Thursday, September 30, 2010

Unexpectedly opinionated

We had some friends over for dinner this past weekend, a couple who are expecting their first child in a couple of months. And the mom-and-dad-to-be are smart enough and decent enough and passionate enough to already be putting a lot of mental energy into considering what kind of parents they’re going to be. (In other words, they’re a lot like me and my wife, or at the very least reminiscent of where we were at a little over two years ago.)

I should point out that I like this couple and there was no egregious artifice in having them out to our place for a meal, but at the same time to be brutally honest they are not top-tier friends. I don’t feel especially close to them, and they exist for me in the emotional sphere of warm regards, as opposed to deep affection. Some people have a small and tight inner circle of friends and relegate the rest of the world to passing acquaintanceship at best, and some people cast a wider social net and have very close friends as well as fairly close friends as well as just-okay friends as well as used-to-be-totally-good-friends, but-have-drifted-somewhat, but-still-make-the-effort-now-and-then friends, etc. My wife and I fall in the latter category.

It may seem like an odd thing to confess, but there it is, and the reason I confess it is because what struck me the most about the experience of hanging out with an expectant couple is how emphatic I was, all night, in expressing my opinions about parenthood, child-rearing, and such. Because I usually consider myself someone who keeps his own passions from boiling over, most of the time, except when I’m around people I know and trust and love. And slim though the margin may be, our weekend dinner guests do fall somewhat shy of those know-trust-love signposts I usually observe. Yet I spouted off volubly to them anyway.

Clearly this is the chink in my armor, where for metaphorical purposes my armor is my Gen X tendency to come at everything from a skewed, ironic perspective. If I may speak on behalf of all my generational cohorts, there’s a tendency to overemphasize really trivial things while underplaying the basic fundamentals. Of course I have really strong opinions about human nature and morality and spirituality and love and the things that actually, at the end of a lifetime, matter. But you’ll almost never hear me shouting about those things, certainly not as often as you’ll hear me going off about Star Wars or Batman or Arkanoid or a million other things which, although they’ve all been responsible for moments of true happiness in my life, do not actually in the final analysis matter in and of themselves. It’s just that the energy has to go somewhere, my self-expression has to have some outlet, and it’s easier or safer or less scary to get all worked up about lightsaber techniques because if someone dismisses what I’m saying as dumb, I already knew that it was. Whereas it’s harder to roll with it if I bare my soul about why I think we’re here, and someone says that’s dumb.

I've spent more time thinking through my 'Friend or Pet?' hypothesis than I dedicated to my senior thesis.
So I don’t know if it’s the fact that raising a child is such a new experience for me (yes, even still) that I haven’t developed the same mental defenses around it, or if it means more to me than almost anything else and the sheer force of that means it doesn’t particularly need to be defended, or what. Possibly both and a whole host of other factors besides. But this is my revelation-of-the-week, that I am fully capable of going way out on a wire, without a net, to speak at length to anyone who’s willing to listen about my own deeply-held convictions on the joys and struggles of parenting.

The funny thing is that what got me truly fired up was the whole notion of opinions and personal passions and how you should go about passing them on to your children. Or not, as the case may be. Because nothing drives me quite so crazy as seeing an infant dressed in a flagrantly, humorlessly political onesie (regardless of whether or not I happen to be sympathetic to the politics in question). Given how difficult I find it sometimes to be unironically opinionated, I should applaud anyone else who isn’t so circumspect, and in general I do, but using your offspring as a prop to that end just sets my teeth on edge. And I think the reason for that is because I think it’s important that children, in the self-actualizing process of growing up, should be able to form their own opinions about the Really Important Stuff, which is kind of hard to do if you’ve always been part of Daddy’s sloganeering apparatus.

And the irony does not escape me that my own little guy is too young to, for example, really say that he likes Spider-Man. He has, at best, the flimsiest notion of who Spider-Man is, despite owning two different t-shirts with the wall-crawler on them and (as of yesterday’s post-daycare shopping excursion when I took him to Target for shoes) a brand new pair of sneakers with a red and blue webbing motif. So you could say that I dress up my own child as part of Daddy’s geeking-out apparatus, and that may very well be true, but in this case I think it’s an undiluted positive to say that that’s ok because it’s all meaningless fluff. My little guy may grow up and decide he prefers a different pop culture touchstone, or maybe even that all of my juvenile obsessions are too lame for him, and that’s ok, because none of it really matters. For as long as it lasts, though, it’s some good harmless fun, and in the end, I’ll be able to live with whatever comes of it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Worlds Within Worlds, Part 1

Here’s my glass-half-full take on the fact that I am forever lamenting the fact that my free time is minimal and fleeting, the things I turn to for leisure are time-consuming, and there exists an eternally long list of things I would do, just for fun, if I had time, which I don’t: the list keeps elongating. I know that seems at first glance to take a bad situation and make it worse, but the reason this is a silver lining is because it means I haven’t given up hope that I will eventually find a way to balance everything and check out more and more things I’ve been meaning to get into. Because if I just started ignoring movie reviews and publishing schedules after concluding that I would never dig myself out of my life-scheduling hole, that would be grim indeed. But as long as I’m still window-shopping the pop culture landscape (window-popping?) then, you know, I’m still me.

I was thinking about this the other day as I read yet another article online about a soon-to-be-released video game. (For “soon” in this case, read as “probably in the spring of 2011, but who really knows” and actually, that suits me just fine.) Video games are actually a gigantic blind spot for me, because while I enjoy them they don’t really get their hooks into me (the way they get their hooks into many of my cohorts, or the way other equally disposable entertainments get their own hooks into me) and as such I content myself with a Wii that doesn’t even get much use these days, and have never once even contemplated picking up an Xbox 360 or a PS3. I like Guitar Hero and Mario Kart and I’m moderately not terrible at them. All of which is the essence of a non-issue for me.

Moving away from consoles and into the realm of PCs, things are pretty much the same. There are three computers in my house, and none of them are particularly ideal for playing video games. I talk some good talk about replacing one or more of them with the bare minimum specs for modern gaming in mind, but so far that has yet to translate into actual action of the discretionary spending kind. As it happens, the soon-to-be-released game I was reading about is the kind I would play on the PC, and not only is it the same kind of game that I’ve logged the most hours on in the past five years or so, but it also covers a lot of the same thematic territory. None of which is all that surprising, creature of habit that I am.

For the past half-decade I’ve invested a mortifying amount of time in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (that would be the MMORPG you may have heard bandied about as stuff like World of Warcraft has risen into the collective pop consciousness) called City of Heroes. It’s a game in the sense that you run around scoring points for beating up bad guys, it’s role-playing because you play as a custom-created character in a very freeform environment tracing your way through a loosely deterministic narrative, it’s online because you need an internet connection to play because the actual data for the game resides on a server, and it’s massively multiplayer because hundreds and thousands of people connect to the same servers and all run around the same city maps fighting the same bad guys (or each other) in ways ranging from tight cooperation to outright ignoring. The basic appeal of City of Heroes, to me, should be pretty obvious: you get to make up a super hero and run him around doing comic book-y things, which becomes addictive because of the way they parcel out the tropes. The object of the game is to get to Level 50, and every level gives your character a little bit more ability. You can’t really fly until you get to level 12 or so (I think; it’s been a while since I was hardcore playing often enough to have the various milestones memorized cold) and you can’t put a proper cape on your costume until level 20, etc.

And I should point out that it’s the “make up a super hero” part that captures my attention much moreso than the “run around doing comic book-y things” part. Again, I’m no video game prodigy so when I’m engaging in actual gameplay I tend to stumble a bit and get beaten by the computer-controlled opponents more often than not, not so much that it ever stops being fun, but it can occasionally be a bit of a grind that’s fun in the same way as Minesweeper. Lots of starting over.

Whereas making up a super hero from scratch has no winning or losing, and City of Heroes has a character design interface that is mind-blowingly robust and ridiculously easy to use. You are allowed to have something like a hundred different characters saved to your game account, and I have made the most of that capacity. Sometimes when I’ve had half an hour to kill I’ve spent it customizing costume pieces like a little girl playing virtual Barbie, and ended up with yet another super hero I will never actually play in the game because I’ve already got so many others working their way through the levels. (I have yet to get even one character all the way to level 50.)

Blue skin, orange cyborg armor?  No problem!
And yet another thing I really love about the game is logging in to the virtual world and simply people watching, looking at the other player-generated characters running around on my screen and seeing the digitized hero concepts I never would have thought of in a million years. Some people obviously take great care in crafting their super avatars, coming up with a look that conveys certain compelling ideas right off the bat. Other people just want to dive into beating up bad guys and produce deliberately simplified or absurd collections of random pixels. Either approach can be fascinating.

And of course once you create your super hero character, he or she needs a name, and the same creativity-vs-apathy dynamics play out there, too, but take on another intriguing dimension, because every character name has to be unique (for data integrity reasons), and they are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. So once someone else decides to be Captain Awesome, you are restricted from choosing that name yourself. But it’s the literal character string that’s locked down by the server programming, not the underlying concept, so Capt Awesome or Cpt Awesome or Kapitan Awesomme would all be acceptable (again, acceptable at the data level, if somewhat grammatically and/or aesthetically suspect). For that matter, Captain~4WZ0M3 would be acceptable, if you don’t mind your avatar running around with what looks like a pharmaceutical spam subject line glowing over his head. (And, from my observations, some people don’t.)

