Monday, January 31, 2011

Drowning in electrons

I went looking for a specific e-mail in my work e-mail account today and realized that I had somewhere north of 850 messages in my Inbox. Now, granted, I’ve got like 5000 and counting in my Gmail, but they specifically promote Gmail as a means to achieving the glorious futuristic vision of never deleting an e-mail ever. MS Outlook, on the other hand, tends to get pretty cranky when so encumbered, and now that I think about it, it’s been opening slower and slower lately.

To a certain extent this all goes right along with the slackness inherent in my job. If I had a lot going on, major things expected of me and major deadlines I needed to stay on top of, I’d probably run my Outlook inbox as a much tighter ship (and be a bit more organized in general). But it’s not that detrimental to slack off on the e-mail around here, sadly, and thus I end up where I am today. I actually deleted about 50 supremely old messages today, and maybe I’ll try to delete/organize another 50 a day for the next few weeks and see how it goes. It’s always good to have an extra busywork project or three which help me look busy when I’m really sick of my usual busywork projects.

There's really nothing witty to say about work e-mail.
In my own defense I should also point out that a lot of e-mail tends to build up in my inbox at work because that’s just kind of the way that government agencies do things. The IT department sets up an overabundance of mailing lists and groups within Outlook and people abuse them pretty regularly. I’m constantly getting policy memos and informational missives which really only apply to the military and/or government civilian employees of the agency (not the parallel universe of contractors which I inhabit) but because my e-mail address is associated with the “ALL” group for the agency the messages find their way to me regardless. Every once in a while the messages truly do apply to me, so I feel obligated to let them all stay put in my inbox until I have time to read through them later. Has the IT department addressed this fairly common annoyance to the best of their ability and set up “agency – military only” and “agency – government civilians” and “agency – contractors” mail groups? Of course they have, but making optimal use of those would require people to think about what they were writing and who their intended audience should be. And that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Slippage

I could have sworn that earlier this week I thought of a good random anecdote for today’s post, but for the life of me I can’t seem to conjure it up now that I need it. Brain freeze?

Coincidentally, this is the exact consistency of the precipitation we got this week.
It’s been a not-according-to-plan week, I suppose, so I shouldn’t be surprised. The five-hour commute home on Wednesday night was concurrent with my weekly game night being cancelled (and rightly so). I commuted via the Metro rather than the bus on Thursday because I went in a little late and wasn’t sure when/if the buses would be running. By the same token I took the Metro once again today rather than the VRE, because of the chance of snow today and my preference to be able to leave whenever I wanted if absolutely necessary, rather than being at the mercy of a rail express that doesn’t run its first train toward home until 4 pm. (And yes this all means I’ve spent far more time driving and far less time reading than my normal habit, so I’m still 160 or so pages from the end of Don Quixote.)

Incidentally there’s been renewed talk around the office this week about our imminent relocation to Crystal City, which apparently could happen as soon as March. The VRE stops in Crystal City, and from there I take the Metro to Rosslyn, but if I worked in Crystal City the VRE would seem like a much more reasonable everyday option. The mere thought of the relaxing train commute five days a week is practically unthinkable in its decadence. Which of course means we won’t relocate until August. Or never.

At any rate, at least we all survived the week. This weekend is going to (hopefully) involve lots of making-ready for the new baby, both in the stuff-acquisition and home-preparation arenas, so I may be all-consumed by that. Maybe Monday things will be back to a bit more humdrum level, at least until it snows again on Wednesday.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter Wonder Damned

Between last winter and this one I figure pretty much everyone has a snowpocalyptic revelation or two of their own, and now I have mine. I mean, sure, last year during the first blizzard we moved houses, but as arduous as that was it didn’t really seem all that bad. It was in fact much worse in hindsight when we considered how foolhardy the whole misadventure had been and thanked the Norns that we got off as lightly as we did with zero vehicular or bodily damage. But moving is hard anyway, even under the best of circumstances, and digging out a moving truck stranded mid-cul-de-sac was more of an interesting wrinkle. Yesterday I got a first-hand taste of a much purer classic snowstorm calamity: The Unconscionably Long Commute Home.

I had made up my mind before I even left for work in the morning to bail out of the office earlier than my normal departure time. I was eyeballing the 2 pm to 3 pm timeframe, and then the federal government essentially dismissed everyone two hours early so I was feeling pretty good about staying until 3 and getting the best of both worlds – leaving ahead of my personal schedule but not technically abandoning my post, either. Unfortunately, as usual, the Metro system was at its most appallingly incompetent, running trains at 3 pm as if it were not yet rush hour, even though the entire federal workforce was at that moment headed home. I think there may also have been some train malfunctions here and there, as luck would have it, slowing things down even more. I waited on the Rosslyn platform for fifteen minutes before I ever saw a train, and that one was overcrowded already, so I waited some more. When the fourth overcrowded train in a row pulled in, I shoved my way on with the rest of the crowd closest to the doors, and endured the press of bodies until the train started emptying outside the city. All in all what would normally take half an hour (getting from my office onto the Metro and off again and into my car) took an hour.

At that point the snow was coming down in all its fury, heavy flakes falling at a heavy rate. Normally, pulling out of the Metro parking lot, driving all the way around the station and its parking garages to the westernmost entry point to 66, and merging onto the highway takes about ten minutes. It took another hour. Thankfully, my wife had been sent home early from her job, so although it was nominally my day to pick up the little guy from daycare, she popped in for him on her way home and I didn’t need to stress about getting to the center before it closed or anything. I just had to get myself home at an average speed of six miles an hour. My wife was a little worried about even that modest goal, not so much because she thought I would skid out of control and into a truck pulling a trailer loaded with full propane canisters, but just because if the snow got too deep and the plows couldn’t keep up I might get stranded in a drift somewhere and be more or less screwed for want of a good pair of cross-country skis.

Batman's super-power is that he thinks of EVERYTHING.
But, again, I was right there in the thick of everyone else who had been sent home early at the exact same time, so while the snowplows couldn’t be everywhere at once the sheer volume of traffic was keeping the road surface accumulation from getting too nasty. At the very least everyone could follow the tire tracks of the car in front of them, and it was only changing lanes that was peril-fraught. So of course, inevitably, I had to deal with that peril at some point.

I was dressed for winter weather in my heaviest coat and also running the heater and defroster at full blast, and the cabin got uncomfortably warm after a while, so I was gradually turning down the temperature and the blower speed. I mention this because I suspect that might have been a factor in the buildup of ice along the bottom of my windshield, which otherwise presumably would have melted if I had been keeping the glass as toasty as possible. But one minute I was rolling along feeling like things were tediously slow but under control, and the next I tapped my brakes, some snow fell forward from the roof of my car to the bottom of my windshield, and my windshield wipers were frozen in the down position. And it was still snowing pretty hard, so my windshield immediately became a watery blur. At this point it was dark and relatively easy to see the brakelights of the car in front of me even through an unwipered windshield, but I still recognized the need to do something to improve the situation.

I had already passed several people on 66 who had simply stopped in the middle of a travel lane, put on their hazards, and gotten out to re-scrape their windows, but I just couldn’t let myself be that guy. So, with extremely poor outward visibility, I signaled and cut across two lanes to get to the left shoulder just beneath an overpass. (I did not cut across one lane to the right shoulder because there was actually more traffic that way approaching an exit.) I jumped out, knocked all the ice off the windshield wipers, jumped back in (praying I hadn’t burned out the wiper motors trying to force them to move by trying all the different speeds in rapid succession) and darted back into traffic. OK, not so much “darted” as “wafted” since the flow of traffic was still in the single-digit MPH.

That was my only real moment of excitement in the whole slog. My patience started to wear a little thin as we approached my exit, where there had been an accident requiring emergency vehicles. When there was no one to blame but the weather and the overall volume of traffic, I had a very sanguine we’re-all-in-this-together attitude, but when one particular person loses control of their vehicle and makes things that much worse for the rest of us, I know it was an accident in all senses of the world but it still triggers more of the rage instinct. Which was not made any better by the person ahead of me on the exit ramp to my town, who insisted on taking its entire curving length at about one mile an hour despite the fact that it was reasonably clear of both snow and other cars. Gah.

Luckily the multi-lane main drag of town was in good shape and I passed the avatar of timidity and concluded my journey relatively easily, except for the absolute final moments. As I approached my house I hit the garage door opener and nothing happened, which was when it finally dawned on me that my entire street was darkened and presumably without power. At the same time, I had slowed down while trying to open the garage so as not to slam into the unresponsive door, and by giving up my momentum I found myself mere feet from the end of my driveway but unable to proceed any further. Living at the very end of a cul-de-sac has its advantages, though, as I felt no compunction about leaving the car in that exact spot and hustling into the house at about 8 pm. So, door-to-door, the trip home took five hours.

