Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pop Resolutions for 2010

I mentioned the other day that we still don’t have cable in the new house yet (come on, January 4th!) but there has been an upside to this state of affairs. Without 900 channels to draw us into a flipping stupor, my wife and I have been giving the DVD player a workout like it hasn’t seen in years. We finally finished watching the Firefly DVDs which were loaned to me, um, I’m gonna say two and a half years ago. (My friend Clutch has been waiting to borrow them from the original owners as well, so he should be happy to hear that we’re done.) We also watched the movie Extract, which my wife got me for Christmas since we managed to miss it in the theaters, despite generally wanting to support Mike Judge’s career however we can. And in the occasional downtime when my wife is at work, I’ve been watching bits and pieces of the Aristocrats. That joke never gets old.

Say it with a flourish!
Watching DVDs, thinking about getting cable, and unpacking a medium-size public library worth of books has all gotten me thinking about my pop culture consumption, which at this point in my life feels like something so massively time-consuming that I need an actual plan to stay on top of it. I think of it as a joyful obligation, as opposed to a joyless one. I actively want my life to include a lot of book reading and movie watching and music listening and so on, and I know that I’m happier when it does than when it doesn’t, and whether or not there’s work involved in including those elements does not affect the end result. Here, then, are some of my plans, expectations and hopes for a potentially pop-tastic 2010:

1. I will read 53 books. And by “books” I mean, you know, book-books, not comics or coffee table books or short novellas bound as paperbacks. Real books. Some people like to set goals for themselves to read 75 or 100 books in a year but despite my unchecked bibliophilia I am not one of those types. Not too long ago I was barely reading at all anymore, and then I started my mass-transit commuting and got back into the groove of constantly starting and quickly finishing new books. I can usually average a book a week and I am in fact on track to finish the book I’m currently reading tomorrow, which will make for exactly 52 in 2009. I’ll go with the modest ambition of reading one more book next year than I did last year.

2. I will buy more used books. Over the past couple years I’ve used my long-ass commute as justification for buying shiny new books pretty regularly, but the new year (in a new house) requires some curtailing of frivolous expenses, and retail-priced books fall into that category. There’s really no excuse for paying cover price for a book, anyway. Amazon has storefronts for about a squillion used booksellers, some of whom are unloading stuff for a penny (plus shipping). And there is a used book store right around the corner from our new house that will actually buy (or give store credit for) some old books that I’ve been meaning to unload anyway. So yeah, I expect to give my Borders Rewards card a bit of a rest.

3. I will find the local library. Because the only thing better than cheap books is reading them for free, right? Plus knowing where the library is is just something I like to have in my mental rolodex.

4. I will finish collecting Blackest Night and then seriously reassess buying monthly comics. I am enjoying the over-the-top are-you-kidding-me-ness of the current storyline in the Green Lantern comics (and various spin-offs) at the moment, including the immediacy of not waiting for the trade (although I am constantly way behind on the new releases) but the Blackest Night storyline has a definite end to come in early 2010, and I will use that as an opportunity to take a breather and decide if I’m really going to continue buying any comics in monthly format any more. I used to be a regular monthly reader of at least half a dozen titles at once, but whereas the geek-I-once-was would suffer through terrible runs on a favorite title just so I didn’t miss out when the pendulum swung the other me, the geek-I-am-now started dropping titles when they began to suck, and now only Green Lantern remains. I don’t expect a rapid descent in GL’s quality, but it’s hard to justify going to the comic book shop every Wednesday for one title (plus maybe one spin off) after the big crossover event ends. There really isn’t a local comic book shop near my new house anyway, so maybe it’s time to just wait for trades which I can buy at the mall or Amazon. Of course, to justify buying those brand new trades I’ll need some creative financing, which leads us to …

I should have known that something bought at CVS at the mall was not likely to be a can't miss investment.
5. I will sell a bunch of comics on eBay. I have an eBay account and a PayPal account, but I rarely use them, and have never sold anything online. I think it’s time to start culling my comic book collection (once I get it under my roof again). I don’t plan on liquidating the entire thing, because there are some old issues I’ve re-read several times and plan on re-re-reading to my boy some day. But the dross in which I have zero emotional investment, the stuff which seemed like a good idea at the time but now wouldn’t be worth re-reading if I were bed-ridden with no other entertainment options? Those can go. I don’t expect I’ll get rich from this, especially since I’m operating under sell-the-junk rules. I lived through the comic book speculator boom and I, too, had my fleeting dreams of making mad bank when I finally got around to selling New Warriors #1 from 1990, but I am well aware that that ship has sailed, if in fact it was ever more than vaporous wishfulness to begin with. What I’m hoping is to set up a nice little self-contained comics-based economy wherein I sell chunks of my collection that I won’t miss, get a little money deposited in my PayPal account, then turn around and use that money to buy comics trades and second-hand novels on Amazon. Meanwhile the money from my real job can pay my real bills. It should be an interesting experiment at the very least.

6. I will obtain either Series 1 of Star Blazers on DVD or Books 1 – 3 of Akira (or both). For whatever reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pop culture imported from Japan, and these are two of my favorites. Yet my overall exposure to them is kind of weak. I loved watching episodes of Star Blazers on TV as a kid but I haven’t seen it since I was maybe 9 or 10 and I know I never saw the whole story. I didn’t see the movie version of Akira until college but I loved it with the kind of love that usually motivates me to track down the source material. Somehow, in this case, I never did, mainly because of confusion about translated editions and what was available or out of print, all of which I think I might have sorted out by now. Anyway, look for some massive, rambling posts about heroic round-eyes in the coming year.

7. I will go to the movie theater five times. I don’t go to the movies as often as I would like, and sometimes I say I never ever go to see films in the theater anymore, but that’s an exaggeration and I’d like to keep it that way. I don’t foresee weekly cinema excursions, but every once in a while I should make time for it. It may well go without saying that I already have the calendar marked for Iron Man 2. And as soon as there’s a wide release date, I’ll make room for this one, too:

Kinda like Van Helsing, 'cept hopefully without all the suck.
That is Solomon Kane, who is a badass pulp hero Puritan demon-hunter created by the man who brought us Conan the Barbarian. I am, to state the obvious, a fan. The actor with the grizzled, manly jawline and sensuous lips is James Purefoy, who played Marc Antony in HBO’s Rome, and thanks in no small part to gratuitous strigiling scenes, my wife is a big fan. Who am I to argue when such a perfect date movie comes to be?

8. I will watch 12 Netflix movies or cancel my account. I love the idea of Netflix but as a user I am terrible at it. Netflix holds up its end just fine, sending me new movies when I send old ones back, and billing me every single month whether I move through my formidable queue or not. Which, frequently, I do not. It would be glorious to live in an ideal world where I can pay for services I don’t actually use, simply because I enjoy the idea of the service, but this is not that world. So I’m giving myself one more year to get some bang for my buck or I will take my bucks back.

9. I will watch the DVDs I own but have never seen. This is arguably an even worse sin than the Netflix inattention. Generally I will only buy a DVD if I have already seen the movie/show in question and think it is well worth owning, or if I intend to watch it immediately. But sometimes people get me DVDs as gifts and I appreciate them tremendously but never manage to break through the shrinkwrapping and check out the contents. Having a DVD in your collection of a movie you’ve never seen is like having a book on your shelf that you’ve never read. It’s a bit of a sham, or at least that’s how it feels to a collector like me who maybe, perhaps, PERHAPS JUST MAYBE, takes things a little too seriously and overthinks them on occasion. At any rate, the shame must be erased. Which means I have to watch the Clone Wars CGI movie my sister got me a couple Christmases ago.

10. I will play through GH: Metallica. When we bought a Wii a couple years ago, my main motivation was to be able to play Guitar Hero in my own home. I freaking love that game. My wife got me fleecy Guitar Hero pajama pants for Christmas and that is probably the sweetest article of clothing I currently own. I desperately want to get hold of the Van Halen edition of the game, because that band and I go way back, but I can’t justify such an acquisition until I have at least played through the GH games I already own (see above). GH: Metallica is actually pretty hard even on the easy setting, thanks to the signature speed-metal shredding of Hetfield and Hammett. I tried it once after I got the game and haven’t braved it since.

I could keep going but I think 10 are enough for now. If I make a particularly massive dent in most or all of these by April, maybe I’ll officially record 10 more to shoot for.

I’m without interwebs for the next few days, so no new posts until Monday. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Again with the punchiness

Last night was even more sleepless than the night before, although no furniture was injured or hastily repaired. For lack of a better explanation, all I can figure is that my son once again woke up with teething pain but then worked himself into an endlessly self-perpetuating spiraling fury that he didn’t know how to get out of. (To be fair, he’s new at … everything, really.) His mother and I went through every palliative we could think of until finally coming to the Last Resort: the car. A looping, highway-speed car trip never fails to put the little guy back to sleep. Sometimes I think that is a little bit wonderful, since it’s practically an American institution, a part of the quintessential baby-having experience of white-picket-fenced suburbanites. It’s been a Last Resort for a couple of generations and now we’re a part of it. Yet somehow the commercial-ready imagery of the sleep-in-the-car trick always seems to take place at about 10:30 or 11 p.m., when the parents are just about ready to go to bed but have to get Junior or Princess to sleep first. Also, it’s always a pleasant spring or autumn night. It’s never late December with temperatures around 15 below and it’s never in the unholy middle of the night, the parents having been awakened from a few insufficient hours of slumber and subsequently having dealt with over an hour of random screaming and now staring at a clock reading 3:01 a.m. and desperate for a couple more hours of rest. So our experience deviates significantly from the late-nite drive-thru ad version. Last night my wife was the one who bravely threw on a few more layers and buckled in the little mite and herself for some hour-of-the-wolf cruising. She is my hero.

