Monday, April 6, 2015

Perception reset

Last week, for April Fools' Day, somebody attempted to confetti-bomb my government boss using a payload consisting of the little circles of scrap paper produced by the three hole punch. It didn't really go off as planned, or so I assume, since no one would own up to having been behind it and therefore no one could be interrogated as to intent. But basically my government boss was in meetings most of the day and by the time she returned to pop into her office and quickly check her messages, there was just a big pile of tiny paper circles on the floor around the threshold. I don't know if the prankster had carefully piled them on top of the slightly opened door so that when someone swung it quickly in or out all the confetti would swirl off and fall down, or if s/he tried something else and gave up halfway through, or if there was some other set-up before it all wound up on the floor, but on the floor is where it ended up long before it had a chance to have any impact on my boss beyond her seeing it and wondering what had happened. All in all, pretty lame as these things go.

The thing is, the confetti? Still there on the floor, five days later. Which is surpassingly strange because I often think of the housekeeping crew around her as being annoyingly overzealous in the discharge of their duties. I feel like they are constantly cleaning the bathrooms or vacuuming the floors or emptying the garbages, which is fine and all since I appreciate a non-squalid workplace, but gets on my nerves because it all happens during business hours. If I need to use the restroom but it's closed for cleaning, I get bitter. If I'm trying to concentrate on something or even taking a phone call, and the vacuum is running nearby, I get bitter. And based on the intensity of my bitterness you (or I) would think that these inconveniences are occurring on the regular, like every single day. How can it be Monday afternoon and the evidence of a prank gone meh from last Wednesday morning still be littering the carpet? Don't they vacuum, like, every day, or at least every other day? Should Thursday or Friday at the latest have been the last we saw of the punched holes?

Apparently not. And it's no big deal, really zero skin off my nose. If I were my boss, with all that paper debris in my office doorway, I'd be a little peeved, I reckon. As it stands, though, I'm just wondering how hypersensitive to the intrusions of housekeeping I've been all this time.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A cup of cheer

This was a bit of a rough week. After the initial flush of relief at having the contract renewed at work and knowing my job was secure for another 12 or 13 months, I found myself realizing that I might very well be stuck in this job for another 12 or 13 months or more. I've spent a lot of the time since last September phoning it in at work (I mean even moreso than usual, though apparently still not enough for anyone to notice any decrease in my output or completion of duties) and rationalizing my lowered intensity of effort by blaming the government's inability to get their act together and subsequent jerking around of all of us poor contractors. But now the government has finally gotten it together, and we contractors are in no way being mistreated at the moment, so I should probably get back into the mindset of somewhat earning my keep around here. And also, as I've already mentioned, I should keep pounding the pavement in search of a new gig. But so far that endeavor has yielded minimal, frustrating results, so more of the same does not exactly fill me with rapturous delight.

Plus a lot of the news and chatter in cyberspace was downright depressing this week, from the whole Indiana RFRA debacle to the ongoing problem of police violence. No, you didn't miss anything big in the news this week about police malfeasance. But there's always some story happening somewhere that paints law enforcement in a negative light, and I happen to be Facebook friends with someone who shares links to every single one of them every day. "Cops are the worst" is his personal bugbear, literally and full stop; he denies the very existence of decent police officers. So of course I don't agree with him, I'm sure there is a mix of good cops and bad cops out there, but at the same time I don't begrudge him grinding his axe because we as a society probably do need to hold police departments more accountable for their policies and actions and movements like that have to start with spreading awareness, even if the information is unpleasant. But then of course I have another FB friend who actually is a cop, and takes the opposite stance. Not my measured "ok, there are bad cops, but there are also good ones let's not be crazy here" but rather a circle-the-wagons, "attack one of us and you attack all of us" mentality. And he reposts a lot of mindless memes about how ungrateful people are for the good work cops do and uses the #bluelivesmatter hashtag and vociferously denies that it's a slap in the face to #blacklivesmatter. I finally took the step of unfollowing the cop this week after a couple of his more problematic posts. One of them was pictures of his three kids as newborns along with a message in which he addressed them directly and promised them he would always do whatever it took to come home to them each night. He actually included the phrase "kill if I have to" which I found a bit tasteless at the very least and, the more I thought about it, pretty emblematic of the core problem in our society at present where apparently a lot of cops feel perfectly justified executing people in the streets if they "feel threatened". And I'm not suggesting that cops should be unarmed and just try giving out free hugs to make criminals reconsider their life choices, and I'm not saying it's not a dangerous job nor am I saying cops have no right to defend themselves. I am, as always, saying it's complicated trying to figure out where the line is and it's going to require actual work to figure it out and move forward, and not just photos of cops in full SWAT regalia captioned with "WE WILL NOT LAY DOWN AND DIE!" as if anyone's actually requesting that. If I view it through the prism of my "friend"'s FB status updates, it's as if people are asking questions like "Um, could cops maybe implement different strategies for defusing situations other than emptying entire clips into unarmed suspects?" and all the cops can hear is "I wish every cop was dead!" People kind of talking past each other.

