20.5.15

A Long Post About Lost, Prestige TV, Comic Book Movies, and the Serialization of Everything

Lost

It's clear that my relationship to genre cultural properties has changed in the last ten years, and given enough time, it's clear that Lost is the reason for that change. I had a much larger appetite for them before, and almost none now. It's not entirely clear what exactly about Lost took me in that direction. But for need of a lot of something to watch, I've returned to it. I had a disparate reaction on this occasion to two of the most famous emotional beats in the story, and it might be worth exploring why. "Not Penny's Boat" had all of the resonance it did the first time. "The Constant" was a tremendous disappointment. This isn't surprising, since they were told in very different ways.

"Not Penny's Boat" is genuinely affecting because it builds over the course of several episodes before resolving. Desmond begins to get flashes that Charlie will die, and tries to save him; Desmond gets a particularly tempting vision and almost lets Charlie die. For his part, Charlie has to come to accept that his death is going to come soon and there's nothing he can do about it. The emotional punch comes because he gets to pick the cause for which he dies: he's found something worthy of that kind of sacrifice. Making that resolution changes him, frees him, to become someone who can be bold and active and self-sacrificing. He is free because there's meaning in his death. That allows him to be calm enough to save Desmond and communicate the important message that only he knows and then die.

"The Constant" is not genuinely affecting because it contrives its own problem and provides too pat of a solution. The "problems crossing between times" bit is introduced no earlier than the very end of the previous episode, and does not reappear again for another whole season (where it claims one single victim, conveniently not a major character). The life-threatening problem is given to two characters, one of whom only exists in order to pass along crucial exposition about the threat and how to get around it, and the problem for the main character is completely resolved by the end of the episode. This serious problem also, surprisingly, affected no one else involved in any travel to or from the island, and none of the numerous people shuttling back and forth between the freighter and the island for the rest of the season. The episode exists only for its endpoint--Penny and Desmond getting in contact with one another--and the rest is simply a means of getting the viewer there. It's emotional manipulation rather than storytelling, gesturing at rather than being something great.

The difference is that one of these is a storyline for a character's arc in a narrative, and another is a cool episode.

The difference between these matters because their reception says something about how we understand stories at this moment. Big cultural properties are (again) serialized: movies, books, tv shows are often now guaranteed out a certain distance into the future; like previous serials, they encourage looking at individual parts closely and wholes very rarely, and then only from certain narrow perspectives: we ask what the stakes are, whether the stories are internally consistent, whether they are, in each piece, entertaining. As a whole we might ask whether the story is worth the time invested, but these are judgments of the whole, rather than "we might omit 40 minutes/three episodes/200 pages without great loss" because the economics inform the structure of the content, rather than the content dictating anything at all. No one complains very much about mid-season episodes of a tv show that spin their wheels, because, as goes the usual critic's line, these come up of necessity in every season: even if there are only six episodes of plot, there need to be 13, or 22, or 24 episodes, so something has to fill that time. That you probably need to have seen all the other Marvel movies to understand the new ones is considered a feature, rather than a bug, and anyway, that's just how they make movies now.

When I was much younger I remember watching a few soap operas (hey, they were new tv in the summer, back when that was unusual), and particularly General Hospital when Luke and Laura were first re-introduced. Luke had been a bad guy at first, but now he was a good guy, because the show needed him to be one. The catch with a soap opera is that none of the stories can ever end, because the show must go on five days a week, and should ideally involve the same popular characters or actors. Consequently narrative logic must go out the window--filling out the time is the only thing that really matters--with characters changing allegiance and motivation all the time, and all the loopy narrative flourishes one associates with soap opera as a form.

