On vacation, y'all. Gonna sit with my toes in the sand for a while and unplug. Be back ... eventually.
Friday, August 15, 2014
Of course it was only a couple more years after that when I had fully converted to seeing beach trips, snow storms, and most every other day of the year as an opportunity to disappear into a book (or twelve), rather than to re-enact movie scenes or comics storylines with my action figures. Time flies. It always has.
Thursday, August 14, 2014
But it really wasn’t bad at all. There is an enormous difference between the two bigger kids both being wound up and also being at each other’s throats, and the two of them being wound up on the same wavelength and playing together. Both can entail crashing through the house and shrieking their heads off, but the first involves one child chasing the other against their will, one shrieking in distress of fear or pain and the other shrieking in aggression. And that, obviously, is the kind of thing I don’t abide or allow and will intercede in without delay. The second type doesn’t bother me at all, no matter how tooth-rattlingly loud the kids get, for reals. If they are having fun, if all the shrieking is exuberantly good-natured, I am perfectly happy to let them have at it, especially if they are just running (not climbing up onto the backs of sofas, throwing things at the walls as hard as they can, &c.).
So I focused on the bino and on putting dinner together. Further enhancing the net positive was the fact that I was able to grill the chicken tenders outside (which doesn’t take very long) and still keep tabs on the bigger kids inside, because their constant voluble yelling allowed me to track their location with my ears alone. The bino hung out with his face smooshed into the screen door and watched me, so that was good, too. And by the time the kids were called to the dinner table, they had expended enough energy that they were able to sit still and eat, which is always a plus.
I was using the sound of their wild play for triangulation purposes but wasn’t really listening too closely to what my son and daughter were carrying on about. I did catch a little snippet of it, though:
Son: And you have little robot birds!
S: That live in your tummy!
S: And then they SHOOT out of your belly button!
D: No! They just FLY out! And then they land in my hands!
I mean, that has got to be in the dictionary under “delightful” if the word has any meaning at all.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
In point of fact, originally I paired Mystery Team up with Safety Not Guaranteed on my Netflix queue because each one stars a (former) performer from a different (former) NBC Thursday night sitcom. Mystery Team is anchored by Donald Glover, aka Troy from Community, and Safety Not Guaranteed features Aubrey Plaza in a leading role. I had no idea that Plaza was in both movies, I just wanted a comedy double-feature to tide me over during the summer rerun season (which actually isn’t even rerun season nowadays, just the cheap-programming of American Ninja Warrior and whatnot, which I’m not necessarily against per se, but that’s neither here nor there) and figured there were worse ways to go than invoking trusted names from my own appointment television.
At any rate, Mystery Team in and of itself is a cup runneth over with familiar faces from recent NBC Thursday line-ups. In addition to Glover and Plaza, there are cameos from Kevin Brown (Walter “Dot Com” Slattery from 30 Rock), John Lutz (Lutz himself, also from 30 Rock), Ellie Kemper (Erin from The Office), and Matt Walsh (who played Joshua the racist neo-Nazi groundskeeper in the Secret Garden episode of Community). If I’m going to lump in Walsh, I might as well also mention that the two other comedians who comprise the titular trio, Dominic Dierkes and DC Pierson, have also cameo’ed on Community. But really, all-for-one ethos of the Mystery Team and equal co-writing credit for the Derrick Comedy troupe notwithstanding, it’s Glover’s movie, and it’s pretty much 90 minutes of his sheltered man-child Troy Barnes schtick, turned up a bit more ludicrously and set against a much less accommodating backdrop than the campus of Greendale.
Unfortunately, that’s more or less the film’s undoing, as it turns out. The basic pitch of the movie is this: imagine if you took three characters based on kid detective archetypes, aged them physically but not mentally, and then put them in the “real” world trying to solve an actual crime. In practice, what that means is instead of getting Troy Barnes, slightly sheltered and more comfortable being a big fish in the small pond of high school than in the quasi-adult world of a wacky community college, you get Jason Rogers, inexplicably stunted and totally at odds with the prevailing sensibilities of everything around him. On Community, there’s a slight tension between characters’ perceptions and reality which creates most of the humor. In Mystery Team, there’s just a complete disconnect that never gets explained and never makes any sense.
