care about any of this, or supposed to be satisfied that these major plot elements were "explained" by a silly line or two?

Rory protecting Amy for two thousand years was a cool twist. But wouldn't living two thousand years this way affect his personality? Nope. Later episodes would establish that he barely remembers it all. Cyborg modifications, living two thousand years -- it was all erased, or wasn't (because it happened and everyone remembers it, at least vaguely). Either way, don't pay too much attention to it.

And how is the exploding TARDIS and the recreation of the universe accomplished? None of it makes any sense. Officially, the energy of the TARDIS explosion is harnessed to use the Pandorica to recreate the universe, causing a new Big Bang. Everything's back to how it was before, although maybe with differences. Maybe this explains why Earth no longer seems to know about extraterrestrials, which Davies had established. But when did that effect start again? At the beginning of the season, or now? Does this mean the TARDIS never exploded, creating a Paradox in which all of this never happened? What the hell does any of this mean? We're not supposed to care about any of this -- the plot's resolved; move on.

To be sure, the season's final episode has a great ending, tying into the emotion of Amy's debut. The way Amy remembers the Doctor and summons him back into existence is very clever and cool, even if it doesn't really make sense.

At the end, the Doctor acknowledges that questions remain about the destruction of the TARDIS. And that the phrase "Silence will fall" has never been explained. These suggest that Moffat's loose, season-long storylines won't be like those of Davies: they'll continue, Lost-style, over multiple seasons, perhaps uniting Moffat's entire era in a kind of meta-storyline.

Of course, this requires a great deal of faith in Moffat. One has to believe that he knows the truth about the destruction of the TARDIS, or what "Silence will fall" actually means and why it was tied to the unraveling of time in this season. It's hard to believe that's the case, given the sloppiness of this season's resolution. But perhaps Moffat's still learning on the job, and it's all so clever and so fun that we're inclined to continue.

The Lost Dynamic

Anyone has to acknowledge that a series written in this fashion hangs on a careful dance with the audience. The audience is asked to have faith that everything will be resolved satisfactorily. All of the cleverness in the writing, and in the elements that are satisfactorily resolved, argue for this faith. On the other hand, each time a paradox is set up (such as the destruction of the TARDIS or the entire universe) that isn't adequately resolved argues that the audience is really being hoodwinked.

A show such is a kind of tight-rope walk. It's a risky bet, with huge payoffs and huge downsides. And it tends to fall one way or another. Even if the show wants viewers to just go along for the ride, its structure implicitly tells viewers, "Don't worry; we know what we're doing; it'll all be resolved and work out." If it becomes clear that this isn't the case, that the show doesn't know where it's going or can't adequately resolve everything on the fly, the entire structure falls apart.

After all, anyone can destroy the universe for dramatic effect. It could happen on the next episode of any given show, even ones that aren't sci-fi, and it'll be dramatic. Do this on a cop show, and you've hooked people for the entire episode. But there's a reason shows don't do this, despite it being a phenomenally easy way of generating drama. How the hell are you going to explain it? And if you don't explain it adequately, you've alienated your viewers in a pretty remarkable way.

If it's all a dream, or if it's the result of some wizard who appears near the ending to reverse everything, the viewer feels cheated. And this means that every single later dramatic development has less weight. Once you've told viewers that major dramatic plot points can be undone, without satisfactory explanation (or even an adequate attempt at this), you've told viewers not to care about any plot development, no matter how dramatic.

This is why writers don't kill off the main character in the pre-credits teaser, or reveal that he's got two penises, or reveal that he's an alien, or anything else that might pop into their creative minds. Those are cool ideas, and they'll get attention. But the rest of the show has to explain and resolve that in a way that makes sense. The piper must be paid. And this isn't anything new; it's how narrative works, and every writer knows it.

If the universe can be destroyed, only to be recreated in the most convenient of ways, almost as if an explanation doesn't matter, what does anything mean anymore? Isn't such a show really communicating contempt for its audience? Such a show tells viewers, "Look, all you want is drama, so here's some great drama. We both know you don't really care about the resolution or the explanation, so much as the drama itself. So let's cut the pretense."

Other shows have gone down this road. Lost is the prime example, with its meandering plots being made up on the fly, several of which were never resolved. While a commercial success, Lost is a contemptuous mess. It's also a great litmus test, in that critics who praise its drama despite its obvious lack of any plan invalidate themselves as critics in a stroke. Once you've established that drama's all that matters, explanations and logic be damned, you're pretty much asking for shows with nothing but entertaining deaths and explosions and "clever" developments, without any of them requiring explanation or even internal consistency. That's not narrative. It's Faces of Death with a title track and a little less blood.

The other great example is the revived Battlestar Galactica. To be sure, it's got some great heights ("Pegasus" being my personal favorite). But here we have a show consciously conceived to take outer space drama seriously, including an in-fighting cast (consciously in contrast to the happy crews of Star Trek) and real concerns over resources (again, consciously in contrast to the convenient endless fuel, shuttlecrafts, and the like of Star Trek: Voyager, where the drama of a ship lost in space was reduced of all meaning). Yet this same, hard-bitten, realistic show gets mired in fantasy metaphysics about God, which are somehow used to justify characters jumping through space without coordinates and winding up "where they were meant to go." To call this silly is an insult to Porky Pig.

Here too, we have the problem that the show asks us to have faith in its management of its mythology, especially of the Cylons and the "Final Five," only to switch courses and resolve these plots, without any foreshadowing, in ways that tell viewers as loudly as possible that their faith was misplaced.

So by the time Moffat started down this road, everyone knew perfectly well how this dynamic worked, what the stakes involved were, what the risks were, and what to avoid at any cost. In deciding to do this kind of show, Moffat had to know, as any writer would, that his negotiation of this particular dynamic would be the criterion by which his work would be judged.

One has to presume Moffat, like any intelligent writer, sought to improve upon his predecessors. The only alternative is that he looked at Lost and Battlestar Galactica and wanted only to repeat their commercial success. Fuck it, right? Emphasizing the mythology works, and the viewers will buy the DVDs whether it all ultimately makes sense or not. It's the mystery that matters, and by the time you have to solve it, no one will care if you blame it on the butler with no whiff of foreshadowing. And if they do, fuck them; you've sold the DVDs already, right? Of course, such a cynical calculation might work, but it isn't forgivable. It ought to demolish reputations.

