Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Before and after

Getting closer and closer to Christmas brings out the little kid in me, the one who thrives on constant overstimulation in the form of animated tv specials and seasonal music and department store holiday displays and never-ending food &c.

Getting beyond Christmas, on the other hand, brings out the grouchy yet responsible grown-up in me. I don't think this was always the case, but it seems to be the way of things now, as evidenced by last night, when I spent a large chunk of the evening hauling garbage and recycling up the driveway to the curb, including a bargeload of cardboard boxes, the large containers in which various gifts (both given and received) were shipped to our house and the smaller bits of packaging for individual toys and electronics and whatnot. And the strangest part was that the overwhelming feeling I was left with was one of relief. As in, it was really troubling to me on some level that the garage was so chockablock full of empty cardboard boxes and properly disposing of all of it at once brought me tremendous satisfaction and took a weight off my shoulders.

Anyway, sorry to have lapsed into low-content mode here but the post-Christmas exhaustion has been pretty profound and going back to work was not exceptionally inspirational. I'm sure things will be feeling back to normal soon, but until then I'll just pop in and out occasionally when opportunity is coincident with motivation. The randomness should keep everyone on their toes.

Friday, December 23, 2011


It’s getting close to noon on the Friday before a federal holiday weekend (and a major one at that) so I am hopeful in a fashion that borders on over-entitled expectation that very soon I will get an e-mail announcing exactly how early the office will be closing. Mostly I’m hopeful; a tiny part of me is genuinely worried that so many people, including high ranking bosses-of-bosses, have taken off already for Christmas vacation that there is no one left in the entire Big Gray complex who is properly empowered to authorize the mystical 59 Minute Rule. We shall see!

But in the interest of getting a fifth and final (probably?) post in on Christmas week, I did want to mention something from last weekend. On Saturday I went to a cookie swap party, hosted (and almost exclusively attended) by old college friends. The party is an annual tradition and I spent the better part of the last year planning on baking something special for the 2011 edition: a Krampus Cake. I like cake, I think the Krampus is one of Christmas’s most insanely awesome lesser-known bits of folklore, and I had a notion of how I could fairly easily convert a round cake into a shape approximating the ferocious horned visage of Santa’s terrifying disciplinarian minion.

''The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.''
It turned out to be a little trickier than I expected but I did manage to get the cake baked, carved up, reassembled, frosted and detail-decorated in time for the party. And then, en route to the gathering, I started feeling shame and remorse. What was I doing? The cake was too weird, the reference too obscure, everyone at the party would look at me askance and wonder (possibly out loud) “What is wrong with you?” A Krampus Cake? Seriously?

I got to the party and headed straight for the dining room table with my cake (and with four dozen cookies, too, because I wasn’t trying to weasel out of the whole party concept altogether) and saw some of the offerings already on display, which caused the first words out of my mouth to the hosts to be, “Dude, are those gingerbread ninjas?” Because of course they were.

Clearly between my long commute, my house upkeep, my two small children, my wife whose work schedule is staggered from mine by design, and sundry other things, I don’t get to hang out with my college friends very often, at least not often enough to always remember that they are all as weird and geeky as I am and the strange things I do to entertain myself do not constitute outlying behavior among the group. (It turned out about half the people at the party knew what a Krampus was, and the other half were moderately amused to be introduced to the concept.) In fact, the gingerbread ninjas (or ninjerbread, if you prefer) were the least of the dorkiness on display at the party, which had been stealthily given a Star Wars theme including Wookiee Cookies and Yoda Soda. I only wish the theme had been publicized earlier – with minor modifications my Krampus Cake could have been a Wampa.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gonna build a toyland all around the Christmas tree

For all the truth there is to the notion that every child is different, the flipside is that when you have your second child there are a lot more things you are reasonably well-prepared for than things which truly catch you by surprise. And as far as our daughter goes, most of the surprises she has given to my wife and myself have been of the pleasant variety, mostly centering around her overall mellowness and affability (in comparison to her brother, of course).

Still, there are always going to be little things that pop up as the little girl’s formative years unfold along their own path, distinct from the little guy’s. Gender issues leap immediately to mind, although considering the little guy loves baby dolls and was enchanted by an episode of My Little Pony just this morning, and his sister is remarkably strong and fast and making every effort to catch up physically to her car-collecting, monkey-dancing older sibling, presumably to participate fully in tomboyish horseplay, maybe that’s not such a biggie.

More unexpected, somehow, was how the kids’ different birthdays end up impacting Christmas. Because the fact is, even as semi-veteran parents at this point, my wife and I have never before lived with a (formerly) live Christmas tree and an eight-and-a-half-month-old simultaneously. Christmas 2008, we had a three-and-a-half-month-old, beloved for his reliability in staying right where you put him down every time. Christmas 2009, we had a fifteen-month-old who could walk and talk a bit, but we also had just moved days prior and ended up getting an uncharacteristically small tree for the new house. Now for the first time we have a full-sized tannenbaum and an army-crawling little one who likes nothing better than grabbing and pulling brightly colored objects, who also likes second-best putting stray plant matter in her mouth. (Seriously, the dogs have never tracked in a fragment of a dead leaf that the little girl didn’t immediately try to ingest, and she’s recently developed the fine motor control for a pincer grasp that allows her to pluck individual fir needles off the floor.)

