Thursday, June 30, 2011

All hail the Tee Hee Tyrant

The major recent development (in terms of the bundles of joy I call my own) is this: the little girl has discovered and unleashed upon us her genuine smile, and it is truly devastating to behold. I had already felt utterly beholden to my daughter and more than willing to overcome any obstacle and bear any burden to make her happy, but last night as it was getting close to her 11-ish bedtime she was flailing her arms with some unknown inner joy and giggle-cooing with glee and I said to myself, well, I’m pretty much wrapped around her little finger for the next eighteen years at least.

I’m calling this a recent development because it feels like it came on suddenly in just the past week or so, with the little girl spontaneously amusing herself (and extensively charming her mother) one day, or lighting up at the site of her big brother once I delivered him home from daycare another day, all culminating in the happy-fest last night. Of course the past week or so has been crazy with family in town and my wife going back to work, just as the week before that was fraught with anticipatory distractions. It feels like things are always moving fast and all too easy to lose track of. So has the little girl been smiling and/or burbling emotively for a while now and I’m just getting around to noticing it? I concede the possibility.

On the other hand, it may just be incredibly fortuitous timing. Both my wife and I (in different ways and at different intensities) got a bit spoiled over the course of this most recent maternity leave, and it was significantly harder to see it end than last time around for a variety of reasons. Irrational as it may be there’s always the fear that an infant, just barely emerging from the mythical fourth trimester of development, will be deeply traumatized by the sudden absence of the mother from every waking moment of existence. So to see our daughter not only unruined but in fact cracking herself up while taking my wife’s return to gainful employment in stride is vastly comforting.

Of course the little girl’s been hanging out in the same old house with her dear doting Nana this week, and next week brings yet another readjustment with the commencement of infant daycare for her, so we’ll see how that goes, too. There have already been a few acclimation sessions at the daycare center for her, though, so I’m generally optimistic. Hopefully there will be continuous baby laughter to carry us all through.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (4)

We are rapidly approaching the end of June but I still have a couple more thoughts to ramble on about as far as the Masters of the Universe are concerned. So this will likely carry over into July, but only as far as next week and then I’m done. But for now, onward we go!

PART FOUR: WATCHING QUBO AT MIDNIGHT

Just in case I didn’t make this explicitly clear earlier, I want to emphasize how near-universal the responses to my He-Man survey were in terms of respecting the narrative imperatives in the MOTU setting. He-Man is protagonist #1, Skeletor is antagonist #1. Man-at-Arms is He-Man’s main ally, and Beast Man is Skeletor’s enforcer. Almost everyone who answered me just took those facts as given. But where did they come from?

Mostly from the cartoon, I reckon.

It wuold have taken an entire separate post to even get into the hamhanded moralizing of each episode's bumper
The original MOTU action figures were packaged with little mini-books that provided a minimal amount of backstory for the various characters. A lot of things were left intentionally vague, but in general a kid who took the time to read those supplemental materials would get an impression of a pulpy heroic fantasy world. It was something like Conan the Barbarian, with more fantastic creatures plus the hi-tech weapons of a forgotten civilization. It wasn’t adult-sexy or adult-gory, but it arguably took itself seriously, at least.

The He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, on the other hand, was not just for kids but for little kids. Now that I think about it, maybe that explains the precipitous decline in my interest in He-Man in general and why I never collected the later waves of figures. I really liked the mini-books’ world. It was a bit edgy, just the slightest hint of something really primal below its fantastical surface. And then the cartoon came along and dumbed everything so far down that I couldn’t be bothered with it any more.

Among other things, the cartoon introduced:

- the character of Orko, a child-like flying elfin magician whose spells were prone to backfiring
- He-Man’s mom and dad
- He-Man’s secret identity as Prince Adam
- Battle Cat’s secret identity as Cringer the cowardly tiger
- The characterization of most of Skeletor’s minions as bumbling clowns

And quite a bit more that I will resist the temptation to catalogue exhaustively here. I don’t think any one of those additions or alterations makes the Eternia mythos any better, and in fact I think to one extent or another across the board they drag things down. And on some level I knew that even as a kid. I watched He-Man a lot after school, but let’s be honest, not much else was on. Nowadays I feel the appropriate amount of 80’s nostalgia toward the series whenever someone references it, but I have absolutely zero interest in sitting down to watch an entire twenty minute episode. I’m pretty sure it would be terrible.

I can kind of sort of understand some aspects of the dilution of He-Man for the cartoon. Doing a straight animated adaptation of an Edgar Rice Burroughs/Robert E. Howard kind of world would be a tough sell for the advertisers and the censors of the time. So instead of leaving the villains as genuinely scary threats, they turn them into buffoons mostly good for comic relief. And the secret identity serves a couple of semi-justifiable purposes. One, it creates an opportunity to use the iconic “I have the power!” stock footage of the transformation in every single episode, which must have cut down on production costs. (And to be fair, it is a money sequence that can still make cynical old me smile a bit.) Two, it creates a little more dramatic tension. He-Man never loses, because he is superstrong and awesome. The outcome of a fight between He-Man and any bad guy is a foregone conclusion. But will Prince Adam be able to sneak away and transform into He-Man without betraying his secret to anyone? Obviously yes, that’s just as much of a foregone conclusion, but it allows for a different kind of tension.

The rest, though? Tripe. Other people have put forth this theory and made this point in regards to traditional superheroes much more articulately, but let me bring it into play here for what it’s worth. Hero sidekicks, especially young and/or semi-competent (or utterly incompetent) ones, are just inherently insulting. They are basically the writers saying “Children who watch this show need someone to relate to, so we’ll throw in an annoying tagalong who loves the hero but always gets in trouble and makes mistakes and needs to be rescued and so on. That tagalong will be the identification character for the kiddies.” So Orko is basically how the writers view their own audience, and that is not very flattering. Then, as if that weren’t enough, they had to pile on changes for He-Man to make him more relatable, too. He’s no longer a proud, noble barbarian roaming the landscape of a post-cataclysmic world, he’s a regular guy who has a mother and a father who worry about him, AND a teacher who holds him accountable (Man-at-Arms goes from ally to mentor in the cartoon translation, but at least he gets a sweet ‘stache out of the deal to indicate his older/wiser status) AND a cuddly pet … so even though Prince Adam is drawn as a grown-ass man the exact same build as He-Man, just wearing more clothes and using a higher-pitched voice (and, oddly, less tan), he occupies a child’s position socially until he transforms.

Also the transformation is purely physical, as Adam knows what He-Man knows and vice versa, so it’s kind of like “Adam” is just an act? Except the same magic sword/spell that turns Adam into He-Man also turns Cringer into Battle Cat, which actually causes Cringer to grow larger as well as change clothes (or gain armor as the case may be) and furthermore changes Cringer’s fundamental personality from lazy coward to extremely aggressive? I never quite got that part.

The point being! That for some reason the writers felt it was necessary to give He-Man a childlike alter-ego in Prince Adam and an exaggeratedly childlike sidekick in Orko, which is one too many child-identification POVs by any count … but actually it’s two too many! He-Man stories, if you’re going to argue they have any entertainment value whatsoever (as opposed to just selling more toys), are escapism pure and simple. And what adults who try to create escapism for kids consistently fail to realize is this: NO ONE daydreams about hanging out with the hero. They daydream about BEING the hero. To assume that children would not be able to properly relate to He-Man purely as a tiger-riding, wizard-battling, sword-and-axe-slinging barbarian is to grossly underestimate the pre-adolescent imagination. To compound that by assuming that children really see themselves as the spaz in the purple turtleneck who frequently does more harm than good by trying too hard – that is just plain nasty.

So yeah, I am not a big fan of the cartoon version of Masters of the Universe. (Although one of my buddies did remind me that Mer-Man had a phenomenally gargly voice on the show, which he cited as justification for acquiring that action figure just for purposes of doing the voice.) But even thinking about the cartoon at all makes me highly aware of one fact: the little guy (remember how this all started with musing about buying toys for the little guy?) has never seen and probably will never see a single episode of the He-Man animated series. Which is incredibly liberating! I could in fact hand him four random MOTU action figures and point out how they go with Castle Grayskull, and the little guy would be completely at liberty to invent any stories for them that he liked. He doesn’t have to have He-Man at all, and if he does there’s nothing to stop him from playing out scenes where He-Man and Beast Man are best buddies. I could, in fact, give him action figures of Stratos, Teela, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a Mexican He-Man knockoff and he would be several shades of delighted.

And that is a (literally) game-changing realization, because of course the aftermarket for old He-Man toys is driven for adults by adults, and those adults all pretty much know what’s what, who the main characters are and who the lame characters are. (The exception being the occasional mom who puts a bunch of toys on eBay and fills in the description as “my son’s old dolls, no idea who they are but all are in good shape from smoke-free home!”) You can get a lot more bang for your buck if you aren’t a slave to canonical essentiality, which a three-year-old most definitely is not. He in fact would prize quantity over classic quality every time. So I’ll probably end up bidding mainly on big, mixed-bag lots of He-Man toys and letting the little guy go nuts investing them with his own mythologies. If that means some C-lister like Sy-Klone ends up as the King of Castle Grayskull in my house, that is fine by me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Everything in transition

One of the positive things about extended families (or at least my extended family) is the way they keep your perspective from being too limited. I feel like things have been a bit mad around my domain in the past few months (my daughter was born, my job changed locations, we traveled a bit) and while I’m not ready to back entirely away from that claim, over the past few days I’ve been realizing that “a bit mad” is still significantly calmer than “totally bonkers”.