It's important to understand that this isn't me imposing my own standard of judgement on Moffat's work. This is how shows of sprawling mythology work. The pay-off is that those mysteries and dramatic developments create immense viewer interest. They work. But they're like borrowing money, from a narrative standpoint. The bill for all that easily-generated mystery and drama has to be paid, and you have to pay it by tying everything together so that point A meets point B, in a way that feels like it makes sense and creates a coherent narrative whole. That's hard to do, which is why it's traditionally been avoided as a model. But it's a model Moffat chose, and it's his responsibility to understand how it works.

By the end of his first season, it was clear that Moffat had chosen this model, and this was how his tenure on Doctor Who would be judged. So let's see how this plays out, over the course of his next season and a half.

Season Six

"The Impossible Astronaut," Moffat's sixth-season debut, begins with the Doctor's death.

It's a huge gamble and one that's a perfect illustration of the dynamic described above. Killing off your show's protagonist is an easy way to generate excitement. And Moffat does it brilliantly, with TARDIS-colored envelopes and time paradoxes and River Song. Again, he uses Amy Pond brilliantly to generate emotion. There's even some unknown person in a space suit, walking out of a lake, which is a cool visual. From the Doctor referencing his age to his Viking funeral, all the elements are here. If he's going to use this kind of easy device to generate excitement, Moffat could hardly do it better.

But now he's got to pay the piper. He's got to kill the Doctor. Or get out of it in a way that feels like it's been carefully set up along, so we don't feel cheated.

Ironically, this situation perfectly mirrors the Doctor's own. The Doctor's death is fixed, so that it's supposed to operate within a time loop that can't be undone. Here, time can't be changed -- although the show changes time all the time, if you'll forgive the expression. Thus, we know that this future day is coming because we've already seen it. All that happens now must lead up to this future point, in what's got to feel like a single coherent line.

What Moffat's done is materialize drama from the future. But that comes with a price, and the price is that all season, he's got to work carefully to lead up to that future point and resolve it in a way that feels satisfactory. He's borrowed energy from the future, and it must be repaid. There's no getting out of it for Moffat, any more than there is for the Doctor.

"The Impossible Astronaut" also introduced the Silence -- an alien species that you forget as soon as you look away. They're brilliant, and Moffat plays them for all they're worth. Some truly horrifying moments result. There's also the brilliant idea that they're not trying to conquer Earth, like typical Doctor Who aliens. They already have; we just don't remember them.

Yes, the concept is a little close to Moffat's Weeping Angels, who freeze in statue form when looked at. And no, neither species really makes much sense. The Weeping Angels freeze, we're told, as a defensive tactic. But while this does seem to make them invulnerable (Or does it? Can't something break these statues?), it doesn't hide the Angels' presence, despite their preference for subterfuge. Seeing a scowling, teeth-baring statue next to you would be scary, but how does that help the Angels again? Also, why do the Angels, even when encountered on other planets, look like humans' conception of angels from its late second millennium? Never mind, both are indisputably highly entertaining, and Moffat will explain these things later... probably. If it even matters...

Similarly, despite all the brilliance and horror of the Silence, they too have big problems. How does their power work again, on the brains of different species which might have profoundly different structures of memory? And if the Silence have conquered Earth, does that mean that they were operating behind the scenes, through the entire history of Doctor Who? What actions did they take, as Earth was threatened with invasion after invasion? How will they affect all subsequent appearances of Earth in the series?

The Silence are intended to begin resolving what was meant by "Silence will fall" in the previous season, which ended up not being tied to that season's conclusion at all. So what's meant by their "fall" and how does this tie to the time rift of the previous season? No answer has been forthcoming, nor have there been any real hints.

"The Impossible Astronaut" ends with Amy Pond shooting at someone in an astronaut's suit, believing that she's saving the Doctor's life, since whoever's in the suit will go on to kill the Doctor, as seen in the episode's opening. The person in the suit ends up being the little girl, seen throughout the episode. It's a dramatic ending, less because of the little girl than because it shows what Amy's willing to do to save the Doctor, for whom she cares so much.

This episode continues into the next one, "Day of the Moon." Or rather, the plot elements continue, but the episode doesn't. The cliffhanger ending of "The Impossible Astronaut" is simply dropped, and "Day of the Moon" begins three months later, during which the cast has been running around, supposedly trying to track the Silence. How were they trying to do this? It's never discussed. We're just supposed to imagine that our beloved characters spent three months running around America, encountering the Silence with no real consequences. But never mind that, the episode's about to begin.

Like the previous episode, it's fun, horrific stuff. But it doesn't resolve anything. The Silence are left ruling Earth, although humans who watched the moon landing now have negative feelings towards the Silence imprinted in their unconscious. The identity of the young girl isn't resolved -- although she's shown regenerating like a Time Lord, at the end of the episode. And instead of resolving anything, the episode adds a new wrinkle: Amy Pond, who thought she was pregnant, now seems not to be, and the Doctor sees on a TARDIS screen that she's alternating between pregnant and not pregnant, as if that's some kind of quantum fluctuation.

It's a clever little idea, given the way people say someone can't be "a little bit pregnant"; pregnancy is supposed to be a binary proposition, so it's especially funny to see this turned into something that, like Schrödinger's cat, both is and isn't.

But instead of resolving anything, Moffat's Who was adding mysteries. If there was any doubt that it was fully committed to the Lost model, "Day of the Moon" made things clear enough.

A few episodes later, "The Rebel Flesh" and "The Almost People" introduced the concept of a Ganger, a doppelganger used to replace someone to enable them to do deadly tasks. At the end of the episode, Doctor Who apologizes and turns his sonic screwdriver on Amy Pond, who disintegrates just like the Gangers in the episode.

It's a wonderfully dramatic conclusion, and it's cool that this seemingly inconsequential two-parter suddenly has major importance. But it certainly feels convenient. If Amy Pond is a Ganger, wouldn't a writer want to foreshadow the Ganger concept earlier in the series? (We're later told that the Doctor's suspicions that Amy was a Ganger caused him to land where we see him in "The Rebel Flesh," but it's still hard not to feel like there's no master plan at work.)

