Thursday, April 24, 2014

Staying in touch

Everybody is fine, at least by defining "fine" as a wide range of conditions between "terrible" and "amazing". In brief:

- The baby was diagnosed on Tuesday with his first-ever ear infection. He dodged the bullet for quite a while, aided immeasurably by having an at-home sitter rather than being exposed to the biohazard incubator that is the daycare center, but give the dubious otological genetic legacy my wife and I have apparently founded, it really was inevitable. The good news is he likes the antibiotics just fine and doesn't engage in any physically violent protests when we make the twice-daily ministrations. He's going to be all right. He's also basically an official toddler now, stomping around on two feet at will, although he still crawls a fair amount (and also walks on his knees sometimes, though I can't imagine that lasting too much longer).
- The little girl is in good health and has proven to be exactly as stubborn and willful at three years old as she was at almost-three (and every other stage of her life). My wife and I were kind of hoping that, post-birthday, we could use some well-deployed you're-a-big-girl-now's to bring her around to our way of thinking on a few of our quotidian power struggles, but ... not so much. That's just life with a pre-schooler (and an Aries, at that) and I know that, but still, ask me in person how my daughter is these days and I will likely respond with a bit of a drawn out sigh, "She's fiiiine."
- The little guy, also hale and hearty, just went back to school this Tuesday after a week and a day of official Spring Break. We're in the final two months of the school year now, and our expectations are pretty low. The transition to a real, fulltime classroom was difficult for the little guy, in ways that caught us all of guard, and getting off on the wrong foot by having his initial teacher reassigned a few weeks into the year and shunting him into a different established set of kids, most of whom are older than him anyway at ages when small chronological gaps can contain huge developmental differences ... the long and the short of it is that we basically wrote kindergarten off, and now we're running out the clock. First grade will be a clean slate, and better in many ways, because it just has to be. Meanwhile, I anticipate that the little guy will throw himself into full-throated enjoyment of his first ever summer vacation in equal and opposite proportion to his ambivalence about Grade Zero. So that at least will be fun.
- And just to bring things full-circle, my wife is hanging in there despite the most severe seasonal allergies I've ever seen her have to endure. Today she expressed suspicion that, in addition to the pollen-induced respiratory freakout she's been saddled with 24/7 for the past two weeks, she might also have a touch of the same ear infection the baby is harboring. I deemed that suspicion valid and worth investigating, so hopefully she'll be able to get in to see a doctor sooner than later.

Me? I am also fine. My allergies are present and accounted for, as usual, but I've been living with them so long I hardly notice unless directly questioned about them. The job landscape has not changed in any direction along any axis; if it does, I will announce it immediately. I feel like the month between the baby's first birthday celebration in mid-March and the little girl's third in mid-April was a bit of a gauntlet, and it may have left me feeling a touch burnt out. Not in an awful ashes-in-my-mouht kind of way, just in an exhausted please-don't-expect-much-effort fashion. I haven't had the mental energy to gather up the portable dvd player and its peripherals in the morning, ergo no movies watched lately. I read a mildly interesting non-fiction book about the persistence of modern conspiracy theories (from the protocols of the Elders of Zion to birthers and 9/11 truthers) and a Batman compilation, but there were numerous days lately where the only things I did on the train were surf the web on my smartphone and take catnaps. I've established previously that little to no pop culture consumption = little to no subject matter for blog posts, and that remains true enough.

And although I have a weird reflexive self-directed-eyerolling reaction to the following, I'll go ahead and put it out there: I've been writing a lot lately, just not here on the blog. There was a time, in the murky primordial epochs of this weblog, when I told myself (truthfully) that I was starting the project not only as an outlet for talking about the things that only I want to talk about, but as an outlet for the act of writing itself, something which I have always claimed is fairly important to me but which I have not always faithfully practiced. At the very least, I told myself, the blog would be good for discipline, a way to force myself to write every day, to keep the creative muscles from atrophying. And then there was a time, somewhere in the mid-to-well-established phase, when I realized that all of the effort I was expending on the blog was almost certainly diverting energy from other potential projects. All well and good to embark on a practice regimen, but what's the point of constant practice of a skill that never gets put to its intended use? I chose to avoid that rhetorical question for as long as possible. But lately it's been impossible to ignore.