I know I'm a couple weeks behind in propagating this, but it is still awesome.
For that matter this is the first Christmas my wife and I have shared with not one but two kittens, who also love knocking around bright sparkly dangly objects when they’re not wrestling each other in the dramatic environment of the low-hanging boughs and Christmas light wires. I have little to no doubt that the 2011 Yuletide will go down in family history as simply “The Year We Tied The Dang Christmas Tree To The Wall.” Because, honestly, we had no choice unless we wanted to pick up a toppled tree at least once a day for most of December.

The best thing about the past few days is that enough presents and packages have been delivered to the house that we have been able to erect a barrier wall of boxes around the base of the Christmas tree. But soon enough it will be Christmas Day and instead of an impediment to approaching the tree, we’ll have a whole new wave of unwrapped toys with which to distract the children (and the pets) from messing with it. Which, granted, may only work for an hour or so, but I’ll try to enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Inappropriate Christmas List

It’s no secret that I’m something of a pop culture omnivore or that I enjoy things from up and down the spectrums of objective and subjective quality, good and bad taste, and general worth. Normally I’m not even terribly apologetic about this, but there’s something about Christmas (a very obvious something, along the lines of the Reason for the Season and all that) which makes me feel that certain entertainments and diversions that I have no problem giving a place in my life are nonetheless non-ideal candidates for inclusion on my list for Santa. Still, if for no other reason than to mock myself a bit while keeping Christmas Week going, I’d like to present Five Things from what would be an awkward-at-best Christmas list if I were suddenly devoid of my usual filters. (Hopefully the fact that I am riffing on this four days before the holiday will lend more credence to my assertion that this is not a passive-aggressive ploy to persuade certain blog-readers who are gift-giving relatives to seek out the items in question. I’m just talkin’, here.)

1. God, No! by Penn Jillette – My own personal hippy-dippy take on spirituality is not so much “complicated” as “willfully unorthodox” in that it mashes up various bits of secular humanism, Christian morality, Zen enlightenment, common-sense rationalism, Jedi mindtricks and whatever other philosophical insights strike me as particularly relevant or helpful at any given time. I don’t think any particular organized religion has got it all figured out. I don’t think atheists have got it all figured out, either. I’ve always been more of an all-of-the-above kind of guy than none-of-the-above, and I feel like I get something out of most stuff I read, especially when the author is coming from someplace interesting that he also happens to be personally invested in. Plus Penn Jillette is smart and hilarious and I’m a big fan. But asking for an impassioned defense of atheism for the celebration of the Savior’s birth? Not a bridge I’m going to cross.

2. David Comes to Life by Fucked Up – This one is much more prosaic. David Comes to Life has been showing up on tons of year-end Best Albums lists including ones whose opinions I generally groove along with; it’s also a hardcore punk concept album, which means it hits both a genre and a format I am typically enamored of. But while I have absolutely no problem with the band’s name, I still would feel weird putting them on a Christmas list for elementary reasons, specifically that the list would then be NSFMG (Not Safe For My Grandma).

3. Secret Identity by Craig Yoe – The subtitle of this book is “The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster” which should pretty much render it self-explanatory. Am I curious about the lesser-known works of one of the foremost legends of superhero comics’ golden age? Yep! Am I puritanically uptight about erotica and having same in my house? Nope! Do I think it’s appropriate to slip this onto my Christmas list? Nosirree. (Funny, maybe, but not appropriate.)

On the other hand, Batman:The Animated Series on DVD?  Totally cool for Christmas gifting.
4. Gotham City Impostors – This video game is actually only just barely a contender for this list of excisions. Sure it’s a first-person shooter where you play a member of either a vigilante gang who idolizes and dresses up like Batman OR a member of a criminal gang who worships and emulates the Joker, and then you try to kill everyone on the other side, and that’s a little bit disturbingly violent, but I do celebrate American Christmas after all and was getting GI Joe toys from the time I was eight or so. And “murder simulation” video games are pretty mainstream these days, at that. But take the slight thematic dissonance and combine it with the fact that I have a well-documented absence of time in which to play video games and either I’m planning on being a lot more neglectful of my family or I’m just asking for money to be wasted on a gift I’d never make use of. Then add on top of that the fact that it’s a download-only video game and I’m uncertain what a gift-giver would even wrap and put under the tree to indicate I was receiving it, and those kinds of gifts are a pain. Then add on top of THAT the fact that the game doesn’t even get released until January of next year and you can see what a total boondoggle the whole thing would be. (Having said all that I gotta admit whenever I hear this game is coming I really really want to check it out.)

5. Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper – There was a brief period in my family holiday celebrations (on my father’s side of the family, specifically) when my aunts and uncles and grandparents would buy one another booze as presents, not just bottles of wine but 1.75 L handles of Jack Daniels and such. And I remember getting old enough to think it would be cool when I turned 21 if I started getting included in that tradition, and then turning 21 and discovering that by then the practice had fallen by the wayside. (Utilizing the Retro-Spect-O-Scope I have to assume this coincided with one of my uncles, who has since gone through AA, becoming more and more of a problem drinker.) I had no problem obtaining alcohol for myself in my college and immediately-post years, of course, and Southern Comfort was always in heavy mixology rotation. Now they’ve recently begun marketing a spicy-hot version of the old 70-proof knock-you-on-your-ass liqueur, and given my sentimental attachment to the original and my insatiable appetite for all things Scoville-rated, I’m moderately curious to sample it. But if I didn’t already feel like a degenerate wallowing in godlessness and foul-mouthed punk and dirty comics and gory video games, the bottle of hooch in my stocking would no doubt put things over the top.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Holly and The iPod

For the past week or two I’ve been working on compiling a playlist of Christmas music MP3’s, and my iPod has been shuttling back and forth between the dock on the PC where I’m downloading songs and the auxiliary cable of the stereo where I can crank up the tunes (whilst doing something else like folding laundry or baking cookies or whatnot). The playlist itself is still a bit of a work in progress, and no doubt will continue to be right up through the 25th and beyond, since it should end up getting some use every year. Sometimes it seems like my whole life is a ramshackle chain of works-in-progress both literal and metaphorical, but at least the Xmas-Mix 2011 has been fun. Insanely fun, really, like to the point where my wife came home from work one night last week to find me listening to it, cleaning the kitchen, and in a bounce-off-the-walls good mood.

I love Christmas music, really, I guess I always have. My parents had several vinyl Christmas albums of which I have inordinately fond memories, as none of those records were classics, exactly. No John Denver and the Muppets, no Bing Crosby or even Vince Guaraldi. We had stuff like Sing the Songs of Christmas with Guy Lombardo or The Wonderful World of Christmas compilation from Firestone Records which does include a track by Bing (but it’s the relatively obscure What Child Is This/The Holly and the Ivy medley) and a track by Nat “King” Cole (but NOT The Christmas Song(!), instead it’s A Cradle In Bethlehem) but perhaps more importantly features the greatest holiday song of all time, Little Heads In Bunkbeds as laid down by Tony Orlando. (By “importantly” and “greatest” here of course I mean, respectively, “to me and my brother who grew up with that album in heavy rotation” and “related by the scantest of bizarre tangents”.) At some point late in my middle school years, right about when my parents got themselves a CD component for the family stereo, they also obtained a Reader’s Digest two-disc 50-track Christmas compilation which encompassed a lot more of the standards. But even before that, I was always the one pestering my parents about when we could start busting out the Christmas records on the weekends several weeks ahead of the holiday itself.

I was also in the school band as of fourth grade and I remain convinced that when the school puts on two music concerts per year and one of them is a holiday concert in December, one of two things will happen: you will learn to love all kinds of Christmas music or you will quit the band. I never quit, but I didn’t really have that far to go to love the songs of the season, either; I just had it all reinforced on a very fundamental brain-pattern level. (And to this day I get a weird little thrill or reminiscence when I hear orchestral versions of Sleigh Ride or when the horns come in midway through It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.)

Anyway, I had started trying to make a Christmas playlist a couple of years ago and never really got very far on it, primarily because I was trying to give the entire playlist a very unified throughline. Specifically, I wanted every single track to be one which I absolutely loved in my heart of hearts; special bonus points for consideration if it were a song which is usually underrepresented in the airplay this time of year. Unfortunately, all told that only amounts to maybe six or eight different songs. And honestly, the necessity of a custom Christmas playlist seems to be obviated by the omnipresence of satellite stations over in-store sound systems and the local lite adult contempo FM station that goes to 24-hour Christmas music every Thanksgiving around here. Do not misunderstand, I am grateful for the FM option! But I can quibble with it in two ways:

1, there’s a lot of repetition of the same songs, not just year-to-year and day-to-day but sometimes even hour-to-hour. I am nothing if not a huge fan of deep cuts, so I get a little weary of Gene Autry’s Rudolph the seven hundredth time I hear it in a given month (or evening). And even certain artists get played to death in the format; this year’s big offender is Michael Buble, who just put out a Christmas album. (He also, for reasons I will never fathom, put a cover of All I Want For Christmas Is You on said album, which to me is about as inessential as anyone after Nat Cole covering The Christmas Song to begin with, but this also in the same year that Justin Bieber covered All I Want as well, as a duet with Mariah Carey, whose version of the song I genuinely do consider a fantastic piece of Christmas pop which I almost neve get sick of, but ALL THREE VERSIONS alternating every thirty-eight minutes or so? That is a bit much even for me.) One of my cardinal rules for playlists (going back to the days of mix tapes) is to avoid repetition of all kinds, so that gets tough to take.

2, in addition to the aforementioned select group of Christmas songs I love beyond all reason, there’s all the rest of Christmas music which I merely really really like, and then there’s another small grouping of Christmas music which I don’t care for at all. And of course all of those songs get a lot of radio airplay (which is probably why I dislike them so; if they weren’t so overplayed I wouldn’t feel such animosity).

So my own custom playlist neatly avoids these problem areas. No repetition of different versions of the same song, no duplication of artists, no Little Drummer Boy or Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer or Wonderful Christmastime Blue Christmas (I know dissing that last one is a little bit blasphemous, but honestly the whole sub-genre of sad Christmas breakup songs is not my cup of candy-cane tea).