I got home just in time to say goodnight to the little guy as my wife was putting him to bed, and then she and I sat downstairs by the light of the woodstove and while she exchanged texts with some other co-workers to see how they had gotten home (or not, in some cases, which was very vexing) I came down from the adrenaline high I hadn’t even realized I had been on and sprawled semi-lifelessly on the couch. Fortunately the power was back on about an hour later (and had only just gone out right before I got home) and we were able to heat ourselves some dinner just before Blackadder and bed.

So – it could have been worse! We turned on the news this morning to see if the federal government was closed or only delayed (only delayed, booooo) and the anchors dropped a passing reference to some people spending all night trapped in their cars on impassible roads, as well as hundreds of thousands who still have no power. And my up-north brethren got even more snow than we did, and will no doubt have a harder time digging out than we will. But by my own measure I now have survived to tell the terrible tale of another snowstorm and, personally, thought it was a tale worth telling.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Meta-comics

A buddy of mine recently loaned me a couple of trade paperbacks, collecting the first twelve issues of a comic book series called Top Ten. I just finished reading them this past weekend. Here’s the two main things you need to know about the series before I start really tearing into the nitty-gritty of it:

1) it’s got a several-miles-high-concept, namely superheroes crossed with NYPD Blue, but instead of NYC it’s set in the fictional Neopolis and not only do the cops all have superpowers but so do the citizens they are sworn to protect.
2) it’s written by Alan Moore, who is the mad genius who brought the world masterpieces like Watchmen, V For Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea, as well as various memorable work-for-hire stories using other people’s characters, including the definitive take on Swamp Thing in The Anatomy Lesson, and a eulogy to Superman in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

I love Alan Moore (if you only know those first few works I rattled off through their hit-or-miss Hollywood versions, I can’t recommend enough that you track down the original comics) and I love superhero comics in general and I love high concepts, so my buddy assumed I would adore Top Ten as much as he did. But a funny thing happened in the course of reading the series, in that the initial impact it had on me was underwhelming. I wanted to like it more than I did, but a lot of elements just didn’t work for me. (This was pretty apparent by the time I finished the first of the two trades, but of course I went right ahead and read the whole second book, too.) Yet I kept mentally obsessing over it, out of some kind of weird fannish loyalty to Moore, and even now I can’t quite make up my mind if Moore had a rare misstep with the series, or just phoned it in, OR … if he’s actually achieved something amazingly sublime which confounded my expectations but only because it’s operating on a wholly different level.

One thing I am fairly certain about is that Top Ten does have significantly more going on than what’s on the surface. It’s a police procedural about superheroes (and supervillains) and therefore it utilizes a lot of the tropes of both genres to create a world that on the one hand is brand new and on the other hand is instantly recognizable. The police force has a wise old captain, some crusty veterans, and a brand-new rookie who serves as the POV character in the first issue. The citizenry is composed of mutants, aliens, gods, robots and mad scientists. All of those are things that an audience would reasonably expect from a boilerplate cop show or a superhero universe.

But because this is a comic book and not a tv series, and thus we’re on the superheroes’ home turf medium-wise, it’s those very tropes that Top Ten actually ends up being about, with the state-sanctioned law enforcement trappings simply providing a different way of looking at things. “Tropes” may not actually be exactly the right word here (although it is one of my favorite pop-analysis terms that drive some people nuts, right along with “meme”) – the subtext of Top Ten is all about taking commonly accepted elements of superhero comics that people might sit around and say “Isn’t it funny how …?” about in extended geekish bull sessions, and then examining those funny elements taken to ridiculous extremes. For example, isn’t it funny how in superhero comics there’s lots of aliens who come to Earth and decide the best thing they can do with their xenomorphic gifts and abilities is uphold American law and/or Western values? Top Ten explodes this by (spoilers!) leading off with an open serial killer case and revealing the culprit as the green-skinned-but-still-sexy Vigilante From Venus, whose alien biology requires the consumption of human pineal glands in order to survive, resulting in a lot of decapitated prostitutes. I mean, sure, fighting crime is a good way to spend time and all, but our human morality means little to nothing to the VFV when it comes down to evolutionary mandate. Fair enough.

Here’s another example, and this one really tied my brain in knots. Meet Girl One:

Wish my scanner was working, as this was the best shot of her I could find online.
She was grown in a lab, which means that she’s a curious blending of artificial technology and living creature. She’s super strong and fast and also has “chameleonic skin” which she apparently never uses to blend into the background but rather to create interesting and complex patterns of shapes and colors all over her body (her natural, default complexion seems to be a medium shade of purple). The skin trick also turns out to have an added advantage, at least from Girl One’s perspective, in that she doesn’t have to wear clothing, and nudism is her preference anyway. The shifting coloration provides just enough visual interference to preserve her modesty and professionalism.

Then one day someone offhandedly points out that one of her fellow officers, who is an intelligent Doberman in a robotic exoskeleton, is colorblind. Girl One flips out as she realizes that Hyperdog has probably been ogling her for years because the colored patterns on her skin don’t work on him. She confronts the dog (with her fists) and he admits that she’s right about everything except the ogling, because they are at the end of the day different species and he’d be no more likely to ogle her than she would be to ogle him if he walked around denuded of his exoskeleton.

Of course, as amusing as the farce of sudden embarrassment was, I realized immediately that it makes almost no sense at all. Girl One’s opprobrium stems from being made aware of a failure of her unique method of avoiding being ogled, yet she walks around every day in the (anatomically correct, we assume) altogether wearing the super-pseudo-science equivalent of body paint. I think it is safe to say that if a woman built like a supermodel walked down the street wearing nothing but body paint, no matter how elaborate the patterns or where the contrasting colors were placed, she would be ogled. So the notion that she has never before observed anyone checking her out, and suddenly feels violated by how a colorblind animal might perceive her nudity, is problematic at best.

But let’s give Alan Moore the benefit of the doubt. Truthfully, the issue of Girl One’s modesty (or lack thereof) gets at a deeper truth about superhero comics. Why do superheroes wear spandex, anyway? Everyone always jokes about how unrealistic and impractical it is, and almost every translation of superheroes into three-dimensional realism in the movies changes the costumes into some material with a little more heft, but comics keep the practice alive to this day. There are several reasons for this but one of the most fundamental is this: traditionally when artists learn to draw human figures, they do so with nudes. Clothing with all its folds and textures is a lot more complicated to reproduce on paper than a smooth, clean, classical nude. So what’s an artist facing a monthly deadline to do: draw the superhero hundreds of times wearing ever-shifting, loose-fitting clothing, or draw him/her in the buff plus a couple of straight lines for collars, cuffs, briefs and boots and include a note to the colorist that it’s a skintight blue costume? From a draftsman’s perspective there is absolutely no difference between a drawing of Wonder Woman in costume and a drawing of nude Diana, goddess of the hunt, except for strategically placed pigment. And Moore may very well be deliberately lampooning this with a reduction ad absurdum personified by Girl One. Her attitude is ludicrous, but no more so than the fact that comics audiences accept an artist’s shortcut at face value.

But hang on, because there’s even more to the whole Girl One and Hyperdog exchange that doesn’t make sense. Even total colorblindness still allows an animal to perceive contrasts of light and dark, so in theory when Hyperdog looks at Girl One he should see a light gray woman with dark gray swirls across her bathing suit area instead of a light purple woman with green swirls. Yet somehow that’s not what’s suggested. I’m reasonably sure that a photograph of a body-painted model run through a Photoshop filter to turn down all the colors would not be transformed into a nude photo, but apparently that’s pretty much what’s presented here. It’s just shy of asserting that Hyperdog would be able to see what was lying under an orange piece of cloth, because orange is a color and Hyperdog can’t see colors, ergo he can’t see the cloth. Fail.

But hang on again! I have a vivid memory of reading a Flash comic when I was a kid, one which actually was published before my birth, and in the story the Flash keeps getting challenged to races by professional speedboat and racecar drivers and inexplicably losing the races. Eventually he figures out that they were all hologram disguises of Doctor Light, who is logically able to travel at the speed of light, whereas Flash had been holding back and running only just fast enough o beat a car or boat. So in the final race, Flash wins with tie to spare because the Doctor is inherently limited to travel only as fast as lightspeed, whereas the Flash can run … as fast as he wants! Which probably sounds like typical comic book silliness, but in case you’re not well-versed in Flash lore I should point out that his day job was as a police scientist and he was supposed to be quite smart and in the context of the comic all of this is presented as scientifically sound deductive reasoning. And this was by no means anomalous. The so-called Silver Age of comics is overflowing with good guys outsmarting bad guys with applied scientific knowledge, even if the demands of the narrative make the “knowledge” twist into counterfactual pretzels to meet the pre-determined outcome. So … is Alan Moore playing up this classic comic book trope as well? The man loves to deconstruct ideas, as Watchmen and Swamp Thing attest, so I can’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Is he messing with me? Did he put bad science into the comic as a deliberate homage to the generation of kids who grew up with wild misconceptions about black holes and radioactivity learned from four-color heroes? Or am I trying too hard to give the storyteller too much credit because he’s one of my heroes?

