Friday, July 17, 2015

Portrait of the Escape Artist as a Young Man

Still alive! Bit of a crazy stretch there with the holiday weekend being the last chance to cross off a lot of major projects before the birthday weekend, and then of course a million little things to do in the spare moments of the week leading up. The good news is that my wife was properly feted and a good time was had by all, bad news, it apparently takes about six days to recover from one of those all-out blow-outs these days. So I'm just barely returning to something like baseline equilibrium as I type this. Not a complaint, per se, just yet another in a long line of it-is-what-it-is as an explanation for the recent silence. My wife is amazing 365 days a year and I am happy to make any given day all about celebrating her and then just take the associated time delay of regaining my balance in stride.

Yet another thing which has contributed to the overall feeling of being utterly spent, though, is the trial that the kids' bedtime has become of late. For a while we had a decent system going, where the little girl and the bino were sharing a room and would go to bed at the same time, and the little girl was remarkably patient about just getting in bed and lying quietly while the bino was coaxed (much against his will) into sleep-readiness with various cuddling, rocking, lullaby singing and whatnot. Then we switched the sleeping arrangements so that the two boys shared a room, and since the little guy is significantly older we were all right with putting the bino to bed alone, letting the little guy do some extra reading or video watching, and then quietly, sneakily tucking in the little guy after the bino had (hopefully) drifted off. Somewhere in between those two stages, the little girl would get put to bed in her own room. Like I said, it worked decently enough.

Then at some point (and I admit I may have the timeline all messed up in my brain, which is mushier than ever) the bino was fighting sleep so much he'd still be awake when it was time for the little guy to get to bed. And since the little guy's bedroom entrance did not go unnoticed, we had to let the bino climb into the bigger bed with his brother or else he'd have a hissyfit. Of course sometimes that meant they were both quickly asleep, and sometimes it meant they kept each other awake talking, playing, or fighting (or all three). But eventually the bino rejected the toddler bed altogether and would only be put down in the little guy's big bed, and even then it took a ridiculously long time. So we started letting the little guy just hang out and fall asleep in our bed in the master suite, while his baby brother took over his bed. Again, the little girl was kind of isolated from it all, for better or worse. When my wife and I were ready for bed, we'd either transfer the bino from big bed to toddler bed and transfer the little guy from our bed to his own, or we'd transfer only the little guy, tucking him in next to the bino.

Of course that state of affairs could never last, and now it's gotten to the point where the bino (who is fully in the thrall of the terrible twos, it seems) doesn't really want to go to bed at bedtime at all, and even getting to fall asleep in his big brother's bed doesn't do the trick. Now the bino wants to be in the master suite bad with his big brother, which again only works if they both actually stay quiet and calm, which is hardly guaranteed. And throw on top of that the fact that the little girl has started to feel a little bit of jealousy over these slumber parties in mommy and daddy's bed, and sometimes (but not always!) she wants to be part of them, too. An almost-seven-year-old, a four-year-old and a two-year-old all physically fit in our queen-sized bed, that's not the issue. It's one of them kicking the other, or talking too much, or whathaveyou. It can escalate into all-out chaos pretty quickly.

Of course my wife and I just want to get everyone to remain in a bed and stay relatively quiet, so that we can have a goshdarn half an hour to ourselves to sit on the couch and have an adult conversation while we watch a DVR'ed sitcom or something. Actual sleep is utterly beside the point, honestly. But even the staying put/staying quiet is too much to ask. And mainly it's the two-year-old causing all the problems. Not only does he not want to go to sleep, and not want to do it where we want him to do it, but he's only sleeping fitfully these days, randomly waking up in the middle of the night more often than not. The upside is that he can, generally, manage these wakings on his own and get himself back to sleep. The downside is that he does it by changing where he's sleeping. So, we make concessions about where he falls asleep, assuming that once he and his siblings are asleep we can rearrange bodies as we please. And, to be fair, once the little guy is down for the night, wherever we put him, he stays there. Ditto the little girl. But moving the bino while he's asleep has virtually zero impact on where we're going to find him once we all wake up.]