And once I allowed myself to open up my custom list to all the songs I simply like a lot instead of only the ones I can’t live without, it became much easier to fill up an hour or two even while following my self-imposed anti-dupe and anti-dud rules. I’m very amused by the results, which include everything from Bing and Nat and Andy Williams and Darlene Love to Bruce Springsteen and the Waitresses and Run DMC to Weezer and MxPx and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Stephen Colbert. No Tony Orlando as of yet, if only because I can’t quite decide how much replay value my childhood nostalgia and adult sense of irony can truly support.

The only major disappointment I’ve had (these being inevitable even in this glorious golden future of iTunes and Amzon’s MP3 store and all, because those e-vendors put great effort into convincing us that they can provide anything we might ever imagine, even though that’s not 100% the case) is that I really wanted to include an interlude in the mix for Eddie Izzard’s stand-up bit about how nobody knows all the words to The Twelve Days of Christmas yet everybody goes bananas for the “five go-o-o-o-old rings!!!” part. Dress to Kill is on iTunes but it seemingly only has like six tracks, so not only is the Twelve Days bit not isolated but I don’t even really know which longer riff it is a part of (I haven’t seen Dress to Kill in like ten years). So close, and yet. Maybe I’ll get it sorted out in time for next Christmas. And then, I can only hope, someday twenty or thirty years from now my kids will approach every holiday season feeling a vague imperative to listen to not only alt rock Christmas carols but also ancient British transvestite stand-up. I can only hope!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Week!

It would be completely understandable if everyone expected me to slack off this week on the blogging due to the imminent holiday, but on the contrary, I find my spirits rising as the big day approaches and my energy level seems to be following suit, and combining that with the fact that I’ve already been totally slack for this whole month which produces a foundation of guilt and piles atop it a backlog of odds and ends to talk about (I could seriously do an entire grab-bag style post about various office building seasonal decorations alone – see below) – the bottom line is that I am confident in declaring this Christmas Week here at PA and committed to churning out a full Monday to Friday slate of semi-sensical ramblings. My gift to all of you!

It occurred to me this morning that Christmas being observed on a Monday, as it will be this year, is pretty rare; an equal amount of the time it falls on a Friday, with the remainder breaking up the middle of the week in various ways. I know that’s pretty simple calendar math, but it’s significant in the workaday world of the Big Gray because, for example, when Christmas falls on a Wednesday then by and large the two days on either side of it are a wash, as some people take the days leading up to Christmas as personal leave and other people take the days immediately after and the paid-time-off hoarders take the entire week, so the buildup is actually fairly anticlimactic. And the prior week, in that same case, feels too far away and disconnected from Christmas to be part of the official lead time. Contrast that with this year’s configuration (as you are wont to do when you overthink things the way that I compulsively do) and you realize this is not just the optimal but the only way to get a full five days of workplace Christmas run-up. Which I happen to enjoy, so that works out well for me.

As if to emphasize that point, this morning my government supervisor handed out her Christmas gifts to the staff (personalized travel coffee mugs – classy!) so, yeah, I’m pretty sure this is Christmas Week sanctioned by the appropriate authorities and everything.

Since we’ve already had our office holiday parties (both small and large) around here really the biggest work-related impact of Christmas Week is which Christmas ties I’m going to wear between now and Friday, the answer being “all of them”. Granted I don’t own a tremendous amount of holiday-themed neckwear, but oh by golly I’m going to be holly-jolly and give each one a turn. I have one fairly understated red tie with tiny green Christmas trees on it which has already gotten a wearing last week at the office potluck, which leaves me with another red tie with white snowflakes, a black tie with large stylized Christmas trees, and a tie patterned with green, red and yellow smiley-face ornaments. I have listed the remaining ties in order from least to most gaudy, which is not coincidentally the order in which I will be sporting them from Tuesday through Thursday. (Today I’m wearing a boring striped tie because it was either that or wear red-ties-with-slightly-different-snowflakes two days in a row.)

On BizCasFri I will of course go tieless, and probably just wear a green sweater and khakis. I kind of wish I had a truly obnoxious Christmas sweater; I also kind of wish I had the ability to say to some of my coworkers, who made the transition to holiday-themed fashion statements earlier in the month, “Wow, where did you get that sweater?” without betraying that I covet the item in question for 70% ironic reasons.
If the sweater doesn't have 3-dimensional components, why bother?


OK, really just two items of craziness regarding office decorations:

- Someone on this floor but outside my department put up a full sized artificial Christmas tree which must be about nine feet tall. It is, in fact, taller than the ceiling clearance of the office. So the drop ceiling panel above it has been removed to allow the very tip of the tree to stretch into the space between floors. I find this almost unbearably hilarious.

- Down in the building annex that contains various delis and convenience stores and whatnot there are some very nice Christmas trees as well. One of them is decorated with fake birds which, no problem, my Christmas tree at home has some of those too, little plastic animals with real feathers strategically attached. But the trees in the building annex have peacocks on them which are (a) life-sized and (b) dyed red, I guess because Christmas? Possibly these are Santa’s peacocks? I’ve been seeing them every day for weeks now and they still don’t make much sense to me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Santa Report

Much, much better Santa last night, not at the mall but at the local nursery and garden center, of all places. Said nursery also happens to have a dog park where we’ve taken our mutts for a romp before, which means at this point I think we’ve been there more often just to hang out and do stuff for free than to actually buy stuff (though secondarily last night my wife did manage to pick up some ornaments for a work Secret Santa exchange, so we’re not total freeloaders I suppose).

