Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Quick End-of-Year Grab Bag Style Thought

(Because let’s face it, the odds of me posting a proper grab bag on New Year’s Day are vanishingly small.)

People keep asking if I have any plans for New Year’s Eve, and while I can understand that kind of small-talk conversational gambit coming from a stranger or a co-worker who doesn’t know me very well, it strikes me as a bit odd coming from anyone who knows anything whatsoever about my happy home life. I have a child aged two and a pregnant wife. Two years old is a little too young, in my opinion, for a child to attend even a family-friendly houseparty where the parents mingle upstairs while kids hang out in the basement with a designated overseer (ok, that came out sounding way creepier than I meant it). I like the concept, really, but I think it works best when the children in question are at least five or so. Having ruled out that scenario, then, and taking as a given that having hosted Christmas there’s no way we’d be remotely interested in or even able to host our own New Year’s Eve party, it follows that the only way my wife and I could do anything would be to get a babysitter. And I haven’t been a parent that long but is it even possible to get a babysitter on New Year’s Eve for less than a luxury car payment or so? And on top of all those somethings being logistically precluded, I mention yet again that my wife is nearly six months pregnant, a state of being which generally overflows with grace but with regards to parties can be boiled down as follows:

1. Can’t drink.
2. Needs a lot of sleep.

So. We will be staying in tomorrow evening, possibly treating ourselves to one last really horrifyingly unhealthy take-out meal before seriously rezoning our bodies as temples nourished by whole grains and leafy green vegetables as of January 1, and the lion’s share of the excitement will come from deciding if we should watch Dick Clark in the den on the couch or just go ahead and fire up the bedroom tv so that if anyone falls asleep before midnight we’re already tucked in.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Merry Little Geexmas

If you were told that a married couple exchanged gifts on Christmas morning, and one of them received the DVD box set of the first fifteen “30 For 30” ESPN documentaries, and the other received a doll based on a character from the 1940’s, I suppose you could be forgiven for assuming the DVDs were for the husband and the doll was for the wife. But of course in my family it was the other way around.

Also in my family the word “doll” gets used (mainly by me when I’m feeling especially self-deprecating) as a stand-in for “action figure” because it is funnier that way. So, indeed, one of my cool presents from my wife was a Green Lantern action figure, specifically the only-tangentially-via-name-related-to-modern-space-cop version from the WWII era funnies. That niche had been sadly unfilled in my Green Lantern shrine down in ye olde Dork Dungeon but shall go wanting no longer. My wife also got me a set of Green Lantern cufflinks, not cufflinks in the shape of the Green Lantern symbol but rather rectangular panels with reproductions of vintage GL (the modern space-cop this time) cover art. My Little Bro got me a custom-made clock for the Dork Dungeon with a glass face in the shape of the perennial roleplaying necessity, a 20-sided die. My brother-in-law got me the hardcover of Wednesday Comics, my wife’s parents got me (among other things) an interview with Joseph Campbell on DVD, which might not sound as uber-dorky as all the other stuff but from my point of view it’s totally in the same vein, meaning the same part of my brain that never gets tired of superhero stories also finds documentaries about monomyths fascinating.

Of course there were other gifts which were more practical or sentimental, and overall not an eye-roller in the whole pile of loot (which I swear I would say even if half the people who shower me and my family with kindness at the holidays didn’t read the blog) but by and large I’m just left with the pleasant feeling that I must really have most of the life necessities well in hand at this point when Christmas morning comes down to a cavalcade of fripperies (which I mean in the most gracious possible way).

Also, there’s usually one more abstract gift which every Christmas brings, namely the feeling that I have permission once again to go out and buy myself fripperies without worrying that I’m bogarting someone else’s gift-giving opportunity. You might recall that I generally impose a moratorium on self-indulgence between my birthday at the beginning of October and Christmas, and obviously the end of Christmastime heralds the end of the embargo. This year the line of demarcation was especially pronounced because my wife and I hosted her family while telling mine that sorry, we wouldn’t be travelling this year. So everyone’s presents arrived via mail or hand-delivery as of the 25th and the exchange of gifts wasn’t delayed and drawn out until the Epiphany like it has been for almost every other Christmas I can remember. (Of course this also meant that the sheer volume of gifts was so concentrated into 24 hours, not even so much for me as for the still-the-only-grandchild little guy, that he was more or less shellshocked by the end of Christmas Day.)

This year, though, it looks like the moratorium may last even longer than usual, albeit for different reasons. A couple-gift which my wife and I received was a gift card to help defray the cost of some home exercise equipment, which has gone from want to need in light of us never having the time to leave the house anymore (something which a new baby will only exacerbate), and as appreciated as that is the remainder of the equipment’s cost is going to come out of pocket. As did some emergency car repair this morning, which was necessitated by the fact that my car battery died last night while I was waiting in line at the gas station. And our house is due for some serious (i.e. professional) pest management attention as well. And hey, remember that baby I snuck into the parentheses up above? She’s totally going to need a nursery’s worth of stuff, which you would think we’d already have covered except the little guy is still using the crib (which is one of those banned dropside dealies we wouldn’t want to put a newborn in anyway) as well as the changing table, and the glider bit the dust a while back and was replaced in the little guy’s room with a child-sized easy chair but a new rocker of some sort for the baby is definitely in order …

Point being, I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with me spending my own extra money on whatever amuses me, even if what amuses me is vintage toys or box sets of Saturday morning cartoons or whatever. But for the next few months there just isn’t going to be any extra money to speak of. Fortunately, like I said, most of the necessities are well in hand.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Winner, winner

Here’s a bit of amusement that happened last week but I never got around to sharing with the onrush of the holiday break. I already filled you guys in on my adventures last week in procuring brownies on the way from home to the VRE station in the dark of morning and managing to leap dramatically onto the train just as it was about to leave the platform. (Would have been cooler still if I had actually jumped onto a moving train, but man, they never let you have any fun in this overly litigious nanny-state of ours these days.) To a large extent I glossed over the mindgames which ensued inside my head on the train ride that morning, because it would have been SO like me to go through all that two-fisted baked-goods-nabbing pre-dawn adventure and then forget the brownies on the train when I got to Crystal City, or even worse on the Metro when I got to Rosslyn (worse simply because I hate Metro so very, very much. And they already have an umbrella of mine.) In any event, the requisite self-psyching to remember the damn brownies worked, and I brought them to the office party, and all was well.

I ended up leaving the office party early (although not until after I had one of the brownies because, man, isn’t that the worst when you sign up to bring exactly what you like and then you don’t even get any at the party?) because it ran long and I hadn’t brought a gift for the Yankee Swap; I find Yankee Swaps moderately amusing and worthwhile when conducted amongst friends but pointlessly and painfully awkward amongst loosely acquainted co-workers. What I hadn’t realized when I left the party was that after the Yankee Swap there would be a drawing for door prizes. Nor was I aware that I had been entered in the drawing, although apparently that is exactly what signing up to bring brownies and also paying my share (fifteen bucks) of the party costs got me. If I had been aware of all that, I might have thought that it was one of those “must be present to win” type of deals and that still wouldn’t have changed anything and I still would have bailed. But despite all of the above, my name was drawn, which I found out when one of my closet-mates called my desk extension to make sure I hadn’t left for the day and inform me that he would be bringing the gift basket down shortly. I expressed my disbelief that I had won and he assured me that it was not only the case but also that the gift basket was very nice: “It’s got a bunch of beer in it!”

And my first thought in response to that was “Ohhhh, my wife’s gonna kill me.”

Not without good reason, of course. A combination of recent factors have manifested in what would have once been The Unthinkable: too much beer. The factors in question are diminishing opportunities to kick back and tie one on, which in turn means that my tolerance has gone back to about where it was when I was seventeen or so, which means I’m less inclined to crack open a few cold ones because it will mean a day’s worth of uselessness instead of (not even in addition to!) a couple hours of pleasant mellowness, which in turn means further diminished opportunities and so on, AND yet on the other hand increased affluence which means when we host parties from time to time we want to do it right and gets lots of different varieties of beer to please all palates, AND YET AGAIN our friends who come to these parties and would ostensibly drink the beer now drink less than they used to. And on and on it goes, but one thing which hasn’t changed is my rock-solid conviction that (unless it gets accidentally skunked) beer should never just be thrown away.

So for a while we’ve had a case of beer chilling out on the back deck and more than a few loose bottles taking up space on the top shelf of the fridge. My wife quite reasonably asked that the vast majority of this beer be consolidated in the garage before Christmas, when refrigerator space would be at an absolute premium, and I happily acknowledged the wisdom in this and obliged her. And then I won some more beer at work. Which, honestly, was just going to go straight into the same spot in the garage, so I never really feared any kind of matrimonial homicide, but the irony was not lost on me.