Regular tv shows, movies, and multi-part books, lacking plot to fill out the allotted time and space, now indulge generously in melodrama and soap-opera antics (*paging George R.R. Martin*). Lost would disappear as a show if people answered each others' questions and didn't just go hiking off into the jungle every time they thought about doing something: the story needs these distractions as it needs the various other fancy-looking macguffins because the story can't hold out on its own. (As an experiment: try to summarize season 5 of Lost in one sentence. It is either impossible to do, if you try to include any of the details, or quite easy--"Ben tricks everyone into coming back to the Island, except in 1974"--which only exposes how superfluous much of it is.) Everything else is plot machinations for their own sake: Daniel and Charlotte get a romantic attachment which is entirely told and never shown, because Daniel needs some stakes for his own arc and the love of his life being threatened can provide them. Don Draper cycles through alcoholism and various women either because that's what he does or because it provides a few episodes of him looking seductive and cool and then a chance to blow it all up at the end, which will happen every season at fixed times that just so happen to coincide with the major parts of the season. (Friends, by contrast, didn't bother to get Ross and Rachel together, or break them up, at any significant moment in seasons 2 and 3 (February Sweeps, probably, but at least not as predictable). Then again, when you're a cultural phenomenon, you can do whatever you want and be certain you'll get a rating. That the MCU movies don't attempt this is probably also notable.) Loki gets himself captured in The Avengers, and it hardly matters whether his plan makes sense because it provides for Character Exposition and A Chance To Heighten The Themes Of This Movie. When movies, books, tv, engage in these kinds of stalling tactics, they kill actual organic character growth, but do so simply because the economics of the situation demand it. The skeleton shows in so many places now. One only has to look for it.

The flip-side of the soap opera-ization of things is that individual moments mean a lot less. No one soap character's great scene or arc means a lot when it's stacked up against others of wildly varying quality and changing motivation. Wasn't that time Don stopped drinking and recognized his problems really inspiring? Does "The Suitcase" mean less as an episode now that you know absolutely nothing about Don changed as a result of it? "The Constant" is a great episode if you have no idea what's going to happen to Desmond. Once you know it only serves to torture him with a bit of happiness before his life is ruined, how does it seem?

The single biggest factor contributing to the Golden Age of TV is the fact that no one can conceptualize of a creative model that works differently than this ("tell a fixed-length story until it's done and then end it?"). It used to be only comic book nerds that were suckers like this: the "even numbers are good" joke about Star Trek movies is an admission that 50% of them are bad; the hype for the new Star Wars movie seems to have forgotten that four of the six were disappointments. Now people are prepared to hold out hope for years and against all evidence that the results will be worth it, or that mediocre installments (the third of any series) are just the price we pay for the good ones.

Oddly, people seem more ready to see this in comedy than drama, where no great tv show of the last 15 years goes without criticism for losing its edge (some never regaining it) and where everyone can see the problems of The Hangover or Pitch Perfect making sequels that largely repeat the plot of the original films. The Office, for example, had one great idea--bring Jim and Pam together slowly, then keep them together--from which they got three seasons of very good tv. Once that idea was done, though, there was nothing behind it, try though they might to recreate that magic--more shocks and twists than one might reasonably expect of a faux-documentary about a paper company. Why did the show stay on the air through a number of increasingly bad seasons to the point that it poisoned its own legacy? Economics.

This matters because critical standards can do something to help explain and interpret what we're seeing. The overwhelming tendency of American aesthetics for the last hundred years has been to divide out entertainment from art, to push one lower and the other higher, until there is very little room in the middle. If a property is meant to be entertaining, this serves to silence all possible criticism; if it is entertaining, it has served its purpose. Art is reserved for those things that aim at something more complex than entertainment. But since these are the only two categories, things end up wildly misplaced: the bad Marvel movies are intended only as entertainment, the good ones compete with the best of film. Prestige tv often cannot reasonably be said to attempt to entertain, so it must be art, after a fashion. But there are trashy attempts at being artistic--Rain Man, Braveheart, the run-up to Oscar season in any given year--and joke-factory workplace sitcoms that transcend being merely entertaining (Cheers, for example). Attempting to be art does not necessarily make art; having the trappings of art isn't art, either; that no one has yet recognized The Dark Knight Rises to be the highest of camp is a great disappointment to me--it looks and feels and acts like a deadly serious movie but has a scene with a football player outrunning a sinkhole as it forms. That place between entertainment and art is so often vacant because no one recognizes it even exists.

Sorting this out is a lot of work. So much easier to let it simply wash over you, and like or dislike to your heart's content, and not worry about it. That, however, is a recipe for knowing what date "Untitled Female Superhero Movie" will open on ten years from now, because the identity of the superhero matters less than knowing that the right market segments will be served in a timely manner.

19.5.15

Some End-ish of Season Thoughts on Football

Atlético Madrid 0-1 FC Barcelona

This weekend, I learned the Barça-Real Madrid rivalry has its own, equally foul-mouthed, version of "Go to Hell, Carolina":



Having the benefit of almost a season's worth of Premier League and Barcelona games, the differences are obvious. Premier League games frequently descend into slog--the best teams, like the worst, seem content with a slog. There are moments of individual skill, and the occasional person who rises to the occasion. But most matches are mostly one team passing the ball around in a semi-circle, far outside the 18-yard box, while the other packs between eight and ten players into said box. Players keep waiting for something to happen, and uncertain what to do if that something does not happen.