The thing that's really troubling about it all is that I tend, as a general rule, not to comment on politics on Facebook. It's not really that I have an aversion to stirring up drama, it's just that my take on things (which I've already deployed in this post) tends to be: it's complicated. FB status updates are great for cute photos of kids or funny little observations, but not great for nuanced thought about the challenges of modern, diverse, democratic society. If I can't sum up my feelings on and/or preferred solutions to a significant problem in the space of a status update, then I won't say anything about it at all. And even that meta-attitude is probably more thought than a lot of other people give to everything. It's probably not fair of me to assume that if someone is posting about a highly charged topic and leading with "Look, it's real simple ..." (and not making an obvious joke) that said post represents the entirety of their thoughts on the matter. A non-nuanced FB post does not indict someone as being devoid of or incapable of nuance. And yet, I assume the worst. I think taking the time to post on FB means you see it as valid communication which can speak for itself. So on the one hand, I feel like I'm surrounded by frighteningly myopic zealots. And on the other hand, I feel like a coward because they post what they believe without equivocating, and I post nothing at all disagreeing with them because I hide behind "it's just really complicated ..."

But anyway, my cop "friend" posted another meme image and, you're going to think I'm making this up, but I swear I'm not: it's a photo of a cop, except it's only from about mid-thigh to neck. The head is cut off. In other words, faceless. And the cop is in full black body armor and carrying what looks like a fully automatic assault rifle. So, scary as hell! And then superimposed on this is a paraphrase of some classic movie dialogue (which I'm now typing from memory of both the movie and the paraphrasing meme but I'm pretty sure this is close enough): "I will never feel the need to explain myself to anyone who sleeps under the blanket of the freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it."

I will give you a moment to let that sink in.

Look, I LOVE A Few Good Men. Any time I'm flipping around the cable channels in boredom (which, granted, hardly ever happens anymore, but go with me) if it's on I get sucked right in. And I love Jack Nicholson and his portrayal of Colonel Jessup is phenomenal. But Jessup's the bad guy, right? With little to no ambiguity he is the villain of the piece. If your response to people saying "Cops sometimes abuse their power and need more independent oversight!" is "Don't. You. DARE! Question. The. Police." and to prove your point you put up Headless Darth Vader with a Machine Gun and a quote that a movie villain spits out right at the point where it becomes impossible to deny how evil he is ... I guess you are preaching to the choir, but you are also horrifying the congregation, just fyi.

Wow, I didn't really mean to make more than a passing reference to the online tribulations of my newsfeed, but I guess that stuff really got under my skin. I know it did, actually, because in fact it spilled over into stuff at home, me being in the kind of bad mood that leads to kids getting screamed at and indefensible verbal sparring with my wife, all of which leads in its turn to me feeling wracked with guilt for letting the worst in me worm its way out and all that fun self-loathing merry-go-round kind of stuff. Like I said, rough week.