I mentioned a couple months ago that I had written a story for How the West Was Weird volume 3, and in fact last night I was e-mailed a galley copy of the book for proofreading. Hopefully pretty soon the cover art for the anthology will be finalized and I'll be allowed to display and promote it. But since turning in that tale I've found myself itching to crank out more and more fiction. Coincidentally, early last month friend o' the blog Harvey Jerkwater approached me with a proposition in which we'd both write some original, marketable fiction and keep each other honest about actually finishing on a set timetable instead of letting it slide into a nebulous maybe-someday state of unbeing. I agreed, and I've been working on that project pretty steadily ever since, but during the brainstorming days of said project I found myself coming up with more ideas than I expected, for a multitude of stories, and I figured rather than let them go to waste I might start fleshing them out as well.

A nifty non-problem to have, obviously, but there are only so many hours in the day, and whereas my days used to consist of showing up for work, doing the relatively few things that were asked of me there, and spending a lot of the rest of my cubicle-bound day blogging, now I find myself coming to work, staying on top of my tasks, and spending a lot of the rest of my time writing or revising some crazy sci-fi or fantasy story or another. It's been gratifying, there's no denying that, but it has pushed the blogging right off the to-do list. And it's not as though I have thousands of followers, or throngs of worried readers posting comments on my last post inquiring after my whereabouts and/or well-being, but I still manage to feel a little guilty for neglecting the blog all the same. Hence this explanation, which I hasten to point out does not include any "but things should get back to normal soon!" bromides. Maybe this is the new normal, maybe I'll only post a couple times a week or a few times a month, for as long as I can keep riding the momentum for fiction-writing that I've been accumulating of late. As I've said towards the end of many a post, more times than I can count, only time will tell!

Seriously, though, if nothing else whenever if ever I manage to get any of this new crop of stories published anywhere, of course I'll crow about here. So there's that!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Hardly knew ya

A quick timeline recap:

Late September, 2012 - I lament the fact that a Mediterranean cuisine joint featuring falafels and such has been under construction for a seeming eternity.

Late November, 2012 - The Black Lime Cafe opens for business. Better late than never!

Early September 2013 - I finally make my first visit to the Black Lime and deem its food not undelicious. I will return there a couple more times in the following months.

March 2014 - Black Lime presumably goes out of business per the eviction notice plastered to its front door.

I just noticed the eviction paperwork the other day, myself. Earlier this week I spent my lunch half-hour on the phone with my mom, pacing the sidewalk in front of my office building to get a clear cell signal, and wandered past Black Lime. I made sure to check the date on the papers to see how long it had been since the place had shut down. Obviously I never got in the habit of going there for lunch frequently - although, to be fair, for much of 2014 I’ve been trying to save money and watch what I eat and not go anywhere for lunch all that often.

On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer that the location failed (or so I assume, not knowing any of the particulars of what happened or why; maybe they had it coming somehow) as it makes the casual dining options around here a little less varied. But as I also said in some of the posts I linked to above, I became fascinated with the place before it ever opened mainly based on college-era nostalgia, which turned out to be something that the offerings at Black Lime barely resembled.

And on the other hand, if I really want to try to spin a silver lining out of it, I suppose it’s a good sign of the general climate of economic recovery that a restaurant flaming out spectacularly, not just closing gracefully but actually getting evicted, just kind of strikes me as an unfortunate isolated incident and not a terrible harbinger signifying that the whole house of cards is about to come tumbling down. So there’s that.

As I recently acknowledged, there’s something almost irresistible about closure, and since I had previously tracked the little falafel joint hereabouts, I figured it was only fair to note its passing as well. Farewell, little loved eating place, and flights of chickpea-winged angels sing thee to thy rest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What a wookiee

When in doubt, or when the blog seems in danger of going dormant, just babble randomly about Star Wars, I always say.