Then again, eventually you run afoul of copyright. If you had your heart set on fighting crime as Captain Awesome but found that name (along with most of its variants which are not gross degradations of text-based literacy) already taken, you could try Captain Impressive or Captain Gobsmacker but you had better not even attempt to use Captain Marvel because that name is already spoken for by a major comic book publisher (technically, by both of them for completely unrelated characters, but that is a long story that I won’t get into right now). City of Heroes is unaffiliated with either DC Comics or Marvel Comics and as such the intellectual properties of those companies are not available for use in the game. It’s an “original” universe (really it’s pretty much a pastiche of both of the biggies) and you are disallowed from playing Spider-Man or Wolverine or Batman or Superman.

Ah, but what does that mean? For one thing, the owners of the City of Heroes game can go ahead and preemptively lock down those character names so that the servers never allow anyone to choose them, which is all well and good. (I should quickly note here that my understanding of the situation is that the game owners voluntarily police the players themselves so as not to incur the wrath of DC and Marvel and bring down crippling copyright-infringement lawsuits, so all of this kind of falls under “err on the side of caution” headings. The reasons why there is not a more official copyright-enforcement agreement among the interested parties will become clear a little later.) But it would be nigh impossible to lock down every single variant along the lines of Spyder-Man, Sp1derman, ManSpider, ZPIDURM/\N, ad absurdum, which means the game owners, or more specifically the admins who keep the servers running, visually scan the logs from time to time to see if anyone is trying to scam their way past the rules. They also have to visually scan the costumes created, too, because just because someone created a super hero and named him The Blazing Star-Cop doesn’t mean they didn’t attire him in copyright-encroaching shades and patterns of emerald and black which too closely resemble a certain ring-wielding intergalactic enforcer who has a movie due out next summer.

Simple enough, but of course not really simple at all. Putting a video game avatar in blue tights and red boots and cape and an S on his chest and calling him Superlative-Man seems like an easy example of a violation, but what if the boots and cape are pink instead? Or you add a helmet? Or the chest-letter is an E? (For the “-est” which most superlatives end in?) Aren’t all super-heroes, to one extent or another, derivative of Superman anyway? Where is the line? I don’t really have answers to these questions, because I am neither a video game designer nor an IP lawyer nor a media giant obsessed with protecting brand identity. Several of my buddies play(ed) City of Heroes and one of them was a co-worker with whom I carpooled, and we used to spend hours on the road speculating wildly about what counted as a copyright infringement, both in terms of the letter of the law and in terms of what the City of Heroes owners would blow away just to be on the safe side. My buddy lost a character clad in red, white and blue and christened Captain Americana in the name of testing the limits of the admins’ tolerance for blurring the lines. (Granted, that one wasn’t terribly blurry.) All in all, though, it’s pretty fascinating to people watch in-game and play Spot the Influence, and its corollary Can They Get Away With That?

Didn’t I start off talking about a game that hasn’t come out yet, though? Yes, well, the reason why City of Heroes never came to some kind of official agreement with DC Comics where licensing fees could be remitted and people could, for example, play Green Lanterns to their hearts’ content was because that would run counter to DC’s plans to develop and roll out a MMORPG of their own, set in their own universe, and THAT is what I’m now looking forward to in spring of 2011. And of course DC Universe Online (as it will be called) will have a lot of the same issues to contend with as City of Heroes, but also some altogether different yet equally fascinating ones, as well. Next Wednesday I will speculate wildly about those!

Monday, September 27, 2010


I got a work e-mail from my government boss (as opposed to my contractor boss) about a week and a half ago, and I’m somewhat tempted to reproduce it in its entirety right here, but at the same time I recognize that doing so would probably cross a line that I’ve been conscientiously trying not to cross, so I’ll have to simply sum up.

The e-mail was a quick-and-dirty rundown of the various office policies and procedures, and official spelling out of How We’re Supposed To Do Things Around Here. And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being given specific documentation as much as the next guy, despite how accustomed I’ve become to just kind of trusting my own common sense and ability to make best guesses and move on. I especially enjoyed the way the whole e-mail was framed, with my boss seemingly going out of her way to specify that she was not trying to address any problem behavior and not thinking of anyone in particular who was doing things that directly contravened the (previously unexpressed) rules. According to my boss there hasn’t been enough time to do a proper new hire orientation lately as lots of new people have come on board, and an employee handbook doesn’t technically exist, hence the e-mail bulletin.

I suppose the most noteworthy thing about the list of do’s and don’t’s in the e-mail was how many of them I personally have been contravening in the year or so that I’ve been working out of this office exclusively. Like, it was news to me that lunch breaks are only supposed to be a half hour long. Sometimes I work through lunch and sometimes I leave for an hour or so, and no one has ever demanded that I account for my whereabouts after the fact. Once I start thinking about things like that I start to wonder if the e-mail was sent out to everyone in the department because that was the easiest Outlook Address Book Group to use, even though it really only applies to the government employees. Contractors just have to work the hours their contract stipulates, and my contractor boss has been pretty clear on that all along.

So it seems to be just another case of the perils of having two different bosses who routinely contradict one another, and again, I’m pretty used to that. Usually when I have any doubt I listen to my contractor boss because, seriously, the government policies often don’t make any sense. Another item in the e-mail noted that the core hours of the office are 0900 – 1500, and that no “alternate schedules” are allowed. Which … ugh … let me see if I can parse this out. There are six core hours a day, and five workdays a week, so does that means we are only required to work 30 hours a week? Clearly not (my contract stipulates the standard 40) but it does mean that whatever hours we work they need to cover the core hours at a minimum.

In my life I've had exactly one job where I was literally required to punch the clock.
That also means that you can work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or whatever else works for you above and beyond that, as long as you’re present between 9 and 3. And I know lots of people who come and go early, and lots who come and go late; I’m an early-in, early-out type myself. All of which certainly seems like alternating (early vs. late) schedules to me. And obviously I know that what my boss is really trying to convey is that no one is allowed to just decide they’re going to work 10 hour days Monday through Thursday and have every Friday off, and no one is allowed to roll in around noon every day even if they stay until 8 p.m. (though I’ve had jobs like that, and they were pretty awesome, and would be awesome on a day like today when I stayed up until midnight last night flipping back and forth between checking if the Jets were going to cover the spread against the Dolphins and gaping at the bizarro Yankees-Red Sox extra innings game, but I suppose that is neither here nor there) and I even get the reasoning behind it, that basically everyone needs to be in the office at the same time so that everyone is physically available to everyone else in order to accommodate the collaborative nature of the tasks at hand. It’s just one of those things where saying “core hours are 0900 – 1500” pretty much covers it, and trying to clarify by elaborating that alternate schedules are not allowed ends up confusing things and would have been better off not even being brought up. But that’s government agency-speak for you.

Overall the policies e-mail – both in terms of what it represented and what it actually conveyed – really just kind of reinforced to me once again how, in this office, I have such an off-to-the-side existence that nobody really notices whether or not I’m re-recording my voicemail greeting every day (yes, seriously). And once again for the record, I like that just fine, thanks.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Scanner Sunday – Catalogs, Part 1

My household is on the mailing lists for what strikes me as a precipitously large number of catalogs. In fact I’m not altogether convinced as to which collection is (or hypothetically would be) larger – my 2K volume comic book library, or the number of catalogs which pass through this house in a given year. Since we tend not to save the catalogs for very long, there’s no side-by-side comparison data available.

The situation has actually escalated since we moved back in December, because the former residents did not do a very good job of setting up their forwarding address, and we still get tons of junk mail in their name. And they were an older couple with eclectic tastes – he had an English-style pub in the basement, she had a teapot collection and various other caches of knickknacks upstairs – so clearly they were prime catalog targets. To be fair, my wife and I do a good amount of consumer-profile-expanding online shopping ourselves, which apparently even in the year 2010 still translates to getting glossy dead-tree catalogs dumped in one’s mailbox forever thereafter. A good bit of our shopping is under the guise of gift-giving, and sometimes for people who have different tastes than we do. (Not judging, just saying.) Or very occasionally someone in this house (hint: usually not me) will have a very specific idea of a very particular thing they want and via the magic of the unbiased logarithms of the Google one will stumble upon an online retailer that happens to sell that one particular thing which has a miniscule Venn overlap with a whole lot of weird random crap. The point is, we don’t just get a lot of catalogs from whitebread retailers like Babies R Us and Land’s End (though we do get those) but we also get a ton of freaky stuff.

So to kick off Scanner Sundays here I’m going to focus on one catalog in particular that shows up in our mailbox regularly, which is the eponymous vehicle for a company that calls itself The Pyramid Collection. The subtitle of this catalog is “Myth, Magick, Fantasy & Romance” and it is fairly stunning. In brutally boiled-down terms I would hazard a guess that the target demographics for this retailer include Twi-Moms, and Ren Faire patrons, and ideally Twi-Moms who love Ren Faires. And if you didn’t understand that last sentence I gotta admit, I kind of envy you a little bit.

