Friday, December 19, 2014

Decembrion Invictus (part 1)

And lo, there came a time when there were only seven more work days remaining in all the year, and two of those were likely to be foreshortened by the generosity of the timekeepers, and thus the looking back upon the year entire must needs be done, anon.

Yes, with praise and libations for the god of top ten lists, it's time for me to shout out to a nice round number's worth of stuff that occupied my attention one way or another this year. As always in no particular order, here are (the first half of) my own personal Top Ten Points of Pop Culture for 2014.

1. Best moviegoing format I tried for the first time: IMAX 3D. I went to the movie theater seven times this year (and, knock on wood, should make an eighth trip tomorrow night) and as usual it was always justified in my mind by the sheer spectacle of the movie in question. So there were the sword and sandal epics I saw with my wife (Pompeii and Hercules), the comic book blockbusters I saw with my buddies (Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy), and some cute little cartoon I took my two older kids to (Frozen). The format of each movie was generally dictated by the people I went to the theater with. My wife gets a bit motion sick so 3D is actively unpleasant for her, and I didn't think either of my kids would be able to keep the glasses on for two hours. For the superhero flicks, it was usually more a question of coordinating schedules, and if the 3D showtime worked better, great, and if not, no worries.

So one of my buddies and I went to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 in IMAX 3D because of exactly those kind of scheduling concerns, and it was the first time either of us had ever seen any movie in that format. To be fair, that was pretty much the only new format I tried this year, so it was basically a lock going in to be the best, and I did enjoy the immersive experience. But really I just wanted to acknowledge how my buddy and I were cracking up even before the movie started, during the in-house promo hype for IMAX 3D itself, which to our ears sounded pretty much like: "PREPARE YOURSELF ... TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN ... AND YOUR SPINE INVERTED ... SO IT COMES OUT YOUR BUTT LIKE A PARTY NOISEMAKER!!!" We did not find the format quite so life-altering as they had promised. But it was fine.

2. Best delayed payoff for a joke: Eleven months between Parks and Recreation season 6 episode 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy. Way back when the sixth season of Parks and Recreation got underway, in September of 2013, I was looking forward to a Marvel movie that would come out the following year with a weirdly near-delirious anticipation. After building a cinematic universe out of several films which only seemed to keep getting better and better, featuring major, recognizable characters that had been utilized in media other than comics since back when the Baby Boomers were watching Saturday morning cartoons, the studio had announced a movie based on an obscure property set in the decidedly ungrounded realm of outer space. And I wasn't sure if the movie would end up being another bonafide hit or a little-loved oddity that proved you can't win 'em all, but I was excited they were willing to try and let the chips fall where they may. The fact that Marvel cast Chris Pratt as the lead hero Star-Lord only enticed me further, since I dug him a lot on Parks and Rec.

At any rate, by the time season 6 started, principal photography on Guardians of the Galaxy was already underway. Pratt was in the season opener, but at that point he had gotten pretty buff to play Star-Lord. He still wore the same doofy, unconstructed outfits as Andy, but even that couldn't hide his weight loss. And Parks and Rec lampshaded that simply by opening a scene with Andy in mid-conversation with Ben Wyatt, who was clarifying a point with some skepticism. "So you just stopped drinking beer?" he asked, and Andy admitted yeah, that was all he did, and he lost like 50 pounds. After a beat of silence he observed, "I was probably drinking way too much beer."

Knowing what little I knew about Guardians of the galaxy at that time, I loved this meta-joke. And then the next summer I actually got to see Guardians of the Galaxy, which was pretty much my favorite movie of the year, in and of itself. But the payoff of finally seeing what had been hidden under Andy's shirt made me laugh all over again, I admit.

3. Most likely candidate for future induction into the Christopher Lee Memorial Geek Icon Hall of Fame: Man, this one is really almost too close to call. But I suppose I should explain what I'm on about. A while back I blogged about my admiration for Christopher Lee, because he has fully inhabited and essentially become the real-world embodiment of so many hugely beloved fictional characters. He more or less is Saruman from Lord of the Rings. He's also Scaramanga from James Bond and Count Dooku from Star Wars and Dracula from the Hammer horror films. The man's a giant, partly because he's so talented and has such presence, and partly because his career has been so long.