I just don’t know. But it is kind of comforting that I’m not yet so cynical and disillusioned that I automatically assume my snarkiest instinct is the correct one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Theater of the Mind

So a couple of weeks ago I touched on my 2010 pop resolutions, which could be summed up as “overly ambitious” in terms of sheer volume of content consumption, and what that meant for my 2011 in terms of book-reading and movie-watching and so on. Since then I’ve had a minor revelation which I’m kind of stoked about, assuming I ever get myself properly positioned to take advantage of it.

Towards the end of last year we broke down and bought a portable DVD player, specifically to have self-contained entertainment at the ready for the little guy as we took him on connecting flights back and forth to see my mom around Thanksgiving. And as I reported at the time, this plan succeeded brilliantly and the means matched up very well with the ends. But what I had to remind myself of recently was that despite the conclusion of said ends, we still own the portable DVD player. I mean, of course we do. Granted, it’s been hidden inside the credenza, somewhere behind our modest library of dust-gathering Wii games, so that the little guy would forget about it instead of demanding to watch movies every waking hour, but sure enough I nearly forgot about it right alongside him.

Additionally, also towards the end of last year, I more or less settled into a regular Friday VRE routine. So that’s two hours every week, one Friday morning and one Friday afternoon, where I can sit and focus on one thing (often entirely unselfconsciously, so long as I manage to get one of the single-seats on the upper level of the train car). And this strikes me as an ideal way to, for example, make some serious progress on the shows on DVD I’ve been meaning to get around to (Smallville, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica – not Buffy, though, since that’s very much something for my wife and I to share). I could also watch a movie, theoretically, as long as I didn’t mind stopping at the 60-minute mark and resuming later in the day or possibly the following week (I’ve been known to watch movies in chunks like that before, so it wouldn’t be terribly unsettling). I think the VRE might even have electrical outlets, not strictly necessary since the portable DVD has a battery but nice nonetheless. And all in all it would make Fridays a little different and give me something to look forward to, which can be an immeasurable boon especially given this time of year’s short days and freezing temperatures. This seems like a good plan!

But of course I never make it quite that simple on myself. Watching a movie or a couple episodes of the geek-serial I’m currently catching up on every Friday means that many fewer hours of commuting time given over to reading every week. And, again, I’m not trying to plow through sixty books in 2011 or anything like that, but I am trying to read twelve or so cornerstones of capital-L Literature. At the moment I’m at about page 600 of Don Quixote. And it’s immensely entertaining and I’m glad to have finally tackled it! But I have 312 pages to go and was hoping to have it finished by the end of January. Two hours of reading on the train this Friday would help a lot, which means the portable DVD player plan may have to wait a bit longer. And so it shall.

In the mean time, though, I have been trying to manage the old Netflix queue a little more ambitiously by putting discs near the top which either I think my wife might like or which she offhandedly mentions in specific. That’s a two-birds-one-stone approach because the dreaded Gap Between Football and Baseball Season is practically upon us and go-to entertainment options are highly desirable, plus getting our money’s worth out of Netflix has its own inherent appeal. The most recent effort in this vein was the third season of Blackadder, which arrived a week or so ago and has been our bedtime viewing of choice for the past couple of nights. Blackadder has the added benefits of:

- featuring Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, thus sating a desire for more Hugh Laurie brought on by the recent overavailabiltiy of House marathons on basic cable

He cleans up nice, huh?
- only running to six episodes in the entire season, and thus not seeming totally daunting as a quantity of entertainment to enjoy rather than slog through

AND

- being pretty fricking hilarious

Once we’ve run through that series I’ll have to try to keep the momentum going with some similar picks. And then of course the Orioles will be on almost every night and we’ll have a newborn and the odds of forgetting we own multiple non-portable DVD players and/or how to operate them will grow exponentially! But February and March at least should be entertaining.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Next stop Arlington, TX

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that the Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC Championship game last night. By the time Superbowl Sunday rolls around I know my wife will be thrilled but last night the primary sensation was one of relief. When the Steelers ran up the score early there was still too much football left to play for things to feel foregone, and then the Steelers offense kind of stopped and the Jets started a run of unanswered scores and the game got a little crazy and anxiety-inducing. So much so that it was kind of unbelievable that the game ended the way that it did. I can’t remember the last major playoff game that essentially was decided not with a game-winning touchdown or field goal, nor with a drive-ending interception or fumble, but with a first-down conversion on 3rd and 6. My wife and I had been debating the merits of Rex Ryan’s clock management strategy, utilizing the Jets’ timeouts while the Steelers had the ball and before the two-minute warning, and then the next thing we knew the Steelers had a fresh set of downs with under two minutes on the clock and the Jets had no timeouts and three kneeldowns later it was over. A strangely low-key finish to an otherwise nervewracking contest, but the end result, the one that allowed my wife's blood pressure to return to normal, was the one we both ultimately wanted. (Even though, hailing from the greater NYC area, I have a lot of family who are diehard Jets fans, I was nevertheless 100% in my wife’s post-season corner.)

Got your tickets?
Also the single-digit ambient temperature on Heinz Field and the subzero wind chill meant that Ed Hochuli was layered up and we didn’t get to see his guns, which was disappointing. But! Steelers vs. Packers in two weeks should be pretty epic.

Carded

I spent a full day at work last Friday but it was unexpectedly atypical, reflected in part by the lack of blogging. In fact there was zero interweb screwing around on my part on Friday (blogging, e-mailing, surfing, online shopping, etc.) because I had no access to teh interwebs at all, which was my own fault. Generally when I shut down for the day I take my computer access card out of the reader and tuck it in a pocket of my work bag, so that when my work bag and I get to work the next day the card is right there waiting to allow me to log on to my computer. But for some unfathomable reason last Thursday I shut down for the day and put my access card in my front pants pocket, and when I got home I hung up the pants in my closet, and that’s where the card was when I got to work on Friday morning.

Caught without ID - how early 90s of me
When I made this realization after rooting fruitlessly through my work bag Friday, I briefly considered heading home for the card, but discarded the idea because it would have taken two hours and change to get all the way home and all the way back to the office under the best of circumstances, and on Friday I had taken the VRE to work and I’m not entirely sure that those trains run in the opposite direction in the mornings. My next thought was to call my beautiful and ever-helpful wife and ask her to possibly meet me at the end of the Orange Line and bring my card with her, so that my round-trip travel time would be more along the lines of a little over an hour. But not only was I reluctant to impose on her second day off after six consecutive shifts at work, she was already being ever-helpful in a different way because she was awaiting the arrival at our house of some professionals who would assemble the exercise equipment we had splurged on as our Christmas gift to one another. (The assembly team ended up not showing up until about 1 p.m., of course, but if my wife had bundled up the little guy and headed for Vienna at 9 a.m. they doubtless would have materialized at 9:05.)

So I fell back on Plan D. (Plan C being “throw my hands up, head home and stay home and write it off as a mental health day” which was discarded since I had just recently taken a couple of days off for little guy sick days the week before.) Without the card I was locked out of my unclassified computer, but my classified computer still only requires a password I have memorized, so I logged on to that machine and tended to some tasks I had been putting off for a while. But on a classified machine, all non-classified websites are blocked, which is about 99.9% of teh interwebs. So it was a rather productive day for me as I couldn’t distract myself even if I wanted to (and of course I did want to) and thus just slugged away at some projects that are now in better shape for it. Not an altogether terrible bright side, really.

This all would have to happen on a Friday, too, and immediately after my employer began to use a new timekeeping system as of the first of the year. Used to be that if I didn’t fill out my online timecard every day I would get a gentle nagging e-mail the following morning reminding me to get it up to date, and the only day I really had to be on the ball was every other Friday when a pay period closed and HR needed to process the data and pay everyone (which I am vigorously in favor of). The new system sends out slightly more aggressive messages if you fall behind, and on the Fridays in the middle of each pay period I am supposed to record my hours and submit the timecard-in-progress to my supervisor for interim review. (No idea why, but mine is not to reason and such.) Once I had resolved to spend the day on my classified machine only, I thought to myself that I was going to have to get online as soon as I got home, get to my timecard, and log my hours and submit them for review. Since the system is new and this additional process strikes me as so arbitrary, I figured late Friday evening would be close enough to sometime during the Friday workday.

Which turned out to be not at all the case when my contracting boss came around my desk in the mid-afternoon and reminded me that I needed to submit my online timecard ASAP. Need I mention that I hadn’t told my boss that I didn’t have my card with me and I hadn’t been on my unclassified machine all day (where doubtless he had been emailing me reminders to the same effect) and didn’t properly have access to the timecard site? I assured my boss I would do it right away and he headed back to his office, at which point I turned to one of my storage area-mates and quickly explained my predicament and asked if I could hop on his computer for two minutes, use the browser and submit my timecard, and luckily my co-worker agreed and I took care of it.