Case in point, last night: the bino wanted to fall asleep in the master suite with his brother. I caved immediately, but was later overruled (and rightly so) by my wife because the little guy was unable to fall asleep due to the spazzy toddler on the other side of the mattress. So my wife put the bino in the big bed in the boys' room and said goodnight. Moments later the bino was up and about in the hallway looking to appeal the decision. I scooped him up and laid down with him in the boys' room, explaining that he'd had his chance trying to sleep with his brother and since he couldn't be quiet and still he'd have to sleep in here alone. He rejected my every suggestion of bedtime singalongs and such, but he was at least horizontal and calm, so I left. He didn't do anything else noisy enough to draw attention from his parents, but sure enough when our night was drawing to a close and I went up to transfer the little guy, I found the bino right there in our bed beside him. So I transferred both boys, and my wife and I went to bed. Woke up this morning and sonofagun the little squirt was in our bed again, and I hadn't noticed at what point during the night he had even come in. I thought to myself he's like a little freaking Houdini, except in blue pajamas, so inevitably ...

... I've had this image stuck in my head all morning.

It's a phase! That's what we keep telling ourselves, and it's true. It's just a phase, a relatively benign one in the grand scheme of things. He's going through rapid cognitive development, talking a blue streak these days and learning things at pre-school and no doubt growth-spurting like mad, all of which makes his brain feel like the inside of a Magic Bullet on frappe. He prioritizes stimulation over sleep, and it shows at both ends. He'll settle down at some point, and we'll catch up on regular, full nights of rest. Maybe some time around the next Olympics.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Let Freedom Ring

We Americans argue a lot amongst ourselves. We disagree about the role of our government, the shared values of our culture, the extent of our responsibilities and the limits of our rights. Sometimes we celebrate the rugged individualist and sometimes we insist that everyone play by the same rules. It's complicated and confusing and probably rightly so, but the truth is we do enjoy the liberty to think what we want, say what we believe, and keep trying every day to figure out how it all fits together. It's a continual process where very little stays settled indefinitely, which seems like a crazy way to live, but those of us who appreciate and take pride in our national ideals (however close or far we seem to be from realizing them at any given time) really wouldn't have it any other way.

Happy birthday, America. I still think you're the best.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The hunger ... returns!!!

Someday, when this blog is immortalized with an entry on Wikipedia (or, you know, Urban Dictionary or something) I would not be entirely surprised if the distillation of its essence came out something like: “a blog about trying to find a decent falafel joint within walking distance of the satellite offices of the Pentagon. Sometimes the author talked about pop culture and/or his kids.”

I refer you to this old post if you somehow missed my falafel-obsession, a post which in turn links back to some other, older posts in order to capture the entire narrative arc wherein a restaurant-compatible retail space in the office park where I work advertised itself as a Mediterranean grill “coming soon”, eventually opened later than originally promised, served me lunch a few times, and then went out of business in disaster and ignominy, including the spectacular flame-out of an eviction.

But lo and behold, while that falafel joint stood empty for quite a while, it was recently reclaimed and renovated to be rebranded as … another Mediterranean grill! The Black Lime is dead, long live Mezeh! Who knows how long this new eatery will last in the cruel, cutthroat world of providing an ethnically distinct lunch option to the cubicle drones who work at this end of town, but if auspicious beginnings have any bearing, I can at least report that the elapsed time between the first indications of the new restaurant’s branding and the grand opening was much shorter than for its predecessor in that niche.

