The Ultimate Pardon

“Run through it one more time for me, Tom,” the President said, squinting slightly against the sun. The sky was clear, not even the contrail of a passing jet detracting from the pale blue firmament. This isn’t right, he thought, frowning as he watched a lone bird—a hawk by the look of it—soar quietly overhead. I’d always imagined this sort of thing to be done in the dead of night; certainly not in broad daylight…and certainly not with worldwide media coverage.

The reporters were held at bay perhaps a hundred yards away, lined up behind the cemetery’s high, wrought iron fence. The President knew they were there, but didn’t bother to look; he knew their cameras were likely focused on him, trying to catch a glimpse through the broad-shouldered throng of Secret Service agents. He knew that even from this distance, the cameras would see every detail of his face—his furrowed brow, the hint of tears welling up in the corners of his eyes, the downturned corners of his mouth—and broadcast it all to millions, perhaps billions, of television sets across the globe.

“Yes, sir,” Tom said. The advisor adjusted his tie—a nervous tic he hadn’t managed to overcome despite nearly four years in the public eye—and gestured to the coffin that had been exhumed several hours ago. “When you’re ready, we’ll open the casket. Secret Service will do one final security sweep, then all personnel will retreat to the ten yard perimeter. Once the perimeter is established, you will light the torch at each vertice of the pentagram…”

The President looked at the coffin as Tom ran through the procedure for the fifth time in as many days. He nodded slowly, only half-listening to his advisor. The polished wood gleamed brightly; either the concrete vault had protected the coffin exceptionally well, or someone had spent a considerable amount of time cleaning it after the exhumation. Surely the corpse within would not have remained as untouched by the ravages of time as the vessel in which it had been interred.

The President waited until Tom finished, then took a deep breath. “Let’s get this over with,” he said, shrugging off his suit jacket and handing it to an aide—Camryn, he reminded himself for no particular reason. He loosened his tie and watched as the sexton—the only person on the cemetery grounds who wasn’t part of the White House staff—opened the heavy coffin lid.

There was a brief, heavy moment as the sexton looked into the casket, his face ash-white, before the Secret Service descended upon the open coffin, visually inspecting the vessel and the remains it contained while two German Shepherds sniffed for explosives and hazardous chemicals.

This isn’t right, the President thought again, this is a desecration. He wondered if his predecessor, the first United States President to grant the ultimate pardon before leaving office, had felt the same way. No, he didn’t expect she had. He didn’t expect she had felt much of anything at all.

“All Clear!”

In seconds, he was alone. The Secret Service and the K-9 unit had retreated to the perimeter, along with Tom and Camryn and the rest of the President’s staff. He took another deep breath and hefted his old Bic lighter—a present from his father, of all people; his father who could not abide smokers. He ran a thumb over the worn emblem on front of the stainless steel, an American eagle whose color had been rubbed away years ago, and thought that this, too, was wrong. Surely he was not going to begin the sacred rite by flipping his Bic.

But he did just that, and the flame was as strong as it had ever been, barely guttering in the afternoon breeze. The President lit the first torch, nearly burning his knuckles as whatever concoction soaked the tip came ablaze with a soft whump. He crossed from the northern point of the star to the southwest, then to the northeast, then northwest and finally southeast, deliberately not looking at the coffin that lay in the center of the pentagram.

All five torches lit, the President snapped the lid of his lighter shut and dropped it into his right pocket, the weight a familiar reassurance. He took another deep breath and stepped to the side of the coffin, finally looking down at the body within. Time, as he suspected had not been kind. The face was drawn and desiccated, lips pulled back to form a grotesque grin around teeth that seemed too large for the sunken features. He was suddenly very glad of the arcane rules that governed this macabre proceeding: to be eligible for raising, the individual must have died while the President raising him or her held office. Four years had not been gentle to the corpse; he shuddered to think of how cruel forty would have been.