I mentioned that my Little Bro was coming to visit, and so he did, as he and his wife arrived Friday afternoon and departed midday Sunday. Little Bro recently decided not only to quit his day job but to basically abandon the career path he had been trying to get a foothold in for five or so years. My brother was a captain in the Army when he parted ways with the military life and felt that as a former mid-level officer he would be well-suited to middle management white collar type gigs. I always thought that was reasonable, but it proved more difficult than I would have expected, and certainly wasn’t helped by the slackening economy. So Little Bro ended up at a non-management desk job that was sucking his will to live, but no more! He studied up and took a test to be certified as a personal trainer and is about to try his hand at that. He had previously told me about this plan but I had initially interpreted “work as a personal trainer” as having “at a gym or health club” somewhere in the mix. However, over this past weekend he explained to me that he’d much rather simply work for himself, finding clients via referrals and whatnot and going to people’s houses to create custom workouts for them or whatever. Now that I know that, I fervently hope that it all works out for him. The thought of going into business for myself is terrifying, which I suppose is why I’ve never done it. But my Little Bro certainly inspires me to believe he can make a go of it. The upshot is that it’s a significantly more seismic change on the work front than a minor adjustment to the weekday commute.

Meanwhile, my mother flew into town on Saturday afternoon and we were still in the car on the way back from the airport when she informed Little Bro and me that she and my step-father are planning to move from New Mexico back east before the end of this year. On the one hand I saw this coming, as my wife and I had a conversation earlier this month about how we were looking forward to my mother’s visit but sorry that we didn’t get to see her more often, which is what happens when people live 2000 miles apart. My mom and step-father moved to the Albuquerque area when its real estate market was hot and they were planning on flipping houses to make their retirement income. Then the market crashed and now my mom works at a bank and her husband works in the auto department at Wal-Mart, neither of which is quite so setting-dependent. When my wife and I talked about it, I had wondered and speculated about how long it would take for the whole missing-her-children thing and the obviated need to stay out west to combine into an irresistible force pulling my mother back to this side of the country. But I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon, nor had I expected the plan to include my mom and step-father selling most of their possessions (except the house, which they’ll have to rent out) to make the packing and moving as minimal as possible. Or for them to be within driving distance by Christmas. I’m not complaining at all, I rush to underline. But it is an ambitious timetable for them by any measure.

When that old highway's a-callin' ... gotta move on
And then today – perhaps even right now as I type this! – my Very Little Bro and his girlfriend will be arriving at my house. VLB recently realized that although it was fun moving out to California after he graduated college last spring, he hasn’t had much luck finding gigs in his chosen line of work and emphatically cannot afford to live out there on his own. His former roommates are no longer potential future roommates (because they are a couple about to get hitched) and thus, underemployed and rapidly approaching homelessness, my brother decided to quit his barely-pay-the-bills job, pack up all of his things, and come back east as well, where he’s going to crash with our dad until he can find a new job and save up enough for his own place. So this week has been a cross-country roadtrip for him, from San Diego to Albuquerque to Oklahoma City to Nashville and then Virginia before finishing up in Connecticut. Oh, and he’s undertaken this odyssey with his girlfriend (who had been prepping to move out to California with him back when my very little Brother assumed he’d get a better job in SoCal sooner or later) and … I don’t want to jump to any conclusions or put words in anyone’s mouth, but if cohabitation can be seen as a trial-run to clarify one’s thinking about the possibilities of marriage, then maybe it’s fair to say a cross-country roadtrip can be seen as a trial-run to clarify one’s thinking about the possibilities of cohabitation. Maybe.

So yeah, seems like just about everybody in my family is in the process of changing jobs or radically reinventing careers, relocating, and who knows what else. Maybe comparing any or all of that to the disruptive powers of a newborn (or a toddler, or both) is well within apples-and-oranges territory, but if nothing else I know that right now I am thankful for my own relative stability. I’m not planning on changing jobs any time soon, my wife and I are in agreement that we’re never moving again (which is a significantly more serious invocation of “never” than our current ban on commercial air travel) and pretty much all of the irregularities in our daily lives are essentially temporary. My wife even managed to make it back to her own place of employment today without feeling too much like the world was tilting at crazy funhouse angles under her feet; it was just time for maternity leave to be over, wish it weren’t so or otherwise. Now if we can just get through having to pay for double daycare without selling all of our own worldly possessions, we’ll be in good shape.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lunch date

Another work week begins, on my wedding anniversary no less, which makes me wonder if I should have just burned through my last remaining floating holiday and consigned the unappealing prospect of having to work on Columbus Day to my future self. Not that anything at work is wrong, really, it’s just still slow and quiet. And likely getting slower and quieter as people ramp up their own summer vacation plans (especially during weeks like this one and next which can bleed red-white-and-blue into or out of the Fourth of July long weekend.)

I suppose another minor justification for heading into the office today was that it created on opportunity on this final day of my wife’s maternity leave for her to come down to Crystal City for lunch. Of course that also involved bringing both of our children, but (further minor justification) she at least had some help from my mother, who is in town for the week to help with the back-to-work transition.

A whole-family visit to the office should have been an easy way to score some peripheral goodwill brownie points with my government boss, since she loves children and babies and had been saying basically since I got back from paternity leave that the baby should feel free to make an appearance any time. But, alas, when my wife called me to say they had arrived at a nearby parking garage, my boss was in a closed-door meeting, and so I went out to lunch and then returned to the office with mom, wife and kids in tow only to find that the closed-door meeting was still going on. And while I was introducing the fam to a few co-owrkers, I managed to ascertain that said closed-door meeting involved my boss’s boss, so I certainly wasn’t about to interrupt that. Ah well.

Did I mention that back before the little girl was born my government boss held an informal gathering at her house over a weekend for the team and their families, and I never RSVP’ed and ended up just blowing it off because my wife had to work anyway and getting the little guy out of the house to an unknown environment seemed like more trouble than it was worth … and then it turned out the gathering was also going to be a very small surprise baby shower for me and my wife? That happened. I mention it now because I guess I’ll have to hope my boss throws another one of those casual soirees, this time on a weekend when my wife is off and we don’t have plans, so I can show off my pride-and-joy family then.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sleeping arrangements

We seem to have embarked on a direct course for getting the little guy his first big-boy bed. When the subject first came up my wife and I decided to take a wait and see approach (mainly because she was pregnant with our second and we had quite enough to try to sort out at the time, thanks) where as long as the little guy seemed happy in his crib (i.e. wasn’t actively trying to escape its confines on a semi-regular basis) we would just leave well enough alone. But lately he’s been requesting that we take the mattress out of the crib and put it on the floor for him; I think this came from the fact that they take their naps at school on the floor and he decided he liked that. So we let him sleep on a floor-level mattress for a couple of naps previously, and last night we finally let him sleep on the floor overnight. We still reserve the right to go back to the crib if it seems prudent, but if the new arrangement proves to cause no undue hardships on any side, we’ll get a proper bed to put the mattress in. One night in and no hardships yet, so we shall see.

The timing is funny for a couple of reasons, all centered around the fact that various contingents of my family are visiting over the coming week, and therefore who’s-sleeping-where is already top of mind. And, specifically, the first arrivals are my Little Bro and his wife; they were both endlessly amused by my son back at their wedding last summer, when the little guy was almost two and telling anyone who would listen “I’m a big boy!” and something in the delivery rendered that declaration highly quotable as far as Little Bro and sister-in-law were concerned. Thus, invoking the “big boy bed” privilege was bound to make me think of my Little Bro.

I could also tie this all together via the classic Friday stand-by of the Random Anecdote, and really, why wouldn’t I? When I was about four years old, and Little Bro was only one, we shared a bedroom. I slept in an actual grown-up bed, by which I mean a twin mattress and box spring on the flimsiest of comes-free-with-the-set metal frames. The relative size and weight of the bed components are worth noting because, for a while there, my brother and I would wake up before our parents and I would take it upon myself to liberate Little Bro from baby jail.

FREEEEEDOOOMMMM!!!
So I’d push the bed across the room until it was up against the rails of the crib. I might also mention that the feet of my bed sat on plastic casters and the bedroom floor was some kind of hardwood or laminate, so the physical resistance to this effort was minimal (though to this day Little Bro refers to this as a feat of “little kid super-strength” and who am I to argue with that). Once the bed was alongside the crib I could either help Little Bro climb up over the railing for a short, cushioned fall onto my mattress, or just use my own mattress as a launch pad for bounding into the crib. The end result was the same, in that the two brothers got to play together earlier than we otherwise would have if we’d waited for mom or dad to get the baby from the crib. Needless to say, whatever kind of bed we end up getting for my son, it will be too big to fit through the door and push down the hall to his sister’s room for similar shenanigans. (It may even get bolted to the wall.)

The funny thing about the bed-pushing story is this: I barely remember it, while Little Bro claims to recall it perfectly. That latter element seems patently ridiculous and impossible on the surface. Nobody remembers things from when they were one year old, right? I certainly don’t. I barely remember anything from before I started school, strangely enough (considering the sheer quantity trivia and minutiae that have become permanently lodged in my brain since then). I can only barely conjure up the bed-pushing story now because I’ve seen so many pictures of the old house, myself and Little Bro at that age, plus Little Bro himself has told and re-told the story numerous times. Sometimes it feels like I remember it, but sometimes it feels like I’m only faking remembering it. Which is somewhat disconcerting, as is the general fact that my brother always seems to remember our early childhood better than I do, anyway.