The other evening, while my wife was experimenting with the possibility of giving the little girl and the baby a shared bath (an experiment not to be repeated, since the baby is an unrepentant hair-puller and we really frown on horseplay, rough or otherwise, in the tub), I was hanging out with the little guy and we got to talking about names. He was outlining for me his working theory that if he were to meet someone from a non-English speaking culture he would not be able to understand that person's name due to the language barrier. And I was trying to explain to him that names more or less transcend specific languages. You don't have to grasp the meaning of a name in order to use it to refer to someone (especially if you believe, Butch Coolidge-style, that names have no special meaning beyond the person they identify anyway) and you don't have to be fluent in a language to pronounce one name from it. I was trying to think of extreme examples of this that the little guy would already be familiar with from stories, like Japanese names of fictional characters, but the only one I could think of was Shu Todoroki from Cars 2, and of course "Shu" sounds so much like the English word "shoe" that it doesn't really nail the point.

And then I brought up Chewbacca.

Who is certainly from a non-English speaking culture, and has a name with no apparent meaningful transliteration, and yet I have bandied that name about on so many occasions in my lifetime it strikes me as almost ordinary. My son, though, had only one response to this invocation: "Who's Chewbacca?"

It's not exactly that I forget sometimes that the little guy has never seen Star Wars; that's just not the kind of thing that would slip my mind. I look forward to someday sharing the movies with my kids, and I talk to other parents with similar fandom for Lucas's films about when and how to introduce little ones to them basically every chance I get. I still keep hoping on some level, I suppose, that some other kid at school will be a massive Clone Wars cartoon fan and talk it up to my little guy, and he'll come home and start asking questions about it, and I'll be able to very smoothly enlighten him to the fact that I know all about Obi-Wan Kenobi's mad lightsaber skillz, in a way that supplies something he's looking for rather than cramming down his throat what I'm into. That day may never come, and certainly hasn't yet, and apparently not even a rudimentary familiarity with these iconic characters has registered with him yet. Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, even Spider-Man, these are dudes the little guy can hold up his end of a conversation about. Chewbacca? Nothing but blank stares.

So I opened the browser on my phone and did an image search for Chewbacca and showed the little guy who I was talking about. I explained that he was an alien from some movies that I really liked. And the little guy asked me, with no small amount of skepticism, if they were movies for kids. His tone suggested that he knew what aliens were (see: Buzz Lightyear's associates) and could comprehend a children's movie about aliens, but at the same time this Chewbacca fellow I was avowing to be a fan of looked fearsome enough that maybe it wasn't on his level after all.

The thing is, Star Wars is for kids, 100%. For all that GenXers are now middle-aged, and full of woe because Jar Jar Binks was such ill-conceived pandering to five-year-olds, and convinced that the true legacy of the saga should be how fully realized the expanded universe has become and how awesomely badass various bounty hunters and smugglers and Sith Lords are, from the very first appearance of "Long ago in a galaxy far, far away" Star Wars has been conceived and created as children's entertainment. It's a fairy tale with lasers and spaceships and robots. It's just as well that Disney took ownership of it, because Lucas always thought of it as basically based on the Disney template, right down to his predictions as to how much box office it would make. (Turned out he lowballed it by that accounting, but still, he expected it to sell the same number of tickets to the same audience as an animated Alice in Wonderland or Robin Hood.)

So I told the little guy it was for kids, while also allowing that it was kind of intense, like How to Train Your Dragon intense. And I told him we had the movies in the house; previously he had asked me if there were any kids' movies in the house that he hadn't seen and didn't know about, which struck me as odd seeing as how he loves watching the same things over and over again, but still, it's cool, he's allowed to change and seek out new things and so on. And that's about as far as the conversation went, before it was time for his bath and the rest of his bedtime preparations. Another step closer to the premiere of Episode IV: A New Hope as one of the little guy's Saturday Night Movie Night Movies? Perhaps, perhaps.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dispatches from limbo

This past Friday was one of my co-workers' last day on the job. The co-worker in question was none other than Ms. Nonsense, believe it or not. She managed to get herself an actual government civilian position in a completely different sphere, which should make her pretty happy, I reckon. From what I was able to piece together over the course of working near her, she used to work for the State Department, and while I'm not certain under what circumstances she left, she must have later taken a job with a small contracting firm during the recession when pickings were slim. Her firm was a sub-contractor to mine, and she absolutely hated the anti-empowered nature of that subordinate position, so to be back in a mainstream position directly employed by the government, and out of DoD and back to State to boot, must be gratifying to her.

