Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lifelong learning

So what, if anything, did we learn from last week’s medical misadventures, in the most practical sense?

We had been told when we toured the hospital that the maternity ward had free WiFi, and knowing this we brought our trusty little netbook when we embarked Wednesday morning, just in case. Given how the baby-having didn’t happen and instead there was much sitting around and waiting, we were ultimately glad we did. We also learned that the free WiFi, while theoretically extant, was also very spotty and unreliable. So that’s good to know for when Big Announcement Day finally does roll around.

We learned that the little guy does not necessarily break down into a tantrum-y mess if he happens to wake up on a random weekday and be greeted not by mommy or daddy, nor even grandma or pop-pop, but rather one of mommy’s friends whom he kinda-sorta knows but might not recall the name of. This was in fact incredibly gratifying to verify. We had hoped as much, because our contingency plans hinged on it, but still, we worry. Of course, this week we’ve been up to our eyeballs in tantrum-y messes because it’s as if someone flipped a switch in the little guy’s head which illuminated for him the very textbook definition of “Terrible Twos” and that has been a bit of an ordeal (arguably that’s been the one thing mentally dominating me this week, so it’s just as well that I’ve spent every day so far blogging about the Kidney Stones Saga, which is far more pleasant to dwell upon, take that as you will) but one axiom which has made itself manifestly clear is this: the little guy is at his absolute worst when he is alone with his mother or father (or both). He acts out only in very small, manageable ways with his grandparents, and almost never at all with babysitters or the teachers at daycare and so on. And on the one hand, the fact that he saves up all his inappropriate behavior just for us is grueling to deal with (even if in some ways I think it’s all right if it reflects that we’re the people he’s most attached to and feels safe deviating from the script with) BUT the bright side is that we have one less thing to worry about if we bolt for the hospital in the middle of the knight. OK, two less things: nobody else will have the little guy’s adorably ugly side inflicted upon them while doing us a solid, and as long as we’re gone, we won’t have it inflicted on ourselves, either.

Such a pill.
Just getting up and out of the house last week was a good dry run, so on the one hand we learned that we were pretty well-prepared for that and also learned what we could do to be even more ready for the real thing. (One of my favorite examples being that I need to have a couple of soothing, familiar CDs in my car to listen to so that the drive to the hospital isn’t fraught with quiet anxiety. As opposed to the usual collection of CDs in my car which all generally belong to the punk and heavy metal “aggressive screaming” genre which is not recommended for women having contractions.) As soon as my wife got home from the hospital last Thursday we started making a list of things to bring to the hospital and gathering them all together to be packed sooner than later. But on the obverse side of the coin, we learned we really weren’t ready to actually, you know, bring a baby home from the hospital. The list of things that still need to be done around the house, to not only get the nursery ready but get the whole place acceptable to receive well-wishers who’d like to meet our new daughter … yeah that list is significantly longer and immeasurably more intimidating. But apparently we (read: I) needed the wake-up call, and it has been duly registered, and this coming weekend will no doubt be busy. But it’s the golden second-chance kind of busy, so I’m totally OK with it.

The best part is that when the little girl’s birthday does arrive, we’ll apply the lessons learned from the Kidney Stone Saga and then have the joy of discovering an entirely new set of unforeseen head-slappers as we go along anyway. And while we’re still not one hundred percent ready, we seem to have made it to the significant marker of the end of March. As of tomorrow the baby can be born in April like she’s supposed to and somehow we will manage. Nothing really learned in that, just another example of being lucky.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Palliative care

My wife, upon reading my blog post on Monday, made the observation that it was very much a straightforward recounting of events rather than my own personal reactions to or analysis of those events or any of the other variations on thoughtfulness I generally strive to bring to bear. And, you know, fair enough. Partly that’s because the whole Saga of the Kidney Stones was a long and convoluted sequence of events which I felt were interestingly noteworthy in and of themselves, like our own little version of an episode of House or something. And partly it was because interpretation seemed a little hard to come by under the circumstances.

It definitely was not a day for subtle shadings on the emotional palette. It started out with very broad panic – about making arrangements for the little guy and getting to the hospital with the clock ticking, about the relative health of a baby born too early, about enduring a difficult labor – which was steadily replaced by a very broad relief as one by one those concerns proved either handleable or non-applicable. And somewhere in the middle was one of the most acute feelings of despair I’ve had in a long time, and the reason I didn’t weave that into my initial retelling was because it’s not terribly pleasant nor is it terribly illuminating. It just sucks. “It” in this case refers to the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know that someone you love is suffering and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Being told that my wife was not in fact in early labor but rather was experiencing the pain associated with kidney stones basically had the effect of banishing a whole cloud of disparate anxieties and replacing them with a single overriding concern, which was to get my wife some relief. But it was out of my hands. Nothing I could say or do would interrupt the anguish that was literally contorting her face and then her entire body. I knew that it was very temporary at worst, but that didn’t make the moment-to-moment of watching her in pain any easier. Like I keep saying, though, I don’t think I went through anything unique or have any special insight as a result. It happened, and it was terrible (for me heart-wise and much moreso for my wife pure physical are-you-kidding-me agony-wise) and then the painkillers were administered and the worst was over. But even now I’m well aware there are far, far worse things that can befall a person. I won’t tempt fate by naming them, but I’m grateful that I was in a position where there was nothing I could do but there was plenty modern medicine could and ultimately did do, once someone with access to the drug cabinet realized that possibly screwing up later tests was a risk worth taking to ameliorate the situation. If I had been in a position where there was nothing I could do and nothing anybody else in the world could do either … yeah, probably best not to think about that. Look, Muppets!

Oh Rowlf you'll always be my favorite.
What else did we learn from our most recent trip through the halls of the healing sciences? That it always seems like doctors have someplace else they think they need to be whenever they manage to spend five minutes at your bedside many hours after you show up looking for medical attention? That nurses are overworked and underpaid and do all the important stuff and don’t get enough credit for it? That hospital food is crappy? What is this, a blog or a tepid stand-up routine from the late 80’s? (And as it happens, in the case of the specific hospital we were in, only the first two statements are true. My wife couldn’t say enough good things about the food she ate – which was made to order! – during her stay.)

So yeah, there was plenty of overfeeling during the entire escapade, but all of that boils down to stuff that’s simultaneously so universal it doesn’t need explanation and so me-specific that it doesn’t merit much attention. The usual overthinking was simply not in evidence, again because either things were moving so fast there simply wasn’t time or because during the slower moments it seemed like everything around us was extremely well-covered territory.

Which is not to say I didn’t learn anything at all from the whole ordeal, but I reckon I will save that for tomorrow. Yes, this is proving to be a monumentally uneventful week, such that I can fix my posting gaze firmly upon last Wednesday and Thursday and know that I am not missing catching any of you up on anything more recent. I’m sure we’ll get back to the typical as-it-happens perspective at some point, though.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Productivity metrics

I mentioned yesterday as I was wrapping up the post that things were getting back to normal if not already there. One of the more easily grappled-with aspects of normalcy, of course, is the whole job situation, so allow me to elaborate on that a bit more.

My wife was supposed to work every day last week through Saturday, with the exception of Thursday, although she was expected to attend a mandatory work dinner on Thursday night, something she was entirely unenthused about. Of course all of those expectations and supposed-to’s pre-dated the kidney stone hospitalization, and in the aftermath the schedule had been modified significantly. Obviously she didn’t go to work on Wednesday, and although she was discharged from the hospital fairly early on Thursday she was excused from the dinner meeting as well. Friday became a day off, too, and apparently could have easily become the effective Day One of her maternity leave as far as the office manager was concerned. However, there really was no medical reason for my wife to stop working altogether; she hasn’t been banished to bed rest or anything like that, merely advised to drink as much water as humanly possible and perhaps avoid excessively calcium-rich foods in addition to discontinuing her straight-up calcium supplements. (This might not seem like a big deal, and in the grand scheme of things probably isn’t, but since she gave up caffeinated coffee and tea during the pregnancy my wife has been using hot cocoa as a placebo, and Swiss Miss prides itself on being high in calcium.)

Mmmm, reconstituted spray-dried dairy product ...
Also it’s more or less understood that my wife will only take about three months maternity leave, total, so every day not punching in now is one day sooner she’d have to punch in when the baby is only a couple months old. So the office manager’s heart was in the right place, trying to tell my wife to just stay home and relax and stay healthy and let her colleagues worry about covering appointments and whatnot; she just didn’t think through the whole truncated post-partum leave angle the way my wife did, and thus my wife graciously declined.

So by Saturday she was back to work, though only for a half day, and Sunday had already been scheduled as a day off, after which she’d be on Monday through Wednesday. Those weekdays have been reduced to half-days as well. We shall see what happens on Friday and beyond, but mainly it’s highly comforting to feel like my wife’s employer has her personal well-being somewhere on their list of priorities. They were accommodating about hiring her while she was pregnant with the little guy and bringing her onboard just as she was transitioning from her first ever maternity leave, and they’re still accommodating for baby number two. There are myriad things about the job that drive my wife (and me, by proxy) crazy, but now and then we’re reminded that in many ways it really is a positive place to work.

