Raising the Space Bar

Photo-Jul-09-11-03-58-PMA couple of years ago, I had a debate with a colleague about a comment that I made. The comment was that “our generation” had arguably seen the most significant technological change of any generation in history. He disagreed, feeling that the industrial age had brought more. Whichever side of the debate you might fall on, my rationale was that my grandmother, when she was still alive, seemed to somehow experience an arresting of her ability to grasp technology more advanced than a land-line telephone.

When I was young (and hold on, because I’m about to date myself), my family had a “party line.” That is, we shared a telephone line with my grandmother. If she was using the phone from her home miles away, and we picked it up to make a call, we could hear her conversation, and knew we had to wait until the line was free.

I had my first mobile phone when I was college. It was one of those huge bag phones that went in your console and connected to an antenna on the exterior of your vehicle. 60 free minutes was a big deal then, and I’m still in the realm of ancient history for many of you. I remember my grandmother calling that number and being baffled by the concept of voicemail. I would have messages from her asking if I was there.

When I was very young, I typed DOS commands into a huge, clunky computer in my bedroom. Now, the phone that I carry in my pocket has more processing power than computers that rendered the original Star Wars films.

My point is that, more than an explosion of technology, people of my age have seen an exponential increase of information, and a fundamental change in how we access that information. We forget what it was like “back then.” The idea that we used to keep a hand-written address book for all of our contacts is foreign, the fact that I went through undergrad taking notebooks to class for note-taking bewildering.

Karen and I got rid of cable almost immediately after we married, because there were just too many other ways to watch what we wanted to watch. As such, our daughter has grown up her entire life with no idea of television being anything other than a streaming video service (she knows the difference between Netflix and Amazon). And, yes, I understand that her entire life has been five years, but this has still been her entire life. When we were setting up utilities for this new apartment, however, we got a good deal by agreeing to subscribe to cable also (poor cable providers, struggling so hard to keep an ancient business model alive). We agreed and, for fun, I connected the box, mostly to remember what it was like to watch something on a network’s schedule again.

While we were watching something together a few weekends ago, my daughter and I decided to get a snack during a commercial break. As we got up to go into the kitchen, she pressed the space bar on the computer keyboard to pause the program. It didn’t pause. She pressed it again. It didn’t pause. She gave a confused look.

My attempt to explain the concept of “live TV” to her failed in almost every way, as there is no reference point for her, no scaffolding upon which she can build the idea in her head. It’s amazing to me to think of the lightning-fast pace at which our concept of “normal” accelerates, of how easily we forget…forget in a way that my grandmother, I think, did not, because we forget even the foundation upon which is built our current state of “normal.”

I wonder what our daughter will consider normal when she is my age? I wonder how antiquated the idea of streaming episodes of her favorite programs on Netflix will seem then?

I wonder if that memory will even exist outside of an entry in an external storage device.

I wonder what we will have lost with all of that progress.

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A Review of “Jennifer Government”

Jennifer GovernmentI had marked another of Barry’s novels to read some time ago and never gotten around to it, and the premise of this book was even more compelling. I’m generally a fan of dystopian science fiction, though, so this was almost guaranteed to be an enjoyable read. Still Jennifer Government provides a compelling…and extremely timely…story.

The setting is a near future in which America has overtaken a number of other countries and thus spread the dominance of a handful of major corporations through most of the world. Taxes in American countries are no more, and an impotent government that relies on fundraising struggles to police the law against corporate forces, such as the ubiquitous NRA, which have the freedom to do whatever they like in pursuit of profit, including murder. In this future, people are born with no last names. Their identity is entirely associated with the corporation for which they work, and they take on the company’s name as their last name upon employment. Children take on the last name of the corporation sponsoring the school which they attend. Being un-employed, or self-employed, leaves one with no name, no identity. One’s life is entirely dependent upon being consumed by a corporation.

I should point out that, while dystopian, this is a comedy, and Barry’s dry wit is present throughout the story. Characters, such as Billy NRA, find themselves in outright hysterical situations that leave the reader laughing while unable to escape the nagging through-line woven into the setting of every scene.

Not that the through-line is at all subtle. And, as comedic are the scenarios in which our characters find themselves, the development and internal lives of the characters are often flat, and certainly secondary to the story. The point of this novel isn’t the characters, nor is it so much the plot, but rather the world which is its setting, and, while this sounds as though it would be completely dysfunctional and without any chance of working, it keeps the reader turning the pages with a surprising amount of engagement.

Barry’s writing style is quick, overly abrupt in places, and this is one of the most prominent criticisms that I’ve read in other reviews. As this is the first of his work that I’ve read, I can’t speak to whether or not this is his writing style, but it seems as though it’s a device in itself to place the reader into this comically frightening world.