As a Spurs fan, this general problem has been made worse by an emphasis on transition play and a lack of quality defensive options: the team is good at getting advantages, but seem unclear on what to do once they have them; the forwards and midfielders are too easily dispossessed, and the defense unable to cope with the exact same tactics their forwards are supposed to be managing. Some of this is on the poor mix of players Pottechino inherited at the beginning of the year; some of it's the youth of the team; some of it is the difficulty in training Premier League footballers to play at full intensity throughout the game. In any event, the time I devote to watching the Prem has been ever decreasing.

That time is now given to Barça, who seem to have accidentally rounded into one of the better sides in memory--or as accidentally as can happen when you have a functionally unlimited budget. They are--and this is key--fun to watch. Messi, Neymar and Suárez might be faking their mutual enthusiasm, but it's a convincing show: each one gets a clearly defined role that allows them to combine the glory of occasionally being the goal-scorer with teammates who allow them to show off their other skills (somewhere on youtube there's a 15-minute video of Messi doing all sorts of things other than scoring goals, and it is mesmerizing) and be selfless for the team's sake. If they have any sort of problem, it's being too considerate of their teammates. Rakitic and Iniesta and Xavi will pull out their magic from time to time, and one can count on Piqué or Mascherano for an excellent dispossession.

And one has to enjoy it now because it is, alas, fleeting. Being a superclub means never being satisfied, which means continually bringing in new signings to displace old players. I almost did not want Luis Enrique to win the treble this year. If he does, then every subsequent year will see people asking why he can't replicate this quite unusual feat, and this means he'll be gone within five years. But, realistically, he will be gone in five years regardless of how well his team plays this year or any other year: that's the game now. Might as well enjoy it while we can.

18.5.15

Adventures in Cultural Consumption: Books About or By Women Edition

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
There's not a plot point in this book that the attentive reader cannot see coming from a long distance. The very smart girl is obviously going to do something very stupid. The woman who befriends her but seems unable to provide any good account of her own history will find that history to be implicated in what happens next. Henry James does not try very hard to get us to think Gilbert Osmond might be a decent person, and he proves not to be. The ending--so ambiguous I had to read it three or four times to confirm I hadn't missed a telling detail--is the only real surprise. Isabel is alone with Caspar Goodwood who is about to confess his love and there are only four pages left so...

What it lacks in originality it makes up for in specificity. The Portrait of the Lady is a novel of marriage, and of a very bad marriage indeed. In that sense it's a reverse of the first marriage in David Copperfield, in which David realizes the mistake he's made and how he has no choice what to do with it; it's Pride and Prejudice where Wickham occupies the central role. It, in its own way, makes very clear the stakes to old-fashioned marriage: it has all the excruciating exactness of a bad relationship, and far too many resonant passages.


Anne Tyler, If Morning Ever Comes
An enjoyable little book, which is more than can be said for a lot of books. Also predictably composed: when the old ex-girlfriend shows up, there's little question of what will happen. Its merits are in the accumulation of detail--I am gradually becoming a sucker for the south, or at least North Carolina--and one unshakeable half-dream image at the end, where the main character sees his wife and his son (having neither at that moment) at some point in the future.

Variation in reading is its own important thing: too much reading as vegetable-eating and one will never enjoy it; too much time spent on the easy stuff and even the moderately difficult will seem like too much effort. You read at different speeds, alert to different qualities, and for different reasons. It requires a lot of material to discern the relationship between art and entertainment, never so obvious as it seems (and beware of those to whom its a straightforward delineation), in no small part because there is no line that divides the two of them cleanly: art can be enjoyable and trash can be a drag; a 'guilty pleasure' suggests someone who doesn't understand the concept of pleasure; those for whom entertainment is the sole criteria for reading are quite less free than those who have many reasons for reading.

12.5.15

The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander et al.
A Pattern Language

i.
As avid blog readers know, we recently bought a house. It is, even in the most buyer-friendly of markets, a difficult prospect, a sort of three-dimensional chess where the features one might desire in a new house must be weighed against the available housing stock, the time of year, and one's realtor's interest in assisting in the process. There are things to be said about all of it, since it is largely unpleasant and, worse, uncertain until very near the closing date.