My work schedule, on the other hand, is a bit more rigid on a day-to-day basis, so basically I had to burn a couple of paid days off for Wednesday and Thursday last, then come back for a full day on Friday and for the foreseeable future. This leaves me, as of today (which is one of the two Tuesdays per month when leave time accrues) with a little over one day of paid time off to my name. I think that might actually be to my benefit, in a weird way. All along I’ve been thinking of my paternity leave as essentially unpaid, because it was always going to be longer than however much leave I could accrue plus life has unexpected ways of forcing my hand on using leave time, anyway. And I had been mentally rolling around the idea of writing my boss an email and preemptively explaining that although I had three days off coming to me I’d just as soon take every single day of paternity leave as unpaid FMLA, and come back in two or three weeks, and keep the three days in the bank … because I’ll need three days off for travel and various activities associated with my wife’s brother’s wedding in mid-June. I think that’s a reasonable way to handle everything but I still just instinctively recoil at the thought of having to outline those kinds of number-crunching machinations for official approval.

If my wife were to go into labor the morning of Friday, April 8th, she’d be one day shy of 39 weeks and that would feel just about right (apparently her doctor doesn’t want her to go all the way to 40 weeks anyway). I could burn a leave day on Friday, which would not only complete the week but the pay period, and then I’d take the next two or three weeks off unpaid, and then start accruing again when I came back. Which would not get me up to three days in the bank by mid-June, more like only two, and so I’d have to get permission to go into a negative balance for leave at that point. I have a hard time explaining why the thought of that conversation bothers me less than the hoarding-leave-for-later conversation, but so it goes. If any other sequence of events prevails, from the baby being born on a Wednesday to staying put past her due date, I’d rather just take it all unpaid and sort out my leave balance when I get back. But we shall see.

The other element which I fully do not expect the baby to take into consideration is my imminent office relocation. It seems almost definite now that my group will be heading to Crystal City on or around April 21st or 22nd, which seems highly likely to be one or two weeks after the baby comes, meaning I will still be on paternity leave and I will miss it. Some people might view that as a blessing but I would be slightly bummed. Associated with the move will be at least one or two days where everyone wears jeans to the office in order to pack, as well as one or two (or many many more) days when the new computer network is non-functional and there’s little to no work getting done. It almost seems unfair to be home doing nothing and not getting paid when my colleagues are at the office doing nothing but very much getting paid. Ah, well. Being home with my entire family has a certain value that transcends the usual paycheck-earning, at that. It’s just going to be odd, maybe even downright surreal, if I pack up most of my work stuff in advance, then stop showing up one day because my wife went into labor the night before, and then come back to a completely different cubicle/office/building/neighborhood a week after everyone else has already settled into the new digs. But there are worse fates, I suppose.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ouch

Went a bit off the rails there last week, didn’t I? As I’ve said many times before, I do my best (or, of late, only) blogging while I’m at work; last week I didn’t go to work either Wednesday or Thursday and although I was back to the physical trappings of my regular routine as of Friday, I wasn’t mentally prepared for posting. So sorry about the near-week of silence, and apologies in advance for the fact that this week may be wildly off-model as I try to regroup and catch up.

So we had an unexpected mid-week hospitalization, which started out looking like one thing and ended up quite another. My wife woke up in the wee hours of Wednesday morning with painful contractions, and to her eternal credit she laid awake in bed beside me for a good half hour trying to ascertain if they were real contractions or not before going into full-blown panic mode. She has gone through labor before, and her ability to recognize true, laboring contractions isn’t really in dispute, but at the same time the previous and to date only time she’s been in labor it was artificially induced, so there’s an unavoidable amount of uncertainty in the mix nonetheless. On top of that, she is group B strep positive which means, by the book, she should be at the hospital on antibiotics for four hours before delivering for the baby’s sake, so there’s an added incentive to avoid being overly dismissive of anything that might possibly be labor. Point being, the contractions didn’t go away between 3:30 a.m. and 4, so she woke me up, and then from 4 a.m. to 5, I handled timing the contractions’ durations and frequency and tried to help my wife remain relatively calm. By 5 a.m., after a dozen minute-long contractions that were occurring with dependable five-minute regularity albeit way more painful than my wife remembered from last time, we felt justified calling the doctor, who instructed us to head on over to the hospital.

So we were fairly efficient about getting ourselves ready and also finding a friend to come over and wait for the little guy to wake up and get him ready and off to daycare, and we were on the road a little before 6 a.m. and in the hospital not too long after. The labor and delivery nurses were in the midst of changing over from night shift to day shift crew, but still reassuringly competent about getting us squared away. They got my wife hooked up to some monitors in the triage room, which is SOP before sending the mother on to an actual labor room – presumably, one imagines, this is standard in order to weed out the women who show up believing they are in labor when really they aren’t, and fair enough for that. You would think, given the reasonable restraint we exercised in assessing what was happening, we would pass right through fairly quickly. But here’s the kicker: my wife was not actually in labor. Just tremendous pain.

I think perhaps this might only scratch the surface.
The pain, it was soon theorized, was due to kidney stones. And on the one hand, this was actually very good news. Had it actually been labor, the baby would have been born about three and a half weeks pre-term, which certainly is not the end of the world (her big brother was induced two and a half weeks pre-term) but is also less than optimal. We were also down one local set of grandparents, who were mid-vacation in Ireland until Sunday, so juggling the little guy with the new baby’s arrival would have been trickier than we had expected. Plus the agony itself, had it been associated with labor, would have meant hours of really spirit-crushing pain in the attempt to bring the child forth via drug-free delivery. Whereas pain meds for kidney stones were an at-hand source of relief.

The monitoring also brought further good news in the form of strong readings across the board on the baby herself, who was doing fine floating as contentedly as always in her amnion suite, not particularly interested in going anywhere, thanks. But the monitors also said that my wife was not having strong labor-like contractions, and at this point I can only make ill-informed guesses at best as far as what had been going on all morning. When my wife said she was having strong contractions at home I believed her from the get-go, and the fact that she convinced her doctor this was the case as well would have banished any doubts if I had had them. The monitors just told a different tale. Did the contractions subside on the way to the hospital or shortly after arrival, either totally coincidentally or because being stressed about making it there in time was ramping them up and being tended to by medical professionals kind of inherently calmed my wife down? Were they actually weak contractions all along, and either amplified to my wife’s perceptions or warped by crossed neurological signals because of the accompanying excruciating pain? I suppose it doesn’t really matter. We did everything we were supposed to do and we ended up where we ended up.

Which is not where the story ends, of course. So there we were, in labor and delivery triage with the only fact conclusively proven being that my wife was not in labor, which meant we were not going to be moving on to an actual labor room. The kidney-stone diagnosis was more or less a best-guess, which needed to be confirmed via ultrasound, so we had to stay put in triage while waiting for radiology to call us down. And that ended up taking hours and hours, really through no fault of anyone. We just happened to show up at the hospital on a day when radiology was slammed with multiple emergency cases first thing in the morning. My wife’s doctor put in an ASAP order for the u/s, but our nurse eventually figured out that all ASAP u/s cases were getting ignored in favor of STAT u/s cases, which radiology was up to their eyeballs in. So my wife’s case got upgraded to STAT, and the nurse took pity on my wife and gave her some I/V Dilaudid even though the diagnosis was not official at that point. What was official was that my wife was a wreck from the unabated pain at that point, and more power to our nurse for letting that be the deciding factor.

Once the u/s was done and the lab work had come back and my wife’s doctor graced us with a personal appearance, the results were revealed to be … inconclusive. The lab work showed some potential indicators for an infection, but those might have resulted from a contaminated sample, and my wife hadn’t spiked a fever at any point. The radiologist hadn’t seen any stones on the u/s, which either meant there were none or they were small (but still excruciating). Still, the doctor left it up to my wife to choose, either to head home or be admitted for overnight observation. She chose to stay in the hospital where she continued to get I/V fluids, and antibiotics, and had pain medication at the ready (although after her initial dose around 9:45 a.m. and another at 1 p.m., she never felt like she needed any more). I left the hospital around 2:30, as they were about to finally move my wife from the triage stretcher she had been camping out on to a proper room. As it turned out, all the post-partum rooms were occupied so she got an actual labor room, and of the two kinds of rooms in the maternity ward the labor rooms are the really spacious, cushy ones. And while I was picking up the little guy from daycare and getting him through the evening dinner, bath and bedtime rituals, my wife did in fact pass a couple of small (but still excruciating!) kidney stones. Then she spent a fairly restful night in the hospital, and got discharged and came home the next day.