Season 6 was the first to be split into two halves, and the following episode, "A Good Man Goes to War," acts as the conclusion to the first half. It reveals that a cabal, led by previously unseen villains, sought to kill the Doctor, who they see as a warrior -- echoing the idea, which goes back to Davies's tenure, that the Doctor's villains see him as a far less positive character than he does (and we do). This cabal, which receives remarkably little motivation or screen time, kidnapped a pregnant Amy (which is never seen or explained) and replaced her with a Ganger (between this season and last). The child, conceived on the TARDIS, somehow has the TARDIS's "time energy" in it, essentially making it a Time Lord. (Talk about hazardous work environments! You'd think the Doctor would have warned them...) The evil cabal wants to use the child to kill the Doctor, and it brainwashes the child to this effect. The child is the little girl, seen in the two-part season opener. At the end of the episode, we learn that it will grow up to be none of than River Song -- finally revealing her ambiguous identity.

That's a particularly clever twist, and like most in Moffat's tenure, it's done remarkably well. Most of the episode is focused on how awesome the Doctor and crew are, as they storm the base (called "Demon's Run") on which Amy is being held. The episode has plenty of good and exciting moments. What's most telling, however, is that River Song's identity has been properly foreshadowed. One of the major clues is Amy Pond's name, given that both "pond" and "river" are bodies of water. This is certainly a nice change, for a show that doesn't seem to foreshadow anything, or that asks you to believe that the Silence whose fall is tied to a season-long time rift wasn't tied to that time rift at all but is actually a new alien species already in control of Earth, though no one remembers it and it doesn't seem to have any consequence and no one knows what its "fall" represents or why this would be mentioned in conjunction with a time rift that ended the universe.

But hey, maybe Moffat will figure this all out. If he could resolve Amy's quantum pregnancy and River Song's long-mysterious identity, maybe he could also resolve the Doctor's death, the Silence plot, and what "Silence will fall" actually meant. Maybe he hadn't simply painted himself into a corner, due to lack of planning. Maybe he had some idea of the answers all along.

Any hope of this was pretty much dashed with the next episode. "Let's Kill Hitler" is incredibly fun. It's got lots of action and tons of cleverness. Unfortunately, it makes all of Moffat's Doctor Who collapse upon the slightest bit of examination.

The episode begins by retroactively introducing Mels, a childhood friend of Amy and Rory, whose childhood has already been seen without Mels. Guess what? Mels is a wild girl, who immediately commandeers the TARDIS. She's also, we soon find out, Amy's daughter. Yes, Amy grew up as friends with her own daughter, who all along knew the Doctor of Amy's stories was real. Mels soon regenerates, becoming River Song -- and trying to kill the Doctor, in a series of very fun and clever scenes. She actually succeeds but repents and -- conveniently -- uses "the last" of her time energy to save the Doctor she poisoned, thereby making her human and no longer a demi-Time Lord.

Again, the episode's an incredible amount of fun. It's ridiculously clever. It's brilliantly acted. And it's logically a disaster.

First, there's the retroactive insert of Mels. Why wasn't this set up as early as "The Eleventh Hour?" Hell, why wasn't she even mentioned in the first half of this season? Instead, she's retroactively inserted into continuity, only to be revealed as River Song mere minutes later. It's hard to imagine any clearer indication that Steven Moffat simply had no idea where anything was going, and thus what he was doing as a writer.

It's so strange, to have an episode like this that completely jumps the shark, yet is simultaneously so entertaining.

Then there's the problem of Doctor Who's selective cosmology. Sometimes, time can be altered. Other times, it can't, and characters have to deal with the consequences and the paradoxes. This is typical of most TV science-fiction, including Star Trek, though it's a sign of very bad writing in science-fiction prose. Within Doctor Who, going back to Davies, this is justified by the idea of "fixed points in time." Conveniently, famous points in Earth's history just happen to be the most common "fixed points," and this lets the series explain why the Doctor can't keep Pompeii from being destroyed (for example). Moffat's Doctor Who has used this concept even more arbitrarily, to tag certain events of his own invention (frequently of even lesser cosmic consequence, nor even known to the wider world) as "fixed points," signalling to viewers that they can't be magically erased through time travel. The Doctor's death is one of them. Why? No reason, except that otherwise it wouldn't be a problem -- to make this mean anything, you've got to tell viewers that it can't simply be erased through the Doctor's magic blue box.

Okay, so far so good. Typically, episodic shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who may make time malleable and unchangeable from episode to episode. A convenient conceit or line of dialogue might explain why one model of time is being evoked and not the other. But at least each episode is consistent within itself. Yeah, this still sucks. It's still stupid. But at least it's limited to a given episode.

It's worth mentioning that the regular episode right before the Doctor was killed in a "fixed point in time" (not counting that year's Christmas special) was one that used altering time to literally destroy and remake the entire universe. So we've seen how radically alterable time is. Now, we're being told time isn't alterable -- at least when it comes to something the writers need to be fixed.

But then we have River Song. She and the Doctor meet, often in reverse order relative to one another. So now we don't have one time traveler; we have two, their histories interlocking in a complex web. It's a very cool idea. But here's the thing: all those points need to be, essentially, fixed. Because if you unravel one point, the whole web starts to collapse.

So now we've seen the birth of River Song. What this means is that, if this moment in history is altered, all those stories with River Song never happened. Moffat's Doctor Who collapses. So the birth of River Song has to be fixed too. And so does everything that happened to her, from her birth in this episode until the adult River Song we know. In a series full of radical alterations of time, none of this can be altered, or the entire series comes crashing down.

This means that the Doctor has to fail to save Amy's baby. To his credit, Moffat realizes this, and "Let's Kill Hitler" has the Doctor, early on, explaining this to Amy and Rory. Shame he didn't do so, at the end of "A Good Man Goes to War." Months have passed for Amy and Rory, between the two episodes, during which the Doctor's left them under the illusion that he's out trying to rescue their baby. That's shockingly cruel, but it's waved away with a line of dialogue -- and on to the show!

It's important to keep in mind that the Doctor's found ways around plenty of impossible spots. Yet when it comes to the child of his companions, he just gives up. After all, if he somehow found some way around this, Moffat's Doctor Who would be unravel. So we have to go along with this terrible course of events, and the sudden retroactive insert of Mel into Amy and Rory's childhood, and suddenly thinking of Amy and Rory as parents, and with the idea that the Doctor's death can't be altered any more than this baby can be saved -- in a series that frequently and cavalierly alters time, including in Moffat's own scripts.

"Let's Kill Hitler" also introduces the Teselecta -- an android operated by a miniaturized crew. It can take the form of anyone. It's great fun in the episode. But it's strange, you might think, that the show introduces yet another concept involving assuming someone else's form so soon after the Gangers.