The other hilarious aspect of this turn of events was that I had to get the gift basket home via metro and VRE. On the positive side, it was much bigger and bulkier than a grocery bag full of brownies, and since it was impossible to even fit on the floor at my feet and had to sit on my lap there was virtually no chance of me forgetfully leaving it behind on the train. On the negative side, it was much bigger and bulkier than a grocery bag full of brownies, and it was also awkward and heavy. The basket contained three bottles of beer, two single-serving sized bottles of wine, a can of almonds, a bag of Andes mints, a bag of yogurt-covered pretzels, a package of Ferrero Rocher, a bag of Sausalito cookies, and probably some other stuff I’m currently forgetting which, heck yes and all, is super nice but OOF. Burdened with all those goodies as I was, negotiating the down escalator at the Metro station alone became even more hazardous than jumping onto a moving train.

You might recall that I had also previously related the good fortune my wife and I had at her office party, between fake casino gambling winnings and the resulting prizes plus raffle drawings and so on. So it was a little bit surreal to me that I also won the door prize at my own office party. It makes me feel like I need to get on out to Vegas, or at the very least the new table games out in West Virginia. By the time I get around to that, though, the winning streak may have run its course. Until then, though, it’s hard to argue with free beer, even if you have to hand-carry it home to add to a semi-ridiculous existing stockpile.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Feels like I just left

For maybe an hour or so yesterday evening it looked like I might get one more unexpected but very welcome Christmas present, in the form of one more day away from the office due to inclement weather. But ultimately all the back and forth about whether or not the killer storm would hit our area ended up bearing out the predictions of the earliest models, and it missed us. The hour or so of snowfall in which my hopes began to rise fizzled, and the end result was no more than a dusting. A bit of a drag, and all the moreso because of the unequal distribution of snow up and down the east coast. My poor brother-in-law and his fiancĂ©e have plans to spend New Years in Puerto Rico and were supposed to fly out of NYC this morning, but obviously that didn’t happen. If the entire blizzard had been a bust, then I would have been bummed but at least the southerly-bound would have been able to take off on schedule. On the other hand if DC had gotten what NYC got, I’d be writing this from home (if at all). Instead we got the worst-case scenario where no one ends up happy.

So yes, I dragged myself to the bus this morning, and slept basically all the way in rather than even pretending to try to read, but I believe the trip was pretty uneventful because so many people are still on holiday vacation (a theory well-supported by the lack of warm bodies around my own office today, at any rate) and now I am present and accounted for but my head is still in a post-holiday daze, so there’s not much in the way of insightful reflection clamoring to be expressed hereabouts. Mainly what I learned over Christmas is that having a child who appreciates Santa’s gift-bringing (and presents in general) is an essential ingredient in the fundamental feel of the holiday, but it is also fairly exhausting to be the parent in that scenario. Endearing, heartwarming, spirit-affirming and all kinds of good I’m-not-really-complaining stuff, but exhausting nonetheless. And having a mere three-day weekend to celebrate, one day of which gets consumed by making the necessary preparations, doesn’t seem to be enough for me to get through everything without feeling like I’ve been run over by a candy-cane colored steamroller.

Of course the reason why I didn’t take additional time off from work last week or this week is because I am saving up my leave balance for when I really need it come April and the arrival of our newest bundle of joy. And, again, that is a trade-off I whole-heartedly appreciate the wisdom of and one which I have actively chosen and do not feel in any way has been thrust upon me against my will. I will end up cashing in all of my paid time off when the baby is born, and staying home on unpaid FMLA time beyond that as well, and then I’ll go back to work and start accruing time off again … and then next Christmas I will absolutely take more than a day off to make sure I can account for all the seasonally appropriate indulgences as well as the recovery.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Little Guy and The Big Guy

My wife has a friend/co-worker whose father is part the volunteer fire department in our town, and said fire department traditionally goes out in one of the big engines on an evening before Christmas with a Santa handing out candy canes to little kids. Our inside connection not only let us know which night this was happening, and furthermore called us with a heads up that the engine was in our neighborhood (so that we were sure to delay bath time and have coats at the ready by the front door for the moment when we saw the flashing lights) but above and beyond that mentioned to her father where we lived and our names. The end result being we were able to whisk the little guy out to see two things he loves – a fire engine and Santa – and SANTA GREETED HIM BY NAME RIGHT OFF THE BAT. I think the little guy was delighted by the whole spectacle, although he was also a bit dazzled and overwhelmed by the strangeness and suddenness of it all. I was delighted, at any rate.

I love that at his age of not quite two-and-a-half he can absorb and process the idea of Santa in all its various forms and get that it’s all (supposed to be) the same entity. The kindly old man who really does have a nice set of ivory whiskers and posed with my little guy for a photo at the mall doesn’t really look much like the fellow in an obviously fake beard who goes around with the firemen, and there’s myriad depictions of the Big Guy around our house from the sides of gift bags to the CGI version on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the Disney channel, but the little guy never misses a single opportunity to point him out to us: “Santa! Santa! Santa!” He also does a passable impression of Santa’s “Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!” in the best approximation of a deep, jolly voice that toddler-sized vocal cords can duplicate. And he more or less understands there are certain peripheral but meaningful accessories to Santa. Every time I get him talking about meeting Santa on the firetruck he insists “And they had a reindeer on the back of the firetruck!” Which ... uhh ... I don’t remember either seeing or even talking about, so somehow he grafted that idea on himself. And it is an awesome idea so clearly I haven’t been arguing with him on it.

Awesome in every incarnation
As we were heading into this holiday season and realizing what level of cognitive capabilities we were dealing with this time around, my wife and I realized we really needed to have the Santa discussion, and have it we did. We both wanted to feel that we had made an informed decision about what role Santa was going to play in our family celebrations of Christmas, and not just fallen into following along with whatever the little guy picked up from school or television or whatever. And in the course of this deliberation we did seriously consider the notion, raised everywhere from Miracle on 34th Street to the episode of HIMYM where Barney’s brother finds his dad, that Santa is a lie parents tell their children. At the time of the conversation I admitted as much but said that I really didn’t care, because it’s a harmless lie, and even a good lie if your value system can accommodate such a paradox (mine very clearly does). I think there’s an exaggerated tendency amongst my generation to look with skepticism and suspicion on everything our parents did raising us, and I admit I do that all the time, but I’ve never second-guessed my mom and dad encouraging me to believe in Santa. I did for a while, and it was awesome, and then I stopped, and I don’t recall any particular stabbing sensations of betrayal at the time, nor do I bear any traumatic emotional scars as a direct result. I not only survived the big lie about the Big Guy but enjoyed it, and I will try to make sure my little guy does, too.

But I’ve continued to think about it even after the matter was settled, and at this point I’ve reached a slightly different conclusion. Santa isn’t a lie; he’s just a metaphor. I think the whole “Santa equals lying to your children” thing is one of those overtly clever, contrarian memes that people like brandishing because it’s provocative, but it kind of misses the point. If you are the kind of person who despises Shakespeare and would characterize Romeo as a pathological liar because he says Juliet is the sun and, you know, that’s not true she’s not really a massive sustained fusion explosion in space, then you and I would probably have a hard time finding a way to communicate and I guess I’m not really talking to you, anyway.

I love metaphors. I love that human beings have this capacity to encapsulate abstract ideas inside concrete imagery and I think it’s entirely appropriate to do that as much as possible with little kids. Santa Claus just happens to be one of the most detailed, fleshed-out icons we have in Western civilization, and there’s lots of cynical, commercial reasons for that, but I think the reason so many people have been able to exploit it so often and so well is because of what’s at the heart of it. Santa symbolizes generosity, both material and spiritual, and we need that. Children need to learn that things like altruism and compassion and selflessness exist, and if we start them down that road by saying there’s a kindly old man who sometimes gives free gifts to children just because, it’s just a hyper-specific kind of anthropomorphization, right? Sometimes at night my little guy asks me where the moon is and I say it’s hiding behind the clouds; if he grows up to think I abused his trust because I unrealistically assigned volitional action to an inanimate satellite, I’m totally screwed on a long, long list of charges.

So yeah, my conscience on the whole “Santa’s coming!” thing is pretty clear, because that’s how I roll. There’s a celebration of giving and magic and wonder and love coming, and I’m pointing to a personally meaningful avatar when I talk about it to my child, and as time goes by I trust him to sort out what’s literally true about that story from what’s figuratively true – but I don’t think either of those halves is a lie. Of course, my wife and I still haven’t gotten to the point where we’re trying to enforce behavioral codes with the threat that if the little guy is naughty then Santa won’t come, nor am I looking forward to it. Because that is some straight-up messed up disinformation right there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Real-life adventures

This morning I needed to go to the grocery store before embarking on the daily commute, because today is the office holiday party and I had volunteered to bring brownies and opted for store-bakery rather than homemade, and there aren’t any easily accessible grocery stores near work. My town, on the other hand, has two Giants (in addition to many other supermarkets but Giant is my go-to) – one on the main drag which would be on the way to the Metro, and one off the beaten path in the opposite direction, the latter being the one I tend to go to more often because the back roads are a little easier to contend with than the traffic and lights of the main drag. As I was leaving the house I was inspired to go to the Giant way off the main drag and then, instead of doubling back to the highway and on to the Metro, I would go to the VRE station, which is in the same general neck of the woods.