Apparently, since she now has a frame of reference for all three, my wife feels confident asserting that kidney stones are more uncomfortable and more painful than breaking one’s elbow or delivering a baby. Which, if I were really grasping for a bright side, I would take heart in because if I should ever be unlucky enough to develop kidney stones, at least I know my wife won’t roll her eyes at me and mutter something about how surely passing a child through one’s pelvis is more arduous but men are such wusses. (Not that my wife would be inclined to be so callous to begin with.) But the fact is I’m not grasping for a bright side all that much, because I felt like things turned out about as well as could be expected. On the one hand I do not in any way want to discount the raw suffering my poor wife went through. Just from second-hand witnessing, I would not wish kidney stones on 95% of my worst enemies. (That absolute vilest and scummiest 5% better watch it, though.) But all in all, we were lucky many times over. We went from “the baby is coming almost a month early and it looks like the labor is going to be grueling and awful” to “the baby is fine and staying put for now” which was a tremendous relief. The pain itself was terrible, but the source of the pain turned out to be something relatively benign, in the sense that I’ve never heard of anyone dying of kidney stones. And as always my family is lucky to live in the first world within a short drive’s distance of a well-equipped hospital, of which we can take full advantage thanks to decent health insurance, and so on and so on.

All in all it was slightly surreal thanks to the speed with which we went from “things are simultaneously bad and out of control” to “everything’s back to normal” and yet, here we are. My wife is feeling fine now and the whole ordeal seems like a very weird and isolated anomaly. Of course it’s not, really, nothing ever is, but perhaps I’ve babbled enough for one day and tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the ongoing fallout.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Don't philosophize angry

Everybody probably has one or two life lessons they’ve gleaned from experience which they feel could make the world a better place if more people took them to heart. Inspired by some truly absurd trolling I read on a message board today, here are a few of mine:

You do not have the right to live a life free of annoyance. I’m a good American and a supporter of individual rights. I believe in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I take great civic pride in the Bill of Rights. But nowhere in any of that, as far as I can see, is an unannoyed state of mind expressly guaranteed. Life in general and other people in particular can be and in point of fact quite often are rather annoying. This is not something which demands redress. You should feel free to find one or more sympathetic ears and grouse about it until you feel better. You should also feel completely entitled to take steps which minimize your own exposure to potential sources of annoyance. What you should not do, under any circumstances, is attempt to hold up your own annoyance as self-sufficient evidence that somehow, somewhere, in some way, the system is broken. If you despise the shrieking sounds of children at play, don’t buy a house near an elementary school. OR, if you have no choice about where you live (and, in all seriousness, sometimes that is legitimately the case), then pursue activities which get you away from home during recess times. OR, if you can’t control where you live and are an invalid, then wallow in bucketloads of self-pity because you can’t escape something so annoying. But as soon as you start suggesting that all children should be isolated in remote education camps from the ages of 3 to 18, because you find kids annoying, you have grossly misapprehended the relative importance of your own inner calm. Which is to say, it is of no importance to anyone but yourself. Do everything in your power to look after it, but do not expect anyone else to do the same. That is not just The Way It Is, but pretty much The Way It Should Be.

Yes, even the Second Amendment.
There are certain things which exist in the world which should not exist. These are legitimately, universally terrible things. Genocide. Rape. Child Abuse. Religious Intolerance. These things do only harm, and cannot in any sane evaluation be said to have any real worth. Even if they do not affect you directly, if you steadfastly ignore them, their very existence anywhere on the planet makes the world a poorer place. There are other things you might be tempted to tack onto the end of that list as a good punchline, like “Katy Perry.” And I am not one to shy away from irreverent humor, including jokes which compare bloody, horrific ethnic cleansing to disposable pop music. Where I draw the line is the point at which people treat the conflation of those two spheres with utter seriousness. You are not entitled to live in a world where the things you personally do not care for do not exist. Every time I hear someone say “So-and-so just needs to go away forever” (or any of the far more explicit-wish-of-painful-death variants) I grind my teeth furiously. And yes, exaggeration is like humor in that it makes conversation more interesting and doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but for some people this really does constitute only a slight exaggeration of their actual beliefs. It’s not enough for these people that no one is forcing them to download and crank up certain cloying hit singles or buy and read certain stupid vampire romance novels or whatever. It’s not enough that they can turn off the radio if the wrong song comes on or change the tv channel if an ad for the movies based on the books appears. The sheer inconvenience of having to co-exist with anything they dislike is an imposition which they see as unabated suffering, and that in turn will only end when the artist in question is executed and every work of their hand immolated.

Lastly, your own personal expectations really aren’t worth that much, either. The construction “I was expecting A to be like X, but it turned out A was like Y, therefore A is atrocious and anyone who can’t see that is a moron” doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. I mean, where do I even begin unpacking this mental mess. Why did you have those expectations? Because someone else said so, or maybe specifically because of how something was marketed? Because of past experiences and a belief that history makes the future predictable? Because your expectation was the exact thing you wanted and you felt you were owed it? And even assuming an ironclad justification for holding expectations, and even empathizing to the utmost with the feeling of betrayal that accompanies said expectations shattering, how does that translate to the quality that other, separate human beings with their own expectations and value systems might find in the object? But really the reason this expectation-driven mindset grinds my gears is because it tends to insist that everything in the world can and should be classified by rigid distinctions, and everything can and should conform to the templates of its own classification and must not ever deviate from that. Which sounds like a painfully boring world to live in, to me, in addition to being completely untenable.

So, to sum up, get over yourself. You have not somehow been cheated out of a world in which everything pre-conforms to your individualized worldview, everybody agrees with you, and nothing exists except the things you want. The reason you don’t live in that world is because nobody does. And every time you pine loudly for that never-was world, you sound like an asshole. Assholes just happen to be my absolute least favorite kind of human being, which by virtue of my own philosophy means if you are one, it's a pretty safe bet I'm just going to ignore you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rail, rail, go away

It started raining heavily this morning right about the time I got to the Metro platform, which honestly is not that bad as the timing of these things goes. I had a small umbrella in my workbag but if I had been walking through the parking lot when the skies opened up I would have had to get it out in a hurry, and then subsequently would have had to deal with a wet umbrella on the train. As it was I could just stand under the platform canopy which, incidentally (but increasingly relevantly as this story goes along), only extends about half the length of the platform. I walked to the farthest spot still under the canopy and looked in the train about to depart as I did. All the seats were full, and while there might have been some open seats in the tail-end cars, I would have had to leave the canopy’s shelter to find out. I decided, instead, to simply wait for the next train.

And then as it turned out the next train didn’t come along for another fifteen minutes or so, despite the fact that during the morning rush they should run at least every five or ten. During the time when there were no trains in sight, the section of the platform shielded from the elements by the canopy absolutely filled up with bodies. A few brave souls with umbrellas ventured farther down the platform, but most people stayed under cover – which of course meant they were bunching up close to the bottoms of the escalators, and eventually people were coming down and hollering “Move down the platform!” and that is something I will never understand, just in general, the fact that some people can walk into a situation and determine (correctly, even) that things are not quite right but then just draw the conclusion that things are not right because everyone else in the same situation is a total ignoramus who needs to be yelled at and told what to do by the possessor of a more penetrating intellect. Yeah, move down the platform, why didn’t anyone else think of that?

At any rate, another train finally came along and despite a very real possibility that I might not get a seat on that one either based on sheer numbers and my refusal to mow people down to get one, I did get a place to sit. But in less than a minute all the seats were taken and people were still boarding to stand in the aisles. I am positive I have ranted about this before, but if you’re new here or have forgotten, let me break it all down again. I get on the Metro in the morning at the very last/first stop on the Orange Line (notoriously the most crowded of all the commuter-heavy lines). Once the train leaves that terminus it then stops at three more above-ground stations and four underground stations before I get off at the fifth underground stop, right before the train actually crosses into D.C. itself. And the train, in theory, should be picking up more and more riders at every stop. Thus I was somewhat bewildered as to why the Metro driver did not pull into our station, let everyone on the platform get on (or choose not to, as they will) and then close the doors and head back towards the city. Instead, the train sat there at the platform for several minutes, and more and more people made their way from the parking lot to the platform, and more and more people chose to board the SRO train, and then finally the train started heading east, already ridiculously overstuffed.

It probably betrays my cultural insensitivity that I find this picture so funny.
Of course said overstuffedness did not deter that many people from piling on at the other inbound stations as well; no doubt they had been waiting impatiently on their platforms for twenty minutes or more and were wondering when, if ever, they were going to get to work that morning. A question which was not happily clarified a few stops down the line when the train started holding for long stretches in the tunnels, as the driver explained over the (functional, for once) PA that there was some kind of problem with smoke on the track (???) somewhere in D.C. which necessitated single-tracking of trains in that stretch and backed up service in both directions, not only on the Orange Line but on the Blue Line as well because over that particular stretch of the system Orange and Blue share the same line. So that probably doubled the delay.

The more reasonable, rational part of my brain knows that the bad weather this morning only exacerbated the irritability of the average commuter and didn’t directly contribute to the Blue/Orange delays, but at this point my experience with WMATA’s pervasive ineptitude and generally pathetic incompetence puts more than a shadow of doubt on the idea. It rains, some trains’ wheels get wet, the next thing you know switch junctions are completely malfunctioning and tunnels are filling up with smoke. This does not strike me as altogether implausible.