In the season finale, "The Wedding of River Song," the series finally has to resolve the Doctor's death. Although she's fated to dress in an astronaut suit and emerge from a lake and kill the Doctor, River Song refuses to go through with it. So much for her brainwashing. Time then collapses under the weight of the paradox, and the bulk of the episode is spent in a bizarre mishmash of timelines. As a depiction of what might happen, were time to collapse, it's all incredibly silly and illogical. In this bizarre world, the Doctor convinces River to go ahead and kill him, in order to restore the timeline. But first, they get married.

River's long hinted that she's had a relationship with the Doctor in the future, and she's often been seen in prison for killing the best man she knew, someone very famous. Both of these get fulfilled here, which is well and good.

But if you can avoid a fixed point, even at the cost of time collapsing, is it really a fixed point? None of this makes any sense, really, and it only highlights the absurdity of how many times time itself has collapsed, only to preserve the characters of the story. That's a very silly trope, in time travel tales, and it's stretched incredibly thin here.

At the end of the episode, River Song visits Amy and Rory, revealing that the Doctor she killed wasn't the Doctor at all. It was the Teselecta, which had assumed the Doctor's form.

Yep, that's all it took to get out of the foretold death of the Doctor: have someone replace him. Hell, Moffat could have used a Ganger -- yet again.

Except the Doctor's death is recorded in records across the universe. That's part of why it's a "fixed point." River Song's sent to prison for it -- which means that the Doctor, in addition to not trying to rescue Amy's baby, let his wife serve an extended prison sentence for a crime she didn't commit.

So how does Moffat get around the fact that these records exist? He says that the Doctor's going underground. He's made too many enemies, as we've seen this season, and it's better if they think he's dead.

Now, keep in mind that the Doctor is a Time Lord who pops around all of space and time, often affecting the course of events dramatically. What Moffat's committing to, as part of getting out of killing the Doctor, is that the Doctor will never, for the remainder of his life, pop up on anyone's radar. The Doctor could live, from his point of view, a thousand more years, but none of his adventures will ever be noticed by anyone important, nor will word of him get around in any significant way.

This is a radical change to the show's format, necessitating a different kind of story. In the original series, the Doctor was once stationed on Earth (to save the BBC money), and the show changed the type of stories it told as a result. Now, if anything Moffat had done meant anything, Doctor Who was shifting radically again. Whether Moffat could pull this off remained to be seen.

"The Wedding of River Song" also teased at the show's continuing mysteries. In the opening, Moffat has a character say that "Silence must fall when the question is asked." This will happen "at the fall of the eleventh" -- a reference, perhaps, to how Matt Smith plays the Eleventh Doctor. Moffat's changing the "Silence will fall" formulation, and it's still unclear how this prophecy about the Silence (who have since been revealed to be a religious order headed by the memory-erasing species, not that species itself) had anything to Moffat's first season. As to which question the prophecy refers to, it's not hard for viewers to guess. The revived show has played frequently with its title, "Doctor Who," in dialogue. And at the end of the episode, we learn that's the mysterious question.

It's a let-down. More importantly, it's a wrong turn.

The original series once deliberately tried to make the Doctor more mysterious again, because it felt that too much had been revealed about him. Now, Moffat was promising to reveal the Doctor's identity, in some way that hadn't been revealed previously. That doesn't seem like a very good idea, because the answers are likely only to disappoint.

And it really ought to be said that Moffat is the last person, at this point, that one would trust to reveal the Doctor's identity. He's indisputably a very, very clever writer. But he's consistently shown an inability to steer the series properly, beyond these clever. On the level of elements within stories, he's brilliant. On the level of long-term planning, his Doctor Who has been a disaster. He repeatedly sets up interesting challenges for himself, then fails to deliver. Now, this man was announcing his intentions to set his sights on revealing the Doctor's origins or identity, in some meaningful way.

Sure, Moffat could dodge this too -- as he had so much already. But if he did go forward, the odds of success are not good.

The First Half of Season Seven

Moffat's next season was similarly split into two halves. To date, only the first half (and not the Christmas special, set between the two halves) have aired.

The first half begins with "Asylum of the Daleks," for which some time has passed again for our characters, and now Amy and Rory are divorcing. This recalls the inexplicably poorly-judged gaps between "The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon," or between "A Good Man Goes to War" and "Let's Kill Hitler." It's very hard to imagine Amy and Rory's relationship deteriorating so badly, and one gets the feeling of a movie sequel, in which the writers make things happen between movies that don't really make sense, in terms of character, but which provide fuel for the sequel's plot. It's even harder to imagine Amy and Rory divorcing once the episode, in its climax, reveals why: Amy can't have another child, due to her imprisonment as shown in "A Good Man goes to War," and she knows Rory wanted them. So she apparently tossed aside the man who stood guard over her for two millennia, without so much as telling him the reason why, let alone talking it out.

This isn't to say that the episode isn't clever or fun. It is. But it doesn't make sense, and at some point, the contrivances build up in the viewer's mind, so that the clever resolution -- such as Amy and Rory reconciling -- feels hollow and loses its emotional weight.

Then there's the conclusion, after the climax, in which we realize that the Daleks no longer know who the Doctor is. That's a result of a girl who'd been transformed into a Dalek deleting this information. It's a clever way of the Doctor escaping in this episode.

But it only applies to the Daleks present there. It certainly doesn't apply to all Daleks throughout history. After all, if it did, the history of Doctor Who would unravel completely. All those episodes, in which the Daleks sought revenge on the Doctor or cowered when he mentioned his name? Yeah, none of would have happened. So Moffat can't intend some kind of universal, cross-time forgetting contrivance?

Yes, he can. In the finale of the season's first half, "The Angels Take Manhattan," River tells the Doctor that there's no record of him anywhere. In fact, she's been paroled from prison for killing him, because there's no record of whom she killed.

To be fair, the implication is that, between "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Angels Take Manhattan," the Doctor's been going around and erasing himself from data banks -- and perhaps memories as well. Still, it's hard to describe exactly how idiotic this is. The Doctor travels through time, after all. He's even encountered his own previous incarnations on multiple occasions. He encounters River Song out of sequence. So when has the Doctor erased memory of himself? It can't be of everyone, throughout history, or many previous Doctor Who episodes simply couldn't have happened anymore. Those include episodes featuring River Song, whose stories must remain "fixed" or Doctor Who unravels. If all records of the Doctor have been erased, how did the previous season, in which the time of the Doctor's death is well-known, happen at all? Never mind that River would have been released -- how would River have been imprisoned at all?