The little guy enjoyed having a more leisurely conversation with Santa, although there was a bit of frame of reference disconnect. When asked what he wanted, the little guy replied (as he has been consistently for a while now) that he wanted “two cars and a race track”. Santa then started asking what color cars he wanted but that threw the little guy for a loop, because of course he was referring to Pixar Cars and the colors are really beside the point as it’s the names of the characters that allow you to differentiate one from the next. But then on top of that my son has been consistently referring to the character “Tex” as “Text” (which I suppose shows how utterly addicted to our phones his mother and I are) so I’m not sure at this point if anyone who doesn’t live with the child can readily understand his inside references anyway.

Our little girl sat willingly enough on Santa’s lap, too, and didn’t even come close to getting freaked out. No tears, just lots of fascinated staring. So all in all it was a side trip well worth making. Tonight I’m going to do some Christmas baking and give the iTunes Christmas playlist I’ve been assembling a test spin. Hopefully all of that will make me feel suitably seasonal while distracting me from the sheer mountain of to-do’s I still need to scale in the next eight days.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The heat is ... off

As you have no doubt guessed, yesterday was hooky day. Within ten minutes of putting Tuesday’s post up on the blog, I got a call from the heating repair company saying the part had arrived and they could send someone out the following day, so I made hasty arrangements to take off Wednesday and await the technician. Long story short, the new circuit control board was installed but the system still wasn’t working properly, and the subsequent node on the decision tree was “well we could try replacing this other thingamabob” but said thingamabob cost about five times as much as the previous part and that definitely represented some unacceptable veering into good-money-after-bad territory. We had already resigned ourselves to getting a new system before the summer since the A/C side was more or less shot, so rather than apply more patches to the heating side (with no certainty as to how many patches would ultimately be required to get through the winter) we called off the attempts at resuscitation and have started the process of getting quotes for a new system. It looks like we’ll probably have the replacement installed before Christmas, so we just have to make it through the next week and a half or so with some fireplace-warmed nights and chiller-than-usual mornings. All in all, not the end of the world.

Just need one of these in my bedroom.
It does, of course, reinforce my low opinion of the previous homeowners as skinflints who approached every maintenance job around the house in the most slapdash manner possible. The technician made no bones about hiding his disdain for the low-end, cheap, prone-to-breakdowns model of heater in place (repeating almost verbatim what I had been told by the technician who came out in the summer to prop up our ailing A/C). So if there’s a silver lining in this sudden development it’s that we now have the opportunity to get something upgraded in place, which should cause fewer problems and maybe even save us in the long run on energy costs when you factor in higher efficiency and so on. We shall see.

Anyway, it’s an aggravating development but, then again, it’s Christmas. This past weekend was somewhat neatly divided, with Sunday being the day we realized the heat was fading and dropped everything to deal with that situation head on. Saturday, on the other hand, was more low-key and fun as we took our kids on an excursion on the Santa Train. It was well worth the time and the cost of the tickets (and even the stress of trying to order them online weeks ahead during the scant eleven or so minutes between the website opening the sale and all the seats being sold out) and that worth lay entirely in the fact that it was the little guy’s first train ride, ever, which is kind of remarkable considering his love for Thomas and Chuggington and whatnot. The train rolled a couple of stops down the line at what I considered a leisurely pace, but the little guy sat right next to the window and looked down at the rails and ties and enthused “Look how fast we’re going!” It also occurred to me that this was the first time he had ever been on a moving vehicle without even having to wear a seatbelt, which I’m sure added to the thrill.

So fortunately we had anticipated a lot of the entertainment value being derived from the train itself as a concept because I thought the Santa part of it was a bit lacking. There are Santas who are older and have natural white beards, and Santas who wear fake beards; there are Santas who really get into character, and Santas who have a marked lack of old elf jollity. The Santa on the 12:00 Donder Express was fake-bearded and uncharismatic, and the train was packed with so many kids that interactions between Mr. Claus and each child was limited pretty much to “Hello, what’s your name? Merry Christmas! Movin’ on …” I don’t think the little guy was too put out about all that (clearly not as much as I was) but of course his mother and I still want him to have the proper sitting on St. Nick’s lap and asking for a specific gift and whatnot. So there’s a chance we will try to make that happen tonight, schedules and temperaments of the children permitting. Update forthcoming!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Still clocking in

No hooky today, not formally anyway. Informally I’ve been barely-here since about 11:20 this morning when the holiday luncheon was being set up, and my hereness has become even more threadbare in the food-coma aftermath.

Some fun facts: the departmental party last week was something we had to pay for ourselves, because getting food and roomspace at a hotel in Crystal City is too expensive to be covered by our office budget, apparently. So in addition to the cash bar, we each had to front $28 ahead of time in order to get a seat at a table, a plate of mediocre sirloin and potatoes and string beans, a slice of pumpkin pie and a cup of coffee. And so it goes. But today’s potluck festivities were practically infinitely larger in terms of meal portions. Fried chicken, buffalo wings, crock pot meatballs (which, truly, are one of those foods that evoke the holidays for me like few others), macaroni salad, crudités, chips and guac, pot roast on potato roll – and that’s just what I personally ate off a buffet that probably included three times that many choices total. Plus I had about 19 different desserts. And what nominal fee was I charged in order to attend this in-house luncheon? $2. A stark contrast, indeed.