The one good thing about such a grim commute on a Monday morning is that by the time I reached the office I was suffused with a certain kind of hard-fought weariness. I normally find it hard to jolt myself into a mode of optimal productivity on Mondays, anyway, but when the door-to-door trip takes two hours, I feel I’ve won a major victory just by showing up present and accounted for at all. And anything I actually accomplish is simply gravy. So that makes Monday a little easier to bear.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rebounding

I had a pretty gnarly cold or bug or something this week which hit its symptomatic crescendo yesterday (fatigue, muscle aches, congested sinuses and chest, hot painful lump in throat, low-grade headache, little to no appetite) but I decided to go ahead and be THAT guy: I came to work anyway. In my defense I covered my coughs scrupulously and I don’t have a lot of face-to-face interaction with people in my office anyway, and hasn’t modern science determined that the day you feel sickest isn’t necessarily the day you’re most contagious anyway? Well, if there’s an agency-wide outbreak, mea culpa. At the moment I have exactly three days worth of Paid Time Off in the bank and can count on accruing one more between now and paternity leave if my wife goes all the way to her due date (although I’ll probably end up taking every single day off for the birth of our child as unpaid leave, because I can, so that I still have time off in the bank for June when I’ll need a few travel days for my brother-in-law’s wedding). So, I made the self-serving call.

I’m feeling better today and I haven’t noticed any mass absenteeism in the rest of the office, so hopefully no harm, no foul. I bring it up here for a couple of reasons. One, if I seemed at all delirious or repetitive in my post yesterday I would ask you to attribute that to the DayQuil talking, please. Given the swimmy state of my head yesterday I probably wouldn’t have blogged at all, except for other mitigating circumstances. I had already written a fair bit of the stuff about The Wise Man’s Fear, but I had lopped it off of the end of what became Wednesday’s post before Wednesday got completely out of control. And the little guy’s Three Little Pigs game didn’t necessarily make a ton of sense to begin with, which is entirely the point, so that wasn’t too much effort to convey. But in tying it all together and finishing it off, I may have gotten somewhat muddled.

Two, although I am feeling better today I do not have a mostly-written post waiting for me that only needs a little bit of extra embroidery. I have, in fact, got nothin’, and it looks like that’s what you’re going to get, too, all of the above notwithstanding. But the weekend begins very soon and I will no doubt get up to some wacky high jinks therein, so the source material reserves will be replenished by Monday.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reenactments

The little guy came home from school yesterday with his mom just moments after I arrived at the homestead myself, and he wasted no time roping us into a new bit of imaginative play which was utterly, immediately recognizable in its specificity. Despite already knowing the answer, after maybe half an hour of this my wife asked the little guy, “Did your class read the Three Little Pigs today?” And yes of course they had, as the previous thirty minutes of huffing and puffing had more or less given away.

It was amusing, and honestly heartening, to watch the little guy directing us in how he wanted his mother and I to play Three Little Pigs with him. Sometimes he was the Big Bad Wolf and my wife and I were little pigs in our houses. Sometimes the little guy was a little pig and one of his parents had to be the Wolf. Sometimes we were all little pigs looking out for approaching wolves, and sometimes we were all wolves in one big bad howling, house-blowing-in chorus. I also think at one point my wife was a little pig at ease in her house while the little guy and I were both wolves, but we were nice wolves who didn’t blow down houses anymore and were going to go find some houses to fix.

I trust that the reasons all of the above were amusing are self-evident, but I found it particularly heartening in every deviation from the source material, because this of course is one of my particularly manic obsessions. I am unabashed in my love of stories not just in the folkloric sense but in the commercial property sense, and in that sense there’s just the one right way that stories go. And I deeply internalize all those details right down to the signature quotable dialogue; I’m the insufferable geek who not only quotes movies but corrects other people when they muff the quotes themselves. And I’m eager to share that love of “the classics” with my bairn but at the same time I’m nervous about impressing that philosophy on him too early and stifling his inborn creativity. He’s already said “That’s not how it goes” many, many times when I’ve deliberately mixed up stories that have been read to him repeatedly. It’s just reassuring to know that both mindsets are still available to him, one that can hold onto the proper shape of a primary source, and another that can remix the elements at will and have fun with the idea of a Big Reformed Wolf who is thinking about maybe getting into a career as a home inspector.

You don't want to get stuck with a big mortgage and a bad chimney, is the thing, see.
So hey, speaking of fairy tales, let me get back to The Wise Man’s Fear (and also retain my title as Segue Master Supreme).

One detail I glossed over in my synopsis yesterday is that Kvothe’s parents are murdered by creatures called the Chandrian. Kvothe comes back to his troupers’ camp at the tail end of the slaughter and sees one of the creatures and even talks to him, as the evil being taunts him a bit and then departs. Kvothe yearns for revenge which would be hard enough for a young boy going after supernatural evil. But beyond that, no one in his world believes in the Chandrian. They’re characters from fairy tales. He ends up at University hoping for some solid info on them but only ever finds fictions and shadows, and scant little of that. In the second book, his adventures away from school begin with an attempt to gain favor with a powerful nobleman who would have the ability to grant Kvothe access to other information sources, official records repositories and so forth. This plan meets with mixed success. It’s incredibly frustrating for Kvothe and, in that sympathetic way characters have with their audience, it’s frustrating in a certain sense to read, too.

Arguably that’s one of the central lines of the whole Kingkiller Chronicle but there are parallels to it everywhere. Kvothe’s reason for being is the acquisition of knowledge, because knowing something gives you power over it, in every sense from the political intrigue one can safely navigate if one knows the players involved and their motivations and so on, to the arcane powers he can magically call on if he knows certain secrets. Not knowing anything about the Chandrian, and not being able to find any knowledge of them even when he searches whole-heartedly, is one of his major failures. The other is his relationship with a girl named Denna, which constantly stumbles and falters despite the fact that both are obviously smitten with each other. Kvothe constantly complains that he doesn’t understand her and believes he could make their relationship work perfectly if he did. And in the framing device, the scholar is looking for the backstory of a legendary hero named Kvothe, but at several points in the telling there are inconsistencies and impossibilities and an endless litany of questions raised which really get at the notion of what a “hero” is and what “legends” actually mean.

Kvothe is alone in the framing device so presumably he never does win the heart of Denna, not for happily ever after, at any rate. Clearly Kvothe’s story is going to have an element of romantic tragedy to it, and equally clearly if he ends up remembered as a kingkiller and feels the need to go into hiding as an unassuming innkeeper, it’s going to have some heroic tragedy as well. And quite possibly the entire thing is going to be one horrific tragedy. This is what worries me about the whole trilogy. Two-thirds of the way in, with absolutely no movement in the frame story toward Kvothe’s triumphant resumption of the mantle of the Epic Legendary Hero, it seems more and more likely that such redemption will never come. Kvothe seems pretty adamant about the fact that the mythical figure of Kvothe the Arcane or Kvothe the Bloodless is just that, a myth. The scholar at the inn claims to be looking for the true story of the man behind the legend but Kvothe is the only one aware of the fact that one precludes the other. The process of telling his life story is literally one of disillusionment. He points out that some things attributed to him are exaggerations or outright falsehoods and that other things can be explained due to unglamorous hard work and that he has many flaws and has made his share of mistakes, none of which squares with the legends. Discovering the true man who gave rise to the legend shatters the illusion of the legend’s central figure. Conversely, looking for a real flesh and blood man who possessed all the attributes had done all the deeds and in the widespread tales about Kvothe will always be a fruitless search. It’s like chasing fairy tales. Which, again, is Kvothe’s primary obsession in his own life story: chasing the fairy tale creatures who (he believes?) murdered his parents.

The Kingkiller Chronicle is a story about stories, how they’re told and what they mean and what people think they mean, all of which is of course the meaty kind of metafiction that I gobble right up. I hate to prejudge something before it’s finished, but I’m finding it hard to help myself, as I keep seeing this terrible possibility that the whole trilogy is actually going to be about the inherent falseness of stories. That it’s all going to end with the scholar realizing the man he came looking for doesn’t exist, and Kvothe explaining that he never avenged his parents because the whole Chandrian involvement was his child’s mind trying to process a random tragedy into a meaningful narrative, when in fact sometimes terrible things just happen and people just die and there’s no millennia-spanning conspiracy of silence explaining why you can’t gain more insight into it than that. And maybe along the way he’ll admit he never did get the girl because it’s impossible to ever really know another person and he let that be a barrier to experiencing the human closeness that has to be close enough. All of which would be thematically consistent and philosophically valid but MAN it would also be a stone-cold bummer.

I want to believe I’m wrong about all that nihilism, by the by. As soon as I finished reading The Wise Man’s Fear I started casting about on teh interwebs looking for any evidence I could find that, actually, Rothfuss had realized the story needed more room to breathe and it was actually going to be a five volume series after all. That would effectively reset me mentally to my original theory, because maybe the tipping point for Kvothe re-discovering his inner hero could happen in the third book and the fourth and fifth could encompass him Saving the World. The results of my search were not encouraging. I found plenty of direct quotes from Rothfuss saying the story was planned as a trilogy, and remains a trilogy, and the final volume is totally mapped out to the point where he feels confident he can finish the third book in much less time than the second one ended up taking (though not necessarily fewer pages). And furthermore he doesn’t want to be a one-trick pony, that guy who writes those Kvothe books, so one might assume the possibility of letting the trilogy swell further would not be terribly appealing to him. But, at the same time, he acknowledged that he built a world which so many people fell in love with that it would be kind of cruel to close the door on it forever and never look back. I also found some random ‘netizens who seized on that last statement and somehow asserted that the third book in The Kingkiller Chronicle would conclude at the inn on the end of the third day with Kvothe finishing telling the story of his final adventures and retirement from adventuring, good night, and the dark world outside the inn keeps on turning … and maybe Rothfuss would write some other stuff for a while BUT eventually he would write another trilogy which was all about Kvothe taking up the sword and the shadow-cloak again and, yes, Saving the World. Which I like the sound of a lot but also recognize as sounding way too good to be true.

