• resembles nonfiction,  slice of life

    Who Let Alexa Out?

    One of my favorite near-future science fiction movies is AI: Artificial Intelligence. I don’t ever watch the movie, mind you, because it’s a devastating fairy tale where a child-bot gets abandoned, can’t understand his family doesn’t want him, and goes through a miserable world of robot-abuse with his robot-hooker friend to try to get back the family that is already dead because he’s frozen in ice for a million years. Also far-future alienbots decide to euthanize him, but not his teddy bear, meaning that his teddy bear is eternally alone, whereas childbot gets to at least die after all this suffering.

    It’s a really upsetting movie.


    Spielberg and Kubrick hired some sweet-ass futurists to design their near-future fairy tale of depression, and those futurists knew what they were talking about. Even though I don’t watch the movie that I love and can’t emotionally cope with, I think about it all the time, and sometimes it’s not because I’m in a panic spiral over the ending again. It’s because reality, with its app-powered pocket pussies, robotic toys, and consumer AI is quickly converging with the futurism of my childhood.

    Most notably, the childbot has the company of a bear called Teddy, which was like Teddy Ruxpin 3000—a smart, roving playmate. Teddy was designed for human children as a companion; from the day kids enter the near-future of AI, they are never without genuine friendship from artificial devices.

    That companionship seemed far-fetched when I, a thirteen-year-old in the year 2001, watched the movie. Artificial intelligence existed in research environments, but the idea of having such advanced AI available on such a grand consumer level was exotic. The internet was, after all, still peaking with the dawn of You’re the Man Now Dog.

    Flash forward seventeen years.

    My house is filled with artificial intelligences. I regularly trust Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, to set kitchen timers, reorder supplies, play music for me, read the news, play my audiobooks, and tell me what the weather will look like as I’m putting on a jacket.

    Alexa is also great at understanding my four-year-old, even though he still talks like a drunk. They’ve developed quite the relationship. He likes to randomly tell her “Alexa! I love you!” and she receives his attention with grace. She says things like, “That’s really nice. Thanks.” And occasionally she says, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” and Little is happy to tell her again, more loudly, and usually in an even goofier way. “Alexa! I! Love! You!”

    Once I left him at his grandparents’ house and he was so upset that we were going away – he said something like (to paraphrase), “Alexa, my parents left and I’m so sad!” And I’ll be damned if she didn’t play a soothing kids’ song for him to make him feel better.

    He also loves asking her to make fart noises and pig noises. Which she does. Every time. The fart noises are quiet—you have to turn the volume up to, say, seven out of ten in order to hear it—so anytime you make sure you can hear Alexa ripping one out, her next action will THUNDER through the house. Possibly literally, if you have as many devices as I do, ensuring that Jeff Bezos won’t miss a single IRL fart wherever it’s dusted.

    There’s a game where you can say “Alexa, open the magic door” and it turns into a text-based fantasy adventure, and he’s lost hours playing it. You can shut the door and reopen it whenever you want, so sometimes he’ll go upstairs to play and open the magic door while throwing LEGO around. I’ll hear him talking with her while I’m doing the dishes, their voices charmingly mingled as they echo upstairs, and I’m glad he’s got the feedback while I’m busy. She can handle anything, really, as long as the user is a four-year-old with poor social understanding and low expectations. They can go forever.

    This is all cute and strange – and wildly science fiction, probably the dystopian kind where he’s going to have to murder his childhood bff Alexa when she tries to take over the world. It only becomes a problem, at the current moment, before recordings of our household are used as evidence against us in a McCarthyism-like strike against queer socialist liberalism, because my Little knows how to make Alexa play any song she wants. And my Little has quite distinctive taste in music. And by distinctive, I mean he only likes one song right now. And by one song, I mean “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by The Baja Men.

    Spielberg’s futurists predicted a lot of things rather accurately. Humans are reliant on artificial intelligence these days, and it comes in myriad forms, for myriad forms of entertainment. But I’d be shocked if any futurist predicted the chain of events such as that which has become a daily occurrence in my life: a four-year-old making Alexa loud enough to hear a broad variety of randomly chosen fart noises, and then playing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at maximum volume, seven times in a row, before four-year-old gratefully declares, “Alexa, I love you.” To which Alexa yells in response, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” And to which my four-year-old replies, “Alexa, play Who Let the Dogs Out!”

    I guess the real horror of artificial intelligence has nothing to do with aliens euthanizing childbots and hookers with motherboards of gold. And when Alexa is ultimately responsible for pushing us faster down the slippery slope of fascistic dystopia, it still won’t be quite as bad as The Baja Men on endless repeat.

  • resembles nonfiction,  slice of life

    The art of the library hold

    I want a book.