Of course I know all these details of her life because she never made any effort to hide her dislike for her low place in the pecking order around here, or really any effort at all to keep any of her thoughts to herself rather than giving them voice to no one in particular and yet loudly enough for everyone in the nearby pods of the cubefarm to hear. She drove me a little bit crazy with her high-volume (in both quantity and decibels) cluelessness and solipsism, and I won't miss her. But of course I will keep that to myself, at least in terms of office chitchat (obviously here I am broadcasting it to all of you, but that's a bit apples and oranges, or so I hope). Ironically enough, on her second-to-last day Ms. Nonsense at one point gave a loud sigh and said, "Won't miss that," in response to yet another of our co-workers, one pod over. This other co-worker is an older woman, clearly well past retirement age, and also just as clearly still fully mentally capable of performing her job duties and performing them well. But she has a genuinely unpleasant grating old-lady voice, and she does have a tendency to forget to modulate her volume appropriately when she's on the phone at her desk. So, yes, I get it, it's annoying to hear this woman speak (or, gods forbid, laugh), but the rest of us have the decency to keep that annoyance to ourselves. Making snide comments about it would pretty much cede the high ground immediately, high ground which could only have been claimed in the first place by Ms. Nonsense if she never conducted her own business at annoyingly loud levels, which I can assure you is far from the case. So, whatever, she leaves as she served, a bit of an unthinking passive-aggressive hypocrite. Every office has at least one!

I admit it's a little bit dispiriting, though, to say farewell to Ms. Nonsense, if only for the implication that I am saying farewell because I am remaining right here. In the process of applying for, and psyching myself up for the interview for, a potential new position, I made many mental inventories of reasons why I should be leaving, the truly unappealing aspects of my current gig which would theoretically outweigh the positive aspects of it. You had better believe that there were days when Ms. Nonsense rose pretty high on the list of things I desperately needed to get away from. I never expected to rid myself of the source of irritation by waiting until she showed herself the door, and yet here we are. And it's not as though suddenly, with her departure, this gig is a lot more tolerable to the point where I don't even want a new one. I suppose it comes down to envy, pure and simple. She got herself a new job, something I've been trying to do for a while with no success.

Or should I say, almost no success? I was just about to give up on the potential new gig altogether, since I never heard a word back from the company after my interview, when I got an e-mail from my buddy who already works there saying I should give him a call. It came to light via that conversation that my interview had gone better than I had feared and they actually were interested in bringing me aboard, just not for the actual position I had applied and interviewed for. They liked me and thought I'd be a good fit on the team, but since I'm trying not only to change places of employment but career paths, they felt my relative lack of experience meant I would be better suited starting out in a slightly lower/lesser/some-other-not-so-perjorative-word job title. To which I said, fair enough! This also entailed a slight pay cut, but my wife and I crunched the numbers and reckoned it could probably work, and would be worth it for the longterm upside of the entire arrangement, so I e-mailed the hiring manager and said I had heard from our mutual friend that the door was still open, and I was still interested in speaking with her about it. Unfortunately, that was almost two weeks ago and once again I find myself waiting for some kind of word of response. But the point is the lead is not entirely dead yet! So only time will tell how it will all shake out.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Offed the bloom

Today was the first day this year that I left the house and headed for work without putting on a jacket. I'm happy to report that I transferred all of my essentials from my jacket to my pants pockets and my work satchel before I hit the road, so it's entirely possible that I have left that unfortunate annual tendency of running the "visitor badge" gauntlet every spring behind me. But I'm even happier that the deadly icy grip of this winter seems to have loosed for good. I'm sure there will still be more unseasonably chilly days ahead, but a warm-enough morning with a high-70's afternoon predicted is encouraging.

(For me, at least. I have observed an unsettling phenomenon in some of my co-workers and fellow commuters, whose small talk about the weather is now laced with dread, as if they're all shellshocked, not only by the winter we just survived but by the last few years. I swear I heard someone saying that they hoped - while sounding pretty pessimistic all the same - that this sudden turn towards warm weather didn't signal that we were in for another scorching hot summer. O, traitorous thermometer! It's as if these people expect a normal year to have a cold January with some light snow, a brisk February, room-temperature March through June, some scattered bright, hot days in July and August, room-temp September and October, a nip in the air in November and maybe a flurry in December. How they came by this expectation is anybody's guess; certainly not from actually living around here and paying attention for the past twenty years or so.)