(Also in the course of my web-searching I ran across several discussion forums where people loudly opined that The name of the Wind was grossly overrated and they couldn’t care less that The Wise Man’s Fear had finally been released because they wouldn’t go near Rothfuss ever again. I wish other people’s negative attitudes like that didn’t bug me so much, I really do.)

So I find myself having traversed a lot of emotional territory in relation to this particular series. I started out enjoying the first book immensely and then telling various people how stunning it was, finding out with no small gratification that they agreed with my assessment once they read it for themselves. I waited longingly for the second volume to arrive and when it did I was elated. But there was an undercurrent of sadness almost from the beginning of The Wise Man’s Fear because I knew it wouldn’t take terribly long to read the whole thing, and then I’d be right back to a multi-year wait for another fix again. And then that sadness started to be echoed by a sense that the series wasn’t turning out in the shape I had expected, and then mirrored again in the fact that it had become an inherently sad story which was foreshadowing a lot more unhappy endings to come in the final installment. Of course sad works of art or entertainment can still be great, but you have to recommend them in a more qualified way, I think. And this is actually relevant right now because, on the day The Wise Man’s Fear arrived at my house, my wife made an offhand comment about how she knew I really loved the preceding book and she needed to get around to reading it herself one of these days. I filed that away with a mental note to pick up a paperback copy of The Name of the Wind, which would be infinitely easier for my wife to read with one hand while tending to newborn feedings (she caught up on some reading when the little guy was a tiny nursing-pooping machine, too) than the hardcover copy I read and have stowed in the basement. But now I feel this odd hesitation about putting the book in front of her, because it would end up sucking her into this very compelling tragedy.

She’ll read this first though, of course, and she’ll make up her own mind, and rightly so. Maybe I shouldn’t feel any hesitation at all, or any inclination to shelter people from the unhappier side of the spectrum. Life itself is a very compelling tragedy: a bunch of stuff happens to a bunch of people, a lot of it fascinating, and then everybody dies.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Books by the pound

I thought I had been doing myself a favor at the beginning of this year by limiting my books-related resolution to a simple plan to read twelve books. Granted, they were going to be twelve literary classics and thus not necessarily gripping, page-turning yarns, but after reading fifty-odd books last year, twelve seemed almost too easy (arrival of newborn in the spring notwithstanding).

In practice, though, it’s certainly doesn’t seem too easy anymore. I’m already off the pace, having only read one classic so far this year. In hindsight, maybe a 900-page behemoth like Don Quixote wasn’t the best place to start this year’s quest. But that’s what I did, although no matter what classic I had started with I almost certainly would have dived immediately into more of my bread-and-butter genre stock before returning to another classic. That was part of the entire strategy of resolving only to read a dozen classics, knowing that I could pace myself and break up the musty-and-dusty with flashy trash.

As it happened, after Don Quixote I immediately turned to genre entertainment but nothing light and frothy, rather a 780-page sci-fi paperback – although, to be fair, that constituted partial fulfillment of my unofficial secondary resolution, which was to whittle down the total number of book series I am eternally working my way through. Some of those series haven’t even finished being written yet, but Blue Mars, the finale of a trilogy, came out in the late 90’s and I can now tuck that entire series on the done shelf. After that I read a much shorter non-fiction book about religious traditions in modern India, partly as mental palate cleanser and partly because the subject fascinated me. And then, as I recently noted, I started Stephen King’s most recent novella compilation but only to fill some time until I received my long-awaited copy of The Wise Man’s Fear.

The Wise Man’s Fear clocks in at 997 pages, which flew by but still managed to take me a couple of weeks (I just finished it yesterday). I’ll come back to the book itself in a bit but here we are now, mid-March, and I’ll probably start my second overlooked classic, Madame Bovary, tomorrow. And on the one hand I tell myself that there’s still plenty of time to catch up: by the end of March I’ll have two classics down, and even with some (judiciously chosen) intermezzo fluff it’s not at all out of the question for me to read two (also selected with certain parameters in mind) classics in any given month down the line and be sitting pretty to keep a leisurely pace for the rest of the year. But on the other hand, it looks like this is going to be an embarrassment-of-riches kind of year for me as an avid book devourer. A posthumous novel by David Foster Wallace? Out next month. The egregiously long-delayed fifth volume of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series? Out this summer. The third volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series finally available in paperback? Later this year, I believe. Another Stephen King novel? November, yessirree. These are not books which seem moderately appealing to someone who’s always on the lookout for reading material to pass the time on the commute. These are MUST-READS, and due to the limitations of the blog format I must ask you to imagine those capital letters as being three stories high and on fire. And they are all going to be fairly hefty, too. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest will probably be the most reasonable, and that one’s over 500 pages. Martin’s novels are never short and A Dance with Dragons will probably follow that rule. DFW is not exactly known for brevity, either. The Stephen King novel, which is supposed to be about time travel and the JFK assassination, is rumored to be over 1,000 pages. (Though hopefully, by November, I’ll be riding the VRE every day and my overall reading pace will be significantly higher.)

I fully expect this to be very painful to read.  But ina  good way.
It’s a sick, sick compulsion, but I reckon it’s more or less mine by choice. I just like holding it up to the light and examining it every now and then, and laughing at myself. Of those four mandatory slots on my yearly reading list mentioned above, exactly one of them would allow me to cross yet another series (Millennium) off my running list. A Song of Ice and Fire has a couple more volumes to go after this year’s, and with DFW and SK I’m not so much following a series as a seriously devoted completist. Though sometimes that can overlap, as when King was writing his Dark Tower epic (which I also recently heard is going to get a new eighth volume telling untold tales from the middle of the story’s chronology, come ON Steve-O you are KILLING me!) but by and large … I guess that’s why I end up with so many series that I’m somewhere in the middle of meandering through, because there are always all these other books automatically bumped to the top of the reading pile and various semi-ambitious attempts at self-improvement and so on. Tracking down the next Adele Aguilar mystery in the series just doesn’t light a fire under me.

On the other hand The Wise Man’s Fear totally lit a fire under me, although … it’s a strange kind of fire, too. After years of waiting between The Name of the Wind and its sequel, I had a lot of time to mentally prepare for the book and in my anticipation I made a lot of assumptions about what it would be, which were of course all predicated on what I wanted. And which in turn was not exactly what I got.

I’ll back up and give you the broad strokes. The series, The Kingkiller Chronicle, is about a legendary hero who has given up having adventures and is living the humble life of an innkeeper in a small farming village. He has changed his name from Kvothe to Kote and no one in town knows who he used to be. Then a scholar arrives, at the end of a trail of deductive reasoning, and informs the innkeeper he knows who he really I and wants to transcribe the autobiography of Kvothe the Kingkiller. First there are denials, then there are refusals to cooperate, and finally Kvothe gives in and begins to tell his story. That’s really the meat of book one, the first-person account of Kvothe’s early life. The setting of the inn and the arrival of the scholar are just part of a framing device; mainly the novel is concerned with the origins of the hero. But, around the edges of the framing device, there are very dark rumblings about everything from a king waging a self-aggrandizing war and collecting excessive taxes to evil, magical creatures stalking the roads at night.

Kvothe, as it turns out, is the result of prodigious inborn talent finding its way into the most fortuitous circumstances imaginable. If he were a D&D character he’d be a multi-class munchkin from hell. If he were an advertising mascot he’d be the pseudo-medieval version of The Most Interesting Man In The World. But rather than this being annoying or laughable, through some combination of Rothfuss’s talented way with words and rendering of Kvothe’s voice as well as some genuinely clever plot turns, it just has an organic internal logic to it. Kvothe is the child of traveling gypsy performers, from who he both learns and inherits the ability to sing, act, tell stories and just generally be quick-witted and charming. But when he is very young his entire family of troupers is murdered, which sets him down the road of being Sword-n-Sorcery Batman. As a young traumatized orphan, however, he ends up homeless and adrift and becomes a thief on city streets as a matter of pure survival. Eventually he realizes he doesn’t want to die on the streets, remembers hearing in his trouper travels about a University where he can simultaneously learn a valuable trade as an arcanist and possibly research his parents’ killers, so he sets out to gain admittance. In his own unorthodox way he does, getting in and out of scrapes along the way; he keeps his gypsy and street-urchin days fairly secret, but as a known student some of his deeds start giving him a reputation. Oh, and in an almost totally beside-the-point adventure, he literally slays a dragon.

