Black Friday Experience Is So In Tents

I went out for Black Friday, once, because we hoped to get a laptop for our daughter. Gini and I got up at 3 a.m. – “dark o’clock,” as we called it – groaning and complaining all the while.  We drove to Best Buy.  We discovered a line of people stretching around the block, like an impromptu city, families who’d clearly settled in for the long haul: tiny houses of tents with children sleeping inside, playing music on boom boxes, sitting in front of their reading books.  They’d brought equipment for the journey.  Some had coffee makers, space heaters, little generators.
We were clearly outmatched.  We went home.
A similar thing happened when Chik Fil-A opened up across the street from us: FIRST 100 CUSTOMERS GET FREE FOOD FOR A YEAR! And it was a bawdy thing, with a DJ playing Southern-fried rock, the same crowd of campers, looking quite enthused about the whole thing.  And when Piada opened up down the street with the same deal, again, that tiny town of patient waiters.
To me, Black Friday is an abomination.  It destroys the retail workers’ day off, encourages the worst kind of consumer behavior, and it’s not even a real deal.  (You frequently get better deals before or after; they jigger the numbers to make it look better.)
And before I started looking, I had always assumed that Black Friday shoppers were desperate poor people – the kind of folks who, if they couldn’t get that laptop for $399, they wouldn’t get it at all.  Why else would you be motivated to spent the night in the cold, waiting endlessly?
But what I suspect is that Black Friday and Opening Night have become codified experiences.  There’s people for whom Black Friday has become a tradition, a weird hunting expedition, where the entire family packs up and gets prepared and has all the fun of defeating this absurd challenge that capitalism has laid out for them.  For these guys, it’s a thrill to get the tent up and running, to stake out the good space in front of the store, to spit in the eye of what’s obviously intended to be an uncomfortably ugly experience and make it a place where there’s hot cocoa and laughing and dancing.
They bond.  And I’m absolutely certain that there are people who only exist as Black Friday Friends – they’ve staked out their turf at Best Buy every year, have a jolly rivalry with last year’s neighbors as this year they’re two spots closer to the door, exchange duties on McDonald’s runs as they go get the food.  The point isn’t whether it’s the best deal or not, the point is that they’ve beaten the system.
And I’m not sure how to think about that.  Viewed in that light, it actually seems kinda fun.  But the sort of people who have all of the equipment for the good tent and so forth are probably not the people who really need the deal, and so Black Friday becomes weirdly more abhorrent to me – you’re forcing all of these poor retail workers to leave their Thanksgiving dinner earlier and earlier so you can have the thrill of beating them.
Black Friday, one suspects, is actually a sports challenge wrapped in consumerism.  An endurance contest with a prize built in.  And that’ll just make it that much harder to eradicate as a tradition.

New Story! "The Sturdy Bookshelves of Pawel Oliszewski," At Intergalactic Medicine Show!

My tale of strange woodworking magic, “The Sturdy Bookshelves of Pawel Oliszewski,” is now available for your reading pleasure (and auditory pleasure, as they added in an audio production of it).  This is one of my favorite stories I wrote this year, as it’s where I started to find what I’m thinking of as my new author-voice – the one that melds a little more of my snarky blogger you all know with the fiction bones it needs to have in order to survive. Your teaser text is here:

