Tuesday, May 31, 2011


This morning when I got off the train, at about 7:15 a.m., it was already apparent that it was going to be another stultifyingly hot and humid day typical of summers in the nation’s capital swamp. (Neveryoumind the fact that summer itself is still technically three weeks away.) I’m not necessarily proud of this but I do admit that I am accustomed to certain creature comforts including central air conditioning, and I was counting down every step between the climate-controlled VRE car and the similarly civilized Big Gray. About halfway along my walk I passed a gentleman in business attire standing on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. I can recall few times in the past nearly-seven years when I’ve been happier to have quit smoking. The thought of having to choose between forsaking A/C to stand outside in the swelter of midday and forgoing the need for a nicotine fix clawing at the inside of my skull is pretty repellent, and thankfully moot.

Seriously, number one reason to stop smoking: it is a super-annoying habit to maintain
I got plenty of sweltering in over the weekend, anyway. My wife and I ended up front-loading the weekend with socializing, all of which was fun and which we were happy to be a part of, but all of which was also dispensed with by noon on Sunday, which gave us the back half of the long weekend to simply relax, recoup our strength for the coming week, and generally take care of any household business that needed doing in the context of a long, uninterrupted stretch of time at home. The whole rationale makes sense on paper, but in practice I put myself in the position of mowing the lawn and death-spraying the weeds at noon on Monday, which was basically the absolute peak of the weekend’s hot weather. The job got done, though, and in hindsight I am choosing to believe that’s all that matters.

Speaking of getting jobs done, one random thing that had been bugging me more or less the entire time we’ve been living in the new house was that we had moved and unpacked an assortment of framed photos and paintings and prints and so forth but hadn’t managed to get around to hanging them on the walls. Bare walls are an inexplicable pet peeve of mine. (Rambling yet hopefully illustrative tangent: when I was a kid we would spend maybe a week each summer, tops, visiting my grandparents at the beach. My cousins, on the other hand, would often spend a month or more at the beach, with their parents renting an entire house for July or something like that. And my cousins – one male and one female – would use part of the entertainment allowance to buy newsstand copies of Tiger Beat or Hit Parader or whathaveyou and tear out the pin-ups of dreamy hunks or gnarly bands and put them up on the otherwise bare bedroom walls of the rental house. This made complete and perfect sense to me at the time and also still makes perfect sense right now as I type this.) Maybe because of the concentrated downtime, maybe because it came in the wake of pleasant diversions, but this weekend my wife and I were finally able to get some things hung on various vertical surfaces throughout our domicile, and agree to a general plan for hanging the remainder in the not too distant future. And there was much rejoicing, in my de-peeved mind at any rate.

But it’s back to the grind for now, always a bit of a rough transition when the return doesn’t coincide with a Monday, but that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take to get a foreshortened week.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Train of thoughts

This morning, as I was walking from the train station to my office building, I witnessed an interesting and oddly satisfying unfolding of events. There’s a school bus stop along my walking route (the kids who congregate there seem to be around middle-school age) and as it happened the bus was in the process of picking them up as I approached. The bus was at a full stop and had its red lights flashing and its driver’s side STOP sign deployed and everything, and yet a car blew past the bus in the adjacent lane. Not just any car (in fact, not a “car” at all) but a white Hummer. The school bus driver honked the horn as the Hummer sped by, in what I thought at first was nothing but a frustrated attempt to convey something along the lines of “Hey, I saw what you just did!” but not half a second later there came the bloop of a police car siren as a sheriff’s car appeared and pulled the Hummer over. (So maybe the bus was trying to get the cop’s attention, I’m speculating?)

It's not addressed to you but it does apply to everybody
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, maybe I should point out that all the kids were on the sidewalk where the bus door opens, and there weren’t any 11-year-olds trying to cross the lanes of traffic which the bus’s lights and sign are intended to bring to a halt. But be that as it may I am a firm believer in the principle at play in this particular scenario. So much so that as soon as I heard and saw the sheriff’s cruiser I actually said out loud “Aw, yeah, GIT ‘IM!” like some kind of crazyperson. (This high-adrenaline response may or may not have been influenced by the fact that I was watching an installment of the movie Inception on the train this morning, which I had known was kind of mind-bendy and all but did not realize had quite so many gunfire-and-explosions scenes, which tend to pump me up a bit.)

But right before that moment I had felt deeply conflicted because, on the one hand, my inner profiler was pretty well convinced that the person behind the wheel was a worthless human being. Ignoring the safety signals of a school bus while it picks up kids would be damning enough evidence, but the Hummer really put it beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ll spare you all my usual thousand-word screed about SUVs in general and Hummers as the most egregious exemplar of their inherent wrongness, but suffice to say it all boils down to selfishness. They waste natural resources, pollute the environment, are deadly to anyone in a regular car unfortunate enough to be involved in a collision? Clearly the drivers of SUVs could not care less about these effects which their choice of ride might have on other people, and just as clearly the man in the Hummer this morning could not have cared less about the safety of the school children around the bus because he had places to be and that was all that mattered.

Except … he was a member of the armed forces in uniform. That’s not exactly an uncommon sight in the corridors in which I work, obviously, but it’s been drilled into my head for years, ever since the first Gulf War as a matter of simple patriotism and exponentially moreso as a government/DoD contractor whose livelihood is bound up in the military: SUPPORT THE TROOPS. Budweiser makes unironic commercials about the fact that anyone wearing camo fatigues is a hero who deserves spontaneous standing ovations everywhere they go. And I’ve pretty much bought into that. So it’s jarring to encounter one of the troops behaving like an over-entitled jackass.

Then as I kept walking I started thinking maybe I had been too quick to judge. I’ll stand by my belief that no normal civilian needs to drive a Hummer. But what if the soldier I saw was an injured vet suffering from PTSD? What if he had been in a convoy that ran over an IED and he couldn’t drive normal cars anymore because of an irrational but unshakable fear that he might be hit by another roadside bomb at any time, and only a Hummer gave him the ability to leave his house? What if that was the same reason why he blew past the school bus, if he sincerely didn’t perceive it because his PTSD causes him to not always process everything in his field of vision correctly?

Which in turn was followed up with some thoughts about how driving is a privilege and not a right, even here in the car-culture U.S., even when your much older than 16 which is the last time I remember someone saying that and expecting to be taken seriously. I’m all in favor of senior citizens being re-tested and forbidden from driving when there’s a potential that they might inadvertently hurt others on the road. Maybe the same should go for veterans, too? I wholeheartedly believe we owe vets tremendously for their service and shouldn’t marginalize them, but if it were my kid who got run down at the bus stop I’d find it cold comfort to know the driver was a former tank gunner who couldn’t always think straight behind the wheel because of traumatic brain injury suffered while defending the country.

I don’t know if the cop was in any way influenced by the driver’s uniform, if he was let off with a warning or actually got heavily fined or what. I’m reasonably sure the traffic stop did not set the soldier off on a shellshocked shooting rampage, because they didn’t shut down the street my office is on at any point today. And I don’t know what the answers are to any of the questions I pondered as I made my way to work, just that it’s all pretty complicated. Everybody just make sure you always look both ways before you cross the street, OK?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Good news is no news

My daughter is packing on the babyfat at an endearing rate, and my wife and I find cause for celebration every time we find a new dimple or roll decorating one of her joints.

My son has been skipping naps at daycare this week, but compensating by going to bed in an astonishingly compliant manner a little earlier than normal, which helps keep our interactions on the right side of the invigorating/exhausting divide.

So things are good although (or maybe because) there really aren’t any major developments to report. No medical scares or daredevil mishaps. No standout moments of innocent profundity that blow my mind, at least not any more than usual.

Meanwhile I’m dealing with some ridiculous administrative bureaucratic snafus at work related to my paternity leave and whether or not I’ll ever get paid again, so I’m a bit thin on brain cells which might normally be dedicated to composing a proper post. Things seem to be close to getting resolved, thankfully, so I should be back to normal soon.

Yiiiiiiip yipyipyipyipyipyipyip.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Idle Wonder

So there was some talk this spring about a live-action Wonder Woman series coming to tv this fall. More than talk, the project actually reached the point of a completed pilot to shop around, but apparently when the fate of the show was in the network’s hands, the network opted to pass. There’s a possibility that a different network could pick it up somehow, but the industry consensus seems to be that this iteration of the Amazon princess’s adventures is dead in the water. Which strikes me as a shame.