Nowadays, though, they are cranking out adaptations of geek properties, and occasionally inventing new series of the same, so rapidly that lots of different actors seem to pop up again and again in potentially iconic roles. One f these days I'm going to get around to cataloging the performers who come closest to mirroring Christopher Lee's "man, that guy is everywhere" accomplishments.

It seems to help if your name is Chris! Chris Pratt had a phenomenal year in 2014, not only as Star-Lord but as the voice of Emmett from The LEGO Movie (I may have alluded to that flick in passing here or there). Both of those movies are going to get sequels, further cementing Pratt's association with the characters. I hear he's going to be in Jurassic World, too, and for that matter some people are lobbying for him to star in a reboot of Indiana Jones. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. 2014 was pretty good to Chris Evans, too, since he got to turn in his third (or fourth, if you count the Thor 2 cameo in addition to Captain America and The Avengers, either way it's far from last) performance as Steve Rogers. Plus he led the revolt in Snowpiercer, a movie which might not sell a lot of action figures but I think stands a good chance of becoming a geek cult classic. I also got around to watching Danny Boyle's Sunshine this year, and Evans was really good in that, too; this may have inflated his presence in my mind when thinking back over 2014. And then of course there's Kit (real name Christopher, of course) Harrington, a.k.a. You Know Nuthin Jon Snow. He may not have set the world on fire with Pompeii (rimshot) (too soon?) but he also did the voice of Eret the dragon trapper in How to Train Your Dragon 2. (Once I pointed this out, Eret immediately became my wife's favorite character in the franchise.)

If your name is not Chris, it should be something badass like Scarlett. Scarlett Johansson was in a lot of good stuff this year, too, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier with a much-needed deepening of the Black Widow character, not to mention Luc Besson's Lucy (which I didn't see, because it looked fairly dumb, but a lot of people argued convincingly that that's really beside the point, so it may well wind up in the queue), and Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (which I did see, and I guess I never blogged about; it's almost a conceptual opposite to Snowpiercer, a masterpiece of haunting minimalism rather than bombastic maximalism).

The point, belatedly, is that I felt like I spent a lot of time watching movies and tv shows this year with a lot of the same faces (or voices) popping up again and again, but I'm not complaining.

4. Biggest letdown: Horror of Dracula. OK, so I was singing Christopher Lee's praises as an iconic Dracula before I had ever, personally, technically, seen Horror of Dracula. But I was resolved to correct that oversight, and this year's Halloween countdown seemed like the perfect place to do so! I Netflixed the movie, I watched it on the train, and ... I was largely underwhelmed. Lee is an effective Count Dracula, don't get me wrong; Peter Cushing is pretty fantastic as Van Helsing, too, for that matter. But they can't elevate the movie overall.

For one thing, Hammer Films have a somewhat outsized reputation for being garishly lurid spectacles, and I found Horror of Dracula to be about as square as you'd expect a vampire movie from 1958 to be. I do understand that Horror of Dracula was one of the very first Hammer Horror productions, and the reputation for boundary-pushing gruesomeness and titillation came about as a cumulative effect; they had to start somewhere, and go crazier and crazier from there. But still.

The other problem I had with Horror of Dracula was that it made some significant changes to the underlying source material, all of which were either strangely arbitrary or fundamentally altered the ideas of Dracula to the movie's detriment. I ended up not blogging about Horror of Dracula in October at all, because it took me longer to process my disappointment than if I had loved it immediately. Maybe next year I'll delve a little deeper into just how misguided an adaptation I found it to be.

5. Best comic series I finally got around to reading: Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I'm pretty sure the last time I mentioned the series Saga it was to passingly note that I had never read it, but my dad was into it, and one of these days I was going to have to borrow it from him. This spring I did, and it more than lived up to its reputation as imaginative and perfectly executed and unlike anything else out there. It's not exactly science-fiction, not exactly fantasy, not exactly romance, not exactly political intrigue, not exactly anything, and yet all of those things at once and a few other genres we don't have words for in English. I read other comics for the first time this year (Neil Gaiman's old Black Orchid mini-series, and the first volume of seminal Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell) but Saga is the one I was most kicking myself for after dragging my feet about hopping on.