As I was approaching the parking garage for the VRE I was on a sidestreet that runs parallel to the railroad tracks and I saw the crossing gates go down with their lights flashing. I made it to the garage and parked in the first spot I found and hustled to the platform where the train was waiting, but where I also had to validate my current ten-ride ticket. I managed to complete that electronic transaction just as the train’s “doors closing” recorded announcement sounded and I literally jumped on with maybe two seconds to spare. Major excitement for the six o’clock hour of the morning, and downright exhilarating for having saved me about 25 minutes of standing on the platform waiting for the next train (and second-guessing every element of the plan up to that point) – but as evidenced by the fact that once I caught my breath I spent the rest of the train ride totally engrossed in a graphic novel based on mathematics, philosophy, logic and the biography of Bertrand Russell, clearly I am a geek of the highest order and thus not to be trusted with terms like ‘exhilarating’.

Recently I’ve been thinking a bit more than usual (which is saying something) about the persistent disconnects between geeks and comics and more mainstream audiences and mainstream entertainments like tv and movies, especially where you would think there should be overlaps given how tv and movies have been mining comics for source material lately. The general thought goes a little something like this: there are certain genre conventions associated with most comics (“most” being for present purposes synonymous with “super-hero”) which the people who have traditionally worked in higher-profile fields can reliably wrap their heads around, because more or less it all grows out of a common heroic narrative tradition, etc., and thus we get truly excellent movies like Hellboy or Iron Man or whathaveyou, and Disney XD cartoons like the Avengers, and so on. It’s hit or miss, of course, because everything is, but at least both sides are represented. But there’s also a sub-culture that has grown up around comics, and apparently that sub-culture is so different from the prevailing majority that it’s much trickier to get a good bead on. At least I assume as much because geek-portrayals seem pretty consistently miss or miss.

Last week I watched The Big Bang Theory. Normally I avoid that show because I’ve tried watching it a couple times and it seems lame, consisting mostly of very predictable “jokes” that somehow seem even worse accompanied by laugh-track cues as they are. But this past Thursday I tuned in for two reasons. One, Community was a repeat. Two, the cable info preview informed me that the plot would involve the cast dressing up as the Justice League for a New Year’s Eve masquerade and I was at least moderately amused by the very idea of that. So I watched, and most of the set-ups and punchlines were still lame, but there were a couple of chuckles to be had and the costumes were cute (especially an elaborate Aquaman get-up including a seahorse steed, which completely ruled) and the next day I was able to follow some message board chatter about the episode and understand the references first-hand (though more often than not it’s easy enough to pick them up on context alone: nerds, comics, socially awkward, ha ha ha).

So one of the major linchpins of the plot of the episode was the effort to convince the nerds’ hot blonde neighbor to be the Wonder Woman of their Justice League group costume effort. She half-heartedly goes along but a sticking point arises with her refusal to wear a black wig. Sheldon, the most spectrum-like (and here I mean Aspergers/Autism spectrum, not War of the Lanterns spectrum, which may quite possibly be a distinction only I would need to draw in the first place) of the nerds tried to impress upon her that Amazons as a rule are never blonde and Wonder Woman has never been blonde and for the sake of accuracy she has no choice but to wear the wig. In the end she goes along with this. But of course someone on the message boards the next day felt compelled to point out that Sheldon was conveniently ignoring the fact that there has been a blonde Wonder Girl, so …? Honestly I have no idea what that commenter’s point might have been because Wonder Girl and Wonder Woman are two different characters, not to mention the fact that while legacy-driven heroic traditions like The Flash or Green Lantern or even Wonder Woman have passed the mantle from wearer to wearer throughout the years and sometimes details of physical appearance (even major ones like race and gender) might change, EVEN SO all the versions of Wonder Woman who have also been members of the Justice League have always been raven-haired, so Sheldon’s sticklerism was in the right place, arguably.

None of which changes the fact that there are tons of other details the show gets wrong, if not factually, then maybe in spirit. I have been to enough comic book conventions that I have entertained thoughts from time to time of convincing my buddies to do a group costume. And the specific notion I have toyed with most frequently is doing the 80’s line-up of the Avengers which includes some recognizable characters like Captain America and Thor but also such luminaries as the Black Knight and Starfox (who would be the character I personally would want to dress up as, mostly because I have the right kind of crazy thick and shapable hair to pull of his look, I think).

In the circles I move in, this hairstyle is known as the 'Wolverine Wingety-Thingety'
In the inverted world of geekdom, you see, “cool” takes on different values. Specificity is cool. Obscurity is cool. Not everyone would get who me and my friends were supposed to be, exactly, if we showed up looking like those two guys who have separate movies coming out soon and a refugee from Camelot and their Flock of Seagulls meets Spiders from Mars buddy, but those who did get it would do so with admiration. The flipside of that premise, of course, is that dressing up as the Justice League is lame even for comic book nerds, because it’s just so obvious. It’s something little kids would do, not something adult hardcore continuity-arguing geeks would do, yet The Big Bang theory wants to present its characters as the latter.

I also recently saw the movie Kick-Ass, which I hadn’t been that sorry to miss in theaters but felt I needed to have under my belt since some of my buddies saw it and liked it well enough to keep bringing it up in conversation. It is a deeply flawed movie, based on what I assume is a deeply flawed comic, but it has a certain rough charm if you deliberately ignore the most problematic parts. Still, the very end has stuck in my craw. Bear with me as I try to sum it up in the fastest and most painless way possible (which of course will involve spoilers).

The story centers on a comicbook-obsessed geek who gives his own life meaning by becoming a self-made superhero (named Kick-Ass, of course), with varying degrees of success over the course of the film played alternately for laughs or pathos. He ends up in conflict with a stereotypical crime boss who happens to have a geeky son of his own who also loves comics, and in order to win his father’s love the son assumes a superhero identity (Red Mist) to get close to the protagonist with the intent of betraying him, which works to an extent but ultimately the protagonist triumphs and kills the crime boss and then retires from crime-fighting, but apparently not before inspiring several others to take back the streets in the trappings of comicbook-style heroes.

The final shot of the movie had the potential to be a little bit provocative. The expected, clichĂ© story arc would have the crime boss’s son ultimately realize that winning the love of an evil man is impossible, not worth doing, or both, and trying to atone for his own treachery and realizing he doesn’t want to follow in daddy’s footsteps. But as it goes the son defends his father to the end, and gets beat up by the protagonist before the final crime boss confrontation. Then as the closing narration explains the new way of the world, there’s a zoom in on the crime boss’s old penthouse office, only now the son is sitting at the desk, wearing a modified version of his Red Mist costume which looks more explicitly villainous. The legacy of evil continues and our retired hero still has an arch-enemy out there with real motivation to hate him and seek revenge (all of which obviously is set-up for a sequel but doesn’t change the fact that at least it’s a slightly non-braindead way to fade out).

Here’s the thing, though: for the big reveal of the supervillain reborn, Red Mist looks into the camera while slipping on a Hannibal Lecter-like mask and muses: “As a great man once said, wait til they get a load of me.” OK, wait, what? I mean, I get the quote is a reference to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, fine. It’s just that it’s a terrible, terrible reference. Red Mist is supposed to be all of 18 and the movie is set slightly in the future of an alternate world (evidenced by the fact that Kick-Ass and his buddies go see The Spirit 3 at the movies at one point, establishing a reality where an atrocious movie from 2009 got the full trilogy treatment) which means when Tim Burton’s Batman came out Red Mist hadn’t even been born. TB’s Batman is something of a touchstone for geeks of a certain age (ahem, like me) but honestly it’s only OK, and Nicholson’s Joker can be either revered or reviled depending on who you’re talking to. Younger kids today would no doubt consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman their touchstone, Heath Ledger their definitive Joker (if they took such things from movies rather than comics to begin with). Yeah, the Nicholson reference is apt for the situation at the end of the movie but it’s not something a self-respecting comics geek, especially a younger one, would think was cool to say. And the whole plot point, as I tried to explain above, is that the kid was able to become the Red Mist mainly because he is a diehard comics geek. All of which gets undercut by the tritely “clever” ending.

But I get it, I do. The Big Bang Theory and Kick-Ass aren’t geared primarily at me and my sub-culture. They’re ultimately vehicles for making as much money as possible by appealing to the broadest audience possible, and way more people know who the Justice League are or have seen the Tim Burton Batman movie than care about the value the geek sub-culture places on actually having a more than superficial understanding (or slavish memorization) of the subject matter at its core. It’s a momentary annoyance when it comes up, but if I can’t go on and on and on about those annoyances here I must be doing something wrong.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It ain't like it once was

I did some Christmas shopping over this past weekend, with the little guy in tow which meant I had to be fairly efficient about it in order to be home for lunch and nap time, so I tried planning ahead and mapping out my route from store to store. I also did a smidgen of interwebs research before hitting the road, looking for some music suggestions for my step-mother, who was reluctant to volunteer many gift suggestions of her own (which is a rant for another time).