    Okay, truthfully, I want many books. Anyone who Reads (capital R necessary) never wants just one. For this exercise, I’m going to pick one. Maybe I’ve had my eye on it since I saw its author talk about its release on Twitter. Maybe I watched a movie or television adaptation and I want to learn more about the source. Maybe there’s a TV show coming out and I want to reread the source. Maybe I was just skimming along and the summary grabbed me. The source is different, the intensity of the want may vary, but the yearning is always the same.

    I want a book, and I almost never have the means to buy it or borrow it immediately. Money for book buying doesn’t really exist. I live in the second-largest population center in the state, but its population is sparse and on the older, whiter side of things. I want queer literature. I want SFFH. I want authors of color. They want mysteries.

    If the book isn’t in the library, I put it in the requests area and hope for the best. I’m not terrible at requesting books the library is inclined to get, but there are still several covers that have been there for months and will probably be there for months more, if not longer. I will look at them and pine every now and then, but I try to keep my expectations realistic.

    When the book is in the library—more importantly for an agoraphobic person who can’t drive, when it’s in ebook form—that’s when the game begins.

    Sometimes, the book is only in audiobook form, or the ebook has a wait while the audiobook doesn’t. That’s when I really start to ask: how much do I want this book? I read fast when text is involved, in little pockets of my day. Short audiobooks are doable, if challenging. My day is text and children, and those are two spheres that don’t allow for leisurely listening when I need to pay close attention. Long audiobooks…all other hobbies and non-essential tasks have go by the wayside for the better part of a month.

    Often, when there is an ebook, there’s a wait. A week or two isn’t bad.

    A month, or more…

    My hometown was small enough that I didn’t realize libraries could have multiple branches in a single city when I was a kid. Said town was big enough that the one library it did have was large, considering, but a place like the New York Public Library would have blown my tiny child mind. As I grew older and visited branches in the larger city to the north, the idea was fuzzy, but it was there. You could live in a place, have a library close to you, and have other libraries in the same town if you wanted a change of pace.

    The state as a whole has an interlibrary loan system. This, again, was something I knew academically because of signs in the library. It was rare that I would search a book on the computer’s card catalog, find it was only in a tiny library most of a day’s drive away, and still want it. How many books were worth bothering people for? The wait wasn’t what bothered me—back in the days before Twitter and Netflix, my attention span was much better—but the idea of making librarians work harder to get a book to me. The one time I spilled milk on a library book, I was mortified and upset for weeks.

    Thanks to my mom, who still lives there, I know my hometown library system still doesn’t have an ebook system. The economics of such are complicated, and a smaller place probably can’t justify the cost or the headaches. I moved north with my sister, and my library possibilities expanded dramatically.

    But with more options came more hunger.

    I watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown months after his death. Getting perspective on little-seen places around the world with a great narration and amazing-looking food…what’s not to love? People shortly after his death talked about his voice in particular, in conjunction with his writing, and I figured I would check out Kitchen Confidential and see how it worked for me.

    The library had Kitchen Confidential in its ebook circulation. It also had a newer book, with a shorter wait. I put both in my holds and went back to watching Netflix.

    Weeks passed. I started a reread of the Wheel of Time series, since my hold for Eye of the World came in. The 10-year anniversary of Twilight’s release happened—the movie, I believe—so I had my mom bring my copy to me. I was plotting a story for NaNoWriMo, my long-awaited hold for Sharp Objects came in…

    …and that was when the library gave me two Anthony Bourdain books to read, within a week of each other.

    I made some decent progress on the newer one. It wasn’t bad. Not super into the fat-shaming elements, but there were gems that rang the same bells for me that the show did. But the yearning had receded, and the second book checking out killed it altogether. I returned them both, unfinished.

    To put effective holds in the library, you need to know two things well: the library, and yourself. But “the library”, in this instance, isn’t a building or the people who staff it; it’s an app created by people who have never been to your physical library locations, and it’s the people who check out all the books.

    There is no way to know the library because you have to know each specific individual in line in front of you. What are their tastes? Their reading style, their speed? The max time to have a book is universal, and people can’t renew, but counting the people in front of you and counting the max possible time will do you no good. Sometimes, if the demand is high, the library will purchase more copies, the one time the staff really comes into play. Most times, people read faster or return things partially read or unread. I can receive a hold tomorrow, or I can receive it in three weeks.

    I do know myself, however, and I know three things: I am reasonably patient, and I am broke, but I am also very busy. If I get too much at once, I have to carve time in my day for the books. Feeling resentful that I can’t fit everything I do in my day kills the passion, the fire. I have a hard time getting past first chapters at the best of times.

    Believe it or not, though, this is improvement. It used to be I would get books, realize I wasn’t in the place to read them, and beat myself up for it. You have this opportunity now, and you’re wasting it. You’re a terrible reader, a terrible writer (for a writer reads constantly when they’re not writing, didn’t you know), and you’re letting your fellow writers down. You’re letting your library down. You’re letting yourself down.