I know Night Girl would probably be a more appropriate heroine here, but Shadow Lass is undeniably MUCH MORE AWESOME.
The loss of sleep may be yet another casualty of the move, with its attendant chaos compounding the aforementioned teething symptoms. Or it may not, and it’s not as though I can sit my son on my knee and look him in the eye and say “Are you feeling upset about the new environments at home and daycare? Is there anything you want to talk about?” (Or rather, I can do that, but if I expect any answer more cogent than “Shoes! Car!” I will be disappointed.) Fortunately if it has nothing to do with the move then this line of thought is irrelevant, and if there is a connection then it’s one of those things that will simply get better on its own with the passage of time. Or so I hope.

Overall the casualties list from the move (in terms of physical artifacts) is pretty short. A couple of plates got cracked into pieces. A notebook where I had been compiling all kinds of household information like account numbers and passwords and long-range to-do lists and whatnot got thrown away in the tempestuous Day Three of clearing out the townhouse. The thing we’re missing most (not counting basic cable, knowing how the local grocery store is laid out, etc.) is the bi-level plastic drying rack for the baby’s bottles and cups and tiny spoons and medicine droppers and such. It’s not that this particular item was damaged or destroyed in the move, it’s just that we can’t seem to find it. Granted, we haven’t completely unpacked every last box, so it may yet turn up, but if it does it’s going to be in a weirdly random place because we’ve opened and sorted through every box marked KITCHEN or BABY STUFF. Still, not being able to find it gives us plenty of cause to utter phrases like “Where’s my nipple rack?” which never fails to make us giggle. Probably because we’re sleep deprived, but ah well.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

So Late It’s Early

My little boy Meemie (yes, of the screaming variety) has had a rough go of it the past month or so as his pre-molars are making their presence known in the heretofore toothless recesses of his jaw. The pre-molars are a couple of months early by most developmental milestone estimates, but that doesn’t even really surprise me anymore. Meemie’s vocabulary is expanding but two words he’s really taken a liking to are “no” (or, more accurately, “noooooo!!!”) and “mine” which are words I associate mainly with two-year-olds, making them several months early in Meemie’s case. He’s precocious, right down to his little baby teeth.

Yo ho ho and a full tube of Orajel
The symptoms of this round of teething are about what you’d expect: he drools like crazy; he sticks his fingers in his mouth a lot; he gets fussy sometimes; he rejects food even when we suspect he’s hungry. The worst symptom, though, is a tendency to wake up in the dead middle of the night shrieking in pain. Sometimes it’s just one quick, sharp cry, loud enough to wake his parents before whining and whimpering back to sleep on his own. And other times it’s the beginning of an extended jag of howling and sobbing while standing up in the crib that can only be countered with some Baby Tylenol and hugging and rocking. And yet other times it’s the extended jag version but only a matter of two or three hours since the last jag, and thus since the last dose of Tylenol, which means there’s nothing more to do except power through. And then sometimes the glider rocking chair breaks.

So this morning at about 4 a.m. I was fetching my toolbox from the garage up to Meemie’s room and wondering what exactly happened during the course of the move that caused all five screws holding the glider seat to the left leg to shear clean in half. Meemie, at that point, was twitching fitfully against his mother’s shoulder in our bed. I improvised a way to reattach the seat to the leg (by stealing screws from other attachment points) and by 4:30 or so Meemie and I were gliding together and he, at least, was sleeping a little more deeply. I laid him in his crib a little after 5 a.m. and then got in the shower to start my day, which I imagine will end with me passing out some time around 8:45 this evening. Honestly, the best silver lining I can come up with is that dragging my carcass out of bed when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. is usually agonizingly difficult, so when 5 rolls around and I've already been up for an hour, it's not as bad by comparison.

Anyway, I was out of the house an hour later. Commuting from the new house has been interesting and I have yet to make a final determination on what method I’m going to use long term. The first few days I tried the Virginia Rail Extension, which has a station (with free parking) down in the old town area very close to the house. The VRE train feels like a mode of transportation from an imaginary time, not so much anachronistic as retro sci-fi, the way that a visionary in 1921 might conjure up commuting in 1999. The cars are double-deckers, with paired seats on either side of the aisle on the lower level and single seats on either side on the upper level, and every seat has a fold-out latte-sized cup holder. The tickets are sold at automated touchscreen kiosks on the platform but the trains have multiple human conductors in uniforms with dark sweaters and sharp little hats. This all seemed really great when I took the train in on Tuesday morning a week ago, even though I had to plan my morning around the once-an-hour schedule of the train (usually they run every half hour, but Tuesday last there was still too much snow on the tracks for a full schedule, apparently). The VRE runs to Crystal City, which would be convenient when/if I go back to working out of that office, but for now means I need to transfer to the old Metro and ride a few stops up to Rosslyn. On the way home that Tuesday, however, the weather-truncated schedule meant about a million people tried to get on the already full train in Crystal City in the afternoon. I ended up standing in the vestibule between cars for the entire ride, which lasts about an hour. Nevertheless, I did the whole thing again the following day when the trains went back to their normal schedule, and I got a seat on the way home (although I had to share a pair bench on the lower level; the singletons in the upper level, which I prefer, were all taken).

Since Christmas Eve was again a truncated schedule day for the VRE, and I had no idea what time the office would be closing and sending me home, I drove out to the Vienna Metro station and took Metro all the way in. The parking there is not free, and getting there via 66 can be a challenge for any number of reasons, but it is the terminus of the Orange Line so getting a seat in the morning is (usually) not a problem and it goes straight to Rosslyn. I’ve been driving to Vienna this week, too, and so far it hasn’t been a big hassle and seems more flexible than the VRE option, if a little more expensive. I’ve run into a couple of slowdowns on 66, one heading east in the morning and one coming west in the evening, but both were due to disabled vehicles, not soul-crushing volumes of traffic. Of course, the cynic in me thinks there will probably be some idiot putting their disabled vehicle in my way as many times as not, not to mention that I really don’t have a true sense of the traffic volume yet because plenty of people are still on holiday vacation. I believe I mentioned earlier that the whole thing is still under review, since VRE and Metro have ups and downs and neither one seems like a hands-down winner yet.

Of course this could all be moot if I end up transferred to the Fairfax office in January as my boss keeps alluding to, but I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Biz Cas Mon

Christmas was lovely, thanks, and I’ll get into some of the highlights soonish, but right now I’m still playing catch-up from The Most Chaotic Week Of My Life and hope you will indulge me accordingly.

So one thing that I didn’t get to mention much last week was work. Monday the 21st was a snow day and Friday the 25th was some federal holiday or other (I think it has something to do with wine-infused cheese spreads?) so I basically had three working days to try to nudge my project a little further along, via poking and prodding the people who actually have the access rights to make things happen. In my grand vision of how things should play out, the online application I’m responsible for migrating would essentially shut down at midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, and that had already been set in motion before the Blizzard of Aught-Nine came to town.

Thus when my supervisor called an all-hands-on-deck meeting on Tuesday morning as we all came back from digging ourselves out of the snow, there was no small amount of grave dread in my heart. I knew very well the line I had been walking for the previous few weeks: nothing was going to get done and no decisions were going to get made by anyone other than me, because everyone else had other things to worry about and the transition deadline was too far away. So I rolled the dice and made the decisions I thought were best and hoped that would be enough. Now that the deadline was imminent and on everyone’s radar, I was fully expecting an onslaught of criticism at the all-hands meeting, which I would mentally deflect by remaining secure in my knowledge that anyone can raise inconvenient objections at the last minute, but which I wouldn’t dream of deflecting out loud across the table because, really, what’s the point. (The single business skill I have sharpened the most in the past nearly three years of government contracting is the ability to take a verbal whupping, fall on the sword, and generally shift the focus from what’s already done and unchangeable to earnest promises that it won’t happen again.) The shutdown was happening because it was too late to stop it, and if I ended up finishing the transition while dodging jabs from the angry mob's pitchforks, so be it.

There's a 'roasting chestnuts' joke to be made here, somewhere ...
Much to my pleasant surprise, though, the all-hands was neither intended as an opportunity to put me up against the wall facing the firing squad, nor did it devolve into that. It simply informed everyone I hadn’t already looped in that the shutdown was happening and a “downtime protocol” had been developed and would go into play for the period between shutdown and getting everything up and running at the new host. Not only did I not have to calmly and quietly explain to outraged affected parties that it was impossible to cancel or reschedule the shutdown (which I had been bracing myself for) but I didn’t need to defend the decisions in any way. Everyone basically accepted the plan, which probably says more about their feelings as worn-down teeth in the gears of the big gray machine than about the brilliance of the plan in and of itself. I’ll take it.