In fact, the coincidental timing here is probably the biggest factor in my reaction being one of lamentation rather than general indifference. The early buzz about the show largely focused on either the fact that it was being masterminded by David E. Kelley and thus would invite endless comparisons to Ally McBeal because both shows were about single gals trying to have it all, or the casting and promo-photos-in-weird-costume-prototypes of Adrianne Palicki from Friday Night Lights, but none of that meant a whole lot to me. (My wife scored what I thought was a pretty direct hit when she saw a picture of Palicki online and noted that (a) Palicki has fake boobs (b) Wonder Woman does not and (c) that in fact seems like the kind of thing which is fairly antithetical to the whole Wonder Woman core concept, yet would clearly and literally be in the audience’s face whenever Palicki was on screen in costume. Which, y’know, fair enough.)

Perhaps trying to do a bit too much all at once
But the demise of Wonder Woman’s 21st century small-screen chronicles came right at the same time I was (as mentioned yesterday) getting to the midpoint of the Smallville saga, and that actually makes the loss of what might have been much more acute.

Smallville might seem at first glance to be a retelling of Superman’s origins from when he was just a young lad being raised by farmers in the heartland, but it’s not exactly that. It’s not really the Superman story at all, at least not in the sense that “THE Superman story” exists in some definitive, canonical way (which of course it does to diehard comics fans, except different sects adhere to different One True Versions, but that’s beside the point). Smallville takes a bunch of elements from the Superman mythos and then updates them and recombines them in various ways, which annoys a lot of people but just strikes me as fun and interesting and amusing. Half the entertainment value of any given episode of Smallville comes from picking up on the differences between the show and its source material, particularly when little moments wind up overstuffed with irony because the audience knows where all this is (or should be) going, from every time young Clark Kent and Lois Lane emphasize they are just friends who really often can’t stand each other to every attempt Clark Kent makes to hold on to his friendship with slightly-older-but-still-young Lex Luthor.

The other half, to me, is the constant milking for all its worth of the major theme of the series: growing up. Specifically, at least as far as Season 5 goes, navigating the waters between adolescence and adulthood while relationships with parents transform from adult-to-child to adult-to-adult. And of all the modifications made to classic Superman folklore, I think this is where Smallville has been the most successful. Which is kind of weird, as I stop to think about it, considering the last time I talked much about Smallville it was to point out the almost embarrassingly high levels of fan service involved in giving copious screen time to the bare flesh of the actresses playing Lana Lang and Lois Lane. But for all that lusty teen soap operas are a viable formula for winning viewership, Smallville is all about fathers and sons.

Clark has a generally good relationship with his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, although of course they go through all the tribulations that teenage boys and their fathers do. Lex has a toxic relationship with his father, Lionel Luthor, which in addition to giving Superman’s future nemesis a little depth and context provides one more reason for the mega-wealthy genius to envy the farmboy down the road. Everything gets cranked up to 11, with Lex and Lionel trying to outmaneuver each other (up to and including assassination attempts) for control of their family corporation, while Clark and Jonathan argue over whether or not it could ever be safe for someone with Kryptonian strength to play full-contact football with normal kids. But under all the melodrama, there are actually just as many similarities between the two father-son pairs as differences. Jonathan and Lionel both are having a hard time letting their sons emerge from their shadows and spread their wings, both men are painfully proud, both believe in a certain form of tough love, both believe their sons could be bound for a greater destiny, and so on. So in the end it becomes a compelling examination of how little things can lead to big differences: expect that your child always do the right thing, and he could become the world’s greatest hero; demand that your child always have all the right answers, and he could become the world’s most feared villain.

Maybe this is a case of being the outsider looking in, but in my opinion if there’s one area of life more freighted with drama than father-son relationships, it’s mother-daughter relationships. And the Wonder Woman mythos is already halfway along the Smallville model. Wonder Woman is a princess because her mother is the actual Queen of the Amazons, the leader of a secluded all-female society who recognized that they needed an emissary to “man’s world” but would never have chosen to send her only daughter Diana on such a mission. Diana had to win that right, the opportunity to become Wonder Woman, through competition. This even though (again, in some versions) Queen Hippolyta herself wore the costume and acted as Wonder Woman earlier, during World War II, setting up some juicy “do as I say, not as I do” potential conflict in addition to the premise of the young, modern Wonder Woman simultaneously working for her Queen on behalf of her homeland while at the same time trying to assert her independence from her protective mother.

What’s missing from the Wonder Woman comics, in comparison to Smallville, is the parallel evil mother-daughter relationship, but that could be fairly easily addressed. In the Wonder Woman cosmos the Amazons are an advanced civilization and all but immortal, but higher still than them are the Greek gods and goddesses – and we all know how petty and nasty they can be (both genders). So select whichever member of Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery tickles your fancy (the Cheetah, Giganta, Circe the Sorceress) and update her origin to make her the long-lost demi-goddess offspring of a really morally-challenged Hera and there you go, two females dedicated to destroying Diana (if they don’t try to kill each other first).

Of course, please bear in mind that what I’m describing most likely in no way resembles what the Wonder Woman show from David E. Kelley would have looked like even if it hadn’t been axed. It’s just what I would’ve liked to see, based on shamelessly ripping off the approach of something else I’ve enjoyed. Maybe someday we will get to see something like that. The broadcasts of Smallville just had their tenth and final season finale, so those guys might be looking for something to do, you never know.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Captive audience

A little over two weeks ago, when I came back to work, I started a new commuting pattern. No more mixing-and-matching of driving on 66 and riding on the Metro Orange Line, or catching the bus to the Pentagon and a shuttle from there to the office, or taking the VRE as far as Crystal City and then switching over to the Metro Blue Line to Rosslyn. Since the office moved to Crystal City while I was gone, the VRE is really the most sensible way to go, and although there has been a snag or two here and there, it’s probably been the easiest and least stressful couple of weeks (from a commuting perspective) that I’ve had in a long time.

It’s also been pretty loaded on entertainment value, as well, because those 50-minute one-way rides down the rails have given me plenty of time to read and/or watch DVDs. (Or sleep, let’s be perfectly honest, but I’ve seriously surprised myself with how few catnaps I’ve caught on the train so far.) Just since May 9th, my first day back, I’ve consumed the following on the VRE:

- Three novels: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (for which technically I still have a few pages yet to go, but should polish it off on this evening’s ride home).
- A six-issue collection of recent Batman and Robin comics
- Volume 2 of the landmark Japanese manga series Akira
- Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglorious Basterds
- The final three episodes of Smallville Season 5

THE FLAMINGO, a villain so awesome on so many levels I don't even know where to start
For me, that pace is pretty exhilarating, and not just in and of itself but for what it seems to indicate going forward. For what feels like years now I’ve been piling up books I want to read and movies and tv shows I want to see, conceptually at any rate, in the form of Amazon wish lists and Netflix queues and things like that. And it has perpetually seemed like the “get around to it later” lists only seem to grow and grow, faster than I can make any headway on them. Of course that’s a fine problem to have when the reasons include being married to someone I adore spending time with and having two small children I more or less swoon over constantly, but the pop-culture omnivore inside me does tend to get a little wistful now and then. Thus, envisioning myself watching two movies and six serialized episodes, plus reading six novels and four comics collections, every single month? That’s got the omnivore salivating something fierce.

It’s also got me looking ahead to the summer, which longtime readers of this here blog may recall is traditionally when I turn my attention to a little project I call Beach Books on a Bus, that being both a sop to my unreasonable love of alliteration and a fair description of the manner in which my commute-based reading list takes a turn for lighter fare in the warmer months. The original iteration came to pass when I was taking a bus every single day, from our old neighborhood to the Metro station, and during a summer when we weren’t going to be able to take a vacation to the seaside at all and gorging myself on pulpy fantasy and potboilers was the closest I was going to get to that kind of mental break. This year, with a six-week-old recently having joined our brood, we are once again making no plans for renting houses with ocean views. But this year I won’t be riding the bus at all during the summer (unless, gods forfend, there’s some kind of VRE engineers strike or something) so the tradition is a bit inaptly named. Still for the sake of tradition if nothing else, the nomenclature will probably stick around.

But what I’m amused by now is the possibility of supplementing BBB with SMOAT: Summer Movies on a Train, because why not? Just as there is no shortage of Western Canon classics and mind-expanding non-fiction tomes I set aside for a quarter of each year to focus on cheap and lurid brain candy, there are lots of documentaries and serious indie flicks and beloved Oscar nominees I intend to getting around to one of these days, but an equal if not greater number of blockbuster popcorn flicks I’ve missed over the years, too. I might as well line a bunch up one after the other for the remainder of the Months With No “R” In Their Names. I’ve never seen Jaws, for instance, so that’s going to have to be remedied pretty soon. I haven’t yet decided what other movies I’ll bump up the queue or what paperbacks I’ll trawl the used bookstore for, but I’ll be certain to post updates here as the summer blazes merrily along.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ghost Town

Week Three of being back in the office after paternity leave commences, and it is still awfully quiet around here. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I don’t have any extra work being shipped my way.