The President lifted a trembling hand and rested it on the wrinkled forehead. The skin was dry beneath his palm and felt so much unlike human flesh that he had to fight back the urge to vomit. My approval rating is bad enough, he thought hysterically, I can’t imagine how low it would plunge if I puked on national television in the course of performing my last official act as President. He almost looked up at the cameras he knew were there, at the members of his staff he knew were watching, but instead he blinked away fresh tears and took another deep breath.

I don’t want to do this. Oh, God, I do not want to do this.

But he had taken an oath, and whether he wanted to perform the ritual or not didn’t matter; only that he believed the ritual would work. And he believed. Oh, yes, he believed. On his inauguration day he had watched his outgoing predecessor perform the ritual herself. Had watched a dead man rise from a coffin much like this one. Oh, yes, he believed.

His voice cracked as he spoke. “By the power vested in me by the citizens of the United States of America, I release you from death. I welcome you to a new life.”

Again the President nearly vomited as warmth blossomed in the forehead beneath his hand. His breath caught in his chest and he staggered back, his fingers cramping and twisting, his palm burning with a cold fire that spread up his arm. The President fell to his knees, unable to breathe, staring as manicured fingers gripped the edge of the coffin and the figure within rose.

***

Tom didn’t look at the body on the ground as he stepped forward. “Madam President,” he said, smiling and extending his right hand.  “Welcome back.”


The preceding story was inspired by Mur Lafferty‘s new project, The News From Poughkeepsie, wherein she plans to post a story idea each day for a year. Today’s writing prompt asks what would happen if the President had the power to raise people from the dead at the end of his term.

This is pretty much a first draft, though I did do some on-the-fly editing.

Coffee Shop Writing: Week 1 Summary

I’ll let Mr. Miller summarize his own efforts; not because I don’t know what he wrote all week, but because I can’t bring myself to admit that he wrote more than I did.

Monday

I started a new short(?) story tentatively titled “The Long December” and discovered that immortality is simply a matter of who’s in charge. Word count: 299

Tuesday

I continued “The Long December” after a late arrival at the coffee shop. Word count: 285.

Wednesday

Faced with the uncomfortable fact that “The Long December” was turning into a parable, I wrote a blog entry: Coffee Shop Writing: Day 3. Three days into this experiment and the meta-writing has already begun. Word count: 650ish.

Thursday

Kate: Advanced Text Editor
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Zombie Day. Due to issues with Puppy Linux, I abandoned it in favor of Kubuntu, which I didn’t *quite* manage to get configured Wednesday night. Goodbye (for now) Geany, hello Kate! I didn’t get any writing done at all today; I need more than four hours of sleep before I can write. If I can’t get more than four hours of sleep, I need four hours to wake up so I can write. Later in the day I wrote another blog entry, Tomorrow is Arbor Day. Celebrate with The Secret Lair. It’s about 375 words, but I didn’t write it in the coffee shop, so it doesn’t count. Word count: 0.

Friday

Instead of sitting down to write, I distracted Chris ((To be fair, he had a 200+ word head start by the time I arrived, thanks to a writing prompt at Plotstorming.com.)) by talking about Kubuntu’s apparent lack of an e-mail client, ((The default client is Kmail, which is—according to the Adept Package Manager—installed, but which nobody thought to provide a link to. Is this what I get for downloading a release candidate? EDIT: Kmail is the e-mail component of Kontact, which has a handy shortcut on the Kubuntu taskbar, but which I mistook for an address book. This is because I am an idiot.)) the audio quality issues we’re having with episodes of The Secret Lair, and pretty much anything that wasn’t writing. It worked. I should be ashamed of myself.

Then I decided to fire up Kate and write this summary. I announced that I was writing just as Chris was packing up his things and heading back to his home office. “What are you writing?” he asked.

I told him.

“Good God!,” he exclaimed. “I’ve never met anyone who could write so much about doing so little!”

So true. Word count: 401. ((Total for the week: about 1,600.))

Tomorrow is Arbor Day. Celebrate with The Secret Lair.

The first panel of Natalie Metzger‘s latest webcomical creation for The Secret Lair provides an insight—one some might classify as profoundly disturbing—into the decidedly non-traditional celebrations Chris Miller and I have adopted for certain of the minor holidays observed here in the United States.