Today is, in fact, the grand opening. Again, this is a retail footprint I have to walk past twice a day five days a week, so I noticed last week the signs promoting the inaugural “neighborhood party”, which promised a free chicken shawarma rice bowl with every purchase of a soda. So of course you know that I showed up at Mezeh just a few minutes after they opened at 11, and when I did there was already a good-sized line. They do offer falafels on their menu, I noted, but the discount special was for the chicken shawarma rice bowl, so that’s what I got. It was indeed free, although the 16 oz. soda set me back $2.20. Still, that’s a pretty cheap lunch anywhere, and especially around here. And it was delicious. So I’m sure I’ll be back there again some time, and I’ll probably try the falafels. Hopefully this time I won’t be the kiss of death for the place.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Passing a torch

So the last day of school in our town was a week ago today. In case you’ve lost track, this only affected the little guy as he finished up first grade, and the effect was minimized by the fact that during the school year he would either ride the big yellow bus straight to school, if my wife had the day off, or he would be dropped off at daycare with his little sister and brother if my wife had to work, and daycare would send him on a little shuttle bus to school a bit later. The little guy still has to go to daycare on days my wife works, he just spends the whole day there instead of going back and forth to his school. Fortunately for him, the first day of summer vacation last Friday was a day my wife was not supposed to work, so the little guy got to sleep in and stay home. He then proceeded to spend the entire day playing school, setting up stuffed animals in chairs and handing out worksheets (materials his teacher had given the class to work on over the summer) and setting up activity centers and whatnot. All of which was pretty freaking adorable.

I should back up a little and acknowledge that overall the first grade school year was full of victories and setbacks and challenges to be worked through of all kinds. I confess I may have been looking forward to summer vacation as much as the little guy, maybe even moreso, so that I would get a break from worrying about whether or not the little guy was mastering the ability to focus in class, from reminding him to do his homework, from the ongoing struggle to implement appropriate positive incentives and negative consequences, &c. &c. Sometimes it can feel like a slog. I assumed it felt the same way to the little guy, and in early June I asked him if he was excited about being done with school for a while. And he very earnestly said, “No, I like school.” Which warmed my heart and made me feel a bit petty all at once. Still, I was willing to take it.

His attitude is not the problem, then, which is a relief. And that in turn makes it easier for my wife and I to at least try to keep him at least adjacent to school-mode over the course of the next couple months. Plans have been in the works, plans to get him to spend a little bit of time working on his handwriting on a regular basis, because even for a six year old it’s pretty rough and we’d hate for that to hold him back. We’re also pretty keen on him continuing to read on a daily basis, which was basically his steady homework assignment all year long, read 20 minutes every night. Luckily the little guy is keen on reading, as well. But at the same time, we wanted to differentiate summer reading from school year reading. It just seemed like the right thing to do. So one idea we hit upon was to pick a children’s novel and read it to him when time permitted. We figured we could go back and forth, sometimes reading together, sometimes letting him read by himself, but the novel would be the special summer bonus, as it were. My wife and I had been asking each other repeatedly over the years when we were going to introduce the kids to Harry Potter, and it became fairly self-evident that if we wanted to do so in the form of parent-reading-to-child, we’d better do it sooner than later in the little guy’s case, before he gets to the point where being read to strikes him as too baby-ish. Thus, armed with a slightly used copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone acquired this past Saturday, we were ready to proceed.

But of course we had to get buy-in from the little guy, first. And he tends to prefer non-fiction over fiction these days, and is also highly reluctant to try new things, preferring to stick to what he’s already highly familiar with. Somehow, though, we managed to talk him into giving Harry a try on Sunday night. Just a little, we promised, and if you don’t like it we can stop. (There may have also been some negotiation about bathtime, as apparently the little guy was sick of taking showers and wanted to go back to playing in the tub, which I said was acceptable if he would try the reading together as well.)

Four days later and we are now almost done with Chapter Five (Diagon Alley) and, wonder of wonders, the little guy is totally enthralled. I mean, I kind of figured he would be. I didn’t think it would hurt the cause much that Harry is a little boy with glasses who has a pet snowy owl; our little guy also wears glasses and doesn’t have any pet birds but one of his favorite documentaries is about snowy owls. And I also suspected that the little guy would pick up on the alternate magical London world-building elements and be fascinated by them the same way he’s fascinated by learning about natural systems and such, and he has been. I’ve been mildly delighted by how funny he finds the book, in the exact spots where humor is precisely what Rowling was going for. Point being, it’s early but I’m willing to deem this plan a success.