Because make no mistake, this is a sub-culture which rubs up against many of the sub-cultures with which I identify myself. I have been to Ren Faires and had a good time, even though I don’t exactly countdown to Ren Faire season as it were, and never would have listed one as a potential dream job. (The Ren is for Renaissance, these are the pseudo-medieval re-enactment dealies they set up in a big field where people man booths and run entertainments that basically simulate a historical context that never really existed on Earth at any point except within the pages of Tolkien-esque fairy tales.) And I play Dungeons & Dragons, although I’ve never felt the all-consuming desire to own in real life the kind of black velvet cloak my highwayman character in the game might wear, although then again I have played alongside people who have both felt and yielded to that very desire. So, I get it. I get that some people’s favorite day is Halloween and some people wish every day could be Halloween and some people just go ahead and dress and act as if it were. I get the inherent appeal of a world enlivened by “magick-with-a-superfluous-K” and I tend to experience that in an inward-directed way by consuming Jim Butcher novels or Ralph Bakshi movies or whathaveyou, whereas other people only branch away from my mindset by experiencing fantasy in a more outward-directed way, as self-expression, by wearing dragon jewelry every day and putting vampire-themed magnetic fish on their back bumper. In mental space, these people are my next door neighbors. And I meant what I said on Friday, I’m not here to mock them for shopping at the off-brand adult Hot Topic and wearing black gowns with silkscreened rainbow mermaids to the grocery store. I would, however, like to make fun of The Pyramid Collection itself because I do seriously wonder sometimes what they are thinking. Let’s go to the scan:

Also: 'nipped peplum' is something that I have no idea what it means but it sounds dirty.
(Click to embiggen – you know you want to!)

Now … again … I’ve owned some denim shirts. I had plenty when they were briefly in fashion, and a good while thereafter, and I may very well get some again. They are practical, to my mind, because denim is dang near indestructible and also coordinates with everything. And as I just finished saying, I do reasonably grok the idea of conflating personal style with playing dress-up in order to make the mundane world a more magickal place. But … so … Denim Princess? Really? To whom exactly is this being marketed? To my knowledge there is currently no entertainment franchise where staggeringly dull girls are romantically dueled over by toothless bad boys in the alternate-history royal courts of the Wild West (and believe me, if said franchise did exist, I would know about it). So presumably it’s just some bizarre hybrid somebody dreamed up from scratch, not realizing that the commonness of denim kind of cancels out the idealized fantasy of ruffles and lace. It’s like, if you're going to insist that everyone at work call you "Morrigan" that's cool, but go all the way with it. None of this “Hey, I’m a free-spirited woman-child and firm believer in whimsy, but when we go to lunch today at Chili’s I don’t want my clothes to get ruined if Bob spills queso on my sleeve again.”

And I think the Ren-Faire-going Twi-Moms would get this too, which means The Pyramid Collection really has no one to sell this item to, and somewhere there's a warehouse with five thousand denim princess jackets waiting to be bought for wardrobing extras in a widescreen steampunk chivalry epic. I really need to get on that idea.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Obligatory Saturday Grab Bag

I woke up today thinking I really had to make sure I made time for the SGB so that I could keep the blog on schedule this week. Then I remembered that I already blew it by taking a sick day on Thursday. But, since I'm here ...


So as mentioned, the inspiration for this week's rollout of a quasi-official daily programming plan was the new fall TV season. But of course I haven't talked about tv all week. Some quick highlights:

- Caught How I Met Your Mother on Monday and it was encouragingly good, not instant-classic fantastic but amusing enough that we will probably continue watching it more often than not.
- I think we just ended up watching baseball on Tuesday, even though the new Biggest Loser premiered. "We" rather than "me" because my wife was home early thanks to The Bug. The Bug also left her feeling so drained that she couldn't handle the blatant emotional manipulation of TBL, which they do lay on pretty thick in the first episode because it's all about these people who realize they are walking physiological Superfund sites but have yet to do anything about it. We did actually flip over for about five seconds to watch a guy our age weeping openly about how his own dad died young from obesity-related complications and he didn't want to do that to his own son. And that was enough of that.
- I half-watched Modern Family on Wednesday whilst laid low by The Bug and waiting for my wife to get home. HIMYM-level goodness, too, but I usually have plans on Wednesday so I probably won't catch very many episodes.
- Thursday was the evening we had been anticipating all summer, and it did not disappoint. Well, Outsourced was disappointing in every aesthetic sense, but we were prepared for it to be atrocious, so by that reckoning, meh.

Let's go to the clip!
I do happen to think pretty much every episode of Community is a fantastic instant-classic, which means sooner or later I'm going to start buying the seasons on DVD even though I've already seen them all, because I will be jonesing for bonus features. Plus the season premier ended with a Toto/Africa joke which ... I don't know if you guys know this, but that's worth immeasurable extra credit where my wife and I are concerned. 30 Rock did what it does best, which is walking the line between modern-work-life relatability and wacky live-action cartoon. I'm sure some people found the gag about Pete enjoying relations with his sound-asleep wife distastefully over-the-top, especially because they cut to the ickiness twice, but if I may play the apologist for a second, what you may not have noticed if you were busy flinching and averting your eyes and howling "oh no WHY???" was the moment between the two cutaways where Pete says to Liz something along the lines of "Think of it again!" Which means both cutaways were not literal Pete-perspective flashbacks but all in Liz's imagination. Which means Pete may have been exagerating, or lying outright just to mess with Liz. Or telling the truth. I know that's a weaselly way of trying to have it both ways, but at the very least it was a deliberate attempt to make the too-far-over-the-line stuff a little bit layered. Anyway ...

And The Office is still The Office, and since the season finale back in May didn't have too many cliffhangers that needed major resolution, we got a season premier that jiggled things a little bit but could very easily have been dropped into the middle of any past season. Michael make a bad managerial decision, Jim and Pam prank Dwight - the details were new but the formula was classic. Which doesn't really faze me, because for me The Office passed into Hang Out Entertainment territory a long time ago and doesn't have to be groundbreaking on my account. And let me just make this appeal one time for the record: can we all please stop carping on sit-coms, specifically, for plot advancement or lack thereof? Lost, what have ye done? If you want your mystery-based serialized dramas to offer one little clue or hint of resolution every week, fine, that's fair. But sit-coms? Really? Do we have to get all up in arms whenever HIMYM doesn't directly move Ted one step closer to finding his kids' mom? What really set me off on this was a review of The Office I read in which the reviewer lamented the fact that the season premier did not in any way shape or form address the fact that this is Steve Carrell's last season on the show and if The Office keeps going at least one more season (and it will) then Dunder Mifflin (a division of Sabre) will need a new regional manager. Apparently the reviewer wanted every single episode of this 22-ep season to play out the storyline of Michael Scott deciding to leave and his replacement being found. To which I say OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING ME COME ON. That sounds boring enough to make me claw my own eyes out. You want to know how many episodes it should take to introduce and resolve the idea of Michael leaving? Six. TOPS. But I suppose we shall see.


I didn't have time for the SGB last weekend, which was a shame because I wanted to point out what a David Foster Wallace kind of week the prior one was in my world. I finished reading The Broom of the System, which was more or less my back-to-school fiction novel for September. Good stuff, and well-timed, too, because the last thing I had read by DFW prior to that was a collection of essays and articles, and those are usually designed to have some kind of meaningful closure to them, whereas his novels tend to be more blatantly defiant of notions like traditional narrative structure and endings. So I was well primed when the news broke that week that DFW's final work is going to be posthumously published in April 2011. Normally I'm against that sort of thing, because unfinished work should just be left alone, but since DFW has that kind of incomplete, life-is-messy quality at its best, I'm more than ok with it. Looking forward to it, in fact.

Of course things come in threes, and as is often the case with me the third instance that week came in the form of My Guilty Pleasure on NPR. The subject was David Lipsky and his guilty pleasure was Runaways, which is a comic book series that falls into the rarest of categories: it's published by a Big Two company (Marvel) and is set in their super-hero universe but it is a critical darling. It is in fact a series I keep meaning to go back and check out but never have, which is something I feel guilty about in my weird obsessive way, but Lipsky called it a guilty pleasure not only because of the cultural baggage that still attches to tights-n-fights comics but also because if you buy the collections you most likely buy them in the most commonly found format, which is digest-sized and almost indistinguishable from romance manga, because Runaways has some strong chick appeal. Anyway, DFW never had a huge investment in superheroes so the connection here seems tenuous at best, and in fact as I was listening to Lipsky's piece I wasn't thinking about the connection at all, and then they ID'ed Lipsky afterwards as the author of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself which is about a five day road trip with ... DFW. To which I could only say, of course, of course.


It was 98 degrees yesterday in DC. Remember the guy who nailed up a sign over a snow bank this past winter saying CO2 HOAX? I so want to punch that guy in the throat.


OK, so now I apparently have to make a roadtrip to Jersey in the spring:

Press Release

Twist my arm.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Survival Mode

The thought briefly occurred to me yesterday to do a low-content post, if for no other reason than to maintain the weekly programming schedule I laid out on Monday at least all the way through the very first week it was supposed to be in effect. But low-content pretty quickly downgraded itself to no-content, not even the merest mention of something cute or profound (or acutely profound … or profoundly cute) observed while spending time with my son.