I used to love Encyclopedia Brown stories when I was a kid, so I was certainly on board with the idea of a trio of past-their-prime Encyclopedia Brown wannabes. And I further liked the idea that the pint-sized private investigators were never even as good at their vocation as their fictional predecessors: Jason claims to be “master of disguise” but really just loves fake mustaches and bad ethnic accents (and to be fair, Glover’s total commitment to that recurring bit gave me a few chuckles, more than the rest of the movie put together); Duncan deems himself a “boy genius” but really just memorized one book of wacky facts in second grade; and Charlie believes he is the “strongest boy in town” but is nothing of the sort, though he is exactly as dumb as a bag of hammers as you would expect the team muscle to be. If you find those descriptions side-splittingly hilarious, you might be highly amused by seeing them on-screen for ninety minutes. But the humor of the movie rarely rises above the juxtaposition of the boys - who are now 18 and yet act basically like they’re 9 because that’s when they peaked, and therefore they drink chocolate milk, they think girls have cooties, etc. - and their grotty environment full of homeless people, strip clubs, drug dealers, and corporate malfeasance.
There’s a theory of comedy that laughter comes from incongruity resolution. Our brains are presented with something that doesn’t make sense, and the natural neurological urge is to try to make it make sense. Once you recognize the expectation that’s been subverted and how what seemed at first to be incongruous actually does make sense in another context, you get a little burst of brain-pleasure and smile or a big burst and laugh. But there’s this weird strain of humor that’s all about the incongruity with no resolution, other than “oh, they’re being stupid on purpose!” (Also sometimes taking the form of “Oh, that wasn’t what I expected, it came out of left field, but I still recognize it!”; see Family Guy.) And that’s pretty much the entire approach of Mystery Team, all incongruity, no resolution. It’s never really explained why the trio are stuck with the mentality of nine-year-olds (more specifically nine-year-olds who grew up in the mythical squeaky-clean 1950’s or something) or how they’ve made it through high school so far. The whole plot is set in motion by a little girl (a real one) asking the Team to find out who killed her parents; this is where Aubrey Plaza comes in, as the little girl’s big sister who explains that the parents were killed in a home invasion gone bad and begs the Team NOT to string her sister along that they’re going to “crack the case”. That kind of basic empathy for a grieving child should be a given, and almost threatens to derail what’s supposed to be a goofy comedy with frequent forays into gross-out humor, except once Plaza’s character does something close to what a normal human being would do the rest of the cast carries on with the plot regardless, and eventually Plaza becomes Glover’s love interest, as much as she can be given that he is still playing as weirdly willfully pre-pubescent. Sigh.
For what it’s worth, I’d actually love to see an entire romantic comedy with Donald Glover and Aubrey Plaza as the leads, but that will have to wait, I suppose. As it stands, speaking of romance, it was a bit of a risk I took watching Mystery Team as a SMOAT considering that my wife likes Donald Glover as much as I do, and laments Troy being written out of Community last season as much as I do, and she might have been (understandably!) disappointed if I said I had seen the best little indie comedy starring him, all by myself. But with some relief I can report that she dodged a bullet by not being subjected to the underwhelming meh of Mystery Team. (I kind of had a feeling that would be the case, so the bright side is, I was right.)
Anyway, Plaza fares much better in Safety Not Guaranteed, where she plays an intern at a magazine who gets roped into working on a story profiling a man who placed an ad in the classifieds looking for a partner to travel back in time with. When the smarmy feature writer who was going to get the goods blows it with the intended profile subject by coming on too strong, Plaza has to pretend to be genuinely interested in the time travel in order to get the goods for the article.
Mark Duplass plays the eccentric would-be time traveler and he manages to walk the fine line between pathetic delusion and the curious possibility that he knows things no one else knows. His antics, especially the physical humor of preparing himself for potential hazards of time travel by turning his backyard into a makeshift training compound, are what gives the movie the slightest claim on being a comedy. It’s really more of a dramedy, or possibly a very low-stakes drama. It has a certain lo-fi charm, and ultimately a feel-good message about how we make our way through the trials and travails of life, all of which may sound like faint praise but is really just intended to make the point that it’s a good, entertaining indie film, if not a great, earth-shattering, cinema-redefining, life-altering one. They can’t all be that, after all.
In both Mystery Team and Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza winds up overshadowed by April Ludgate. April is so specifically weird and so relentlessly, aggressively in-your-face, and apparently when people cast Plaza they want some of that spirit but ultimately have to tell her to turn it down a bit (plus they inevitably don’t have the same writers Parks and Rec does) and they wind up with just a generic disaffected, sarcastic Millennial. So in my attempt to fill the void left by no new sitcoms over the summer, I’ve really just made myself that much more eager for the premiere of the coming season of Parks and Recreation.