Not a king, though, in any sense. The first book doesn’t even come close to explaining how the penniless, parentless bootstrapper who becomes an unlikely star pupil at the school of magic will go on to become a legendary “kingkiller”. (You might at this point be thinking Kvothe’s story sounds really similar to Harry Potter’s. The comparison is all but unavoidable, but trust me, it’s hugely different in feel and in execution.) But what it does convey is the fact that Kvothe setting down the official record of his life story isn’t really enough. The world is in trouble and it needs a larger-than-life protagonist; the world needs Kvothe to stop hiding and pretending to be something less than he is, no matter what happened in the past that made him give it all up for tending bar and baking pies.
Or so I thought as I awaited book two. I assumed the second volume (of three) would describe Kvothe’s meteoric rise from mere student to wunderkind master to figure at the eye of the storm, while at the same time shifting more of the narrative balance from the back story to the framing device. The situation in the present-day would worsen, applying more pressure on Kvothe to come out of hiding. And something really monumental and cliffhanger-y would happen at the end of book two to set the Grand Quest to Save the World in motion. Then book three could be almost entirely set in the present day with Kvothe rallying the troops and fighting evil, while still revealing some crucial details about his backstory in flashbacks (possibly dictated to the scholar who has reluctantly followed along on the crusade) until the grand climax where the hero is redeemed through triumph and evil is vanquished and peace and prosperity can flourish once again. Yeah, fine, all of that is word-for-word straight out of the High Fantasy Cliché Playbook, but what can I say? Genre trash is my mental comfort food and it’s comforting because of its familiar tropes and repetitions.

But then I started reading The Wise Man’s Fear. And it was just as wonderfully well-written and lovingly detailed and entertaining as its predecessor, but I couldn’t have guessed more wrongly at its structure. It actually spends more time on the backstory and less time on the framing device than the first book did. And while that backstory remains fascinating as it builds Kvothe’s resume – in addition to the bard, footpad and minor sorcerer he acted as in book one, he becomes a courtesan, a ranger, and a ninja, plus adds a few more levels of sorcery, plus spends some time in the realm of faeries to learn the arts of love and survives a shipwreck which gives him the mystique of returning from being presumed dead, all of which amazingly fails to strain the suspension of disbelief in the manner it’s presented – it doesn’t feel like a meteoric rise. It simply feels like a colorful life. One notably devoid of regicide, however.

By the time I got to the end of the book I was unsure how the third volume could contain both the conclusion of Kvothe’s backstory, which at this point will require several hundred more pages just to get him anywhere close to killing a king, and also any kind of Grand Quest to Save the World, which would have to be detailed from start to finish because Kvothe is no closer to reclaiming his “true self” at the end of book two than he was at the outset of the whole series. But long before I got to the end of The Wise Man’s Fear it began to dawn on me that maybe the whole series wasn’t going to be anything like what I expected.

Yet somehow I have rambled on for 2000 words before getting to that point and if I don’t post this right now it probably won’t go up today, and we can’t have that. Sometime over the next day or so I will pick up where I left off!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Pinkening

If it seems like the allegedly wild-card nature of Tuesday’s posts has inexorably morphed into an extra day per week to talk about issues related to offspring, specifically the never-ending preparations for offspring yet-to-come … yeah, I’ve noticed that too. As above, so below, or something like that. Baby-prepping has taken over most if not all of my free time. Baby-prepping-type thoughts have taken over most if not all of my non-dedicated blogging.

This past weekend felt something like a breakthrough, and one which I didn’t realize quite how badly I needed until I had it and my brain gave out a long, deep “ooohhhhhh yeahhhhh”. My wife’s parents were kind enough to come up on Saturday and keep the little guy occupied while my wife was at work, which freed me up to focus entirely on painting the nursery. I had managed, in little snatches of time here and there through the preceding week, to get masking tape on the ceiling against the walls and on the floor moulding and door and window trim, so all I really had to do was put color on the walls. Carefully, though, of course; all the previous steps had involved white primer, white ceiling paint and white interior paint, none of which would suffer from going a bit outside the lines in any direction. But the pink color we intended for the walls would show any mistakes that made their way onto the ceiling or mouldings, and I’ve learned the hard way over the years that masking tape alone isn’t always enough to prevent stray splatters, which means the painter has to exercise certain control and restraint as well (although I also learned on this particular go-around that 2-inch-wide masking tape, which is the minimum width that can block an errant paint roller, is the only kind worth the trouble).

Anyway, I applied myself to the task mindfully yet resolutely and managed to avoid major disasters and got every wall in the room completely painted in about four hours. My wife had selected a lovely, icy, subtle shade of pink which when I opened the first paint can made me think I hadn’t shaken the thing long enough because it looked white. As I started rolling it on, though, it definitely looked pink against the primered walls, which themselves had only managed to have the dark-green-with-earth-metal-overlay turned down by about 95% to a mint-green-frosted white. But like I said, good contrast for the pink. I worked my way methodically around the whole room and when I closed the circuit back at the starting point and there was no more basis for contrast or comparison, the pink went back to looking like white. (Though I attribute at least part of that to pure brain-numbness.)

In the brighter natural light of the following morning my wife and I looked at the room and she declared that it did not need a second coat of pink, a reprieve for which I dang near fell to my knees and wept. So while she was at work and the little guy was napping that afternoon, I took down all of the bright blue masking tape, and between the side-by-side contrast of the walls with the white ceiling and the natural darkening of the no-longer fresh paint, I clearly saw the pink and felt like a dunce for ever doubting its visibility in the first place. And since ripping up masking tape takes considerably less time than the little guy generally naps, I then proceeded to start building furniture. I started with a new floor lamp which took all of ten minutes and then moved on to something more substantial. I had almost finished my boy’s new, blue bookcase when he woke up, and after I got him from his crib I explained what the plan for the afternoon was and he enthusiastically joined in. He helped finish the bookcase (mostly by handing me parts I pointed out to him) and then assisted in taking all the books off his white bookcase so that I could slide it over to the nursery. The blue one went in its place and the books got re-shelved. I had honestly expected a bit more resistance to the idea of “his” furniture being reassigned for the baby’s use, but apparently the shiny new replacement softened the blow more than enough. I even went so far as to suggest that maybe some of the books themselves, especially the more babyish ones, might be given to his sister as well. He then proceeded to inform me that he would read them to her. I told him he was going to be an excellent big brother.

The next order of business was building the little guy’s new dresser, slightly more complicated than a bookcase but still not that bad, since it came from Ikea (as did the bookcase and his teeny-tiny nightstand, all from the same matching set no less). The little guy lost interest in helping with the building, which I grant is tedious and monotonous, but he did entertain himself reducing large chunks of packing Styrofoam into drifts of little white balls. So the dresser came together and I swapped out the infant changing table for it, again with no major drama.

Fairly certain this is the girliest picture to make it into a blog post to date
The basic upshot is that we had planned on making significant changes to both the little guy’s room and the nursery as part of one unified effort, and at this point everything in the little guy’s room is done. The nursery is significantly closer to being done than it was last week. I still need to assemble the new glider, and we’re awaiting delivery of the new crib. Then pretty much all the furniture will be in place and we can finalize the little accent decorations that my wife selected for the cherry blossom motif of the room. Not a trivial amount of work, but compared to not that long ago when it was a half-painted room with masking tape and tarps and paint cans and trays and brushes scattered all over the floor amongst large, unopened furniture boxes … like I said, it feels like a breakthrough.

I also spent a good deal of time on Sunday evening (and last night too, for that matter) re-reading a book my wife and I acquired during her first pregnancy which explains the ins and outs of natural childbirth. It ended up being fairly helpful, even though there was little to nothing natural about the (medically very sensible given the circumstances) induction that brought on the little guy’s delivery. We’re hoping it will be even more applicable the second time around, but, of course, we both know all about best laid plans.

To wit, my wife had a doctor’s appointment yesterday and they did various measurements on the baby, who is doing splendidly and I daresay superlatively. My wife texted me to say that the baby was measuring at about seven pounds. I texted back asking if she meant that’s what they were predicting the baby would weigh if she were born on her due date. My wife kindly repeated herself and explained that meant the baby weighs seven pounds RIGHT NOW. WITH FIVE WEEKS TO GO. I know these from-the-outside measurements are notoriously unreliable but, especially after the 7 lb 4 oz little guy, the thought of anything like a 9-lb-plus baby almost seems like a totally different ballgame. And then again, a lot can happen in the next month or so, not that I am bracing myself for anything terrible, but a whole world of possibilities from an unavoidable c-section to an unexpectedly fast labor that sees our daughter born in the back of a taxi sitcom-style still wait in the unknowable future. (OK, maybe not the sitcom-style anything. But still.) My current comfort, though, is that however the baby girl manages to make it into the world, when she comes back to our home she’ll have a lovely bedroom awaiting her.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Helicopters

The highlight of last week, insofar as the time I spent at work goes, revolved around a fairly dumb joke. My co-worker and workspacemate Mr. Voluble was grumbling to no one in particular (or possibly to the entire world within range of his voice) about a case he was working that involved training and helicopters and the Swedish armed forces and so on. I pointed out to him that I was going to start using the phrase “Swedish Helicopter Training” in conversation whenever I found myself inclined but unable to say “shit”. Mr. Voluble actually thought that was pretty hilarious and suggested expanding it further to “Swedish Helicopter In-country Training” which is a real thing but also fulfills the acronym requirements that much more completely. Out third counterpart Normal-ish Dude thought this was a handy phrase to have at the ready as well, so it got repeated a lot over the course of the following days.