Even more surprisingly, after the meeting, the various parties I had spent weeks hounding into giving me some kind of indication that they were receiving my plan outlines all piped up (via e-mail, of course) and let me know everything was good to go. I had outlined a best-case scenario as well as a worse-case version (not worst-case, of course; it is some kind of blindingly fractal impossibility to even attempt to envision a worst-case scenario with anything involving computer system upgrades or anything involving government agencies. THIS HAS BOTH.) and by Thursday afternoon things were proceeding according to the best-case timeline. The midnight shutdown happened without a hitch, the data copying started at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday morning, the drive of data was shipped Wednesday afternoon and arrived on Thursday, and I moved it along to the drive-sanitizing step of the process before I left on Thursday. I may actually see the entire transition process finished by Wednesday or so, which would be several days ahead of schedule and would be outstanding. I may not, of course, because it ain’t over etc. But so far things look promising.

On top of all that last week the director of the agency declared the rest of the year to be business casual attire, which means on this particular Monday morning I am rocking the khakis and denim shirt look and that makes me reasonably comfortable and thus unreasonably happy. Almost done with the big annoying project, lucky to have a job at all, blah blah blah, the thing that brightens my outlook about work right now is that my collar is neither noosed nor even fully buttoned.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

And To All, A Good Night

I have a lot of things to get into here at PA - my main project at work suddenly exploding into a frenzy of activity, my new post-move commute on the Virginia Railway Extension, the fallout and casualties of the move itself and the quirks and charms of the new house - but they will have to wait until next week, at least. It's Christmas Eve and the office will be closing early but I'll be running around while it's open, and then I'll be home for the long weekend with no internet access.

So see you Monday. Until then, enjoy the holiday.

HO HO HO and meedley-meedley-meeeeeeeeeeee!
Peace on Earth, goodwill to man, click to embiggen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Relo Man

At this point I feel like I’ve told the Epic Saga of the Big Move dozens of times, and I’m a little leery of diving into it one more time, but I think I’m going to talk myself into it one more time for a couple of reasons: one, I’ve mainly been telling the abridged version (or as close as a verbositist like myself can ever come to abridging anything); and two, this here blog is (supposedly) the definitive record of my doings and musings, so to skip the whole event would be some kind of disservice. Right, then, brace yourselves for the onslaught.

When Friday dawned we still had a bit of packing to do and we still didn’t have a definite time for the closing on the new house because our new mortgage was still in underwriting. Things I have learned about the post-bubble real estate market at the end of this decade: it is a great time to buy because prices are low; it is a bad time to sell but not that bad a time to rent out (rental prices won’t cover pre-bubble mortgage payments, but ah well); it is a mind-bogglingly crappy time to expect mortgages to get underwritten in timely fashion because all the banks are being ultra-cautious to write only good loans (at least as far as everyday anonymous citizen homebuyers go). However, we were optimistic that the closing would happen before the end of the day Friday since we had to move on Saturday. (Had to = tenant of townhouse with signed lease with move-in date of Tuesday, and a couple days needed to fix up and clean up the townhouse, plus truck rented for Saturday and friends lined up to help.) So we forged ahead with our only working roadmap: my wife Mayflower would go to work for the noon-to-8 shift, and my son Ryder would spend a full day at daycare, all while I continued packing and waited for word about the closing.

This whole tale is one of near-disasters and semi-debacles, but there were a few bright spots along the way. The first one came Friday morning when U-Haul called to confirm my Saturday truck rental. The U-Haul location manager actually went far beyond confirming my rental: given the impending winter weather, he offered me an extra day FOR FREE if I wanted to pick up the truck that day. I, of course, said “I’ll be right there” and Mayflower dropped me off at the truck lot on her way to work. I got the truck back to the townhouse and set to some more packing, figuring it would be nice to be able to start the loading and heavy lifting as early as possible Saturday morning instead of waiting for U-Haul to open.

The middle part of the day was pretty tough and I will admit something right here: I probably could have done a lot more to get us physically ready to move out than I did, but it was psychologically impossible because I still had no definite commitment from the mortgage bank that we would be able to close that day. We had already missed the window for our Plan A, which was to close at 9 a.m. on Friday with both me and Mayflower present. Plan B was that we would close later on Friday, and I would have power of attorney for Mayflower and sign both our lives away on my own. Plan C was that we wouldn’t close at all, but we would begin renting the new house from the seller’s until the sale was settled and closed some time the following week. On the face of it, all three of those options involved us moving on Saturday and therefore the uncertainty in no way justified not getting ready to move. But it still managed to sap my motivation all the same.

Simultaneously, the storm clouds were gathering, literally. Several of my friends called me and expressed concern that they wouldn’t be able to come help on Saturday if the snow was bad, but also offered to help on Friday night. By the third time I had gotten that exact offer, since I did in fact already have the truck, I decided to take everyone up on it.

My mortgage broker e-mailed me at 2:25 p.m. to say the underwriting paperwork was finally finished, which put us back on track for Plan B, closing at 4 p.m. Our realtor drove to Mayflower’s vet clinic to pick up a signed, notarized document giving me POA, and when she called me to tell me she had it in hand I asked her what amount of funds I needed to bring via cashier’s check to closing. (Of course, once I got to the bank I had to call her again and ask to whom the check should be payable – it’s been a while since I did this last and I totally thought that “cashier’s check” meant “payable to CASH” – whoops.)

I made it to the title company offices just a few minutes early and met the associate who was working our closing and he told me that the funds required were several thousand dollars more than my realtor had told me. Because somehow the good faith deposit we had made with our contract on the new house had “never been verified” and therefore wasn’t being counted as part of our down payment. At that point all I wanted was a key to the new house and I would have emptied every bank account in my name to get it, but fortunately my cooler-headed realtor was there to point out that losing the good faith deposit was completely unacceptable. Also fortunately I had brought with me all the paperwork in my “to fax to the mortgage broker” folder which included bank statements showing, at the very least, that the deposit check had been cashed weeks ago. The title company managed to track it down eventually, but basically what should have been a one hour closing took two hours. So at 6 p.m. with house key in hand I raced over to daycare to pick up Ryder, then headed home to feed him and put him to bed.

My buddies showed up around 8:30, which coincidentally was exactly when the snow started to fall. The snow immediately began to stick so we loaded the truck as fast as we could with large sealed boxes and heavy pieces of furniture. One of my buddies brought a snow shovel and a bag of rock salt, which was TOTALLY CLUTCH. (Hereafter I will refer to him as “Clutch”.) By about 11 p.m. the truck was almost full and we decided to head to the new house to unload. At this point it may occur to you, as it did to me, that not everything would have fit on the truck in one load if we had gone the originally planned route of doing the entire move on Saturday. So in a sense the snow was lucky for us there.

One buddy was feeling under the weather and parted ways with us to head home, while another buddy drove his own car so he could head directly home from the new house. Clutch rode shotgun with me in the U-Haul. The snow was coming down fast but there were already plows roaming the highways so we figured as long as we took it easy we should be all right. There was a moment of panic when all traffic came to a stop near where Route 28 meets I-66, but it turned out to be momentary and due to some mysterious police activity in the middle of the highway, probably an accident. We got to 66 and from there to the new house, despite the fact that I barely remembered how to get there myself, and the total trip time was probably double what it would take in temperate weather. I backed the U-Haul halfway down the driveway and we pulled out the loading ramp, but it iced up pretty quickly even with the rock salt, so we did most of the unloading with one person stationed on the truck and two men in the driveway carrying things. At first we carried things into the house and to their proper room, then we just took things into the den, then we just dumped things in the garage. When the truck was empty we took off, I dropped Clutch off at his car and said see you tomorrow … maybe?

I got back to the townhouse around 3 a.m. We had already moved most of the big furniture but not Ryder’s crib or our bed, and I climbed under the covers … right about when Ryder started having a screaming fit, probably due to teething. Mayflower had been up late packing while my buddies and I hauled furniture, but she threw every trick in the book at the baby and tried to let me get a few hours of sleep. At various points I was tossing and turning, too wired to sleep, and she was lying asleep on the floor with the baby in the crook of her arm. We were up by 8 a.m. Perhaps this rough night explains some of our impaired judgment later.

Yet another buddy who lives in the next development over from the townhouse walked over Saturday morning to help load the beds on the U-Haul. (He was the only one who could rightly countenance getting there in the midst of the blizzard.) By the time that was done we were deeply into the most hellish part of any move, where you start finding more and more random crap in various corners of the house, none of which presents a logical way to pack itself, and you’re running out of boxes anyway, and you fight the urge to throw everything in garbage bags and sort it out later. And the snow, meanwhile, had not stopped since the night before and was piling high all around us. Near noon, Mayflower announced that we were cutting our losses and moving what we had on the truck at that point. My walking-distance buddy offered to come to the new house to help unload but I refused and sent him home, figuring it was easier for him to walk home at that point than for us to try to figure out how to get him back hours later through that much more snow. I drove the U-Haul alone, while Mayflower drove Ryder in her car.

You may be familiar with the cramped feeling you get in your hands when you spend a day or so moving, lifting heavy boxes and whatnot. You may also know a similar clenching pain you get from white-knuckle driving in bad weather with a deathgrip on the steering wheel.