The new office is essentially one big open floorplan, with the elevators and restrooms in the center and the cubicle farm surrounding them and then a few meeting rooms and executive offices occupying the outer perimeter where the windows are. I can walk freely around the whole floor, which is probably big enough for at least 200 people in just the cubicles alone. And yet there’s only a couple dozen or so of us here, all clustered in one corner of the floor. More and more departments and possibly entire unrelated DoD agencies will allegedly be joining us as the summer goes along, but as of today it’s just my smallish group and wide, cavernous stretches of unadorned, unoccupied cubiclage.

I promised myself I wouldn't do any more Rapture jokes.
That has certain advantages, of course. It used to be if I was taking a personal cell phone call at work I would step out into the hallway and pace, but now I can just swing around to the other side of the floor, take a seat at a blank desk, and not be within earshot of a soul. It’s also nice to not have to compete for fridge space if I want to stow a lunch, or feel guilty if I’m stockpiling enough food to get me through the week. (Some mornings I can barely remember where my keys are and my next meal never crosses my mind, so it’s nice to have a couple options waiting for me at the office.)

But overall there’s a bit of that “quiet … too quiet” thing going on. It reminds me of some of the semesters in college, especially my last one, when I would have late finals or some other reason to hang around campus beyond the point where people had started departing. That sense of unfilled space, not that I personally was missing anything I needed but that the background was oddly drained. Weird and unsettling. The vacant executive offices on the opposite side of the floor from us all have their doors standing open, and their lights out, but there are motion sensors just inside the thresholds to turn the overhead fluorescents on. When I’m wandering past those offices it’s all I can do to resist the urge to dart in and out of every door and make all the lights snap on.

I’m sure in a few months when the whole office is swarming with people and they are running out of room to put everyone, I’ll be longing for the peace and quiet of the current strangeness. But that’s just the way it goes.

Friday, May 20, 2011

All Been Done

(L to R) Deimos, Phobos, Athos, and Shemp
Here’s the thing about geeks and The End of the World: most of us are something of connoisseurs on the subject. Eschatology is pretty content-rich which means anyone with a creative bent towards concepts beyond everyday reality (sci-fi authors, comic book creators, etc. etc.) will likely start mining that conceptual ore eventually, and thus any fan of same will likely experience several takes on the last days throughout the course of their pop culture consumption. And some of them will be really thought-provoking and enthralling, some will be cheap and lurid (but still potentially amusing as weird reverse-escapism) and some will be hackneyed and forgettable.

The actual Book of Revelations from the actual Bible is not exactly great literature. Important, yeah, but shoot, so are tax codes. Revelations makes its necessary points as part of the underlying architecture of the whole theology which it arises from and feeds back into, but man, it doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. And, again, that’s largely beside the point because John of Patmos (or whoever) didn’t have entertainment as his primary goal in mind when he wrote it. But to any geek like me, whose thought process is so keyed into understanding the world through archetypes and narratives and metaphors, it just comes across as less than compelling.

So I’m a little skeptical about tomorrow being any different from today, except that I will hopefully get a couple extra hours sleep in the morning and my only obligatory to-do will be getting the little guy to his swim lesson. Also maybe I’ll wake up having shaken off this feeling like I’m coming down with a cold. But I’m disinclined to think there will be a massive upswing in locusts or trumpet-blowing angels or dragons or anything like that. I just expect that if the world ever does come to an end and I’m around to see it, the whole show will be a little less non sequitor.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rewards Program

So, the little guy is bad at transitions. He’s fairly good (for a two-and-a-half year old) at following directions once he’s onboard with the current order of business, but has a tendency to just fall apart when asked to move from order of business A to order of business B. My wife and I had a strange conversation once where she tried to convince me that the little guy didn’t really like daycare and I tried to convince her that he actually loved it, which finally resolved itself when we realized that our son resists being dropped off at daycare (which my wife usually handles) and also resists being picked up (which is generally my job) because both are transitions and that’s what he really dislikes.

By far the most difficult aspects of this particular personality quirk of his come up first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. Waking him up, getting him out of pajamas and into clothes, out of the house and into the car, etc., make for one long and arduous chain of transitions, exceeded only by getting him to stop playing and sit down for dinner, get down from the table and get upstairs, get out of his clothes and into the bath, out of the bath and into pajamas, and (after a snack and a couple of bedtime stories which he unsurprisingly doesn’t mind at all) into the crib for the night. He never cared for being herded through those processes on our schedule rather than his own, and sometime after he turned two he really figured out just how many things he could do to express his displeasure: running away, going limp when we grab his hand and try to lead him back, kicking when we resort to picking him up bodily, screaming bloody murder, and so on.

After the obligatory “maybe he’s just having a bad three weeks or so” waiting period, my wife and I started addressing the bad bedtime behavior by reducing the number of bedtime stories we would read to him. Normally he gets three (actually three short board-books, and then there’s some calculus and negotiation where he can trade two short books for a medium book or all three short books for a long one) but if he refuses to cooperate with the efforts to get him bathed, pajama’d and bedded down, he loses one. If he gets with the program after that, great, and if he balks egregiously again, he loses another. And there were nights when he lost all three books, which meant even more wailing than usual, but there were also nights where just losing one book was enough to get him to snap out of a contrary mood, so it seemed like a decent enough system.

Of course the English Major nerd in me is wondering when my own book-reading trophy will materialize.
Still, when I was due to go back to work after the birth of our daughter, my wife worried about the little guy’s cooperativeness (or lack thereof) particularly in the mornings, when (a) I wouldn’t be around to help and (b) there aren’t any books inherent to the process to use as incentives. Thus, never ones to shy away from solution-oriented action, we came up with a new plan. We had previously been sweetening the bedtime pot by giving him a sticker at every bedtime where he hadn’t lost any books, but now we went further by dangling a prize for the little guy. The deal was that if he behaved cooperatively ten times (which seems like a clunky way of putting it but it doesn’t really translate to a span of days because some mornings it honestly doesn’t matter if he cooperatively gets dressed by a certain time, because he doesn’t have to go to daycare anyway, as opposed to the necessity of going to bed at a reasonable hour every single night) then we would buy him yet another Matchbox-sized Pixar Cars toy. We made a little custom tracking sheet to put happy face stickers on and everything.

And the good news is, it worked. There were a couple of hiccups where no amount of incentives seemed to be enough to keep the little guy on the straight and narrow and bedtime was decidedly unpleasant for all involved, but for the most part we were pleasantly surprised at how well asking “Do you want to earn your sticker tonight?” worked at getting the little guy to focus and transition from task to task. And fortunately the timing worked out so that he got his tenth sticker at bedtime on a Sunday, and when he woke up on Monday (a day when he didn’t have to go to daycare) he came down to breakfast and saw the toy on the kitchen table and was overjoyed and played with it all day long.

Now we’re on tracking sheet number two, with the requisite number of cooperative mornings/evenings upped to fifteen total. (Of which he’s filled five or six slots by now.) Which is all well and good, but it does kind of beg the question: what have we created, and how long can we keep this up?

Because make no mistake, by the end of that first day playing with his new toy, it was the little guy who was informing us of what kind of toy he wanted next. My wife was the one who countered with the increase of good-behavior metrics from ten to fifteen. And at some point I think the little guy may get even more audacious in his requests for prizes to be earned. Sure, right now he’s content with little $6.99 toy vehicles but sooner than later he’ll at least test the waters of asking for, I don’t know, a half-pipe in the backyard he can ride his giraffe-trike on. The whole system was something we came up with to try to minimize the power struggles, but I can see it turning into a power struggle in and of itself.

And on the flipside, I find myself wondering how far I can push things, too. Originally the plan was to find a way to stop the headache-inducing frustrations I mentioned above: the tantrums, the violent resistance, the obstinate obstructionism. And in that regard it worked like gangbusters, but lately I find myself wondering if the mere absence of the most heinous bedtime offenses is really good enough. The threat to withhold stories or stickers used to only come out when the little guy categorically refused to put his trains down and go upstairs, or when he ran screaming and naked down the hall instead of staying put for a diaper. He doesn’t do those things anymore, but sometimes he takes his sweet time climbing the stairs because he’s pretending his head is stuck to the carpet. In my calmer, more rational moments I know that I don’t really want to stomp all the whimsy out of him and turn him into a highly disciplined, well-oiled machine but … I just can’t be calm and rational all the time, and really, this system has very little in the way of checks and balances built into it as it is.