And maybe he does, and maybe he has some genuine memories of being a one-year-old. And maybe my little guy got some of the same genetic component of that (along with blue eyes and blond hair and lots of other traits that seem to cut him from the same cloth as his uncles) and he’ll remember everything happening now clear as day a few decades down the road. I kind of hope so, because we really have been having a lot of fun lately, and I’d like to think he won’t forget that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Prelude to madness

Last night my wife had to leave the house for about an hour or so, right around what would normally be dinnertime, and so an opportunity arose for a timely bit of rehearsal. As I alluded to earlier this week, my wife is going back to work soon (June 28th, to be exact) and although my mother is coming to visit for a week starting this Saturday, which will help us ease into the transition somewhat as Nana can keep the kids at home on the days both my wife and I are at work, a week is only a week and retirement is still a good thirty years away. By the 5th of July I’ll be driving cross-town in the evenings (three nights a week) from the train station to the daycare center, picking up both kids, getting them home, and somehow juggling dinner for the little guy and myself with bottles for the little girl, plus a bath, pajamas, a snack and story and bedding down for the little guy with … well, I foresee getting a lot more use out of the two different mechanized swings we’ve borrowed from friends. (In fact so far we’ve used those swings extremely sparingly, and I’m not 100% sure if that’s because we didn’t want to waste whatever limited amount of magical soothing ability they might possess for the little girl, or simply out of pre-emptive guilt in knowing that my daughter is bound eventually to spend a lot of time being auto-swooshed back and forth when her brother is being wrangled toward bed.)

Thus last night was a bit of a dry run, me on my lonesome, outnumbered by an unpredictable toddler and an infant prone to late-in-the-day clusterfeeding. All I had to do was get through ninety minutes, max, and reinforcements would arrive. To the kids’ credit, things started out pretty smoothly. Little girl deigned to be placed in her bouncy seat for the time it took me to dish up a couple of chicken pot pies for myself and the little guy, and the little guy did not offer even token resistance to eating what was on the menu (despite no resemblance whatsoever to grilled cheese). Of course the baby didn’t remain content in her little fleecy chair for very long, but fortunately I am a fast eater and polished off my dinner so that I could pick her up and attempt to feed her, though she’s still somewhat iffy on bottles.

Of course things went downhill from there. Once I sat down on the couch to offer the bottle to the baby, that was exactly where the little guy wanted to be, too, and while its sweet that he craves physical nearness to his father and his sister, it’s less endearing when he wants to enjoy same while also flipping and tumbling in place and coming perilously close to kicking his sister’s noggin. And if I wasn’t raising my voice at him with warnings to sit on his bottom or get off the couch, then he was yelling at me for smooshing him. (Said smooshing came about, of course, because I was trying to settle the little girl down for another go at the bottle, via a combination of burping her over my shoulder and rocking my upper body back and forth at the waist, and each rock forward created a gap between my back and the couch which the little guy elementally needed to fill with his own body, only to be summarily smooshed as I would rock back again. So you see.) Then once the bottle was gone I opted to see if the baby would enjoy some time on the floor not being held so she could stretch her arms and legs, but as soon as I put her on her playmat her brother was practically on top of her. Not in a mean aggressive way, at all, quite the contrary; he was just excited to demonstrate his great affection for her without any parental intermediary cramping his style. Unfortunately his style involves a little too much … everything, really. Hand-holding becomes arm-throttling. Cheek-caressing becomes head-rattling. It’s like Of Mice and Men if Lennie were 2 foot 9. Hence, more voice-raising.

Took me almost two years to figure out a way to work Malkovich into the blog.
I had been trying to put off bathtime for the little guy until his mother got home but eventually I decided if I didn’t move on to that portion of the evening I could only discover previously undreamt of versions of “and then it got a little worse”. So by the time my wife did walk in the door things were actually reasonably under control: little girl awake but quietly content in her swing in her room, me and the little guy across the hall in the bathroom with the little guy happily focused on splashing around the tub. But of course I had to confess to my wife that the previous hour had not been my finest and I was exhausted, more than anything from the vicious cycle of hating to yell but not seeing any way around it when my hands were occupied with an infant and my voice was my only means of getting the attention of a small rambunctious child, with the unfortunate side-effect of making the little guy act out and wear me out more, which left me even more frazzled and prone to yelling, and so on.

Once the little guy was in bed, my wife and I got to talking about how things may not have gone very smoothly, but they also came up due to a singularly unusual set of circumstances. Once having the kids by myself has a chance to settle into a routine, it will doubtless more or less do just that: settle down. And the other silver lining is that, at least if I were going to crash and burn, it would be in a reasonably minor way with plenty of time afterwards to reflect and recover, as opposed to diving into the deep end and sinking straight to the bottom, right?

Here’s hoping, anyway. We’ve survived both me and my wife working while there’s a baby to care for before, and we can do it again, complications of the little guy’s ever-increasing free-spiritedness notwithstanding. But if the bloggery runs more and more headlong into the incoherent as the first week of July goes along, there’s no reason to wonder why.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (3)

Enough about underperforming would-be franchise starts, then, and back to topics of serious import. Specifically, He-Man toys!

PART THREE: EQUALS AND OPPOSITES

I’ve already taken note of the popular opinion that a core set of He-Man toys should consist of He-Man, Man-at-Arms, and Teela on one side and Skeletor, Beast Man and Evil-Lyn on the other, with the seventh slot going to a standout good guy like Man-E-Faces or a similarly distinguished baddie like Trap Jaw. (Or possibly Battle Cat.) If we leave aside the number seven wild card, for symmetry’s sake, there are some interesting patterns that begin to emerge.

More than one person who answered my poll question took as a given that He-Man and Skeletor are the main champions of good and evil and that Man-at-Arms and Beast Man are their respective sidekicks. I don’t think that second part’s entirely accurate, though. Beast Man is more of a lackey than a proper sidekick. In fact, in my arbitrary and geek-centric view of heroic fantasy in general, I don’t think master villains ever have sidekicks, because that implies the partnership and mentoring of a benefactor, not a malefactor. I know that’s basically just semantics, but it factors in for me. And Man-at-Arms isn’t really a sidekick, either, if you define that role as someone subordinate who assists the protagonist in a peripheral way but leaves the bulk of heroing to said hero. Man-at-Arms is more of a trusted ally, perfectly capable of acting as a protagonist himself, and occupying a different niche from He-Man. (And Man-at-Arms, in fact, is the older mentor figure in the MOTU cartoon, which I haven’t touched on much yet because I’m saving that for next week, so let’s stick a pin in that for now.) Anyway, I take exception to the term sidekick as applied to Man-at-Arms and Beast Man, but I get where people are coming from. Right hand man, boon companion, lieutenant – the gist is in there somewhere.

One of my buddies went so far as to assert that the core six are not simply He-Man and his arch-enemy plus their respective seconds plus their respective token females; he held that Man-at-Arms and Beast Man are each other’s arch-foes, and that Teela and Evil-Lyn shared that specific relationship as well. I had to admit I never thought of this before but found it intriguing particularly in the case of Man-at-Arms and Beast-Man. The He-Man and Skeletor dichotomy is the age old fighter-versus-wizard archetypal struggle. Man-at-Arms compliments He-Man because he’s a weapons master; few can challenge He-Man’s sword and axe skills, but the Masters of the Universe live in a world with not only medieval weaponry but laser guns and presumably everything in between. So while He-Man has pure brawn and flashing blades covered, it doesn’t hurt to have an ally who can comprehend and operate atomic cannons and whatnot. Meanwhile, Skeletor has the opposite problem, as his sorcerer’s staff gives him as much firepower as any techno-arsenal, but he falls a bit short in terms of hand-to-hand combat. Hence Beast Man, who is pure animal savagery and barely needs any weaponry at all beyond his own claws and a pretty badass whip. So actually there’s this whole foursquare arrangement of compliments and contradictions between the physical and the cerebral, the tamed and the untamed, and so on. You could arguably make the case that any of those four is the arch-enemy of the other (notwithstanding the pre-established good/evil split), for example that Man-at-Arms represents the disciplined intellect that can build and utilize tools of war, and Skeletor represents the chaos-fueled hubris that tampers with dark knowledge and secrets man was never meant to know.

And you thought these were all just dumb garish action figures.

But assuming both that the good guys and bad guys remain as such and that He-Man and Skeletor already called dibs on arch-enmity, that does leave Man-at-Arms and Beast Man to stare each other down. Why did I never see this before? I think it has something to do, at least in part, with not being quite so obsessed with monomyths when I was eight years old. That, plus the re-paint system.

Teela and Evil-Lyn aren’t just locked into being Best Frenemies Foreva because they’re the token women. They’re mirror images of each other in their physical construction. One has Caucasian skintone and one Simpsonoid; one wears white and the other midnight blue, but that’s all surface stuff. It’s the same doll, painted differently, with the minor exception of their sculpted heads. And MOTU did this all the time.

Faker was just a He-Man painted in weirdo colors, with bright blue flesh and orange hair. He was never going to be He-Man’s arch-enemy, but maybe one degree off from that. If He-Man is Superman and Skeletor is Lex Luthor, then Faker is Bizarro. (Strike that “if” – that analogy is air-freaking-tight right down to Skeletor being the one who created Faker.) Moss Man was Beast Man colored green and jazzed up a little with some flocking. And there’s something of the light/dark reflection in those character concepts, too: plants versus animals, the compassionate life-giving green kingdom opposing the predatory creatures prowling the top of the food chain. (Seriously, every time I think about heroic symbolism in He-Man I catch something new.)

But on the other hand, just when you think Mattel had some mad geniuses toiling away on MOTU character designs rife with hidden meaning, they would do something strange like unveil Stinkor, who is a repaint of Mer-Man. Especially in the head, Mer-Man always had as much of a cat about him as a fish, so retooling him in black and white as a skunk-man wasn’t that much of a stretch, but the end result was two evil characters who were mirror images. (And who both smelled bad, theoretically?) Clearly this is where the whole “repaints indicate archfoes” theorem of mine falls apart.