With the sharp nails and the pointy bits and the owwwwwww
Multiply those together and that was me by the time we got through the weekend. The drive on Saturday was by far the worst. The plows had been out all day and the night before, but they couldn’t keep up with the volume of snow. Mayflower and I passed many, many cars and trucks that had spun out off the road and into ditches and otherwise made a mess. It freaked us out and made us wonder what those drivers had done wrong that we could avoid doing, but all we could do was press forward with grim determination since we were already committed. It almost worked, too, but the cul-de-sac where our new house sits was covered in nearly a foot-deep snowdrift by midday Saturday. Mayflower’s car got stuck and she walked the final leg to the house, baby in arms. She called me to warn me, and I told her the truck was much heavier than her car and could probably clear the snow – then I proceeded to get stuck in the same drift about ten feet closer to the house.

With no real choice but to dig some tire-width tracks up the street to our driveway, I got down to doing just that. Amazingly enough, one of our new neighbors came out armed with his own snowshovel to help me. I am humbled and grateful for all the help I got from friends this weekend, but then again, that’s what friends are for. Getting an unsolicited assist from essentially a stranger who lives a couple doors down from the house I just bought unequivocally wins Human Decency Moment of the Year. We got some further help from the husband of one of Mayflower’s co-workers, as they live within walking distance of the new house and walked over to lend a hand. Once I got the truck pulled up to the driveway, we went back to dig out Mayflower’s car. Originally we had planned to dig tire-tracks again, connecting her car to the path we had just cleared for the truck. But that path was already filling up again with snow so we opted to simply cut over to the curb so she could at least pull over from the middle of the road. We made a parking space and Mayflower got behind the wheel … to find the battery had been drained by her hazards. So we pushed her car into the space.

I dug one more trench through the snow, from the back of the U-Haul down the driveway to the garage door, and we unloaded the truck, while all our neighbors came out to shovel their driveways. I’m happy to report that all the neighbors are really nice and welcoming (I’m even willing to forgive the constant “Wow, you picked the wrong day to move!” commentary). We got the truck emptied by sunset, although again that was mostly in dump-everything-in-the-garage mode. We made some dinner and got the baby and ourselves to bed by 7 p.m. Since our bedframe and mattress were in the garage and we had no inclination to wrestle them upstairs, Mayflower and I slept on a futon mattress on the living room floor. (We could have slept on gravel and broken glass at that point.)

It stopped snowing, finally, around 1 a.m., but when we got up Sunday morning we still had much more snow to contend with. I had to dig out the truck, in order to make one more trip back to the townhouse and gather the last of our stuff and get it to the new house and then return the truck. Mayflower had to dig out her car so that it could get a jump from roadside assistance. We managed to get all that done by taking turns staying inside with Ryder, but then we prevailed upon Ryder’s godparents to watch the child while we did the final moving truck run. We were met at the townhouse by Clutch and his three daughters, and they helped us tremendously by digging out my car while Mayflower and I gathered up the last few things (well, all right, more than a few things, it was a really absurd nearly full truckload), all of which took basically the last remainder of Sunday’s daylight, which means if not for Clutch’s family’s help it would have taken us several hours into the night which would have sucked profoundly. It already sucked a great deal because the townhouse parking lot was not well-plowed and the two parking spaces for our townhouse were not shoveled at all, so the U-Haul had to be parked mid-lot, blocking other people in … just imagine the biggest mess you can and you will not be far off. At any rate we got it done and even managed to run the vacuum through the whole townhouse before leaving. By the time we headed to the new house again (me in the U-Haul, Mayflower in my car with a sidetrip to pick up the baby) it was too late to return the truck and I had resigned myself to calling out from work on Monday in order to take care of that last bit of business.

We thought we were done for the day once we unloaded the U-Haul at home, but then a city snowplow operator knocked on our front door and asked us to move the two cars and the truck in the cul-de-sac (driveway still not shoveled except for a moving trench, plus mostly blocked by a PODS unit that had been transported Friday – cannot even contemplate what would have happened if the PODS transfer had been scheduled for after the blizzard) and we obliged them by shuffling vehicles down to the cross street, then shuffling back when the plows were done. Kind of irritating but in the long run nice to know the city services are so diligent.

I set the alarm for ungodly early Monday morning but the magic radio people informed us that the federal government was closed for the day so I didn’t even need to call out. Loving the life of the contractor! Once the morning warmed up a bit we took a family outing to Sears because the sellers took their washer and dryer with them and we need some of our own. Please take a moment to let that sink in: we MOVED. During a BLIZZARD. With snowdrifts up to our KNEES that we trudged through all day. Into a house without a DRYER. The drying rack is still getting a lot of use in the foyer. (The new washer/dryer arrive tomorrow.) Then we split up, I went back to the townhouse one more time to grab our mail (forwarded as of yesterday), pick up the two propane tanks we hadn’t trusted in the back of the U-Haul on any of the three trips back and forth, and shovel at least one of our parking spaces for the new tenant. I also ran some errands in the area that should have been done before the move but inevitably weren’t. Mayflower meanwhile went to her clinic to bum some free internet access (we hope to have home service by January 4) and find out where exactly we were supposed to return the truck, which finally happened Monday evening.

Now all that remains is to empty our PODS unit and have it picked up, and unpack and put everything in its proper place, including our bed which is still garage-bound. We even reintegrated the pets into the household as of Monday (for the dog and normaler cat) and Tuesday (for the neurotic cat). Oh, and it would be nice to get a tree and decorate a bit for Christmas.

So, all in all, the move winded up embodying almost everything I hate about helping other people move – it was chaotic and disorganized and full of last-minute changes of plans and seemed like it would never end. I feel suitably mortified by that, though not as shamed as I feel about just getting on the road at all on Saturday under such foolhardy conditions. But, I remind myself, all’s well that ends well and however much I owe it to truly mad dumb luck, the move did come to an end and everyone did come out of it well.

And we’re never moving again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Should've used tauntauns

Do you know how bad something has to smell to be able to smell it in a raging blizzard?
Despite the entirely Hoth-like conditions, the family managed to complete the big move over the weekend without resorting to exploiting (or cutting open and crawling into) the local fauna of the ice planet. But barely. To be fair, at no point were we attacked by AT-ATs; however, everything else that could have gone difficult and pear-shaped in the course of the weekend pretty much did.

It's an epic saga which I will reveal in bits and pieces as I have the opportunity, but today I do not. My main project at work has reached the boiling point, and I have a brand new commute to contend with in order to get home and pick up the little guy from his new daycare facility, and allegedly there is a tenant moving into the townhouse I still own today, and it is three days until Christmas - much is up. Still, since I hadn't updated hereabouts since Thursday last, I figured I should announce that I am still alive, as are my lovely wife and adorable boy-child.

More ... later.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Screw it, let’s just talk about comics

There has been no movement on the real estate front, and this situation constitutes an example of “no news is fraught with existential anguish” but to be totally honest I’m a little tired of thinking about the whole mess (not to mention the fact that right in the middle of a perfectly-pleasant-for-December Friday and Sunday, we are due for some kind of epic blizzard on moving day Saturday) so instead I will focus my attention on comic books. If adolescent power fantasies aren’t useful for managing a rising urge to kill, then I don’t know why I’ve bothered keeping them around this long. Of course with the packing and planning and fretting and whatnot I haven’t actually had time to read comics, but there’s been some industry news lately that I think is worth riffing on.

DC Comics recently announced that in 2010 they would begin publishing original hardcover graphic novels featuring their flagship superhero properties. One way of reading that would be “The people who own Superman are going to print more Superman books” which absolutely sounds like the slowest news day imaginable. But it’s a little more noteworthy if you get how the comics industry works today, which in case you don’t, I will be happy to expound on.

The main focus of comics publishers is still the monthly issues of their various titles in comic book form. For a while, the best of the best runs of those monthly installments, the runs which added up to one longer story and really rocked the fanbase, might be collected in a trade paperback. Now, pretty much everything gets collected as a paperback at the earliest possible opportunity, and the best-of-the-best will eventually be reprinted again in hardcover, possibly oversized, loaded with special features, etc. But the key point here is that if you happen to be browsing Amazon or roaming the stacks at Borders, and you see a book like Batman: RIP or Superman: New Krypton, those are all reprints of comic books from the newsstands (minus the ads, which is fine because nowadays those are all for video games and movies and anti-drug PSAs as opposed to X-ray Specs and Sea Monkeys).

So the significance of the phrase “original hardcover graphic novels” in the news is that DC is going to jump straight to step three. Writers and artists will produce stories that will be sold in a single hardcover volume without previously appearing in monthly issue format. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Business-wise, it (theoretically) maximizes the audience for the high-end format. Usually there’s going to be a certain set of people who buy the monthly issues of Superman, and another set of people who “wait for the trade”, and both of those sets are people who want to read all of Superman’s adventures but have different agendas as far as how timely those readings need to be (or possibly prefer one format over the other for nostalgic or artform-purist reasons). Occasionally someone will buy the monthly issues so that they can read the stories as they appear and avoid the horror of spoilers, and then also buy the paperback collection because it lasts longer or looks nice on a bookshelf, but no one has to buy both to get the story. And the hardcover collections are therefore a luxury item, and not a necessity even for a completist who has to read every Superman story available. An original hardcover graphic novel changes the dynamic, and basically forces story-completists to shell out for the deluxe format. And even if down the road DC reprints the new volumes in paperback, with a lower price tag, the more skittish anti-spoiler geeks will have to decide if it’s worth risking the lag time.