In a way, it’s the little guy’s fault that there was no post yesterday, because it all traces back to the malicious stomach bug he had over the weekend. He really did recover in a day or less, but ah, he’s young. He also managed to pass it to my wife, who evinced her own succumbing on Tuesday with such indisputable evidence that she was sent home from work early. I thought I might have dodged the bullet myself at that point; you can probably imagine the high rpm’s my mind underwent as I made sure my wife had everything she needed to go to bed Tuesday night immediately after we got the little guy down in his crib, and I envisioned having a couple hours to play video games or watch a Netflix movie or something similarly selfishly self-amusing. But I laid down next to my wife as she drifted off, to keep her company, and found myself drifting off as well, until I got up later just to properly get myself ready for bed. On Wednesday my wife bravely faced another day of work, as did I, but by the time I got the little guy home from daycare that evening I felt like I had been run down by a monster truck, and it was my turn to choose to go straight to bed after our son’s bedtime ritual, with my wife joining me directly after she got home from her own long day at the clinic.

Admittedly, a hell of a way to go.
So yesterday was my wife’s day off from work anyway, and I e-mailed in sick, partly as a precaution to make sure I didn’t infect any of my co-workers. Turned out to be the right call, as it happened, because while I never got quite to the can’t-keep-anything-down stage, I rode long, slow waves all day, cresting with “I feel reasonably all right” and troughing out around “ugh achy tired gross must lay down on carpet don’t have energy to stop little guy from riding my head like a rocking horse ugh”.

And it’s not only hard to focus on thinking and typing and blogging when feeling like that, it’s also hard to justify blogging, because the house becomes a disaster. Normally there’s a certain amount of responsible grown-up energy expenditure in following in the wake of the little guy, sometimes encouraging him to clean up after himself, sometimes just picking things up for him mid-strew because it’s not worth the fight, and that of course is on top of things like keeping the household laundry cycling along and cleaning up plates and cookware after meals, and so on. But this week was rough, and by Thursday afternoon we were ankle-deep in empty Gatorade bottles and stray sections of Thomas the Tank Engine’s tracks, basically everything non-essential had long since gone by the wayside. As of today it looks like everyone’s on the mend (the little guy, of course, has been mended since Monday and never showed signs of backsliding) and we’ll get everything under control again in a few days.

Anyway. If I had blogged yesterday, specifically about the little guy as promised, I most likely would have talked about something that happened a few nights ago. Some nights we put him down in the crib and he almost immediately passes out, some nights he talks to himself for a long while but eventually drifts off, and sometimes he stays quiet and possibly dozes for a few short minutes, but then starts screaming and crying until someone goes in to check on him. And because this seems to be an intermittent behavior that’s not being reinforced by our response to it, we do go check on him, and as often as not it’s some little thing like the little guy’s inability to find his stuffed lion again in the dark, or needing just “one more hug”. So a few nights ago he started the post-bedtime yowling, and I went up to his room, and I was already lifting him out of his crib as I asked “Do you need another hug?” He answered “I need a five.” Which I had to puzzle out, in the moment – five what? Five more Goldfish crackers (his usual bedtime snack)? A fifth bedtime story? Top Five Reasons Why Going To Bed Early Is Awesome?

Then, sudden clarity: “Do you mean you need a high five?” Which elicited a slow, pouty, but definitively affirmative nod of his sleepy little head. So up went my hand, and he slapped it, and I laid him back down and tucked him in, and he fell asleep shortly thereafter, and all was well. The kid cracks me up.

That might very well count as a Random Anecdote, too, but I think I can dig deeper than that to try to finish the week out strong. Back in college, I worked on the campus humor/satire magazine (which is, in fact, how my wife and I met since we were both on the staff, the first of many, many things we would learn over the years that we have in common – but this random anecdote is not about her) and the mag was a very minor voice in the overall publications output of the university. It came out at the end of each semester and was probably only about 20 pages long. The official staff of the magazine, which was basically everyone who came to the weekly meetings or helped put together the physical end-product in some way, totaled something like eight or ten people and ended up writing most of the content of each edition, but there was a submissions process by which someone who didn’t work on the mag could still be published in it. Arguably that was yet another task for the full-timers, reviewing these submissions for publication.

There’s actually a whole trove of anecdotes I could relate about those magazine days, but one in particular recurred to me yesterday, while I was home sick. Well, not home really, but while I was out with the little guy. Usually on Thursdays he goes for an hour in the morning to an activity class called Toddlin’ Time at our neighborhood dance studio (which, by the way, yeah, we have one of those) and yesterday since I was home and on the crest of the illness-wave around 10:30 while my wife was taking on water fast in the trough, I took the little guy over. And basically it’s 45 minutes of semi-structured chaos with a gaggle of two-year-olds throwing themselves around a padded room and a bunch of giant padded toys. I was impressed (and told my wife as much and she agreed she had noticed the same thing) that none of the moms let their respective kids run amok, but rather were very sure to stay just close enough to make sure nothing untoward happened. It’s a weird thing, for me, trying to teach my boy how to be a decent human being while at the same time teaching myself to be a parent, and if I’ve adopted any conscious philosophy at all it’s mostly “wait and see”, meaning I try not to jump in and fix things right away, if there’s still any chance the little guy might handle things on his own. So, all things being equal, if my little guy is playing with something and another kid comes along and tries to take it, I’d like to give things a moment to play out, and see if my little guy will willingly share, or lose interest and move on to something else, or if it’s going to turn into the infamous “teachable moment”. But at Toddlin’ Time, when such a scenario plays out, in swoops the other kid’s mom with a swift “no, no, he was playing with that!” Which, again, I appreciate people not being slack when they let their kids off the leash, but how’s anybody supposed to learn anything? And then of course it makes me wonder if I should have jumped in first, and said “OK, buddy, time to share!” before the mom could tell her kid what to do. I really don’t care what the mom thinks of me, by the by, I just want my son to get a sense of the importance of meaningful virtues.

Which is all well and good but by now you’re probably wondering what that has to do with college humor magazines. Fair enough. It was never an out and out, one-faction-against-the-other kind of thing, but there were people on the mag who just wanted to publish stuff that was funny, and people who wanted to publish things which were satire, and I always came down on the satire side. But satire is hard to do, it’s hard enough to define, let alone to pull off creatively, and I know I spent more time ruminating about it than actually doing it. But in the course of all that rumination I came up with a few principles that meant something to me, namely that satire is important, and doesn’t always have to be liked but should be tolerated, because censorship is bad - I know, this is absolutely incendiary stuff. But the fact is I am and always have been a smart-ass, and I like making fun of stuff so much that it has become second nature to me, to the point where sometimes I don’t realize that I’m doing it, in fact sometimes when someone asks me point blank if I’m doing it I honestly don’t know myself. So there was clearly no small element of self-justification in declaring myself a Defender of the Importance of Satire. Given a choice between a world with or without the ability to mock things mercilessly, I choose to mock.

Sir Kent Yatakajoak
Except that’s not a very good value to pass on to one’s children, is it?

Back to the mag, to a specific incident. One semester someone outside the inner circle of magazine regulars submitted a piece for consideration, and I got tasked with reading it and giving a preliminary thumbs-up or thumbs-down. This would have been the year that Star Trek:Generations came out (I am too lazy to look it up right now) because the piece was a parody of that movie. I still clearly remember that it was entitled Star Trek:Defenestrations because, despite having gotten into school with pretty decent SAT Verbal scores and being an English major, I had to look that word up. The only other thing I remember is that it was not very good.

I wanted it to be good, though. I didn’t want the magazine to develop a reputation for being insular and hostile to outside submissions. I didn’t want to have to scramble for content at the last minute. Those factors would have applied to any submission, really. I think I also didn’t want to dismiss it just for being about Star Trek. I never been the biggest Trek fan myself, not because I considered myself too cool for it (OBVIOUSLY), but because there’s only so many hours in the day for things I can geek out about and I went in a different direction than learning conversational Klingon. I really, truly wanted the parody to be so funny that it transcended obsessive-nerd levels of familiarity with the source material. But it wasn’t, and didn’t. There was something altogether off about the piece, and I couldn’t, and didn’t, recommend it for inclusion.

And much, much later I realized that the reason why I think satire is so culturally and philosophically important is not because it’s so great to be able to make fun of everything, but because it’s liberating to be able to make fun of those in power. That’s what justifies satire, the way it can take down a peg or two our leaders, our institutions, our sacred cows, all of which helps us maintain some much-needed sanity-assisting perspective. Fundamentally, satire should be about mercilessly mocking the haves, not the have-nots. Making fun of the have-nots is kind of wrong. And Star Trek … if the haves are cool, then pretty much Trek’s the have-nots, right?

Of course it’s all a matter of perspective. I don’t think I had the capacity to step outside myself and think about it like this when I was 19, but whoever wrote Star Trek:Defenestrations was a gigantic nerd, so deeply buried in pure unrefined dork that in his worldview, the cinematic moment where Kirk meets Picard is actually pretty cool, definitely on the side of the haves, because it's full of beautiful people doing amazing things. It’s the slightly competent king in the land of the socially inept. In their culture, it’s totally a sacred cow, and thus a ripe target for satire. I couldn’t have put that into words, but I did know on a gut level that making fun of Star Trek seemed kind of pointless and not really what I wanted the magazine to be about, because Star Trek wasn’t one of the sacred cows of the campus in general. From the Board of Visitors to the Greek system, hey, open season. But no shooting nerds in a barrel.