(And for what it’s worth I am of course enjoying it, too, not just introducing my kid to something I really like but giving myself the opportunity to revisit the series via complete re-read, something I’ve been meaning to do but of course haven’t prioritized. It’s impressive how early a lot of the seeds for later payoffs are planted, and re-reading has been eye-opening. The hardest part has been resisting the urge to meta-editorialize as I read to the little guy, to avoid going all PAY ATTENTION THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER ON. But that’s on me.)

Sorcerer’s Stone is the shortest book in the series, of course, and I’ve calculated that we might get through the whole thing in another two or three weeks. This of course raises the question of what to do next, because I’ve already spilled the beans to the little guy that there are six more books. If he wants to dive right into Chamber of Secrets next, do we oblige him? Do we see how far we can get in the saga before school starts, and then pause for nine or ten months because Harry Potter is a summer thing? Or do we keep going all the way to the end, fitting it in as best we can around real second grade homework assignments? Do we make it a reward like weekly movie night, or a standard element like bedtime videos? Do we tell him, ok, we read you the first one, you have to read the next one on your own?

Reading the series as an adult, I always thought there was an elegance to the fact that each novel covered one school year. I envisioned having kids of my own someday and the possibility that they might not be voracious readers like me. I saw myself slipping them Sorcerer’s Stone around when they were nine or ten, almost but not quite Harry’s age, so that he would still seem cool by virtue of being a little older. Just read this, even if it takes you all summer, I imagined I’d say. And then the next summer they could read the next book. As they grew up, Harry would grow up, and by the time they got to the heavy scary stuff, when major likable characters start dropping like flies, they’d be mature enough to handle it. I never anticipated starting the books with a six year old, and a book-devouring one at that. So I really don’t have a clear idea of where to go with it. In all likelihood I’ll just get out of the way and let the child take the lead, staying nearby as a fallback resource when and if needed. I tend to think a lot of parenting is going to have to be like that.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Problem solving

My Father's Day gift this year was a new cell phone. Well, that was one of the gifts. Another gift was that I got to sleep in until the positively decadent hour of 8:04 a.m. Granted, I woke up with two out of three children in bed with me, the little guy and the bino, and what actually roused me was the voice of the little guy urging me to get up. But as I was about to inform my beloved scion that it was Father's Day and I should be permitted to sleep a bit past whatever time it was, and I looked at the clock to see what time it in fact was, I became aware that I had already gotten basically two extra hours of shut-eye, which was more than enough. So we all got up, and I went downstairs to find my wife, who had been up since about 5:45 through no one's fault but her own insomnia. But the good news there was that she had made good use of the quiet time to herself, doing some yoga and prepping for the class she's teaching and so forth. We had some coffee together, and then a little later I worked out, and on my way to the shower after that I wondered aloud to whom I needed to speak in order to make that kind of morning a regular thing. My wife helpfully suggested the lottery commission.

Anyway, sleeping in is a rare and precious gift and can't even particularly be controlled because you never know when some dependent creature is going to wake up yowlingly sick just before dawn, so it was pure luck but appreciated all the same (if not all the more). But the more deliberate gift from my wife was the new phone. I'm the type of person who pays no mind to the annual upgrade milestones on the wireless contract, and basically keeps the same phone out of habit and inertia until its last electronic gasps. Which basically describes last week, as my phone's screen would stay dark unless I jiggled it, or unless I smacked it, or unless I hard rebooted the phone, and then finally stayed dark all the time. So off I went on Sunday as soon as the store opened to get a new phone. Basically I got this year's model of the phone I had, because I liked it just fine except for the part where it crapped out well past its planned obsolescence date.