And if the Doctor could get River -- his wife, remember -- released simply by erasing his own record, why didn't he do so earlier?

This also invalidates the entire previous season. If the Doctor can erase himself from history, why would he have to go underground? That was premised upon the idea that no records exist of the Doctor, following his "death" -- thus, he couldn't create any. If all records of him could be wiped out, why bother with this?

Also, so much for that promise to alter the kinds of stories Doctor Who could tell, based around the fact that he couldn't be noticed after this point in his own lifetime. Why, in "Asylum of the Daleks," before any memories of him have been erased, the Daleks track him down and he interacts with their leaders. In the next episode, "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," the Doctor's freely interacting with the future Indian Space Agency (of Earth). And two episodes later, "The Power of Three," he's interacting with UNIT in the near future. Do these events not get recorded or remembered by anyone, so that they're not known to the time travelers in the previous season, who can't find any record of the Doctor after his death date? Or has the Doctor erased all records of himself, in which case, why do these Earth-bound characters know him?

None of this makes any sense at all. It simply feels like Moffat wanted to keep telling the kinds of stories Doctor Who always did, so there's a couple gestures to memories of the Doctor being erased, and we're not supposed to want more than that, nor to think about it at all. Because hey, dinosaurs on a spaceship!

To make matters worse, "The Angels Take Manhattan" is the swan song for Amy and Rory's characters. It's set in Manhattan, and it introduces baby Weeping Angels, or cherubs. It also opens with the revelation that the Statue of Liberty itself is actually a Weeping Angel, and she returns -- with ominous sound, then in cold stony flesh -- at the climax. This is a cool visual and a cool idea, which is presumably why Moffat included it. But it doesn't make any sense at all. The Angels freeze when someone looks at them. Are we supposed to believe that no one noticed, in New York City at night, a giant statue walking through the streets? It makes a lot of sound as it moves -- which is ominous to the characters, who are inside. Doesn't anyone in the city hear this and look out their window? And when exactly did the Weeping Angels replace the freaking Statue of Liberty? Are there Weeping Angels this big? What does any of this mean?

We're not supposed to think about it.

This kind of thing wouldn't get past an intro-level creative writing course. How in the world it got on television, on one of the world's most successful TV programs, is utterly beyond me.

Typical of Moffat's Doctor Who, we're supposed to be distracted by thinking about any of this because of clever and emotionally gripping elements. In this case, the send-off for Amy and Rory.

Which doesn't make any sense either.

In the episode, we see the death of an aged Rory, after being sent back in time by the Angels. We're familiar with this plot element from previous episodes, and we're told that it's "fixed" -- it can't be changed.

Then Amy and Rory jump off a roof, committing suicide, in order to create a time paradox. Somehow, this makes the building they were in, occupied by the Angels, never exist.

That's right: another story in which suicide is used to solve someone's problems.

Now, if it's this easy to get around a "fixed" point in time, why did we spend an entire season trying to do so? The Doctor's death was predestined, and everyone struggles to find a way around it. How silly of them. All they had to do was kill the Doctor themselves, at any given point, and the world would magically go back to how it was.

At the end of the story, Amy and Rory then get sent back in time anyway. This seems a shame, since the story just depicted suicide as a positive, in order to get around this.

So why can't the Doctor just go back in time and save them? New York City is supposed to be hard to land the TARDIS in anyway, for reasons passing serious understanding. But the real reason is because of the time paradox Amy and Rory created. Yet that undid things, so there's no "time paradox" sitting out there, shielding some portion of time from the TARDIS. It's just a stupid line of dialogue. And that's why Amy and Rory are stuck in the past, cut off from the Doctor. The stakes of their departure rest upon a line of dialogue that doesn't make sense.

How are we supposed to care again? At this major emotional point in the series? Oh, that's right: by not thinking too hard, and focusing on the sad farewell -- never mind why it has to happen at all.

At least when Davies ditched Rose Tyler, it was to an alternate universe, the pathways to which were deteriorating. That's a bit of sci-fi mumbo jumbo, to be sure, but it makes more sense than this.

What a mess.

Conclusion

What's so infuriating about Moffat's Doctor Who is that it's so very, very good -- so frequently clever and entertaining -- yet so very, very bad in ways that invalidate everything.

It's like a beautiful castle intricately constructed out colored sand. But the moment you touch it, it collapses.

What makes this even more infuriating is that Moffat's Doctor Who encourages speculation. All those mysteries, such as River Song's identity or how the Doctor's going to avoid his death, inevitably get the audience thinking. There are puzzles with mysterious phrases that encourage speculation. Hell, even all those clever elements and plot devices get you thinking.

Only once you start thinking, it doesn't take long for everything to unravel.

This is a show that invites you to chart the Doctor's meetings with River Song, in order to see how they occur, relative to both characters' perspectives. That's awesome. It's so intricate. Except that once you do, you start noticing ambiguities. Worse, you realize these all of these meetings have to be fixed points, yet time's been undone and recreated with differences, or memories erased, over and over again, between these meetings.

Moffat's Who feels wonderful for how it encourages you to use your brain. But all its cleverness in just brain candy. It's momentarily delightful. But if you actually engage the organ, you see this candy for the junk food it is.

That's probably true of a lot of TV, especially aimed even in part at kids. But usually, such shows don't delight in paradoxes and cleverness that get the brain humming. With Moffat's Who, the brain's only supposed to get a quick buzz. If it's a brain that's too smart, or if it doesn't shut down after that buzz and instead keeps going, the whole show unravels with phenomenal speed.

One has to wonder, if one knows this to be the case, whether it's wise to get people's brains engaged at all.

If Moffat's adopted the Lost model to his own writing, it's by using it to infuse his stories with clever and entertaining paradoxes. We've seen Moffat's ability to do this since "The Curse of the Fatal Death." And there's no denying that Moffat's incredibly clever. As showrunner, he's displayed this since his first episode and Amy Pond's introduction. Steven Moffat is a clever, clever man.

But cleverness isn't anything. And it's not the same thing as being smart.

Clever twists or story elements are just that. They're clever and entertaining. Smartness is displayed over time. It's a higher bar. A smart story isn't merely clever. It's a careful whole, constructed in such a way that, if the butler's revealed as the killer, the revelation crashes down on you, and you say, "Of course!" A smart plot holds together with a feeling of unity and inevitability.