But it’s still a theorem worth revisiting if only because it offers a glimpse of the greatest MOTU toys that never were, in terms of the repaints they could have exploited but never did. I could, though! If fate should happen to place in my path a box full of He-Man cast-offs, and it contains multiple Man-at-Arms dolls, you had better believe that I will snag (at least) two of them and spend a little quality time with one of them in my geek-workshop, repainting the figure until it re-emerges with hot pink limbs and indigo armor and deathly gray skin as Doctor Rezro, the all-new archfoe of Man-at-Arms! While He-Man’s ally is a master of techno-weapons used to cut down enemies, Doctor Rezro is a mad scientist who uses experiental methods to bring Skeletor’s fallen minions back to life. Muwahahaha!

Ta-da!
And then of course, of course, I would turn Doctor Rezro and Man-at-Arms, backstory and all, over to the little guy to play with in Castle Grayskull. Because this whole mental exercise is all about him and his playtime, right? Besides, while he’s playing with two copies of the same toy, I can proceed to figuring out a way to re-color and make a hero out of Trap Jaw …

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ring of truth

All right, ONE more thing about the Green Lantern movie and then I’ll shut up about it. For a while, at least. It’s kind of a slow week (which, given the incipient madness of my mom coming to visit for all of next week and brothers coming for shorter visits overlapping with mom’s but not with each other, plus the little girl finally starting daycare the week after that, I am really and truly fine with a slow week now). Spoilers, again!

I mentioned yesterday that the movie tried too hard to encompass too much continuity-driven world-building and too many themes, but even more fundamentally I think the movie’s biggest sin was in trying to have things both ways in certain cases. On the one hand, it’s very cool to show Hal Jordan’s wonder and awe as he is inducted into a Corps of Green Lanterns comprised of thousands of aliens and their cosmic-immortal benefactors. But the movie is called Green Lantern, singular not plural, so after one elite squad of Lanterns fails to stop Parallax, Hal Jordan ends up facing the fear-monster all alone to save the Earth, because Hal’s the hero and he’s the exceptional human destined to become the greatest Corps member of all &c. Arguably Hal learns just enough from his interaction with the Corps to be able to defeat Parallax (and of course his own inner demons) but, seriously, if the ring could talk (and in the comics, they can!) then Hal could have gotten the requisite info dumps from the jewelry’s AI and never met another Lantern, and still followed the same basic storyline, just with more time on Earth being a self-taught superhero and less time on planet Oa as just about the least-respected recruit the Corps had ever seen. Kilowog and Tomar Re (the two aliens in the screen grab I used yesterday) could have showed up in the last five minutes, and set up the sequel, which would have expanded the Green Lantern world a little more organically; they even could have simply called the second movie “Green Lantern Corps” and that would have been pretty cool … but I digress.

The real missed opportunity, I thought, was in the characterization of Hal Jordan himself. I thought the movie really got a lot of aspects of him absolutely right, and one aspect in particular I was impressed with because it was meaningful and consistent and the audience wasn’t beaten over the head with it. Maybe I’m setting the bar low because I’m an indulgent fan of the genre, but superhero movies aren’t usually known for their subtlety, and Green Lantern’s no exception. There are lots of exchanges where characters say things that are slightly to very much more on-the-nose than people tend to talk in real life. And so it goes, but as I mentioned, there was one pattern that started to emerge that wasn’t ever announced and underlined by someone on screen.

YES I'M AWESOME
Hal (in the movie as in the comics) is a bit of a mess, a cocky and arrogant showboat, a bit of an overgrown kid who is good at flying planes but bad at relationships, deferring to authority, and lots of other grown up stuff. That’s not an inherently bad thing at all for a protagonist, because flawed and interesting often go hand in hand. And it’s especially apt for the wish-fulfillment mechanics of Green Lantern, a character literally built around the notion of a magic (by way of sci-fi so advanced it might as well be magic) ring that allows the wearer to create and manipulate anything they can think of. And it’s the standard covering-for-insecurities template which in turn serves the whole “fearlessness versus courage in the face of fear” motif that the entire movie turns upon, so, fair enough. Except that another way of encapsulating Hal’s character is to say he’s kind of a dick.

And in fact, there are a couple of moments in the movie where he’s a mega-dick. At one point in a scene between Hal and his love interest Carol, he confesses to her that he was being trained by aliens on another planet but he quit. Carol asks how he could possibly walk away from something like that and he answers, “I think we both know I’m pretty good at walking away from things” referencing their romantic past. Which … who does that? There’s portraying Hal as conflicted and a heartbreaker, that’s one thing, but then there’s making him seem borderline cruel by the way he brings up painful things from the past. How bizarre.

I was trying to chew my way through that formulation in the movie theater when it hit me that Hal was being written with the capacity for “brutal truth” as part of his overall messiness, and that was actually a really solid idea. In one of its rare instances of restraint, the movie repeats over and over that the singular criterion for being selected as a Green Lantern is fearlessness. (Then everyone proceeds to split hairs about what that really means. But anyway.) But in the comics there are actually two criteria: fearlessness and honesty, which helps shorthand in a little more nobility for the warrior-cops serving the Guardians, and cut off the obvious question “but couldn’t a ruthless, evil alien be fearless and get a ring and cause all kinds of trouble?” The point being, no word of this is mentioned in the movie, but as I thought back over all the preceding scenes I detected a definite pattern of Hal being honest to a fault. He says inappropriate things, but they’re funny because they’re true. He all but ruins a demo his bosses are giving to military brass because rather than make the product look good, he shows its limitations. When people ask him personal questions he’s not comfortable with, he changes the subject or walks away rather than dissemble. There’s the aforementioned bluntness with his ex. All in all it seemed pretty clever, getting to the heart of who Hal Jordan is supposed to be in a fairly understated way. I was impressed.

I was, that is, until the first of the two major climaxes in the movie, when Hal has to take down Hector Hammond before moving on to taking down Parallax. Up until now, Hal and hector have been cast as opposites: Hal loves and misses his dead dad; Hector disdains and is reviled by his own living father. Hal’s a good looking ladies’ man with an action hero job; Hector’s a nerdy, ugly, socially awkward scientist. Hal becomes a cool superhero; Hector becomes a monstrous supervillain. So the showdown should be good, as Hector takes Carol hostage and Hal, in order to save her, offers to surrender his power ring to Hector. “You can do anything, be anything,” Hal promises. Hector takes the ring, but when Hal asks him to let Carol go, Hector just laughs. “I lied!” Hector gloats. To which Hal smirks back, “I lied too” and admits the ring has to choose its own wielder, and the ring then blows Hector’s brain (or something) and Hal gets it back and just in time because it’s on to the next showdown anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of the lovable (or even not-so-lovable) rogue archetype and I totally get and identify with the “Han shot first!” camp. I enjoy a good hero’s bluff as the means to thwart a villain as much as the next guy. But, gah, the disappointment in hearing Hal Jordan utter the words “I lied”, especially after everything they had (seemingly, maybe I was just geek-projecting) put in play before that! Not to mention it would have been fairly easy to get essentially the same net effect without ruining the honest-Hal vibe, just by tweaking some of the dialogue. Hal could have said “Take the ring, it can do anything” instead of “You can do anything” and once Hector took the bait Hal could have said “I never said it would work for you” or, I don’t know, something a little less clunky but my point remains the same. There’s misdirection and omission and allowing the bad guy to make his own short-sighted, power-mad assumptions about things, and there’s “I lied.”

I’d be willing to bet cash money that the resolution of the Hal/Hector fight was written by one script doctor and the honest-to-a-fault stuff all came from a previous version of the screenplay. Because they just don’t go together at all. But whichever writer it was who decided to go the brutal truth, kind of a dick route with Hal Jordan in the movie, I thank you, sir or madam. Nicely done.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Post-Weekend Review

I am sure you have all been dying with anticipation to hear what I thought of the Green Lantern movie. It was … fine? Actually it was pretty good by me, but your mileage may vary. The good news is that my predictions were largely correct, in terms of my personal fandom and general attitude towards the whole escapade were more than enough to overcome the critical objections I had become inescapably aware of. The bad news is that I really needed that fandom and attitude to counter the objectionable stuff, because yeah, the critics weren’t just being cranky, it was to one extent or another all right there.

Spoiler Alert, of course!

Infodump-Alien-Dee and Infodump-Alien-Dum
The more I think about it, the best analogy I can come up with for the GL flick is the movie Highlander, which is a sci-fi film from the early 80’s which is much-beloved by many a geek (myself included) despite the fact that it suffers from a host of problems, from slightly off-kilter acting to plot holes you could drive a truck through. But it also has Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery and a crazy-fun villain and a bunch of bitchin’ swordfights and a soundtrack by Queen. So, too, with Green Lantern: the acting hovers around passable and the story convolutions are pretty easy to nit-pick, but there’s a hilarious-creepy bad guy and the power ring stuff is rad. Maybe all GL was missing was Freddie Mercury, alas.

(Incidentally, before I get any further I want to back up to a point I made on Friday about the movie not doing itself any favors by having four villains. It actually, really, only has two, and it’s a minion/boss relationship, which makes a lot more sense for a tight narrative. Hector Hammond is the more grounded bad guy, and is the aforementioned hilarious-creepy one, while Parallax gets to be the abstract-cosmic-threat-to-life-as-we-know-it which gives the climax a bit more epic grandeur. Krona isn’t mentioned by name but, in the Green Lantern movie version of things, he actually becomes Parallax, so … yeah don’t even worry about parsing that, just trust me. And Sinestro is in the movie and is awesome, but whereas the trailers led me to believe he would go from ally to enemy within the movie – a transformation which comes right out of the comics – they are apparently saving his fall from grace for the sequel. On which more below.)

So yeah, Green lantern has some pretty serious flaws. It has gaps of internal logic which a decent steeping in comicbook lore could help bridge over, but would probably leave a novice scratching their heads. On the other hand it has some other inconsistencies which might not even occur to the average moviegoer but might stick in the craw of a longtime fan of the comics. So something for everyone!