I've been a loyal company of my provider (ok, it's Verizon) for over a decade so I usually get a pretty good deal with every infrequent upgrade, and this time that included a bunch of free accessories. One of those accessories was a self-contained portable charger, and I was extremely excited about that.

I reckon it's been a while since I focused on any of the goings-on at work around here, so let me back up a bit and explain the ever-changing cell phone policy here in my office. My office is, as I have mentioned in the past, part of the DoD and there is some classified work that gets done here which requires me to have a security clearance and so on. We also have various rules about maintaining a secure environment. For a while, the only official rule about cell phones was that you couldn't plug them directly into a USB port of any government standard equipment (i.e. your desktop computer). Fair enough. It was also considered somewhat bad form to sit at your cubicle making personal calls on your cell phone, so for the most part people didn't do that, though every once in a while someone might. Then it was explicitly forbidden to use your cell phone inside the office. Then it was explicitly forbidden for your cell phone to even be turned on at work, whether or not it ever was being actively used. So I would use my phone on the train, get to work, turn it off, go to my desk, plug my phone into an outlet to recharge, and turn it on again when I left in the evening. That was all fine by me.

Recently, like within the past two or three weeks, they instituted a new policy, because apparently too many people "forgot" the rules about cell phones. They installed cubbyhole lockers at the front of the office and issued everyone keys, and now it is required to lock up all electronics upon arrival. Cell phones, Kindles, &c. Violators to receive disciplinary measures blah blah blah. So that's what I've been contending with, right at the end of my cell phone's life span, when even powering it down does nothing to conserve the dwindling battery strength. So even if I left the house with 100% charge, after riding the train, walking to the office, and leaving the turned off phone in a locker for 8 hours, it would be down to about 10% when I headed home. This was supremely annoying, but I didn't see any way around it.

But I hadn't considered the portable power source! So now, I will be able to charge my cell phone if it needs it by plugging it into the portable and placing both phone and power brick into the locker (they are small but there should be just enough room for them side by side). Of course, the brand new phone is super-buff and doesn't desperately need to be recharged again an hour and a half after I hit the road in the morning. So there's no urgent rush to start implementing this protocol. A couple-few years from now, though, when the phone is decrepit, I'll be glad to be able to take advantage of the new gadget. Assuming it still works then. Also assuming I still work here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The one with the guy from that thing

I know, I know, I go like ten weeks* without blogging, then I post two days in a row, and it's all related to one late night multiplex excursion. So it goes.

(* = may be a slight exaggeration)

Anyway, if there's one thing you need to know about my relationship with Going To The Movies, as a socio-cultural thing, it's that I have a borderline obsessive need to get to the theater early. I like to have plenty of time to get tickets and snacks, I like to have plenty of time to pick out a good seat (ideally somewhere smack in the middle of the first of the stadium rows) and I like to watch the pre-show. I've mentioned before how much I appreciate the care and effort that goes into the Alamo's pre-show, but even The Twenty and First Look are enjoyable for their cheesy excesses. And I especially enjoy the previews. If you've ever wondered who the target audience was for those syndicated shows of nothing but movie trailers that used to (maybe still do?) air on weekend afternoons, like Coming Attractions, it was me.

So there we were on Wednesday night, watching the previews, and the vast majority of them were for movies I was already at least aware of. At least a couple I had already seen - Fantastic Four and Ant-Man - the last time I was at the theater, for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Another couple were for sequels and/or reboots - Sinister 2 and the new Vacation with Ed Helms as the adult Rusty - which means even if I hadn't heard anything specific about them their existence didn't impact me as news per se (Hollywood be recyclin'). But one stood out in particular because of the potent combination of being neither a sequel nor a reboot, being the first I had ever heard of the project in question, and also being so crazypants that it felt like something I might dream up while heavily narcotized and hanging out in my dork cave. This would be a joint apparently entitled The Last Witch Hunter.