The funny thing is, I think part of my co-worker’s willingness to help me was explained when he commented “Your boss sounded really pissed off!” I suppose he did, and I further suppose that he had good reason to, since he has to shoulder even more responsibility under the new electronic timekeeping system rules, and he’s no doubt still getting the hang of it while getting pressured from above to do it correctly, immediately, and unaware of my cardlessness he assumes that I’m not only making his life more difficult but ignoring his attempts to herd me along in the right direction. Fair enough. But at the same time, it reminded of me of how much I’ve gotten used to my boss over the past year and a half, and what comes across to other people (who have other bosses) as “pissed off” comes across to me as “neutral”. That’s just the way my boss is, usually all business, straightforward and no screwing around and no compulsion to soften the edges of a totally legit request with a little joke or a faux-empathetic inquiry or whatever. And I am completely fine with that, even if the fact that I don’t bat an eye at it anymore might be yet another granule in the pile of evidence that I’ve been working here a little too long.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Insert Clock Graphic Here

New baby’s due date is just about twelve weeks away now, which strikes me as an interval with a high likelihood of zipping by fast enough to make my head spin. I sort of vaguely remember hitting the same milestone when the little guy’s arrival was impending, the same feeling of “all right, now it’s time to get SERIOUS” which gave me the impetus to, for instance, paint the nursery. That very mindset is taking root once again, and once again I have a room to convert to baby quarters, starting with the colors of the walls.

Feeling a bit literal today I guess
Except, of course, this time it’s completely different (and not just because last time I was painting bundle-of-joy blue directly onto rental-unit-white walls, and this time I’ll have to prime the bejeezus out of the forest-green-base-with-gold-spongeroller-accents before I can lay down the other-bundle-of-joy pink coat). Last time I could pretty much designate any or all of my free time as painting time, and paint late into the night if it seemed expedient to do so. There was some unavoidable exertion involved, in that man did the old townhouse’s bedrooms have some high walls up to the peaked ceilings but by and large it was just another to-do. Now designating some free time requires actually finding some free time first, and I know I gripe about my lack of free time pretty constantly around here but I admit I do fairly often find ways to combine being the only parent home watching the little guy with reading a book or organizing a corner of my gaming collection or whatever. I have tried to combine watching the little guy with painting and I am in no way eager to try again, because semi-gloss latex is very tricky to separate from soft two-year-old skin and basically impossible to scrape off Lightning McQueen pajamas. So essentially painting time is limited to the hours when the little guy is down for the night in his crib and honestly, by that point of the day I tend to be longing a bit for the comforts of bed myself. This may be one of the starkest contrasts between life pre-little guy and post-. It used to be a trifling matter to say “I’ll just stay up late to get [X] done.” Now the thought of willingly depriving myself of sleep seems utterly perverse.

Nevertheless, I really don’t seem to have much choice. I’m generally a big fan of breaking looming tasks down into manageable bits, which might mean painting for an hour each night after putting the little guy down and still managing to get myself under the covers at a reasonable time. Except that doesn’t seem to work very well in practice with this particular task. Painting isn’t really something you can just pick up and do with no notice. Large cans have to be shaken and mixed properly and then poured into pans after plastic tarps have been spread out, and you have to leave time at the end of your work session for pouring unused paint back into cans and sealing them up and washing brushes (this is why midday nap time doesn’t strike me as ideal painting conditions, because set-up and clean-up would consume most of the time). Maybe I’m doing it wrong and making it more complicated than it needs to be but it seems to me that I can push myself to do the painting over the course of a few late nights, and deal with the set-up/clean-up necessities a few times, or paint a few square feet per night over many weeks and do set-up/clean-up a sanity-straining number of times. Or set-up and clean-up once and do the whole room in a day, but days like that are too few and far between for me to count on one coming along soon.

Then again, what I probably should be telling myself is that slathering our third bedroom in primer may be exhausting, but I’ll always be able to say “as soon as I make it to that corner, and clean up, I’ll be done and I can go to sleep.” As opposed to when the baby comes home and no particular bedtime or amount of sleep will by guaranteed under any circumstances. Yet oddly I’m looking forward to spending unpredictable time with a screaming infant more than logging home maintenance time with a paint roller. Actually I suppose that’s not all that odd.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Imaginary Cake

I was doing some research a while ago (“research” is what I call it when a random notion pops into my head and I spend a significant amount of time trying to track down information on that subject through Google and Wikipedia and such) and I found an interesting bit of meta-trivia, namely that even the hardest-core fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer cannot agree on exactly when her birthday is. The closest it can be pinpointed is either January 18 or January 19, 1981. I believe the discrepancy has something to do with the original airdate of the first episode in the tv series that was set on her birthday, and whether you count how many days elapse in the episode or not (couple with the fact that, as a fictional character, there’s no official birth certificate to which to refer) but anyway. By now I’m sure you realize what this means:

One way or the other, today at the latest, Buffy is 30.

I gotta admit, I prefer the high school era.
Kind of funny, for a show that more or less unfolded in “real time” and was all about literalizing the horrors of adolescence and young adulthood, to think of Buffy at an age which is almost universally considered to be, at the very least, when people kinda start to maybe edge towards the part of life where someone could be called “old”. Of course I didn’t even start watching Buffy’s tv exploits until I was already on the far side of 30 myself which meant her metaphorical monsters were things I remembered rather than identified with, and the idea of the character leaving her 20s behind doesn’t fill me with any extraordinary sense of reckoning with my mortality or the like.

And despite being an arguably nifty hook to hang today’s post on, it’s a false premise anyway. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t actually age. She’s eternally in high school or college (or dropped out but still in that neck of the woods) depending on which phase of the character you prefer. There aren’t any stories about her being over-30, and stories are all that fictional protagonists have. Buffy may get more and more dated as time goes by, but she’ll never get old. Again, kind of funny for someone who’s the sworn enemy of the immortal undead.

Meanwhile, where all of this overlaps with the allegedly real world, the Great Second Viewing of BTVS project remains stalled out. It started as a summertime go-to, and maybe that’s the best (if not only) approach to take, because ever since September, Thursday nights have been taken up with the comedy block on NBC and/or football on the NFL Network. Of course football is now over but NBC’s shows are starting new episodes again tomorrow. Re-watching BTVS wasn’t even one of my pop resolutions last year, nor is it one this year, but the big box set is still perched on the corner of the credenza, looking about as reproachful as cardboard possibly can whenever I walk into the den. I’ll get back to it eventually, I reckon. Hopefully before Buffy turns 40.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Another day

I was on a bit of a roll there last week, and I even had this great idea for a post on Sunday which was going to involve lots of scanning of my comics and my son’s picture books to highlight the all-too-eerie parallels between post-apocalyptic dystopias and learning to count to ten, BUT … apparently the kinda-sort version of functioning which is all our main household computer is now capable of does not include recognizing the scanner any longer. So much for that. Again, I have no doubt that the computer situation will sort itself out in the next couple of months, during which time I’ll simply have to hold that thought. But once the blog-train went off the rails on Sunday, the Monday holiday didn’t stand much of a chance, especially when so much of yesterday ended up dedicated to getting my car its dual inspections. (It passed. Though I needed to buy new windshield wipers to make it happen. Ah well.)

Not street-legal
So the little guy is healthy once more (at least insomuch as the concept applies to a two-year-old’s immune system in the dead of winter), back at daycare today and by all reports pretty happy about it, and his mother is on Day Five of six days in a row reporting to work, and I’m once again safely ensconced in my cubicle after braving the iced-over pre-dawn wastes. After four consecutive days at home I was looking forward to a change of scenery if nothing else, but of course the day had to begin with the commute and yet another reminder that the Metro system makes so little sense to me that it hurts my head to even think about it. The parking lot at my departure stop was more or less a sheet of ice, and nothing had been done about it. No salting, no dirt-spreading, no plowing, no shoveling, nada. The actual platform was slightly better, although at the westernmost end which gets the most exposure to the elements I could see a couple of workers trying to chop up the frozen coating with what looked like cheap aluminum snow-shovels. Not, you know, actual ice-breakers or anything. Just whatever they had lying around. Once again the three things that sum up Metro are these:

- Metro keeps raising their rates
- Metro is perpetually operating in the red
- Metro spends all of its money on things which are impossible for the human mind to detect, and none on things like equipment and maintenance

I guess it’s a bad sign that I’m already capable of such black-heartedness coming off of an unplanned extra-long weekend, especially considering that that’s it for a while, with no more federal holidays for the next few months and an ever-growing need to save my precious few hours of leave for this spring’s baby-time. But I gots to call ‘em like I sees ‘em.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Post-Season Saturday Grab Bag

The Steelers begin their playoff campaign today! I haven't posted much about football the past few weeks, no doubt owing largely to the dishearteneing collapse of the Giants down the stretch there. Even though NY ended the season on a pleasant note by downing the Deadskins, it was still bittersweet not only because the Packers' victory that same night made the win moot, but also because the G-Men's margin of voctory was much narrower than it should have been against such a weak opponent - and thus they failed to cover the spread and I lost my bet on them in the weekly football pick'em pool.