It’s got to be just about the wonkiest superhero movie I have ever seen. Green Lantern, in the comics, is like a fifty-car pile-up of crazy sci-fi ideas which accreted over the course of five decades, with later writers trying to sort out and make sense of (or make less embarrassingly cheesy) the tenets put forth by early writers who were just cranking out sci-fi gibberish for kiddies and thought that a shark-man with an “invisible yellow aura” was plausible enough to at least serve as a good antagonist for one month’s issue. In translating the world that evolved out of all those comics to the screen, the script overseers took great pains to explain all of the systems-within-systems that allow Green Lantern’s universe to operate. They probably over-explained.

They may have also over-themed. There’s a lot of “fathers and sons” at play in the GL movie, which of course is a subject near and dear to my heart. There’s also “willpower and fear” which of course is the primary metaphor in the comics, too (not for nothing did I make that my blog post title on Friday) and a bit of “power and responsibility” not to mention “legacies and mentors” – all good stuff, all totally appropriate to the character, but maybe a lot of ballast for one movie.

In a lot of ways it all comes down to the climax. In order to save Earth from Parallax – a gigantic space-wraith who eats souls, or something like that (it’s a bit more complicated in the comics and the movie explanation is a bit lacking) - Hal Jordan lures the entity into space, specifically near enough to the sun that the sun’s gravity is all but completely inescapable. Jordan stays just outside the inescapable point but pushed Parallax past it by projecting a giant hand from his power ring and knocking Parallax backwards with a good right cross. When the credits were rolling, and my buddies and I were waiting for the post-credits easter eggs, I informed my friends that the movie really delivered everything I could have possibly wanted in a Green Lantern movie because “Hal Jordan PUNCHED the bad guy INTO THE SUN with a GIANT GREEN FIST.” And as those words were coming out of my mouth, I thought to myself, “That sounds incredibly stupid!” And also awesome. But Green Lantern is known for punching things with giant green fists, and if we’re going to do blockbuster dumb fun sci-fi stuff let’s just go ahead and turn it up past 11. So the movie gave me a Green Lantern I very much recognized and had him punching alien fear-monsters INTO THE SUN. I was a satisfied customer.

The movie was unnecessarily complicated and bizarre in many ways, but I realized that Green Lantern comics could be described in much the same way. I’m fine with the latter, and thus I’m fine with the former. But I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and Green Lantern isn’t going to be the next Iron Man or The Dark Knight. I just hope it does middlingly well enough to get that sequel made, because man, they REALLY worked hard to lay the groundwork. The sequel at least would have way fewer exposition info-dumps because it would simply build off all the info-dumps in the first movie. And as I mentioned above, it would be about Sinestro’s fall from grace and that would have some heft to it because of Sinestro’s strong performance in the initial chapter. Ah well, time will tell.

My buddies, none of whom are fans of GL to the same extent as I am, all enjoyed the movie to various extents, or at least acknowledged the charms alongside the flaws. (Incidentally they all would probably say they like Highlander, too.) And after we spent a few minutes discussing the flick and comics in general, we agreed that we would meet up again in a month or so to see the Captain America movie. So no 3D superhero movie fatigue for us! I’m lucky to have a circle of friends who not only are into the same kinds of geeky things as I am, but also know how to let themselves just enjoy things and derive simple pleasures from them rather than tearing everything down for not being good enough. I tend to think that’s a win-win.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Willpower and Fear

And we all ... shine ... on ...
Here at last is opening day for the Green Lantern movie! And I am trying not to be prematurely despondent, but I cannot help but notice that pretty much across the board, the reviews are Not Very Good.

What’s dragging down the critical reception, it seems to me, are elements which fall into three broad categories. At the very least, I can come up with mental counter-arguments for each of them, so that’s something.

The first one is simple superhero movie fatigue. Thor came out in May and was surprisingly well-liked. X-Men: First Class just opened a couple weeks ago and did all right, too. Now it’s Green Lantern’s turn, but it is inherently harder to be third in line and still impress. (Not to mention this all might be exacerbated by the entire past decade of Spider-Mans and Iron Mans and Fantastic Fours and Batmans and Hellboys and Transformers et cetera.) I’m not unsympathetic toward professional movie reviewers who trudged into Green Lantern thinking “gah, another comic book flick” but for me, Green Lantern isn’t just another comic, it’s my all-time favorite. So I don’t anticipate a similar familiarity-bred contempt in myself.

The second critical objection is what I’ll call SF BS OD, or sci-fi backstory overdose. (You may have thought I was going somewhere else with that “BS” part, which was not entirely unintentional.) Apparently the movie crams in a ton of exposition and universe-building and I get how that can be very off-putting if not downright confusing. But, again, going in as a GL fan means I already know the convoluted evolution of the Green Lantern Corps – which, not for nothing, was something that was definitely not laid out wholesale in the first issue of the comics. Originally GL got a ring from an alien and started doing superhero stuff. Slowly, literally over years of publication, they elaborated the situation of where the ring came from and introduced Hal Jordan to other Green Lanterns from other galaxies, as well as his enigmatic bosses the Guardians who lived at the center of the universe. And just like any other comic book superhero, Hal acquired villains at a rate of about one per issue. From what I’ve pieced together via the trailers, there are FOUR canonical GL villains in the movie (Krona, Sinestro, Hector Hammond and Parallax) as well as the entire Corps and the Guardians and so on. You could generously call the scope of the movie “ambitious” or you could put it down as “a big, loud, botched mess.” It’s possible I’ll be disappointed by the fact that none of these cool elements from the GL comics get the attention or depth I’d like to see because they’re all competing for screentime, but I definitely won’t be so lost and confused that I throw my hands up in disgust.

Thirdly, there’s Ryan Reynolds, whose cocky smarm can apparently ruin a movie for some people. But I like the guy, so once more, I think I’m safe there.

(Incidentally there was a fourth criticism I ran across where someone scoffed at the Hal Jordan in the movie as a total rip-off of Tom Cruise’s character Maverick from Top Gun, which thus diminished the film to a remake of a 25-year-old not-so-classic, plus about a billion CGI aliens. It’s true both Hal and Mav are pilots, and both are cocky lotharios who nevertheless fall in love with female boss/superior, and lots of other similarities but … man, that’s who Hal Jordan was in the comics from the get-go in the 60’s! The question is not “Did the GL film clone Top Gun?” but rather “How did I never notice before that Top Gun totally jacked the main character from Green Lantern?” Weird.)

Whether the movie is bound for box office glory or doomed to crash and burn, I’m going to see it tomorrow night with some of my buddies. So as I said, I’m trying to keep the dread and despair to a minimum and just take what the flick offers. My consolation thought is that if the movie bombs, then even on the new budget necessitated by two kids in daycare I should be able to acquire a whole pile of licensed GL swag when it goes on super-unpopular clearance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Puyi

Right, so where was I? Ah yes, the big wedding which was the reason and purpose of our excursion beyond the far banks of the mighty Mis’sip.

The wedding was utterly lovely, fittingly so for a brother-in-law and sister-in-law I could not be happier for. Granted, I really didn’t get to stay for much of the ceremony and we bailed pretty early on the reception, too, all owing to the demands of wrangling a two-month-old and a thirty-three-month-old, but between the parts I did experience and the general vibe I picked up on all weekend, everything was optimal.

And, honestly, the little guy and the little girl were optimal, too, by which I mean they did everything my wife and I could have asked or expected of them over the course of the entire weekend. In the case of our infant daughter, that simply meant not shrieking for the entire flight and/or the entire airport-to-hotel interstate drive in either direction, and also not vomiting (or worse) on the bride or anyone else nicely dressed, and generally rolling with the crazy schedule in constant motion that we kept to. But the little girl isn’t the type who ever shrieks for more than five or ten minutes before calming down, and she’s not particularly barfy either, and she’s proven so far to be generally temperamentally mellow. So we hoped she would just be herself, and she was, and all was well.

(The one possible exception to this praise of the ideal infant would be that, on the flight from Minneapolis back to DC, the little girl managed to fill and overflow a diaper about an hour before we were due to touch down. Princess Pooty-Pants is at that nursing stage now where she will go days without any bowel action and then void everything massively and messily at once. So of course she did that at 30,000 feet. Probably something to do with cabin pressure. My wife, who was holding the baby in her lap for the whole flight, of course had to deal with the unpleasantness in situ, which I tried to make up for by being the one who rushed the little girl to an airport bathroom once we landed and proceeded to strip her, clean her lower half as much as baby wipes could manage, and put a new diaper and backup outfit on her. Still, all in all, small price to pay for otherwise angelic near-perfection.)

The little guy had slightly more functional responsibility since he was the ringbearer for the wedding ceremony, and he absolutely nailed it. Insofar as “it” entailed allowing us to dress him up in a tiny tuxedo and corral him in the back of the church as the ceremony got started, then send him with the pillow and (stand-in) rings down the aisle to deliver the rings to the … groom? Best man? I was the one standing in the back of the church to start him on his way, and it was hard to see from there. Wearing the tux didn’t bother him, and he was willing enough to hang out with me until go-time, and once I scooted him on his way he walked straight down the aisle, pillow held perfectly level with his chest in both hands, not too fast and not too slow, with much appreciative aww-ing from the guests in the pews. (And from me. I don’t usually cry at weddings but watching my boy do his thing brought me pretty close.) The only flaw in our plans for preparing the little guy, which involved my wife showing him YouTube videos of ringbearers so he got the gist as well as making sure he got a dry run during the wedding rehearsal the night before, was that all of our focus was on bearing the rings down the aisle. Not so much with what he should do after that. We assumed post-fulfillment of duties he would make a beeline for either his mother or his pop-pop, but instead he opted to march right back up the aisle, creating a two-way traffic situation with the processional of bridesmaids. He wanted to get back to me, as it turned out. Whoops.

