Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Funnies

I had to go back to the old office in the middle of the day today for a mandatory meeting, where everyone on my contract (there’s about 15 or so of us who work for my employer) gathered to hear the results of the annual employee satisfaction survey and what the megacorporation is doing to address the dissatisfactions. This was probably the third time I’ve been to that meeting, so it was predictably boring, but hey: free lunch.

I arrived at the old building, coincidentally, at almost the exact same time as several of my co-workers, although we had come by different routes. They had made a sidetrip to pick up some dessert for everyone, which consisted of two tubs of bakery cookies, one labeled as chocolate chip and the other as malted milk ball (i.e. basically chocolate chip cookies but with crushed up Whoppers instead of Tollhouse morsels).

SHUT UP THEY ARE FREAKING DELICIOUS
Now, here’s the thing: I freaking love Whoppers. I know I am in a dwindling majority in that, and a lot of people find chocolate-covered malted milk balls gross, but there you have it. I love Whoppers so much that the last time I went to the movie theater, I attempted to buy some, only to find that while the concession stand was stocked with Raisinets and Junior Mints and Buncha Crunch, they apparently don’t even carry Whoppers anymore. Which was a drag.

I’m usually pretty reticent around my co-workers because I just generally don’t want to draw attention to myself (latent fear of someone noticing I’m never given very much work to do, I guess). But when I noticed the malted milk ball cookies during the elevator ride up, I did relate that I had recently been to the movies, tried to get some, and come up empty. To which one of my co-workers really stridently responded, “Oh, man, that sucks!” and suddenly it was no longer me making a passing comment, it was a conversation that would be really awkward if I clammed up again. So without thinking much about it I answered, “I know, right? I was like … M&M’s? They’ll do … I guess.” And I said it in this really cranked-up aggrieved tone of voice that my wife and I resort to when we’re really making fun of ourselves for being overly entitled and privileged and having first-world problems and so forth. (Unsurprisingly we use this tone a lot. I should worry more that sometimes parodying a douchebag can come across as the douchebaggery being parodied itself. But anyway.)

But my M&M’s line cracked the rest of the elevator up. Which on the one hand at least killed the pressure to keep the conversation going. But really all I could think as everyone else was laughing was “Seriously? Gales of laughter? Over that? You people need to get out more.” The fact is the bar for humor is really, really low in the workaday world of The Big Gray. It is a very fortunate thing, I believe, that I got over my natural attention-seeking-via-class-clown-behavior tendencies some time during the college years, because it would be way to easy to turn into David Brent/Michael Scott or something if I hadn’t.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Still Struggling

And now the Ultimate Weapon doesn't work so reliably, either. The little guy has been maddeningly rebellious about naptime and bedtime for the past week or so, and (not once but twice) not only has he had the threat of losing his big boy pillow leveled at him, and scoffed at it, and seen us follow through and take it away, but he has also had the threat of losing the entire big boy bedframe leveled, scoffed, and seen us follow through on that, too. For the last two nights he has spent the night sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in front of his reading chair (which no longer has a seat cushion, because he kept tossing that across the room in full-on gleefully anarchic toddler mode, and I hid that away, too).

Turning that bedtime frown upside-down
This might be cause for despair, but once again just in time for the Thursday update things are looking up. Tuesday night was extremely rough, but last night was better. It had been a while since we had set up the little guy with a reward chart, where he gets a smiley sticker every time he is acceptably cooperative getting ready for bed at night and then gets a small toy when he collects enough stickers; his behavior had gotten so predictably pleasant that the charts seemed unnecessary. Now the chart has returned, with an added twist: he earns a sticker by getting ready for bed, but he only gets to keep the sticker if, once mom or dad leaves, he stays in bed all night. If he gets up repeatedly after being warned and reminded not to, the sticker he just earned can be rescinded.

The little guy was adorably super-psyched about this last night which, in combination with the aforementioned harrowing horrors of the night before, made the entire evening one of the smoothest in recent memory. He got ready for bed with minimal fuss and stayed there, without a single escape attempt after lights out. The only problem now, in my mind, is that I’m not sure how much of this was random luck, how much was the novelty and excitement of the long-awaited return of the reward chart, how much was the actual power of the reward chart itself, and how much was my deliberate effort to push his bedtime somewhat later into the evening in hopes he’d be that much more tired (an effort which was ironically thwarted a bit by the little guy’s own excitement; he wanted to rush through getting ready for bed so he could get his sticker, so even though we started the process later we did it in record time, so it was almost a wash). Hopefully the luck and newness factors were minimal, and the positive influence of the reward chart (which totally worked before!) will provide a strong bridge over the current rough patch. Hopefully.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Logic Be Damned

A little while ago, one of my buddies recommended the movie GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra to me, in the context of one of my usual laments about needing to get more out of my Netflix subscription and so forth. He was not miserable with his own memories of the movie and looking for company, nor did he make the suggestion after some kind of ironic, so-bad-its-good disclaimer. It was a legit recommendation; he straightforwardly enjoyed the flick and thought I (fellow child of the 80’s, after all) would, too. He allowed that it was “dumb but fun” but the emphasis came down dominantly on the “fun” side of that formulation.