Ahem. With all due respect to ghosts who cannot kick themselves and do not, per se, have feet.

OK, so next week I will cover the back half of 2014 In Review, which amazingly should manage to get into some topics that have nothing to do with comic book movie franchises!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Three free pints and a bottle of Glögg

I wasn't expecting to post anything today, because I knew I would only have a few hours in my cubicle (aka prime blogging time) before the office holiday party, the one I think of as the "real" one because it takes place outside of the office and involves about three dozen co-workers, which is the right amount - more than the people I see weekly in departmental staff meetings, but less than the entire staff of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, most of whom I never interact with in the course of a given year.

The party was fine, nothing especially out of the ordinary for this sort of thing, except that for some reason the organizers decided to keep to a set agenda and move it along fairly briskly. So the whole thing was over and done with by 2:15 p.m., despite the fact that invitations had advertised it as wrapping up around 3. I usually take off at 3:30 to catch my train, so I was fully prepared to call it a day and depart generally homeward from the party, but when I heard most of my colleagues saying they were heading back to the office, I deduced that was the prudent thing to do (I am trying to do my bit to help us secure a contract win, after all).

Actually, my prudence in this case may be questionable, since I had three beers over the three hours at the party, and while I ate plenty of food and used to consider a pace of a drink per hour more than judicious enough to remain relatively sober, I can't deny that I'm feeling a slight fuzziness at the moment. (Thank goodness Blogger has spellcheck or this post would be a mess.) We were all given two tickets for drinks at the bar, but some people naturally didn't use theirs and someone pressed theirs on me, and frankly I consider it a moral victory that I only had three beers and not four.

(Please remember that I take the VRE home from work every day, and I figured when I started my third beer that I'd have the rest of the party, about 45 minutes chilling on the station platform, and nearly an hour ride on the train to metabolize everything. And I still will, if you swap "in the office" for "on the platform". All will be well.)

Anyhoo, no trivia contests this year but there were multiple rounds of bingo and (after informing the people at my table that it seemed like I was betting some long odds because I've been going to our holiday parties for at least five or six years now and I've never, ever won a round of bingo) I did win a bottle of Glögg and a box of cookies. I feel compelled to mention this because a couple of years ago, in a post about the office holiday party, I mentioned that someone got a bottle of gluhwein in the white elephant exchange, and that post always gets tons of hits on Google. So I might as well corner the page-tracking market on Glögg, as well. (Also, umlauts!)

Speaking of the white elephant, and also that old gluhwein post, by far the funniest moment this year once again revolved around scented candles which, I repeat, is really just about one of the worst gifts you could throw into the mix of a funny cutthroat gift swap kind of deal, by sheer dint of how utterly boring they are. Yet someone sure enough put a four-candle pack in the pile, and of course it was opened by a middle-aged guy whose depth of interest in scented candles could only be measured in angstroms (or ångströms). Nonetheless, the peanut gallery demanded that he read aloud the names of the respective candle scents, in order to allow future players to make informed decisions about possibly stealing said gift. (I don't think anyone ended up stealing it.) The scents were as follows: "Fluffy Towels ... Pink Sands ... Island Breeze ... and ... another Fluffy Towels." OK, maybe it's the beer talking, or maybe you had to be there to hear the exact tone of completely deflated underwhelmitude, but that last "another Fluffy Towels" really made me laugh.

It gets funnier every time you say it!

But now all my work parties are done for another holiday season. People have already started leaving for vacation, so tomorrow should be quiet, and next Monday through Wednesday will be like living in a dorm between finals and graduation. Hopefully I'll be able to generate a fair amount of blog content to close out the year on a high note.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Running on rails (Snowpiercer)

At this point, I'm pretty sure I would make time to watch any movie either directed by Bong Joon-ho or starring Sang Kang-ho (they often overlap) so long as the premise sounded remotely interesting. Considering that my experience of those films will usually feature a Korean soundtrack and English subtitles, and how dialogue is often my favorite part of any given flick, you can imagine how skilled that filmmaker/performer pair must be. You can also imagine how Snowpiercer, Bong's first major motion picture in English (mostly, Sang's and Go Ah-sung's dialogue excepted), was a must-see for me.