So, as usual, who knows where it will all end up. We’re making it up as we go along and I’m sure there will be constant adjustments. At some point we may even just reach a truce about getting ready for daycare and getting ready for bed, with no bribery required on either side. And then it will be on to the next major source of conflict (see: giraffe-trike half-pipe).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, Follow the Second Star to the Right

As I may have mentioned before, the little guy has of late reached the stage where he can play with just about any object and utilize it as whatever the game at hand requires, which not only means that he can pretend a toy drum is a steering wheel if he’d rather play racecar driver than rhythm section, but (more fascinating to me, at any rate) he can take one miniature licensed character and imagine that it is a different, specific character from a completely unrelated franchise. The most frequent example of this comes up whenever he’s recently watched his favorite DVD, which is a collection of episodes of Bob the Builder, after which all of his Thomas the Tank Engine or Pixar Cars vehicles magically become the various pieces of construction equipment who comprise Bob’s team.

A few days ago, though, the little guy surprised me with a completely different character substitution when he grabbed one of my Green Lantern action figures and announced “It’s Peter Pan!” I should point out that my son has his own age-appropriate Fisher-Price Green Lantern (because of course he does) and he knows the character on site, so it wasn’t a case of him trying to fit one of my toys into his own limited frame of reference; he just wanted to play Peter Pan right at that moment. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that the little guy was really onto something, something which I never noticed before: the Green Lantern/Peter Pan parallels are fairly numerous.

1. Fondness for green apparel. This is the most superficial similarity, and quite possibly the primary reason why the little guy’s brain went straight to Neverland when he got his hands on that particular superhero doll. Obviously you can’t have the Green Lantern without the namesake color, but Peter Pan isn’t inherently obligated to deck himself out in emerald. Nevertheless if you ask anyone to picture Peter Pan, and then tell you the dominant color of his outfit, 99 percent of the time I bet they say green. (This is also where I could make a cheap joke about both Peter Pan and Green Lantern wearing tights, but let’s just assume that I did and move on.)

2. Refusal to grow up. So here’s where it starts to get a little more interesting (not to mention clearly way beyond anything the little guy’s thought process would encompass). In this case it’s something very much inherent to the concept of Peter Pan, the spirit of youth, and so on. Nothing about the Green Lantern concept rides on immaturity, but coincidentally that’s the way it kind of shook out. And here I’ll note that, given the way superhero comics work with traditions and legacies and so on, there have been many characters who filled the role of Green Lantern over the years and I’m focusing mainly on Hal Jordan, the first character who got to be the sci-fi space cop version. Hal was a cocky, risk-taking test pilot who got a power ring from an alien and became a cocky, risk-taking superhero. When other contemporaries of his like Barry “the Flash” Allen and Ray “the Atom” Palmer settled down and got married, Hal remained a footloose bachelor. Don’t let the super-serious version from the SuperFriends cartoon fool you: in the comics Hal Jordan had a certain juvenile fecklessness for so long that when they finally decided, after close to thirty years of ongoing stories, that maybe he should act a bit more like a wise, seasoned veteran, they actually changed his look to incorporate physical signs of aging. This just doesn’t happen in comics; you’ll never see crow’s feet on Wonder Woman or liver spots on Batman even though they should be older than our grandparents. But Hal Jordan got graying temples to denote his character evolution. And then he died, and came back (which actually does happen in comics all the time) and when he did the mature partial white-hair look was gone. That’s not just refusing to grow up, that’s reverse aging.

3. First among equals. But despite being a child and a man-child, respectively, Peter Pan and Hal Jordan are still recognized by their peers as the best of their breed and default leaders. Peter Pan runs at the front of the pack of the Lost Boys, and in fact technically is one, himself, but a very special one. Similarly, Hal Jordan is part of an entire thousands-strong Green Lantern Corps but quickly distinguished himself as one of their all-time greats.

4. No unaided flight. Here’s the kind of trick-trivia question that comics geeks are likely to utterly lose themselves contemplating all koan-like: Can Green Lantern fly? One potentially correct answer is “Yes, but not without help” which also happens to apply to regular human beings in the real world who use hang-gliders or, for that matter, 747s. Superman can truly fly, which means he can rise up off the ground, shoot through the air faster than a speeding bullet, and execute aerodynamically impossible hairpin turns all under his own innate power. Green Lantern can perform all the same moves but technically only because of the power of his ring; take away the ring and GL is grounded. And the same is true of Peter Pan, who doesn’t inherently possess the ability to ignore gravity and other laws of physics at will, but rather has access to pixie dust which bestows the flight on him. BUT! On closer consideration, even the ring and the pixie dust aren’t enough alone …

5. Positive thinking. Every time I read Peter Pan to my little guy, I get the song “You Can Fly” stuck in my head, and the lyrics of that ditty are almost exclusively about explaining that you need to think happy thoughts in order to fly, and then giving examples of same. And that kind of mental focus yielding a physical result is strikingly reminiscent of the secret to Green Lantern’s true strength: willpower. Granted that’s not precisely the same thing, but the general equation still works out the same: rare object (pixie dust/power ring) + inner mental state (happy thoughts/determination) = wish-fulfillment (ability to fly/ability to project giant green boxing gloves into bad guys’ faces, and also to fly)

I'm saving the comparisons of Sinestro to Captain Hook for another post.
After thinking my way through all of the above, I was all set to put the neatest possible bow on this whole weird Lincoln/Kennedy connection by pointing out that as of next month both Green Lantern and Peter Pan will have been portrayed in movies by Ryan Reynolds. I was dead convinced that a young Ryan Reynolds played Peter Pan in flashbacks in the 1991 Spielberg flick Hook. But when I went to go find a photo to back that up I realized I was slightly off, as a kid named Ryan Francis played that part in Hook and, so far as teh interwebs are concerned, Ryan Reynolds has never played The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. (Unless we’re going to count Van Wilder, I guess.)

And as I did finally allude to before my ill-fated Hollywood-casting digression, I know that most of Peter Pan is about wish-fulfillment, as are many children’s stories, and as are most superheroes, which is why superhero comics tend to be thought of first and foremost as children’s (or at least stunted adolescents’) entertainment to begin with. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that any two exemplars of those genres appear to have a lot in common. Just some of the particulars happened to amuse me and, given that I have this venue at hand, I had to share.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Must Love Sports

As I’ve been pacing myself day-by-day here talking about the big and small developments of the past four or five weeks, I’d been planning on talking a bit today about sports. I’ve said before that I consider myself very lucky to be married to a woman who enjoys sports not just as much as I do, but in much the same manner as I do. We may root for different teams, but to a certain extent that’s beside the point. We both love football so much that we’ll watch the Sunday and Monday Night games no matter who’s playing, and we both love baseball so much that going to a minor league Richmond Braves game not only seemed like a good idea but a must-do (and, for the record, it was totally worth doing). There are differing levels of devotion when it comes to hockey (she’s a lot more into it than I am) but that’s really just a matter of degree, and we’ve certainly been to plenty of hockey games together. There’s also been some give and take, too, in that she’s gotten me much more into college football than I used to be, and I did what I could to help her make a little more sense of college basketball when March Madness saw Old Dominion University go surprisingly far this year. The point being, neither one of us has any trouble at all relating to the other’s interest level in any given professional athletic competition.

Of course despite the allure of live sporting events, that aforementioned interest level is most easily measured in hours spent in front of the tv. Then again, those hours are broken up into catch-as-catch-can spans of minutes more often than not, with the exception of a few stretches of appointment television that fall after the little guy’s bedtime. So when ESPN started rolling out their 30 For 30 documentaries, my wife and I were both on the one hand stoked to check them out, and on the other hand reasonably certain we’d rarely be able to tune in when they were broadcast. Which is why when the first 15 episodes were released as a box set last year, that collection became a no-brainer addition to my wife’s pile of Christmas presents. So that we could get around to watching them all at our leisure … someday.

You'd think limiting the subject matter to the past thirty years would be a detriment, but so far, not so much.
As it turned out, maternity/paternity leave was a pretty ideal opportunity. There were numerous days during that month where we spent most of the daylight hours bouncing between doctor’s appointments, or tending to pressing household projects, or losing track of time in any other number of ways. But there were also five good days where we would find ourselves with a nice midday lull which we could put to use watching one of those hour-long sports documentaries. It felt like an absolutely decadent binge, and while we still have ten episodes to go, I’m optimistic that we can get through most if not all of them by the time this Christmas rolls around. (Summer reruns are due to start up soon, after all.)

In addition to ESPN Films, we also gorged ourselves on actual live, televised baseball, which was fun for a while there with both the Yankees and the Orioles doing pretty well, but good grief has it been a lot rougher going the past week or so. Two nights ago I turned the tv off in disgust when A-Rod let what should have been an inning-ending grounder go right through his legs; last night I killed an O’s game in much the same fashion, and the fact that in both cases it was the Red Sox doing the damage was pretty thoroughly sickening. So really, let’s not dwell on the current slumpiness of my household’s preferred AL East teams (even if that does make this post significantly shorter than I would have predicted a week ago). The season’s barely a quarter over, so there’s plenty of time for fortunes to change yet again. And if they don’t, there’s always documentaries.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Part One

So I’ve been back to work for a week now and in many ways (new geographic location of the office notwithstanding) it’s like I never left. There was no backlog of work waiting for me to dive into once I had settled and regained my bearings. As usual, I find myself looking for things to do.