Preview of The Secret Lair Webcomic, Episode 0004.Lest anyone get the wrong impression, let me assure you that none of our festivities involve any sort of violence toward this particular holiday‘s honorees, despite the fact that certain deciduous individuals among them persist in perennially covering our lawns with their palmate-netted castoffs. Indeed, The Secret Lair is as environmentally friendly as any facility housing a trans-dimensional alien power siphon, an unregulated plutonium refinery and three separate sub-basements dedicated to various (allegedly) biohazardous experimentation possibly can be. We’re not technically a “green” facility, but there is a very nice hyacinth in Mr. Miller’s office and one of the minions has planted daffodils on the west bank of the moat. ((These are, unfortunately, no longer officially being tended, as the would-be floriculturist severely underestimated the tentacle reach of the giant squid.)) In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the koi pond near the Visitor Center is an artifice: a hologram designed to disguise one of our surface-to-air missile batteries. ((Astute visitors will surely notice that the koi swim in a pattern that is repeated every ninty-two-point-five minutes—or rather, they would notice the pattern if they weren’t fleeing the hunter-seeker robots that are automatically deployed when our hidden DNA scanners detect the presence of unauthorized personnel near the Visitor Center.))

If you are in northeast Ohio this Arbor Day, you would do well to avoid The Secret Lair. ((The facility and its immediate surroundings are slightly out of phase with the “normal” time/space continuum; we expect the issue to be resolved no later than Wednesday of last week.)) However, admission to The Holden Arboretum is free beginning on Friday the 25th and continuing through Sunday the 27th. Mr. Miller and I are—due to the aforementioned non-traditional observances—banned from the grounds for life, but we hold no grudge and encourage you to visit the Arboretum this weekend if you are able.

Coffee Shop Writing: Day 3

Treo 650 Palm-powered smartphone
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One of the tricky things about blogging for me is that I almost always compose blog entries in WordPress’ editor. This means that I have to have an Internet connection in order to write. Only one time in recent memory have I begun writing a blog entry offline: my love letter to giant crocodilians was born on my Treo 650 while I was in a restaurant waiting to meet Laura and Kyle for dinner after work one day. Writing on the Treo isn’t anything approaching fun. Granted, it has a “full” keyboard, which I prefer when sending text messages, but anything beyond the 140-character bursts of text that comprise SMS messages is a bit of a chore.

I used to carry a small notepad and pen in my back pocket, intending to write blog entries (and story ideas and anything else I needed to capture when I was away from a computer) longhand and then transcribe them to WordPress at my leisure. It was a great theory, and if you can’t see where this is going you haven’t been listening to me whine about not being able to write long enough.

This week, Chris Miller and I began meeting at a local coffee shop for an hour before work to write. I started working on a short story that had been rattling around in my head for all of fifteen minutes before I sat down at the coffee shop; Chris wrote a blog entry. I couldn’t get on the coffee shop’s wi-fi network until this morning, when I finally realized that I needed a WEP key. Now I have access to the dread Internets and all of the distractions they bring; I could, were I so inclined, fire up WordPress and bang out a blog entry—writing is writing. ((It feels like a cop out to be meta-blogging on this, the third day of coffee shop writing, but the fiction I’m writing has turned into a parable, for crying out loud, and all of a sudden I need to have a moral for the story; I, who can never see the end of a story when I begin writing it, need to be able to wrap the whole thing up and say this is the lesson we’ve learned, children. Yikes.))

Geany - A GTK2 Text Editor
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Instead, I’m writing this in Geany, the Puppy Linux equivalent to Microsoft’s Notepad. It’s an experiment of sorts: focus on the content and worry about the formatting later. Because when I write in WordPress, I’m constantly previewing the entries to see how they flow on the page (especially if I’m including any kind of graphic) instead of just writing until I feel like I’m done and then going back to tweak and nudge things or, in other words, edit. It’s bad enough that I constantly edit the content while I’m writing (something I’ve never really been able to completely abandon, despite four years of NaNoWriMo), but when I’m in a WYSIWYG editor I constantly mess with the formatting, as well. I just have a hard time dealing with the concept of a draft; everything has to be as finished as I can possibly make it before I move on to the next page, paragraph, sentence or word.