The other business decision which I assume is informing this initiative is the desire to lure in new readers. Original hardcover graphic novels can be shelved and displayed more prominently at brick-and-mortar bookstores and generate more sales. Plus (assuming everyone immediately grasps what I’ve painstakingly explained above) a casual reader won’t be turned off by the thought that buying a trade paperback requires prior knowledge; even if Superman: New Krypton is a complete story, it’s still a continuation of ideas from Superman: Camelot Falls which is a continuation of Superman: Exile, ad nauseum. Original hardcover graphic novels should be truly self-contained, without the references to continuity that are unavoidable in reprinted monthlies aimed at the hardcore longtime fans. Higher accessibility, in theory, is a good thing.

Of course, maybe the scenarios won’t really translate into reality, geeks will roundly reject this topsy-turvy distribution model, casual potential readers will remain indifferent or put off, and the whole original hardcover graphic novel experiment will bomb. Time will tell.

I hope they don’t bomb, though, which leads into the second reason why it’s interesting (for me): format dictates content. When writers have to crank out 22 pages of new material every month that reads at least tolerably well on its own, it may ultimately produce a story that reads well at 132 pages when collected, but it’s going to have very rigid rhythms. The original graphic novel format lets a writer tell a complete story at the proper pace, and have a long slow scene play out from pages 18 through 26, something you never get in the (collected or single) monthlies. I guarantee that some writers will be so locked into the old way of doing things that they will fail to explore this to the fullest, but at least the potential is there and maybe some real gems will emerge in the new format. I want to read them for that reason alone.

So that’s all interesting, but here’s where it gets weird. They’ve announced the first two (let’s just shorten the label right now) novels and they are entitled Batman: Earth One and Superman: Earth One. This is baffling to me, and possibly baffling to you, but depending on your geek-familiarity maybe baffling for totally different reasons.

Let’s start with the non-geeks in the audience. Does the combination of words “Earth One” mean anything to you? Does it evoke an idea? Are you imagining a NASA program, like “Apollo 13”? Or possibly an alien conflict, and a massive scoreboard: “Earth One, Xylflorg Zero”? Or maybe a political or philosophical movement espousing principles like how we’re all one big family of children of Mother Earth? Do you see how any of those concepts might connect to both Superman and Batman? More to the point, I guess, if you were vaguely interested in Batman and/or Superman, and you saw one of those books on the shelf at Borders, would the words after the colon make you any more likely to buy the book than you would be otherwise? I’d wager that the answer to most of the above questions is a negative-tinged shrug. “Earth One” is so blah and non-descript that it doesn’t even convey as much information as “Batman Begins” or “Superman Returns”.

Right, then, now let’s geek out. (I will try to keep this brief but it may very well tax my summarizing skills to the limit, so bear with me.) Back in the Golden Age of comics (the 1940’s) there were lots of super-heroes running around in addition to Superman and Batman. Guys like the Flash (who ran fast wearing a red jersey and blue pants and a Mercury-style winged helmet) and the Green Lantern (who carved a ring out of a magic meteorite and was basically Aladdin, inclusive of his purple-caped, red-and-green billowy outfit). DC Comics owned them all but as super-heroes’ popularity in general faded the second-tier guys stopped having their adventures published. Then came the Silver Age (the late 1950’s) and a super-hero renaissance and DC dusted off the old second-tier names but decided to re-invent the characters. Audiences got the Flash (now capable of doing everything super-fast and wearing skintight red with yellow lightning trim) and Green Lantern (a human recruited as a space cop and given a super-science ring weapon and a sleek green and black uniform) and many other revamps. Superman was still Superman and Batman was still Batman, with very minor concessions to the changing tastes and trends of the times, and Superman and Batman and Flash and Green Lantern could and did often team up in each other’s comics (and the Justice League of America). Then in 1961 a comic writer had an idea for a fun story: team up the original Flash with the current one.

Right off the bat there are some suspension of disbelief problems with that story premise. How can both of those characters be said to co-exist? Since the new Flash appeared, no one in the comics ever said anything about “that other Flash”, and how could that be reconciled? “Flash of Two Worlds!” answered all of that with two words: parallel Earths. OK, significantly more than two words as the whole story involved the 1959 Flash (Barry Allen) realizing that he could alter the super-speed vibrations of his body and instantly travel to an Earth almost identical to our own – except that this Earth was home to a completely different Flash (Jay Garrick) and no one had heard of Barry. Meanwhile back on Barry’s Earth people had heard of Jay Garrick but he was a fictional character, aka the star of the Flash comics of the 40’s – because the writer of those comics had seen visions of Jay’s Earth in his dreams!!! And the Flash comics starring Jay had been Barry’s inspiration to become the Flash when he acquired super powers!!!!! (Oh, 60’s comics, you slay me.)

What might have been a one-shot story playing around with the sci-fi implications of the many-worlds hypothesis actually ended up being a huge cornerstone of DC Comics for the next 25 years. Now the 50’s revamps didn’t wipe out the old 30’s and 40’s stories as if they never happened, they simply relegated those older tales to other Earths throughout the multiverse. Magic-ring Green Lantern (Alan Scott) lived on the same Earth as Jay Garrick, while science-weapon Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) still lived on the same Earth as Barry Allen. Even better, Jay Garrick’s Earth had its own Batman and Superman, just like Barry Allen’s did. This was a godsend because it explained why Batman and Lois Lane never seemed to age (Superman doesn’t really have this problem): the Batman who was a twenty-nine year old playboy fighting gangsters and Nazis was a completely different person on a completely different Earth from the twenty-nine year old fighting mad scientists and aliens, and the former started his career in the 30’s while the other started more recently (relative to whatever year it happened to be; as time went by some adventures might slide from being attributed to one version to the other).

In an effort to simplify keeping things straight, the powers-that-be at DC Comics (and by their fiat, the characters in the comics) began to refer to the various Earths by number (and sometimes letter): Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-3, Earth-S, Earth-X. If you picked up a Superman or Batman or Flash comic on the newsstand in 1962, it was set in the present and on what was considered the main Earth, Barry Allen’s, and this was Earth-1. Jay Garrick and the heroes who had been around long enough to have World War II adventures lived on Earth-2. (Evil mirror-mirror versions of the heroes lived on Earth-3, I am compelled to note.) I always had a problem with the Earth nomenclature because it doesn’t go in chronological order, by which logic Jay Garrick’s Earth should be Earth-1 because he came first, etc. (And in DC's own reference materials they would refer to Jay as "Flash I" and Barry as "Flash II" so the roman numerals were at odds with the arabic numerals of the Earths, which is hard to grapple with as a ten-year-old.) But that’s just my hang-up.

By the mid-1980’s there had been so many multiple-Earth stories told that the whole idea seemed insupportable, and the non-aging of characters was again becoming hard to swallow (if Earth-1 Batman just became Batman five years ago, fine, but does that mean Earth-2 Batman really fought crime non-stop from 1939 to 1981, or do we need to create Earth 1.5?) so DC blew the whole thing up and said all the old stories had no bearing going forward and all the characters were starting over. (Sort of. With exceptions. It was a well-intentioned mess they are still sorting out another 25 years later.) Designations like “Earth-1” became meaningless – in the new order there was one and only one Earth. Jay Garrick and Alan Scott had fought in WWII as Flash and Green Lantern and inspired their successors Barry and Hal, and were still around as semi-retired old men, but Superman and Batman had no 40’s adventures, as the singular Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne were young, modern figures. (I am of course as usual colossally over-simplifying, as the rewriting of comic book history as a single cohesive narrative has occupied forests of mini-series and special issues and can keep nerds at comic conventions up all night debating.) Just when you might think the dust of such revisionism had settled, however, along came a generation of comics creators this decade who had been kids right around the time that the wonderful playground of multiple Earths went away, and who never got over the loss, and who of course set about bringing it all back. (Sort of. With major changes.) The DC Comics universe is currently on the cusp of once again making a familiarity with the subtle differences between Earth-6 and Earth-K a requirement for understanding certain stories. And apparently that’s just giving the fans what they want, because as I’ve said many times before geeks eat up those elaborately detailed systems that make them feel knowledgeable and special. So, whatevs.

Once more from the top, then: Batman: Earth One? The hell? The very idea of “Earth One” is meaningless without an “Earth Two” to differentiate from. And yet the very idea of “Earth Two” is something DC Comics did away with in the mid-80’s but is toying with again now and which is a hyper-geeky, insular idea that could not be more forbidding to new, casual readers. The closest I have come to decoding the message is this: “Earth One” is supposed to mean “out of continuity, set in the present, using the best elements of the character’s mythos from throughout the publication history”. Which is significant only if you are a geeky longtime fan, although if you are, you’ve seen this before (the All-Star line, the Ultimate line, and any movie version of a character ever, including the DC-controlled direct-to-DVD animated versions). If you’re a non-geek casual fan, it’s not supposed to mean anything. But since it can therefore only serve to confuse uninitiated potential readers, and is really unnecessary for the keepers of the secret mysteries, it’s still kind of baffling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Devils in the Details

I didn’t think I was going to blog at all today, due to the closing on the new house scheduled for the afternoon and the ultra-rare free morning to spend with my wife while our son was in daycare. Yet somehow, instead of sitting on the couch having a second cup of coffee and planning out the next few hours with the love of my life, I am at work, so why the hell not update for today.