But the subject of this post was never intended to be a fakeout! Sometimes things get bad, but then inevitably they get better. I can get back to something resembling productivity at work once I shake the rust off, and I can keep applying for different gigs for however long it takes. I can be a little more choosy about who shows up on my social media, and look on the bright side and be thankful about the opportunity to really sharpen my own thoughts about politics by sorting through why I disagree so vehemently with certain statements. There's no way to take back being a jerk on the homefront, but I can resolve to make up for it, and remind myself that I don't want to be like that and it's important that I actively monitor which energies I'm redirecting where, in fairness to those who might end up on the receiving end.

AND ... there's always the local microbrewery, who I also follow on Facebook, a decision I have never once regretted. The picture below is one I stole directly from their most recent update:

Notice their #1 draft beer right now is called YGGDRASILL (or click the picture to embiggen if that's not clear above). I am, you may have noticed, something of a fan of Norse mythology (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) So basically the fact that there's an ale named after the World Tree available right around the corner from my house has been a bright spot in an otherwise trying week. No matter how bleak things get, you have to remain open to the possibility of finding even a drop of redemption, because somewhere, somehow, it's out there waiting to be found.

Monday, March 30, 2015

And suddenly, everything went back to normal

Long story short: the contract situation resolved itself and my job isn't going anywhere, at least for a while. Whew.

Long story long: quite a week last week. Of course no sooner did I post the latest update about how everything was hurtling towards the abyss than new and positive developments finally began to emerge. My government boss gathered the department together at about 3 p.m. last Monday for cake to celebrate the birthday of one of our co-workers. Towards the end of that informal get-together, she also mentioned that for those of us waiting to hear about the extension beyond the last day of the current bridge contract (Friday), she was fairly certain the extension would be finalized that day. Furthermore, she alluded to the fact that she expected the real contract award to be announced soon, once the money for funding the contract was officially allocated.

I just want to take a moment to emphasize a couple things, there. All of these little pertinent details were not things which were deemed important enough to be conveyed via official communications. If my government boss hadn't thought to air them in a very casual, off-hand way, I wouldn't have known a thing. Also, these comments about the budgetary aspect of the contract delays was the first I had heard about specific reasons why it was taking so long; up until then I really thought the government was dragging their feet about deciding at all, not that they were keeping the decision under wraps because they couldn't officially announce anything until all the money was sorted.

Anyway, so very early Tuesday morning my contracting boss sent out an e-mail saying that the 30-day extension had been granted, and we would be covered by it until May 1st. The e-mail was waiting for me when I got in on Tuesday, and had a couple of attachments I had to fill out and sign for the expedited processing of my new badge and access card to replace the ones about to expire on Friday. As you can imagine I took care of that paperwork immediately. Then, literally three hours later, we got the official word that we had won the re-compete and been awarded the new five-year contract, which would begin May 4th (the 2nd and 3rd are a weekend). Why not have the new long-term contract go into effect on March 30th and just forget about the 30-day extension which was now apparently no longer needed? Who knows? Ours is not to wonder why and so forth.

So by Wednesday all of our paperwork had been processed and returned to us so that we could take it to the Pentagon and get it countersigned and drop it off at the badge office and get new badges. I ran that particular errand on Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon I picked up my replacement access card. Friday was relatively uneventful. In about a month we're going to have to go through all the same steps all over again (paperwork completed and turned in for processing, returned to us, taken to the Pentagon for countersignature, waiting in line for new badge/card) but then I won't have to do it again for a whole year (if ever) and at least they're usually on the ball enough to get these things done before the expiration deadlines so we don't end up locked out of anything. As transitions go, certainly it's annoying but at least it's fairly smooth.

And as far as the whole "if ever" sentiment goes ... it's nice to know that my job is reasonably stable for the foreseeable future, but my job search will continue. I now feel like I can afford to be somewhat selective, and not that I have to jump from a sinking ship into the first opportunity that presents itself. Granted, given that my security clearance for government work is one of my more marketable assets, there's a high probability that I end up changing from one contractor employer to another, if another is willing to pay me more or let me develop new skills or show me more opportunity for growth or other upsides. So abandoning the merry-go-round of contract re-bids and facility identification and network access tokens and all that is far from a sure thing. One never knows, though.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fairest of them all (Boy, Snow, Bird)

Continuing my newfound resolve to get back to reviewing more books, here comes another one: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

(CHECKING MY PRIVILEGE: Ms. Oyeyemi is a British woman of Nigerian/Yoruban descent. Take that, white patriarchy!)