When we first started looking at houses, I did not know what I was looking at or for. I knew, approximately, what we had told the realtor--more bedrooms, bigger kitchen, approximate price range--but these described a lot of places. The first day we looked, we saw five houses--including the one we ended up buying several weeks later--and I returned at the end of it without any real sense of how to evaluate them. While there were a few things I liked, there were various levels of problem with each of them, and that list of desirables did not tell me much at all about which of them to prefer.

Enter The Timeless Way of Building. One of its central ideas is that spaces fit people in rather predictable ways, but only once you know something about what the people who use that space will do. At one point, the author suggests as an exercise that the reader make a list of the routines they engage in frequently--once a day or more than once a day--with the expectation that this list, should it be written fully, consists in many fewer items than one might suspect. It will cost no vanity to give my list:

Drink coffee/wake up spot
Place to write
Walking around to think
Walking dog, short
Walking dog, medium
Walking dog, long
Get ready
Cooking for the family
Cooking for myself
Watch sports/movies/tv
Read, indoors
Read, outdoors
Listen to music
Play music
Sunlight spot
Avoiding sunlight (vitally important in the south in the summer)
Change location to break up work
Quiet and alone
Place to only sit by window

This, as it turned out, served as an excellent guide to differentiating houses. Asking whether I could envision a place for each of these actually did sort out favorites from others, and gave me a vocabulary to talk about why I preferred the houses I did. The technique also worked in reverse: identifying spaces in a house whose uses could not be easily identified was also a way of weeding out properties that were not going to work; "bonus room" is a euphemism for a room that does not integrate into the rest of the house and is only there because of architectural laziness or needing to hit a certain square footage. Of course, we could have found uses for those spaces, but there's no real point in making due if one doesn't have to.


ii.
None of this is useful if the house itself is no good. But ours has proven pleasantly surprising so far: built in 1995, which means "constructed with modern materials and techniques" but not "built as close to a rectangle as possible with basic prefab elements," which came to dominate the area's market no later than 1998. It's also a very rare example of a house that is situated oddly on its lot in order to take advantage of--and actually use--its surroundings.

The wall that contains the very large windows is the side that is always in shade--lots of light, very little heat. Those windows have low sills, but the siting of the house means the sills at least 10' off the ground outside. In other words, there's plenty of visibility for the surrounding area from the house but almost none into the house.

The sunny side has fewer windows. Alexander et al say that the correct pattern for building should put as much as possible on the sunny side and leave less essential items--garage, storage--for the shade. This would be madness in the south; the part that receives constant light has less lawn and more space that wouldn't be actively used (the previous owners, unwisely, appear to have planted a number of flowering bushes on this side). But the windows that do exist are set around the corner of the house that gets light in the morning, so the effect is maximized while keeping out the worst of the light.

The house has a screened-in porch that is not connected directly to the house--i.e. 'wrong'--but in the spot that receives shade throughout the day, which makes it useable in all but the warmest of conditions. The porch itself is angled to receive sunlight in the morning and afternoon but--trickiest of all--continually also have some spot that is in the shade.

Most importantly, every room has a few unexpected angles or dimensions--the office is on the second floor, but sunk down two steps--that give just the slightest bit of variation or visual interest.

11.5.15

My ongoing project of (re-)learning Spanish has hit something of a plateau. This is not particularly surprising: brute repetition is needed to fix many elements of reading, from recognizing the precise meaning of particular words, to recognizing the various shades of meanings a word can have, to properly identifying phrases and other grammatical units. (It is odd--and gratifying--to 'hear' those units when listening to a song or a broadcast.) But language proficiency is a long-term project, so the time spent in any particular stage is neither surprising nor problematic--if you know it's coming.

It's also turned into a test of will, or motivation. There's no particular reason for me to be engaging on this project other than vague self-improvement and the possibility of reading more or less fluently by the end of the year. (Not entirely true, as I have discovered--facility with Spanish is considered a moderate plus even for jobs that don't really require it.) Nor do I have the benefit of turning myself over to someone else's curriculum, or even a reputable publisher's "learn a language very quickly" series (like Routledge's excellent Intensive Dutch collection). All those grad school skills prove useful again--knowing how to get your feet under you when learning a field from scratch, judging what books or techniques will be helpful, etc.