If I may back up a second (with what is, for once, a really relevant additional bit of info) the research was undertaken only after I had lamented the fact that there aren’t any dedicated music stores in the area, like Tower Records (or, as my wife aptly pointed out, Plan 9) which might serve as repositories of expertise in addition to being retail outlets. I would have been quite happy to have a live conversation with a complete stranger about what kinds of new but still underground acts a middle-aged longtime country fan might dig, since country is a genre I myself don’t even pretend to know the first thing about. But in the absence of such a readily-available resource, I fell back (of course) on some end-of-year Best Of lists that came up via Google. And then off I went.

First stop was Borders, because I had a very specific book in mind for my dad and figured I could also hit their CD section as well. First stop was also a total bust. The book in question was not in stock, which suggested to me that I might as well (again, with the two-year-old-meltdown clock ticking) get both father and step-mother some CDs and be done with it. I almost circumnavigated the store twice before I found the incredibly anemic music department, and yet I still walked down the stubby little aisle scanning the artist labels with a truly delusional optimism for a good half a minute before I realized there was an infinitesimal chance at best that the store would have the specific discs I was seeking. Little guy and I left empty-handed.

Next stop, the mall! My confidence was on the upswing at this point because I needed to get my sister a gift card for Aeropostale and I had previously confirmed that our local mall does, in fact, have one of those. Also, conveniently, the mall has a Wal-Mart attached to it and I planned to head there immediately upon securing said gift card. Which I did.

We needed a couple of grocery items (milk and the single-serving fruit cups the little guy half-lives on) and I knew Wal-Mart would be able to hook me up with those sundries at a minimum, but before I headed for the dairy case I decided it couldn’t hurt to take another stab at checking out an in-store music section. This turned out to be even more spectacularly unsuccessful than the effort at Borders, because as far as I was able to determine, Wal-Mart no longer sells CDs at all. Seriously. I found the electronics department and the rows of DVDs and video games and yet digital recordings of audio performances were not in evidence anywhere. So, out of luck again, I just grabbed my groceries and got the little guy home.

Despite the fact that I don’t keep up with the current music scene very well at all (and lament that fact fairly regularly) I of course can’t help but be aware of the stories that occasionally run in the newspaper or on the radio about how much trouble the recording industry is in. I admit, I always thought those stories must be a bit hyperbolic (as most audience-craving reportage is) because I’m pretty far from being an audiophile myself and yet I still buy a CD now and then and download songs from iTunes here and there. Sometimes I rip CDs to my computer library so I can load them on my iPod, and sometimes I’ll burn a bunch of iTunes tracks to a CD so I can take them in my non-MP3 supporting car or whatnot. My point being simply that it’s a multimedia age and somehow or another all the media would find their appropriate way to survive.

Oh, jukebox, I know I'll always love you because you're already obsolete
But now it looks like I’m always going to remember Christmas 2010 as the year that everything went right off the cliff. I don’t think it was just my bad luck that Tower closed up shop ages ago, or that Borders is barely trying to keep CDs in the store and Wal-Mart seems to have given up a while back. It’s starting to sink in that those news stories may have been onto something with their dire predictions, which is kind of a drag. Not for the recording industry per se (whose lawyers have sued little old ladies for hundreds of thousands of dollars when their grandkids illegally fileshare four songs – screw those guys) but for me (duh). Every year Christmas is a little more different from the way it was when I was growing up, and I roll with that the best I can, but it looks like physically shopping for music is going down into the same nostalgia-hole as many another tradition.

First post-script: I ended up ordering the CDs I wanted off of Amazon, which is probably where I should have started, but there’s something weird to me about ordering things, having them gift-wrapped and shipped directly to the recipients, and never holding the physical object in my own hands. It barely feels like gift-giving.

Second post-script: I’m pretty sure the last time I bought myself a CD at a store it was a Best Buy. Maybe if I had had unlimited time to drive around on Sunday I would have ended up there eventually. Now I’m kind of morbidly curious to head there anyway even though I’m technically done shopping.

Third post-script: I know this post has a shameful number of corporations included by name, but I’m not exactly shilling for them and I just wanted to root everything in the sense of how safe I thought I was betting on at least one of these incredibly mainstream retail conglomerates having something approaching what I was looking for available for sale. If I had hedged around names with cute evasions like “a certain nationwide big box store” I don’t think it would have made the same point, not to mention it would have been annoying for all of us.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Not Applicable

As of this morning it is officially Workplace Christmas, as indicated by the presence of a party tray of storebought Christmas cookies by the office coffee maker, and the fact that my government boss handed out presents to her dedicated staff. For my part, I’ve broken out the holiday neckties for the entire week, which means I can at least begin my mental vacation by increments, starting with pre-sunrise fashion decisions already laid out for the next few days. (Today, tiny Christmas trees! Tomorrow, snowflakes! Wednesday, larger but more abstract Christmas trees! Thursday, smiley-face ornaments!)

It's like looking into a mirror.
I was tempted to declare Workplace Christmas as officially starting late last week because all day long Thursday and Friday my Inbox notification was dinging and flashing more or less non-stop as various tiny sub-agencies kept sending out mass e-mails announcing that they were having their own holiday luncheons. These weren’t invitations, mind, they were heads-ups so that everyone else would know that if they needed any particular work done by the sub-agencies, they shouldn’t go looking for anyone from 1330 – 1430 because staffing would be minimal due to mandatory festivities. But I’d rather mark things from happy signs like free baked goods than annoying signs like rampant outlook abuse, so here we are.

I do want to touch on one other thing, work-related. Time flies and this past Friday was the due date for self-assessment for my annual review for my contracting boss. In all honesty I felt like the past twelve months on the contract were a little lighter on actual accomplishment than the six months before that had been, with no ludicrously major-impact-level server transfer event to call my own. I kept up with everything I was given to do (including my one major project that was immediately cancelled once I had finished enough of it to show to anyone who might’ve had a vested interest in it) but wasn’t given that much. I spun all of that as positively as I could, of course, but that’s not the point. I just had to laugh because either they changed the online evaluation form this year or perhaps I never read it super-closely before. There is a section of the self-assessment divided into categorical headings for different areas of responsibility, some of which are universal like core competencies and some of which are more specific to certain roles, like managers. So the instructions indicate you should only assess yourself for the areas of responsibility which have been assigned a positive overall percentage weight by your supervisor, and anything assigned 0% is not part of what you’ll be evaluated on because it doesn’t apply to you. Three of the areas on my form were at 0% - leadership, decision-making, and market focus. I’m far beyond okay with the last one, because I have less than 0% desire to work on the sales side of the contracting biz, thanks all the same. And the first one makes perfect sense, since I’m at the bottom of the org chart on this particular team.

It’s the middle one that doesn’t really bug me in any way, just kind of underscores every point I usually make about the vaguely ridiculous nature of my position as a single, solitary geartooth on one small cog in the machine. Decision-making is not something I am evaluated on in terms of my work performance. In other words I am expected to perform well at thinking for myself 0% of the time. Decision-making is not applicable. Yeah, that about sums it up.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Back in the saddle

I wouldn’t normally think that the fact that I missed a couple of days posting here at blog was, in and of itself, interesting enough to merit becoming the basis of its own post, but I’m open to the possibility that the reasons why I’ve been off my usual semi-official schedule might be of some interest, as those are more or less in the same “here’s what’s up with me now” vein as the rest of the blog, anyway.

The cloud computing conference was good, as those things go. It was 17 different PowerPoint presentations one after the other, which could easily become a soul-shattering nightmare but was largely salvaged from that fate by the speakers themselves who ranged from decent enough to really engaging. I learned a lot (I’ll spare you the details about how now I know that if I’m ever called upon to scratch-build any kind of cross-domain data-sharing application, I should strongly consider hard-coding the IPv6 addresses being called to prevent hackers from exploiting DNS lookup trickery) but of course it remains to be seen how much of that knowledge will ever actually get put to use. Then again, I was an English major, so obviously I’m pretty zen about knowledge acquisition for its own sake.

The only thing I know is that I know nothing at all.
One thing which surprised me about the conference was the crowd of attendees, which encompassed a kind of dual surprise, really. It was small, maybe 40 or 50 people, and very few people seemed to have brought their laptops with them. I brought my personal netbook and figured I’d be on the lower end of gadget usage, and that was technically true because the other devices I saw were a big beefy laptop, a Macbook, and a couple of iPads, but most people didn’t have a computer at all. Strange for an IT conference, I thought. I had expected to run my netbook pretty much nonstop through the sessions, which would allow me to take notes which I could later turn into a meeting report for my boss, and would also allow me to keep my usual self-distracting habits like checking e-mail, blogging, surfing, etc. But I felt hyper-self-conscious being one of the only people not staring at the speakers, in a small crowd with nowhere to hide, so I ended up only hopping online during the brief breaks throughout the day. Thus, no blogging for me.