When people asked me about Pawel Oliszewski’s bookcases – which they inevitably did, especially for the brief period I was paid to answer their questions – I told them my story in strict chronological order. I explained how I moved next door to Pawel, a quiet Polish accountant, when my mother died. I told them how, over the course of seventeen years, my neighbor gifted me with seven fine specimens in his legendary line of improbable bookshelves.
No, I wasn’t willing to sell them. Yes, he offered me more bookcases – roughly four a year, actually. Yes, I turned him down – the man would have filled my house with bookcases, if only I’d let him. Yes, I still have them all – the specimens I currently possess are specimen #89 (Vickers hardness test: 970 MPa), specimen #113 (Vickers: 1325 MPa), specimen #234 (Vickers: 2250 MPa), and the much sought-after late-era specimens #269, #287, #292, and #304 (effectively untestable).
Yes, it is an irony that each of the bookcases are worth more than my house now. Oh, no, I’ve never heard that one before.
But above all, I tried to tell the origin of the bookcases honestly – the tedious hobby of an asocial immigrant who specialized in awkward pauses. This was an error. People wanted Pawel’s garage workshop to be a magical wonderland – wanted Pawel himself to be a sage, armored in wise silence.
The official biography – which I did not write, despite being both a professional obituary writer and a good friend to the Oliszewski family – jostled the facts around, made it seem as though Agnes knew there was something special about Pawel’s craftsmanship all along.
But no. His bookcases were boring, as was Pawel, as was I. Ask yourself: If anyone had seen anything of interest in that quiet accountant, wouldn’t the world have discovered his bookcases years ago? Wouldn’t they have discovered Myra Turnbull’s purses and Jeb Guhr’s model planes?
No, the truth lay there all along, resting beneath cobwebs; it was just tedious. Easily overlooked. Like me.
Still. I’m going to tell you the way I’ve always told it. Strict chronological order. Just to channel a bit of the old man’s magic.
Are you interested now?

If you’d care to read the rest, it is over here.  I hope you do.

"Samson Was Betrayed By A Woman"

I was reading a roleplaying supplement describing a fictional history when I read this:

“Like Samson, [this character] was betrayed by a woman…”

Now, the “betrayed” part isn’t what I have an issue.  Lots of people betray others.
The problem is that it’s “a woman” who betrayed this guy.  Because if we flipped that script, it wouldn’t be “betrayed by a man,” as though all men were cut from the same cloth; no, it’d be “betrayed by his trusted Lieutenant,” or “betrayed by his best friend,” or “betrayed by someone who was described in terms of something other than his gender.”
This is another example of Smurfette Syndrome, where the “woman” is effectively a character class: you have the fighter! The thief! The wizard! And the woman! And that unconscious smearing (“betrayed by a woman”) implies that all women are alike, they all do this, and we need no further demarcation aside from “woman” to describe someone.
Which is a problem in both directions.  In this case, all women are subtly implied to be betrayers.  Because the only thing we know about this character is that she is a woman, not “a Lieutenant” or “his wife” or “his physician.”  If the betrayal is from “his lieutenant,” we can imagine all sorts of lieutenant-specific reasons to betray: power, “frag the lieutenant”-style incompetency on the part of the hero, shifting alliances.  If the betrayal is from “his wife,” then we wonder what issue was so great that it sundered a marriage.  But nope; it’s a woman, and what are women in that case but generic betrayers?
On the other hand, if it’s a positive syndrome – “was helped by a woman” – then we imply that all women are nice just by dint of being women, and so Madonna/Whore syndrome is raised.
Like I said, it’s a subtle thing – so subtle that a lot of people would miss it.  But men get to have positions and motivations.  Women are women.  And it’s rare to see men not given a profession or a relationship, because we know men have tons of different reasons to do things.
Women?  They’re just women, man.

How I Thank God.