Of course actually getting around to it took me a while, as these things often do. Which means I had heard a lot about Snowpiercer online before viewing it myself. One of the recurring notes about the film was that people found it unpredictable, and surprising, and were under its spell until the very end, needing the movie to reveal itself to them at every turn because they were never able to guess what would happen next (implicit in which is the observational criticism of most modern Hollywood offerings being rote, formulaic and contemptibly comfortable). And now that I have seen the film, I can confirm that it is unlike almost anything else in the mainstream, and I do mean that in a very positive way, although I think a slightly deeper examination of why the movie feels so unfamiliar may be merited.

The funny thing is, it would seem on a superficial level that Snowpiercer would be entirely predictable. It's a dystopian fable about an uprising in an advanced yet flawed society, which is fairly well-worn narrative territory. And furthermore, the structure of the story is literally constrained by its setting. For those of you who might not know even the premise of the movie, here's the condensed version: the story takes place about 18 years after a man-made disaster (an ironic attempt at combating global warming) has rendered Earth an uninhabitable frozen wasteland. The entire surviving human race is confined to a train that runs in a circuit around the globe, a self-contained self-sustaining system where the privileged few live near the front of the train with various amenities and the wretched unwashed masses live in the back of the train. A band of rear-car revolutionaries decide to take over the engine of the train to break the haves-and-have-nots cycle, and therefore they have to fight their way through every car to get from one end of the train to the other. So it's a heroic quest from point A to point B, and it is by definition a completely linear progression. I have to question the truthfulness of anyone who claims that they never guessed the movie would end with Curtis (Chris Evans) ultimately reaching the engine. Yes, the how of the quest matters, as do the details of what happens when the hero gets where he was going, but surely at least that much structure was a given. Or so it seems to me. There's a joke amongst geeks who play a lot of roleplaying games, that some Game Masters are willing to let the players take the stories literally anywhere in their fictional worlds, and other Game Masters throw up insurmountable obstacles in the way of any deviation from the specific plotline they had in mind all along. The latter style is known as running the story on rails because the only possible movement is forward, not lateral. Snowpiercer, and the circumstances in which its protagonists find themselves, qualifies: no way off the train, and nowhere to go but towards the engine.

One of the great things about this built-in structure of the story is that it allows Bong to play with lots of different sci-fi tropes within the same movie. There are fantastic shots out the windows of the train (once the action reaches cars that have windows) showing the iced-over world, beached battleships and collapsed skyscrapers and various post-apocalyptic eye candy. Within the train, every car and compartment has its own personality. The movie starts at the rear and revels in the imagery of a trash heap society, everyone wearing layers of patchwork rags, with living quarters that look like the burrows of scrap-metal hoarding rodents. The action then progresses through pure industrial nightmare settings, a neon-lit cyberpunk/neo-Tokyo inspired aquarium and sushi stand, a parody of brightly colored schoolrooms and black and white educational films, steampunk-inflected luxury suites, a trashy decadent non-stop dance party, and finally the clean, white retrofuturist idyll of the engine itself. It doesn't feel terribly jarring to go from one segmented setting to the next to the next because the train, as plot point and metaphor, keeps everything logically compartmentalized.

That's the beauty of Bong's approach to filmmaking, which I also noticed way back when I saw The Host: he really has no hang-ups about consistency. He swaps visual styles and narrative tones as he sees fit, and the result is something akin to a virtuosic concerto performance, now loud, then soft, now fast, then slow, with themes coming and going and returning. It's visual music. The upside to such an attitude is that you can, quite easily, surprise people, because nothing is off-limits. The downside, if you want to call it that, is that you can veer back and forth so many times that if someone starts to try to take everything in as a whole, it becomes clear that there is no sum of the parts.