Yesterday I was back at work and things were returned to normal, except for two other mundane but unavoidable factors. One was the backlog of work items I had missed by attending the conference, which was minor but still non-zero. The other was the weather, as the DC region got its first snowfall of the year and I opted to leave early rather than risk spending hours on the road stuck behind (or, Huginn and Muninn forfend, involved in) an accident caused by someone’s utter inability to avoid losing control of their vehicle in half an inch of slush. So it was busy-busy-gotta-go, and once again, no blogging. Ironically, I made it home in basically the same amount of time it would have taken me any other day. As opposed to Tuesday and Wednesday, when I had to make the entire round trip by car because the hotel hosting the conference was not Metro-accessible, and I ran into sever delays coming home both days: on Tuesday I heard about an accident blocking 2 lanes of 66 West just as I was leaving the parking garage, so I took the back roads home and crept bumper-to-bumper from traffic light to traffic light; on Wednesday yet again there was an accident on 66 West but it wasn’t mentioned on the radio until I was already about to run smack into the slowdown and couldn’t easily bail to an alternate route. Joy.

Next week, back to normal, I promise – my holiday gift to you!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Work stuff, but not really, and also not mine

My wife’s office Christmas party was this past weekend, which some of you might remember we attended around this time last year as well. Once again we had a good time, as in most respects it was more or less the same party all over again, but in various and sundry ways there are a lot of little differences which an intervening year can account for.

Obviously, first and foremost, this was not an occasion to make much of the cash bar or the wine pairings at dinner, since the pregnancies in our household tend to be abstemious affairs (on my wife’s part for obvious prenatal developmental reasons, and on mine because I really don’t care much for drinking alone). I had a lone light beer when we first arrived and my wife had a couple of ginger ales over the course of the evening. For us, that constitutes a fair amount of living it up.

And you would think that, since we weren’t within shouting distance of cutting loose self-indulgently, we’d make a pretty early night of it. I think that was out intention, too, at least at the outset, but funny enough things just didn’t go that way. On the one hand I think that’s a function of our ever-increasing comfort level with leaving the little guy behind. Exactly like last year, my wife’s folks came up to put the little guy to bed and then sit up waiting for us, but unlike last year whatever flutters of parent-child separation anxiety might have once accompanied us were nowhere in evidence this time. It has become no big deal, which sounds a little off-putting when I name it as such but I really do think it’s a healthy development all around. (Seriously, as long as Grandma and Pop-Pop are in the house, the little guy could not care less if mom and dad take off for a party, and good for him.) So, no nameless irrational dread compelling us to hurry home so that we might keep our offspring breathing through sheer proximity and force of will. And on top of that, we found ourselves playing craps in the fake-casino part of the party and getting on quite the tear with the winnings. Which not only helped to while the time away for a good portion of the evening, but also made us feel compelled to stay until the bitter end, because when they close down the tables and everyone cashes in their chips, there are prizes for those who’ve amassed the most winnings and it seemed like I might have a shot.

Baby, in fact, needs several new pairs of shoes
And so I did! Everyone starts the night with 50,000 in play money and I ended with 900,000. Granted, a chunk of that was because some of my wife’s co-workers did choose to leave early and bequeathed their chips to me on the way out the door, but the majority of it was purely due to a long streak I got on throwing the dice, which was followed by my wife going on an equally long streak during which I made and won some ridiculous bets like the 15-to-1 odds she would roll an 11 on her very next roll, which she proceeded to do. We make a dangerous team sometimes, my bride and I.

So we were up well past midnight, and came home with a brand new iPod Nano. Yowza yowza.

It’s also genuinely comforting to me that my wife’s office Christmas party has become another given in our annual holiday traditions. She’s been at the job for over two years now and when they were giving out awards to everyone who’s been with the practice five years I had no trouble envisioning her accepting her own crystal paperweight in another three Christmases. (Beyond that, it gets a little murkier.) It’s gotten to the point where I know her co-workers better myself, and when her boss seems happy to see me I can tell myself it’s because I legitimately helped her out hanging some oversized frames on the wall before their open house this fall, and not entirely a formality. And on the other hand when one of my wife’s colleagues mentions recently enjoying a Tales From the Crypt DVD marathon I can feel at ease enough to impress them with my recollections of the holiday-thematic Santa Axe Killer episode from season one. (OK, maybe the good doctor wasn’t so much “impressed” as “unsettled by my geek-level abilities of recall” but I’m just going to go ahead and say “impressed” anyway.)

So that was Saturday night and really only one (admittedly large) facet of a very Christmas-y weekend, but I think I’m going to have to dole the rest out over the course of the week. I’m not sure how much I’ll be online the next couple of days as I have that conference to attend tomorrow and Wednesday, but by the end of the week I’ll try to make up for it either way.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

And baby makes four

We're on past the halfway point of my wife's pregnancy, and for a while there it hardly seemed real, but now quite the reverse is true: this is decidedly NOT a drill.

When the little guy was still a-gestatin', all of my anticipation was of a positive nature. I wanted to start having kids, I was ready to start having kids, and I knew and accepted all the hazards and hardships of parenting that were imminent (at least as much as anyone who has yet to make that transition from childless to ... childful? ... can know them). Obviously there were still surprises along the way, which were many and varied but by and large fell into one of two categories:

1. I was unaware, prior to fatherhood, just how profoundly babies start out needing to learn from square one how to do EVERYTHING. They don't start out walking or talking, right, that was well-established in my mind, but those first few days where even basic biological functions at either end of the GI tract could not be taken for granted - that was a shock. Two years and change later and I'm still profoundly grateful that at least we were lucky enough to bring a baby into the world well-developed enough to know how to breathe on his own.

2. I was unfamiliar with certain advanced definitions of the word 'exhausted' but I quickly made their acquaintance. Again, I knew babies were a lot of work and new parents didn't get a lot of sleep, but my ignorance here was a matter of degree. And this tied back to number 1 above in that our little guy absolutely was not born knowing how to sleep, and had to acquire that skill via a learning process which was long and arduous for all three of us.

Tempting, but wrong.  (Probably.)
And now the little guy is due to get a littler sister and I'm reasonably confident that I'll be starting out slightly ahead of my previous learning curve. But I'm also starting to think maybe ignorance was bliss. I can handle the whole "human babies spend their fourth trimester outside the womb even though they're still basically completely helpless" thing. And I could, theoretically, cope with yet another stretch of sleep-deprivation, possibly even using a little applied knowledge to shorten the process this go-round. But what worries me is the combination of both little guy and little gal under the same roof, with no attendant increase in the number of parents.

I mean, yes, we'll probably get some help from the various grandparents, possibly even in the form of prolonged stays at our house. But I can only expect to gain so much from that, and ultimate responsibility falls on me and my wife (and rightly so). I was confident in our ability to handle the little guy's arrival because my wife and I make a good team. When she's down, I pick her up, and vice versa. We cover one another's weak spots. We take up one another's slack. On those ultra-rare occasions when the little guy taxed one of us to the limit, the other one could assist at least, if not take over outright. I just don't think that the tag-team handicap match model applies when the second child comes home from the hospital. I mean, I know it doesn't. Mathematically there's a pretty obvious difference there. It's no longer so easy to swoop in for the save when there's a voluminous spit-up incident when it's not the tv or a newspaper you'd be turning away from, but rather a small child who remains convinced he can walk along the back of couch in brazen defiance of gravity and his own imperfect toddler sense of balance.

People say, "oh there's not much difference between having two kids and having three or four" but there's a marked lack of aphorisms on the gulf between one kid and two. Four months to go until my family unit makes the leap. If I've learned anything from the first trip through the maternity ward, it should be that I really have no idea what's waiting for me on the other side and won't until I get there.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lens Flair

Pixar’s Cars was a movie I avoided for as long as I possibly could, almost solely because of my utter disavowal of any and all entertainments connected to Larry the Cable Guy, who provides the voice of Mater the tow truck for the film. As it happened, “as long as I possibly could” turned out to be exactly equal to “as long as it took to have a child and then take said child on a cross-country airplane trip”.

In an effort to stave off as many foreseeable terrors as possible while planning to visit my mother in new Mexico for Thanksgiving, my wife and I buckled and bought a portable DVD player as well as a few DVDs we expected would be particularly appealing to the little guy, which included Cars as well as a collection of Dr. Seuss cartoons and a compilation of episodes of Bob the Builder. The little guy really dug Bob the Builder, the episodes of which are only about 15 minutes long, and he similarly enjoyed both the Cat in the Hat and the Lorax in animated form, having long since internalized the original books. Those DVDs were especially useful on the plane itself because our flight connected through Chicago, and chances were pretty good that we wouldn’t have been able to get through the entire running time of Cars in the short window during which portable electronic devices could be turned on for either leg in the air. And, except for the cabin depressurization nightmare I alluded to in my first post back from the holiday, the flights really were smooth sailing with the little guy a content little angel wearing his big boy headphones and watching shows (“on my computer!” as he informed us the portable DVD player was to be called. My mom got the little guy some Sesame Street toys, too, and when I opened the blister pack one edge remained affixed to the backing board, so the whole thing could fold and unfold like a laptop, and the little guy also declared that to be “his computer”.)