You can be smart without being clever, or vice versa. Lots of stories are smart and come together perfectly but aren't particularly clever. And lots of stories have clever ideas but collapse underneath their own weight.

To use an analogy, a story's structure is like a physical structure. Plot points have to connect, if the structure is to hold together. When you realize that something was foreshadowed all along, you're realizing that the structure was well-built, so that the beautiful top of a column extends all the way to the floor. There's plenty of room for flourishes and filigree, but it's got to be placed onto a proper structure -- and ideally, it's got to work with all the other designs, to that there's a unified aesthetic at least to that portion of the building, whether you see that as a part of the larger story or as all of a certain character's appearances. When we realize that a development wasn't inevitable, or that someone is acting out of character, we're noticing flaws in the structure. If those flaws are severe enough, the story may superficially resemble a cathedral, but its construction is so fundamentally unsound that it collapses -- especially if you examine or touch it.

A cool and clever twist is like a stained-glass window. You look at it and say that it's awesome. It may even be beautiful and move you to tears. But if you put it in a ramshackle structure, and who gives a shit? A beautiful stained-glass window is remarkable by itself. But if the building in which it's embedded is a mess of wooden boards at odd angles and majestic columns that are warped and don't actually support the structure, that building's still a self-destructive failure, stained-glass window and all.

Moffat's work is fun and clever. There's no denying that. Those traits define his work. I admire those traits immensely, and his Doctor Who work can be incredibly fun to watch.

But that work isn't necessarily smart. It doesn't necessarily work. It's filled with beautiful stained-glass windows, but they don't necessarily do anything. They can be awe-inspiring, but then you notice there's a wall behind it so no light can ever get in, invalidating all that now-useless beauty.

Moffat seems to have adopted the high-mythology model of Lost as a way to insert any number of clever elements, all of which can be cool or even stunning in themselves. Instead of looking at the abject creative failure of Lost and making sure he improved upon it, he seems to have realized that the Lost model means nothing ultimately has to be explained. Audiences will go with it anyway. And if this is the case, Moffat could turn his creative energies loose, infusing his stories will all his clever ideas, explanations be damned.

After all, this is Doctor Who. It's a sci-fi show, in which anything can be explained by altering time, or with the deus ex machina wave of a sonic screwdriver. It's a show that's traditionally been for kids, or adults who like kid-friendly entertainment, and this audience doesn't give a shit if anything really, ultimately makes sense. It's all about the coolness of the Daleks, or the Cybermen, and narrative logic be damned.

Maybe that's a wise calculation. Maybe Moffat's figured out how to use the limits of Doctor Who to play to his own strengths. Rather than improve the Doctor Who model, fixing these limitations, or improve the Lost model, making it actually pay off, he's fused the two. And he's found that the two model's limitations are remarkably compatible. If you never have to make anything pay off or make sense, except in the most superficial of ways, you can make every minute of Doctor Who as cool and fun as those Dalek designs.

Moffat's done that to a remarkable extent. It's commendable, really. It's just that it's cynical, is all. And Moffat's Who is so good at what it does, so clever and so tantalizing with its long-term teases, that it's hard not to wish it actually knew what it was doing.

But really, I'm part of the problem. Because I'll keep watching, even knowing this. Maybe I won't see the episodes when their first air, but I'll stay relatively caught up. It's too well-done, too clever, too emotionally entertaining, not to.

It's just that I know I shouldn't.

And I wish the show lived up to its promise. Because it's so ridiculously promising.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Last Hour of Tatiana Rambova

My dog Tatiana died about 12 hours ago.

Dealing with her illness was incredibly difficult. All I'll say is that you think there's nothing worse than explosive diarrhea without warning. Until it's six sessions a day, occasionally mixed with mucous and blood.

Discussing the decision and preparing for her death has been difficult too.

I have many happy memories of her at the park, in the sun, sniffing the different smells of the lake and the children there. So my Mom and I took her to the park, on the way to the vet.

She panted and didn't walk, but we carried her to different spots.

Down by the water, I realized that this was more for me than for her. There was a moment there, while I petted her in the sun, when I saw a small spider on the bright grass in front of her, and there was that buzzing of gnats and tiny things, arcing against the grass, and I thought about how full of life this earth is, and I stared at that spider, isolating it in my eyes, and I felt so terribly fucking sad, knowing this was the last time Tatiana would be in the park, knowing this animal I love so fucking much was dying with all this sun and life around her. It was all so overwhelming, so full of light and life and love in the middle of her death, that I could barely bear it. And still barely can.

Up by the road, before we left, she started to circle, like she had to poop, and the motion seemed to wake her from her stupor a little. She stared for the first time like she was actually looking at something, and I saw her nose sniff when the breeze blew across her body. That body, which had to be in discomfort if not pain, patches of fur shaved with little red dots where the vet had inserted IVs. And I loved her so much, and when she stopped engaging again, I knew it was time to take her to the car.

And while Mom and I talked there, watching Tatiana, I saw a woman sitting alone, facing away from us on a park bench nearby, and I knew she must know what we were talking about, must be able to piece it together, but she didn't say anything to us -- how could she -- and we didn't say anything to her.

I didn't cry there, but I felt myself nearing it so many times. If there's a Heaven, I picture it like that park, nothing fancy, just that beautiful day with green grass and the dog you love, illuminated and sniffing the breeze that blows her whiskers. Each time, I fought back the emotion and warned myself that her actual death would be so much worse. I didn't know how I would bear it.

She used to love when I took her on late-night excursions to fast-food places. She'd perk up, knowing what was going on, and as we were in the drive-thru, she'd sniff the air outside, full of wonderful food aromas. She'd sometimes point her nose at the door to the garage, hoping to get me to go, or she'd check on me at night, even though she was tired, like "I'm ready for sleep, but if you are going out, I will totally stay up for that."

I wanted to take her somewhere, and I settled on McDonald's. Mom and I each got a cheeseburger for after, knowing we might not have the strength to get food. Mom used to share ice cream cones with Tatiana, so she got one. I got a small french fries, because I'd often give her some on the drive home, if I wanted to wait to eat something bigger.

The girl who handed us the food told us she hoped our dog felt better. Apparently, she could tell Tatiana was sick. I thought about saying what we were on the way to do, but I didn't.