A job ago, which now seems like a lifetime ago but was really only four years back, I had developed a certain working style which was appropriate to that corporate environment. My employer was eternally in start-up mode, taking on impossibly daunting amounts of work just to prove it and dumping a lot of that work on my department. Anything assigned to me had to get done yesterday if not sooner: “yesterday” because that’s when the deliverable had been promised to our newest, golden-egg client; “if not sooner” because it was always a good idea to keep things hustling on forward to make room for the next herculean task that was no doubt right around the corner.

Brute force and ignorance gets the job done!
So I learned how to do things as fast as possible, which was not always synonymous with efficiency. I cut everything extraneous out of my work process, including things like taking notes or following a system, which would have only slowed me down at the time (even if they would have made subsequent stabs at doing similar work a little easier in the long run). I never even spared the time to think about how I could have been doing things differently, to be honest. That’s the kind of thing that only occurs to me now.

Because now, much more important (to me, at least) than getting all of my assigned work done is finding a way to look busy all the time, and I’ve discovered that I can succeed in that regard by approaching each task with what would strike circa-2005 me as insane amounts of extraneous business. I now maintain documents and spreadsheets aplenty which track what I need to be working on, what progress I’ve made, how I did what I did, where to find additional information related to the projects, and so on. So instead of, for example, trying to tear through a custom database update as fast as I can bash through the code assembly for it, I can (and do!) diagram what needs to happen, outline the steps I’m going to take to make sure I don’t miss anything or set off any unintended consequences, double-check every element, and then finally pull the trigger. And after that I compose a permanent record of what I did and why, and notify my bosses, and update my folder organization schema both on the computer and in my paper filing cabinet so I can put all those artifacts in their proper place.

I know a lot of people go to similar CYA lengths all the time, but I tend to think of those as situations where a person needs to be able to defend themselves if someone questions what they did. I, on the other hand, am trying to pre-emptively deflect criticism for what I don’t do, which is much work at all. Having a spreadsheet open looks more like legit work than having a web browser open, even if all I’m doing with the spreadsheet is expanding my list of things I need to write down that I did the day before. Who knows, it might even all pay off someday, down the road, if people around here ever figure out how to make better use of my time.

Part Two

But while I’m on the subject of efficiency, I also need to report that, sad to say, my honeymoon with the VRE seems to be over. I got to the station a little early this morning and realized that was a lucky thing because it’s Monday and I needed to go through the purchasing process for my weekly ticket. Unfortunately the automated ticket vending kiosks were all in validate-only mode, with a message on their screens saying purchase of tickets was not available. Here’s the thing, though: the automated kiosks are the only way you can buy tickets at the station. It’s not as though there’s a human being working at the window who is supplemented by an automated machine, and it’s the customer’s choice which method to use. I suppose that kind of redundancy would be pretty inefficient, but when the ticket-vending system goes down, there’s no backup.

The last thing in the world I wanted to do this morning (or any morning ever again) was drive on 66 and take the Metro, so I took a shot at going to the next nearest VRE station instead. Not that I knew exactly where that station was, but I knew I had seen signs for it when driving around, and I optimistically assumed I could follow them and find it. That turned out to be true, fortunately. I also knew the station I was trying to find was the terminus for that line of the VRE, which conveniently means that trains hang out there for quite a while until the time arrives for them to leave on schedule, as opposed to stations along the line where the train pulls in, loads up, and rolls on. More to the point, conductors hang out at that terminus platform as well. So when it turned out the kiosks at that station weren’t selling tickets, either, I at least could immediately ask an authoritative source what I was supposed to do. (As it turned out, the conductor just shrugged, which put me right on the trembling verge of apoplexy until he followed it up with “Just get on” and waved me toward the train.)

The kiosks here in Crystal City weren’t working this morning, either, but I consoled myself that once I got to my desk at the office I could check the VRE website and get some more info on how long they’d be down. You’d think, right? If the kiosks weren’t working at three different stations, they probably were down all along the line. Yet the website made absolutely no mention of the service outage. In fact, the whole website is pretty opaque once you get past finding the schedules and fares.

I guess at this point I’m not so much calling the VRE inefficient so much as ineffectual, in terms of its ticketing system and its online communication (or lack thereof in either case). Which is disappointing and disillusioning, but still doesn’t change the fact that it’s far and away the best commuting option I’ve got right now. Hopefully by the time I try to head home this evening everything will be back to normal.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Heart On My Shortsleeves

I cannot remember the last time I wore a specific one of my favorite t-shirts. I know I still own it, because I see it when I dig through that drawer sometimes, but I haven’t put it on in ages. And since I just spent an entire month away from work, wearing t-shirts every single day (and a different one every day, at that, as opposed to some work weeks when I change into the same t-shirt and jeans after I get home each evening and figure it’s acceptable because I’m only in the casual outfit for a couple of hours) it became undeniably apparent: I’m consciously avoiding the shirt.

Let me back up a bit and tell you the origin story of said garment. I bought it shortly after I got divorced, and I sincerely consider the shirt to be a relic of that particular time and my preoccupations therein. I haven’t mentioned yet what this t-shirt looks like but that’s because, before I do, I want to make absolutely clear that it represents good and positive developments in my life (albeit in an arguably twisted way).

For the longest time, whatever social group I was part of, I was the one forever trying to keep everyone getting along with one another. Sometimes that meant mediating genuine conflicts, but it also meant that I was reluctant to put down anyone, even as a joke, even when everyone else was ragging on each other. I was, in fact, the guy who was always first to say “oh, come on, that’s mean” in response to someone else’s jokes, or back away from my own with lots of urgent “not really, just kidding!” protestations. Some little part of me was always terrified of the social breakdowns that would ensue if I didn’t immediately and thoroughly salve every wound from every exchange of harsh words, playful or otherwise. (There’s probably a lot of reasons for that, none of them really relevant at the moment, so ... moving on!)

So then I got married, to someone who was simultaneously extremely judgmental and extremely thin-skinned, quick to take offense but even quicker to dish it out, and who never heard a cruel, spiteful, mean-spirited joke she didn’t wish she’d thought of first. And I spent a couple years trying to broker ceasefires between her and my friends, and wincing every time she lambasted someone and added her own “oh, just kidding” that was stunningly devoid of human conscience. Eventually I gave up on ameliorating the path of destruction she left in her wake, and then some time after that gave up on the relationship as a whole.

But a funny thing occurred to me in the aftermath of all that: the marriage collapsed but society around me did not. Whatever anxieties I had about the dire consequences of her meanness proved to bear little relation to reality. People got over the really vile stuff eventually, and the stuff that was technically “just kidding around” really did get laughed off remarkably quickly. I know this makes me sound like I hadn’t really been raised by human beings prior to that revelation, but I’m being fairly honest here. I had a terrible, irrational fear of nasty interpersonal conflict and it took some hardcore, if inadvertent, immersion therapy to get me over it.

And once I was over it, my friends noticed, because suddenly I was dishing out abuse like never before. Instead of swallowing every unpleasant thought I ever had, I was giving at least some of them an outlet, the harmless ones that I could exaggerate for comic effect that made everyone laugh, even the person I was busting on, and made me feel immeasurably better. My friends zeroed in on the fact that I was finally mixing in being mean-funny with being goofy-funny and simply characterized this new evolution of me as The Mean One. Which inevitably led to comparisons with Mr. Yuk.

This is actually the face of someone who has not ingested poison accidentally but rather cannot stop himself from eating posion constantly.
And then around the same time that my friends were starting to call me Mr. Yuk I spotted a green ringer T at the mall with a big Mr. Yuk on the chest and had to have it. And for a long while I wore that thing every chance I got. I said at the beginning of my post it was one of my favorite t-shirts and in the moment of its acquisition it was far and away my #1 favorite. And as I also alluded to, it’s not like I went through this post-divorce phase where I was lashing out and being horrible to my friends and wallowing in it up to the point of emblazoning my meanness on my chest. Getting divorced was a relief for numerous reasons, and one of them was that I had gone through the worst-case scenario of my worst fear and realized it wasn’t like what I had imagined, that I could behave in the same normal ways as everyone else in a way I never had before. My friends were genuinely happy for me, but that in turn just meant they had to give me a hard time too because that’s what friends do, so they laughed and gasped in mock-horror at every uncharacteristically harsh thing that came out of my mouth even as they gradually became more and more characteristic. So Mr. Yuk might be mean, but he represented some good times.