GI Joe seemed like as good a candidate as any for my Summer Movies on a Train project, so I added it to the old queue and it arrived in the mail early last week and accompanied me on my commute shortly thereafter. I was fully prepared to suffer through the movie so that I could say that I had seen it, after which I would be able to roast my buddy and tell him he was half-right (meaning it wasn’t fun but it certainly was dumb). And then the strangest thing happened: my buddy turned out to be right on both counts. Once I gave the movie permission to be absolutely as dumb as it pleased, it was a lot of fun to watch.

I mean, do not get me wrong, the movie is DUMB. It may, in fact, not technically qualify as a “movie” if the dictionary definition of that term includes a requirement that a coherent, logical storyline be employed. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is more of “an audiovisual string of ridiculously awesome crap interspersed with nonsensical reasons for that crap to keep happening”. But for brevity’s sake let’s just keep calling it a “movie”.

Why does he have both a gun and a sword?  UNASK THE QUESTION.
The movie takes just about every catchphrase associated with the old toys and cartoons which made GI Joe such a beloved part of my pop-culture addled childhood and ham-fists them into the script. E.g., early on our two POV characters are rescued from an ambush by the current Joe team, loaded onto a jet, and flown back to the secret GI Joe headquarters. On the jet they receive medical attention including, presumably, morphine. As one of the characters, Ripcord, is getting a little loopy under the drugs, he reaches out and touches the head of one of his rescuers. “Man, you got some real lifelike hair,” Rip trippily observes. Since the observee is a dude, said dude grabs the drugged Ripcord by the wrist to force him to let go. “Ow, and a kung-fu grip!” The fact that Ripcord is high on morphine when he utters these non-sequitors (which are of course selling points that would have been emblazoned on GI Joe action figure boxes back in the day) is one of the most logically defensible things that happens throughout the movie. The rest of it would make anyone looking for logical consistency shout at the screen “What is going on? What just happened? Why would they do that?” for basically the entire running time. But turn off your brain, and it’s just a couple of hours of expertly choreographed and shot fight scenes and explosions and so forth.

It may sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m honestly not. I do think there is a time and place for mindless entertainment in the form of delivery vectors for CGI carnage. Or even pencil-and-paper carnage. A different buddy and I were discussing comic books a week or two ago, which led naturally into talking about comic book fans themselves, and how a certain vocal subset of them hate when the publishers make large-scale changes to their offerings, particularly when the fans can envision ways that things could have stayed the same and still made sense. (For instance, Superman has been around since the late 30’s, and also is portrayed as if he’s in his late 30’s. The comic book makers explain this away with sometimes-vague, sometimes-hyperspecific statements about how Superman only landed as a baby on earth 30-some years ago, and any stories the fans may be familiar with which certainly seem tied to a certain place and time in the more distant past either never happened, or happened in some convolutedly different way, etc. So Superman’s fictional history, unbound by the laws of time and space and causality and so forth because, again, FICTIONAL, is ever-changing. But lots of people hate change, and so.) My buddy and I agreed that this vocal subset is largely missing the point, and one way of clearly stating the point is to say “internal consistency is overrated”.

And I’m coming to very strongly believe that, not just as a phrase that came up once but as great entertainment-consumption advice. It’s not that internal consistency doesn’t matter at all. It’s not that stories can’t be both logical and amusing, that you always have to expect coherence to be sacrificed in the name of pure unadulterated awesome. But it is a caution against getting one’s priorities all out of whack. I suppose the full expression of the axiom is “When internal consistency is considered the most important thing, it is overrated.” But that happens so often, especially among continuity-obsessed detail-oriented nerds, that it almost goes without saying. Geek culture (my culture, I admit) tends to overrate these kind of things. And get mocked for it, and rightly so. But there are rewards to be reaped for letting it go (sometimes, within reason, etc.) That makes it a good mantra as far as I’m concerned.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Besieged

I skipped work (and blogging) yesterday, because I gave myself a personal leave day to take care of various and sundry things around the house. The dire fact is that most if not all of the major kingdoms of the biological world were encroaching on our domicile in increasingly hard to ignore ways.

The animal representatives were both specific and abstract. Specifically, wasps had decided to build a small nest on the ventral surface of our curbside mailbox. There were no incidents of terrible malevolence, but it was probably a ticking timebomb; best not to take chances when critters with stingers are involved. Abstractly, we recently became aware of some serious gaps in the exterior foundation of our house near the chimney, which is far too tempting of an open invitation for any old pest that might want to crawl into the shelter of what is intended to be a humans-and-housepets-only habitation.