If I remember correctly, I had put Boy, Snow, Bird on my wishlist because I had read one or more reviews which alluded to the fact that it was a modern retelling of Snow White, or at least that that old fairy tale provided the spine for a story which in turn encompassed much more. I have a big old soft spot for folklore and retellings thereof (Twice Upon a Time being a prime, recent example) so I made plans to check the story out for myself as soon as I could.

There is, in fact, much more to Boy, Snow, Bird than a riff on Snow White. The novel runs through numerous allusions to the works of the Brothers Grimm and others, sometimes only in a passing reference, sometimes in developing the recurring themes of the story. If nothing else, anyone with enthusiasm for fairy tales can find some fun playing spot-the-hat-tip. But more importantly, Oyeyemi takes the building blocks of Snow White - the sweet beloved girl, the wicked step-mother, the magic mirror - and uses them as jumping off points for incisive examinations of identity and reinvention, about the painful legacies of families in both momentary explosive violence and slowly decaying corrosion.

I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with a way to encapsulate it for a review. My gut reaction is to declare it "good, but artsy" where "artsy" is one of my personal codewords for "self-consciously literary English-major bait" and also, perhaps, "pretentious"? But it's really hard to call something out for being pretentious without sounding pretentious as heck myself, since it basically requires me to say "the average person might not get it; I mean, I got it, and I liked it, but I can see how some people might not." Yeesh.

Still, it's hard to shake the old habits that run deep. I grew up on stories full of plot and incident and fantastical elements where the primary aim was to make the reader feel, and later I had to learn how to appreciate stories where nothing much happens and all of what does happen is grounded in reality and the primary aim is to make the reader think. So I always feel obliged to point out when a book falls into the latter category, presenting mundane things through subjective perspectives and ending with no real conclusion or closure. Some books are wide open to interpretation because life is open to interpretation, some don't have neat and tidy endings because life doesn't have neat and tidy endings. I get that, and I'm sure you get that, and I think it's an equally valid choice to seek out books that are superficial and straightforward for pure escapism, and valid as well to seek out books that are engaging or obtuse or however else you want to quantify the other side of the coin. (All assuming that you have actually gotten an education along the line and learned how to think critically and evaluate the distinction for yourself; believe me, if my kids ever say that a book they have to read for school is boring or doesn't make sense they will get an earful from me. As long as I've read the same book and know whereof I speak.)

So, pretentious or not, I dug the story for its ambiguity about where to draw the line between magical outlooks and mental illness, and for its takes on gender and race, and I dug the language employed to evoke the complicated, nuanced layers of things. I liked it because it's a hard book to recommend, and I'd probably recommend it to others for the same reason. Certain others, at least. You know who you are.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The worth of a cog

(With apologies to my wife, my most constant blog-reader, for whom none of this will be news and in fact much will be things which stress her out to one degree or another.)

The contract between my employer and the government is set to expire this Friday. There has been no official word as to what is going to happen one week from today. At the moment I am assuming that I will have to show up for work, because that's my default assumption every Monday and I put a lot of unthinking trust in momentum, I suppose. But there could be some surprises between now and then, certainly. At this point, honestly, I don't even know what would be more surprising: hearing some news finally, or not hearing any news and having to just operate under my own best-guesswork.

About a week and a half ago, a couple days after my last post on the contract limbo stuff, my contracting boss called the whole team together for a meeting to reiterate once again that he would share any and all news with us as soon as there was any to share, and since he hadn't shared anything yet we should all understand that there was no official news. He did add that he had been told to expect some kind of announcement by the end of that week. Clearly, that week ended and there was actually no announcement, and the week after ended and there was also no announcement, and here we are.