But, ha ha ha ha ha, the little guy never really did get the hang of Mountain Standard Time. Whether we put him to bed at the local version of his bed time, or kept him up an extra hour or more, he still woke up at 5 a.m. every day we were in Albuquerque. Of course we tried bringing him from the crib into our bed to doze a little longer, but he was well and truly wide awake, so I ended up taking him out to the living room, putting Cars in the DVD player, and laying on the couch with him. He was hypnotized, thankfully, and to be honest, so was I. Of course I was. Pixar makes amazing movies, full stop, and they magically elevate all the participants. If history had gone a bit differently, Pixar could have made a musical about yak herding which starred the voices of Madonna and Kurt Cobain and won me over with it. (Probably. Eventually.)

The next morning it was my wife’s turn to coordinate the 5 a.m. viewing of Cars, and the morning after that I took a turn again. So, for the record, the little guy saw Cars at least three times over Thanksgiving, and I saw it twice, and my wife saw it once. (And I think at one point we all watched the DVD’s bonus short “Mater and the Ghost Light” together.) The first time I was sucked into the characters and the story, but by my second viewing I was observing all the technical achievements in the movie, which are pretty stunning.

I remember talking to my dad once about animated movies and him recounting an interview he saw or read where an animator said the hardest things to render realistically were smoke and water. So, of course, there is a moment in Cars where Lightning McQueen tries to burn rubber and white smoke pours out of his wheel wells, and there’s another moment where Red the fire truck hoses him down with water. And even in those moments, it is supremely easy to forget you are watching a CGI cartoon, because nothing really looks cartoony. Everything has a realistic physicality about it. Pure illusion, of course, but a really convincing one.

And one of the bigger setpieces in the whole story is a night scene in which all the businesses in Radiator Springs turn on their neon lights, and the color tones and the reflections and the shadows and everything are all just perfect. (So perfect that you probably wouldn’t notice them at all, if you weren’t watching the movie for the second time in 48 hours and predisposed to picking apart technical layers like that anyway.) But what really got to me was a brief sequence, also at night, in which Mater shows off how he can drive backwards and ends up crashing through the woods behind the motel, at which point all the audience can see is stray beams from his yellow flashers cutting through the branches of the trees. Once again it’s this incredibly complex visual phenomenon to model and once again it looks exactly right, and while I respect the hell out of it I do also slightly suspect that it was really a case of the animators going there purely so they could show off.

Which, overall, is one of those things that I’m really sensitive to in a lot of movies. I mentioned last week that when the little guy was home from daycare with a teething-related temperature, I spent his naptime watching a movie. The movie in question was a subtitled Korean flick called Oldboy, which is about as far from Cars as you are likely to get. It’s a dark, twisted, violent revenge story, and even that barely scratches the surface, and to say any more would risk spoilers, which is not to say that I’m recommending it per se, because it is also gut-churningly disturbing in places, so, you know, you be the judge if that’s your thing. But despite the sometimes appalling subject matter it truly is a well-constructed movie, both in terms of storytelling and cinematography. Almost too well-constructed in the latter, as I found my brain sometimes disengaging from the characters and the story and just trying to parse the composition of the shots and figure out how they physically constructed them. There is a scene where the protagonist, armed only with a claw hammer, has to fight his way down a hallway full of goons. The scene goes on for minutes and minutes from the same low angle as the tide of the battle flows up and down the hall, all in one take, with no slow-motion or other effects. Which on the one hand sounds kind of mundane but after a certain point your brain (my brain, at least) starts demanding to know how many takes that actually took, and how it was choreographed, because the whole thing is so improbable. Still, I’m glad my mind switched tracks back and forth the way that it did, because once I got to the end I knew that I wouldn’t want to subject myself to watching the movie again. (Kind of the same way I feel about SE7EN, honestly. Is Oldboy more disturbing than SE7EN? YES, YES IT IS.)

All of this may be coming across as a complaint, and I really don’t mean it that way. I’m certainly not advocating that all movie-makers play it safe and dumb down what they’re capable of just so that I don’t get distracted by thoughts of how insanely difficult it must be to put the final product up on screen. I like the fact that I can be amused by what a movie is doing on various levels. I honestly wish I had the time to re-watch more movies and appreciate them fully. I’m just not going to get up at 5 a.m. on my days off on a regular basis to do it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Paths not taken

Not that I’ve done a rigorously scientific survey or anything, but I tend to believe that at least a slight majority of people have, at some point or another, thought about owning their own business. Maybe it’s the liberating fantasy of being your own boss and answering to no one, maybe it’s the simple allure of doing something you truly love, or maybe it’s the attraction of becoming known as a true pillar of the community, a downtown fixture, a local employer and philanthropist and renowned expert on, I don’t know, Japanese fishing lures or somesuch. Of course those are just the superficial daydream facades, and in reality most businesses fail and even the ones that succeed take years and years of bonecrushing labor and mind-numbing promotion to start to break even. But hey, pleasant superficial illusions are what daydreams are for.

Please brace yourself for what I’m sure will be a senses-shattering shock, but more than once in my life I’ve envisioned myself running a comic book store. Never even so far as a “well, huh, maybe someday …” kind of quasi-plan, more of a “wouldn’t it be interesting if this opposite-of-reality scenario were happening” thing, but still. I’ve daydreamed ever so idly. And, granted, every time I’ve begun following yet another blog written by yet another actual comic book store owner (or even longtime employee), I’ve been humbly thankful for my assimilation into the droneforce under the Big Gray’s sway.

This past weekend, though, I had a moment where I once again briefly pined for the life of a smalltown comics retailer, albeit for a ludicrous reason which could in no way withstand rational pro/con analysis. The occasion was our town’s annual Christmas Parade (and, please note as I did, that it seems a pretty clear sign that I live in Real America when the parade is not called a Holiday Parade or any other all-inclusive non-specific abstraction) which constituted the morning’s entertainment for myself and the little guy on Saturday. The parade was impressively robust, with ninety-something different organizations marching, dancing, or motorcading in it, culminating in a very credible Santa and Mrs. Claus sitting on matching green thrones on a trailer float. The lead-up included multiple rescue squad’s worth of fire engines, several different marching bands, no less than three local dance companies, two different classic car clubs, and various rolling displays sponsored and/or manned by area businesses.

The little guy had enough fun to hang in there for the two hours required to see the whole show, and he was especially enchanted by the Jeep-enthusiasts’ group who all dressed up their vehicles with windscreens decorated to look like the eyes of the characters from Pixar’s Cars (more on that movie tomorrow, but needless to say the little guy is a huge fan) – in particular the last Jeep in the procession had not just the eyes but the buck-toothed mouth across the grill and towing apparatus out the back to complete a respectable Mater, the little guy’s favorite. I had fun, too, because I like a good parade and this definitely qualified. But I couldn’t deny that I was a little jealous of how much fun some of the local businesses seemed to be having as participants, and I naturally fell into old woolgathering grooves, designing hypothetical Christmas/comic book crossover floats and wondering which of my friends I could get to dress up as characters for it. (I will say I don’t think that last part would be particularly hard at all. I run in some fairly hammy and up-for-anything crowds.)

But of course that’s all just crazy inner secret life stuff. Besides, even if strange unforeseen circumstances (involving the implosion of the government contracting market and possibly me inheriting some commercial real estate?) pushed my life in that particular direction, I don’t know if my own contributions to the Christmas Parade could ever surpass what was far and away my favorite element this year: a local Cajun restaurant’s entry, which consisted of the following:

- A pickup truck, which was towing a trailer that carried
- A large speedboat, festooned with banners bearing the restaurant’s name, and carrying
- Various people dressed in Mardi Gras costumes including beads, colored wigs and crowns, etc. … and also towing
- A guy in a gorilla suit riding a skateboard as if he were waterskiing behind the boat

What this has to do with Christmas as it is generally celebrated around here I really couldn’t tell you. I think it is possible someone pulled a fast one and snuck a Saturnalia float into the Christmas Parade, and I say WELL-PLAYED.

Monday, December 6, 2010


OK, it’s Monday, staring down the barrel of the surprisingly rare (particularly this time of year) full five-day work week and actually surrounded by eerie silence since the vast majority of the office is attending an off-site town hall meeting (which I too was advised to attend, but the combination of just enough busywork plus a certain surety that I would get nothing out of it has kept me at my desk), so what else can I tell you about the white-collar wonderland side of my life?

Two things, actually, completely unrelated and supremely strange in their juxtaposition with one another. I’ll start with a legitimately positive development, for which I will belabor the introduction to give you time to recover from a well-deserved gasp of surprise. When I got back from my New Mexican excursion last week I found a brochure for a conference waiting on my desk. It had been addressed to my contracting boss and he passed it along to me, and I looked it over to find the details of an upcoming two-day local conference on cloud computing and its future at the DoD. I interpreted the brochure’s presence in my workspace as my boss insinuating that I should attend the conference if I were so inclined, and I told him I was exactly so inclined and he made the proper managerial ministrations to get me signed up and the registration fee paid for out of our contract budget and so on. So next Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll be megadosing on hotel coffee and enjoying a brief respite from my regular workaday environs in the Converted Closet of Doom.