Incidentally I finished the pool tied for 31st out of 44 players and didn't win the kitty a single time. My weekly records were 4 and 11, 4 and 12, 8 and 8, 8 and 6, 9 and 5, 5 and 9, 8 and 6, 5 and 8, 8 and 5, 6 and 7, 8 and 7, didn't turn my sheet in for Week 12, 3 and 12, 7 and 8, 9 and 6, 10 and 5, and 10 and 6. So I finished strong (at least compared to how I started) and was one win away from sharing the best record in that second to last week, but overall my 115 and 131 record is one of many indicators why I am not a professional gambler.

But I do enjoy a well-cut tuxedo and the smooth flavor of a cigar.
Well, there's always next season, and now that the entire NFC East is eliminated from championship contention I have no grudges to settle and can focus all of my attention on rooting for my wife's team and enjoying the overall spectacle of the playoffs.

+++

Today when I announced it was time to get dressed, the little guy in turn announced he was going to help me find my clothes. Usually this translates as him wreaking havoc on everything two feet off the ground and lower in the walk-in closet, but that doesn't really bug me too much. Today, in the course of his havocry, he discovered a pair of my sneakers and insisted that those be my footwear for the day. The sneakers in question are maroon-and-gray plaid flannel Chuck Taylors, and they are not only the most 90's articles of clothing I still possess, they're probably the most 90's articles of clothing I ever acquired during the decade in question. And I am wearing them right now and I gotta say they are AWESOME.

+++

I have a t-shirt with all of the 80's Justice League of America on it including not just the iconic members like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so on but also less luminary heroes such as Red Tornado, the Elongated Man, Zatanna and Firestorm. The little guy recognizes Green Lantern (because he's daddy's favorite) and Batman (because HE'S BATMAN) and then he asks me often who the other guys are. Yesterday I was wearing the t-shirt and changing the little guy's diaper and I pointed at Firestorm and asked "Who's that?"

I'll give the little guy points for confidence, at least, as he shouted out "Fire hydrant!" So, so close.

+++

Haven't done a Vanity Plates Archive in a while, so here's one: the other day I saw a car with CRUZNLO on its tag, and that's not the kind I would usually take note of because it's fairly phonetically straightforward, I get it, cruisin' low, yes you're so radical. Grammatically suspect statements of the obvious are fun to collect, whereas insipid braggadocio is more dime-a-dozen. What made this one stick out was the combination of the tag with the license plate frame which said across the top "You're right where you belong" and across the bottom "BEHIND ME" and the fact that of course the guy was cutting me off in the merge area getting on 66 which was how I was able to read all of that. The cherry on top was a rear-window decal which said "U.S. Army Veteran" which meant, dag, I couldn't even hate on the guy unless I also wanted to hate America.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Home of double-wide shopping carts

Couple of Random Anecdotes about Costco for you today:

I'm really not sure if there even was a Costco anywhere near my hometown growing up, but either way I had never been inside one or even really heard of them until my freshman year of college. My hallmate/soon-to-be roommate introduced me to the concept through a fairly rapid sequence: he had a few sundries in warehouse sizes in his dorm room, then when I visited his parents' house over Fall Break I realized the extent to which they did the majority of their household shopping at Costco, and before that trip was over I actually accompanied my roommate and his mom to the store, which I still wasn't quite prepared for. This was the early 90's so it wasn't quite as ubiquitous a punchline to talk about the ridiculous industrial drum sizes that no one could possibly need, and I found it all somewhat surreal. It's one thing to buy, say, two dozen packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese all at once for a bulk price, and it's another to get one gigantic block of Philadelphia Cream Cheese that weighs the same as two dozen grocery store units. I'm pretty sure that gargantuan, novelty-prop-sized silver box was the exact item I was looking at when I said, "I feel like I'm shrinking" - which my roommate just thought was a hoot and which he often quoted back to me over the years.

Fast-forward about four years and I was living in my first post-college pad with a couple buddies (who turned out to be one good friend and one bitter enemy, but that's an anecdote for another time) and one of them was able to use his family's Costco membership to let us do our own provisioning there. Half a decade makes a world of difference as at that point I thought warehouse shopping was the greatest thing ever. On the one hand it was pretty sweet to be able to split a massive package of Hot Pockets with my housemates and end up with weeks' worth of frozen lunches for pennies per pocket; on the other hand we enjoyed throwing massive parties (I believe I may have mentioned that before) and buying everything from plastic cups to Chex Mix in bulk was a good way to enable that habit. But sometimes things got out of hand, like the time we were shopping for a Memorial Day barbecue we planned on hosting and I argued that it was reasonable to buy the five gallon jar of Gulden's brown mustard. I love brown mustard on not only hot dogs and burgers but also lunchmeat-heavy sandwiches, so I figured it would last a good long while but we'd work our way through it. It ended up occupying an inordinate amount of fridge space for the entire remainder of the lease and I can't swear to it but I think it's within the realm of possibility that we moved that mustard to the next townhouse we rented as well. The real downside of that particular folly was when we finally started getting close to the bottom of the jar, because at that point to dip a knife into the mustard for spreading on a sandwich, you had to lower your arm into the jar up to your elbow, and that is just a mess.

So. Much. Mustard.
I've got Costco on the brain today because I went there this afternoon, not only to pick up some necessities for my current domicile but also to switch my membership level from Gold to Executive. I was advised by a Costco emplyee toward the end of last year that I should do so because the computer told the employee how much I had spent there over the course of the previous year and it was a really, really gobsmacking number of dollars. The Executive membership costs more per year but offers a small percentage cash back annually. In my case, if this year is like last year, the cash back will more than pay for the entire membership (not just the difference between Gold and Executive, I mean the whole thing. And then some.) and the fact is this year will most likely see me spending much MORE money at Costco because of Baby #2 and the fact that Costco is already my diaper merchant of choice. So, I signed up and then proceed to buy my breakfast fiber bars for the next seven weeks.

How was I able to go to Costco on a Friday afternoon? Because I was home with the little guy, of course! He's actually doing almost 100% better but it took until late morning today for the lab results on his pertussis swab to come back (negative) and we didn't want to take any chances sending him to daycare and finding out he actually had pertussis, so I took the day off to keep him home. As I type this he's in bed, unmedicated for the first time in like two weeks, and fingers crossed that's the beginning of a good long trend along the same lines.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Slow week

So here we are on Designated Talk About The Little Guy Day but it seems as though the little guy has already taken up a larger share of the blog than usual this week, whether in terms of keeping me too busy to post one day or being the major focus of my post another. There’s not all that much new to report, other than to say he does seem to be on the upswing. He still hasn’t taken a proper midday nap since … maybe last Friday or so? (Unless he’s taking one right now as I type this unawares from my cubicle.) But the cough-medicine chewables the pediatrician prescribed have worked with an almost supernatural efficacy, so at least he’s been sleeping through the night without lung-hacking himself awake. I believe he’ll be headed back to daycare tomorrow, and if that ultimately proves too hasty then at least there’s a long holiday weekend on deck during which he can do more quarantined recuperation.

My wife and I aren’t really making news to report on, either. It’s impossible to have a child in the house who’s sick with something that lingers for weeks and not feel a touch under the weather oneself, and we’re living proof of that, with my wife (immunocompromised due to pregnancy and all) taking the harder hit.

Sometimes I feel like I keep running image searches for the same things over and over.
Even if it weren’t for the constant struggle against invisible hordes of pathogens, and the inevitable toll it takes on our collective will-to-do-stuff, I still suspect we’d be in a low-energy lull. The dust of the holidays has finally settled, the days are unremittingly short and cold, and it’s still one more week until new episodes of Community pick up again. Mid-January lends itself to hibernation, and my brain is all about it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Anticipation

No time to blog yesterday as I was home with the little guy, who had a rough day at daycare on Monday. How rough was it? His mother and I routinely bemoan the challenges he sometimes embodies for us in terms of napping (when we would like him to and how much we would like him to, not least because he really does seem to feel better when he gets that two-hour midday recharge) and eating (balanced meals as opposed to just fruit, and sitting at a table instead of wandering with food in hand and/or mouth) and said bemoaning is given an extra piquancy every time we get the daily report from daycare that says he napped like an angel and ate like a polite little health-conscious gourmand. But on Monday the report came in no uncertain terms: the little guy had barely eaten or slept and was less than his usual sunny self, complaining of ear and throat pain. Tuesday was immediately deemed a stay-at-home day with a pediatrician appointment to be made at first opportunity in the morning.