My boss also explained that because it takes a certain amount of time to finalize a new contract, and that interval is greater than the time presently remaining on the contract (with the gap growing every day) that it was altogether likely that we would have to enter into a short, placeholder contract once the current contract elapses. Just as a reminder, we are already on a bridge contract; the five-year contract I originally came aboard on ended back in September of 2014. The government was suppose to have conducted the entire re-compete process by then, but blew deadline after deadline which led to us entering into a six-month bridge contract to cover the extension of the re-compete. By law, the government can only play the "six-month bridge extension" card once, and now that they have done so and yet somehow still not managed to award a new five-year contract to anyone (the possibility apparently still exists that after all this jerking around we could lose the re-compete and someone else could be given the new contract), that means they can only enter into some other category of temporary contract which probably has its own name that I forget, and that can only be for a maximum of 60 days. A 60-day last-chance-not-kidding-no-backsies contract looks likely at this point (a 30-day version of same is also a possibility), in fact, if I eavesdropped correctly this past Friday on my co-worker who handles contract stuff and was trying to get ready to go on vacation this week and absolutely had to get certain tasks completed before leaving the office, that is already in the works.

You would think all of this would force the government's hand to the point where they had to award us the contract, at the very least because the also-rans would not be waiting around with resources idle to see if they were going to get it long past the projected start date. Or, if we're on the verge of losing the contract, you would think the government would have to tell us that in the next couple weeks at least, because they can only keep us around for eight more weeks tops, and they're required by law to have a six-week transition plan if they are going to switch from one contractor to another. You would think, yet here we are, as I keep saying.

And here I am, specifically, because I have yet to find anywhere else to jump to. I had a surreal experience last week where I got an e-mail on Wednesday from a small contracting company's recruiter, who saw my profile on a job site. So in other words this was not a job I applied for, this was someone spontaneously reaching out to me. The recruiter asked if I could do a phone interview the next day, as they were on a tight deadline to staff up a contract, and I said sure. I assumed that, much like my last round of interviews, this would be the pre-screening with a follow-up face-to-face interview set up by the end of it. However, it turned out that I was calling the CEO of the company and she was testing the waters of acceptable parameters for a verbal job offer by the end of the conversation. She told me a written job offer would follow via e-mail.

Now, this would be me jumping from a huge government contracting firm to a smaller government contracting company. I wouldn't be leaving behind the whole cycle of living and dying by the governments whims of awarding work, and it would be a lateral move salary-wise as well. But at a certain point it would be better to be hired by a company just about to start a new contract than to be hanging on by a thread here on my current about-to-expire contract, if only for a temporary easing of paycheck anxiety. Plus there were various other factors of minor appeal, like getting in on the ground floor of a young company and potentially more upside down the longterm road, &c. &c.

None of that was the surreal stuff. That would be the fact that the CEO called me back that evening to double-check my security clearance, something which I had been upfront about in our phone interview but which suddenly, six hours later, was a cause for concern. (Basically I am about mid-level in the clearance hierarchy and they wanted someone a level or so higher than that. No reason I couldn't clear to the next level if they sponsored me through the process, but they wanted someone who was already there on day one. Fair enough, and not really something I have any control over whatsoever. I'm as cleared as my job requires me to be because that's what my employer has sponsored me for because that's how these things work.) When I had gotten off the phone the first time I was under the impression that the written job offer would be coming within minutes and I would need to accept it asap so that the CEO could complete her own contract bid, which was due that day by COB. But the offer didn't come that day at all, then there was the awkward follow-up call, and no written offer nor any more calls nor anything on Friday, and then it was the weekend, and now it's Monday and I feel like the whole verbal job offer was just some fever dream I had last week. I was already a little uncomfortable with the high pressure to accept a job offer without so much as sleeping on it, and then it all apparently fell apart anyway. I may never hear from that CEO again, but if I do, I don't know how much of a red flag I should take all this as. If I get laid off and then hear from the CEO, surely I'd take any job offer as better than unemployment. But if I heard from her in the next 15 minutes, I just don't know.