Anyway, the threatened absence from work did not materialize, but is still looming, maybe. Long story short, the heating system in our house is starting to shuffle towards the major appliance graveyard, unsurprising really considering the air conditioner was death-rattling this summer and no doubt the two are of an age. My wife and I came downstairs Sunday morning to find a thermostat set at 68 but showing a current temperature of 66, with coolish air blowing out the vents. So we called the same guys who fixed the A/C and the technician (who impressed us to no end simply by coming out within a couple hours on a Sunday) spent some time going over the system and found a malfunctioning circuit control board which needed replacing. We were hoping they would get us a quote on Monday and maybe do the work of replacing it on Tuesday, but that’s not how it went. The quote did come in Monday evening, but once we verified we were willing to buy the part and have it installed we found out that the part needed to be ordered and wouldn’t arrive for 3 days or so. Thus, we wait. Maybe they will be able to do the job on Thursday when my wife will be home on her day off. Maybe I will need to play home-maintenance hooky on Friday. Maybe the work will be done over the coming weekend or next Monday – who knows?

In the mean time, worry not about our relative ability to stay warm with a soon-to-expire heat pump in the basement. We also have a fireplace, and recently received our annual cord of wood to feed it, and when that sucker gets a good blaze going it does a remarkably good job of keeping the house so warm the heat doesn’t even need to kick on. At the very least we can be comfortable in the evenings and a little beyond bedtime; then the fire dies out overnight and mornings are a bit chilly, but only a bit, and I’m so fundamentally anti-mornings anyway that a little extra nip in the air at 5 a.m. doesn’t faze me all that much more than simply being conscious does.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The fullness of time

This past Friday was my work Christmas party – I should say “was one of several” but really it was the only one that mattered. Tomorrow there is a party-esque luncheon here in the office space for everyone who works on my floor, thus encompassing several different agencies and directorates (including the bomb-collectors on the other side of the building, so that should be fun) and the larger segment of the Army to which my agency belongs also has a holiday party at the Pentagon itself which I would be entitled to attend, but I don’t plan to (and don’t even know the date on which it takes place). But Friday was the party just for my agency, attended by the people I consider my day-to-day co-workers.

And it was fairly uneventful. There was a cash bar (I did not partake, mainly because I had no cash on me than for any other professional consideration) but no one got memorably stupid, and the food was fine, and the innocuous games passed the time all right. I won a door prize again; last year it was a gift basket of snacks and beer, but this year it was a pedicure kit which the party organizers hoped my wife would like. (I’ve worked in lots of female-dominated offices in my day but my current gig is really pretty 50/50 so I was a little surprised by non-gender-neutral door prizes … but, eh.) There was also old-fashioned numbered cards bingo with black and white M&M’s to be used as markers and later eaten (though they tasted a bit off, probably due to being black and white, clearly custom ordered but why would you go with those two colors … to match the ink-on-paper look of the bingo sheets?) and of course the dreaded gag gift yankee swap, which I always decline to participate in. There was an early attempt at implementing some interesting rules such as “only allowed to steal once” but it was a little unclear if a gift could only be stolen once or if a person could only steal once and any other time they were empty handed on their turn would be required to go to the pile of wrapped presents, and then whatever the rule may have been it was not enforced with any kind of consistency as an animatronic bell-ringing Snoopy doll pretty much incited total anarchy. At least half of the other presents, it seemed, were scented/decorative candles, which I will grant are fairly utilitarian and inoffensive but exceptionally boringly so, which to me means they are the worst possible submission to the “game” being played. It’s one thing to convey the timeless message “I don’t know you very well but it is Christmas! Have a candle!” and another thing altogether to put the dullest thing imaginable in a gift swap pool, willfully ignoring the fact that no one is ever going to steal a candle and each one represents a wax dead end for the premise.

gluhg gluhg gluhg
So the gift swap was plagued by rampant inequities but there was a nice moment after it was over when I saw two people trading the gifts they had each ended up with. One had a bottle of regular wine and one had a bottle of gluhwein, and the person with the regular wine wanted the gluhwein, and the person with the gluhwein had no idea what it was, so they exchanged bottles and all was well. And after that I hustled away early because the director told us all to go straight home after the party and I am certainly never going to be accused of disobeying direct orders in that vein.

Now it is Monday and (tomorrow’s in situ luncheon notwithstanding) I am looking at a full, uninterrupted five-day workweek. Which seems a bit odd according to all of my internal timekeeping senses; usually by the time holiday parties and early dismissals come along the actual holiday in question must be right around the corner, but no, Christmas is two weeks away and those two weeks are a couple of rows of basically blank squares on my office calendar. That’s the official business as usual schedule, at any rate – it’s entirely possible I might be forced to take a personal day at some point this week for the ever popular “supervise workmen in my house” reasons but I will get into the backstory on those developments at a later time. (Probably tomorrow, unless tomorrow ends up being the day!)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Snark and release

Last night, over a week into a month that feels foreshortened because the 25th is a major finish line unto itself, my wife and I finally got around to bringing out the Elf on a Shelf, which is either a slightly creepy-looking toy, an adorable holiday family tradition, or a merciless tool by which parents can terrorize their children into good behavior through constant threat of Santa-employed snitch-pixies. Or all three! Yes, it’s time to really, seriously start getting serious, for reals, about Christmas. Which means I should be opening my heart to peace and goodwill, and I’m totally going to … I just gotta get this out of my system first. (Even though elves are watching … everywhere.)