Once the ceremony really got going, the little guy and I slipped down a side aisle to sit with my wife and the baby, who was promptly handed over to me so that my wife could perform the first reading. At which point the little girl got slightly fussy, so I stood up to remove her from the middle of things, figuring the little guy would just stay in his seat playing with the cars that were waiting there for him. Ah, but no: with mommy at the lectern and daddy in the back with baby sis, the little guy decided to stretch his legs a bit. He walked through the middle of the wedding party, up towards the lectern, and proceeded to climb around the balustrades surrounding the musicians a bit. A bit disruptive, but thankfully mostly in the cute way that ends up being one of those little touches of chaos that makes the wedding memorable. When my wife had finished her reading she escorted the little guy to me (by then I had decamped to the church basement where the little girl could fuss to her heart’s content) and then returned for the rest of the ceremony; the groom being her brother and all, she certainly belonged in a proper seat at the ceremony. Fortunately it was not an interminably long ceremony and we were all reunited soon enough.

Not his fault that everyone around him is crazy about him
The fact that basically everyone was happy to indulge the little guy in his dais-traipsing wanderlust is representative of his entire extended weekend with his extended family, which my wife and I had seen enough of by about the mid-point to start referring to him as the Little Last Emperor. There was the fancy outfit, and the small-but-momentarily-center-of-attention role in the ceremony, but there was also much cooing and fawning from all corners, flower girls and bridesmaids to great-aunts and old friends of the family. (Uncles too, for that matter; even dudes are not immune to the little guy’s charms.) Additionally there was the constant showering of gifts. My wife and I bought him a few new toys and DVDs to keep him occupied on the plane, in the car, at the hotel, etc. but there were also “congratulations on being a new big brother” toys from relatives who hadn’t seen us since the baby’s arrival, not to mention new-to-him pool toys at the hotel pool (where he got to swim at least three or four different times) and other playthings at other various locales around the scheduled events. Plus basically subsisting on nothing but his very favorite foods (chicken nuggets and quesadillas) for five straight days. He was living the life!

It’s not that my wife and I were particularly troubled by any of this. We think the kid is pretty nifty and certainly would never object to other people treating him accordingly. We had already concluded that it made perfect sense to bribe the little guy into good behavior, or keep him so distracted with shiny new whatsits that it never occurred to him to misbehave, or however you want to characterize it, so if other people wanted to pile on the loot, no harm there. If anything it was all simply a matter of degree, and perhaps a growing sense that maybe these fundamentally sound ideas were escalating out of hand. But mostly it was safe and fun to joke around about the little guy becoming a pampered, spoiled little despot because we didn’t actually think it would happen. (It didn’t, if three days back home and back to close to normal are any indication.) Also we didn’t have the time or energy to do anything else about it but laugh.

So, in the end, a premise fraught with potential peril turned out to be 99% smooth sailing. Nonetheless my wife and I have sworn to each other that we are never, ever travelling again.

(For some value of “never, ever” which probably correlates to about a year, year and a half.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (2)

We now interrupt the recounting of ceremonial family gatherings and travelling travails to get back to matters of fundamental importance: hyper-scrutinizing the Masters of the Universe toys.

PART TWO: THE CONTRARIAN

I’m not sure if I could have worded my polling e-mail better, or if this is just indicative of human nature, or what, but I was a bit surprised by the way that all of the respondents focused entirely on the “starter set of He-Man figures” part of the question, generally to the exclusion of the “for my son, whom you all know, and who will be all of 3 years old in September” portion of the hypothetical. Then again maybe it’s just me, since I’m the one most likely to answer almost any question with “It depends …” followed by an exhaustive elaboration of circumstantial interpretations. This isn’t the first time I’ve solicited input to clarify my thinking, only to find that my thinking is a bit out of step with everyone else’s from the get-go.

One of the primary shapers of everyone’s List of 7, as I kind of alluded to last Wednesday, seemed to be a sense of balance. He-Man and Skeletor are arch-enemies, and they each have a right-hand man (Man-at-Arms and Beast Man) and both factions have token females (Teela and Evil-Lyn) so you can set up a pleasingly symmetrical configuration of six figures right there. The seventh slot reveals a bit more about whether you think good guys or bad guys are more fun to play with, or cooler; there’s also an element of creating “heroic odds” by having three good guys face off against four bad guys which I think influenced more than one list. But overall, three-on-four notwithstanding, there’s a role-by-role point and counterpoint thing going on.

And that certainly makes a lot of sense to me as both a geek and a gamer, which (not at all coincidentally) a lot of the buddies I posed the question to also happen to be. Among that group we’ve invested countless hours on computer strategy games and tabletop miniature games and paper-and-dice roleplaying games (and even fantasy sports leagues) to have finely honed senses of game balance that practically allow us to reverse-engineer new systems whenever we encounter them. We have an ingrained aversion to lopsided victories. We disdain conflicts where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In all those aforementioned games there is just as much narrative involved as elements of skill and chance and thus we expect certain plausible victory conditions for either side, making the endgame that much more exciting to move towards.

Fair enough, but we’re all grown-ups who got into those aforementioned games as adolescents. Here’s the thing about the little guy: he has absolutely no concept of balance. On more than one occasion I have had to stop myself from buying him more magnetized train cars (not engines) for his Thomas the Tank Engine set. I feel like he needs them because he has three Thomases, two Percys, and a James, which makes for six locomotives total, but only four cars for those locomotives to pull: Annie and Clarabelle the passenger coaches, a generic luggage car, and a caboose. That kind of imbalance makes me grind my teeth, I admit with zero pride. But not only does it not faze the little guy in the slightest, he will make long trains that consist of Thomas pulling Percy pulling another Thomas pulling James pulling the caboose and think that’s about as marvelous as modes of transportation get. Fundamentally, that’s the difference in the playtime mindset depending on whether we’re talking about the mind in question existing in a state before or after a logical worldview takes over.

And then again, I think there’s a third approach, too, staking out some middle ground. It’s also fairly resonant with an age between two and thirty-seven, say eight years old or so, which is of course the target audience for He-Man to begin with. Somewhere after the sheer joy of things (like trains) in and of themselves and the compulsion for orderly verisimilitude (like Dungeons and Dragons) there’s the kind of play that tells an exaggerated story. If I went back and asked my buddies how long they thought He-Man could hold out defending Castle Grayskull by himself against Skeletor’s minions, I’m sure I would get some interesting, deeply considered answers. But if I asked an eight year old the answer might likely be “Forever! He’s HE-MAN!”

So I admit, when I posed the question I was hoping someone would note that I said in the premise that the little guy already had Castle Grayskull and needed figures to go with it, and that said someone would suggest a rousing game of He-Man versus All Comers and fill out the remaining six slots with Skeletor, Beast Man, Trap Jaw, Tri-Klops, Spikor (he’s covered in spikes!), and Tung Lashor (snake/man with extensible plastic tongue!) or whatever other baddies would make for maximum chaos. At the very least, the thought crossed my mind.

On the flipside of the same token, though, I also thought it was at least possible that one or more people might suggest the seven best good guys and leave it at that, arguing perhaps that Skeletor, Beast Man et al would be a little too scary-looking to put in the hands of a toddler, or furthermore that toddler playtime should be all about sharing and caring and friendship and teamwork and not so much with the face-punching. But no one took that approach (not that I wanted anyone to, as opposed to my general desire for some outside-the-box thinking on the composition of He-Man adventures) and I suppose that really is a case of the toyline’s inherent function. Thomas the Tank Engine is great for teamwork and life lessons. Masters of the Universe is designed for evil monsters and almost-as-monstrous heroes bashing each other with swords and axes. Right tools for the right job and all that.

Now this is the kind of hero you build a franchise around.  And by you, I mean me.
Still, I wasn’t given any ringing endorsements of the more obscure, later-generation characters like elephant-headed Snout Spout, which is a shame given my love of things which evoke mighty Ganesha. Or it would be a shame, if I were going to allow the poll results to comprehensively dictate my inevitable acquisition of secondhand MOTU figures for my kids, which let’s face it, there’s no way. My household will end up with a weird menagerie of Eternians, in fact maybe even weirder than a random sampling of both the originals and later additions to the line. I mentioned above a proclivity amongst my friends for reverse-engineering certain games, and that could come into play here, too. But that’s another post in and of itself, and I do have a couple more Wednesdays (at least) to fill here, so I’ll pick up with that point next time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Little Red Impala

As the days leading up to our big family trip to Iowa for my brother-in-law’s wedding dwindle to mere hours, I confessed to my wife that I found the whole prospect more stressful than I had been previously letting on. We had set aside the entirety of last Thursday as a travel day but it still seemed like there were a lot of moving parts and pieces that had to line up: getting up on Thursday morning and finishing packing while orchestrating the usual fulfillment of toddler and newborn needs, getting everyone and everything in the car by a certain time and driving to the airport, parking in the long-term lot and catching a shuttle to the terminal, checking in densely-packed luggage and two separate unwieldy car seats, getting to the gate, surviving the flight, hopefully being reunited with our luggage and car seats in Minneapolis, and also hopefully making good on a rental car reservation there. And I acknowledged, peremptorily, that there was nothing to it but to do it, and beseeched my wife not to worry too much or take it personally if I seemed distracted or otherwise less than my usual, carefree self. But I also promised that once the car seats were installed in the rental car and we were on the road for the final leg of the journey, my anxiety level would go way, way down. From that point on (especially compared to the effort required in getting to that point) it would be a piece of cake.