So that's the holding pattern, as always. Every time I think things might move or change, they manage to turn around back to the starting point again. It would be comforting if it weren't so annoying.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Grab Bag of Time Management

Lots of reasons to be extra aware of the clocks and calendars recently: the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, Pi Day, the Ides of March, St. Patrick's Day, our youngest's birthday, the first day of spring concurrent with (probably?) the last snow of the year.

Speaking of the weather, I managed the great bi-annual jacket changeover this week, from my long winter overcoat to my lighter coat. It might have been a tad premature, but I powered through. I successfully transferred my building pass for work from one jacket to the other, and once I had managed that once I didn't want to get too fancy switching back and forth. (Of course, the building pass expires in one more week, with the whole contract still in limbo, but that's a rant for another day.)

Time's been on mind my mind, though not on my side, as usual.

+++

On Friday the 13th of this month, after the kids were down in bed for the night, I scooted over to the local microbrewery to refill a couple of growlers (because powering through season 4 of Game of Thrones is thirsty work). While I was waiting at the bar for my order to be filled, I was admiring a ceramic stein that seemed to be placed there for the admiring. It was branded with the name of the microbrewery and I suspected they were for sale to the public, so I asked how much they went for. The guy behind the bar told me ($35) and I must have made a face which was easily interpreted as that's-more-than-I-was-hoping-you-would-say. So the guy then proceeded to give me the spiel about how they're hand-made and high-quality (dishwasher safe!) and all that, but none of that really impacted me all that much.

So the guy shifted gears and explained that the stein held somewhere between 18 and 20 ounces, which is of course a few ounces more than a standard pint. But they fill, and re-fill, the stein while charging the same price as a pint. That, finally, made an impact, albeit a minimal one. Nevertheless the guy emphatically pointed out, "So, you come in, pay for a pint and get your stein filled, you only need to do that, like, 52 times and the stein pays for itself!"

Beer math is the best math, it's true, but I can't even fathom how long it would actually take me to go back to the microbrewery 52 times. Probably four years, minimum. I applaud the guy's salesmanship, but as of yet I've resisted the temptation to invest in free beers in the 2020's.

+++

Hopefully by now most people have had a chance to check out the "If Wes Anderson Directed X-Men Movies" parody on YouTube. (If not, voila.) I like Wes Anderson movies. I like the X-Men. I was amused.

But what the clip most keenly made me aware of was just how deeply the Alamo Drafthouse has gotten into my head. Because my first thought after watching the video was that it would be a great element of the pre-feature clip collection for either an X-Men movie or a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, apparently I want to recreate my own little Alamo experience in my house (mostly so I can curate the clip collections myself I reckon), since I briefly entertained the thought of showing my wife the We Anderson X-Men parody before we sit down to watch Grand Budapest Hotel some night. And then I thought IT IS ALREADY IMPOSSIBLE TO CARVE OUT AN UNINTERRUPTED HOUR AND A HALF TO WATCH A MOVIE WITH YOUR WIFE WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO ADD ON A 20 MINUTE PRE-SHOW WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?!?

+++

I just remembered that I've actually been down this road before. Back in the day when I was a young louche splitting a townhouse with buddies, we would from time to time host parties dedicated to playing the Star Wars drinking game. We would go through the entire trilogy, so these were all day affairs, and by the time we already had survived a couple they were drawing a fairly large crowd. This was around 1997 or so, too, so we were using VHS copies of the movies, which actually matters for the particulars of this anecdote. So, people descended on our townhouse at the appointed time early on a Saturday afternoon, and we were about ready to get started, go over the rules of the game, and so on. But to get everyone's attention, we started with a little video bonus: Hooper X's rant about the gentrification subtext of Star Wars from Chasing Amy. It related to the trilogy, it comes from one of my other favorite movies, and it's pretty hilarious, so it was worth it to physically cue the Chasing Amy videotape up to the scene in question in advance. I would have loved to have done a whole clip reel instead of one scene, but I'm sure that didn't even occur to me given the daunting logistics of popping multiple tapes in and out of the VCR. We had a lot more time on our hands back then, but not infinite time.