And I did just that, and they couldn’t see us until 3:15 in the afternoon, but at least that afforded us the luxury of a lazy beginning to the day. Still, I spent the day looking forward to meeting with the doctor and getting something in exchange, in the form of a modified diagnosis or a major course correction in treatment or something along those lines, since we were at the eight-day mark with little to no signs of improvement. What I actually got was some but not all of the above. The doctor confirmed the ear infection was getting better but still there, wrote a new prescription for different antibiotics, and added some chewable pills (a first for the little guy but he seems fine with them) which are to help with his coughing at bed time. She also indicated the small but extant possibility that the little guy might have fallen victim to a pertussis outbreak sweeping through the area, but when I relayed this to my wife later she reminded me that the little guy has already had a vaccine for that, so … probably not. In the end of course it was the right thing to do to take him to the doctor and I’m glad I did, but it was a little less than revelatory. “Our kid is still sick!” “Yup, he sure is. Here’s some slightly different medicine, come back if it doesn’t get better in two weeks.” Good times.

I'm watching you.
On the other hand I was also keeping an eye on the skies, as it were, since they were calling for snow in the area and while only an inch or so was forecast I certainly do not believe in the infallibility of meteorologists. Which meant anything from no snow at all to a six-inch ice blanket could have been in the offing, and all I could do was wait and see what exactly would happen. What did happen was a nearly negligible amount of accumulation which didn’t grow much overnight, although I was abed while it was still coming down and could have conceivably turned into more. I know I had no logical reason to hope for a snow day on the heels of a child’s sick day, but that particular habit dies so hard it is functionally immortal. The upside is that the snowfall wasn’t even enough to make the morning commute at all remarkable, so it didn’t become a full-blown worst-of-both-worlds scenario.

In short, I spent a lot of yesterday wondering about things like “Has my son’s illness progressed into troubling complications?” and “Are we going to get much snow?” and the answer to both turned out to be “Not so’s you’d notice.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hook me up

I spent vast amounts of time at the end of last week and into this morning on hold with the desktop support helpdesk here at work and as of this moment I seem to have finally had a major breakthrough. Almost all of my non-busywork projects here at the agency have been on hold because they upgraded the servers that host the applications I’m responsible for, and then did not properly upgrade my machine to be able to access the new servers. In fact, they (“they” in all these instances is a semi-nebulous many-headed entity comprised of the various silos of IT responsibility, the details of which are largely unimportant) generally acted like they had no idea what it was that I needed in order to keep up with the upgrades in the first place. But long story short and at a techno-gibberish minimum, I now have what I need to do my job. Which is kind of a minor miracle.

It’s funny because just this past Friday I was having lunch with an old buddy of mine (the very one I’ve mentioned before who used to be a co-worker and fellow carpooler) and we were discussing the similarities of our career trajectories. We’re both fairly similar in our approach to work, namely that neither of us is terribly ambitious and neither of us feels that scaling the corporate ladder to dizzying heights would be worth what it would likely take out of us in return, and as a result we’re both willing to be humble cogs in positions which simply provide for us and our families in the (again, very similar) manners to which we’ve become accustomed. But at the same time we both realize that there’s an inherent danger in striking that particular attitude, namely that we run the risk of stagnating in our current positions … I guess becoming rusty cogs? If we aren’t pushing ourselves to take steps upward, or in any other direction for that matter, then if any external force should impact us we wouldn’t be very practiced in dealing with change and things could very rapidly become very grim. We were both lucky to ride out the current recession without a hitch. But any number of years (or even months) down the line we could get laid off or offered a dismal choice between quitting or, say, relocating to Alabama (no offense, Yellowhammer State!) and then we’d be adrift in the job market with resumes that boil down to “spent eight years doing not much of anything interesting in a government contracting job using antiquated technologies, because it was easy and paid the bills”. Or something like that.

OK, maybe not that antiquated.  MAYBE.
It’s tempting (in a certain light) to think that I could ride this gravy train for thirty more years and then retire, but it’s entirely unlikely. So there’s a more or less constant tension between my aversion to shaking things up and hunting for a new job and my equally strong aversion to allowing my inaction to slowly but surely put me over a professional barrel. But despite all that, what’s probably going to end up settling things one way or the other will be something minor. Metro will go further into the red and double their fares, and I’ll end up looking for a new job just so I can eliminate that particular irritant from my life. Or my current contracting boss will retire and his replacement will be someone who makes my life in the office totally (as opposed to partially) soul-crushing. The whole long-term-career-strategy thing makes compelling sense, but it’s usually too abstract to wrap my head around. Whereas “something is driving me crazy and the only way I can think of to make it stop is to change jobs” has appreciably more immediate texture to it.

And funny enough, while I was talking all of this over with my buddy, it did occur to me that the lack of technical support I was getting in regards to my missing software, and the general fact that it’s hard being the only techie guy on the team and feeling like no one is helping me because in a very real sense nobody can help me due to the fact that no one remotely understands how my job should be done … all of that had me nostalgic for the days when I worked for an actual technology company and showing up to work on day one with a machine provided that was fully configured to be able to do all the things I would need it to do was kind of a given. And it occurred to me that, just maybe, if I found a new job I could end up in that kind of environment again, and that would be a strong motivator indeed. But then my software problems finally got solved today, and equilibrium has been restored, and with it the inertia that will almost certainly keep me with the same employer for the near-term. Plenty of changes coming on the home front this year to make me extra thankful for a stable job situation, however stagnant that stability may be.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Some filler

One night when I was in college I was hanging out in someone's dorm room and we all started telling jokes, meaning not just the random, had-to-be-there kind of cracking each other up but the reciting of actual structured narrative setup-punchline kind of jokes you might read in a book of jokes. (If you're the kind of person who reads joke books. Which I totally was as a youngster.) It turned out that I had a staggering number of these kinds of jokes stored away in my cluttered headspace and it gradually shifted from everyone trading jokes to me just spouting off one joke after another after another. I don't think anyone found this either endearing or amusing, not even me, but once I got started I couldn't seem to stop and I was vaguely curious how long I could keep it going. The answer turned out to be "way too long and just shy of unforgivably so" and I believe it was not too long after that I began to give serious thought to my borderline neurotic fear of long silences and learned to make peace with shutting the hell up more as a result of being mindful of what I was saying in the first place.

So like I was saying this guy goes to the doctor because he's inexplicably losing weight ...
I bring this up because not only is it once again Random Anecdote Friday but it is also once again a Friday on which I'm planning on ditching work a little early and on which I don't have a ton of news to report or overthinking to share, which lately has led to the ol' blog going dark for lack of content. Does this post address and solve that problem, or simply use more words to accomplish the same end result as posting nothing at all? The determination is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Little lessons

I’m pretty sure the cat is already out of the bag on this one, but let me cop to a slightly unexemplary parenting technique which my wife and I have adopted over the past few months. The little guy is really still technically too little to have the run of the house unsupervised, and although we’re getting more and more comfortable leaving him happily playing with his trains while we roam to other floors of our abode doing various chores, we always keep an ear out and are ready to spring in his direction at the first hint of danger or distress. What we’re not comfortable with (and I think rightly so) is letting him play on his own while we are still dozing in bed, not that we’ve discussed the fine distinctions at length but I presume it has something to do with any or all of the following: our bed is in one of the farthest corners of the house; when we do leave him unattended we check in on him frequently; the time-delay that would be associated with getting out from under the covers, up off the bed, and figuring out where exactly the little guy had gotten off to would be too great; and probably many more.

But when the little guy is awake and clamoring to be released from his crib (which, knock wood, he still can’t climb out of) and whichever parent is home with him doesn’t quite want to stop snoozing, then we often opt to bring the little guy into bed, and turn on the Disney Channel, and let him watch a cartoon or two while chilling within arm’s reach of a half-conscious mommy or daddy. It’s certainly not the most engaged parenting style I can imagine, but it keeps the child happy and the parents sane, and bottom line, it works for us.

One of the interesting side-effects of this is that, as a captive audience to the Playhouse Disney offerings in these early morning screenings, I have quickly become very familiar with various animated properties aimed more or less at my child’s demographic. I know that it’s a widely accepted piece of wisdom that parents should watch what their children are watching, at least to the point that they are not completely ignorant of what ideas/images/messages their children are consuming, but I often feel like that is vegetable-advice: something everyone knows they should be doing but no one does as much as they should. Yet through the default magic of laziness, and the fact that those early morning not-ready-to-get-up-yet hours are essentially the only time we let the little guy watch tv, I’m there for all of his video exposure so far, which has thus far been limited to Chuggington, Imagination Movers, Special Agent Oso, and Mickey’s Club House.

Representin' Sheetrock Hills, y'all
Oh and of course Handy Manny.