There's not enough punching in the world for how much I hate this family.  Yes I know they are fictional marketing creations.  Still.
The funny thing is I will also truly be paying attention and quite probably taking notes. You might wonder why the Defense Department would be willing to devote two whole days to figuring out the fastest way to Photoshop hideous family Christmas cards or how to watch DVR’ed reality tv on the road, but despite what Microsoft has been peddling in what seems like basically every commercial break of every show I watch these days, those usages have little if anything to do with cloud computing. I won’t get into what exactly it does entail, but suffice it to say it seems to be a future trend getting closer every day for large-scale organizations (and there ain’t no bigger one than our own lovable military-industrial-complex-supporting arm of the government) and it could end up having a major impact on my current job position in one of two ways: either I could slide off this contract because everyone wants to utilize cloud computing more and I’m the custom web application guy, or I could be very busy because everyone wants to utilize cloud computing more and I’ve managed to position myself as somebody who knows a little bit about cloud computing myself. Personally I feel a little better about the second scenario so I think I’ll give it a whirl.

When it occurs to me to grouse about how slack my job is for reasons other than its inherent boringness, the thing I grouse about is how I do so little and what I do is all old hat, so I’m never challenged and I never learn anything. And again, that’s nice when I’m feeling last but potentially worrisome when I think about not working here forever – because who else besides a monolithic, last-gen technology user like this office is going to want my last-gen skillset?

And so of course that question also came into play towards the end of last week when one of my old friends and former co-workers asked me if I would be interested in changing jobs, because he recently started at a new gig and they are still hiring. This would be a much hungrier private sector type of set-up where I would be frequently (if not constantly) challenged and learning new things and keeping up and so on. There’s no denying that it’s tempting. I have my litany of major and minor complaints against this place, and my friend’s employer sounds like it would not only be more skill-sharpening but arguably a more fun environment (both working with my friend and being in a more casual environment in general) and the compensation would be roughly equivalent (potentially, anyway) but there’s also the aversion to doing anything new where I’d have to relearn a bunch of corporate ropes and start as the lowliest newbie, and with a new baby on the way in the spring it may not be the best time to radically alter other parts of my life, although it’d be slightly easier now than six months from now … I’m still pondering, obviously, and I can’t promise I’ll make any progress on it anytime soon. All I know for sure is I’m definitely not quitting the current job until I get back from my free conference, dangit.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Intemperate zones

Because I grew up in the New York City-centric tri-state area, the seasonal weather patterns of that particular geographical situation are what I will forever consider normal. I’m just barely mature enough now to realize that everyone else has their own version of normal, based on what they themselves grew up with. So even though notions like warm summers with occasional spikes of extreme heat, and variable autumns, and cold winters with a few snowfalls and a blizzard every so many years, and rainy but gradually warming springs all sounds, to my ears, like some kind of thoroughly standardized rational baseline, it’s really just what I was exposed to when I was too young to know any better than to consider my experiences emblematic of universal truths.

Another thing I was admittedly simple-minded about when I was a kid was the way that latitude affects average temperatures. I knew that the arctic was cold year-round and the equator was hot, and Florida was close enough to the equator to make a really nice getaway in February. Somehow I came to believe that there was just this pronounced gradient as you moved up or down the east coast, so points north in New England and Canada must have cooler summers than NYC and much harsher winters, while the southern states would correspondingly have milder winters and more sweltering summers. All of which is kind of true in the broad strokes, but I basically believed that on any given day any time of year, whatever the weather was in central New Jersey, it must be ten degrees colder a couple hundred miles north and ten degrees warmer a couple hundred miles south in a logical geometric progression. This irrationality was semi-consciously part of the reason why I decided to go to college in Virginia, because I’m not all that fond of ice-cold winters, and I was fairly bummed to learn that Virginia still gets snow and sleet and sub-zero days and all that. (I have since gotten over it.) I also was apparently incapable of wrapping my younger head around the relative sizes of states, which led to formulations like this: three states lie between New York and Virginia (NJ, DE, MD) and three states lie between Virginia and Florida (NC, SC, GA) so Virginia must be a nice happy medium exactly halfway between New York and Florida, weather-wise, right?

Not that any of this is horrifically warped, really, since we all start out uninformed and capable of convincing ourselves of “facts” based on fallacies and wild misconceptions, and sometimes only actual life experience can disabuse us of them. What strikes me as funny is how some kind of primacy effect allows these absurd wide-eyed notions to hang around basically forever. This is all top of mind because they’re calling for snow in the Carolinas this weekend, and upon hearing that my initial response was the same old dissonance, the “How can it snow south of here before it snows here?” as if I’d never before encountered the idea that weather patterns have irregular shapes more often than not and move with utter disregard for the ladder rungs I see in my mental east coast map (as drawn by an eight year old).

And apropos of virtually nothing, except the arrival of December and snow reports in general and my geekiness in particular, my Very Little Bro sent me this picture this morning:

Aren't you a little short for a snowflake?  Wait, dang, that doesn't even make sense.
I really can’t top that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Phantom Phever

So no sooner had I settled into my workspace for another glorious day in contractual service to our armed forces than my wife called to let me know that the little guy had arisen with a slight fever and complaints of both “my stomach hurts” and “my mouth hurts” (which, given the still semi-capricious nature of his language acquisition and utilization, could have meant they both hurt, or only one did and he was using terms interchangeably, or something else entirely like he was hungry or wanted to run around in the altogether as is his wont). Daycare was thus unceremoniously shoved off the table and I made arrangements to put in a half day and leave early while my wife made arrangements to go in to work late, handing off the little guy tag-team style around midday. Fortunately everyone on both employers’ sides was amenable to all this, and my wife and I had to admit with gratitude that it had been months and months since such impromptu rearrangements had last been necessary.

And as it turned out, they may not have even been entirely necessary this time around either, because once he was administered a half-dose of infant ibuprofen the little guy was in fine spirits all morning and ate breakfast and lunch with close to his usual gusto. It’s somewhat gratifying to now feel like an experienced parent who can do the arithmetic of (elevated temperature) + (moderate crankiness) + (back to normal after a squirt of analgesia) and come up with (oh right he’s probably just getting a new tooth) and not obsessively, overthinkingly worry ourselves to death. Still, by the time we had done our version of House, M.D. (Pediatrics) the work schedules had already been flexed, so I was home for the afternoon, instead of blogging from work. (Hence yesterday’s post-free nature.)

Yeah ... I don't even know.
And once I was home, and my wife was getting ready for work, it was time to put the little guy down for a nap, which he took to with no complaints and which lasted for a record-shattering three and a half hours, maybe a little more. During the downtime I watched a movie, and did a little fanfic writing, and alternated between chastising myself for not going ahead and waking up the little guy after he had been sleeping for two hours and change, and guiltily enjoying the rarity of unstructured free time. So, you know, there’s that trade-off: no longer do I harbor the gruesome fears of a brand new parent, that every twitch and cry of my fragile offspring heralds imminent doom, but those have been exchanged for the more mundane second-guessings that every parenting decision is something less than exactly right, not a life-threatening error but a missed opportunity to be better.

Still, if the little guy is eventually going to take after his mother and find that waking up from a nap after the sun has set really wrecks his circadian moods, he’s not there yet. Once he was up yesterday he was his usual, crazy, adorable self. While I sat at the kitchen table he brought out two plastic toy versions of soda cans – one grape, one orange, both about the size of a spool of thread – and offered one and then the other to me over and over until we had pretended to drink about a case each. He greatly enjoyed both making the “pssshh!” sound effect of opening a carbonated beverage and the lip-smacking “ahh!” after finishing a drink. He also insisted there was some crucial difference between making realistic drinking noises and actually saying the syllables “glug glug glug”, and sometimes we had to do one and sometimes the other, but I never caught on to the logic of which was dictated when. At the very least he’s absorbing the rituals of hospitality pretty well, and can ask “Do you need another one?” and say “Here you go!” with a chipper graciousness that would do my old Irish aunts proud. And at the end of the day, I could be doing better but I could also be doing a lot worse than bringing up a boy who loves nothing better than sharing a hearty “cheers” over fake fizzy fruity drinks.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Travel travails

I still maintain, with the unchanging steadfastness of a novelty t-shirt purchased at the shore, that a bad day out of the office beats a good day in the office, but man oh man, yesterday was arduous.

In hindsight it’s difficult to make it out to be anything more than it was, which was just your typical commercial air travel comedy of errors. My step-father dropped me and my wife and the little guy off at the airport with ridiculous amounts of time to spare, considering the airport itself is not that big from one end to the other and a Monday mid-morning does not generally entail massive crowds in the security lines or anything. But this was by design, because we wanted to have a day free of even the slightest worry, one in which we could check our bags and then go through security and then grab a hot breakfast and then leisurely await the boarding call. Since we had a two-year-old to wrangle on the one hand and his awkwardly bulky car seat to tote on the other, padding the schedule seemed all for the best.