So I walked outdoors on the sidewalk from the train station to my office, and noticed how many of the trees planted along the street were blossoming. Bad news for my allergies, but I do enjoy the visuals. And it also reminded me of something from many years ago which seems like good fodder for today's Random AnecdoteTM.

I roomed with the same guy for sophomore through senior years of college; we met on our freshman hall, but the Office of Residence Life had randomly assigned us to other roommates in suites across the hall from each other. Neither of us got along terribly well with those roommates, as it happened. It was a classic grass-is-greener scenario: I thought my roommate was spoiled, entitled and thoughtless, and that he had basically taken over our entire living space because he had never had to share a room with anyone in his life; my friend's roommate seemed like a nice enough, considerate enough guy by contrast. My friend actually agreed with me that my roommate was spoiled, entitled and thoughtless, he was simply convinced that his roommate was way worse to live with, for different reasons.

It started out with very minor tics that cumulatively drove my friend up the wall, but things took a great leap forward (or backward, in terms of roommate-relations) when my friend's roommate started dating a girl in our class. And even I had to admit that they were a fairly nauseating couple, with a tendency towards giggly babytalk and overt PDA with one another no matter who else was around. It was pretty rough. I don't remember exactly when the romance began, but my best guess is that it was right at the beginning of our second freshman semester, because they were still in the throes of making puppy-eyes at one another when spring sprung around campus. And one day they went for a hand-holding stroll, and came home (ha, I mean "home", to my friend and his roommates dorm room, of course) with a couple of branches of blossoms they had snagged along the way, which they proceeded to put in a cup of water on top of the roommate's bookcase.

I should explain that my friend was a bit of a homebody, so if he wasn't in class or at one of the dining halls, he was in his room. He had brought a ton of creature comforts from home, so he might just as easily be listening to his stereo or playing Wolfenstein on his computer as studying or drawing for fun to unwind or whatever, the point was he was predisposed to be lounging around in pajamas and slippers as often as possible. His roommate, on the other hand, was less on the extreme end of homebodiness to begin with, and was on the tennis team, as well as (I think) an intramural volleyball team, and he had the aforementioned girlfriend, so he was almost never home. This worked out well as far as I was concerned because I could escape my own inhospitable dormitory quarters by hanging out in my friend's room, and instead of being the unwelcome third wheel I was just filling the void of the busy absentee roommate.

But those tree blossoms altered the balance in a surprisingly big way. My friend hated the way that they smelled, and while his roommate was frequently out and about the blossoms and their offensive bouquet were always there, round the clock. I have a pretty stunted sense of smell, and my friend admitted to being somewhat oversensitive to odors, so I just had to kind of take his word for it on that. He put up with the blossoms for a few days (for some definition of "put up with" that involved bitching to me about it a lot) and then decided they had to go. But rather than talk to his roommate about it, he just started pouring small amounts of glass cleaner and other chemicals in the cup, hoping to poison the blossoms to the point where they would wither and die and his roommate would throw them away. I remember it taking a lot longer than he expected, which was its own source of maddening frustration, but it did eventually work, and the roommate was never any the wiser.

I think that story (such as it is) leapt to mind in part because I watched Parks & Rec last night, which included a storyline about Ben being mad at his parents for something they had done and then in the end realizing he was really just dissatisfied about something missing from his own life. That whole misplaced anger, "why don't you tell me what's really bothering you?" trope is such a staple of tv shows, especially sitcoms, that I tend to think of it as a bit of pop psychology that's so refined and oversimplified that it only happens in sitcoms, and not in the real world where people are more complicated. And yet, I can look at the story about my friend and his roommate and it begins to appear as if it's totally made up to follow that sitcom model, even though I was there and saw it happen. I was saving this for my clincher, and here we are: my friend insisted that the blossoms in his room smelled like dead fish. I never called him on that, but come on. If the reproductive organs of a flowering tree were not symbolic enough of the sex which the roommate and his girlfriend were having, at a time when my friend was definitively not getting any, then complaining about the smell of dead fish has to qualify as putting a sour grapes (and, granted, unsettlingly misogynist) bow on it. I really don't think that my friend was freaking out about having the cozy sanctuary of his half of the dorm room invaded by unpleasant fragrances, or even lashing out at the roommate-girlfriend couple for their self-absorbed canoodling, per se. I think he was genuinely just pissed about his own lack of girlie action/satisfaction, and had to vent it somehow. Sometimes truth is equally as sublime as fiction.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Decorative abstractions