Many would discard this novel as an anti-capitalist diatribe, but doing so misses something deeper going on here. The future in which Barry places his reader is one in which there is no room for thinking against conventional wisdom. Critical thought has been over-run by marketing. Taking time to think, or to live or care for one’s loved ones, means that one is not being productive in one’s employment. Propaganda rules, and different ways of thinking are not tolerated. In its absolute freedom, society has paradoxically given up its soul.

This is a light and quick read, but one that will continue stay present in your mind, and in your perception, in troubling ways long after you’ve finished laughing your way through its pages. Considering the climate in which we live, the setting of this novel, which becomes its own character in many ways, is a warning not only of what is to come, but of what has already arrived. While a bit heavy-handed at times, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone who would like to have their thoughts provoked.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Back to Paperback

Back to PaperBack

Something very important happened two weekends ago, something that solidifies the entire process of moving back to New England and was the last step in feeling “at home.”

I found a good comic book shop.

You laugh, but I hadn’t found one in two years while living in North Carolina, and had resigned myself to moving all of my comic book reading to the digital sphere. I held no hope of locating a source for print comics again.

Don’t get me wrong, digital comics are a great thing. I always prefer to give my money to a small local business whenever possible, though, and the local comic shop is more of a cultural experience than it is a retail experience. There are really good conversations that happen there about very, very geeky things.

This particular shop has a great selection of old issues…boxes upon boxes of them, in fact…which is wonderful because I’m not a fan of what any of the major publishers have been doing in print of late, so I’ve focused my reading a lot on graphic novels and back issues for the last year or so.

As I browsed the neatly-organized and alphabetized shelves of recent-but-not-new issues to fill in some gaps that have occurred in the last couple of months, I found myself questioning which issues I had, and where I had left off. I found a few titles there of which I suddenly remembered having read the first issue, but had let the story and issue-to-issue cliffhanger escape my mind since doing so. Some of these were four or more months old.

This is highly unusual.

For two years, I have purchased all of my comics digitally. I thought that this would have no effect on my reading. After all, I still prefer to purchase ebooks whenever possible, primarily for the convenience of having whatever I’m reading readily available when I find myself with free time. Any excuse to read is well-taken, in my mind, so facilitating more opportunities to do so is a no-brainer. Comics should be no different, right?

Except that my theory is now proven wrong. These digital issues had as much interest to me while I was reading them, certainly. Yet, they faded from memory very quickly. I lost track of where I was in a given series, and even what series I was reading in some cases. It’s as though the stories took up space only in my short-term memory, making no lasting connections at all.

Which is far, far too disrespectful to any story to permit to continue.

I’m not sure why novels that I read in e-book format stay with me just as a physical novel does. Perhaps the issue at hand is that I have been far too busy with little time to read for the past few months (a new child has that effect). Or, more concerning, perhaps my attention span is being progressively shortened. That’s a frightening concept that I prefer to not consider.

So, that Saturday afternoon, I brought home my first paper issues of new comics in two years. A good feeling, I’ll admit.

Incidentally, I still remember where each issue left off, and am looking forward to next month to continue reading.

Just like in years past.


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Reflections from a Sugar Bowl

A little over a year ago, I inadvertently created a Saturday morning tradition of making pancakes with our daughter. It has become something that she looks forward to eagerly each weekend, despite my zombie-like state (which doesn’t break until at least after my first cup of coffee) in which I attempt to assemble what is needed for such an endeavor in the kitchen. I am not a morning person, and I have no business making food. Yet, our daughter loves this time together. So, pancakes it is.

At some point in the last year, we acquired a kitchen cart…sort of a mobile counter space on wheels that can be positioned wherever you need the extra space while cooking. On my rare adventure into the kitchen, I find it extremely useful. As our move back to New England was abrupt, we’re apartment-dwellers again for a while, and this particular piece of furniture is being used for more storage than it had previously in its lower cabinets. The end result of this is that it rolls much more sluggishly. Its wheels also tend to grind to a halt as you’re pushing it, which can result in it tipping forward if you’re not careful.

“Not careful” being synonymous with “not nearly caffeinated enough to function.”

You see where this is going, right?

Just before the crash, there was this sort of slow-motion, surreal moment in which Karen screamed and I lurched forward in an attempt to catch at least one piece of the various items that flew from their now-unstable resting place. Miraculously, we only lost one as it burst into small shards upon contact with the floor. Sadly, it was a sugar bowl that had been given to Karen by my grandmother before her death.

There are times when you feel clumsy, and times when you feel much, much more self-deprecating. Sadness doesn’t quite describe the loss of this item, now irreplaceable.

After a moment of quiet, we attended to the business of sweeping the floor and making certain that small, sharp slivers were not left lying around for children to step on, and our daughter, in her uncertain but beautifully kind-hearted way, was trying to console Karen.