Assuming that, like most modern trailers, this one effectively outlined the premise if not most of the plot, The Last Witch Hunter takes place in a world where witches are real, and evil, and one of the functions of the Catholic church has always been to fight them, functions which have coalesced in various super-secret orders. Witches went underground, everyone assumed they had been wiped out and the old orders faded, but of course the witches were only biding their time and are now going to unleash Armageddon (or something like that) and so one Loner With a Troubled Past Who Remembers the Old Ways must reclaim his legacy and save the world. So that's some ambitiously insane genre material right there. And the cast is stacked with ringers, too. Leslie Rose (World's Strongest Woman Ygritte) is in it, as is Michael Caine as an old priest and Elijah Wood as a young priest. Also for some reason former WWE European Champion Kurt Angle is in the mix, which in and of itself amuses me beyond reason. But the hero character, whose name is Kaulder (someday I may have to do a post about the mostly comics-driven heyday of giving every character kewl names with K's for C's and Z's for S's and Y's for I's) and who apparently gets to swing a flaming sword around, is portrayed by ...

VIN DIESEL, ladies and gentlemen.

And that's what really made an impression on me. Vin is having quite a moment, isn't he? I really thought he burned bright but faded fast back in the very early 00's. Usually there's no coming back from a forgettable misfire like The Pacifier. But now it's like hey, America fell in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy and he was the voice of Groot, and then Fast and Furious 7 came out and suddenly everyone was writing these seemingly straight-faced appraisals of the entire franchise and how it's basically a beloved modern cinematic treasure (I've never seen a single Fast and Furious movie, which is more not my thing/not enough hours in the day than outright snobbery, so I'm simultaneously having trouble wrapping my head around it all and seriously considering binge-watching all seven movies) and ... well, and now here we are, where apparently studios evaluate a crusaders-versus-witches original story (not based on a comic book or YA novel or video game or anything!) and try to figure out if they can sell it to the masses, possibly even turn it into a franchise, and the conclusion they come to is "Yes ... if we can get VIN DIESEL!" I'm actually pretty glad that trying to figure that stuff out is not my job, and I just get to sit back and enjoy the results, one way or the other.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Yippee-ki-yin-and-yang (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Last night a couple of buddies and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. I thought it was great. After several weeks of people hyping how amazingly mind-blowing it was, in terms of everything from color palettes to practical effects to gender politics, I think it suffered a tiny bit from overinflated expectations, which is really unfair to lay upon the flick itself. I enjoyed every minute of the viewing experience. (Well, almost, but we’ll get to that.) I would (and probably will) watch the movie again.

At the risk of saying that which goes without, this post will include some SPOILERS. Although to a certain extent a movie like Fury Road is almost spoiler-proof. Even if you haven’t seen it for yourself yet, you may have heard that the whole movie is one big long extended chase scene-slash-battle sequence, which kind of obviates the need for any major plot twists. It is more or less self-evident that Max (Tom Hardy) survives to the end of the movie, because they’re already talking additional sequels. It is also more or less self-evident that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) survives, third act feints notwithstanding, because chances are the movie wouldn’t have disturbed and discomfited the MRAs quite so much if Furiosa had wound up ultimately victimized in some way. Still, there’s a couple of minor things in the movie which did surprise me, both for the fact that they happened at all and the fact that I hadn’t heard anybody else talking about them online. A couple of things having to do with a minor character, really. So, spoilers, K?.

Let’s talk about Splendid.