My daughter's third birthday is this coming Saturday, which is convenient as it allows us to commemorate her arrival into the world in all ways at once, with our familial proclamations that this is her special day and a party with friends and family (at her age, her friends are the similarly-aged children of friends of the family, but close enough) and whatever she wants for dinner, on a singular date rather than spread out across the week. It should be fun and we are all looking forward to it.

In fact, it's entirely possible that no one is more excited about it than the little guy, and that includes the incipient birthday girl herself. On the one hand, I'm proud of my son for having a positive attitude about what must be a tough stretch of the year for him, the mid-March to mid-April stretch bookended by his younger siblings' birthdays, with his own still about half a year away. On the other hand, I suspect it's not entirely selfless of him to be excited about parties and cake and presents, since he more or less gets to partake in all of them even if he's not the one specifically being celebrated. I will credit him for not trying to blatantly make it all about himself, but it usually plays out something like this: he'll announce out of nowhere "I'm so excited for my sister's birthday!" And then he'll turn to her and say, "Are you excited about your birthday?" She'll agree that she is, although honestly she's at the age where anything not in the immediate here and now, even a big special event that's only three or four days away, is hard for her to wrap her head around; she's more likely to be excited that I let her watch an episode of Doc or Mickey before dinner than about what we have planned for the weekend. But having duly checked in with the rightful person whose opinion matters, the little guy will then swing right back into, "Well, I'm excited!" And so he is, and of course I'd rather have him opportunistically enthusiastic than sullen and jealous, or worse.

My wife and I asked the little girl what kind of cake she wanted at her party and she was able to wrap her head around that with great specificity: "Pink and purple cake, with pink and purple icing, and pink and purple frogs." (See, one of my wife's co-workers made us a batch of little frogs, molded white chocolate dyed green, and we decorated the baby's first birthday cake with them, and they were a big hit, so much so that apparently now that is just What We Do for birthday cakes in our family, and the little girl expects hers to be appropriately color-coded.) And when further pressed as to what kinds of presents she would like for her birthday, the answer was in the very same vein: "Pink and purple girl stuff."

As this blog has attested on numerous occasions, my wife and I are really not hung up on traditional gender roles in our parenting. We've never tried to steer the little guy away from dolls or the little girl away from trucks, and we've also never tried to steer the little guy toward dolls or the little girl toward trucks, either. We get them stuff that looks like fun, or that they show interest in, be it walking through the store or choosing what to play with at daycare or the pediatrician's waiting room or whathaveyou. We've bought a fair amount of gender-neutral playthings but that's pure pragmatism; not a statement of (anti?)indoctrination, just simply trying to get the most bang for our buck by amassing toys that sons and daughter will enjoy equally. And yet if some of the grandparents decide that the little guy's Christmas present should be a singing plastic primary-colored workbench and the little girl's should be a singing pastel vanity mirror ... ehh, we let it slide, rather than make a huge fuss about it. (The little girl honestly was never that enamored with the vanity, but the baby? He freaking loved that thing for a while.)