Writing doesn’t work that way in the real world, and I’m very well aware of that. Of course, there’s a big difference between recognizing your weakness and overcoming it. But this is the first step in a new experiment: content first, formatting last. I’ll finish writing this draft in Geany, then copy and paste it into what passes for a Write Post interface in WordPress these days ((Bitter much?)) and make any edits before posting. Or maybe I’ll just delete the whole damn whiny, introspective, woe-is-me mess and move on and no one (except Chris, who knows I’m meta-blogging right now) will be any the wiser.

WordPress 2.5: The Write Post Interface

WordPress IconShortly after I installed WordPress 2.5, I blogged at length about my experiences with (and dislike of) some of the “new and improved” features of the administrator’s interface. The Write Post interface was a particular bone of contention with me, but my co-host at The Secret Lair made it known that he thought the entire design of the administrator interface was poorly done. You can find our discussion in Episode 0009 of the podcast, beginning at the 07:57 mark.

A couple of days ago, Matthew Hill ((Check out Matthew’s own views on the change in his blog post, WordPress gets it wrong…and goes deaf.)) left a comment here directing me to a very helpful post on the official WordPress Support Forums. As I began exploring the forums, I discovered that Chris and I were hardly alone in our feelings toward the WordPress 2.5 Admin interface. There are several threads at the forums devoted to the administrator interface, with special attention on the Write Post screen and the Widget control panel.

One thread in the Requests and Feedback forum caught my eye, as there were more than 100 replies when I began reading it, with new replies continuing to trickle in at a fairly steady rate. I felt somewhat vindicated to learn that other WordPress users were being very vocal about their dislike for the new Admin screens, and more than a little disheartened at a forum moderator’s attitude toward people posting on a forum that is clearly labeled as being designated for feedback and criticism:

Well, prepare to continue to be annoyed then…

WordPress developers generally don’t comment in these forums, as a rule. They’re too busy developing. If you want a say in the code development, then login to the bug tracker and make your comments there. Submit patches to the code. Whatever.

But really, please, stop complaining about it here. These are support forums, for people with actual problems. Not liking the layout is an opinion, not a problem. And this is really not the proper place to vent opinions or to suggest changes to WordPress. ((Initial response to users by forum moderator Otto42.))

More disheartening than Otto42’s attitude, however, was his assertion that the development team simply doesn’t pay attention to the “Requests and Feedback” forum, leading me to wonder why they would even bother having forums in the first place.

Fortunately, a number of users were doing more than just expressing their dislike for the new Admin interface: they were diving into the WordPress code to do something about it. The post Matt linked to contained information about a hack created by Judy Becker of the knitting blog, Persistent Illusion. That’s right, a blogger whose focus is knitting hacked WordPress 2.5 in order to make the Write Post screen resemble the old WordPress 2.3.3 interface.

Judy’s hack moves the Categories, Comments & Pings, Tags, Post Author and Password Protect sections (what someone collectively referred to as the meta-data sections) to the right of the editor window, much as they were in WordPress 2.3. Unfortunately, since the changes require modification to some core WordPress files, it doesn’t appear that what Judy has done could be accomplished with a simple plugin, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.

I applied Judy’s hack and, lo and behold, the Categories section was back where it belonged: to the right of the post editor. If only there were some way to fix some of the other design flaws: ((Yes, I call them “design flaws”, and I will continue to do so. The attitude that the only constructive approach to resolving these issues is to suggest a solution that does not involve reverting back to the WordPress 2.3.3 design because that would constitute a step “backward” is simply pig-headed. The changes to the design could hardly be called a step forward, as they forced efficiency and functionality to take a backseat to making the screen look simple “above the fold”.)) an overabundance of white space above the editor, unnecessarily large typeface for the blog title, etc.