As a small compensation, I have reached a point at which I can begin to identify my weaknesses and begin to address them. The longer-lasting and more complicated will be the use of metaphors, which function in exactly the same way in Spanish as they do in English. I'll be happily reading along and get to a part of the text--2666--that begins to make no sense at all, despite having correctly understood and translated all of the involved words; some of them are figurative. It has an odd way of highlighting the strangeness of language, or the strangeness of the concept of a metaphor.

The real problems these days come from idioms. In my previous classroom-based Spanish instruction, we almost never learned any--everyone has to learn dar a luz so that young women attempting Spanglish or unaware of false cognates do not go around saying they are embarazada, which actually happened and required immediate correction in my 9th grade class. But they are generally not otherwise taught. Nor does my textbook seem willing to give them out on anything more than a need-to-know basis: I've learned perhaps half a dozen, mostly interjections. Unfortunately, actual Spanish writing is--idiom alert--peppered with them. Unlike metaphors, which are at least translated as usual and require only an understanding of context, translating idioms word-for-word is wasted effort. Much better just to learn them by rote. But this requires a separate book.

16.4.15

On Keeping Up With Spanish

A few months ago, I posted on my attempts to re-learn Spanish using the mobile app Duolingo. In the meantime, I've kept at it: six days a week with at least some progress.

As the details of the language return to me, I find myself surprised that anything managed to stick.* At six months (more or less) of progress, I reached the point at which I recognized the need to now do something with my language study. Working on vocabulary exercises and verb tenses is nice but insufficient for any actual use. Consequently I've decided to supplement Duolingo with two additional sources. The first is a simple one-volume Spanish-for-reading textbook, and the other is with an actual in-Spanish version of a novel I know well in its English translation, 2666. Yes, like a crazy person I am beginning with a 900-page novel, albeit one divided into five smaller sections. The textbook is designed for people with no previous Spanish experience (thus I breezed through the first chapter in three or four days of 15-30 minutes of effort), and focused primarily on teaching one how to recognize the syntactical components of Spanish sentences: see the structure, figure out which words go together, learn what the words mean. And, indeed, there was something thrilling about making it through a page and a half of entirely Spanish text without need of a dictionary, even as I was perfectly aware of how basic the text was. For me, reading is at the basis of listening and speaking: if I can see the parts of a sentence that go together, then I can 'see' them when someone else is speaking, and I can produce them when I'm talking.

2666's purposes are more prosaic. As I learned many years ago with Latin, you can memorize all the verb tenses and noun declensions you like, but they are of little use reading and translating, because no one but Cicero ever wrote that way. The novel is a first cut of someone actually using the language to attempt to do things. I have found it to be considerably easier than I expected: after some growing pains, a couple pages a day presents no issues. The only thing hampering me at the moment, in fact, is the pedantic insistence on going over the text sentence-by-sentence in order to make sure I'm really understanding what is being said. Otherwise, I'd be worried that I relied too much on context clues to interpret the parts I couldn't directly understand. But how would that be any different than reading Shakespeare for the first time?

My goal remains reading Javier Marías' Así empieza lo malo before it is translated into English and, surprisingly enough, this looks to be an eminently plausible goal.


*I'm not convinced the textbooks we used in junior high and high school were part of the same program, and those from college were certainly different. The level of instruction was, charitably, variable, though I did benefit from two very good Spanish natives, one of whom was good at teaching us Spain's various dialects. Spanish instruction has to deal with a 'Mexico problem' in a way perhaps not comparable to other foreign languages--people who learn it primarily to be slightly better able to use it when vacationing in the culturally fraught sense of 'visiting Tijuana' as opposed to 'visiting Paris,' and instruction varies widely on how much in tolerates the also culturally fraught use of Spanglish (secondary education Spanish instruction, at least in my experience, has a lot of people whose experience of the Spanish-speaking world doesn't run much beyond visiting Mexico). Native speakers from Spain tend (again, in my experience) to be a lot less patient about all of this, and a lot more expansive in their concept of what Spanish has to offer, culturally.

6.4.15

On Henry James and Proust, Finally

I have mentioned a few times a fondness for this poem by Ezra Pound--

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

--despite liking neither Ezra Pound nor Walt Whitman, for capturing the feeling of maturing taste. Pound once hated Whitman for being too close to what he himself wanted to do, and thus making him the thing to rebel against in order to assert his own identity. It's not a rejection of his old attitude towards Whitman, just a recognition that Pound's own situation is different now, and he recognizes he should act and feel differently.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I have, finally with some measure of success, started in on Henry James and Proust. I have no difficulty, when reading either, identifying those components that made me reject them when I was younger. James is perfectly happy to write eight long sentences around a situation without ever bothering to describe it directly; Proust finds his own thoughts fascinating and follows them without seeming care to edit. In both, nothing much happens at the page or approximate-chapter level.