Which, of course, apparently won’t be aired until spring of 2015, because NBC hates me and doesn’t want me to be happy.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
What I can’t understand is arriving at the conclusion that your emotional, existential pain is comparably terminal. And I know that lack of understanding is largely on me. I am as lucky as the archetypal fool, and there are deep dark places other people are overly intimately familiar with which I have never even come close to. I don’t understand because I can’t understand. And yet I cling to this belief that those harrowing places can be traversed and escaped from. I don’t think it’s as simple as having the right positive attitude, or just hanging in there, and I know it can take an excruciatingly long time and a colossal amount of effort. But I believe it’s always possible. Deep down, fundamental life philosophy, I believe that life is worth living or can be made so, and opting out is a bad choice. Maybe I’m an unreasonably relentless optimist, maybe that makes me hopelessly naive, but … I am what I am.
Which of course doesn’t retroactively bring Robin Williams back to life. His sudden absence doesn’t necessarily have that element of gone too soon, with so much untapped potential, because for me and most of my age cohort he was always there doing a bit of everything. Mork & Mindy started its first run on tv before most of my fellow Gen-Xers and I started kindergarten, and of course the man was working right up to the end and has at least three more films slated to come out some time in the future. I could, if I tried (and probably without too much effort) think of a few dream projects that I’ll never get to see him in now, but today that would probably feel like rubbing salt in the wound.
Almost everyone I know, online and IRL, is memorializing Robin Williams in their own way today. A lot of the big touchstones people are referencing are near and dear to my heart as well: Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam and Comic Relief and A Night at the Met and Aladdin. Like I said, Robin Williams was practically omnipresent in pop culture, and I could easily rattle off my own deep pulls, and because it’s my blog and I can, I will:
- One of my fondest memories of senior year of high school was a night when a friend of mine and I were doing homework together and came to the crushing realization that we were never going to get everything finished without pulling an all-nighter. To not turn in our assignments would negatively impact our grades, but if we were absent from school and turned in the work as soon as we got back, we wouldn’t be penalized. So we faked notes from our parents and skipped school in order to catch up and stay timely on homework. But it didn’t require a full day to get back up to speed, so we also went to the mall to catch a movie while we were playing hooky. The movie was Dead Again, which is arguably one of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s less essential films, but I loved it. And Robin Williams plays a small but crucial role in that flick as a damaged yet very insightful former psychoanalyst who conveniently knows a lot about past lives and reincarnation.
- Right after college, during Beach Week, I spent one rainy afternoon at the local theater watching The Birdcage, which (it should go without saying) was hilarious. Still is; The Birdcage is one of those flicks where if I’m flipping around on cable with no particular appointment television in mind, I can easily get sucked in no matter where in the running time I come upon it. But what really hits home with me is how the way I’ve related to the movie has evolved over time. When I first saw it, age 21, I was completely and totally on Val’s side. This is somewhat mortifying, but I admit it. The older I get, and especially (perhaps obviously) now that I have kids of my own, the more and more I sympathize with Robin Williams’s Armand. Also, I frequently find myself muttering “No, it’s perfect, I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.”
- And another thing I often quote without even thinking about it is this:
“Nothing! Zip. DOO-DAH.” So applicable in so many situations. There’s also a more recent Elmo video that was getting a lot of bedtime play in our house a few months back with various celebrities showing off their dance moves, and Robin Williams (in full gonzo graybeard mode) is one of many participants. It always made me smile to see him in the mix.
- I’ve seen Death to Smoochy, and I know firsthand what people are on about when they talk about what a misguided, misbegotten yet fascinating trainwreck of a movie it is. I don’t have a particularly contrary opinion compared to the critical consensus, it’s not a movie I would recommend to people without massive caveats about context. But it’s also a movie I associate with my introduction to Netflix, when I was basically enjoying the benefits of the service as a free perk of living in the spare room in my friends’ house, right after I got divorced. It’s a dark movie from a dark time in my life, which just kind of underscores my point: from the inspirational highs to the murky lows, you can find Robin Williams woven into the pop culture fabric of things everywhere.
- And even in the past year, he was making a go of it with a primetime sitcom again. My wife and I weren’t fanatically dedicated to The Crazy Ones the way we have been for other shows, but we found ourselves watching it more often than not as the season rolled along, and rooting for it, and a little bit bummed when it got cancelled (or failed to get renewed or whatever industry terminology rightly applies). It was a funny show, and they always put about 30 or 60 seconds worth of outtakes up as the bumper at the end, which was probably the perfect amount of Robin Williams wild mugging improv for your average weeknight. But it was also an interesting show about parenthood, and relationships with adult children, and making peace with past regrets. It wasn’t for everyone, obviously, but it was cool.