Then I found the Fluency Admin plugin, which “re-skins” the entire WordPress Admin interface. Fluency arranges the major admin functions (Dashboard, Write, Manage, Design, Comments, Settings, Plugins and Users) in a column on the left side of the screen, while displaying sub-functions across the top. The interface feels cleaner and tighter, though I still think that some of the space above the fold could be put to better use.

Unfortunately, the Fluency plugin didn’t look so great with Judy’s hack: the repositioned sections overlapped the editor, making the whole thing feel very cludgy, which it was; the hack and the plugin weren’t designed to be complementary, after all. Rather than give up, I decided to do a little hacking myself. I tweaked some of Judy’s CSS to fix the overlap problem and hacked the postbox JavaScript file to remove the “twisties” ((Also known as “disclosure triangles”.)) from the section headers. The result is very satisfying. Compare the two screen shots below: the first is the default WordPress 2.5 Write Post screen, the second is the Write Post with the Fluency Admin plugin and Judy’s hack applied.

WordPress 2.5 Write Post Screen (Default/Safari)
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WordPress 2.5 Write Post Screen (Hacked/Fluency/Safari)
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There are a couple of drawbacks to this approach. First, the Fluency Admin plugin only works on CSS2 compliant browsers. That’s not a major problem because I do the majority of my blogging from Firefox, SeaMonkey, Flock and Safari, all of which display Fluency quite nicely. Every once in a while, I’ve got use Internet Explorer 6 or 7, neither of which is CSS2 compliant, so the Admin interface reverts back to the default theme with the hacks Judy and I made. It’s not entirely pretty, but it’s still functional and still better than using the standard interface.

WordPress 2.5 Write Post Screen (Hacked/IE7)
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But ultimately the biggest problem is that I’ve had to utilize a hack to fix a user interface issue, a hack that will be overwritten with the next WordPress upgrade. The likelihood that the interface will be improved with that upgrade seems slim, given that a request to revert the layout of the Write Post screen was deemed “invalid” by the developers, ((So much for following Otto42’s advice.)) which means that I’ll have to re-hack WordPress after the upgrade.

Okay, I was wrong: the biggest problem is the lack of any kind of official response to the community feedback. Several people have reverted back to WordPress 2.3.3 rather than fight with the new Admin interface, some are simply not upgrading, and I suspect that others may jump to another blogging platform. Me? I’ve got a hack in place that I can live with for now, but I’m only going to re-hack WordPress so many times before I start looking elsewhere.

Coming Soon: Rogue

Rogue
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How this managed to escape my attention is beyond me, but thanks to the ever-watchful David Mead my eye is now upon it.

Rogue is not the latest spinoff from the X-Men franchise (sorry, Anna Paquin), but rather the tale of some hapless tourists lost in the wetlands of Australia. You know, where the hungry, hungry crocodiles live.

Chompity-chomp-chomp!

There’s no trailer available yet, but with a release date of 25 April, the folks over at The Weinstein Company had best shake a scaly tail and give me a thirty second montage of quick cuts, snapping jaws and plenty of screaming.

EDIT: I’ve found two different trailers online. One is the very thirty second montage I was looking for, with very little dialog but plenty of quick shots and shrieking. The other is a couple of minutes long and goes on about unnecessary things like premise and plot. Bo-ring.

A Major Award

First PrizeThere are days when you just have to put it all on the line, throw caution to the wind and go for it; you put your best out there and see whether it’s good enough. The sad fact of the matter is that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much effort we put forth, no matter how far beyond what is theoretically achievable we push ourselves, we’re going to fail. We simply can’t all be winners every day; it’s statistically impossible.

Do you think I’m going to let some statistician tell me what I can and cannot do? Hell, no! I’m going to raise my middle finger high to their bell curves, their means, their medians, and yes, even their modes. I am a walking, talking, blogging deviation, dammit! A non-standard deviation, at that! Mine all the data you want, math boy, it’ll do you no good: I do not compute!