But that’s the meaning that I've assigned to the poison-control mascot myself, and of course on a more mainstream level Mr. Yuk represents bad stuff indeed. Or maybe good stuff, depending on how full or empty you choose to view the glass: the thought of kids drinking household chemicals that could kill them qualifies as bad, but the notion of an easily recognizable ideogram that warns children away from such a fate is therefore good. I have kids now, and I certainly don’t want either of them ever to try to satisfy any nascent curiosity about what Raid tastes like. Which is why, at a minimum, we have childproof latches on all the floor-level cupboards and keep a lot of stuff as high up as possible. But that only keeps things locked down for so long, and I’m sure eventually we’ll have a bunch of green frowny stickers on bottles under the sink and an explicit understanding with our children about exactly how untouchable that makes the contents.

Even though that’s a ways off, though, some part of me must have realized a while ago that there’s no need to undermine my own efforts with mixed messages. Because if the little guy had even fuzzy memories of daddy wearing a shirt with Mr. Yuk on it, and a positive enough relationship with daddy to want to be like him and like the things he likes, then the little guy could very well end up thinking Mr. Yuk is cool. (He’s certainly not going to know the whole backstory of my failed marriage and late-developing male bonding skills and whatnot which properly contextualizes everything. Assuming that the context even makes sense of all of it in the first place.) It’s just not a risk I’ve been willing to run, so I just haven’t let the little guy see me in the Mr. Yuk t-shirt. Even when I’m home every day for a month, it's really been absolutely no contest. Still, I have a hard time letting go of things, especially t-shirts, so I’m content to leave it in the back of the drawer for a long while, and maybe way way way down the road I’ll put it back in the weekend rotation or something.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Daddy's Little Girl

Having gotten some of the bigger post-worthy subjects from the preceding month out of the way, and it being Thursday and all, it seems like as good a time as any to focus primarily on the reason for all those weeks of leave and absence in the first place: my newborn daughter.

She is an absolute delight, of course. Earlier I copped to my own predilection for projecting counterfactual states of mind onto her, but again, that’s something I’m bound to do not only because I’m an overthinker but because, as with all newborns, there’s honestly not that much of her there yet. Not that this stopped me from considering the past four weeks to be a meaningful getting-to-know-you period which I tried to take advantage of in every way, but of course many of those ways are fraught with their own pitfalls right out of the gate.

First there is the Pitfall of Comparison, which is the burden of every child who happens to not be the firstborn of any given union. The little lady bears a physical resemblance to her big brother at that age which is downright uncanny. So much so that the very moment she was born, my wife told everyone in the delivery room she looks just like him. So much so that I did a double-take yesterday because I thought somehow my wife had arranged photo birth announcements for our daughter, when in fact she had simply dug out the old ones printed for our son. So much so that I’m amazed we’ve only called the baby by her brother’s name a couple of times instead of near-constantly.

I don’t really think the little lady is suffering by comparison to the little guy, since we’re very enamored of both of them. We’re also not blind to the contrasts, and in some cases she becomes the beneficiary of enormous goodwill for the ways in which she differs from the elder child. She’s already a better sleeper than her brother was at one month old, both in terms of how long she can sleep and how well she can do so on her own without constant physical soothing. (This is one of those things where I imagine people who haven’t had kids might wonder what the big deal is while those who have simply nod appreciatively, so to all of you in the former category I simply assert that there’s no possible way to overemphasize the total quality-of-life impact that a newborn’s sleep habits have on the entire household.) Still, it’s hard to really determine how much of that is because she was born with a different temperament, and how much is a result of her taking some cues from all the lessons learned that my wife and I picked up the hard way the first time we brought a baby into our home. (Not that it matters, see above on relative importance. I will take this any dang way I can get it.)

Another, literally superficial, difference between the kids is that the little guy was always pretty fair-skinned while his sister is positively pink. Which quickly led to me referring to her as a little shrimp-purse, in no small part because shortly before she was born my wife and I had already started referring to her big brother as Dumpling. And of course I am irresistibly drawn to patterns and symmetry and serializing and so forth, but every once in a while it gives me pause. I’d like my daughter to have some things that are all her own, and not just sequels to things her brother got first. So I’m trying to stay mentally on top of that.

Oh yummy yummy bugs of the sea
Then (speaking of pinkness) there’s the Pitfall of Gender Roles, which is pretty self-explanatory I guess. I’m a card-carrying male, I’ve been raising a little boy for a couple years, and now I’m equally responsible for bringing up a girl in a world that doesn’t always make girls’ ways as easy as guys’. I’m honestly grateful that I have a good bit of time yet to sort a lot of things out myself before the little lady even notices any of it, because there seems to be an awful lot. The little lady’s birth (again, just like her brother’s) was medically induced and chemically accelerated and actually progressed in something of a controlled mad rush, evocative of expressions such as “like a freight train”. And as it happens, “freight train” rhymes pretty well with our daughter’s given name, a coincidence which could easily take root in the part of my mind where terms of endearment sprout up. I wouldn’t even think twice about it if the child in question were a boy; “Freight Train” makes a pretty cool sports nickname after all. But society certainly puts some negative pressure on the idea of associating anything feminine with anything massive or heavy, and I hope it goes without saying that I Do Not Want To Give My Daughter ISSUES, body-image or otherwise. So, no more references to freight trains, I reckon, but there begins the tip of the iceberg.

Let me just clarify that, as usual, I’m ruminating mostly on the oddities and sticking points of my mental meanderings because that’s what I generally find the most interesting to talk about (or feel the greatest urge to hash out and resolve somehow). But paternity leave, especially the parts devoted exclusively to the little lady, was far more bliss than doubt and worry. There’s just only so much that could possibly be gleaned from reflecting on how nothing beats the simple pleasure of holding a perfect little baby in your arms before I’d end up repeating myself. Feel free to write out “Everything is spectacularly awesome, but here’s a little something I can’t help chewing on …” on a strip of paper and tape it to the top of your monitor, to be referred to as the implied prologue to basically everything I say.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Best $12.50 I spent that day

Oh, hey, look, they made a movie about the comic book version of my favorite proto-Germanic deity.

Betcha didn't know Battle-Santa was in this movie, too
Opening day for Thor happened to fall on Friday the 6th, the very last weekday of my extended paternity leave, which gave me the all-too-rare opportunity to catch a matinee. The little guy was in daycare, and my wife briefly flirted with the idea of securing the little girl to her bosom with a Moby Wrap so that the three of us could hit the theater together (operating under the assumption that my wife and I would enjoy the sparsely-attended movie while the three-week-old would sleep through it, defensively shutting down amidst the cosmic clamor of sci-fi mythology in surround sound) but ultimately opted to pass. Normally that would be enough for me to pass, as well, partly because I prefer doing fun things with my wife rather than alone (and alone was in fact the only other option, as all my buddies seem to still have day jobs or somesuch) and partly because it didn’t really seem fair to go off and do something self-indulgent while leaving my better half at home with half of our childcare responsibilities (admittedly, the much easier half at this stage, but still).

However, my wife managed to convince me of a couple of things. First, she knew I was really keen to see Thor on the big screen, but for the two of us to see it together we would realistically need to leave our newborn in someone else’s care for a few hours, and that wasn’t likely to be feasible any time soon, possibly not any time during the Asgardian Avenger’s theatrical run, and she just didn’t want me to miss it. Second, she still (and despite my every insistence and protest) felt like she owed me one for not responding more quickly to my attempts to get her attention when I was locked out of the house a week before. I extracted a promise from her that if I treated myself to the movie, she would feel absolved of any further guilt about the dogwalking lockout incident, and she agreed, and off I went.

So that is how I ended up seeing Thor by myself on opening day. Also a good opportunity for me to proclaim once again that my wife is very, very sweet and in fact a real keeper.

The flick itself was really good, which I believe is broadly and semi-objectively true and not just my own biased inclination as a geek who loves superheroes and the Norse pantheon in equal measure. In terms of the vast tapestry of movies based on Marvel comics, I break things down as follows:

1. The best of the best, which is the first Iron Man movie, a solid action-adventure elevated to another level by Robert Downey, Jr.
2. The pretty darn good ones, including the second Iron Man and the first couple of Spider-Man installments
3. The flawed-but-OK ones, like Spider-Man 3 and Daredevil
4. The godawful messes, like the two Fantastic Four efforts, Ghost Rider, and Ang Lee’s Hulk

And I would unhesitatingly put Thor up there at the top end of category 2. It really doesn’t have any glaring problems, the changes made from the source comics to the screen version make a lot of sense and to a certain degree represent actual improvements, and basically it’s well-made and fun. Not mind-blowing or life-changing, but a superhero movie done right, which is all I wanted.