Lo, I am beset by imps.
I say “yet somehow” but it’s not that inexplicable. Our mortgage is through a large bank and their underwriting department has about as much responsiveness to the individual circumstances of real live human beings as you would expect from a looming, faceless monolith. Yesterday, barely twenty-four hours before the scheduled closing, the underwriters saw fit to inform our broker that there were a couple of title details that needed to be changed, oh and by the way they needed a copy of the relocation agreement the sellers have. Why did this come up only at the last possible freaking second? How much longer will it take to finish the underwriting process and have everything in place for closing? These are koans I choose not to meditate upon. The fact is that somewhere between our realtor and our broker (who are really cool and kind and helpful) and the finish line for this process of borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars, we’ve run aground on indifferent machinery that will sort things out at its own damn pace, with no regard for the special arrangements we had made with work and daycare and whatnot because we thought (with a month’s notice and planning) we’d actually be signing final paperwork today.

So this leaves me feeling rather cranky, evident by my reckless mixing of nautical and heavy-industrial metaphors, but so far I’m fighting off brutal despair. Maybe we’ll benefit from some miraculously speedy corrections and still get to close today, or maybe it will have to wait until Friday (which would be the next time work schedules could possibly align) but it’s not as if the whole deal is in jeopardy of falling apart. It has simply become less than ideally smooth, and left me unexpectedly be-cubicled and frantically checking Gmail every two minutes for the latest mortgage update.

More (hopefully of the “all is well” variety) later.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“If y’all wanna party like WE do …”

I have a good friend from college who hosts a Christmas Cookie Exchange most years, and for a long time that’s been the only engagement on my holiday social calendar. I am obviously differentiating here between family get-togethers and holiday parties, and I think with good reason. Visiting with the family implies spending fairly significant chunks of time at a house hours away from my own, generally including (at least one) big sit-down meal and an overnight stay. I tend to dress for comfort for the road trip, maybe throw on a sweater for Christmas dinner, and fully expect most people to end up in sweats and pajamas. The default position is seated, at the dining room table or on the couches and recliners by the tree. A party, on the other hand, is a dress-up occasion of limited duration with a much broader guest list and attendees standing around with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. For the record, I do tend to enjoy both of these species of holiday celebration (or at least experience very minimal dread and loathing toward them) but they clearly occupy different realms.

However, in the murky hinterlands between the two, one can sometimes spot the cross-contaminated hybrid: the work holiday party. We are still a good ten days out from Christmas but I have already run the gauntlet of this year’s work holiday parties and would like to compare and contrast mine with my wife Kringlina’s for illustrative (and entertainment) purposes.

Not actual party footage, but you get the idea.
Kringlina’s work holiday party was this past weekend. Just as a quick background refresher, Kringlina is a veterinarian and she works in a practice with a few other vets and a dozen or so support staff. The practice is linked under one name with other locations that have their own doctors and support staffs. So the work holiday party was for all the locations, and not every employee came but everyone who did come brought a guest, so it was probably close to a hundred and fifty people in attendance. The party was held at a country club in a ballroom that probably could have seated 300, which turned out to be the perfect size for dinner tables on one side, a dance floor in the middle, and casino gaming tables on the other side. Cash bar, passed hors d’oeuvres, buffet dinner (pretty good except for some regrettable spinach polenta), buffet dessert (really, ridiculously good, unless that was just the post-cash-bar-munchies kicking in, but bite-sized Rice Krispie Treats plus fondue chocolate? COME ON.) The decorations were festive and reasonably non-tacky (the main motif seemed to be red sparkly cones that were probably meant to evoke Christmas trees but looked like gnome hats, but whatever) and the door prizes were cocoa-and-booze combo sets (Frangelico and peppermint schnapps in the latter role) and all in all a good time seemed to be had by all. It was like a successful wedding reception that happened to be held around the holidays and also incorporated craps, roulette and blackjack (which, by the way, all wedding receptions SHOULD emulate – this seriously needs to catch on, people).

As an outsider who has access via one degree of separation to the vet biz, I really do find it fascinating. I think most veterinarians are pretty down to earth people despite being ridiculously smart and driven. People-doctors share those last two attributes by and large as well, but I’ve known too many doctors who develop massive chips on their shoulders and adversarial attitudes toward their patients. And to be fair, when the patients are walking talking caricatures of welfare queens with disproportionate entitlement issues, or delusional New Agers who would rather be home singing over crystals but have submitted to an exam at the insistence of a loved one, or victims of abuse who won’t leave the abuser or victims of addiction who won’t get help to kick the habit, OK, fine, I understand how one’s view of humanity would dim and possibly, by extension, how one’s self-regard would swell because others’ inferiority feeds one’s innate superiority. That is all hella-depressing, though. Vets, on the other hand, certainly get annoying, entitled, ignorant, hurtful pet owners as clients but at the end of the day the patient is an innocent animal and I think that makes for an entirely different experience of what it means to do the job. To diagnose and treat a patient that does not speak or understand English and is highly likely to expel bodily waste at you out of sheer terror is humbling, and not only does this make me respect vets a lot, it also (I believe) makes them nicer people, either by weeding out the not-so-nice ones in vet school or just forcing some perspective and enlightenment into the heads of the profession’s practitioners.

And lest you think I’m just being gratuitously puerile in mentioning the bodily functions of cats and dogs, it is actually relevant: veterinary medicine is a pretty low-glam gig. Most of the vets I’ve met through my wife are women and they’ve all figured out various ways to attire themselves such that they look professional and trustworthy and yet avoid anything that could be easily ruined by an agitated Cocker Spaniel, as well as anything that would make it difficult to chase a feisty stray Siamese kitten or wrestle a skeptical Great Dane. No high heels, no skirts, no frills. And their technicians and assistants usually just wear scrubs and have done with it. All of which is utterly understandable and appropriate but when you then get a bunch of vet clinic employees together at a wedding or going-away shindig or holiday party or whathaveyou, I swear you can actually feel the thrill in the air that the women exude thanks to being able to express themselves in more girly sartorial choices. That was certainly the case at Kringlina’s party.

(Incidentally, as a last note on the whole yes-this-job-involves-live-scared-animals aspect, at the holiday party they gave out individual awards for each practice, one of which was called the Pet Whisperer, for the employee who had the best way with animals, which actually means something in a business where dealing positively with animals is the whole point. Kringlina won that award, which did not surprise me at all and filled me with pride and left me impressed with her co-workers’ ability to recognize what an asset she is. So, booyah.)

Another thing that always strikes me as borderline through-the-looking-glass is the median employee age at a vet clinic. Where I work, in government contracting, I am consistently one of the youngest people in the office, surrounded by supervisors and federal lifers and so forth all old enough to be my parents. Whereas a vet clinic sometimes seems like Logan’s Run, with a slightly more generous Lastday age of let’s say 40. And the techs, assistants, and receptionists are younger still, and it’s not that unusual for there to be teenagers (18 or 19) on staff. It makes for a different workplace vibe, and also makes for a potentially rowdier holiday party. That was one of the things I really enjoyed about Kringlina’s party, the fact that there seemed to be a little something for everyone: a DJ playing Gwen Stefani for the young’uns to go B-A-N-A-N-A-S to, and Texas Hold’Em dealers for the graying husbands to bitch at for dealing crap hands. Good times.

Kringlina’s been working at her current practice for a little over a year, and we skipped the holiday work party last year because our little bundle of joy was a mere ten-week-old at the time, so this year was our first exposure to the event. We are already looking forward to next year’s.

So, that’s all well and good, and my work holiday party was yesterday. The side-by-side comparison I am about to embark on is, admittedly, completely unfair, because I am all-at-once comparing (a) a party thrown by a multi-location company with a party thrown by a small office (b) a daytime weekday no-spouses party with a Saturday night spouses-welcome party (c) veterinarians to government employees. Of course this is no contest and my party is going to come out looking lame compared to Kringlina’s, because it would in fact look lame in isolation on its own merits. And it’s not like I’m all het up over this or feel somehow wronged; Christmas is not, in fact, ruined. I just think it’s funny, and a little pitiful, and if that is underscored by the fabulosity my wife and I had enjoyed a couple nights before, ah well.

My party was in a room at the top of the office building, with big windows overlooking the Potomac river and Georgetown, which is a sweet view (I may have to sneak up there if we get another heavy snow). The room was decorated in the most secular, non-specific manner possible with a snow theme as follows: white table cloths, dollar store snowmen centerpieces, Styrofoam snowflakes taped to the windows, and curls of silver ribbon taped to the walls. Lest you think the silver ribbon is a cool, creative way of evoking the theme, let me clarify that a single strand of curled ribbon was taped up every five feet or so, like headless balloons, very minimalist. After all that effort was put into selecting the least-denominational decorations possible, they went ahead and set up a small radio in the corner and tuned it to local WASH FM, which plays nothing but Christmas music all December long. The food was a spread from a local Chinese place (which gets no complaints from me; it may be impossible to screw up beef and broccoli but I still enjoy the hell out of it) and an assortment of desserts brought in by co-workers (and this definitely was not cash-bar-influenced munchies, but they were good, too). In addition to the radio, the entertainment such as it was consisted of a bingo game for door prizes (cocoa again, but no booze of course) and a yankee swap which I opted out of, wisely so if I do say so myself.