Tatiana rode on Mom's lap, and she'd been unsettled, as she often was in the car, before the park. Afterwards, she had a calm, even serene quality. As she stared at me with her big black eyes, I held a french fry to her mouth, and she liked the smell but wouldn't take it. We weren't surprised, but I wanted her to have those smells one more time, even if she didn't have the appetite to eat.

We were about twenty minutes early for our 4:40pm appointment at the vet, so I had a cigarette before we went inside, while Mom held her with the air conditioner on. Tatiana loved the air conditioner. When it was time, I came to the passenger's side and took Tatiana, wrapped in a towel, from Mom. I was hesitant and scared to take her, and I told myself it was because she'd shit herself so often, but it was really fear of what I'd feel, embracing her. But it felt so good to do so, and she felt weightless in my arms as I carried her inside.

They weighed her inside -- it was protocol -- and she didn't stand or resist. She'd lost a pound since we'd taken her there, a week before. The nurse took us to a room, where we sat Tatiana on the metal examining table, and the nurse asked if we were there to talk with the doctor about putting Tatiana to sleep, and we told the nurse we were there to actually do it, and Mom signed some paperwork on a board, and as she left the nurse told us she was sorry and it was for the best for Tatiana, and it was awkward but I was so thankful to hear this from someone else, to my surprise, and I felt the emotion welling up again, and the nurse put a box of tissues on the table and told us they were there and then left.

"We are gonna cry," I said to Mom. And we held Tatiana, and she didn't resist, and then the doctor came in, and we turned Tatiana with her head away from the door and her stomach to the doctor, and right away the doctor started tying off a leg while I watched, and he readied the injection.

"Do you want to get on this side of her?" Mom asked, gesturing towards Tatiana's head, and I moved right away. I'd told Mom that I wanted to be here, that I wanted to look in Tatiana's eyes, that I didn't want to ignore the reality of this, in all its fullness, even if it was impossibly hard.

I immediately went to Tatiana's face, and I crouched down and looked right into her eyes, and they weren't confused or darting around like I'd worried they would be. She usually hated vets and struggled, but now she seemed totally resigned, not like she understood but like she didn't have the desire or the energy to resist. I smiled for her, and I put my right hand on her back and left hand on her chest, where she loved to be scratched, and I stared at her, and I told her it was okay, and I rubbed my nose on hers, and I breathed on her nose to let her know I was there and this is my smell and your Julian is here and he loves you. And even though she didn't have any resistance to give, she stared right at me, and the doctor put the needle in.

She didn't react, but her eyes stopped moving right away, and her breathing slowed, and it was such a change that I said, "Oh, she's gone," even though she wasn't yet. Her chest lifted up and down, with a normal rhythm, and I could see her nostril flaring slightly and the fur on the edge of her nose contracting, an inch from my face. And I wasn't upset, but I pointed out that she was breathing, and then Mom, who was holding her too, also saw it, and Mom said that our last dog, Charlemagne, who I hadn't been there to see die, hadn't taken this long, and the doctor said that with Tatiana's congestive heart failure, her heart probably wasn't pumping enough to get it through her body. Her eyes weren't moving anymore, and I said I didn't think she was cognitively all there anymore, even if her body was. And the vet talked about dosages, and how he'd given her the right dosage but he might give her a little more. And he left and I asked Mom to shut the door because of the sound outside, and she did. "Oh, baby," I told Tatiana, and I breathed on her some more, in case she was still cognizant.  And the vet came back, and I kept staring at my girl and breathing on her nose, and seeing her nostril move in my peripheral vision I was so close, and I thought about botched death row executions but didn't say anything, and I kept staring as the vet readied another needle and put it into her chest where I couldn't see. And Mom asked if he put it into her heart, and he said, "Into her chest cavity, yes." And Mom said, "You must have done a million of these," and the vet said, "Probably too many," and he left again, and I asked Mom to close the door again, while I held Tatiana, and she did.

I hadn't been upset, but I started to feel uncomfortable, holding that squatting position, and it was time for this to be over and for the vet to do his job. And then the vet came back, and he gave her a third shot, and while I stared into Tatiana's eyes, just three inches in front of mine, suddenly something happened to them, and they didn't move exactly, but it seemed like they pulled back, inside the eye, like the life left them in a split second, and I said, "Oh, she's gone" again, and I knew I was right this time.

And then those eyes, like they'd come unglued inside her, rolled up over the course of about two seconds, so I could see the white and veiny red lines on the side of them, the black iris just a crescent moon at the top of these two strips of wet bulging flesh, and all the details were crystal clear, like my own eyes were focused with all their might at hers, and neither of ours ever shut.

"Take as long as you need," said the vet, and he left the room and closed the door, and I stared at my dog, so lifeless now, and I petted her ear, but she was gone, and we let go of her.

I blew my nose, and Mom had tears on her cheeks, and she was wiping them with the tissues, and she said, "It was the right thing to do," and I told her "Absolutely," without hesitation, and I cried a little, but I was really okay.

I had been so prepared for this moment, and those I love had warned me of it, but it hadn't been hard at all. I felt so glad to have seen it and to be there, right there, the person she loved most, holding her at the end. And I hated that it had taken so long, for her sake and for ours, but it was done, it was done, and her suffering was over, and the caretaking was over, and I knew then as I never had before that we'd made the right decision, and I had no doubt that she was gone, and the worrying had been so much worse -- so much worse -- than the thing itself, and it was what it was, what it had to be, and it was done.

I knew there was no point to it, but I petted her some more and adjusted her head and lifted her legs, to make sure I didn't regret doing so later. But this was a dead thing, a puppet, no more my Tatiana than a tumor on her body that I wouldn't cry to remove. There is no such thing as blacker than black, but there is limper than limp, and a corpse has it. And it was time to go.

And I was okay with it, like I never thought I would be. The nurse, in her condolences as we left, was more upset than I was.

At home, Mom and I kept talking, and then we got a couple beers, and we put our other dog, Daria, in the yard. And it wasn't until I saw Daria, playing with her frisbee in the sun, that I felt the sadness I'd felt at the park, and I told Mom that it wasn't death that saddens me but the memory of those happy moments, when she'd run to me on the driveway, or get wide-eyed in wonder at a treat, or sniffing the grass in awe at its smells, or how happy she was when a child petted her when she was dressed as Batdog in the Holloween parade, and those are the memories that haunt me, those memories of love and of life and of engagement, and the rest is just the time you fill between.