A quick overview for those coming in late: in the movie Max gets captured by some members of a pocket civilization in the wasteland called the Citadel, where a tyrant called Immortan Joe controls the populace by controlling the water supply. Max, it turns out, is a universal blood donor so he is forced to become a human blood bag for one of Joe’s many warboys. A routine supply run bound for Gas Town and the Bullet Farm goes rogue, and the warboys and Max are dispatched to bring it back. Turns out the big rig from the supply run, driven by Imperator Furiosa, has smuggled out Joe’s five favorite wives (which is a bit of a misnomer, they’re more like breeding concubines), with Furiosa intending to deliver them to the freedom of the Green Place. That setup is the most complicated part of the movie and gets laid out in the first fifteen minutes or so. The rest is just Joe and the bad guys chasing Furiosa and the wives and stuff blowing up for like an hour and a half. And it is glorious. Max escapes his blood bag imprisonment eventually and joins up with Furiosa, but it’s not inaccurate to describe that as incidental. Max also has the big idea that (pretty dang literally) pivots the movie around the midpoint, but it’s one of those things that oddly enough works well for the overall character arc Max has in the movie but also could have been excised with little or no repercussions, simply by having Furiosa come to the same realization herself.

So, honestly the aforementioned color palettes in the film are amazing, probably worth the price of admission in and of themselves. And the stunt work of the practical effects, all the high-adrenaline acrobatics and high-speed crashes and high-octane fireballs and so forth, also totally top notch. Which leads us to the gender politics, and please don’t get me wrong, those are solid. But when we start talking about them, we necessarily go from the level of describing the world of the narrative, what happened and did it make internally consistent sense and was it entertaining, up to the level of reflecting on the world in which the audience watches the movie, and what does it all mean, man. Not that that’s a bad thing, I’m just warning everyone to hold on.

There’s a strange combination of considerations here with what everyone has been talking about (or at least the slice thereof that has intersected with my awareness, maybe I'm wrong and other people have addressed the same things I want to, in which case I'm still happy to add my voice to the chorus) regarding the outright feminism of Fury Road. Like on the one hand it’s great, most people love it, and those who hate it are being rightfully scorned and mocked. And on the other hand, it’s a little bit sad that everyone’s flipping out about it so much, because overt feminist heroes are so rare. But by and large, either way, people are talking about Furiosa. And that’s fair because she’s a fantastic character and Theron’s performance is all of the awesomes. And it really is her movie, and now I get to go super-meta because I will make that statement but also say it’s not only her movie. I believe a lot of the mouth-breathers who were offended by everything about Fury Road based a lot of their objections on the fact that what was supposed to be Max’s story gets sidelined as another character - a woman! - takes center stage. But I think that really misses the point. Max is an anti-hero; Furiosa is a hero. Max has his own arc to cover in the story, and Furiosa has hers. They intertwine and reflect each other in interesting, sometimes brilliant ways, but just by the intended nature of their respective stories, Max needs to be more passive and peripheral and Furiosa needs to be more proactive. It’s still Max’s movie, but it’s also Furiosa’s movie. There is room for both to be true. And isn’t that fundamentally what a lot of the debate (though it hurts my head to even type that word and acknowledge that dispute even exists) about feminism comes down to? People who are anti-feminist think that it’s all a binary system or a zero-sum game, that to allow anything for women means to disallow it for men, to hold women up is to hold men down, to give to women is to take away from men, &c. &c. Which is such utter bullshit, as Fury Road elegantly demonstrates. People feel like a Mad Max movie was taken away from them because Furiosa hijacked the story, but that’s simply not true. Max and Furiosa are equally important. Deal with it.

I confess, as I did last night to my buddies, that I’m not the world’s biggest Mad Max expert. Far from it. I’ve never seen Mad Max or The Road Warrior, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Beyond Thunderdome all in one sitting (though thanks to its frequent plays on HBO when I was a kid, I’m reasonably sure I’ve absorbed the whole movie, in bits and pieces here and there). But, according to my buddies, Max’s storyline in Fury Road isn’t even all that different from the first three movies. He’s always been the reluctant hero, the man mainly focused on his own survival and only responding to injustice when it backs him into a corner. It will be interesting to see how Max’s philosophical evolution is portrayed in the inevitable follow-up installment(s), now that he’s been shown the kind of altruism and idealism Furiosa embodies.