So yeah, just kind of boring and flat. The most interesting thing about the party, to me, was that in its own way it played out a version of the “different circumstances, different fashions” phenomenon. The party was from 11:30 to 3:00, right in the middle of the workday, so of course everyone there was dressed for work, and this particular government office is a suit-and-tie kind of place (although I generally skip the jacket). I own several Christmas ties, but I didn’t wear one yesterday for three reasons:

- I am running low on dress shirts, haven’t had time to pick up dry cleaning what with the big move sucking up all my time, and I couldn’t put together an outfit where any of the ties would make sense
- I had just worn the best one to Kringlina’s party
- I wasn’t sure if goofy Christmas ties were the rule of the day for the work holiday party or not, since this was my first WHP at this office

As it turned out, the last concern shouldn’t have been, as most of the men in the office did in fact wear Christmas ties. Which is kind of fun, but kind of not really. Maybe some of my co-workers look forward to this time of year for eleven months, when they can set aside their paisley or matched monochromes and bust out the Santa-doing-cartwheels, but at the end of the day (or, more accurately, the wee hours early in the morning) we’re still knotting a silk noose around our collars and heading in to the Big Gray office building. The party was such a perfunctory lo-fi affair that the men in Christmas ties just seemed like putting sprinkles on institutional mashed potatoes. Fun, different from the every day, but … odd. Don’t get me wrong, next year if I’m still working out of this office I will plan ahead better and wear one of my own Christmas ties on the day of the party, because if that’s the way it’s done that’s the way I’ll do it; I am all about fitting in and following the crowd at work.

I know I’ve gone on way too long already about work holiday parties but I can’t abandon the topic without at least mentioning the Christmas episode of The Office which aired last week. I love The Office and I love it when it goes to really dark and awkward and uncomfortable places, such as Michael Scott pretending to be Jesus and heckling Phyllis as Santa, but the stand-out moment of the viewing experience came near the end when the resolution of the Pam-fixing-up-Oscar-with-Warehouse-Matt subplot involved Oscar being brusque and dismissive with Matt in saying goodbye, then looking at Pam and saying “I know what I’m doing.” Because as I was processing that particular exchange Kringlina turned to me and said “That was a neg, right?”

It's called peacocking.
I can’t really come up with a better explanation. While I don’t have a shred of respect for Mystery, I am glad that I live in a world luxuriously goofy enough to include him and his brain-dead Pickup Artist VH1 show, and I love the fact that my wife remembers that show and its absurd secret code-language well enough to remind me of it almost out of nowhere. At the risk of sounding redundant, I am so proud of her.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Hot Seat

One would hope that the principle of “you win some, you lose some” would make things fairly equitable around my house with regards to the fortunes of NFL franchises embraced by the various family members. But alas, while last week was my turn to exult and my wife Nanshe’s turn to gnash teeth, rather than this week sending me down and her up it deal both of us buckets of fandom-lemons too rotten to even make lemonade, as the Steelers fell to the Browns without managing to scare up a single TD, while the Giants found the endzone plenty of times last night but still lost the shoot-out against the Eagles. (And, to mix my fruit-aphors even more, I know this is going to sound like sour grapes, but LeSean Jackson? With all his high-steppin’ backwards into the end zone and such-like? I kind of want to punch him in the face.)

The latest Steel City debacle was ameliorated somewhat for my wife, however, due to the fact that she absolutely cleaned everyone’s clock in the football pick ‘em pool. She called all of Sunday’s games correctly except for one, and whether the Cards win or lose tonight (and Nanshe says they’ll win, so if you still haven’t spoken to your bookie, I’m just sayin’ …) no one else in the pool can catch her, so she’s already been declared the weekly winner. For those keeping detailed score that means she leads me on weeks at the top of the football pool, two to zero.

In any case, as far as the implications of records within the sport itself, the G-Men’s post-season hopes are dimming rapidly but they are showing some serious defensive weakness as the season rolls along, so it’s not like they are dropping heartbreaker games and squandering a real chance at a championship run. Even if the Giants somehow managed to steal the wildcard, if they win out from now on and Dallas shoots themselves in the foot (as usual), I’m reasonably certain New York wouldn’t make it past the first round. So I’m still pulling for them but motivated much more by loyalty than expectations.

I’m more concerned about the Steelers, honestly, and not just because they have the capacity to break Nanshe’s heart (although that’s certainly a factor). When a team loses five in a row, and there’s no obvious scapegoat to be found amongst the players, it’s inevitable that the coach would start to come under scrutiny. Which would really bum me out in the case of the Steelers, because I like Mike Tomlin. He seems like a solid guy, and he’s just about my age and not incidentally went to me and my wife’s alma mater, so he feels practically like family. He coached the team to the Superbowl and won it last year, so I sincerely hope that earns him some leeway, up to and including taking the second half of the 2009 season as a mulligan.

Not to be confused with my office chair after lunch at the taco cart ... you know, I've said too much.
For what it’s worth, I haven’t heard anything in the sports commentary scuttlebutt about Tomlin being on the hot seat per se, but it’s just something that bugs me as a possibility. And it’s strange because I normally don’t feel so protective of NFL coaches, not even for my beloved Giants. I still remember the glory days of Bill Parcells in New York in the 80’s, and he obviously got to leave on his own terms, but other than that I’ve never been particularly concerned about the coach one way or the other, because it’s the team and the players on the field that I root for. Except, apparently, Tomlin in Pittsburgh. Here’s hoping I can keep rooting for him for a while longer.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The horns of the dilemma

My little boy Runymede is a bit under the weather today. His temperature this morning was over 100, which is too high for him to go to daycare. I went into work early and left early, while his mom stayed home until I could relieve her and she could work a late shift at the clinic. She also made a pediatrician appointment for Runymede at 3:30 p.m., and I brought the little guy in. The PA's diagnosis was ... something viral. Which was actually good news by omission: it was not an ear infection, not H1N1, not strep throat, not anything terribly scary. Oh, also he has eighteen-month molars coming in which is probably making him extra-strength cranky. But again, we'll take those run-of-the-mill tribulations any time.

Once we were done at the pediatrician's I took Runymede to the book store just to wander around a bit, since the poor kid had been cooped up at home most of the day. He had fun pointing out all the cars and trucks on the covers of various books and I had fun just following his stumbly random path around the store. At one point I picked up a Dungeons & Dragons box from the shelf, and a second later Runymede was lifting his arms for me to pick him up. So I picked him up and showed him the box.

At some point I'm going to have to start worrying about my geeky hobbies and their inherent weirdness and various grotesqueries as potential nightmare fuel. I mean, I love horror movie posters and dragon t-shirts and all, but I don't want to traumatize my child via negligent exposure. (Not that this is necessarily 100% avoidable. I still vividly remember having nightmares as a tot about gorillas, and I don't think my parents should have been shielding me from zoos.) In any case, Runymede is still pretty fearless. The D&D box had a monster figure in it, a big beastly heavily-armed minotaur which was specifically designed to look menacing. I watched Runymede carefully to see if he would have any kind of upset reaction to it. He pointed at it and said "Moo."

That's my boy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Popcorn Plebeianism

Beyond the obvious fundamentals like my family and friends, what I love most in life are stories. Telling them, hearing them, seeing them, reading them, playing games around them. That’s the semi-obvious foundation underlying the prominent place that books and comics and movies occupy in my mental landscape. I’ve already done my reaction piece to the A.V. Club’s top books of the decade, so now it’s time to turn my attention to the movie theater (and DVD player).

Of course, that’s not something I do with great regularity. I read constantly, about a book a week, but I can go months without seeing a movie. If I were independently wealthy and my life were an endless expanse of leisure time, I have no doubt I would watch more movies, but they don’t fit very well into current configurations. Even if I had a tiny portable DVD player I wouldn’t replace books on the bus or Metro with films, because I like to watch movies straight through, not in chunks.

So, my hit-miss ratio is a bit lower for the movies. Here’s where my intake overlaps with the A.V. Club’s, combining both their consensus Top 50 list and their side-inventories of personal favorites.

Movies I’ve seen:
The Dark Knight
The Prestige
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The Incredibles
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
The Royal Tenenbaums
Almost Famous
Grizzly Man
Kill Bill Vol. 1
25th Hour
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
American Splendor
Minority Report
Shaun of the Dead
The 40 Year Old Virgin
State and Main

FWIW, the consensus choices are at the top of the list and run through Eternal Sunshine, and American Splendor down through the rest are the personal faves. I caught 12 of the Top 50, and 7 of the 25 supplemental flicks. With a single exception, I think all of those movies belong in the hit parade and I would recommend them unreservedly. (The outlier is State and Main, which I didn’t think was terrible but didn’t think was anything great either.) I mentioned the other day how I dropped in on the middle of Kill Bill on cable and got sucked in, and there are several of those kind of movies on the list, not just that in theory I would watch random scenes from the middle on tv but which I have repeatedly proven that to be the case: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Incredibles, Shaun of the Dead, Idiocracy, and 40 Year Old Virgin will all make me set down the remote for at least a little while.

There’s an additional 16 movies I would like to see, most of which are actually in my (ridiculously long and slow-moving) Netflix queue.