Here beginneth the SPOILERS. Very early on, the audience learns that the underclass at the back of the train are fed "protein bars" which, as foodstuffs go, barely qualify as better than nothing. In the beginning part of the quest, the insurgents discover the machine that makes the protein bars, and Curtis looks through a window of the machine to see a huge roiling mass of live insects (mostly cockroaches) being ground up and liquefied before gelling together and being sliced into individual bars. Curtis is disgusted and urges the one companion who looked with him not to tell the others what they have been eating. Then, towards the end of the adventure, Curtis tells a story to his lone remaining companion about the early days of the train, when the people in the rear were starving and resorted to cannibalism, including eating children, even babies. Curtis admits he was a baby-eater. Why in the world would a man like that be horrified by the thought of eating bugs? That is one example of many plot holes in the overall story. Overall, the car-by-car snippets of Snowpiercer society the audience sees do not in any way add up to a viable, workable society, despite the villains' constant talk about everything being in perfect balance and all things in their pre-ordained place.

But in a sense, this doesn't really matter. The Curtis who wants to throw up at the thought of eating roach jelly (seriously, where did all those roaches even come from? I get the classic sci-fi trope about roaches being able to survive any apocalypse, but what do the roaches even eat? Are they being farmed on the train to feed the underclass? Why not use those farming resources on some less repugnant food production? &c.) and the Curtis haunted by remorse over eating human infants might as well be two separate characters, because we see them in two separate cars of the train, and thus they could be in two different stories from two different movies. Bong takes an idea, runs with it, and then changes cars, and every passage is effectively a soft reboot of the genre rules of the story, if not the story itself. And as I said, whether or not we are left with a beautiful clockwork narrative to admire in total is irrelevant. Bong just gives us two hours of pure movie magic, of dynamic shot compositions and evocative lighting and otherworldly scenery and action choreography and character work, in a sequence of different combinations each chosen for their own respective individual merits, not for how they hang together from end-to-end. Snowpiercer nominally has a throughline, because that's what most modern movie audiences (especially American ones) more or less expect. But the throughline isn't the point, and was never supposed to be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cyber Tuesday Grab Bag

I’m co-opting the grab bag format for today’s post because there are several minor items floating around in my brain which at least loosely adhere to the theme of online antics. Let’s leave the meatspace behind for a quick tour of my browser’s usual haunts, shall we?

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My Facebook feed is kind of blowing up today, because of yet another short story anthology which contains a story of mine. This one has upwards of 40 contributors and is the first release of a fledgling publisher, so the success of the launch has a lot riding on it. So why am I being so vague about it? Well, because what I really want to do is what I usually do with books I’m trying to self-promote, which is to at the very least link to Amazon as I suggest that people think about maybe plunking down the dosh for a copy (or a pre-order). And at the moment, the book is not on Amazon. The moment it is, I will have a salesman’s special of a post ready to go! But for now, I’m biding my time to position my blog announcement for maximum efficiency.

Nonetheless, everyone else is promoting the heck out of the book. It has an ISBN, it’s release date has been slated, it’s on GoodReads, and people are organizing GoodReads launch events and exchanging Twitter handles so they can try to get the book trending on the day it becomes available, and so on. So far the extent of my participation in this frenzy has been to Like everyone else’s shares and links and posts and whatnot. And even limiting myself to that little involvement made for a fairly packed morning.

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I was slightly surprised to realize, in the course of all the above, that between the forthcoming book and the final volume of How the West Was Weird, I now have multiple credits officially recognized on GoodReads, so there’s an official Author’s Page with my name on it. So another fun thing I got to do today was contact GoodReads to begin the process of proving that I am in fact that author person, which would give me access to editing my own page. We’ll see how long that takes to sort out.

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Getting back to other Facebook news, I saw a post this morning that simply said “A list of people you need to unfriend right now” with a link attached/obscured. I continue to stay the course in my experimental sampling of other people’s hot button topics, whether I fervently agree with them or vehemently disagree. So I was curious as to what was behind the link. I assumed it would be a listicle about various celebrities whom people might have ostensibly friended in the tens or hundreds of thousands, said celebrities all having committed some terrible transgression. Which wedge issue would it be? Are they anti-vaxxers? Do they support amnesty for illegal immigrants? Did they make glib jokes about killing cops, or about how people killed by cops got what they deserved?