Yesterday I was walking through the Underground and I passed by a bank lobby with big glass walls, and I could see one of the big flatscreens where they ran their in-house ads and news-ish factoids to alleviate the boredom of customers waiting in line. The item on-screen as I happened to glance at it was under the heading of Entertainment and announced that the divorce of Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson had been finalized.

Does this news qualify in and of itself as “entertainment”? I’m sure for some people it does, but I’m not one of them and I might even go so far as to say it probably shouldn’t be classified that way by anyone doing anything approaching official categorization. Divorce sucks, it’s an awful thing to go through, exponentially moreso if there are kids involved (as there are for the celebrities in question) and the only good thing about divorce is when it puts an end to something which is even worse and allows for the possibilities of better days ahead. But the notion of a marriage’s dissolution being entertaining, that’s pretty screwed up.

OK, so obviously I’m being unfair and whoever copies-and-pastes together the third-hand Newz-Nibblez on the bank’s lobby feed didn’t mean to imply the divorce was an entertaining spectacle when they slapped an “Entertainment” banner on it. They were just acknowledging that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz are, themselves, entertainers … and then reinforcing the cultural assumption that anything and everything that happens to people who derive some degree of fame from working in entertainment, no matter how personal or painful, is newsworthy to the rest of us. Which is super-irritating. It’s not like the 72-day trainwreck of a Kardashian wedding or any other implosion of two attention-whores who couldn’t sustain their combined critical mass. If it weren’t for the fact that Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson were famous, the fact that they were married for nearly three years and split up due to irreconcilable differences wouldn’t merit a mention at all. Neither of the two of them, as far as I know, has done anything egregious enough to hold them up as a cautionary tale (assuming you don’t count naming their child Bronx Mowgli Wentz but hey, man, the kid’s parents are getting divorced, so cut him some slack).

(I have to admit that the ungenerous parts of my heart/soul/brain complex feel that even the presumably intended connection between this divorce announcement and the “Entertainment” category is tenuous at best because … are Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz actually entertainers? Do they entertain anyone now, seeing as neither has put out an album in a few years? Did they ever? I have only ever found Ashlee Simpson annoying, and I say that not as someone who is vaguely aware of her existence but ignorant of her oeuvre, as I had plenty of its excrescence rammed down my earholes when I used to belong to a gym and was subjected to their pop music playlist whenever I worked out. The closest Pete Wentz ever came to entertaining me was when there was a viral video floating around some time in 2005 where someone had set the song “Sugar, We’re Going Down” to some crude MS Paint animations that mocked how indecipherable the emo lyrics were and also made a lot of gratuitous dick jokes. My point being if you are reading this thinking “Who the hell are Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson?” believe me I am right there with you only moreso.)

I’m not outraged or disillusioned by this, it’s really just a tiny sliver of gristle stuck in the teeth of my mind. I suppose I’m also fixated on it because of other things I’ve been reading lately, various internet columns where people do what I’m kind of doing here: taking large and faceless entities to task for misusing terminology or mangling concepts. Of course I would also posit that there’s a crucial difference. When I read something bemoaning the fact that Starbucks has a holiday campaign going which leans on the phrase “Let’s merry” and the author sniffs that “merry” is not a verb, the part of speech clearly required by the “let us [X]” construction, I find myself siding with Starbucks. That is not a situation where you should find yourself wondering “Did a human being even bother to think about that before putting it out for the world to see?” because of course someone did, someone consciously violated the rules of grammar in an attempt to do something memorable in its newness and whimsical enough to create positive associations because THAT’s WHAT AD CAMPAIGNS ARE FOR. You can call it transparent and hokey and declare it a failure for trying too hard, but to peer down your nose as you whip out the prescriptivist snobbery and say “Perhaps you cretins don’t realize this but adjectives are not something one can be advised to do” strikes me as particularly pointless. Whereas inquiring “Did a human being even bother to think about whether or not the final divorce decree of a couple of minor, forgettable pop music blips was Entertainment headline worthy ?” might, arguably, get near the heart of something worth thinking about.

OK, venting accomplished. Life is good and the world keeps spinning and it’s the most wonderful rant-free time of the year … starting now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Clearly things are way, way off schedule around here.

When last I checked in I was about to leave work early to head down to Williamsburg with the family so that my wife could attend a veterinary conference without leaving her little brood behind. The good news is that my wife successfully completed the credit hours of Continuing Education she needed, and everyone and everything survived – everyone being the four family members and everything including the car, the stuff we packed, the bonds of holy matrimony between my wife and myself and our respective sanity (though maybe just barely on that very last one). Other than that, though, it was a little brutal. Our little girl went from having some sniffles likely related primarily to teething straight on into a nasty case of bronchialitis, and between that and just not being thrilled about sleeping in a Pack-n-Play with a very thinly padded floor, she hardly slept more than an hour or two at a time at any point over the course of the weekend, including the wee hours of each night. And since we were in a hotel, it wasn’t as though one or the other of us parent-types could scoop her up and go to a far corner of the house to tough it out while the other one got some uninterrupted sleep. So that was trying.