Movies I want to see:
A History of Violence
Pan’s Labyrinth
Punch-Drunk Love
The Squid and the Whale
Mulholland Dr.
Children of Men
Spirited Away
In The Loop
Big Fan
The Fog of War

So, all told, 35 movies I made the time for or think will be worth the time. That leaves over half the list which I haven’t seen and don’t care if I ever see, despite the fact that they are being hailed at a site I know and love as great movies. I’ll list out those movies in parentheses below for completeness sake, and then after that I’ll talk about the obvious contrasts between my interest in the movies above and my indifference in those below.

This space intentionally left blank.
(Meh Movies: Gerry; Crimson Gold; Moulin Rouge; 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days; Brokeback Mountain; L’Enfant; City of God; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring; Waking Life; American Psycho; A.I.; In the Mood For Love; Morvern Callar; What Time Is It There?; Together; Yi Yi; The Man Who Wasn’t There; United 93; Y Tu Mamá También; Talk To Her; Before Sunset; Time Out; The New World; Capturing The Friedmans; No Country For Old Men; There Will Be Blood; The Aviator; A Prairie Home Companion; You Can Count On Me; Under the Sand; Rachel Getting Married; Owning Mahoney; Slasher; Gosford Park; The Fall; Amelie; About Schmidt; Dogville; Friday Night)

If anything about me screams geek (and it’s not just anything, it’s pretty much everything, so this is just the most recent example) it’s the way I’ve split these movies in half. The movies I couldn’t give a crap less about are foreign films and indie films, small-scale personal stories, basically the serious movies for grown-ups. Whereas the movies I’ve seen or want to see are by and large genre flicks: fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, crime, horror, martial arts, and comedies, or combinations thereof. Geeks are the denizens of the genre ghetto, and I am doing very little to dispel this stereotype.

(Of course there are exceptions. Grizzly Man is a documentary but it’s truly bizarre. And I’m cheating a bit by putting comedy in the same class of genre as sci-fi or martial arts, and I’ll elaborate on that a bit more but note that 40 Year Old Virgin is a comedy about a total geek, Sideways is a comedy about a wine geek, The Royal Tenenbaums is a comedy about a family of geeks … stop me once you spot the pattern. Conversely there is some genre stuff I’m not interested in at all. A.I. has gotten too many mixed reviews, and No Country For Old Men still has a lot of overpraise backlash going on in my mind. American Psycho is on my don’t-watch list mainly because I’d rather read the book. Still, big picture, my premise holds.)

Incidentally, most of the movies that I’ve seen this decade (especially in the theater) which didn’t make the A.V. Club lists would be right at home genre-wise with those that did. Off the top of my head that includes: all the Spider-Man and X-Men movies; Watchmen; Harry Potter; Star Wars; the Bourne Identity; The Hangover. And genre often equates with spectacle, which means I’m more likely to shell out for the big screen experience if it’s a genre movie with car chases and explosions and such, but when I Netflix movies it’s not like I’m watching quiet, human dramas which just didn’t make the Top 50 cut. I’m watching the genre stuff I missed in their theatrical runs, like Hellboy and Casino Royale. Or King of Kong, which is a documentary … about video games.

It’s especially curious to me to see this disparity of subject matter because, while I started this post mentioning books and movies in the same breath, the genre segregation doesn’t really apply in my reading choices. I will read pretty much anything across all styles and subject matter. I read my fair share of genre trash, but I devour realistic modern lit and canonical classics and non-fiction just as often.

I guess the telling difference is that I read to keep myself entertained, but I also read to learn, and to exercise my brain and stave off senile dementia and whatnot. But I watch movies to be entertained and that’s about it (hence the open-door policy towards mainstream comedies). In a sense that raises the bar, but it appears to have the opposite effect, lowering my intake to the least reputable and least impressive and least deserving of the appellation of “art”. I read smart books (sometimes) and watch stupid movies (almost all the time).

So I guess I’ll never be a true cinephile, but I think I’m OK with that. I think the division of labor, with books responsible for my self-improvement and movies responsible for pure escapism, has been working well enough so far. Maybe when I hit the lottery and have more time to devote to my aesthetic pursuits the balance will shift. Except that when I use the winnings to build an obscenely pimped out home theater, I already know which kind of movies will look and sound the best in there.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Movies on TV

Over the past few days I’ve had a couple of occasions to experience movies being broadcast on commercial cable channels. With interesting mental results.

I used to watch movies on television all the time. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how my young impressionable mind was irretrievably warped by easy access to HBO, but that’s still only a part of the picture. My family used to literally gather around the television for the yearly broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, big bowl of air-popped popcorn and everything, which sounds so hokey and Norman Rockwell now it defies belief, but I swear that’s not one of my faulty manufactured memories. That ritual stands out strongly in my mind, but I’m sure there were other occasions that all required us to take note of what time the movie would be starting on tv, and on what channel, and clear the schedule for much longer than the actual running time of the movie, so that we could sit through commercials with no way to fast-forward (no remote controls at all come to think of it – oh, the barbarism). None of those things seemed like inconveniences at the time because we couldn’t conceive of receiving entertainment any other way. Now that we have DVD players and on-demand cable services, those factors aren’t so much minor irritants as insurmountable barriers to entry. Who would watch a movie on tv anymore? (A Hollywood movie, that is. Clearly the very existence of cable channels along the Lifetime and Hallmark lines means that made-for-tv movies are with us for the long haul and will always seem correct in a scheduled, commercial-perforated context.)

Still, I was home on Saturday afternoon (baby playing happily, wife still at work) flipping around on cable and saw that the movie Elf was about to start in one minute on USA or TNT or one of those middle-tier networks. I had never seen Elf, but I like Will Ferrell and I’m a sucker for movies about the true meaning of Christmas and it wasn’t like I had already missed the beginning and the next thing I knew I was sucked in. I halfway expected it to be a failed experiment and that I would lose interest or for one reason or another fail to watch it all the way through, but I was pleasantly surprised that I made it to the end. I had to leave the room a couple of times and I’m sure some scenes were cut in the tv-editing and all in all it wasn’t as immersive an experience as popping in a DVD would have been, but it’s a Christmas fable about Will Ferrell as a man-child elf and I think I got the gist. I laughed at the good gags and I got misty at the happy ending (see above, re: being a sucker) and I think I can now honestly answer “yes” if anyone asks me if I’ve ever seen Elf. I don’t think this revelation is going to change my life, because the serendipitous combo of free time and a movie about to start on cable is going to remain rare at best. But still: keen.

Seeing a movie from the beginning is important to me only if I’ve never seen the movie in question before; I can drop in on the middle of a movie I’ve already experienced pretty easily. I was once again flipping around during Monday Night Football, which meant I had something to return to, when I hit Kill Bill Volume 1 on Spike. Specifically the part where The Bride is doing the voiceover intro of O-Ren Ishii, Gogo Yubari and the Crazy 88’s. I last-buttoned back and forth between the Packers-Ravens and Kill Bill for a while, but every time I went to the movie I seemed to stay with it longer and longer.

Man, even in stills you can tell QT has a thing for Uma's feet.
There’s a crazy ton of stuff happening in the movie at that point as Tarantino is arranging all the pieces on the board for what has got to be one of the greatest swordfight setpieces in the history of cinema. I remember seeing Kill Bill in the theater and just finding the story ridiculously propulsive, which is partly due to the inherent appeal of revenge stories and how they work, and partly due to the specific narrative Tarantino brings to the table. So the movie-going experience was dominated by thoughts of “what’s going to happen NEXT?” and there wasn’t room for much else.

The fascinating thing (to me) about accidentally dropping in on a movie on cable is that you are decidedly not swept up in the plot. You don’t have the immediacy of whatever momentum-building was conveyed earlier in the movie, and if you’re lingering because you’ve seen the movie before, you already know how it’s going to end so the questions of resolution have zero urgency. Flipping to Kill Bill without the intense investment in the story itself let me see everything that I was oblivious to the first time around: the way the shots are framed, the way the intercutting of scenes are structured, the way Tarantino uses different focus depths and foreground/background elements to break up one continuous tracking shot through the House of Blue Leaves into sub-scenes, the music, everything. I would say that all of those elements are really show-off-y but that can’t possibly be right since the first time I saw the movie on a giant freaking screen I didn’t consciously notice them. They are pretty delirious when you focus on them, though. Now I really feel like I need to sit down and watch both volumes of Kill Bill again and appreciate the artistry that my brain didn’t have the parallel processing power for during the initial consumption.

Of course for every “ooh, pretty” technique I noticed and gave Tarantino credit for, there was a stumbling decision made by whoever edited the movie down for basic cable that gave me something to chuckle over. Sometimes it’s actually a little bit impressive in and of itself, how computer editing now allows for a four-letter word to simply be skipped over gracefully, at least when the only sound is a character’s voice and the only visual is a close-up of Lucy Liu’s face. But other times it’s just sad, like the fact that they basically eliminated all the footage of Sofie Fatale’s severed arm hosing down the room with arterial spray. There’s a certain deranged genius to the way that bit plays out in the uncut movie, and when it’s excised there’s a measurable detraction from the impact of the Bride making her bad-ass presence known. But even that kind of negative space can make for interesting food for thought on notions of censorship and acceptable levels of fantasy violence and so on.

So, huzzah for movies on tv! They may not be the ideal combination of mediums for the utmost cinematic experiences, but I for one am glad they co-exist.