The link turns out to simply take you to your own Facebook account and a list of those people on your friends list, if any, who have officially Facebook-Liked the band Nickelback. This, I admit, made me literally LOL. Apparently about 2.5% of my friends have terrible taste in rock music. I’m not likely to unfriend anyone over it, we all have our little embarrassments, whether or not we choose to make them publicly searchable via social media.

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In other web-enabled areas of interest, the NFL pick’em pool which exists solely in cyberspace is now racing towards its conclusion, and my wife is currently in a tie for second place with a comfortable five points between her and the next nearest participant; first place is only one point up on her and her fellow runner-up at the moment. I am extremely proud of her and of course rooting for her down the stretch. (I have faded back to a two-way tie for 16th, due mostly to a four-way tie for 12th and a three-way tie for 9th, one point and two points more than my total, respectively. Also that three-way tie for 9th is my dad, my cousin, and my grandma.)

Of course the virtual contest is supported by the actual NFL IRL, an area where once again my wife is enjoying a more positive-outcome-oriented season than I am. The Steelers have guaranteed themselves a winning record and hold a perfectly reasonable shot at the playoffs, as a wildcard team if not the outright AFC North champ. The Giants, on the other hand, have to win out the last two games to finish an unimpressive 7 and 9. 5 and 9, where they sit at the moment, is nothing whatsoever to be proud of. Yes, there are other professional franchises who might be envying such limited success from their own 2 and 12 perspectives, but still. My team is bound for mediocrity at best, and it would be unseemly to gloat over any team that happens to be even worse.

Except … oh man how gratified was I that New York came back to beat Washington this past Sunday? If Washington had won, both teams would be 4 and 10, which is dreadful. But now the Washington Racial Slurs are a pathetic 3 and 11, very likely to finish alone in the basement of the (admittedly underwhelming) NFC East, for the sixth time in seven seasons. It could not happen to a more deserving pig-headed owner and assemblage of fair-weather fans.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Absence and antithesis

The subject at hand today: parties. Holiday parties. Work holiday parties, and perhaps now you can sort of glimpse the outlines of where this is going and how the subject of the post is ultimately going to relate to the content.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against holiday parties thrown by employers for employees per se. I have a lot of fond memories of various work parties, both gigs of my own and my wife’s (and a few sundry friends who dragged me along to theirs just for giggles, back when I was a twenty-something and could be reliably counted on to raise the overall fun quotient while taking an open bar as a direct, personal challenge). Heck, I learned how to play craps at one casino-themed work holiday party way back during the dot-com boom of the turn of the millennium, and that was a blast.

Of course what really stands out from that particular evening is a memory of one of the young programmers (the demographic breakdown for that company was something like 70% under-30 programmers and designers, 20% middle-aged support staff, and 10% C-suite graybeards) getting totally hammered and walking up to the Chief Technology Officer and confronting him, in the midst of the revelry, with the rumor that said executive had been selling off his stock options, which could certainly be construed as a lack of faith in the company’s long-term prospects. In the course of demanding that the executive answer for himself and explain why all the young programmers shouldn’t similarly lose faith, the inebriatee slurred, semi-rhetorically, “What’s my motivation?!?!” Which of course became the stuff of legend and an instant classic all at once, and for years afterwards, in a variety of non sequitor contexts, “What’s my motivation?!?!” became a frequently voiced callback amongst my friends and I.

Anyway, great party! One of many! But nowadays I work for the government as a contractor, not at a Clinton-era tech startup, and things are different. We had a party in the office today and it provided a philosophically fascinating opportunity to contemplate the nature of parties, in their Platonic ideal and variances from same, and the ultimate question of how much party you can take out of a party before it ceases to be a party altogether.