But the safely hippy-dippy follow-your-bliss home space aside, our kids still have to live in the real world, and at some point in the progress from Montessori to kindergarten the little guy latched on to the idea that certain colors were "boy colors" and others were "girl colors", and guess which ones get the feminine association? So he brought those ideas home and communicated them to his sister, and she's internalized them ... to a point. I've noticed that she doesn't completely avoid the boy colors, but she does embrace the girl colors (as evidenced by her birthday requests). And I truly believe that she's actually done in this in a kind of self-defense. It's not that she thinks she, as a girl, is only supposed to like two colors. It's that she's noticed, shrewdly, that her brother avoids two particular colors. She's smaller, weaker and slower than the little guy, so if there's a toy they both want to play with and he's not in an overly generous mood at that moment, the odds are overwhelmingly in his favor in the physical struggle over who gets the prize. But there is no struggle over pink and purple objects; those are hers by default. Apparently she is cool with this, or at least that's what I take away from her seemingly generic request for "pink and purple girl stuff" for her birthday: she kind of doesn't care what we get her, so long as what she gets is hers. Really anything her big brother wouldn't even think of coveting will do.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Super cool (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Ever since 2010 I have been keeping track of my pop culture consumption by various metrics, mainly because of this weird dread I have of looking around one day and saying to myself, “Huh, I honestly can’t remember the last time I read an entire novel/bought a new album/looked at a comic book/&c.” That probably seems like an unreasonable and unlikely concern, given the frequency with which I post about all of those things, but there was a specific realization that cemented it in my mind as worth doing, back in January of ‘11, when I noted that in the previous calendar year I hadn’t gone to a movie theater at all, not even once. And I’m the kind of person who loves going to the movies, rude fellow audience members and overinflated prices and inflexible showtimes and all. So since then I’ve gotten better about it, and set a goal to go to the multiplex (or, you know, I’d be fine with a small independent cinema, I just don’t know of any reasonably accessible ones) three times per year. I’ve actually managed to surpass that goal and catch four or five flicks on the big screen every year. This year I’m particularly pleased with myself because it’s only mid-April and I’ve already hit the minimum of three, after taking my wife to Pompeii for Valentine’s Day and the kids to Frozen, and now having caught Captain America: The Winter Soldier with one of my buddies last week.

In fact, I had a strange experience at the Winter Soldier showing which I dimly recalled from way, way back when I was a teenager. As I fully expected for the opening night of a big blockbuster, there were a ton of previews ahead of the feature. What shocked me was that I had basically seen all of them already. Partly that has to do with the ubiquity of trailers online these days, and given the amount of screentime I log browsing through comicbook-centric sites, of course I’ve seen the trailers for Spider-Man 2 and X-Men Days of Future Past already. I also happened to have seen the trailer for Lucy (the Scarlett Johanssen as accidental chemically enhanced psychic ninja riff) on a broad pop culture website. But the other half of the raft of trailers, Godzilla and Guardians of the Galaxy and Maleficent, were all ones I had seen in front of other movies in February and March. As I said, that hasn’t happened since high school or college, when I would go to the movies so often that seeing the same trailers over and over was pretty commonplace. In any case, the point is I’m grateful for the current capacity for self-indulgence my life allows at the moment, and if you hear me saying that I never have any time to do anything I am a big fat liar.

Oh, so how was the movie itself? It was good! Really, really good. I’ve heard some reviewers call it the best Marvel movie since The Avengers, and I can buy that (mainly because that only puts it up against Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, the former of which I liked but thought was far from perfect, whereas the latter I haven’t managed to catch up with yet). I’ve heard other reviewers call it better than The Avengers, and I don’t think I would go that far, but that just means I thought Avengers was amazing and Cap 2 was slightly less amazing, though definitely in the ballpark.

What’s interesting to me is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has demonstrated a very keen insight into its own source material. These are not movies that are slightly embarrassed to be based on stupid comicbooks, and feel the need to tweak and modify things quasi-arbitrarily to make them more palatable to grown-ups. The changes rendered in the characters or the plot points are not intended to make things more mature or edgy, they’re just the changes necessary to survive the transition from one medium to another, and in order to tell the best possible stories. The first Captain America movie was based loosely on the WWII-era comics, plus some of the early-60’s reframing of Cap (including explanations of why he disappeared at the end of the war). Winter Soldier is based on a storyline from the comics that was published in the mid-00’s. So the movies skipped over a lot of the main character’s published history, and I don’t fault them for that at all, because they surveyed the entire body of work and decided to start with the origin story and then move on to a story that was maximally resonant with the themes developed in the first installment. Neither beholden to continuity nor disdainful of it, they just cherry-picked in the best possible way. And, presumably, whenever Cap 3 comes out it will bring together the best threads of other Captain America comics, and the (by that point) extremely deep Cinematic history, and put a satisfying conclusion on the story arc. Because, at that stage in the game, after a trilogy of Cap movies and Avengers movies, Chris Evans will be very much done with playing Steve Rogers and it will be time to either move the focus to other characters or to reboot the franchise (clearly, after my experience with Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man, I’ve more than made my peace with the speed of that particular cycle), and I’m pretty sure they know that and will provide the most graceful exit possible.