And just like that, I don’t feel like such a hypocrite trying to raise a halfway-decent human being. It’s acceptable to make fun of things that are dumb and people who deserve it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I will be helpless to do anything but encourage that kind of behavior if (when) it emerges in my little guy. But it stops being acceptable when your targets are weaker than you. And if there’s any question which way the balance of power is tipped, err on the side of being kind. Admittedly, that last part is something I could use a little improvement on myself. But it’s a start. I’m still learning as I go.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I swear that monkey was on my back just the other day ...

You may or may not recall (I’m obviously assuming “not”) that one of my pop resolutions for 2010 was to finish collecting the Blackest Night storyline in monthly comics and then re-evaluate that particular mode of entertainment consumption. And I’m pretty sure that when Blackest Night ended I mentioned it hereabouts. So how about that re-assessment of my comics buying habit?

The short answer is that we are now several months removed from the last Big Event I felt compelled to purchase/collect obsessively and at this point I can’t really remember the last time I even went to the comic book shop. A couple weeks ago I bought a pair of trade paperback collections for my Little Bro as a birthday gift, but I picked those up at Barnes & Noble. And I’ve bought myself a graphic novel or compilation here and there, as well, like the volume of Fables I read on vacation at the beach, but I those might very well (and probably likely) have come from book stores or Amazon, not comic shops. So it would seem that if any part of the re-assessment process was answer the question, “Can I live without buying monthly 22-page comic books?” the answer would be a resounding “Apparently so.” I have, unintentionally and almost unawares, quit cold turkey.

But even if that is part of the figuring out to be done (and it probably, validly is) it’s not the whole essence of it. “Do I want to live without ever buying monthlies?” is another part of it, and that’s what I’m currently grappling with. On the one hand it makes more and more sense economically and logistically to just be patient, wait for comics I like to be collected as TPBs, and buy those (or not, if over the course of being patient word gets out that the series in question is a real crapfest). But on the other hand, I do still like the immediacy of reading a story when it comes out, and when everyone else is talking about it, kind of like how I enjoy seeing a movie in the theater when it’s new rather than on DVD when nobody else cares (although of course I never seem to make it to the movies much these days, either). But then again, these days “everyone else talking about it” mostly means faceless bloggers and commenters on the internet, since my friends who used to read comics as faithfully as I did have all moved away from the habit/hobby as well. But then yet again on the alternate back-up hand, how much was being a collector and a completist always something I did mostly for myself?

I probably won’t be figuring this out any time soon. What I know for sure is that I’m just now starting to get that itch to go back to the comic book shop. And the timing of that urge is terrible, because if I go to the shop I may feel the irresistible impulse to buy some big-ticket item, and on top of all the usual reasons why that would be non-ideal, I am currently a week and a half away from my birthday which is a generally acknowledged window of time during which it’s really, really bad form to buy yourself something you wouldn’t mind getting as a gift.

In the mean time I should probably start cleaning out my existing comic book collection in earnest. I suspect that letting go of comics I’ve had for years will give me a pretty good internal read on how badly I want to replace those with newer ones. You may also recall (again, though, probably not) that last time I mentioned pruning the old comics library I was held back by not having a scanner with which to take farewell shots of that which I would sell off or give away. But that excuse no longer holds. So.

I suspect I am going to end up taking the moderation-in-all-things approach I usually espouse, and I’ll mostly stick to big books of high-quality material supplemented with the occasional stand-alone comic just because. Some things spark my mind just so, and I need to get them in my hands with all due haste. For example, at the end of October comes “Avengers Vs. Pet Avengers” and you know what that means …

FROG THOR. (At the bottom, if you were distracted by dragons and dogs and whatnot.)

Yeah, he pretty much gets a lifetime pass.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Follow-up Exams

The accusation has been leveled at me, on occasion, that I have a habit of leaving dangling loose ends a-plenty here at the blog. This, as I’ve explained (although possibly only in comments-upon-comments so you may be reading this for the first time), is because I tend to write about what’s on my mind, and despite my penchant for overthinking generally the things on my mind tend to be openly unresolved things. When I mention a problem or a bad situation, there’s a possibility that it will never change, which means it ultimately becomes part of the boring background noise and I cease to find it remotely appealing for bloggery (though oddly enough, some things, like the traffic on I-66, never quite become completely unmentionable in this regard.) There’s also a possibility that the problem will resolve in a positive, everything-back-to-normal kind of way, and while that certainly is a good thing from my perspective, again, it’s not inherently interesting and thus tends neither to occupy much mental space once it happens nor to demand expression in daily post form. When things either end up in a metaphorically fiery wreck far worse than the initial problem, or get solved in a particularly amazing way, that’s when the odds of me providing blog-closure are the highest. That’s just the way it goes.

But never let it be said that I allow myself to be unceasingly ruled by the hobgoblins of consistency. (Hobgoblined? Hobgobbled?) So here’s some loosely-related updates:

The little guy made a full recovery from whatever ancient, hideous plague he managed to contract between Sunday night and Monday morning. Monday is usually a day off from daycare for him anyway, as well as a day off from work for my wife, so she was able to stay home and keep an eye on him but he pretty much seemed to have slept it off once he started in on a new day’s worth of meals. By the time I got home from work and dinner plans were afoot, the little guy was his usual sassy, bossy self and ate a fair amount of “tacos” for dinner. (The scare-quotes recipe entails putting some olives, peppers, cheese and beans on a plate next to some tortillas and letting him decide which elements to combine and/or eat a la carte.) He had a hard time settling himself down to sleep last night but that seemed due less to illness and more to just being a two-year-old who got it into his head that bedtime needed to be pushed back about an hour in favor of additional wild rumpus time. At any rate, he’s back at daycare today, and the only potential consequence left to contend with is the fact that my wife felt severely under the weather this morning, possibly having picked up the little guy’s bug, possibly due to some unrelated factor. We never really know, do we?

Speaking of never really knowing, and going way back into the archives, I continue to be unable to completely throw off the lung-shackles of my persistent cough, BUT I did manage to drag myself to the doctor, who told me it was almost certainly seasonal allergies. On the one hand I made it abundantly clear that I have been dealing with environmental allergies pretty much my whole life and yet have never encountered anything remotely like not being able to stop coughing for two months straight. On the other hand the doctor (technically the PA, but I don’t get huffy about stuff like that) explained to me that (a) people’s allergies can change over time and (b) this summer of 2010 has been one of the worst on record, at least from his office’s experience, for people complaining of allergy symptoms, not to mention that (c) I didn’t have any other symptoms, including ones I might have noticed like fever or pain and ones he might have noticed listening to my lungs with a stethoscope, which pretty much ruled out any bacterial or viral marauders. So. Allergies. I was a little bummed that I wasn’t going to be prescribed an antibiotic that would magically fix me but I was hopeful that the prescription-strength allergy meds I was allowed access to might have their own charms.

No nightmare fuel shortage around these parts.
I went to an allergist about twelve years ago but didn’t find it terribly helpful (the nasal spray I was given back then dried me out so bad it made my nose bleed) and I told the PA as much and he assured me that allergy medicines keep getting better all the time and I should give them another chance. So I ended up with one of those lavender hockey puck inhalers and some nasal spray and some vicodin-laced cough syrup to help me sleep if I needed it (which came with a free lecture about not letting myself get addicted to it and also locking it up if I have any big parties, to all of which – wow. I haven’t even broken the seal on that bottle as a result) and a suggestion to get some max-strength OTC antihistamines and instructions to take all of the above (except the cough syrup) daily.

Which I’ve been doing pretty faithfully, and it’s been three weeks and … meh? I seem to be coughing less, but it’s still fairly noticeable to me. It’s also still more noticeable at work, but at this point who knows how much of that is all in my head. Supposedly things are going to get better once we have one good hard freeze, which can’t be much more than another couple months away. But it all makes me wonder if, now that this has happened once, I am going to have to deal with this every single summer. Because that would be a drag.

There’s also the possibility that at this point, because I let the allergies have their way with me for so long, my lungs are so irritated at this point that it’s harder than it should be to get me back to what passes for normal for my respiratory system. So maybe I’m not doomed to a lifetime of wheezing my way through every Independence-Day-to-Halloween span, because presumably next year I could start the inhaler and nasal spray and tablets and such as soon as I get the first tickle in my alveoli, and prevent things from escalating past the point of being controllable. Presumably, maybe. I guess in the mean time I need to keep going to the same doctor’s office (I’m supposed to get a full physical for their records before the end of the year) so that if I do find myself backsliding as soon as the pollen counts go back up, I can angle for some help without being that guy who only shows up for his annual Fluonase Rx. Or do most people only see their family GP once a year, if that? Am I confusing this with the dentist who you’re supposed to see at least twice? I don’t usually get sick so I really have no clue.