And now I'm all out of helicopter jokes
I did find it somewhat interesting to watch my two colleagues proceed to beat the joke to death as the week went along. Do not get me wrong, I enjoy a good running joke, as well as (maybe even especially) one with a little bit of backstory to it. And I admit I’ve been known to take this a little too far, making private jokes in mixed company which only tends to negatively reinforce senses of insiders and outsiders and so on. The problem with private jokes is that opening them up to anyone who wasn’t there when they started involves, inescapably, explaining the joke, and man nothing kills humor deader than belabored diagramming. (I’ve been known to try to mine humor from the diagramming itself by stretching it to ridiculous extremes, but that’s neither here nor there.) So whereas my inclination would be to use “Swedish Helicopter In-country Training” sparingly, and probably pare it down to just “helicopter” eventually so that it wouldn’t be so obtrusive in conversation and could just function properly as a minor, immature amusement … my co-workers, not so much. Normal-ish Dude, in particular, managed to shoehorn into almost every conversation running for a couple of days, and then of course felt compelled to ask people if they caught what the initials spelled out. I’d like to be able to parse all that by calling it a generational difference, not even necessarily a Gen X versus Boomer thing but maybe just a temperamental difference between the old needing to know they’re being attended to and the young being more content to simply do their own thing, but that really doesn’t hang together. I’m not that young, and while Mr. V. is a Boomer, N.D. is within a few years of my age. And I know people of my parents’ age cohort who can take a joke and run with it but not drive the thing into the ground. Maybe N.D. is just a dullard.

The really important thing, though, is that I couldn’t imagine that kind of joke being made, let along taking on an obnoxious life of its own, if Ms. A. were still in the office. Between the profanity and the stupidity I’m sure she would have been appalled and disgusted, and we all would have known that and never even tried it out in her presence. So, yup, still glad she’s gone!

I held off on posting this until the afternoon because I was expecting an announcement about the office relocation, and sure enough, it came through about a half an hour ago. The move has been delayed until mid-to-late May. Ah, well. The upside of that is I probably won’t miss it due to paternity leave; instead of getting the move done and then taking FMLA for the new baby’s homecoming, I’ll take FMLA and come back with time to spare before the move happens. I’m not thrilled about the extra time I’ll be spending riding the Metro, of course, but I can roll with it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Be-Mused

When I was fairly young, second or third grade, I wrote my first short story (assuming you are willing to use a very broad definition of the term). Before that I was given to drawing big, sprawling, action-oriented pictures which had a certain inherent narrative, and from there I had progressed to making my own comic strips and illustrated Golden Book style tales, but I still remember that first foray into letting the words alone tell a story. I no longer have this particular scrap of my literary development, and I don’t even remember a lot about it (which may simply be because there’s not much to remember) but I do recall that it was a fantasy story about heroes killing a monster. It had to have pre-dated my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons, but somehow I had absorbed the hack-and-slash tropes all the same by the age of eight or so. Actually considering that my dad liked to read sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (which always had the best cover art) on his commute, and Clash of the Titans was on HBO fairly often, and various other things in the early 80’s zeitgeist, my choice of subject matter is pretty unsurprising.

100% pure pre-adolescent RADITUDE
More than the story itself, though, what I remember vividly is that once I had written out the entire thing I realized that whatever self-expression itch I had felt hadn’t yet been fully scratched. I needed an audience, wider than my parents, in fact as wide as possible, which at that age could mean only one thing: my class at school. So I also remember carrying the story to school one day and asking my teacher at some point in between lessons if it might be possible for me to read it in front of the class. I feel like I need to go back over that again to make sure my point is clear here. This was not a school assignment and I was not making a graded oral presentation. Nor did my teacher have any kind of pre-existing policy about earning extra credit by producing and performing original works. It wasn’t even Show and Tell day. I just had gotten the idea in my head at home to write a story for its own sake, and then also gotten the idea that rather than hand it to one of my friends to read I would render it dramatically to the entire class.

My teacher indulged me (I suspect this is because she must have gotten her teaching degree in the free-to-be 70’s) and I was excited for the premier of my epic. And I didn’t get stage fright or freeze up or get heckled or anything terribly traumatizing; I got through the whole story and it was politely received and the creative urge finally felt something like resolution and life went on. But one particular moment stands out in my mind almost thirty years later. The story involved swordplay and ogre-slaying and, because I was a typically bloodthirsty little boy, the descriptions were fairly graphic and gory. And as I was reading those words aloud towards the climax of the story, I suddenly felt acutely self-conscious about the content. I actually censored myself at one point with a last-minute word substitution: I had written something, at about the point where the main hero decapitates the evil monster, along the lines of “blood flew from the sword and guts spilled out the neck” but reading it in front of my class I said “blood flew from the sword and more spilled out the neck” because I was horrified at the thought of saying “guts”. Not at the thought of guts, themselves, because at that age I mentally pictured guts as looking vaguely like pink rice pudding. But I didn’t want to inflict the word guts and its icky connotations on my captive audience. So I edited it out on the fly. And I took away a strangely compelling personal lesson about the power of words.

I’m sure if anything approaching the above happened in a third-grade classroom today the parents would immediately be called by school officials to discuss whether or not there were any unlocked assault rifles in the child’s house, but I don’t have a single memory of any repercussions from my phantasmagoric ramblings. Not even so much as a funny look from a teacher who probably thought in ten years I would have long hair and a black van with a wizard’s tower airbrushed on the side. (She’d have been right about the hair but not the van.)

There’s a lot of reasons why this little childhood vignette is on my mind today. I’m reading a fantasy novel right now which just happens to have a running theme about performance and art and the power of names and stories and so on. I’m marveling at the way my little guy’s play is becoming more and more narrative-driven all the time and wondering when (not if) the making of stories will be secondary to sharing them for others’ entertainment. Every time I set myself to writing for the blog I know, consciously or unconsciously, I’m doing on-the-fly self-editing and clearly I can pinpoint exactly when I started honing that trait. But of course mostly it’s just one of the many little anecdotes that build the case that, yes, I really was always an attention-craving verbally-precocious little geek from basically as far back as I can remember.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fleeting

Right about now we are getting to the point in the Rearing of the Little Guy where I’m never quite entirely sure where things stand. Previously I’ve felt like just about every parenting decision his mother or I make is largely inconsequential. No, I take that back, obviously many decisions have consequences, but those are correspondingly major choices. My wife had to decide whether or not to breast-feed, the two of us had to agree on daycare arrangements, and we frazzledly worked our way through co-sleeping and the transition to crib-sleeping. We put him through surgery to give him some relief from near-constant ear infections. We consciously kept the little guy away from television for as much of his first two years as we could, and we read to him every day almost from the time he could keep his eyes open for more than five minutes at a stretch. I’m entirely at peace with those decisions, which felt right at the time and maintain that status with the benefit of hindsight. The little guy is healthy and happy and sweet and smart (for appropriate values relevant to a two-and-a-half year old, at any rate) and I’ll take a portion of credit for that.

But all of those big decisions by their very nature were things which afforded ample opportunity for careful consideration before implementation. What I initially had in mind for this post were the decisions made on the spur of the moment: give the little guy a cookie of his own when he catches me eating one? I concluded early on that I shouldn’t obsess over little choices like that, because I could trust in some combination of “it all comes out in the wash” and “this too shall pass” and various other aphorisms to minimize the actual impact. An inconsistency here, an indulgence there, none of it lasting.

Which is not to say that I’m blind to the fact that a recurring pattern of small inconsequentialities can eventually add up something more lasting. But what I am confessing, I suppose, is that I haven’t believed that the additive principle applied to the little guy, entirely due to his very littleness. I knew that at some point in the amorphous and indeterminate future it would apply, of course, but at ages of barely one through barely two? Not likely. Heart of a bull, long-term memory of a goldfish, that was roughly how I judged my earthly heir. Every day was a clean slate, and every day the need to firmly establish what the groundrules governing minutiae were could be safely put off til tomorrow.

Glub glub glub
This past weekend we took the little guy grocery shopping (twice, actually, because some things we can only get at Costco and other things we can only get at the regular supermarket, don’t judge me!) and in a very short span of time during that trip he caught both me and his mother off guard a couple different ways. Once was at the checkout, when the cashier said hi to him. She was a young, non-hideous girl and the little guy – oh, for old times’ sake and purposes of this story, let’s call him Casanova – has always had a fascination with individuals in that age range and of that gender (my wife and I refer to them as his “target demographic”). So he responded to her greeting, but not simply by saying hi, which I would have sworn was the response you could count on from him 100% of the time. This time he went a little further and said, “Hi … my name’s Casanova,” complete with charmingly coy delivery (except, obviously, he gave her his real name). Little guy had never introduced himself to someone by name – without even being prompted! – prior to that moment. The suddenly, boom, he’s trying out a new social convention.