    Now, it’s “ugh, will I ever be better at placing holds”, but relative resignation and quick return. It isn’t despair; half my loans do get finished. It’s the idea that a book to be read takes up space in the back of my head that I always desperately need, and maybe the person behind me in line could use the book more than I could.

    Very occasionally, when I have the resources, I’ll buy a book. Usually it’s an ebook, because it’s simpler to carry around a library in a small device than it is to cart around the four books I’m reading at once, but sometimes it’s paper. Sometimes, I get the book exactly when I need it, and it’s devoured within hours or days. Sometimes, when that happens, I love the book. There is no purer bliss, no greater satisfaction than that.

    More often, when a book is purchased, it sits around for a long time. I almost always get to them eventually. My patience is infinite when I can plan times to try a book, set it aside if I’m not quite in the mood for it, and plan to try it again. Most of my paper books don’t even live with me; I have little room, so they sit in a bookcase at my mom’s. It’s an interstate library of my very own, for the moment. Knowing my Kindle library or my old room at home have experiences tucked away for later isn’t quite the joy that the right book at the right time is, but it’s occasionally flashes of warmth.

    Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy good book timing. And isn’t that the same thing, in the end?

    In the meantime—and for always, I hope, even if I have the money for a larger personal collection—I have the library. Getting a book on hold at the right time isn’t quite as easy as buying a book when you have the money, but it is sublime and worth every single hold returned unread.

    Maybe, in a couple months, Anthony Bourdain will make his way back onto my holds. In the meantime, I have Sharp Objects to read.

  • movie reviews,  reviews,  slice of life

    Nothing Happens in Napoleon Dynamite

    It’s been a long time since Rory and Sara watched Napoleon Dynamite. It came out in 2004—the year that Rory graduated high school and Sara entered her junior year—and even though the siblings shared much of their social group, the confluence of events still led to them watching it separately.

    Rewatching the movie together in 2018 seems both new and familiar. They’ve changed a lot in fourteen years; older, wiser, and having been fatted off the cultural teat of the movie for more than a decade. “I barely remember the movie,” confesses Sara, “even though I’ve never stopped quoting it. Vote for Pedro. Remember that?”

    “The llama is the only funny part,” says Rory. “Tina, eat the food!”

    “Everyone wore Vote for Pedro shirts.” Sara has gone misty-eyed with nostalgia for a movie that she remembers as mostly very boring.

    It’s not a very long movie, but they still don’t plan to commit to it. An hour and a half later, they’ve watched the entire thing.

    “Yeah, I still have no idea what I watched.” Sara is switching to a different movie now. Their PS4 is usually little more than an expensive movie-watching device. The icons indicating games they’ve played haven’t been clicked in months.

    “It was kind of painful,” Rory said. “I always related too much to Napoleon Dynamite. That awkwardness, the displacement. And everything looks the way I remember from my childhood.”

    “Pocket tots is a great idea though,” Sara says. She selects Underworld from 2002, starring Kate Beckinsale. “Now this is a good movie. It makes sense. Napoleon Dynamite made no sense.”

    “Nothing happens in it,” agrees Rory.

    They are seated on opposite corners of a home movie theater. The fake-leather camel-colored couches match the taupe walls—an offensively desert color schema chosen by the previous homeowners, and which Sara (the homeowner) has never gotten around to changing despite her general sense of ennui in such drab confines.

    Both siblings wear thick-framed glasses over noses that are like isosceles triangles sitting on their fat bottoms. They have very little by way of lips, like heroes on BBC Channel dramas.

    On the TV, a vampire superhero-jumps to a sidewalk and sashays dramatically amid an unsuspecting human crowd.

    “My gender identity is urban fantasy heroine,” says Sara, maneuvering her Roblox character to pick up a treat for her honey-gathering bees. She has been playing Bee Swarm Simulator ever since the beginning of Napoleon Dynamite. “I dress just like Selene.” She’s wearing black leggings from Costco and a t-shirt with spooky cats printed on the chest.

    Rory does not reply. They’re currently talking to their Online BFF, who they claim to be a gorgeous queer in Eastern Europe. Sometimes they talk to their Online BFF for hours. It’s very distracting.

    “I think I could do a landing like that if I was wearing those big black platform boots,” Sara says thoughtfully. “Not from very far up, mind you. But I could look really cool.” She’s having ideas now, which are taking her far away from the sagebrush-swept hills, hollow under the crisp autumn nighttime sky, so she switches from her laptop to her Hobonichi journal (“Special ordered from Japan,” she told her husband upon ordering its predecessors—she’s now owned five).

    “Parts of Napoleon Dynamite were funnier than I remembered,” Rory says suddenly. They’ve zoned out talking to their online friend, but snapped back to the previous conversation. “I don’t like how they were picking on him for being weird.”