One thing for which I was exceptionally grateful was simply the fact that the conference was in a town I used to live and know my way around fairly well. If we had been in some other random place three hours from home, in West Virginia or Maryland or the like, I can’t imagine how enervating it would have been to try on short notice to find the closest Urgent Care (as I did on Saturday afternoon) or, from there, the closest pharmacy for the little girl’s prescriptions. (I suppose anywhere we would have stayed would have been a hotel, probably with a concierge, but who wants a concierge judging them for not going straight home when an infant child is showing progressively yucked-out symptoms? Not this guy.) So the old stomping grounds from the college days were a comfort, at that.

Anyway, we got home exhausted and sleep wasn’t much easier to find there, unfortunately, but I dragged my carcass to work on Monday nonetheless, caught up on what I had missed Friday, and never found the time to check in here on the blog. Meanwhile my wife was taking the kids to the pediatrician and it was confirmed (whether or not it needed to be) that the little girl should probably take a few more days off from daycare. So I stayed home on Tuesday in order to let my wife get back to work (“let” may not be the best word there considering the somewhat adversarial position my wife’s job is starting to assume in her mental landscape but that’s a rant for another time) and we all know my track record for blogging on days when I’m playing hooky.

I was back at work again yesterday, after a night when the little girl finally started to turn the corner and sleep more soundly, but man was yesterday a miserable rain-soaked mess, which nowadays has the additional effect of stressing me out as I worry whether or not my train home will be delayed two or three hours by flash flood warnings or leaf oil soup on the rails or whathaveyou. The weather did not, as it turned out, have any effect on the VRE schedule at all, which was great, but it had tremendous negative impact on what should have been a simple drive from the station to daycare to fetch the little guy home, which was a drag.

And I’m in the salt mines again today, with the rest of the fam at home, little girl well on the mend and resumption of overall normalcy right on the cusp (insomuch as anything is ever normal during the Christmas season in our house). Tomorrow I’ll be back here again, for a little while at least until it’s time to head across the street to a catered departmental holiday party, so who knows if I’ll have time for a quick post or not. So rather than let a week and a half of radio silence go by, I wanted to check in. Still breathing, however belaboredly!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Holiday harbingers

The other day my wife and I were talking about Christmas with the little guy, specifically discussing Christmas dinner. Somehow, in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, the little guy learned the word “feast” and decided he loved the sound of it (which I mean in every sense, from “that sounds like a concept I can get behind” to enjoying the very mouthfeel of it as he repeated it over and over and over again) and after coming down from Turkey Day he asked when the next feast would be. We told him that Christmas was the next major holiday and while we wouldn’t be putting together anything as elaborate as Thanksgiving dinner, we’d still have something special for our evening family meal. And in point of fact, we went on to explain, since we weren’t going anywhere for Christmas and we weren’t having any guests over on that day either, the possibilities were wide open for a dinner for three (since our little girl, family member number four, will still be highchaired and restricted mainly to liquefied legumes). Of course my wife and I then immediately shifted into the “talking over the little guy’s head” vocal register and said to one another “So, steak, right?” but that took no time at all and, just for fun, we asked the little guy what he would want for Christmas dinner if we could have anything at all in the whole world.

He thought about it for a moment or two and took a deep breath in order to give his answer all the power it deserved, then shouted “HOT DOGS!!!” Which is a marvelous answer, to be sure. (I really do like hot dogs, though. He is a boy after my own heart/stomach.)

Never not funny!
Sadly, the little guy may end up disappointed in the actual fare but he is at the optimal age now for Christmas to be an exciting time of the year, so his mere presence makes it more fun for all of us. This Monday he and I stayed up a half hour past his bedtime to watch the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas on ABC. He loves the story and I will read it to him any time he asks for it, year-round, but of course the cartoon expands it quite a bit with songs and extra comic business for Max (the best part by far in my estimation) so of course to a three-year-old it’s totally enthralling. We’ve got two Advent calendars in the house, too; one a felt/Velcro Nativity scene which the little guy can add to every morning and another a cardboard candy-window Santa portrait for bedtime. Religious and secular holiday associations – check and check!

Of course the little guy won’t have a chance to use either one for the next few days as the four of us are headed down to Williamsburg today for a conference my wife is attending over the weekend. I would say that I’m worried that the new toys we bought the little guy to help encourage (read: bribe) his best behavior during the trip would take away from the luster of the loot that will pile up on Christmas itself, but this is my son we’re talking about here. Instead what I am legitimately worried about is the fact that the little guy woke up this morning with an ear infection and needs to get on antibiotics immediately, and his sister has finally had a couple of new teeth breakthrough in the past day or so but there are more on the way, and all four of us are sharing a single non-suite room for the next three nights. It will no doubt be an adventure! The updates next week when regular blogging resumes should be a hoot.