The MRI is in; Rebecca’s brain tumor has not, as yet, grown back.  Which means she will not die yet.  Had that MRI gone poorly, the best we could have done was put Rebecca in hospice and wait for the end.
I have never been so happy to hear about a girl getting chemotherapy in my entire life.
And so I thanked God that Rebecca was okay.  Which was a little awkward, because depending on who you talk to, God was the person who gave Rebecca the tumor in the first place.
The thing about the Rebecca’s saga is that there is a significant amount of providence in her story.  If they had not been at the ER when Rebecca had had her first seizure, Rebecca might not have survived the seizure.  (They had to break open the crash cart to save her.)  If the  Meyers hadn’t been on vacation in Jersey, they wouldn’t have been so close to CHOP, the best children’s hospital in America, where extremely talented surgeons resected the entirety of the tumor.  And as far as parents go, the Meyers are a superteam for a child with cancer – Kat is a doctor, and Eric’s dealt (sadly) with familial cancer before, so they both know what to expect and how to deal with it in a way that provides the best care possible for Rebecca.
Yet I recognize the intense survivor’s bias in all that.  There are children in similar circumstances who weren’t near an ER.  There are kids who got worse surgeons.  There are kids who got parents with less experience.  Am I then implying that God wanted these kids to die?
(Which is foolish, as it’s not as though Rebecca has lived yet.  She has merely passed the first of what are hopefully many milestones.  Her life is still very much in danger, and as usual XKCD described the experience best.)
Yet I thank God nonetheless.
The thing about God is that if He exists, He’s working off of a logic that we’d find hard to understand.  We get bent out of shape about death, which is understandable, since to us death is the end of everything. But if we truly accept all the ideology of God, death is actually a temporary thing, and then we transition to another area.  Death is traumatic to us, sure, but if you believe all the way then you have to understand that to God, death isn’t cruel but a way of transitioning someone from one state to the other.  We see dying as the end of all things, but to God it would merely be a beginning.
And I can’t claim to understand all the ramifications of that logic, though I’ve tried.  There’s a ton of pain and suffering on Earth, but if the stories are to be believed, all of that goes away.  It affects us now, gouges our spirits, but after a million years of living in paradise we’d probably struggle to remember what all the fuss is about.
Infinity is a long, long time, my friends.
None of this is presented in an attempt to convince you.  I’m just saying that faith is a lot more complex than asking why people suffer now.  There are certain fundamental tenets of life where, if we’re wrong about them, then everything we know changes.  For me, in a very real way, my faith is a way of engaging with the universe and saying that I don’t know how things work… and that faith taps into much the same humble mystery I get from learning about scientific breakthroughs.
The world is a complex and wonderful and terrifying place, and I can never know it all.  To me, science and faith meld, clasping hands and spinning in circles, reminding me to question everything.  And so I thank God.
But I also question Him.  Jay Lake, an atheist who is dying of cancer, posted a treatise on faith, where he said, “I have an immense respect for faith and its power. I have a profound disrespect for confusion between the truths of faith and the truths of testable, empirical reality.” And in that, the atheist and the Christian agree completely.  I think that science is our best way to understand the universe and to combat our silly monkey brain biases… but I also recognize that science is an imperfect tool, not the best thing but rather the best thing we have available.
And so I keep my scientific brain open at all times even during my faith, reminding me that I do not know whether God exists, and if S/He exists I certainly do not pretend to understand all the concerns of a compassionate, omnipresent being. My dog thinks I am terribly cruel for putting her on a leash, but my dog does not understand how close she’s come to being hit by a car many times.  To delirious people in hospitals the nurses are cruel demons, tying them to a bed and poking them with needles.  It’s very easy to appear cruel if someone does not understand the methodology of your kindness, and if there is a God it may well be that some portion of our torment may be a kindness we do not understand.  Or that God is not as omnipotent as we’d like.
Or that God does not exist.  I can keep that option open, too.  It is a poor faith that has to deny other possibilities in order to exist.

Ask Me Anything

Today’s a bit of a nailbiter; we’re going to get the results of Rebecca’s MRI this afternoon.  If it’s bad, then things will be very bad.
So I can’t really focus today.  This is usually the time I ask for distractions, so today’s a good day for an “Ask Me Anything” entry.  The rules are the same as always.
Ask me a real question. On any topic. I’ll do my best to answer honestly. 
(Fake questions like “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?” are neither clever nor useful.  You can do it; it marks you as the kind of person who doesn’t realize the joke is so obvious it’s been done a hundred times before, and I’ll think less of you for being tedious.  Hey, I told you I’d answer honestly.)
All other questions will be answered politely, and to the best of my ability.  Go, if you please.