I don’t think I’m necessarily done making new memories involving Robin Williams’s work. There are movies of his languishing in my queue which I’ve been meaning to finally see for ages. There are the classics I’ll still get to share for the first time with my kids, which is the timeless beauty of regarding at least some elements of pop culture as non-disposable. But it still sucks knowing that the man himself is no longer out there doing his thing, playing a part in life’s rich pageant. By all accounts and every remembrance that’s circulating today, he was not just a gifted performer but a blessing to everyone who knew him personally, the kind of person whose passing saddens everyone because of how undeniably he made the world a better place while he was in it. The kind of person we should all be trying our best to be.
Monday, August 11, 2014
I mention how close these concomitant deadlines are because, wouldn’t you know it, the government has yet to get around to actually specifying and spelling out what that work-what-needs-doing actually is and entails. I mean, presumably it’s a lot like the work my colleagues and I have been doing for the past five years (and which my company, and my boss in particular, have been doing around here for closer to fifteen years), but there’s always a possibility that little things might get tweaked or modified, streamlined or expanded here and there. A definitive work statement is necessary for everyone competing for the contract (my employer included) to be able to pitch themselves as the best organization for the gig, and those pitches all have to be received and evaluated fairly for the government to make a selection, and the selection has to be made and the contract signed in order for me and my colleagues to be authorized to show up and do our jobs on a daily basis. A series of dependencies, and there is no way they could all happen between now and the end of September, even if the government did have step one completed and ready to kick off the line of falling dominoes today, which of course they don’t.
The good news is that just about everyone involved on both sides up and down the respective chains of command recognizes that the year-end deadline is going to be blown, and steps are being taken now to deal with that. Basically, although it was still awaiting official approval last I heard anything (last week), the government is going to offer my employer a six-month bridge contract, which means my colleagues and I all just keep showing up and doing what we do on the first of October the same as on the last of September, and for the following six months, while the re-compete process continues to play out and selections are made and new longer-term contracts are agreed upon. On the one hand, even with the economy doing much better than it was way back when I started this blog, it’s still nice to have job stability and not have to worry about landing on my feet due to employment upheaval or anything. But on the other hand, this is an irritating way to go about doing things. My colleagues and I all have building passes and network access cards with expiration dates tied to our contract, and we will have to get new ones as the fiscal year rolls over, as per usual, but then those new ones will only be good for six months, and then we’ll have to get new ones again when we go from the end of the bridge back to the beginning of a normal, year-over-year arrangement.
Or not! You might think that by agreeing to the inconvenient bridge contract and bending over backwards to help the government out of a bad spot they completely got themselves into by blowing their own deadlines at the start of the multi-dependent-step process, that we would be solidifying our chances of winning the re-compete to a near-certainty. But it simply isn’t so. My employer agrees to the bridge contract in order to make such-and-so-much money over a six-month period, knowing full well they could be outbid by a rival and part of the bridge might become a transitional period of handing off institutional knowledge. The final outcome remains unknowable.
You might also think that given our fifteen years of incumbency on this gig, we’d have the re-compete in the bag, but again, you just never know. It’s supposed to be a level playing field where any firm can win the business at the start of any given cycle. I’ve worked on two different contracts for my employer, and the first one was at a brand new agency, where I felt we had a lock on the re-compete because we had been there literally from the beginning. And yet, I was proven wrong there, as we lost that bid and that’s how I ended up here on my second assignment. Granted, that first contract was fairly low-stakes stuff relatively speaking, whereas the contract I’m on now touches on much more sensitive and important work, and the incumbency last time was only a year or two versus fifteen, so as much as I thought it was a gimme last time, it should be a thousand times more of a gimme this time. But you never know.
There’s another, personal frustration layer at play here for me, which is that way back at the beginning of the calendar year, I got another favorable job review but I didn’t get much of a salary bump, because I’m within a hair of where my employer maxes out salaries for people with my job description. There’s not a lot of personal development growth potential given the current contract I’m on. And my manager, to his credit, told me that he knew that must be disappointing to me and that if I could hang in there until after the re-compete (for whatever non-zero value my presence brings to the table for our bid), then maybe after the dust had settled he could look around for something else for me to do, some other contract for me to transition toward, so that I could advance myself and my earning potential a little more easily. At the time, I told him I was willing to go along with that, partly because I kind of expected to just land a new job and quit well before any of that came into play. Yet here we are, and now it seems as though it would behoove me to at least see how (if at all) my manager follows through on all that, but of course it’s being delayed by the fact that the re-compete itself is off-schedule. So we shall see if it ever actually comes to anything.