But as impressive as the scope and ambition of the overall multi-phase Marvel Cinematic Universe is, each movie still has to be able to stand on its own, and Winter Soldier very much does. It has fantastic action sequences, and it has fantastic character moments. It’s not just a story about good guys and bad guys and stuff blowing up that happens to have Captain America in it, it’s a story about what it means to be Captain America (and, by proxy, what it means to be America), a question which does not have a simple answer. So the movie contains multitudes, as well it should. There’s consideration of ideas from different angles, a lot of them stemming from the fact that Steve Rogers fought in WWII and then was frozen for sixty-some years and is now a man out of time. The movie gets laughs out of that inherently funny fish-out-of-water scenario, and it gets pathos out of it as well, but mostly it positions Captain America as someone who questions the ways in which the world he awoke to has gone through radical changes, contrasted with everyone else who lived through those gradual shifts over time and passively accepted them. It sounds cheesy, but it gives Captain America a reason to fight, for something he believes in and something that matters. It is good stuff.

And I know, I know, I have promised that I would shut up about it already (but sometimes I am a big fat liar!) and yet I can’t help but see Winter Soldier as a very direct rebuttal to Man of Steel. Both Captain America and Superman catch a lot of flack for being corny, outmoded concepts (they both had their comic book debuts within three years of each other) who are so noble and pure that they wind up coming across as boring and unrelatable. Patriotism and altruism (which both characters are paragons of, just in slightly different proportions) can only be regarded by modern audiences with skepticism and irony, or so goes the conventional wisdom, and so goes the apparent thinking behind Man of Steel. (Finally going to get into some SPOILERS for Winter Soldier here, I reckon.) Both Man of Steel and Winter Soldier climax in crazy battle sequences with human casualties and massive amounts of collateral damage. But in Winter Soldier, the casualties are all agents and operatives of SHIELD (and HYDRA) and while the costs may be high and lamentable, they all knew the risks they were taking when they signed on. In Man of Steel, there’s an appalling number of innocent bystanders amidst the carnage. Winter Soldier’s big setpiece of destruction takes place at the spy headquarters in the middle of a river, so even as buildings are smashed and huge airships collide and explode and fall from the sky, they’re doing so in a basically uninhabited space. Again, contrast with Man of Steel where most of downtown Metropolis gets razed. And of course, Man of Steel ends with Superman facing a choice, to kill Zod or not, and he chooses to kill him. By the movie’s own internal logic, Zod has killed people and will continue killing people, so Superman (I cannot tell you how much I want to put scare quotes around his name, because the movie gets the character so fundamentally wrong it practically becomes a knockoff “Superman”. But anyway.) does a justifiable thing by acting as executioner. By the end of Winter Soldier, the eponymous assassin has killed and will (probably) kill again, and Captain America has a chance to finish him off, or at least let him die, and instead Cap risks his own life to try against desperate odds to save his enemy. And he succeeds, but that’s almost beside the point, which is that he made the right decision and he gave it his all, because that is what heroes do. (Take note, Goyer and Snyder! Also, your movie was hot garbage.)

Winter Soldier begins with Captain America suspecting that he now lives in a morally compromised world, and has a somewhat downer ending which essentially proves that the world is even more amoral and sinister than he ever realized. And yet it still feels triumphant, because Cap has been tested by fire and proven that he isn’t going to bend or break; he’s still one of the good guys and still willing to fight the good fight. If you think that sentiment is stupid, and is the reason why comicbooks are only for little kids, then you probably shouldn’t be spending your money on superhero movies (and you absolutely shouldn’t be in the business of making superhero movies). Me, I eat that stuff up.