Today, I did something that defied our mathematical understanding of the universe. I won the unwinnable. “Success against all odds” is my middle name. Okay, that’s not true. I mean, what kind of whack-job parents would name their kid “Kris Success against all odds Johnson”? That’s just stupid. My middle name is “Alan”, but it probably means “success against all odds” in Swahili. Either that or “crossbite”, but that’s beside the point; the point is that I won, baby. I won big time. A major award.

Which award would that be? Why, Funniest Tweet of the Day, of course. Awarded on a whenever-he-feels-like-it basis by novelist/podcaster J.C. Hutchins to the individual on Twitter who utters the single funniest thing ever uttered (that day, on Twitter), the Funniest Tweet of the Day grants the recipient fame, adoration and respect that will last a lifetime, or until J.C.’s award tweet scrolls off everyone’s front page, which ever comes first. That’s some serious Internet cred, folks. It’s not the same as street cred, but I live on a cul-de-sac, so my chances for street cred are few and far between.

Here’s the best part: I’m going to let you in on how I did it. That’s right, I’m going to tell you the secret of my success, and it’s not going to cost you a penny. You don’t need to buy my upcoming bestseller, The Utter Incompetent’s Handbook to the Funniest Tweet of the Day, (available in paperback at most major booksellers or as a pay-per-play downloadable audiobook) or attend one of my sold out seminars—I’m going to tell you right here and right now, for free.

Write this down on a sticky note and attach it to the mirror in your bathroom. Might as well write it on a dozen or so sticky notes, while you’re at it. Put one on the fridge and another on the edge of your computer monitor. Put two on the front door—one on each side—so it’s the last thing you see going out the door and the first thing you see coming in. Stick one on the center of the steering wheel in your car and another between your girlfriend’s shoulderblades. You get the idea.

This is what you’re writing on those sticky notes—and remember, penmanship counts, so don’t just scrawl it like you’re a doctor writing a prescription for Zanaprexinol, print it in nice, friendly, legible letters so you can read it later—the secret that’s going to set you off on the road to success: bring the funny.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know. If you keep that one thought—bring the funny—in the back of your mind every waking hour, you’ll be writing tweets that make J.C. Hutchins laugh in no time.

Okay, that’s a lie. Thinking about bringing the funny isn’t enough, you have to make it your credo, your entire way of life. You have to walk the funny, breathe the funny, eat the funny and crap the funny if you want to get a giggle out of The Hutch. It doesn’t matter where you are, what time it is, or what the circumstances may be, you have to be ready to bring the funny at all times, and that ain’t easy.

Take the Funniest Tweet of the Day, for example. By now, you’re probably wondering just what it was that made J.C. laugh so hard a smiley-faced JPEG shot out of his nose. Well, I’m not keeping anything close to the vest today, my friends. I’m going to tell you. That’s right, I’m not going to keep this award-winning tweet under wraps anymore.

Okay, I’m awake. Everyone roll for initiative.

That’s comic genius, right there, pure and simple. It just doesn’t get funnier than that. Not on Twitter. Not today.

I’m not going to explain it to you, not because what makes it funny is a secret—we’ve gone over this, that’s not how I roll today—but because dissecting the funny is like watching Spider-Man 3: it might seem like a good idea, but by the time you’re done you’ve died a little inside.

But I’ll tell you this: that tweet didn’t just happen. That tweet is the result of me striving every hour of every day to bring the funny. I work at it relentlessly. I could make a montage of me training like Rocky Balboa, but it would be a boring montage, because the funny isn’t like boxing. Training yourself to bring the funny doesn’t happen in a meat locker or on the stairs of a stadium, it happens in your head, and nobody wants to watch what’s going on in your head. No one is that twisted.

I won today. I beat the odds. You can, too, if you bring the funny. And if J.C. Hutchins follows you on Twitter. And he happens to be watching at just the right moment. The guy follows twelve hundred people, so your chances of him actually seeing your tweet, no matter how funny it may be, are pretty slim—maybe one in a twelve hundred. Statistics are a bitch, which is pretty much what I’ve been saying all along.