So the other day we watched the special New Years Eve episode of Handy Manny together (the little guy with rapt attention, me with my eyes half-closed) and it has been stuck in my craw ever since. Because I can’t quite figure out where the episode is supposed to be coming from philosophically. (Which of course presupposes that children’s cartoons have a philosophical point of view to begin with.)

Handy Manny has a few things to recommend it even to the parental viewer – the theme song by Los Lobos is catchy as hell, the sentient tools have a couple of amusing personality quirks amongst them (particularly Turner the Sardonic Screwdriver), the relationship between Manny and his friend Kelly is rife with unintentionally torrid sexual undertones – but by and large I find it to kind of be a mess. I sympathize with the producers of children’s entertainment who make a concerted effort to carve out some individualized ground for their show’s identity, but Handy Manny throws an awful lot into the pot. Sometimes it’s about living in a multi-lingual world, as Manny tends to say a lot of things in Spanish and then immediately translate himself into English. Sometimes it’s about teamwork and getting the job at hand done, whatever that may happen to be. Sometimes it educationally addresses various far-flung topics. Pretty often it’s all of those things at once, plus the usual kiddie-moral platitudes. That is a many-layered bean dip of not necessarily complimentary ideas!

Anyway, the New Years Eve episode starts with Manny making a custom, hand-painted ball ornament that will be dropped at midnight at the town celebration. Then it shifts into a story about how the local candy-store owner Mr. Lopart (he's the guy NOT wearing a cool trucker cap in the pic above) is going to be alone on New Years because his mother was on vacation and her flight home has been cancelled. So Mr. Lopart ends up tagging along with Manny and the tools as they help other people get ready for the celebration, and everywhere Mr. Lopart goes he manages to clumsily wreck something. All of which culminates at the end when Mr. Lopart takes it upon himself to hang Manny’s custom countdown-ball, a task which he of course screws the pooch on, resulting in a shattered ball. But Mr. Lopart replaces the ball with a star-shaped piƱata he had bought for his mother, who ends up making it home by midnight for a thoroughly happy ending including a singing of a bilingual Auld Lang Syne. (Trilingual? Spanish, English and whatever weird druidic language the name of the song actually is?)

OK, so first off, Mr. Lopart is a seriously creepy character. I understand toddler-tainment needs its pitiable, accident-prone characters to give plots some semblance of conflict to resolve without resorting to the out-and-out protagonist/antagonist minefield of ideas, but the figure in question here seems a little off the deep end: a middle-aged bachelor with a bad combover and a pampered cat who is still attached at the apron strings to his mother (who is less attached herself, since she flies off for solo vacations to Mexico and all). To a certain extent my personal creep factor is beside the point, but just note again the fact that we are talking about a middle-aged man who owns his own business. He may be accident-prone, which in turn is exacerbated by his own hubris, but to a certain extent he should know better, right? When he attempts to hang up Manny’s countdown-ball, he willfully ignores the fact that he has been breaking stuff all day. And actually I can buy that, because he sees helping out with the ball as his big shot at redemption, his chance to show that he doesn’t screw up everything (which is delusional and ultimately wrong, but consistent, at least). But while he’s in the middle of his doomed attempt to help, Manny shows up AND ASKS HIM TO STOP SO THAT MANNY CAN HELP. Mr. Lopart hears this but blows it off anyway, and then the ball breaks, a situation which could have easily been avoided if he. Had. Just. LISTENED.

Holy crap, as a parent, a sequence like that is frigging infuriating. Or rather, what happens next is infuriating; to wit, nothing. People make mistakes, and mistakes are “teachable moments”, fine, but it is less than a second before Manny is saying “That’s OK, Mr. Lopart” and basically letting him off the hook with zero consequences. And I must call shenanigans on that! Because what it’s basically saying to the little kiddies is this: it’s all right to do whatever you want, even if it’s the same kind of thing that has caused trouble before, and even if someone is right in front of you telling to stop and wait and accept some help from someone who knows better than you, because no matter what the outcome of your actions everything will be just fine.

I always try to look at things from multiple perspectives, so I do see a certain amount of positive value in the premise here. It’s not the worst thing in the world to reassure pre-schoolers that the world is basically a kind and gentle place where they have the room and the safety to make all the mistakes that life-learning requires. I’d rather have a child who believes that, in the long run, everything is gonna be OK than one who freaks out whenever things get slightly bent because they believe bad will always lead to worse. But, better still, I’d like to have a child whose optimism is tempered by a sense or personal responsibility, who can heed fair warnings and defer to expertise when it’s in everyone’s best interest. I guess that has to wait until they’re older than two or three, though.

But as I said, I keep thinking about the stupid show and its problematic philosophy of “oh, it’s fine that you ignored me and as a result destroyed something I worked really hard on” and in the course of all that mental gnawing I started to develop an alternative theory. After all, Mr. Lopart is a fop and a buffoon, so maybe even the tiniest of minds wouldn’t necessarily look to him as a role model and the takeaway I’m seeing is neither intended nor received. Manny is the hero, I remind myself, and ergo the role model. So what lesson is Manny really teaching the kiddies?

Zen-like calm in the face of idiots.

I mean, the fact is, Manny did his best at every point from painting the ball to trying to save it from Mr. Lopart’s butterfingered clutches, but things went south anyway, and once that happened, you know, yelling at Mr. Lopart or punishing him in any way wouldn’t put the ball back together again. Manny is quick to forgive and move on and, I swear, I strive to be the same way myself, because just about every other approach just leads to more trouble than it’s worth. The fact is that the world is full of Mr. Loparts, numbskulls who should know better but don’t, who won’t take well-intentioned advice or accept genuinely useful help, and who muck things up for everyone else. Even with the heaviest enforcement of consequences, the world remains full of that particular breed of moron. And the best advice I can give for dealing with people like that is to accept that they will never, ever change, keep your own head on straight, and get over it. Which is exactly what Manny does.

You have no idea how much I totally want to believe that the life lesson of “do your best, and don’t let the feebs get you down no matter what” is what the Handy Manny writers were going for. Because that’s a philosophy I’m happy to have the tv impart on my little guy while I laze away beside him.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Should Old Pop Resolutions Be Forgot

Originally I was going to go point-by-point through the 10 resolutions of pop culture consumption I made heading into 2010 and examine the degree of success (or failure) for each as well as any extenuating circumstances or unforeseen complications which went along with them and furthermore declare whether or not I was making a similar resolution for 2011 to either finally accomplish what I had failed to do the previous year or to perpetuate what I saw as an inherently positive development. Yes, I was going to do this ten times.

Fortunately for all of us I have come to my senses! I wasn’t able to get the post as initially envisioned up on New Year’s Eve because it was taking too long to write, a trend which continued well into this week, and ultimately I realized if it was taking that wretchedly long for me to compose my thoughts it would be a hell of a slog for anyone to read through. Thus, new plan, let me just give you the highlights.

Almost all of my successes came in ticking off things that had the word “read” in there somewhere, once again abetted by my never-ending mass transit commute. So I read 53 books (54 and a half, technically) and a bunch of comics, including volume 1 of Akira (which was a portion of Resolution #6) and all of Blackest Night (half of Resolution #4). I found the local library and made use of it, and I bought more used books both on Amazon and at the local shops.

My nearest miss was the attempt to watch 12 Netflix movies in 12 months (Resolution #8) – I watched 11, finishing off The Wrestler on December 31st. Technically I should admit that after a year of effort I am incapable of getting my money’s worth out of my account, but five days into the new year I have yet to cancel the service. And honestly I probably won’t … but let me get back to that. I also failed to watch every DVD which is hanging around my house because I actually own it (Resolution #9), but I did view a few of them, at least. And those aren’t going anywhere (even though the bigger of the local used book stores also buys used DVDs).

Bought this DVD in '09 but haven't watched it, but I saw the movie in the theater, but this is the Diretcor's Cut ... so I don't even know how to count this.
Then there were the abysmal failures. The one that surprised me the most was going to the movies five times (Resolution #7) – I didn’t make to a theater once in 2010. I had to laugh when I looked back at last year’s post and saw that one of my strategic points in that arena was to take my wife to Solomon Kane starring James Purefoy – surprise! It was only released in the UK! I also had vague thoughts of moviegoing while we were at the Outer Banks if any of the days had been too rainy to hit the beach (but none really were) and catching a late show with a buddy (we ended up hanging at my house drinking beers) and, of course, seeing TRON (but then I heard it was really terrible). This year, of course, both the Green Lantern and Thor films will hit the cineplexes and there’s no way I’m missing either of those, so going to the movies more this year than last is already a gimme.

One of the other failures came down to dollars. It’s not that my family is hurting for money (a significant rework of our household budget is a pressing non-popcult resolution for this year in light of the imminent addition to our family, but still, we should be fine if we stay on top of things) but I did find myself reluctant to blow unreasonable amounts of money on any single thing. Like, for instance, Star Blazers on DVD (the other part of Resolution #6) which I had casually declared my intention to acquire when I figured the box set would be, like, 40 bucks. Turns out it’s a pause-giving 135 smackers or so. I can wait a while on that.