Monday, September 20, 2010


There are times at work when nothing is going on for me, not nothing in the downplayed well-at-least-nothing-of-interest-to-anyone-else sense but literally nothing, and these times can sometimes stretch out for weeks and weeks. But last week there was actually quite a bit going on at work, so allow me to catch all of you up.

First of all, my single biggest side-project (with the “side” prefix in place mainly because it was not one of my primary job duties, which is to keep a bunch of existing websites running smoothly, but they more or less do that on their own, so anything stands a very good chance of taking of significantly more time and effort) basically bit the dust. The long chain of events leading up to it, in extremely condensed form, went like this: I came on board this contract and met the government boss in charge of the whole office and he said “oh you build database websites? I need one of those” and he gave me this vague vision of what he wanted and it then took forever for me to even get the bare minimum technical support I would need to start working on such a project, during which time that boss left and a new one took his place, and she told me to keep going forward with the project because it was probably a good idea, and when I finally had all the things I needed to make it happen, I got something done and tried to show it to other people to solicit feedback, and the feedback I got – from someone who would ultimately be an end user of the system if it ever got completed – was “Yeeeaaahhhh I don’t really need that, I already have something that does that. What I need is THIS. But don’t do anything else, let me talk to our boss about my recommendations, which actually I want to flesh out a bit more, when I have some free time outside of my other extremely urgent and important duties.” So, dust bitten. And I know a lot of people would be somewhere between morosely bitter and furiously fulminating with rage, but I just laughed.

That's ok, I wasn't really using it anyway.
Because, seriously, I am incapable of taking stuff like this personally. I don’t consider the past few months a waste of time because I got paid for them and I am a contractor and this is what we do: execute on other people’s orders. If those orders end up being carried over from one leadership regime to the next and only far down the line end up getting evaluated by anyone who could actually rightly judge their potential value, at which point they get unceremoniously abandoned? Oh well. Also, your tax dollars at work! Which I know sets some of my friends into paroxysms of indignation as well, but not me.

So we’ll see if that side-project ever gets resurrected. Another comedic element of the whole escapade is that, in the time it has taken for me to even inch along towards the brick wall of uselessness, the software I had to beg and plead for in order to do the work became obsolete, and then I was given new software to upgrade me back to compatibility with the development environment, but that turned out to be an evaluation copy which soon expired, so now I am right back where I started with no working software, current or outmoded, whatsoever, as I wait for the IT department to go about procuring new developer software to match the actual development environment. I know some of the preceding was a bit of jargonish gobbledygook but if you’re at all confused just trust me that this is bureaucratic comedy at its finest.

Meanwhile, the new boss recently decided that there is yet another side-project which I could be working on, this time going through an existing web application which is essentially an online repository of archived documents and “cleaning it up”. (Those quotation marks are distinctly of the Famous Last Words flavor.) There are over a thousand of these electronic documents but some of them probably need to be deleted due to being out-of-date and most of them need to be reclassified. None of which I can do myself, because I lack the subject matter expertise to evaluate what the documents are actually about. All I can do is, once someone else identifies what should go where, is making everything go where it should. My boss understands this but, as it turns out, there is one thing I can do which requires no particular expertise whatsoever: print out all the documents, so that they can be circulated for review by people who should know what to do with them. And, with a surprisingly minimal amount of ruefulness, I accepted that assignment.

I did make sure to ask my boss how many documents she thought could be reviewed in one go, and we agreed that fifty was a nice round number. So since Friday I have printed out forty-some-odd documents and binder clipped them. Some are only a page long, and others over a hundred pages. I am still waiting for one of my colleagues to finalize a review cover sheet which will be used to track the keep-or-delete-or-reclassify instructions for each document. When that sheet is done I will clip one to each document packet and drop off the first fifty with my boss. I will also get started on printing out the next fifty, and then we’ll see if the first fifty ever find their way back to me. I think the odds are fair, but I also think they will degrade with each successive batch. There is no way we will ever get through every single document, because even racing through fifty documents a week, that would take about six months. So is the entire assignment an exercise in futility? Probably, but again, I’m a contractor and that’s the way it goes. I may be eating these words come March, and if so, I’ll own up to it. For now, at least I technically have something to do, and I'm not going to be the first one to give up

Where does the time go

So Friday got away from me, obviously, as it often does when I front-load my work week with hours and give myself the opportunity to bail out of the office sooner than later on Friday afternoon, which is exactly what happened last week. This cut down on time that might have been otherwise spent blogging, but on the plus side did afford me the chance to go and get a much-needed haircut before picking up the little guy from daycare. (Who, upon being picked up, allowed himself to be loaded into his carseat and driven all the way home before asking me, as we pulled into the garage, “Daddy you get a haircut?” At which point I was fairly impressed by his perspicuity. When I agreed that I had gotten haircut, the little guy nodded and touched his own locks and said “Me too!” At which point I was highly amused by his whimsical approach to defining his own reality, but I no longer had any idea if he had actually noticed my own ‘do was an inch shorter or if the whole thing was just one extra-large coincidence.)

The rest of the weekend went by in a blur as well, because we made a daytrip to my wife’s hometown for the wedding of a family friend on Saturday, all in all a successful occasion even though we risked the grave peril of powering the little guy through the whole afternoon without a nap, since the wedding was at 1 p.m. As it turned out he was happy as the proverbial slop-supplied pig, specifically if said slop were composed mostly of fruit and cheese hors d’oeuvres and well-frosted wedding cake. Whereas on Sunday we were forced to reckon with a little guy who was decidedly under the weather, first unable to keep any breakfast down but non-feverish, then later successfully managing juice and saltines but also spiking a mild fever, though all in all the signs of him improving over time were part of mounting evidence that it was a 24 hour bug and he did essentially sleep through the night last night. When I tell it like this it makes it seem like one day we deprived our child of sleep and also pacified him with sugar and thus reaped the whirlwind the following day, but it could just as easily have been a slow-incubating bug that the little guy picked up at school last week, or something even more random, none of which necessarily rules out the crazy rule-breaking of Saturday as a contributory factor, either. Parenthood truly is a voyage navigated by tiny landmarks amidst a vast sea of who-the-hell-knows.

But we made it to the dawning of another day, a day which now finds us well and truly on the cusp of autumn, which I know for a fact because this morning when I let the dogs out back and watched them from the deck, coffee in hand, I could see nothing but black sky and constellations overhead. When 6 a.m. looks like 2 a.m., summer is over.

Twinkle, twinkle, little seahorse, not much rhymes with you of course
The fall has its compensations, of course, like a break from the torturous heat we endured this year, and the arrival of football and baseball playoffs, and of course the new tv season. I can wax philosophical for pages and pages (and have been known to do so) about why it’s so hard to be the people we aspire to be and how I can easily name a couple dozen things that would probably make me a better person and the world a better place than tuning in regularly to network and cable broadcasts, but … I loves me some tv, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been looking forward to the new tv season since the last one ended. Especially now that our summer vacation at the beach has come and gone, which means I need something new and close-at-hand that’s clearly demarcated on the calendar to look forward to.

In fact, inspired by the programming scheduling which is fairly top-of-mind this week, I’m thinking of instituting a similar approach to the old blog here. Honestly I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for a while, so now seems as good a time as any to see if I can actually pull it off. I’ve already been more than forthcoming about my own tendency to associate various concepts both big and small with days of the week, so it may very well have been inevitable that I would just allow my daily postings to fall into that kind of pattern. So here is my preliminary plan:

Mondays – work stuff, which should be pretty self-explanatory
Tuesdays – anything goes, which I know sounds like a cop out of an especially egregious kind because, come on, I couldn’t string together two thematic ideas in a row? I guess I’ll just have to say “Trust me” on this one.
Wednesdays – geek stuff, since this is my weekly gaming night and also the day new comics come out (not that I’ve picked up any of those in a while)
Thursdays – stuff about the little guy
Fridays – random anecdotes, which I know I KNOW sounds like Tuesday Part Two but I mean random anecdotes from the distant past which may or may not have any bearing on anything other than popping into my head, as they do. Outside of that, this blog is mostly about what’s going on with me now, and Tuesday will be a freeform riff on that, as opposed to stuff that happened to me in seventh grade which I feel like excavating for entertainment purposes.
Saturday – grab bag stuff, so no real change from now, including the fact that it probably won’t happen every single Saturday
Sunday – scanned-in special content, because, hey, did I ever mention that I finally broke down and got a scanner? Totally did! Several weeks ago in fact! But I still have yet to fuse its awesome powers with those of the blog. This fall, I plan to remedy that.

So on the one hand this may come across as supremely self-indulgent (but really, as far as that goes, thy name is “blog” and everything else is a bit redundant) but I actually do hope that this is a little bit helpful for some people who visit here semi-regularly. If you really want to know how life in the contracting trenches is going, Monday will be the best time to find out, whereas if my dissection of the inane minutiae of government office life is not your thing, then feel free to skip the first day of each week. I know some of you think the pop culture ruminations are all well and good but the little guy is really the star of the blog; I know others of you think my kid is cute and all but really get stoked for yet another examination of the modern myth-building in the genre ghettos, and so, now you may tune in according to your tastes. Mostly. I, of course, reserve the right to juggle everything around if the little guy blows my mind on a Tuesday night and thus commands a Wednesday post. Or maybe this whole experiment will go down the drain after three weeks. You never know.