I've uploaded some photos my mother and I took, at the park and in the car afterwards, on Google+. In retrospect, Tatiana looks very weary, her back arched in pain. That's me, petting her in the landing by the water.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rethinking "Welfare Moms"

When you hear about U.S. parents on welfare getting more benefits for having more kids, it's important to keep in mind that this is nothing compared to the massive government subsidy given to all parents.

When people refer to "welfare," they often mean one program out of the several programs classified as welfare: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. TANF averages about $300 / month to a single person and about $900 / month to a family of four -- obviously not nearly enough to live on. The extra amount one receives per child is in the neighborhood of $200 / month.

That's $2400 / year. Hardly enough to care for a child.

It's not really free money either: most parents are expected to work, or at least search for it. There's also a lot of time and work -- and transportation costs -- involved in applying and maintaining one's welfare status.


These payments are typically limited to five years.

So again, that's $2400 a year, for a maximum of five years.

Well, the amount state and federal governments pay per child, mostly for education, is just under $9000 / year. Some spend a bit less, but others spend a whole lot more.

That's right: if you've got a kid in public school, the cost of what you're getting in free services dwarfs the extra amount someone on welfare is getting for his or her kid.

You might be getting $9000. The welfare parent might be getting $11400. That's analogous to the difference between an average school district and a slightly wealthier one, or between a fairly rural district and a more urban one.

But don't forget, both parents get that $9000 throughout a child's education, rarely less than 12 years. That $2400 difference is capped at five years and often used for less. Project that out, and everyone's getting $108,000, while the parent on welfare's getting a maximum of $12,000 additional.

Sure, you can still be angry if you want. But if you've got a kid in public school, you're getting a "handout" too -- you're just complaining that an incredibly poor parent is getting slightly more.

Of course, there are other forms of welfare too. It's possible the same family on welfare could be getting food stamps, for example -- a program that gives you a bump of around $100 per child per month. But that's still about $1200 per year, which still pales in comparison with that $9000.

I'm not arguing welfare should be more. I'm just saying that it ought to be put into perspective, and demonizing "welfare moms" doesn't make a lot of sense unless you're also willing to demonize the much more massive amount the state pays for education.

Of course, it feels different, to hear someone's getting food stamps or "welfare," whereas we take public school for granted. One feels free in a way that the other doesn't. But that public school, to which you probably feel entitled and don't think has enough resources, costs a lot more in taxes than any welfare allotments. If you went to public school, you're not a "self-made" pioneer; you actually benefited from a massive social program that dwarfs welfare, so perhaps you shouldn't be the first to point fingers.

And let's not forget that you have to be suffering to qualify for these programs. You don't want to be in that situation, and it's not fun. And when you're poor, a much higher percentage of your income goes to sales taxes and fixed expenses, like food and rent and transportation.

It also might be worth considering that, if welfare isn't given, a lot more children would suffer from things like malnutrition, which has life-long effects... that would end up costing the state a whole lot of money. Also, a little extra money in welfare services is often what helps a family get back on its feet, after a layoff or a medical emergency. The sooner that happens, the sooner the government can stop welfare services and start collecting tax revenue instead -- potentially over decades.

And while we're on the subject of welfare, don't forget that one of the other welfare programs is social security. So when people criticize all welfare, rather than some specific program, they're criticizing social security too.

Finally, while some parents on welfare get more than the above figures, the government also pays out a lot more per child than the $9000 listed above. It's virtually impossible to calculate how many police department hours, fire department hours, and reimbursements to hospitals the average child incurs. How much is the average child's portion of road maintenance or public lighting or agriculture subsidies? Then there are the various tax credits for children, which cost the government dollars. Nothing surpasses educational expenses, but the ways in which we subsidize children are massive and arguably incalculable.

The bottom line is that the state spends a huge amount per child per year, in lots and lots of ways. Welfare programs are only one of those ways and nowhere near the largest.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Two Free Books This Weekend

To celebrate the release of my novel Nira/Sussa, its publisher, Martian Lit, has decided to make two Kindle singles by me free this weekend.

The Slave Factory, by Julian Darius

The first, entitled The Slave Factory, is a story of the slave trade told in 12 brief chapters, with interwoven narratives that come together to tell a devastating story about how we oppress ourselves and each other. It's about 15,000 words and on Kindle here.

Shedding Skin: Two Tales of Horror and Identity

The second is its just-released follow-up, Shedding Skin: Two Tales of Horror and Identity. This contains two stories. The longer one, "Shedding Skin," is a story about a Midwestern man whose girlfriend gives birth many miles away, leading him to slowly uncover some buried truths. It's really creepy. The shorter story, "Inherited Things," is a vampire story that's pretty damn dark and probably unlike any vampire story you've ever read. Together, the two stories are about 14,000 words, and you can get them on Kindle here.

Both will be absolutely free this weekend, 9-10 June 2012. If you like them, please tell a friend or write a review.

Nira/Sussa, by Julian Darius

Better yet, download the free, 12,000-word sample of Nira/Sussa from its Kindle page here. If you're not mesmerized, don't buy the full book. Simple as that.

Many thanks, and please spread the word!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Nira/Sussa Published

Nira/Sussa, by Julian Darius
My transgressive, literary novel Nira/Sussa is currently available in paperback and on Kindle.

In fact, you can get the first 12000 words sent to your Kindle reader instantly for free. If you've set up your Amazon account with a Kindle reader (available for Android, tablets, and PCs), just click on the "Send sample now" button.

And if you're an Amazon Prime member, you can borrow the novel for free.

Nira/Sussa was 10 years in the writing and two more just in editing. Despite its violent and sexual content, it was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, just over a year ago. That was one of the most nervous days of my life. Now, awaiting the response to the novel in its final form, I'm just as nervous...

Seriously, this is a book that's either going to be taught as part of the Western literary canon or that's going to get me burned in effigy. There's no middle ground. It goes there. It's all on the page.

Please, please, please, if you stand for bold, smart literature, do something to let people know about this book. It obviously represents a huge portion of my life and my work. But it's also a test case for whether these new digital media can be used for works like this. It means so much...

Many, many thanks.

Watching People Burn Trailer

Martian Lit has released a trailer for my book Watching People Burn. It's short (just over a minute), was a lot of work, and is really good. Please watch it and, if you like it, share it on your preferred social network!


This is the first video from Martian Lit, so if you like this sort of stuff, it would really help to see those YouTube views count upward. Many, many thanks!