I saw it in 3-D, which was fairly cool. You might recall my cantankerous pre-release dissing of Avatar way back when (a movie which I still have not seen in any format) and some mentions since then that while Avatar seemingly kicked off a 3-D revolution at the multiplex, I hadn’t seen any of that new breed of films at all. I kept my expectations low, and thus they were met as I thought the effects were shiny enough but not absolute game-changers. The glasses don’t give me a headache, at least, so there’s a point of small curiosity answered.

There was some crazy brouhaha when images of the film started to leak and people saw that Idris Elba would be playing Heimdall, and a vocal minority proceeded to flip the hell out because that was PC absurdity run amok, how in the world could someone of African descent believably portray the Norse god of … whatever Heimdall is the god of? (Seriously. He guards the entrance to Asgard and watches for Ragnarok but it’s not like he’s the God of Bridges or God of Vision or anything like that.) Most of the ruckus was raised by groups that had not-very-hidden white supremacist/racial purity agendas so nobody paid it too much mind. But I couldn’t help but think of it again as I was watching the movie, because as it turns out, Elba doesn’t play the Norse God of Comings and Goings at all. He plays a powerful being from another world who operates a wormhole generator that can connect that world with Earth, and whose whole alien civilization may possibly have inspired some of the details of certain pagan legends. In which case, yeah, skin color and nationality all become kind of moot. On the one hand I think the reasoning behind constructing such a convoluted not-really-gods explanation for the Asgardians has something to do with modern, rational movie-goers preferring sci-fi explanations for things, rather than magic/fantasy explanations, because sci-fi has a ring of respectable believability about it (especially if you say “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” enough times) whereas fantasy seems childish and silly. But on another hand, I am convinced that the not-really-gods approach was more or less necessary to avoid offending the same people (neither rational nor really terribly modern) who condemn Harry potter for all the devil-worshipping witchcraft. “Nobody here is saying there are any other gods in the universe besides the One True YHWH, folks! Just making a movie about wacky aliens!” So yeah, you zig one way to avoid offending fundamentalists, you wind up offending neo-Nazis. Crazy world.

But enough about that, and let me finish up by addressing the question I’m sure is foremost in all of your minds: does the Thor movie earn its thumbs-up from me by including a scene in which the God of Thunder drinks a lot of beer? YEA VERILY! I was actually pretty charmed by the bar scene in particular because after it dispensed with advancing certain story beats, it proceeded with a few more coulda-been-cut-but-thankfully-weren’t minutes that seemed aimed right at me, with Thor’s new friend Dr. Selvig ordering a couple of boilermakers, which seems really random except that particular drink requires that the beer be served in massive glass steins with enough room to drop the shots of whiskey in, and the steins make decent enough stand-ins for tankards, and Thor proceeds to upend the stein and drain it off in one go (prompting a double-take from his drinking partner) and that may or may not have been a deliberate reference to the myth I am thinking of but I am just going to choose to believe that, in fact, it was.

I still intend to go see Green Lantern and Captain America in the theaters, not to mention taking the little guy to Cars 2 and my wife to Hangover 2 (since we saw the first Hangover in the theater together for our anniversary a couple years back) so this year is shaping up to be my Big Return to Big Movies, but it may have already hit its high point with the simple acknowledgment that you really can’t have a proper Viking god origin story without beer showing up at some point.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Locked Out

On the off chance that you may have forgotten, especially given my double-fortnight of blog silence, perhaps the fact that I jumped back into things yesterday by primarily writing about commuting and work and so forth reminded you that Mondays are Working Stiff Days here at PA, which in turn might have triggered the recollection that I am very much a creature of habit. I like new experiences and I have fun getting into adventures, but if there are things I need to do over and over again I really would just as soon do them more or less the same way every time. Which is not a terribly earth-shattering stance to take, but it has been known from time to time to get me into a bit of trouble.

Obviously the time I spent at home for the birth of our second child was in one sense entirely out of the ordinary, but the days and hours themselves were something of a mixed bag, with old habits and inescapable responsibilities re-worked into new configurations or varying divergence from the norm. Previously I took the dogs for a walk every night around the same time, barring heinously inclement weather; during the paternity leave I would walk the dogs some nights or just let them run around the fenced back yard other nights, depending on how exhausting the previous 24 hours had been. Before the little girl made her debut, we were paying a housekeeping service to come clean our house every other Wednesday; once my wife stopped working we put that luxury on hold for a bit, then scheduled a cleaning for a Friday afternoon about three weeks into my leave.

Those might seem like a couple of random examples but they ended up linked in my mind forever when I took the dogs for their first walk in several days on the Friday that the housekeepers had come. Whenever we have a cleaning scheduled, anyone who might otherwise be home tends to make themselves scarce so the housekeepers can work in peace, and the housekeepers come and go as they please since they have a spare key to the front door. My wife and I always use the deadbolt to lock the front door, but the housekeepers for some reason always lock the front doorknob instead when they leave. Here’s the thing about using a deadbolt as a matter of habit: it’s almost impossible to accidentally lock yourself out, as you can’t pull a deadbolt shut behind you. You can, however, pull a door with a locked knob shut without even noticing. Of course this is exactly what happened when I was led by the leashes out the front door that fateful Friday night.

Another habit-driven aspect to take into consideration: I’m pretty terrible about misplacing things like my cell phone, wallet and keys so for half the year I tend to leave all those things in the pockets of my jacket. If I leave the house, I grab my jacket, and have with me all of those other vital items as an automatic given. But of course our little springtime bundle of joy arrived along with a pleasant change in the weather, so I didn’t put on a jacket when I went out to walk the dogs. Thus I was locked out with no keys, and no cell phone, and no wallet.

Also it was later than usual when I left the house, and later still when I got back from the necessary business, which was when I finally and fully realized my predicament, sometime after 11 p.m. or so. And the late hour had two unfortunate effects: 1, my wife was that much more tired and, as it turned out, soundly asleep; and 2, I was that much more uncomfortable with the thought of knocking on any of my neighbors’ doors for assistance. All the lights in all the houses on my cul-de-sac were out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Of course before even contemplating knocking on a neighbor’s door I would just go ahead and knock on my own, and so I did, but to no avail. I should mention as well that just before gathering up the dogs, their leashes, the flashlight and a plastic bag I had taken leave of my wife as she lay on our bed, very near a state of dozing at the least, her upper body curled protectively around the well-zonked form of our daughter. Thus my initial impulse was to knock on the door just loudly enough to rouse my wife, without knocking so urgently as to startle her unnecessarily. Of course when this failed to produce any sight of her, I knocked more forcefully, and then for longer stretches at a go. I threw in some doorbell ringing, as well, for good measure, but I was less enthusiastic about this approach because the doorbell always makes the bigger of our two dogs bark protectively. I had already known that any doorbell ringing of any kind provokes that response, up to and including the sound of a doorbell on tv (e.g. at the beginning of the Just For Men commercial where the skanky-but-shallow neighbor stops by to borrow a cup of milk from the generic gray-haired bachelor protagonist. This spot has been in HEAVY rotation for the past month, I am just saying.) What I learned on the night of the lockout was that even if I am the one ringing the doorbell and my dog is standing right next to me and we are actually outside the house on the front porch, the dog will still bark.

The next span of time was a bit of a blur as I tried various approaches, none with any success. There are five ways into the house: the front door, garage door, and three sliding glass doors in back. All five were locked tight. (I might have forced the garage door, but never quite reached that level of desperation, or the equivalently desperate point of breaking one of the front door windows to reach in and unlock the knob. I thought about those things, but never seriously.) I threw rocks from the garden at our bedroom window, hoping those might wake my wife for at least being closer to her sleeping head, but no. (That was a first, by the by. For all my teenage hi-jinks I never had to throw rocks at someone’s bedroom window to signal it was time to sneak out or anything.) I tried pounding on the front door in different combinations, banging on the glass of the windows for a while and then thudding on the lower half. I quickly dropped any pretense of not wanting to alarm my wife, or not wanting to wake up our son (who is notoriously difficult to get back to sleep if he comes fully awake in the middle of the night) and actually considered that if I could wake up our son, that might in turn cause my wife to stir since she is evolutionarily more sensitive to the cries of our offspring under any conditions. But no such luck. I don’t know how long I kept at it, only that it was long enough that the dog stopped barking at the doorbell, even when I rang it ten times in a row.

Ultimately I decided the only way I would be able to wake my wife up would be to call the house phone however many times it took to penetrate the haze of sleep. And since I didn’t have my cell, and all the neighbors were apparently abed themselves (and I’m not really close enough with any of them to feel super-comfortable waking them up) my only option was a pay phone. I herded the dogs through the fence gate into the backyard and set off at a walk to the edge of the neighborhood, wondering if in fact pay phones exist anymore. I genuinely considered it a possibility that they had been completely phased out of the suburbs since I couldn’t remember the last time I had even taken notice of one. But this was my longshot last chance play, so I hustled over to the diner a couple of blocks away.