The other surprising display of mental acuity came during a conversation my wife and I were having with young Casanova, yet another installment among hundreds in the ongoing attempt to prepare him for the imminent arrival of his little sister, or more specifically the fact that once she arrives we will have to give her a proper name and leave off using the in utero nickname (“Bonus”) by which we refer to her now. My wife observed that we had a nickname for Casanova before he was born, too, and asked him if he knew what it was. “When I was a baby in mommy’s belly you guys called me Freebie,” he grinningly answered, which is not only totally accurate as a statement of fact but also (to my mind, at any rate) a pretty deft bit of grammatically correct sentence-structure (and that is pretty much a word-for-word quote I gave) not to mention a crazy level of comprehension of the very idea of a time before he was born. And while I’m willing to allow the possibility that he could have just been parroting words without truly, deeply comprehending all their implications, I think it’s a remote possibility, because neither of his parents has discussed his own gestation with him in who knows how long. (Watch, now I’ll find out that his grandmother was telling him exactly those kinds of stories on one of the very recent emergency babysitting visits she made a couple weeks ago.)

Sooo … the sleeper has awakened? Possibly. At the very least, however well reality may actually mesh with my perceptions, I no longer feel like I can blithely make it up as I go along. From here on out I’ll always suspect that it’s at least possible that some decision I make, some lesson I impart (or fail to convey) to the little guy will be one that makes a legitimately lasting impression. Previously I felt like he was composed of some infinitely malleable substance that would always quickly return to its original shape, but now I think the places where I push or pull will show the evidence for longer periods of time. And it’s not as though this is a total shock, I knew it’d happen eventually, I’m not even terribly surprised by the timing. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge it, I guess, before hurtling ever onward to the next upheaval.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

International cinema

I don't speak Hungarian but I think they transliterated the title as The Empire Comes Again To Stomp On Your Face

Apropos of absolutely nothing, here is a Hungarian promotional poster for The Empire Strikes Back. Arguably the one movie out of all six which is least in need of redemption via insanely bitchin' artistic license, but still ... here it is. Making for a very nice filler post if I do say so myself.

Nothing wrong, just not terribly inspired to geek out today. More tomorrow, for reals.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

39

There's a definite sense of marking time that's starting to settle in, which is only partly related to some of the things I mentioned yesterday, like Ms. A.'s departure and the possible rescheduling of our office move. Going past one anticipated event and finding another one suddenly cast into limbo creates a weird, floaty disconnectedness; if we're not heading towards The Next Thing, what are we doing?

You can see other examples, too, just take your pick from the various subjects I usually go on about, from treasured to trite. The little guy seems to have successfully transitioned to new daycare with no repercussions (if you overlook the fact that he woke up loudly and demandingly at 5:30 in the morning on both Saturday and Sunday, which seemed a wee bit sadistically vindictive). Community and the rest of the Thursday night appointment television are in post-sweeps reruns. Nothing major is happening - everything just is.

Front and center, of course, is the fact that my wife's due date is thirty-nine days away. The repainting of the nursery proceeds like it's on some kind of geological timetable. Indeed, it's not so much that I'm redecorating the room as waiting on a perverse type of erosion to occur. I never thought I would ever have use for a phrase like "obnoxious, ornery shade of beige" but that exactly the phrase I am forced to employ to describe the tinted hit the previous owners perpetrated on the ceiling and moulding of the soon-to-be-nursery, a shade which is downright hostile to being covered up, even by multiple coats. Yet I assure you I realize that at this point I am LITERALLY WRITING ABOUT WATCHING PAINT DRY. Which, yes it's on my mind and all, but man. Sorry about that.

But not much else is up! Things are proceeding more or less as we expect them to. My wife is counting down the days of work she has left before maternity leave. Bulbs we planted last year are starting to send up green shoots as spring inexorably draws on. The little guy insists on being addressed as various fictional characters rather than by his own name, including but not limited to Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine, Lightning McQueen, Mickey Mouse, and in a new development last night, Captain Hook. (In that last scenario I got to be Tick-Tock the Croc, which I have to admit was pretty awesome.)

Hero, villain, or symbol of an uncaring universe of reptilian coldness?
Other than that, though, no surprises, no shake-ups, nothing we haven't seen in some form or another before. I suppose I should be grateful for the calm before the storm, and I really am, but it makes the daily bloggery a bit of a chore.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Business as usual

It is down to three of us here in the workspace now, as last Friday really and truly was Ms. Antisocial’s last day. My contracting supervisor stopped by this morning to acknowledge as much. I know that lately I’ve had nothing but good things to say about my boss, but I have to admit that as last week went along and the evidence that Ms. A. was leaving mounted, I found it almost unsettlingly odd that my boss never addressed the situation himself. Granted, it wouldn’t have made any difference either way, and I’m not sure how he could have acknowledged it: an e-mail to me, Mr. Voluble and Normal-ish Dude? Calling the three of us into his office one at a time, or all together? Maybe he was afraid that if he even so much as spoke to us about it, that would be perceived by Ms. A. as talking about her behind her back, more fuel for her rampant paranoia, and might have made the end of the week even more unpleasant all around. So perhaps he chose to let sleeping dogs lie, as it were. Apparently Ms. A. took some kind of parting shot at my boss on Friday via e-mail, but he alluded to that fact this morning without coming out and explaining exactly what it entailed, and I didn’t pry. Honestly I’m just glad the tension level in the room has dropped to an entirely negligible amount.

The other newsworthy thing mentioned by my boss this morning was that he is deeply skeptical about our alleged office move happening by the end of the month. And he makes some valid points. The end of March is three and a half weeks away at this point, and as of yet we still have gotten zero information from the powers that be in terms of concrete details of the move. I was asking for info weeks ago in terms of what we would be responsible for ourselves and what would be handled by whatever moving services the agency makes use of, and what the timetable would look like, and I was referred to my immediate supervisor on the government side since she happens to be the lucky person tasked with coordinating the move in addition to her normal duties. As my contracting manager pointed out, she is out of the office all this week, so it will be March 14 at the earliest when she might start disseminating concrete move info. That seems a bit up-against-the-wall for any government office to do much of anything, let along physically shut down, pack up and relocate.

I’m really looking forward to being able to ride the VRE every day, not only because I’ll have more time to read and/or watch DVDs, less time behind the wheel of my car and no time on the Metro, so it’s a bummer to have the office move delayed. But it could be worse, as my boss was coming as close as he ever comes to griping when he pointed out that he tends to pay for parking on a month-to-month basis and he really needs to know well before April 1 if he is going to be parking during that month in one garage or another. So I will hang in there and see what happens. It’s always an adventure.

This just amuses me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Feeding and Care

Here’s a little Random Factoid, not even really a proper Anecdote. When I was in high school my buddies and I used to go to the local diner a lot to hang out. It only just now occurs to me that the diner was a lot like a bar, in that we could go there in a group of any size and sit around and shoot the breeze for long, theoretically open-ended spans of time, with the added benefit of not needing to be 21 (or have a fake ID, or just be located in a college town where the proprietors have a business model based on not caring overmuch) to get in. As opposed to most restaurants, where if you stay very long past the point where you’ve finished your meal they start to look at you funny and suggest that you take things elsewhere, the diner staff didn’t seem to mind if we made modest orders and then nursed bottomless cups of coffee for hours.

It's a timeless little world in there.
I almost always ordered the same thing every time we went to the diner, which was the Pizza Burger Deluxe, something which is not quite as monstrous as it sounds (but only barely). It was basically cheeseburger which used mozzarella instead of American and also trapped a layer of marinara between the melted cheese and the beef. You might be thinking that the “Deluxe” part of the name alluded to extra pizza toppings like pepperoni and sausage and mushrooms and olives and so forth, but in fact it simply meant that the platter came with french fries. The burger was also on a regular bun, not between two slices of Sicilian or anything like that. So, only vaguely pizza-esque. More like a Meatball Parm sub with the shape and ingredient proportions rearranged. But I was addicted to those things. I think I might have started eating Pizza Burgers before I actually acquired a taste for normal cheeseburgers, weirdly finicky eater that I was as a kid.

I was thinking about the old diner go-to order today because it’s been a long week and I did not bring lunch to work (mostly I forgot, but didn’t really have a lot at home I could bring to begin with) and I’ve exhausted my laid-in supplies here at the office, so I was forced to wander the streets in search of food. I didn’t wander far, just to the café across the street to get … a bacon cheeseburger. The café does not offer Pizza Burgers on its menu, sadly. I haven’t had a bacon cheeseburger all year, since I’ve been trying to cut back on eating crap and spending unwisely, but I felt entitled to treat myself – like I said, long week.

Not much else of notable insight beyond that, I’m afraid, and this weekend looks to be busy despite currently being unplanned, due to the painting and furniture-assembling that I would really love to be more or less done with by Sunday night. I shall report on Monday as to whether or not those dreams are realized.