Naked for a Day

It’s the third annual CSS Naked Day, so I’ve disabled all stylesheets for the blog. This is what the site would look like every day if not for the magic of Cascading Style Sheets: functional, but not very pretty.

CSS Naked Day is the brainchild of User Interface Engineer Dustin Diaz. It is intended to “to promote Web Standards with layered semantic markup, and a clear separation between content, and presentation to enhance accessibility.”

This year, more than a thousand websites have signed up for the event, signifying their intent to strip away the pretty CSS and show the world what’s underneath.

EDIT: Bloginatrix Lorelle van Fossen has an excellent explanation of why we’re observing CSS Naked Day on her meta-blog, Lorelle on WordPress.

Welcome to Parenthood: You’re Doing it Wrong

Kyle will find your pawprints.
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Over the past two years, my young apprentice has been a source of amusement, joy, amazement, wonder and, above all, pride. He has also been a source of frustration, befuddlement, more frustration and, on occasion, disappointment. Not disappointment in him, mind you, but disappointment in myself; in my clear failings as a parent.

I have to believe that every parent experiences moments of fear, denial and confusion when their offspring makes a choice that goes against every tenet of their upbringing. When, as parents, we witness these blatant affronts to our values, the question that echoes endlessly in our thoughts must certainly be, Where did I go so wrong?

And so it is with my young apprentice and his preference for Joe.

Yes, Joe. Not Steve, but Joe.

Where did I go so wrong? Did I not read to him enough in the first twenty-four months? Was I neglecting him in some manner crucial to his development? How can this have happened?

Blue's Clues“Boo’s Coos!” he exclaims. “Boo’s Coos Joe!”

“How about Steve?” I ask, hopefully, poised to queue up “What Experiment Does Blue Want to Do?” or “Snack Time”.

“No!” is his reply. “Boo’s Coos Joe!”

Joe Burns (Donovan Patton)So it is Joe that we watch. Joe in his orange shirt. Joe, whose real name isn’t even Joe, but Donovan Patton. ((Why the lies, “Joe”? What do you have to hide?)) Joe, who can’t even be bothered to draw in the notebook himself; instead, the clues simply appear in the notebook, then sing about themselves (“I’m scrunched up eyebrows!“). ((More deception. Why do you even bother with the crayon, Joe? The whole thing is a giant farce with you.)) Joe, who, at the end of each episode, sings, “Me and you and our friend, Blue” instead of “Me and you and my dog, Blue.” ((Because she’s not your dog, Joe! She’ll never be your dog! Blue will always be Steve’s dog, and I’ll bet that just eats away at you, doesn’t it?)) Joe, who must, must, must somehow be responsible for the abomination that is Blue’s Room. ((She talks! Blue talks! From what bizarre alternate reality did the notion that Blue talking would be a good idea originate? Are the strange beings who inhabit this universe also of the opinion that Chilly Willy, Snoopy and Charlie Brown’s teacher should speak coherent English as well? It’s madness!)) Joe, who isn’t fit to sit down in the thinking chair and think, think, thi-i-ink.

Admittedly, we thirty-something parents are a little protective of our own precious memories, and the idea of our children latching on to some obviously inferior reimagining of our favorite childhood icon (e.g., Transformers Animated, Ruxpin: The Next Generation, any Star Wars film produced after 1983) chills us to the very core. But that does nothing to explain the bias I have with respect to the hosts of Blue’s Clues. The show came along well after I had stopped watching Nickelodeon (apart from SpongeBob Squarepants) and well before my young apprentice started; I had never really watched it prior to becoming a parent, and by the time my progeny arrived Joe had been the host for four years.

Despite the fact that my bias does not spring from the fear that the kids today are trampling all over my beloved childhood, I am biased. Perhaps it is basic human nature: an inherent belief that change is something to be feared and the original will always, always, always be the best. ((Team Knight Rider? What kind of psychotropic pixie dust do you need to be snorting to believe that could possibly work?)) I don’t know; I’m neither psychologist nor social anthropologist. I am, I suppose, just a caveman, one who assumes a threatening posture and shrieks loudly whenever he hears Joe sing, “Come on in. What did you say? A clue! A clue!