But I said I wanted to talk about Splendid! Which is the character played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the de facto leader of the wives. (I know technically the character’s name is Angharad, formally The Splendid Angharad, but it seemed like everyone was calling her Splendid and that’s what I’m gonna keep doing.) And as I mentioned, I know she’s a minor character compared to Furiosa and Max, and I know that Huntington-Whiteley is not remotely in the same league, acting-wise, as Theron. I think she acquits herself well enough, though, with the material she’s given. And that material is totally suffused with some next-level envelope-pushing stuff.

Splendid is pregnant, visibly so, and given clues revealed late in the movie maybe about six or seven months along. That seems like a standard action movie plot point, at the outset; damsels in distress, children in peril, a young pregnant mother-to-be conveys all of that at once! And as if the idea of the wives deserving freedom from Immortan Joe on their own merits were not enough, the fact that Splendid is great with child provides additional incentive for Furiosa to get her out of the Citadel, so that the innocent unborn can live a different, better life. Which is all fair enough as far as the tropes go. But when was the last time you saw an action movie where any pregnant woman voluntarily uses herself as a human shield?

Can we take a moment to let that sink in? Immortan Joe demands the return of his wives and his unborn child unharmed, and Splendid knows this, so when the big rig is speeding along and warboys and Joe himself are lining up Furiosa behind the wheel in their sights, Splendid positions herself in the way so that the bullets will have to go through her first. And given that Joe is an evil psycho, it’s not as foolproof a plan as it may seem, though it does work. For a little while. Then things escalate (seriously, it’s amazing how things constantly escalate over the running time of the movie; it’s rare that I actually experience the sensation of begging for mercy over what a story is doing to my heart, but Fury Road got me there) and Splendid falls off the rig. And gets run over by the pursuers. The others get away, but still. When I said I enjoyed almost everything in the movie, I was referring to how hard Splendid’s death hit me. It wasn’t done in a gross, exploitative way, but it was not fun to watch. (And now I’m pretty sure I have guaranteed my wife will never want to watch this movie, and … fair enough.)

Furiosa has a buzzcut and is missing half an arm, replaced by a post-apocalyptic junk-prosthetic, and covers half her face in black grease and wears cargo pants and combat boots and drives a big rig. She is a Strong Female Character very much in the mode of “anything boys can do, girls can do too” and she is almost entirely devoid of superficial femme signifiers. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I have no problem calling the character a role-model, but what really fascinates me is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. A woman like Furiosa can equal a man by presenting as “masculine” but a woman like Splendid can equal a man while presenting as archetypically feminine, and the pregnant fertility goddess with long blonde hair and gauzy white attire is hard to top in that category. Splendid’s all-too-brief moments of courage and will are thrilling on a lot of levels.

And while I’m on a roll here, of course it’s impossible to overlook Immortan Joe howling at Splendid, about the child in her belly, “That’s my property!” And it turns out Splendid didn’t immediately die when she was run over, though she did suffer mortal injuries. Joe’s personal doctor tries to save her, but she’s too far gone. So Joe orders the doc to save the baby, and he obligingly cuts Splendid open, only to find the baby (boy) isn’t quite viable, which all stokes Joe’s rage to new heights. There is zero chance that there’s not a metaphor about reproductive rights lurking not very far below the surface here. There’s no way to read Splendid’s facial expression as she puts herself and the baby at hazardous risk as anything other than “my body, my choice”. There’s very little interpretive wiggle room beyond concluding that if you think the final decision over how and why women have babies belongs to anyone other than the women themselves, you are this guy:

And nobody wants to be that guy, right?

I've been thinking lately that a statement like "I am a feminist" should be about as controversial as "I am not a racist", and maybe almost as unnecessary. It would be nice if the default assumption upon meeting people was that they were not judgmental, prejudiced jerks. Some people would go right ahead and prove otherwise, but still. It'd be nice. And if a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, with various characters male and female all fighting together but also all fighting for themselves on their own terms, gets us a little closer to that state of enlightenment, that works for me.