Of course it probably seems like I’m off to a bad start because I haven’t blogged about work at all today, but today’s not over yet! More to come!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Word balloons

My wife recently took our son for his two-year-old checkup at the pediatrician and the doctor spent part of the appointment asking the little guy direct questions in an effort to assess his verbal development. She was working uphill, though, for a couple of reasons. One, the little guy does tend to get shy, which in his case means quietly watchful, around people he isn’t super familiar with, doubly compounded by not being someplace he considers his turf (like home or day care – excuse me, “preschool” now that he’s officially into the 2-yr-old room). Two, the doctor was asking the little guy to name things in a book that my wife had brought along to keep him amused in the waiting room … but the book was a brand new birthday present (a Disney Robin Hood hardback, oo-de-lally!)and thus its interior contents were libra incognita, as it were.

Great villainous sidekick or GREATEST VILLAINOUS SIDEKICK?
Despite not getting much more than a few meek “huh?”s from the patient, the doctor wasn’t perturbed and in fact reassured my wife that he would probably be stringing together words on his own fairly soon. My wife took this extremely graciously, not bothering to correct the doctor or explain that our pride and joy is, under normal circumstances, a conversational delight. My wife and I fall prey to numerous parental anxieties but our child’s speech development is nowhere on that list.

In fact, lately if we talk about the little guy’s speaking abilities at all it’s more to sigh wistfully as one element after another of his babytalk falls out of use. Case in point, the other night as I was giving him his bath he started playing with the cup I use to rinse shampoo out of his hair and he filled it up, then looked at me and said, “I wanna pour out the water?” Which on the one hand was kind of remarkable because he said it questioningly and implied he was asking permission, a welcome breakthrough indicator that he is getting a sense that he’s not automatically allowed to do any old thing that pops into his little head. But also, he used the word “pour”. The first word he learned that meant “gravity-assisted transfer of something from one container to another” was “dump” as in, of course, “dump truck” (one of his first loves) and not much later “dump out all the toys” (also near and dear to his heart). So he used that word in an all-purpose way even when he started speaking more or less in sentences, which meant it was not unusual to hear him say “Dump the milk in this cup!” when we were getting him a drink. Not exactly proper English, but not exactly a major impediment to understanding, either, which meant we left it alone and only corrected him gently if at all. It was cute and we let it stand, which seems to be the guiding rule. But apparently he finally caught on that there were other words for “dump” and that “pour” is the accepted usage for liquids. It really is mind-boggling the way kids just pick this stuff up without formal instruction. But a little bittersweet, too, because the oddities of the learning process are cute and the regularization, not so much.

But it’s not all cats-in-the-cradle megrims. The trade-off, as you might expect, is that he comes up with new, hilarious stuff to say all the time. At dinner time last night, it was just he and I while his mother was still at work,a nd I was puttering around the kitchen while he finished his dinner at the table, and at one point I stopped in the middle of the kitchen and untucked my dress shirt. To which my son for some reason felt compelled to say, “Lookin’ handsome, Daddy!” And that’s not a phrase my wife and I throw around at home, at all, ever, so where it came from is anyone’s guess. Cute, though.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Visions of the future

This morning as I walked into the Metro station I reached for the plastic badge-holder that is clipped to my messenger bag and that normally holds my contracting company HQ ID/key (not to be confused with my government-issued DoD building badge, which always stays deep inside my messenger badge when not worn) and my Metro SmarTrip card. I say “normally” because this morning I found the plastic zipper open and the holder itself empty. Both items that were supposed to be within the holder’s confines are replaceable (SmarTrip card if I shell out some extra money, contractor ID if I give HR some time) so I almost forged on without them, but ultimately I decided I should at least try retracing my steps before giving up completely.

And as it happened, I barely made it back to the entrance of the Metro station before an older woman was approaching me and asking if I had dropped my card. She explained she was scanning the crowd looking for someone who looked like they had lost something and I guess I was wearing that fact pretty plainly on my sidewalk-scanning face. I thanked her profusely when she handed me my SmarTrip, even though I still had to keep working my way back towards my car looking for the contractor ID. I found it, finally, not far at all from my car. All in all it probably added about ten minutes to my commute on top of the normal highway and train time, but it also added a bright spot of human decency so, you know, that’s a wash.

The funny thing is I remembered passing the woman on the sidewalk from the parking lot to the Metro station, because she was one of those birdlike older women moving fairly slowly on her skinny crane legs, and I suppose I’m lucky I did pass her because her graciousness wouldn’t have done me much good if she hadn’t ended up following in my wake. For that matter, I doubt anyone within a couple standard deviations of my age (which would be 80 – 90% of the other Metro riders) would have taken the time to even notice someone’s dropped Metro card, let along pick it up and try to find the person who dropped it. I know that there’s not much to get excited about when confronted with the physical deteriorations that come along with the aging process, but honestly, there are times when I look forward to the combination of being forced by nature and (somewhat, sometimes) allowed by society to slow the hell down. I’m not naturally a fast-paced person, but I do tend to go with the flow. And I live in the greater D.C. area. So, and thus.

Also this morning at the Metro, I spotted another example of something I’m looking forward to in my golden years. I forget if it was the first or second time I entered the station, but I noticed an older couple headed for the turnstiles and the gentleman was wearing a polo shirt with a very bold American flag print. I mean absolutely no question about it, the article of clothing in question had no business being out and about on any days other than the Fourth of July and maybe – MAYBE – Memorial Day, or Flag Day, or Patriot’s Day … my point is this shirt was clearly a Special Occasion Shirt according to my sartorial senses. And yet for the gentleman ahead of me it was perfectly reasonable attire for a random Wednesday in September. In fact, I dare say he looked downright natty. To which I can only say, more power to you, sir. I look forward to someday being similarly unencumbered by any considerations other than doing whatever I damn well please with no regard for what others think.

Yes that is a steampunk Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Yes I might wear that if I could find it in my size WHAT DON'T JUDGE ME.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


As I believe I may have touched upon before with hummingbird-like lightness, my job is pretty slack. I take up space in the office primarily so that I can be on hand if any of the following things occur:

- One of our web database applications breaks
- Somebody comes up with an idea for an improvement for one of our web databases that I can implement
- Somebody who doesn’t really understand how the web database applications work needs me to explain to them whether or not they already do something, and if so, how to get it to do that something
- Somebody forgets their password

And maybe a couple other variants on those themes but you get the idea. But as much as I roll my eyes at the inherently inefficient ridiculousness of such a situation I don’t want to come across as complaining about it, per se, because as sweet gigs go this is right up there as long as I take full responsibility for managing my won boredom. And I like to think I do. I also take full responsibility for making myself generally available to help just about anyone with just about anything vaguely work-related, because, shoot, I got time.

Probably best to just move on, here.
What I need, when someone wants to give me more work to do, are two simple things: a reasonable explanation of what the work entails, and a time (or date) by which it should be completed.

What I don’t need, ever, really, but including when someone wants to give me more work to do, is a long complicated explanation of why exactly the person bringing me the work is too busy dealing with seven other different things that all amount to him or her being unable to do the work themselves. Seriously, I do not care, I do not feel ill-used, and if I were too busy myself or feeling ill-used I assure you I would say something. You had me when you asked if I could help and I said yes. Now just give me the assignment and get back to those seven other things demanding your attention. Furthermore, I really and truly do not in the slightest need a long and complicated explanation that is excruciatingly difficult to follow because the explainer insists on dropping their voice to a sub-audible whisper and/or replacing spoken English with inscrutably lunatic hand gestures to convey his or her frustration with the supervisor(s) who are insisting the other seven things be done all at once, said non-verbal communication attempts being made because we all work in CubicleLand and the consequences of being overheard trashing one’s supervisor(s) could be potentially dire. Seriously, let’s just skip all of that, and you can rant and rave and bitch and moan about your boss to your friends and family after work when you get home. (Or, hey, get a blog!)

Speaking of, if you’re guessing that today I had to sit and listen to (or try to interpret) the above kind of oversharing from a co-worker, you must read this blog fairly often. And if you’ve further guessed that, after all of that sympathetic listening and decoding, I ended up with some nebulous assignment which did NOT come with an explanation of exactly what was needed or expected NOR did it come with a deadline per se, then you clearly read this blog way too much. Get back to work!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sports again, and don't even act surprised

It’s lamentably rare that my wife and I get to enjoy a nice autumn weekend wherein the Michigan Wolverines, New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers all notch victories on the football field, but this past weekend was just that type of weekend, and we were pleased. Apparently, the sports-karma price to pay for this was that all weekend long the Yankees kept losing to the Rangers, including Mo blowing a save by hitting a batsman with the bases loaded what the WHAT. Not sure I would have taken that deal overall if it had been offered in those terms on Friday afternoon, but ah well, what’s done is done. Maybe it’s for the best that I don’t get to make those kind of decisions anyway.

For example, maybe it’s for the best that the Yankees got a sweep (or, I suppose, a swept) out of their system before heading down to Tropicana Field and defending their razor-thin AL East advantage over the Rays. They could pad their lead, or they could blow it, or neither/both. And they get to do it all again in another week, but in the Bronx. Maybe I just won’t talk about baseball anymore until September 24th or so. Again, maybe that’s for the best.