Steve BurnsTherein lies the uncomfortable truth: there’s simply no logic to my preference for Steve. I feel a surge of hope on those all-too-rare occasions when my young apprentice says, “Boo’s Coos Steve! Geen Steve!” and a few seconds later, there he is: Steve in his green shirt. Steve, who somehow makes finding three blue pawprints a true adventure. Steve, who skidoos into a book or a painting like no one else can. Steve, whose true feelings for shy Miranda ((Magenta’s owner, played by Shannon Walker Williams)) will forever be unspoken. Steve, who should never go off to college and leave poor Blue with his orange-shirt-wearing ((Joe also has a purple shirt, as well as a green one, but he is at his most duplicitous and untrustworthy when wearing orange.)) younger brother.

But all too soon it will be time for so long, and as Steve sings just one more song, I find myself fearing that the next time my young apprentice wants “Boo’s Coos” he will once again demand to see Joe, and the dreaded question will once again spring to mind: Where did I go so wrong?

Gravatars

WordPressOne of the things I like about WordPress 2.5 is the native support for Gravatars, globally recognized avatars. The idea is pretty simple: register with your e-mail address at the Gravatar site, upload a picture (I used a photo of myself, but that’s not a requirement). Once your account is set up, anytime you leave a comment on a Gravatar-enabled blog, your e-mail address is sent (using the magic of cryptographic hashing) to the Gravatar server. The server then does what servers do best: it serves; specifically, it serves your globally recognized avatar to the requesting blog, which then (typically) displays said avatar next to your comment.

Here’s a sample comment from my WordPress 2.5 upgrade post:

Blog comment with Gravatar.

That [handsome] fellow in the corner of the comment should look familiar, and if P.G. Holyfield had a Gravatar account his comment wouldn’t display the generic “Oh, no, I don’t have a Gravatar!” image ((Or perhaps the “Oh, no, I provided a fake e-mail address in the blog comment form!” image.)) in the upper left:

A comment from a user who does not have a Gravatar account.

Each Gravatar has a content rating—G, PG, R or X—and WordPress has a “Maximum Rating” option that determines whether Gravatars of a given rating will be displayed. I try to maintain a family-friendly blog for the most part, so I’ve set the Maximum Rating to PG, which won’t prevent people with photos of “Lando and the Ugnauts” as their Gravatar from commenting, but will prevent said photo from displaying next to their comment. Seriously, put that thing away before you get us all killed.

Originally, I was going to use a WordPress plugin to handle Gravatar-wrangling, but when I discovered that one of the features of WP-Gravatars made my blog spew green pea soup (or lose its database connection; I forget which), I started poking around for alternative solutions. As it turns out, I didn’t have far to poke: Sandbox, the WordPress theme that serves as the underlying framework for my custom blog theme, had recently released a new version with Gravatar support. Once I had the latest version of Sandbox installed, it was just a matter of tweaking the CSS to style the new Gravatar-enabled comments the way I liked and voila, one Gravatar-enabled blog.

If you start browsing through old comments on the blog, you’re going to notice something: most of the people who comment here don’t have Gravatars. ((Or perhaps they have naughty Gravatars and I won’t display them.)) That’s fine; I’m okay with adding a feature just for folks like Jason Penney, Sam Chupp and Cynthia Armistead, especially if knowing that their smiling (or illustrated) faces will show up on my site encourages them to comment more.

Should you use a Gravatar? It’s up to you. If you’re worried about your e-mail address being used for nefarious purposes (like flooding your inbox with ads for Lando-enhancement products), consider this: Gravatar is owned by Automattic, the same folks who make the spam-comment-killing Akismet plugin (the very plugin that has backhanded nearly 110,000 spam comments on this blog and kept it from becoming a nightmare to maintain). You think they’re gonna sell your e-mail address to spammers?