Our office space is simply not designed for big social gatherings. (Funny enough, it is designed for office work.) The conference rooms were given over entirely to the food buffets, which meant once people loaded up a paper plate with the various pot luck offerings they could either stand around in the aisles between cubicle pods, or sit in any unused cubicles. That applies mainly to the people who work for our directorate at various other office locations, and who descended upon our office for the party. For those of us who work here in the hosting office, we had the option of sitting at our own desks throughout. Which is basically what I did. There really was nothing else to the “party” except the food, and so I simply took it as a free lunch. (Except that it cose me $15 to partake.)

In the “party”’s defense, there was a Marine Corps brass ensemble invited to play Christmas songs, and that they did, but again there’s really no good space for something like that in our suite, especially with all the conference rooms stocked with sandwich trays and crock pots and whatnot. So the ensemble was way off in the boonies of the office, down the one corridor that leads only to currently unused offices, and thus would not impede foot traffic towards the food. There was also the festive element of alcoholic beverages (my $15 included two drink vouchers for beer or wine) but I personally was unable to partake in that aspect of the merriment.

And this is where we transition from the absence of a party, or a vaguely party-shaped hole in time and space, and into the outright antithesis of a party, which was my commute yesterday. Over the course of this year I have had a couple of fender benders, one involving a stationary object (shopping cart corral) and both entirely my fault, and the time had finally come for me to take my car to the shop and allow them to repair the damage. I showed up as soon as the shop opened this morning, did the requisite paperwork, and then waited for the rental car place to open a half hour later. Then I did more paperwork, and finally got on the road. By then there were no more eastbound VRE trains, so I had to brave rush hour on the highway in all its inhuman horror (firstworldproblems). Just as well that the holiday party was scheduled for the afternoon, because the whole day would have been a loss for me anyway, showing up two hours later than usual and then trying to calculate what time I would need to leave to avoid the HOV restrictions and nightmarish traffic. Thus, as noted above, since I was driving and not rail-riding, I abstained from libations. The trip home, as it turned out, was not as horrible as it could have been, but it was no party, I tell ya.

Two more free lunches to go this week, one a simple pizza-on-the-boss get together, the other the mid-sized gathering of officemates at a local sports pub. At least I’m saving a bit of money on groceries right before the final Christmas splurge.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In case you were wondering

So, one week from today the bino will be exactly 21 months old. His language acquisition continues apace; just yesterday he apparently learned and definitely began putting to good use the word "wheel" (he's firmly in the obsessed-with-trucks phase by now). He also persists in demonstrating that he understands most of what everyone else around him is saying, e.g. the other evening when I told his older siblings I needed to go into the den and check on the fire, and the bino immediately started going "wheee-ooo-wheee-ooo" in his best fire engine siren interpretation.

His big sister, as it happens, is exactly 3 and 2/3 as of tomorrow. She is whipsmart and opinionated but also fairly shy, so her natural tendency to speak out in complete sentences that demonstrate a capability for logical abstract thinking still feels like a recent development, as her confidence in her own voice has gradually caught up with her interior thoughts. The upshot of this is that she and her big brother can now engage in long conversations which involve actual give and take and the exchange of ideas, and not just the little guy in dominating monologue and the little girl parroting every third thing he says (when he lets her get a word in edgewise). So there's a newly emergent dynamic, because like any set of siblings sometimes they agree and sometimes they pugnaciously do not, but they are making progress in figuring out how to navigate those particular waters without too much crying and screaming. I mean, sure, there's some crying and screaming. But not too much.

The little guy is 6-and-change, a first grader, and by my reckoning is in a very tricky transitional area of childhood. These days (at least for my UMC cohort with the helicopter parents and the ultra-competitive overscheduled kids and whatnot) high school might as well be college, middle school might as well be high school, and fourth grade might as well be middle school, and it's hard to wrap my head around the fact that fourth grade is less than three years away. I'm expecting any day now for my oldest child to cross a boundary between being a "little kid" and just a regular "kid". Arguably, one of the signposts for that threshold would be whether or not he still believes in Santa Claus.