So meanwhile, football it is! The programming in my market is off to an atypical start (just in case the Texans beating the Colts wasn’t atypical enough for everyone) – because the Redskins got the opening Sunday night game, they weren’t blacking out the Giants during the day, so I actually got to watch most of the New York-Carolina game. And then next week, the Giants are playing the (vulnerable!) Colts on Sunday night, so I’ll get to see that game televised as well. I don’t even remember the last time I even had the option of watching the first two Giants games on tv without going to a sports bar, so that’s cool.

And while I’m on the subject of being oddly thankful for the Redskins’ schedule, I would be remiss not to express my gratitude to the Skins for embarrassing the Cowboys in a truly ugly but inarguably effective win last night. That game was such a poopstorm that my wife and I found ourselves discussing how many similar consecutive losses it would take for Wade Phillips to get fired by Jerry Jones. (I put the over/under at 4, if anyone wants some of that action.) But the important thing is that a bad guy loss is as sweet as if not totally sweeter than a good guy win, and I have said before that this attitude probably makes me a bad person, and I still don’t care.

Ha, ha!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Special: ZOMBIELAND

So I finally got around to seeing Zombieland yesterday (yep, only eleven and a half months after everyone else, but, you know, count it as one more Netflix rental to justify keeping the account open) and I liked it a lot. It was sufficiently funny and charming to win me over fairly early and it didn’t do anything too egregious to put me off after that. Specifically I would say the movie got me on its side when it cued up this awesome celluloid nightmare:


OK, I’m going to get pretty deep into the movie here, so, major spoilers ahead (for a movie approaching the first anniversary of its theatrical release, I’m just saying) including the ending. Also, certain people (read: my wife) who have an aversion to intense examination of the Children In Peril trope might also want to proceed with caution, because that gets a little rough.

Rougher than the little zombie princesses, too. That’s really not too harrowing a visual, all things considered. It comes early in the flick, as I mentioned, and it’s in service of a swerve punchline as an uninfected suburban mom is being chased by an entire birthday party full of zombie-infected little girls and the mom gets to her minivan and drives off and seems on the verge of escape and then gets into a car accident and goes flying out the windshield, hits the pavement, and dies, all of which allows the narrator to segue smoothly from advising zombie apocalypse survivors to avoid sentimentality to reminding everyone to always wear their seatbelts, which becomes a running joke for the duration of the movie.

And running jokes are a crucial part of the movie, because at heart Zombieland is a piece of entertainment that is hyperaware of itself as a work of fiction and specifically a movie that fits in to the history of all movies, horror movies of course but comedies arguably even moreso. To take the notion of a survivalist road movie full of gruesome cannibal horrors and make it a comedy just about requires that everything possible be done to heighten the artificiality of the experience so it doesn’t become too scary. So there’s the narrator’s voiceover, and there’s the narrator himself as the utterly unlikely protagonist with neuroses, phobias, and irritable bowel syndrome, and there’s the narrator’s aforementioned rules for staying alive, which appear on screen not just as text but as 3D text occupying space amidst the scenery and sometimes being affected by the unfolding action.

All that would likely be more than enough, but just to pile it on some more all of the main characters are pop culture junkies. A key part of post-apocalyptic narrative is comparing the world in the time of the story to the world that came before the disaster, and you could examine big things like religion then and now, or human decency then and now, or how technology functions (or fails to function) when the systems break down, or any big important things along those lines. Or, you can keep things breezy and just keep pointing out the dumb pop-culty things that people remember, whether that manifests as Twinkie addiction or Hannah Montana superfandom or compulsive movie-quoting including Bill Murray worship. In fact Bill Murray is in the movie as himself and as yet another survivor, discovered when the main characters crash at his mansion in Beverly Hills. Unfortunately he doesn’t last long because the zombie disguise that has allowed him to escape being eaten gets him fatally shot by the narrator, oops.

And that’s another thing that Zombieland traffics in: the subversion of expectations, as all quality comedies must do. I’ve already mentioned the improbable hero, and there’s also his reluctant ally and his love interest and the third act romantic complication and threatened dissolution of the reluctant alliance, and all of those get subverted because the ally isn’t just a lovable rogue, he’s actually totally insane, and the love interest isn’t a damsel in distress, she’s a con artist constantly getting one over on the narrator-hero, including the romantic complication wherein she steals his car AGAIN to start the third act, and the dissolution happens but lasts for exactly three seconds when the narrator-hero tries o ride off on his new motorcycle and can’t make it down the driveway without wobbling and tipping over and the lovably insane rogue feels sorry for him.

Of course these subversions only work as subversions if you’ve seen enough movies to expect all the standard beats which Zombieland suggests and then zigzags around. And so, again and again, Zombieland always reminds the audience that it is a movie just like lots of other movies they’ve seen, part of a venerable old tradition, which sets up expectations in order to knock them down.

And so, you would think I would have seen the Children In Peril trope coming because, one way or the other, how could it not show up? And I admit, when they foreshadowed it, I deliberated how much to expect a later reveal. (As if I were watching the movie with someone else and needed to decide how cocky to be about predicting things. I was, in fact, alone.) The lovable crazy rogue, played by Woody Harrelson, explains his zombie-killing motivations in the first act by saying he had a puppy named Buck whom the zombies killed, and hence. This is accompanied by an absurd over the top flashback set to “Puppy Love” of Woody feeding the dog pancakes and giving the dog a bath and wrestling with and kissing the dog in the yard. All of that pairs nicely with a shot of Woody driving an SUV past a zombie feasting on a corpse in the middle of the road, and slamming the corpse with the open driver’s side door. (Zombie slapstick is pretty tough to beat.) And yes, of course, I’ve seen M*A*S*H and the chicken episode (ok, no, I haven’t, but everybody knows that episode) and whenever a fictional character tells a story of personal tragedy involving an animal that would be even worse if the animal were a human being, I’m on alert. But … but … as Zombieland continued the subversive thought parade I started to think maybe Woody’s character really was motivated by the death of his dog which is a cute little metajoke in and of itself.

Well, no, of course not. By the end of act two Woody gets caught telling stories about Buck that can’t possibly apply to a dog and it’s supposed to be a big, humanizing, straight-faced emotional development beat and it shouldn’t work because it’s such a cliché but the thing that saves it is they do the whole “Puppy Love” flashback again except this time it’s not Buck the puppy it’s Buck the 3- or 4-year-old kid and (a) he is adorable and (b) suddenly things like making pancakes and giving baths and wrestling and kissing don’t seem comically excessive they seem normal and real and (c) they never show Buck-the-kid getting killed by zombies but the audience knows from Woody’s sobbing that it happened which means you can’t not think about it and it’s all the more horrible for being all in your head.

So here’s where things get really crazy. For two acts it’s been this deliberately goofy, smart-ass, smirking comedy where every indicator seems to point toward all the protagonists (a group which sadly does not include Bill Murray) surviving and even finding a happy ending. Then they pull out the whole Woody has a dead kid and “nothing left to lose” angle and, hang on, what kind of movie is this after all? Woody and the narrator-hero have to go save the female love interest and her obligatory little sister from an amusement park crawling with zombies (including one zombie-clown because see all evidence above and how could you make a super-referential zom-com and not put that particular double-nightmare meme in it?) and Woody does the madman-cranked-to-11 thing to attract the attention of all the zombies and give the narrator-hero a chance at the rescue, which leads to what felt like twenty minutes of nothing but gunplay and meat-splatter. And that culminates in Woody locking himself inside a game booth with grates on the windows, having expended all his rifle ammo, armed only with two hand guns and several clips of ammo, and the film slows down and the music swells and the zombie army swarms the booth and Woody just fires and fires and fires through the grates and reloads and fires and fires and fires again and the zombies keep coming and it is a Last Stand of all Last Stands.

Totally lighthearted gross-yet-funny Zombieland up to the Buck-was-actually-his-kid reveal: everybody lives.

Fairly dark black-humor Zombieland after the Buck-was-actually-his-kid reveal: Woody dies, right? They put it right there in the narrator’s voice-over: “When the zombies took his son he had nothing left to lose.” That spells tragic-yet-glorious death, I would have bet the popcorn-and-Milk-Duds farm on it.

But obviously that’s me, and once again we run smack into Everything IS Different Now. I think losing a child is the ultimate personal tragedy. I think losing a child (a toddler! in unthinkably hideous fashion!) is something you don’t ever come back from, and which makes happy endings categorically impossible. But (and I clearly need help remembering this from time to time) I am not a movie.

So yeah, they cut away while he’s still outnumbered by zombies and the ammo is running low and the booth itself is losing structural integrity, but Woody lives, and the shot when they come back to a small mountain of deader-still zombies and Woody standing triumphantly atop them is rad. But I’m still trying to figure out if letting Woody’s character live constitutes a gonzo double-reverse subversion of the genre expectation, or if I’m just a victim of my own overthinking as usual. I lean towards the former, if only because I want to believe that Zombieland was a deliberately dumb movie (in certain ways) written by somewhat smart guys. If I ever meet Mr. Reese and/or Mr. Wernick, I’ll have to ask them.