+++

I felt like I had a bunch more time-themed things to talk about, but maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. Too much time gone by in my life for my memory to be terribly reliable, I suppose, but I've known that for a while.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dark wings, dark tunes (and dark 'toons)

There have been two dvd sets hanging out next to each other atop our entertainment center lately. Both of them have birds on the cover. One is the box set of Game of Thrones Season 4, which is almost pure black, a dark background against which a crow spreads its wings, with the feathers extending from the tips of said wings looking suspiciously like swords. The other is the animated movie Rio, which is suitably carnivalesque in its bright and happy color palette depicting friendly animated macaws and toucans and canaries and cardinals (and a marmoset and a bulldog).

You might think the avian imagery are the only thing the two have in common and that they couldn't be further apart other than that one superficial connection. One is a sex-and-violence-fueled drama for grown-ups, the other is an animated musical for kids. Rio has a happy conclusion; Game of Thrones may never end.

All the same, there's some darkness in Rio, most notably in the form of Nigel the cockatoo, who is arguably the main villain of the story. (There are both people and birds caught up in the plot machinations of the movie, ornithologists and pet owners and poachers and smugglers, so you could argue the greedy humans are the main villains, but go with me here.) Nigel is voiced by Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Concords) and ... wow, he really breaks the mold.

Don't get me wrong, I admire the heck out of Jemaine Clement as both a writer and performer of some really sharp comedy. And he has a great voice, both speaking and singing, so he brings Nigel to life in a delightfully creepy way and gets to perform what is for my money the best song in the movie, "Pretty Bird".

And also don't get me wrong that I appreciate that there is a general tendency for children's entertainment, especially modern feature-length animated films, to be predictably formulaic. Heroes are reluctant but basically decent and learn important lessons about being true to themselves, while villains are power hungry or egregiously materialistic or both. On the one hand, if it ain't broke don't fix it, I get that. But on the other hand I applaud anyone who even tries to deviate from the proscribed boundaries, regardless of their success. So, Nigel got my attention because he's not trying to take over the world, to steal the crown of King of the Birds, or make a fortune by selling out the kindly old Mom and Pop Macaw business to developers or anything like that. His backstory, as relayed when he performs Pretty Bird, is this: he was once a famous TV star, and then he got old and got replaced. And because of the mental trauma associated with rising to the top and then losing it all because of the inexorable passage of time (and the entertainment industry's worship of youth above all else) Nigel became twisted and evil and sadistic, and now his only pleasure in life is making other birds suffer. He works with the bird poachers because it gives him the opportunity to torment other birds. He goes beyond being merely misanthropic (misaviopic?) and into terrifyingly Hannibal-Lecter-crazy; they literally depict him as a cannibal who enjoys eating chicken wings! Like I said, kudos for coming up with a motivation for the bad guy that's not totally rote, but like I also said, WOW.

There's something more than a little bit disturbing about hearing your six year old breaking out snippets of "Pretty Bird" at random moments, when they include lines like "I'm a feathery freak/With a beak/A bird murderer/You think you're badder than me?/I've never heard of ya". Yes, it's impressive that he memorized the lyrics after watching the movie only two or three times, and yes his flow is pretty good on the delivery, too, and yes, "murderer ... heard of ya" is a dope rhyme BUT STILL.

The climax of the movie takes place on board a cargo plane and Blu the heroic macaw outwits Nigel and manages to knock the cockatoo out of the hold. At which point Nigel gets sucked into the engine of the plane, in a moment which is more or less played as silly slapstick violence. But when I saw the movie the first time, given the context of Nigel's characterization, I thought it was not outside the realm of possibility that the implication was that Nigel had been brutally dismembered. Later there's an epilogue showing that Nigel survived, and merely was stripped of most of his feathers and made even uglier, which is pretty good comeuppance for the character driven over the brink by thwarted vanity, I guess.

There's a Rio 2 which none of us have seen yet, but I understand Nigel at least makes an appearance in the sequel. Nobody spoil it for me, but if they somehow make the bad bird even more bananas in the second installment, I may be ruined for kiddie flicks for life.