And it would have been, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their dog. And by “meddling kids and their dog” I mean “massive delays due to mechanical problems which no one could have foreseen or done anything about”. Well, maybe someone could have done something about it, maybe there’s a business plan somewhere in running an airline which has a 100% on-time rate because all the planes are rigorously maintained and replaced as soon as they’re two years old and armed with Destro’s Weather Dominators or whatever, but that does not describe Southwest Airlines. (Nor, for what it’s worth, does it describe an airline I’d be likely to fly my family on, because I imagine the tickets would be astronomically expensive.)

Iron Grenadier Airlines runs a tight ship, but their major hub is a bit out of the way on Cobra Island.
We had a connection in Chicago and at the start of the day it was a very manageable hour and a half between flights. But our flight out of Albuquerque was delayed 55 minutes, and then an hour and 15 minutes, so suddenly it seemed like the only way we could hop from one plane to the next would be if we were among the first six or so passengers off the plane in Chicago and just hustled like Charlie, and also if the jetway for the second flight were no more than three or four gates away. Getting off a plane fast of course requires sitting towards the front, and this might actually be possible on Southwest because of their bizarre free-for-all boarding/seating scheme, but you know what can really screw it all up? When you spot a window-and-middle pair of seats in Row 8, which would have been perfect for me and the little guy (federal aviation law requires the carseat get buckled into a window seat, and my wife could have found a singleton even closer to the front), and there’s a lady sitting in the aisle seat, and you ask if you can get past her to the two other seats, and she says she’s saving one of those seats for her husband. Does that not kind of violate the spirit and/or defeat the purpose of open, unassigned seating? Husband-Seat-Saving Lady, whoever you are, wherever you are, you pretty much suck. You may not have technically done anything wrong, you may have been within the letter of the law of Southwest’s A-group boarding policy, and you of course weren’t obligated to look out for anyone but yourself, but still. You suck.

We skipped the Emergency Exit row and tried sitting in Row 10, which is still at least in the front half of the plane, but were reminded by a flight attendant that it’s actually three rows that count as emergency exit for purposes of expressly forbidding carseats, so we ended up in Row 13. And also ended up wheels-down exactly when you’d expect, with 15 minutes ticking down until our connection. And also taxied to Gate A11 and were told by the flight crew that the flight to Dulles was at Gate B25. But in a mad frenzied burst we deplaned as fast as possible and I ran … no, that’s not the right word for it, but I think English may lack the specificity to describe in a single word the locomotion that results when an out-of-shape 36 year old with a large carry-on strapped to his back and a carseat hugged to his chest tries to get from one side of Midway to the other in seven minutes. (The German tongue might have it covered, but I think Babelfish has a character limit.)

The plan was that I would get to the gate first while my wife (who, let us not forget, is four and a half months pregnant) maneuvered herself and the little guy (who walks pretty slowly, or slows down whoever’s carrying him) in my wake, and if I had to lay across the cabin door I would keep the plane from taking off without all three of us. I got to B25 with two minutes to spare! And then saw that our connecting flight had been delayed half an hour and had yet to even start boarding. Which would have been nice to know when we landed. Also, once my bride and my heir rejoined me, we heard an announcement that boarding would be further delayed because another Southwest flight carrying passengers who were supposed to make the same connection was coming in late, and they’d be holding the plane for them. Which also would have been nice to know when we were twiddling our thumbs nervously in Albuquerque and trying to claw our way to primo seats on that flight. I really can’t decide after all that if I’m a fan of Southwest Airlines or not. On the one hand they seemed to be doing a lot to accommodate the repercussions of the screwed up schedule; on the other hand the schedule-buck does stop with them. They’ve got good prices; but the cheapness shows in the experience. And some other day I’ll describe the nightmare of the first leg of our flight out west, when the cabin pressurization system malfunctioned and I thought my head was going to explode, as did the little guy (thought his own head was going to explode, I mean, probably didn’t spare a thought to anyone else’s, understandably) and the little guy didn’t even know or understand what you’re supposed to do to alleviate the pressure imbalance in such a situation and therefore just SCREAMED BLOODY MURDER. Which I do, in a roundabout way, basically blame Southwest for in the same buck-stoppage way.

But I’m still pretty sure about Husband-Seat-Saving Lady. She totally sucks.

Anyway, we’re all home in one piece, all back to our beloved routines of work and daycare and whatnot, and all’s right with the world, or close enough. I’ll dole out a few more Thanksgiving anecdotes in days to come. Right now I’m just thrilled to be home.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A comic character rebus

It Girl, from The Atomics (AAA Pop, Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics)

Supergirl, from the Superman family (DC Comics)

Cowgirl up!
Arizona Girl, from Wild West (Marvel Comics)

IT + S + A + GIRL

Or so we think! My wife went in for the 20 week ultrasound this morning and the results were semi-conclusive. The umbilical cord running right between the legs prevented a clear and definitive imaging of our baby-to-be's sex, but on the other hand, there wasn't a "check it out I'm totally a boy!" moment like we had with the little guy. The sonogram-operating professional in attendance said she was inclined to believe it was a girl (which my wife's maternal intuition is beginning to suggest more and more as well), and offered to check again at a future appointment. I'd put the odds at about 75%, which means that if I'm going to include three pictures of girls I should include a fourth to represent the 25% uncertainty. Preferably something androgynous with an air of mystery about it.

You guys, comics are awesome.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Stuck Record

An atypical Tuesday, too? Oh, yes, believe it.

I made it home last night without too much difficulty, although it was slightly nerve-wracking simply because the whole process was generally unfamiliar to me. When I drive I almost always go in and out of the DC area using 66 as a straight shot, so not having that option due to HOV restrictions meant I had to get creative. And I may have been a bit overconfident at my ability to wing it, and by just kind of following roads I sorta recognized the names of in the general direction I thought I should be heading, I probably didn’t make headway as straightforwardly as I could have. But in the end, door-to-door, it took just about exactly as much time to get home as the combination of mass transit and driving commute usually takes.

Also working in my favor on the way home was much more favorable conditions, both external and internal. I didn’t bring this up yesterday, but the most trying part of the morning commute was the stretch getting from Megabus to M Street, not only because I was winging it but because my car was running on fumes and I was overdue to relieve myself of my morning coffee, ahem ahem. Fortunately when I re-oriented myself on M I quickly found a large gas station with not abominable restrooms, so I solved those problems and made the rest of the trip without incident. This also meant that I had plenty of gas on the way home, and I made a conscious effort to visit the restrooms at work before hitting the road, and the morning fog obviously was no longer a factor in the evening, so all in all it was an improvement.

But by not following my usual commute habits, I set off other cascading effects. Usually when I settle down in my seat on the bus or Metro, I unclip my building security badge and put it inside my work bag so I can’t forget it the next day. But yesterday evening I left the office and by the time I was sitting down again I was operating a motor vehicle, and didn’t realize I still had my badge clipped on until after I had gotten home, dropped my work bag, and taken off and hung up my coat. So the badge ended up on the kitchen counter, right next to my cell phone, which I was sure would remind me to grab the badge as well in the morning.

Needless to say the badge is still sitting on the kitchen counter as I type this, because I am a dingus. Hence today’s completely different flavor of atypicality. I had to stop at the security desk for the building this morning and get a visitor badge, which also means I’m not allowed to wander the building on my own. So I’ve been shackled at my desk all day without so much as a mosey down to the fifth floor vending machines, because the hassle of getting someone to escort me anywhere isn’t really worth it. This is what I reap from being ultra-orthodox in my dedication to keeping my head down and not socializing much at the office.

If I'm going to whine, I'm going to whine EXTREMELY MELODRAMATICALLY.
And can I just add that I’m sure being a security guard at a government office building is a challenging enough job, and my problems caused by my own negligence do not automatically become their problems, but would it kill them to be a little bit sympathetically helpful? Even to get to the elevators with my visitor badge, I needed to call someone for an escort from the lobby. I started scrolling through my cell phone contacts looking for my boss and was surprised to find I’d never saved his number. Another of my co-workers, whose number I did have, is already on vacation, so I was at a bit of a loss. I asked one of the security guards if they had any kind of directory, explaining my phone predicament. The security guard sighed and said “All we have is that directory over there between the two columns” and pointed across the lobby. I figured it was worth a shot to look and see if maybe my office had a main number and maybe I could prevail upon the administrative assistant who manned that phone or whatever. I would not have figured it was worth a shot if the security guard had said something like “The building directory doesn’t have any phone numbers on it” which was, in fact, the case. I mean, seriously? If I tell you I can’t find a phone number and ask if you have a directory, why in the world would you even bother mentioning (and implying even the longshot helpfulness of) a floor directory which only lists which agencies are in which suites? How hard is it to realize that the most helpful answer would actually be “No, sorry”?

I’m mostly mad at myself, I guess. One more day to go and I can’t wait to see what kind of curveball that’s going to entail. Probably thunderstorms and a fire drill and I’ll forget my umbrella.