“Dont’worry, Mommy.” she stated matter-of-factly. “We can always get another one on Amazon.”

Besides being disturbed by the commonplace consumerism that is already edging its way into my daughter’s mind, I’m torn a bit here, because, while I want to impress upon her the concept of an irreplaceable, valuable object, I don’t want to encourage more materialism. We are, after all, trying to trim down the toy collection, not embrace a philosophy that would add to it. I want her to appreciate things that she will be given, that she will inherit, things that may serve to remind her of us when we’re gone, as that sugar bowl reminded us of my grandmother. Not the most poignant reminder, but it made a connection. I want her to do this, though, without idealizing the item itself. In short, I want to impress the differentiation between a sign and a symbol, which is likely a bit too ambitious for a five-year-old.

You can’t blame me for trying, though.

Earlier this year, while we still lived in North Carolina, we had the adventure of a weekend power outage caused by an ice storm. While we stayed with friends who had warm living rooms for two nights, I went back home to check in on things during the day.

Our daughter has a beta fish named Charlie (For the record, I thought it was a bad idea). We tried our best to wrap his tank in towels and insulate him against the cold, but on the second day of the house hovering in the low 40’s, Charlie succumbed to the temperature. I found him floating that morning. After discussing this with Karen, we decided that we were in no way prepared to have that conversation with our daughter. So, on our first night with restored power, after we had brought in our overnight bags and the kids were in bed, I went back out to a local pet store. With much searching and assistance from the kind (but slightly bemused) girl minding the store that evening, I located a red beta that looked almost identical to Charlie, and to which Karen and I jokingly referred as “Charlie Mark II.”

Our daughter never knew the difference, and I’m content with that.

As we settled into this new apartment which will be home for a few months, I fed Charlie one night while Karen and the kids were out of town. I talked to him just as I had the first beta named Charlie, and realized that I had just connected to two, that the replacement for that tiny little creature had merged with the original in my head as though it was nothing more than a replacement phone after you’ve dropped and cracked the glass on the first.

A tiny little life, so easily replaced by a simple drive to a place of retail.

And I suddenly wonder if I’ve any place to discuss the merits of a lost sugar bowl at all.

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Retrospective of the Purple Wall

The Purple WallOne Saturday morning around three weeks ago, I woke up in my daughter’s room.

The movers had come and gone, I had been through a crazy week of flights and orienting to a new job, and all that was left in our house were a handful of things that we needed to last a few days: an air mattress and similar sleeping gear for the children, luggage for a week, and the handful of small items that you don’t trust the movers to handle. We had moved all of these into our daughter’s room to compartmentalize the process of packing and loading of the house, and so that is where our entire family slept that night.

Days before, I had sat in the same room, already devoid of furniture, and talked to my five-year-old about the house in which we had lived for two years, the exciting new adventure to come, and what she had liked best about living there. I had always liked the way that the hallway in that house and turned unexpectedly at the end, giving the corner room (our daughter’s) a sort of quizzical geometric shape. She explained that what she like best, and what she would miss, was her pink wall (its actually purple, but she insisted).

Two years before, some friends had come to help us begin the work of getting the house back into shape. Karen had chosen wonderful colors, and we painted both our daughter’s room and the master bedroom with an accent wall. Ours were beach colors. Our daughter’s was purple (she still insists its pink). She really liked that.

There were really great things about those two years. We caught up with life a bit. Our daughter grew, and even gained a sister. There were very positive aspects to our life there…I almost exclusively worked from home, which allowed me so much more time with the family. Our daughter still talks about how much she misses the back yard, and how she could run and run there with nothing to get in the way and slow her down. She misses that.

On our final day, as we loaded a small moving truck with that last handful of things from our daughter’s room, we were all tired, hungry, and irritable. We argued a bit about the logistics of the next two days (we had to be in New England in around 72 hours, and hadn’t firmly planned a route for the drive yet). Before locking the door, I walked down the hall, enjoying its quizzical and unexpected turn one last time. I looked into all the rooms, closed and locked the door behind me, and we drove away with the For Sale sign in the front lawn, a picture from a movie, almost. I hope that the atmosphere of that house wasn’t in any way tainted by arguing in our last hour there.

We’re excited to be back in New England. There are things that will be notably absent, some seemingly big things…I don’t work from home as often, and our apartment doesn’t have a spacious back yard in which our daughter can run…but we’ll find new things from which to make memories here. I remember that house fondly…I have always been an apartment-dweller, and had never lived in a house that was mine before…and sometimes the thought of someone purchasing it makes almost sad.


Unexpectedly good things happened during our two-year adventure there, and now we are back home.

Although the concept of “home” begins to become somewhat more relative.

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