Self-deprecating jokes about helicoptering aside, I try to take a hands-off approach, at least somewhat, to when and how my children deal with the gradual diminishment of innocence. Santa is a case in point. I do not have a plan per se for making sure that my children believe in Santa for as long as humanly possible, nor do I have a deadline in mind by which they need to have gotten over said belief. It will happen when it happens. If a kid on the school bus gives away the game tomorrow, I'll be a little bummed but life will go on. If the little guy is still writing letters to the North Pole at age eleven, I won't really have a problem with it. I admit the stakes here are pretty low, for me to be patting myself on the back for being supremely chill about it, but there it is.

Still, the truly bedeviling considerations arise not from when exactly the little guy stops believing, but when the little girl does, or the bino. As I mentioned, my two older children carry on their own dialogue pretty freely, and the bino hears and understands more often than not. All well and good to say, "Well, he had a good run, but first/second/____ grade is probably about the right time to realize how it really works," but if that in turn spills over onto the younger ones, that seems to be a shame. If I worry over anything, it's whether or not I should take the little guy aside and say "I'm going to tell you something because you're the oldest, and you can't tell your sister or brother." Is it worth it to shield the other two, if that means being the one to personally disillusion the eldest?

But it's looking like I won't necessarily have to worry about that this year, at least. A few nights ago the kids were all sitting at the dinner table waiting for me to fix their plates, and the little guy opened a conversation with his sister with a question: "Did you know there are some people who think Santa isn't real?" He said this with the same scoffing bemusement that I would employ to convey my discovery of a real live person who thinks the moon landing was faked by the reptilian shapeshifters who secretly run the One World Government. The little girl, for her part, didn't really know what to make of anyone not believing in Santa, and had no follow-up questions along the lines of why they might doubt his existence, just a determined "Of course he's real!" Duh.

So that's how it is in our house this Christmas. And I'd be a great big coal-deserving liar if I said it didn't make me distinctly happy deep in my heart.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dragons and pegasi

If you promise not to give away the surprise, I'll tell you a couple of things that my kids are getting for Christmas: How to Train Your Dragon 2 on dvd, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on dvd.

The family just watched HTTYD2 for the first time this past Saturday night, and we all enjoyed it. The turning point at which (SPOILERS) the alpha dragon hypnotizes Toothless and forces him to turn on Hiccup was fairly traumatic, eliciting actual uncontrollable crying from the single-digit demographic of the audience (yet another reminded why it's often better to wait for home releases rather than take these particular younguns to the movie theater) but by the time the happy ending was reached it seemed universally agreed that the flick merited inclusion in the ever-expanding children's wing of our movie library.

My Little Pony is a slightly different case, since by and large its inroads into our home has been entirely via three-minute clips on YouTube that are in pretty heavy rotation in the bedtime unwinding rituals. My wife will be the first to admit that breaking down and purchasing a four-disc set of full episodes is as much an act of necessity to satisfy her own curiosity about the elaborate backstories and continuity of Equestria as a concession to any of our children's demands for on-demand entertainment.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that while this probably sounds a lot like we are enforcing retrograde gender roles with the adventures of a boy viking for our son and the saga of super-femme ponies for our daughter (and in point of fact the HTTYD2 dvd under the Christmas tree will no doubt have the little guy's name on the gift tag, and MLP will have the little girl's), in truth both kids like both franchises almost equally. The little girl likes Astrid and her dragon Stormfly, and the little guy doesn't necessarily have a favorite pony (his sister does: Rainbow Dash, obvs.) but he enjoys noodling around with the concepts of their world, e.g. figuring out what kind of cutie marks he and his sister would have to represent their special talents, or trying to stump me and his mother by asking us whether Princess Celestia is a winged unicorn or more of a horned pegasus. (We are still working on that one. Leaning toward "winged unicorn", though.)

It occurs to me that at some point down the road the bino will develop his own taste in shows and movies and request his own dvd's (or whatever video data storage format we're on to by then) for Christmas, and all else remaining constant we will have surpassed the number of dvd players in the house with the number of potential audiences with different agendas competing for different screens. I can only hope that by then, circa the dawning of the magical year 2017 or so, that everyone has their own WiFi-enabled Cloud-connected wearable holographic VR immersion projectors. Or something.