And yet. Ever since tackling 2666 back in 2009, I have been reading longer, more complex novels, where the action subsides in favor of Proustian digressions and Jamesian sentences. With each thing I have read where one or the other author--or both--are mentioned as points of comparison, I have drawn closer. A half-read of Turn of the Screw two years ago affirmed the point--"I will like this, but now's not the time to read it," and we've finally opened up enough reading space to bring it about.

In books, in movies, in music, there's too early and too late. I would've hated Pavement at 18, but loved them at 28; I could've gotten into Jean Cocteau's movies much earlier, but had I waited any longer for Woody Allen, or even Ingmar Bergman, they would've passed me by. My attempt to read The Fellowship of the Ring in grad school fell flat--by then I could only see the flaws in the story, which are many.*

Too early is a special kind of pleasure, though: assuming the experience with James goes well, there are a dozen or two novels waiting out there for me; assuming Proust goes well, a few thousand pages of enjoyment. Nick Hornby wrote once about discovering Jackson Browne in his middle age--a guy with a long a pretty good recording career whom he had never listened to, and could approach new--new being that rarest of things for someone who professionally listened. Reading is an adventure, a lifelong adventure for those who take it seriously. If you read quickly and seriously, the question always remains what's next. And, at least for now, I know.


*Which is not to denigrate the love or respect that other people have for it as a fictional work. I merely assert that it has considerable flaws: starting out with 50 or so pages of historical backstory, for example, before introducing characters or a plot. If one reads it with charity--which is to say, with love--then these are not flaws but essential components of the whole. That sort of reading isn't possible for me--it's not the right sort of book, and I'm not the right sort of person. But if it makes you, dear reader, feel better, I can assure you I thought equally poorly of the grand excursus on history that ended War and Peace.

Adventures in Homeownership

According to the letter of the law, I was, however technically, previously a homeowner. We are now in a new house, though, and this is the first time I feel like a home-owner. Something about being there for the inspection and walking through all the components of the house made a notable difference--I am the person who knows the most about everything. Unpacking has been a bear: we had a storage unit already, and got a second to get things out of the old house in order to show it, and both of these had to be cleaned out by the end of the month. In other words, we spent two, two and a half months slowly getting everything ready to go, and now we fight the daily battle to bring order from chaos. At least most of the furniture is in place.

Random items of interest, loosely defined:

°After believing myself to have remained bookshelf-neutral for the last two years (no mean feat), it turns out we will need at least one more bookshelf, and this after having punted out all my cookbooks to a separate location.

°We had a maddening ant problem shortly after arrival. The ants were maddening because they would only ever show up one at a time, or in groups of ten or less, and never take us to their point of ingress. Patient walking around the foundation has found two candidates, which will hopefully put us on course to solving the problem.

°I mowed the lawn this weekend, for what I estimate to be the first time since 1998. It was in the course of doing so that I discovered, appearances notwithstanding, that almost none of the yard is flat or uniform in its slope.

°Talking with one of the neighbors, I learned that the previous owner nuked the lawn last year by applying undiluted weed-killer to it. The entire (dead) yard had to be dug up and re-sodded. This is why my lawn looks better than anyone else's.

°The lawn mower came with two sets of instructions, one from the mower manufacturer and one from the motor manufacturer. They frequently, amusingly, referred me to the other manual ("there's probably something about this in the other one, I dunno"). The assembly instructions were charmingly inaccurate and very forthright about it--("we don't really know what your lawn mower will be like when it ships, so here's a guess about what you might need to do"). More amusingly they would occasionally directly contradict each other ("DO NOT USE FUEL WITH ETHANOL IT WILL DESTROY THE MOTOR RIGHT AWAY" vs. the motor manual's "Anything 10% ethanol or below is fine and doesn't need treatment").

°The neighbors are all freakishly demographically close to our family, which we would not otherwise have been able to guess. They are all nice and laid-back, very much unlike our old neighborhood. I also believe I have met this neighborhood's Bobby Cobb, and he and I will get along just fine.