The diner did not have a pay phone outside and was locked up for the night, so I still don’t know if there was one inside or not. But across the street from the diner is a small (sketchy) motel, and that seemed like another likely place to find a public phone. Likely, but not factually, as it went. The front office was locked and I deliberated hitting the after-hours buzzer and throwing myself on the mercy of the night manager to ask to borrow their phone. But as I was making up my mind and looking in through the office window I saw … a bare foot. I don’t know if the night manager (or someone else) was sleeping on a cot in the office, or engaged in other nocturnal activities thereabouts, but that pretty much made the whole scene way too creepy for me and sent me off again, toward the 7-11 another block or so away.

Not to get all morbid or anything, but at this point I was exceedingly close to losing my freaking mind. Not so much about whether or not I would be able to get into my own house before dawn, because that didn’t seem like the world’s worst hardship all in all. But something about roaming my neighborhood on foot close to midnight and trying to solve an absurd problem of my own making had me partially convinced that all manner of calamity was befalling my family. I was plagued by nightmare scenarios: my wife had some kind of undiagnosed childbirth complication that took weeks to manifest but now had dropped her into a coma, the baby had somehow been accidentally smothered beside her (because of course people in comas are somehow restless sleepers prone to spontaneously rolling over), my son hadn’t woken up because he was paralyzed with lockjaw since he had sat down in the unmowed grass of our front lawn earlier that day and no doubt been thoroughly colonized by ticks, and since I had chucked the dogs in the backyard with their leashes still attached to their collars they had no doubt by now strung themselves up in mindless neurotic self-destructive fashion.

I assumed the cat was fine.

Anyway, the darkness of my soul was shortlived once I reached the arc-sodium glow of the convenience store parking lot. I am pleased to report that even this many years into the 21st century, 7-11 has a payphone outside and, furthermore, those payphones allow you to make collect calls. Which I proceeded to do. I hit the home voicemail four times before finally getting through to my lovely wife on the fifth consecutive attempt. Which might have been a blessing in disguise because that gave me an optimal amount of time to figure out the most efficient and reassuring way to convey the parameters of the situation once I had her on the line. I knew that a phone call in the middle of the night, from a number she wouldn’t recognize, would probably cause more than a little panic in my better half, but as I’ve already mentioned, I was long past the point where I was interested in anything other than getting the front door unlocked and doing whatever subsequent damage control was required.

Anyway, grateful as I am to whichever telecom micro-corporation operates the 7-11 payphone biz, I will take them to task for their automated process, which is as follows: you dial the 0+number you want, and a robo-voice asks you to say your name after the beep, and then it dials the number, and when a human being picks up at the other end the robo voice VERY SLOWLY says “You have a collect call from [recording of you saying your name]” Of course at that point my half-awake, fully-worried wife was shouting “I accept the call!” which very nearly made her miss the fact that the robo-voice was in the process of explaining that in order to accept the call she had to press 1 on her phone, which, COME ON. It makes perfect sense from an electronic processing perspective but when does anyone ever make a collect call when it isn’t an emotionally keyed-up situation where people are not at their rational, patient, instruction-following best?

At any rate, my wife dutifully pressed 1 and I quickly told her I was calling from 7-11 because I had locked myself out with neither keys nor phone. I hoofed it back home and by the time I got there found not only the front door opened but the dogs prancing around the kitchen, unclipped from their leashes, and no one suffering any medical maladies at all. My wife was mortified and hyper-apologetic about sleeping through me knocking on the door, but I told her not to give it another thought. I was already at the point of looking back on it and laughing. It was clearly the kind of thing that basically would only happen to people deeply sleep-deprived and completely off their routine due to the arrival of a newborn, and given how utterly, utterly thrilled I am about said arrival, I really can’t begrudge the odd mishap that comes along with the territory.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The First Day Back

Huhzuhwha wha’d I miss?!?!?

The above phrase is one that my wife and I came up with when we were getting to know the little guy in his earliest days, as it seemed to describe his apparent state of mind when he would twitch himself awake and stare at us with his huge blue eyes. His sister does the same thing, although somewhat less frequently (but still enough to have gotten the phrase back into the regular lexicon rotation). At the very least she has reminded me that one of the things I love about newborns is the humorous potential of projection, whereby I can assign impossibly complex and nuanced meaning to the absolutely random facial expressions and limb flailings to which they are prone. It makes it easier to keep a grip on sanity when actively soothing an high-maintenance infant who simply will not sleep without said soothing, if I let myself imagine that the infant is desperately interested in engaging with this brand new world and hates the thought of losing even a moment’s experience to slumber, rather than simply a still-developing jumble of uncontrollable, raw nerve endings.

And as it happens, “wha’d I miss” applies equally well to the strange, semi-disoriented state of mind in which I find myself today as I return to the office and to the blog after a longer-than-originally-planned-on absence.

Wherever you go, there you are.
So yes, now we have a little girl in addition to the little guy, and she is wonderful though not without issues to navigate, and I will get into all of that and the latest on her mother and her brother and how we all spent the past four weeks together all in good time, but it would be a bit much to tackle right off the bat, so for now I’ll just start by talking about today and we’ll work our way backwards as best we can throughout the week.

Thus, my return to work, which started off adhering reasonably close to plan (or the latest revision of the plan, at any rate). Since the agency went and moved offices without me while I was away, I had only a vague idea of where exactly I was supposed to report for duty, but that was solved via a quick bit of interweb searching. More definitively, I knew I would not be able to get into the office suite on my own, but my client-boss had given me her cell phone number to call when I arrived and thus arrange a way in. Assuming my boss was working more of a normal schedule than my usual early-in, early-out routine, I had decided to get to the office around 9 a.m. That actually let me sleep in a little, and help get the little guy up out of bed and make sure everyone was as provided for as possible before my departure. (This includes myself, as I left the house with matching socks and a shaved face and, as my wife happily pointed out, no spit up on my clothes at all.)

My only misgiving about that was whether or not I’d be able to get a parking space so late in the morning at the VRE station, but those fears proved unfounded and the train ran on time and sure enough I got to the new office building at about 9:05. Whereupon I called my boss, and got her voicemail. I left a message and waited. Called again about fifiteen minutes later, hit voicemail again, and hung up without leaving a message. Waited twenty more minutes and called yet again, and that time I got through and told my boss I was waiting at the guard desk if someone could please escort me. She said she would be down in a minute.

Which stretched to another twenty or so before I called again and got voicemail again and left another message specifying that I was at the entrance by the chocolate shop in the building lobby. I assumed this was the main entrance because it was the exact location my Googled directions had indicated. (I say Googled but these weren’t Google Maps turn by turn or anything; I had used the search engine to find what looked like an official page from a website about the building complex which explained how to find it in Crystal City’s Underground.) And I waited and waited and waited, pacing back and forth near the shoe shine stand until the guy who worked there started helpfully suggesting I should just head home. The thing about a client-boss is you can’t call them 12 times an hour asking why they haven’t come down yet. I honestly thought my boss had gotten caught up putting out (metaphorical) fires so urgent she hadn’t even had time to delegate the task of escorting me upstairs or call me to ask me to sit tight. So I just waited.

In the end, a little after 11 a.m., my boss finally called me back and it turned out to be a combination of factors. There are multiple entrances and guard stations for the new building and the one I had been waiting at was the most opposite-of-main of them all. My boss had come down around 9:40 and looked for me at the two other entrances, then gotten pulled into an unmissable meeting, then returned to trying to track me down after that. Ah, well, after four weeks away from the job what’s a few more hours, right?

And that turned out to be the biggest snag, with everything else going surprisingly smoothly. I have a place to sit, with a functioning phone and computer, the latter recognizing my log on and giving me network and interweb access right from the get-go, which is incredibly refreshing. My work e-mail inbox is of course overflowing with a month’s worth of messages and given my foreshortened day today I haven’t even had a chance yet to physically unpack my paper files and other physical office supplies, but I daresay it’s all downhill from here. Even the snag itself probably has a bright side. Since I stubbornly stayed just beside the guard station where my directions had led me for a little over two hours, and then eventually entered through that checkpoint as a legit person with business within, I’m fairly certain all the guards who work that post know me on sight now. And since that’s the most convenient entrance for me to use on a regular daily basis, as well, I should be able to sail in unmolested every day (or until they hire new security officers).

Also, as snags go, today’s wasn’t even the biggest I saw in the previous four weeks, either. But I’ll save the story of the one that tops it for tomorrow.