To my pleasant surprise, all of those interlocking steps clicked together like clockwork (facilitated in no small part by the fact that we deliberately padded our schedule for the day to arrive at the airport with ludicrous amounts of time to spare) and nothing untoward had happened by the time I was being walked around the section of the parking garage where the full-sized rentals were kept and told I could have my pick. I opted for the red Impala because I thought it would amuse the little guy to ride in a car that was the same color as his hero Lightning McQueen. (I thought correctly.) Armed with the directions I had cribbed off teh interwebs earlier plus a free map from the rental car company, we set off to drive about 200 miles and change starting at about 5:30 in the evening.

Having never seen any of the KFP movies I only know the characters from Wikipedia
Maybe about an hour into the drive we pulled off the highway to a ramp-adjacent McDonald’s for dinner. Both the little guy and I had Chicken McNuggets, his go-to (coming in a Kung Fu Panda 2 Happy Meal featuring Master Viper, no less) and something I felt compelled to order for myself because now they have buffalo-style dipping sauce (which turns out to be Not Bad For McDonald’s). My wife still had yet to surrender to the extended weekend’s motif of anti-healthful eating, so she ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, and she nursed the little girl while the little guy and I played on the McD’s jungle gym for a bit. Then we got ourselves back in the car and headed south yet again, noting in an idle kind of way that there seemed to be some darker clouds in the sky up ahead.

The dark clouds turned into the most torrential downpour I have ever seen in my life, let along been behind the wheel of a car in the midst of. So as it happened what I had supposed would be the easiest part of the trip turned out to be the hardest, as the sun was going down and the skies were letting loose a Biblical deluge and I was driving an unfamiliar car at highway speeds and yet still getting passed by 18-wheelers that threw even more water up in their wakes. As calmly as we possibly could (and under the circumstance I think we were superhumanly calm) my wife and I debated the pros and cons of pulling off the road at the first exit marked with a Lodging sign and springing for one night in a cheap motel, or pressing on to the location of our reserved suite (complete with two cribs). The strength of the arguments seemed to gain or lose merit depending on whether the rain was briefly letting up or pounding down with a vengeance, but ultimately I was the one driving, I wanted to keep moving and get where we were intended to be, and even an interruption of the music on whatever Jack-FM clone we were distracting ourselves with by the Emergency Broadcast System to describe severe thunderstorms in the area was not enough to dissuade me.

It’s not that I particularly enjoy or otherwise bizarrely get off on white-knuckle driving, but I don’t hate it enough to avoid it on principle, either. I am probably a little too stubborn for my own good sometimes. Also, the EBS bulletin on the one hand said that the thunderstorm watch was only in effect for another twenty minutes, and was referencing by name counties which meant nothing to me since I am not a native Iowan. But the point is we made it all the way to our hotel in the proper number of respective pieces. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Impala is a great car or anything, but in all of the sheeting rain I never felt unsafe or unstable. It was frustratingly difficult to see very far, and I knew in some intellectual part of my brain that any number of things can go wrong when driving fast in wretched weather, but that car just hugged the highway and barreled on through almost as if it just inherently believed everything was going to turn out all right. Which kind of makes it my kind of car, if nothing else.

There were other misadventures and moments of note along the course of the wedding weekend (as there always are) and I’ll get back to more and more of them in future posts, but for my first one back I wanted to start at the somewhat inauspicious beginning.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (1)

And so, as promised, let us now begin my obsessive geek analysis of the Masters of the Universe toy line, both as an artifact of my childhood and a potential plaything for my children. Before we begin I just want to say that I nearly entitled this series “Masters of the June-iverse” given the way it’s taking over this month’s Wednesdays, but ultimately I decided that moniker was a bit problematic. Anyway.

PART ONE: THE PRIMACY EFFECT

Amazingly no one even made any 'Fisto!' jokes, either.Click to embiggen

Indulge me (as I assume you will or you wouldn’t be here) as I recall my own introduction to He-Man and his action figure friends. I want to stress it here one (hopefully) final time and then leave it to speak for itself, but Masters of the Universe started out as a collection of toys and later gave rise to a syndicated animated tv show. That’s how it went down historically, that’s how I personally experienced it, and that’s the way it’s always been in my mind: toys first, cartoon second.

So it was Christmas 1982 and I was 8 and Little Bro was 5 and He-Man was a pretty hot seller introduced earlier that year. The point in the future when Little Bro and I would really diverge wildly in terms of our tastes and interests was still reasonably far off, and really that made for kind of a golden age of childhood Christmases, in retrospect. It was fairly easy for our parents to keep things nice and equalized in terms of gift-giving: three Masters of the Universe toys for me, three Masters of the Universe toys for my brother, can’t really argue with that. That in turn was mutually beneficial for me and my brother because we could pool our respective collections (not that we were even thinking in terms of personal collections per se at that point) and have access to this deep bench of characters populating the imaginary world we wanted to play out adventures within.

My recollection of specific details in the single-digit-age years of my life is notoriously spotty, but I’m pretty sure this is how it went down: my brother and I each got a He-Man figure, which is not to say we got respective variants (because again this was MOTU’s Year One and there were no variants) but rather we each got our own copy of the exact same toy. (Told you my parents were really committed to equanimity.) I also got Stratos, He-Man’s winged ally, and my brother got Man-at-Arms, He-Man’s weapons-expert ally. I remember my brother getting Skeletor and me getting Mer-Man, but I also remember Beast Man being in the mix somewhere, but specifically that he belonged to my brother, which leaves me wondering who my corresponding fourth figure would have been.

I suppose it’s fairly beside the point, anyway, because my brother and I were quickly expanding our collective collection. Some new figures came into play when we were sent to my grandmother’s for part of the summer, which traditionally involved her buying us new toys to keep us from getting bored. I want to say I got a Man-E-Faces (the spinning-faced hero/monster/robot) and my brother got Faker (He-Man’s evil-clone). Then at the end of the summer we were in the process of relocating (which in itself was part of the longer process of our parents reconciling after a trial separation, so feel free to ascribe any stereotypical assuage-guilt-and-distract-kids-via-toy-bribery motives you can conjure because you’re probably dead on) and my brother got Trap Jaw and I got Ram Man. Also somewhere along the way someone got Zodac and someone got the Attack Trak vehicle and someone got the Wing Raider vehicle and someone (possibly both of us) got Castle Grayskull and so pretty much within a year or so we got almost every MOTU toy in the entire line, with a couple of notable exceptions: Battle Cat, Tri-Klops, Teela and Evil-Lyn (and I’m pretty sure my cousin, who is right between me and Little Bro in age, had all of those plus a lot of overlap with our collection).

And then for some reason we just kind of dropped He-Man not too long after that. Maybe it was the aforementioned move, which involved starting at a new school and making new friends who, as it turned out, were really into G.I. Joe and thought He-Man was a little babyish. Maybe it wasn’t even anything that conscious, and more just a factor of the production schedules of MOTU toys: we already had all the figures they had made, more or less, and I’ve always been easily distracted by the thrill of the acquisitive hunt involved in collecting, so my attention was bound to move somewhere else.

But Mattel didn’t stop making MOTU toys, so the point at which I stopped being into He-Man draws this line between a subset of the toys which I was perhaps over-familiar with and another subset of which I have almost no firsthand knowledge. I’ve become conceptually acquainted with them because that’s kind of my thing but I don’t know much about them as physical playthings.

So this was more or less the impetus behind me polling various friends about the ideal composition of a MOTU starter set for the little guy to compliment the Castle Grayskull on loan from his uncle. My brother and I back in 1982 started out with six or seven (or so, spotty recollections be damned) figures but at that moment of MOTU genesis there were only nine or so total that existed. By the end of the toy line’s run there were at least 50 or 60, so given that order-of-magnitude deeper bench, which seven would rise to the top as go-to must-haves?

Basically the same ones my brother and I started with in 1982.

I was shocked by just how uniformly all the poll results came back to me. And this wasn’t something where I cc’ed a bunch of people on the same question and the fastest person on the draw answered and everyone else started chiming in “me too, me too”. Everyone got asked separately and answered with no knowledge of other people’s suggestions, but they were all virtually identical. Everyone put He-Man number one, which I admit is a no-brainer but I was honestly curious if anyone would say “in hindsight, he is boringly generic and you might as well go with someone more fun like Mekanek or Rio Blast.” Everyone included Man-at-Arms, with a surprising number asserting he was He-Man’s sidekick (I’m not sure that’s true but I’ll come back to that). After that most people suggested Teela or Man-E-Faces. Apparently Stratos is pretty obscure and only seems quintessential to me because, as mentioned, I got him that very first Christmas. The deepest into latter-day MOTU anyone got was my wife, who kicked in a vote for Moss Man, which ironically is one of the few non-original MOTU toys that did make its way into my orbit during the brief period when I was no longer into MOTU but Little Bro still was.

For the bad guys, again everyone name-checked Skeletor, which is even less surprising because he is of course the counterpoint to he-Man but unlike the blond musclehead, Skeletor is one of the raddest character designs in any mythology, period. Beast Man got what seemed to me to be a surprising number of votes, but I think he fulfilled a certain logic of “He-Man and his sidekick versus Skeletor and his sidekick”. By the same token, Evil-Lyn got a lot of votes presumably (or in some cases explicitly) to face off against Teela.

The wildcard I very deliberately built into the question was the seventh slot, so of course it got the most varied response. Mainly it was split between Tri-Klops and Trap Jaw, though Mer-Man and Hordak (another late entrant into the series) got a vote apiece. One of my buddies gave the seventh slot to Battle Cat even though I specifically forbade animals and vehicles from consideration; his passionate insistence that Battle Cat was indispensible managed to soften my rules-lawyering heart, at that. There was also a lone shout-out to Orko the magician but perhaps the less said about that the better.