But mostly, it’s about time ... or lack thereof. Playing all the way through a Guitar Hero game (Resolution #10)? That was easy when the little guy was a newborn who slept throughout the day and we lived in a small, nothing-in-urgent-need-of-fixing townhouse. Not so much now. The same more or less applies to the more ambitious project-oriented stuff like actually deciding how much more monthly comic book collecting I want to do (as it happened, I just kind of stopped buying comics after Blackest Night because getting to the comic book shop was too much effort) or selling off portions of my existing collection – the necessary hours to really figure those things out never quite presented itself. So Resolutions #4 and #5 are still sitting there waiting for me to have time for them … and also awaiting a little technical assistance.

We are on the brink of a bit of a computer crisis at my house, with our desktop only able to boot up in Safe Mode and my big laptop barely able to hold a charge or keep the adapter in its socket – and both of those machines are antiquated (relatively speaking) in terms of both processing power and OS and so on. Our netbook still works fine, so that’s the most reliable means my wife and I have for checking e-mail and such at home. Clearly we simply need to suck it up and buy at least (and for now, probably only) one new machine, and we are in agreement on this, so now it’s a matter of making it happen.

Dollars and hours. It always comes down to them.

But I’m looking forward to settling that matter because so much is logically connected to it. I think I could actually watch more Netflix and get my money’s worth if I actually made use of the streaming Watch It Now feature, which I’ve never really had a computer capable of doing before. The old desktop started dying shortly after I finally got a scanner, which you may or may not remember was one of the prerequisites to me selling off comics to begin with – I wanted to be able to scan parts of them one last time before parting with them. Then selling off the old comics will help me clarify my thoughts on collecting new ones, or net me enough pocket money to splurge on serialized Japanese cartoon box sets, and so on and so on and so on. Thus, I look forward to the new investment in our family’s computer infrastructure, and the golden dawn of productivity and efficiency (both mostly related to entertaining myself, but still) it will usher in.

Oh, and as far as my new reading goals, I’m going for quality over quantity this year – I’m only committing myself to a dozen books, but they are going to be legitimate, canonized classics which I have managed to get this far without reading. Of course I will intersperse other, lighter fare throughout the year, but altogether the total number most likely will be smaller because some of the novels I’m targeting (Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment) are awfully dense. I’m sure I’ll post updates on that particular project as the year goes along.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Updates and Observations

I am at work, not because the little guy staged a dramatic recovery and was deemed good-to-go for daycare, but rather because Grandma was kind enough to come up to our place this morning and watch the little guy while both his mother and I are at work. The little guy is still pretty darn sick. He has a Dreaded Ear Infection and was prescribed ten days of antibiotics by the pediatrician yesterday. Apparently his tubes have finally fallen out (or completely disintegrated or something) and if the current infection is a precursor to yet another pattern of recurrence, we might have to subject him to the same surgery yet again, which is nerve-wracking but absolutely worth it … we’ll cross that bridge &c.

So, bummer that it’s not simply the egregiously nasty common cold I pegged it as, but there are many, many ways this could be worse. The tubes lasted and did their job way longer than the doctors had initially predicted (I think they said they’d last 12 months max and they ended up staying put and working something like 18), part of that job being not just keeping the little guy healthier but also giving him enough pain-free time to learn how to sleep through the night. He’s been waking up at odd hours the past few days, but the direct culprit has been a nagging cough, not skullsplitting pain behind his eardrums. Coughing fits tend to go away quickly with a drink of water (or, in extremis, a lollipop) and a little parental soothing, whereas those agonizingly painful ear infections of yesteryear were harder to ameliorate and it always seemed like an eternity before the infant Motrin kicked in. The pediatrician prescribed an antibiotic that the little guy has been on before, which leads us to believe that it’s a minor infection (as these things go) as opposed to something major which needs to be treated as aggressively as possible. And the little guy likes the antibiotic, so giving him his medicine doesn’t turn into a hardcore toddler-wrestling cage match. Like I say, could be worse.

You would think feeling sick and cruddy would sap the little guy's strength for fighting off ministrations.  But no!
I am working on a belated New Year’s Pop Resolutions post which will call back to everything I resolved to do back on the last day of 2009, measure my progress over 2010, and look ahead to 2011, but I don’t think I’ll get it done today. So in the meantime, speaking of callbacks, I just wanted to do my usual mini-review-type-thing for one of the sitcoms I follow regularly, How I Met Your Mother. Spoilers ahead!

The two most noteworthy aspects of last night’s episode were the running countdown gimmick, where the numbers from 50 to 1 appeared prominently on screen, and the death of Marshall’s dad revealed in the final minute. The countdown gimmick was a cool hook and my wife and I had a lot of fun playing Spot The Digits and pointing them out to one another. The ending was affecting enough to not only get both of us a little misty (my wife at least has the hormonal excuse of being pregnant, I’m just a sap for father/son loss stories) but to prompt my brother-in-law to almost immediately text my wife to remark on how sad it was. These two aspects obviously go hand-in-hand and overall I’d say they worked and made for a quality episode.

I was surprised this morning, trawling the interwebs message boards as I am wont to do, to find that it was a really divisive episode. Lots of people liked it as much as I did, and lots of other people hated it and thought the gimmick was distracting in and of itself AND did a disservice to the emotional coda of the episode AND also thought the death of Marshall’s dad was a cheap trick that should have been handled totally differently. Ah well, to each his own.

As I read through a long page of comments I noticed that no one was pointing out a little detail I noticed. It’s not something I think definitively settled the god ep/bad ep question, but I liked it so I’m going to mention it here because that is after all one of the reasons I blog in the first place, to give cybervoice to my random synapse signals. The last shot of the episode, after Lily tells Marshall that his father died, was Marshall and Lily hugging on the sidewalk, and the frame very deliberately included an electronic parking meter, and the display screen of the meter was red, which is an indicator that time has expired. Of course before the screen turns red it’s a countdown of how much time remains. And “expired” has a specific meaning for human life, as well. OK, maybe not exactly a piece of symbolism you could bang out an entire five-pager on for an Advanced television Studies seminar, but I thought it was a well-placed button on the whole gimmick/revelation thing.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A happy, healthy New Year ... not so much

Well that went by fast. Unfortunately my day off on Friday coincided with the little guy developing one nasty little cold, one which manifested especially heavily Friday night when the little guy was trying, and failing, to sleep. My wife and I had more or less given up on making it to midnight on New Year’s Eve but somehow found ourselves awake as the calendar rolled on over, with a coughing, sniffling, fairly miserable two-year-old sharing our bed after he had made it abundantly clear he had no intention of going quietly back to sleep. So that was ... kinda neat?

No Vegas this time ... but one of these years!
The three-of-us-in-one-bed didn’t last terribly long, though. We used to do that a lot more when the little guy was sick with ear infections as a tiny tot, but the main reason we did it back then was because it actually worked. Snuggled up against his mommy, he would sleep much better than if we left him alone in his crib (still not perfect, mind you, but better) so we indulged him. Nowadays he doesn’t get sick nearly as often but when he does, and it’s the kind of sick that can potentially wake him up in the middle of the night and lead to him wailing with displeasure and inability to settle himself back down, then it seems like we go through the same set of steps every time:

-My wife and I lie awake listening to him crying down the hall, hoping a few more bawls and he’ll run out of steam and drift back to sleep
- He keeps bawling longer than our hair-trigger consciences can abide, and we fetch him into our bed
- He calms down fairly quickly, but rather than falling back asleep he tries talking to us, playing with us (manhandling our faces mostly), and generally disrupting any and all attempts at slumber.
- At which point our need for sleep and realization that he is way too old for what worked when he was eight months old kicks in, and we return him to his crib.
- Where he immediately starts wailing again but at least at that point we have extremely fresh memories reminding us of what we had apparently forgotten in the previous interim from the last time he was sick: it sucks to listen to him cry but it does eventually subside into sleep, and putting him in our bed might seem like a good way to avoid the crying but it also completely precludes sleep in its own way.

So yeah, that was New Years Eve, and on New Years Day we variously cancelled on people we had made plans with because the little guy was leaking even more snot and eye goop and was an undeniably mess. He actually seemed to feel fine enough most of the time, running around the house, playing, eating well, but there were moments now and then where it was obvious his internal systems were operating at less than ideal efficiency.

We toughed it out through the weekend, though, and managed to de-Christmas most of the house (though the little guy prevailed upon me to leave the musical Frosty plush doll out a while longer, and I caved) and now here we are back to the post-holiday grind. Although it remains to be seen if this really will be the grim, full-five-day week that it promises to be. I might be forced to take a my-child-is-sick day tomorrow if the little guy is still too effluvial to be welcomed at daycare with open arms.