And speaking of new jobs, I mentioned last week, and promised to follow up on, chatting with my buddy about the new-gig-that-wasn’t which dominated the first half of ‘14. I still don’t have any enlightening insight into why I was led on for so long only to crash into an impassable wall in the end, but then again, I never really expected that to make any kind of hindsight sense. What I did learn is that things at my friend’s place of employment have gone a bit mad lately, with the new initiatives (the ones that had them supposedly eager to hire go-getters like myself) spiraling out of control into never-ending death marches of forced overtime, weekend work, and so on. So in the end it seems I dodged a bullet by not getting the new gig! My friend of course had no idea at the time when he was encouraging me to apply that things would wind up going in that direction, but we both breathed a sigh of collective relief that I didn’t jump ship only to get caught up in all that.
At any rate, getting back to the present gig, the latest and greatest deadline the government has set for itself will come and go while I’m on vacation, so when I get back I will know if the process has finally gotten officially underway or if yet another milestone was blown and we are still in waiting mode. I will update accordingly then.
Friday, August 8, 2014
WNEW was the classic rock station, and obviously was my dad's dial destination of choice. In my room, or once I finally had a walkman, I could listen to my station, but in the garage in the summer or in the living room after dinner or being driven around in the family car, Dad tuned in to his station. I'm sure there is an enormous amount of nostalgia factoring in here, but I really think WNEW in the mid-80's was an exceptionally well-run radio station, in the last halcyon days when such a thing could exist, before the corporate interests homogenized everything from coast-to-coast. I didn't necessarily appreciate it at the time, but all of the things I consider emblematic of DJ'ing as actual stewardship of musical knowledge are bits I picked up listening to WNEW with my father. The DJ's would play deep cuts, not just the biggest singles. They would play stuff from when my dad was a kid, but since a lot of those acts were still around in one form or another, they would play newer stuff, too. And since they weren't limited to "hits of the 60's" or anything like that, they would play newer acts, too, not just the dinosaurs.
And they would do theme shows, too. Specifically, I will always remember Dad tuning in to Ticket to Ride on Sunday mornings after church, hosted by legendary DJ Scott Muni. An hour of Beatles tunes, always with a different theme, from early rarities pre-Ed Sullivan, to the evolution (and dissolution) of the McCartney-Lennon co-songwriting process, to influences on the Beatles and influences the Beatles had on others. Ticket to Ride was where I first heard about the whole "Paul is dead" phenomenon, which my father was only too happy to discuss further once the show was over, pulling out his vinyl copies of Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road to show me the OPD patch on Paul's shoulder or the reverend-undertaker-corpse-gravedigger get-ups. Good times.
I've been thinking a lot this week about all the Beatles trivia that was crammed into my head as an impressionable youth, mostly as I've been enjoying all the positive reactions that the Guardians of the Galaxy movie has been getting. You might think that I was spastically jumping mental tracks from Redbone and Blue Swede and The Five Stairsteps and the rest of the movie's groovy soundtrack to The Fab Four, but it's actually because of this guy:
Throughout the film he's referred to simply as Rocket, but all my fellow comic geeks know him as the pleasingly alliterative Rocket Raccoon. And if you're a fan of the White Album, then you are probably familiar with the ballad of Rocky Raccoon, and you might note a significant overlap in the two names. This is entirely uncoincidental, as Bill Mantlo, the writer at Marvel Comics who came up with the character, was himself a Beatles fan and intended the character as a direct reference to the song. Rocket Raccoon was introduced (or re-introduced, appearing for the first time in color, comics are complicated) in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, when Hulk was off having adventures in outer space. Hulk's adventures often involve him sleeping off his latest rage-fueled rampage:
Just in case the name wasn't a dead giveaway, there's your whole riff on the opening lines of the Beatles' song. Oh, and the "Wal" being asked a question in that opening panel? That would be Rocket's buddy Wal Russ.
And now even the slow kids in the back of the class should be up to speed, right? By now it should just be taken as a given that everything is in constant conversation with everything else, but I was feeling the need to share this particular confluence, since as I say it's been top of mind lately anyway.
Not to end on a buzzkill note, but there is a sad fact that I would be remiss not to acknowledge: Bill Mantlo was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident in 1992 and he is now severely disabled. And not in the best financial shape, either; no matter how many billions of dollars the Guardians of the Galaxy movie ends up making, Mantlo won't really see a percentage of it, because that's not the way the ownership of characters and intellectual property works in the comics biz. There is a fund that people can make direct donations to, in order to help with Mantlo's medical/life expenses: Greg Pak is another comics pro and advocate for Mantlo. If you're so inclined, check it out.