So what I had been hoping to learn was where the real gems and/or the real duds were in the sets of figures that post-dated my personal experience with the line. I’m reasonably confident in my own abilities to speculate and extrapolate, and after all these are just thirty-year-old action figures we’re talking about here, but I still thought it would be valuable to hear things like or “Clawful the crab man had a spring-loaded claw that could lock him onto things in defiance of gravity” or “Two Bad, the bad guy with two heads, tended to fall apart easily because of his non-standard double-wide torso mold” or “Do not buy Stinkor, that thing really does smell like rotten eggs” or whatever. But instead what I learned is that, at least among the circle of friends I posed the inquiry to, it turns out I was the biggest MOTU fan back in the day. Pretty much everyone knew the first wave of characters best (or exclusively) and based all their recommendations on that. If I had worded the question to request 9 or 11 figures for a starter set, I have a feeling I would have gotten back a lot of lists of 7 that ended with “I can’t think of any more, sorry!” Basically everyone could speak to the minimal level of familiarity you’d expect people to show re: a highly successful toy supported by a widely-watched cartoon from the 80’s, but nobody showed otaku levels of expertise.

I’d probably be more disappointed if I suspected that everyone was just parroting existing consensus or whatever, but I had pre-empted that by asking everyone to explain their votes and everyone obliged me so I know that everyone was on the level. Everyone I polled really does seem to believe that the best-of-the-best Masters of the Universe were the ones initially released, and the entire line declined Sturgeon’s Law-like from there. According to my admittedly non-scientific sample, the optimized MOTU starter set is one which seeks to emulate Christmas 1982 pretty closely.

So, question asked, question answered, but of course that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as offshooting thoughts resulting from the whole enterprise. Next Wednesday I’ll wade a little further out into the obscurities and reflect a little more on what “playtime” means when you’re two versus ten versus thirty-seven.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A 1951 Classic

Today the Yankees and Red Sox are just about neck and neck in the AL East, with New York holding a one game lead in the standings (tied in wins, two up in losses) just as Boston is about to come into the Bronx for yet another rivalry-laden series. There are, mathematically, only four possible outcomes: the Yankees wind up with a four game lead; the Yankees wind up with a two game lead; the Yankees wind up two games back; or a virtual tie. Half of those options fill me with a certain nauseous dread and, frankly, only one of them would qualify as really satisfying, and of course it’s the least likely scenario. (You would think, at a very basic you-win-some-you-lose-some statistical level that all four scenarios are equally likely but try telling that to my gut.)

In any case, it’s somewhat appropriate (and hopefully a good omen) that today also happens to be my dad’s 60th birthday. In the past few years I’ve realized that one of the few defusing things I can say when people find out I’m a Yankees fan and roll their eyes and mock-retch and so forth is that I do come by it honestly because that’s how I was raised, by a die-hard fan who grew up in New York and whose own father was also a fan. It’s rare that I watch or even think about the Yankees without also thinking about my dad.

I have to confess to a small amount of guilt-driven feelings surrounding the fact that I haven’t done much to commemorate my father reaching such a milestone. I will of course deflect a lot of the blame toward my newborn daughter (who is exactly eight weeks old today!) and the extenuating circumstances of late-term pregnancy, birth, paternity leave, household adjustment and upheaval, and so on which dominated the months leading up to today’s momentous occasion. Ten years ago my life was in an almost unrecognizably different place but sadly the end results were the same, by which I mean the summer of 2001 was when my mistake-marriage really hit its death throes and I had yet to begin repairing a lot of the damage and estrangement it had precipitated between my father and me – said repair was, fortunately, not that far off by then but not in time for dad’s big 5-0. Ten years before that I was in high school when my dad threw himself a big 40th birthday bash which he graciously allowed my Little Bro and I to invite our own friends to, which of course meant I left the actual feting of my father in the hands of his friends and mutual relatives while I immersed myself in typical teenage drama-nanigans. The decade prior, summer of 1981, I was not quite seven and Little Bro was almost four, and I’ll be ding-danged if I can remember any fanfare surrounding my dad turning 30 at all.

So I’m not exactly the best son in terms of divisible-by-ten birthday recognitions! Maybe I should make reservations now for June 2021 at the steakhouse inside Yankees Stadium to make sure the old man has a heartfelt happy birthday from me when he turns 70.

This is a thing which exists, GOD BLESS AMERICA!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Eating (at my desk and elsewhere)

I.
There are a lot of eating establishments along Crystal Drive in Crystal City, which is something of which I was vaguely aware from my previous contract gig in this general vicinity, but which is even more apparent to me now that I have a longer walk up and down the street between the VRE station and the government office building every day. It is a veritable Restaurant Row along that trek. And sure, there’s a McDonald’s and a Subway and a Chick-Fil-A and a Sbarro’s and a Chipotle, but there is also a McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood and TWO different high-end steakhouses (a Morton’s and a Ruth’s Chris). All along eight or ten blocks of the same street. It is a little bit maddening.

An almost irresistable allure
If you pay attention to and/or try to make sense of my system of tagging these blog posts, you might have noticed that, despite my protestations about my squarely stable father-of-small-children lifestyle, I still make use of the “vices” tag quite a bit. That’s because, beyond occasionally reminiscing about smoking and drinking and gambling and the like, I now consider food to be my biggest vice. I’m not so far gone as to have reduced eating itself to something I’m conceptually opposed to, but I do have an easily exploited fondness for food that is literally terrible for me, both in terms of purely unhealthy agglomerations of fat and salt and sugar and also in terms of costing more money than it should due to not being home-cooked. I can still distinctly remember being 12 or 13 years old and sometimes riding my bike to the local convenience store and spending my allowance on a couple of comic books, a soda and a candy bar; afterwards I would be really down on myself for doing myself the double disservice of spending all my allowance rather than saving some, and consuming fattening junkfood despite several kids at school thinking it was hilarious to refer to me by new vocabulary words like “portly”. (Though of course at that age I had absolutely no chance of mustering the willpower to break said habit.) The point being sometimes I feel like twenty-odd years have gone by but nothing has changed except the willpower, and then only sometimes, but I’m constantly tempted to spend money I really should be saving on meals that really would do me more harm than good.

But that’s the nature of temptation, I suppose, and when it’s multiplied by the ridiculously robust selection of dining options within walking distance of my office it’s even harder to resist the savory siren call. So far, a month into my post-paternity leave return, I’m doing a fair job staying strong. (Also helping is the fact that we’ve already had so many 90-degree-plus days, with more approaching-100 coming this week, woohoo.) I’m not sure I’d want to lay odds on how long I’ll last, though.

II.
So it seems like the safest, sanest bet for me would be to plan on not leaving the office at lunchtime. Or, if I were to leave, to not go very far. My default approach would go something like this: take two minutes in the morning at home while my coffee is brewing and throw together a sandwich in a baggie. When lunchtime rolls around, go down to the office kitchen and purchase a diet soda from vending machine #1 and a bag of chips (preferably Baked or Sun) from vending machine #2 and return to my cubicle for a reasonably cheap and non-lifespan-limiting meal. That was actually working pretty well … until they took the vending machines away.
I can’t even remember now if it was last week or the week before, but one day I came into work and the vending machines were simply absent from their (visibly grimier) spots on the kitchen floor. I do know this was shortly after I had mentally noted that they were running low on chips in the snack machine and idly wondered when it might be restocked. I guess maybe the vending machine company had a contract with the previous tenants of this office space, and we haven’t yet gotten our own deal – although I also could have sworn we were a government agency taking over space vacated by a different government agency so really why would we all need separate contracts. Contracts for, again I just want to make this very clear, SNACK AND SODA VENDING MACHINES. We’re not exactly talking vital support services at the highest levels here. Ah well. My boss did make an offhand comment the other day about replacing the vending machines but I have no idea if there’s an actual plan unfolding or what.

Luckily Plan B, which consists of riding the elevator all the way down to the lobby which adjoins with an indoor concourse that has multiple delis and convenience marts that all sell diet sodas and munchies (in far more varied profusion than any vending machine might boast), is not terribly difficult to implement. It just also carries the risk of walking into one of those deli-marts and smelling the Special of the Day on the grill and recklessly and wantonly deciding the sandwich will keep and what I really need is a double bacon cheeseburger sub with the works. It is a slippery slope, greased with deep-fryer fat.

III.
But hey, speaking of deep-fryers, the whole family made it out to our hometown Train Day celebration this past Saturday for a couple of hours, which was probably the perfect amount of time. The little guy got to see lots of real grown-up type train sets that were on display, and to climb on a giant moonbounce/slide shaped like a firetruck, and take a ride on a little tram-train that did laps around the VRE parking lot. We also grabbed lunch, and although he made it quite clear that all he wanted was ice cream, the little guy managed to acquiesce to our demands that he eat at least a few bites of chicken-on-a-stick before proceeding to demolish a vanilla soft-serve cone. My wife and I on the other hand were more than happy to avail ourselves of the prototypical fair-food offerings; I had a sausage, peppers and onions sandwich and she had a crabcake sandwich, plus we split an order of deep-fried jalapeno poppers. I know I am prone to hyperbole every now and then but I feel confident in saying that these were the best jalapeno poppers I had ever had in my life. They used fresh (not previously frozen) peppers and the breading they were fried in was thin and crisp and those little details just put the whole experience on another level of delectability. This is why I consider food to be my big vice these days: because sometimes it feels so good it cannot possibly be anything but bad for me.

I refuse to feel bad about it, though. It’s one thing to keep a sensible head on my shoulders about how I eat at work, because I have to go to work day in and day out for a long, long time. But Train Day only comes once a year, and I feel entitled on that occasion to indulge in the best cooking a truck can offer.