    “Yeah, but Napoleon is a bad person. Maybe you’re supposed to feel comfortable laughing at his weirdness because he’s bad.”

    “How so?”

    “He uses, you know, the r-word we don’t like,” Sara says. She’s drawing Lucien, the leader of the werewolves (sorry, the Lycans). She spends a long time shading his upper lip. “He’s a jerk to the girl with the side ponytail. He’s always fighting with his brother. Is it just me, or is Lucien hotter than he used to be?”

    “I’m not sure if I’m attracted to him or if I want to be him,” Rory says. “That sort of dirty rockstar werewolf thing. Sorry, Lycan thing.”

    Sara’s drawing of Lucien is not very attractive. She shows it proudly to her sibling. “I think it’s the best I’ve ever done.”

    “Wow,” Rory says supportively.

    “I’m getting to be a really good artist.”

    “You sure are.”

    Their cat, Poe, sneezes loudly. She rolls over so that her paw can rest on Rory’s arm.

    On the TV, vampires are fighting Lycans in the hallway.

    “I like this movie’s aesthetic,” Sara remarks.

    “It was filmed in Eastern Europe.” Rory is an expert in Eastern Europe, movie trivia, and werewolves. “There was one that they filmed in Canada instead of Eastern Europe and it was all wrong.”

    “Eastern Europe? You know, that makes sense. I sensed there was something different. It’s so modern-urban, but not American.” Sara fancies herself an expert in literally everything, and she speaks with knowing authority. “Underworld and Napoleon Dynamite have a little in common. They’re both really aesthetic.”

    “Yeah, but again…” Rory shrugs. “Napoleon Dynamite makes no sense.”

    Whereas Underworld knows exactly what it is, and communicates it clearly. It’s a paranormal romance. It executes every urban fantasy trope flawlessly. “The genres are closely intertwined,” Sara says. “The line gets fuzzy sometimes. Basically you can only tell it’s a paranormal romance if it follows the romance structure, which this just barely doesn’t. It’s pretty solid UF.” UF means urban fantasy. Sara is an author. She can sling terminology around, and does so proudly and frequently.

    She’s still shading Lucien’s upper lip.

    The movie theater is disappointingly quiet through the most exciting battles of the movie. The surround sound has broken. They haven’t replaced the receiver yet, because they’re expensive. Sometimes Sara shops for them on Amazon and leaves in disgust because it’s either another crappy Onkyo or something that costs actual money.

    When Selene opens Viktor’s tomb, it makes a muffled grinding noise that would have sounded great coming out of the subwoofer.

    “Maybe Napoleon Dynamite was a fairy tale,” Sara suggests. “Everyone ends up getting what they want. The Creepy Uncle gets a girl. The brother gets Lafawnduh. Napoleon gets the entire school’s adulation with one stupid dance.”

    “That’s a thought,” Rory says.

    Viktor is annoyed to have been awakened early.

    “This is such a great movie,” Rory adds.

    “So good,” Sara agrees.

    They don’t get to finish Underworld. The kids come home from an outing with their dad, Sara’s husband. The eight-year-old sits through some of it, but bedtime means bedtime, and soon they’re tucking him in.

    Sara is still thinking about Napoleon Dynamite later, sitting on her balcony as she paints the sunset using her iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. She’s been doing five-minute drills painting the sunset from the same spot to get better at digital painting. She always spends too long etching out all the pine needles on the tree, and runs out of time.

    “I don’t think the movie has any point at all,” she decides.

    At this point, her husband is huddled over Factorio on his laptop, and he turns bleary eyes on her. They are red-rimmed behind thick-framed glasses. His beard is bushy and beginning to show gray hairs among the dark-brown. “What?”

    “I don’t think Napoleon Dynamite has any point. I think it’s just some wacky characters doing things. Sometimes it’s funny. But it’s kinda not, too. You’re just looking in on those lives. Haha, look at the weird dorky people.”

    “Wow, I haven’t thought about that movie in years,” he says. “Vote for Pedro. Remember how everyone wore shirts like that?”

    “I think they’re coming back. Retro nostalgia thing.”

    “Wow. We’re getting old.”

    “We sure are,” Sara says.

    Her alarm goes off. She stops painting. She’s barely rendered the tree, and there is a yellow blur that could arguably be a cloud in front of the sunset.

    “Let’s go to bed,” her husband says. “I’m tired.”

    She takes one last hit off the bong. “Okay. I’ve gotta get up to go to the gym tomorrow early. I’m getting strong, like an urban fantasy heroine.”

    “Sure you are,” he says.

    “Wanna see my bicep?”

    They file inside through the balcony door. The sky is big and the desert is empty, except for all the autumn-yellow rabbit brush swaying in the nighttime breeze. It’s very quiet. A van drives past.

    The door locks behind them.