Not to scale
Plant-wise, we are being slowly strangled by weeds once again. It's getting more and more tempting to rip out every green thing including the grass and cover every square inch of our property with inert sand and rocks. Or possibly Play-Doh, because why should the construction of homonculi out of stuff lying on your front lawn be limited to winter? And in addition to undesirable weeds, there are several desirable hedges and bushes and whatnot on our property which hadn’t been properly trimmed back since last year.

Not a fungal infestation per se, but my wife did make a dispiriting discovery of mold within some of the connection tubes of her breast pump, which in turn necessitated a round of corrective measures in and of itself. At the same time, both of the kids have gunked-up noses at the moment, which doesn’t necessarily qualify as a bacterial epidemic, but clearly it doesn’t help. Basically at this point the only major division of lifeform leaving no evidence of nefarious plotting to bring down my world is the protists, but I'm just assuming those schemes are in the works and too tiny to see. I was tempted to nuke the house from orbit to be sure.

But beating back the hordes of flora and fauna became my project for the day, and it was more or less successful. I had to make a run to the hardware store for heavy duty bug spray and quick drying concrete and electric hedge trimmers, and then (after a few other store stops which were much easier to tick off while the rest of the world was at work) I busied myself for a couple of hours spraying, patching, weed-whacking, cutting, pulling, raking and so forth. Partly I had put this off until Monday because of other pre-existing weekend plans, and partly in hopes that the recent killer heatwave might break. Which it did, ever so slightly, though my 120 minutes of pre-noon outdoor exertions still left me feeling a bit overcooked.
I suppose “weather” and “crumbling stone” and “backlog of errands” don’t really count as living things, so it might have been more accurate to say I needed a day yesterday to devote myself to battling entropy. That is life, I suppose.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Bad to the banana-seat

I’ve been thinking a bit this week (in between dodging the killing rays of the scorching sun and bouncing from finding my son adorable to finding him deplorable and back again) about badassery.

I’m sure mostly this has to do with my pop culture diversions, both mental and actual. I was of course riffing on Dark Sun on Wednesday, and in case it wasn’t crystal clear (or if your eyes glazed over) the whole notion of post-apocalyptic Dungeons & Dragons in a world of gladiator slaves and cannibal savages and a dying desert planet is of course a naked attempt to take some of the inherent silliness of elves and dwarves and sparkly magic wands and make it extremely badass. The early part of this week, I was reading yet another (for better or worse, the only other) City of Heroes novel which focuses on the origin of that gameworld’s Superman analogue, the Statesman. The CoH twist is that Statesman was a scarred World War I vet who was both cured of his debilitating war wounds and granted extraordinary powers by drinking a mythological elixir, after a hunt for said elixir which was funded by various criminal activities, and even after he gained the powers he primarily used them to hunt down one specific arch-criminal only because that relatively more evil guy had murdered Statesman’s brother and foster father, and only towards the end of that hunt did he evolve into the kind of principled hero the rest of the world could look up to and be inspired by (but he was still kind of a badass). Yesterday the movie I watched on my VRE ride was GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the live-action joint from 2009, which managed to be both totally goofy and slightly badass (and I will have much more to say about the films merits and flaws next time Geek-Out Wednesday rolls around). And today on the VRE I started watching a movie called Suicide Kings which is about amateur criminals and mobsters and features both Christopher Walken and Denis Leary, so I expect much badass (albeit quirky) action to be in store there.

So awful it goes right back around to awesome again.
This is my escapism of choice, and this is indisputably the season for it. But speaking of the mix of badassery and absurdity, here’s a story from one of the summers of my youth.

When I was about ten years old my family took a week’s vacation to Lake George in upstate New York. A couple of memories that stand out from that trip include sitting in our rental cabin on a rainy day watching the video for Panama on MTV and arguing with my dad about whether Van Halen was the name of the lead singer in the band or the lead guitarist (I was arguing the former, clearly I was wrong, but I was only a dumb kid who just assumed that the frontman always got top billing, and this was obviously well before David Lee Roth became a household name.) and also going out to a mom-and-pop ice cream shop and getting a bowl of homemade Chocolate Cookies and Cream (which means they used chocolate ice cream and mixed in sizable chunks of store-bought Oreos, and if you think that would be an overkill of chocolate you and I must agree to disagree).

Another memory from that same trip is of the night the whole family went out to the local retail main drag to … I guess shop for souvenirs because it was near the end of the trip? That part’s a little hazy, but I do remember that we ended up going into lots and lots of custom t-shirt shops and my Little Bro and I being told we could pick out whatever we liked.

Ten years old is probably about the perfect age to form a deep, devoted emotional bond with your bicycle, and that was certainly true for me. I had actually been somewhat late to learn to ride a bike without training wheels, but once I did I took to making up for lost time with a vengeance. And the friends I hung out with at that age were really into their bikes, too, which just reinforced what a big chunk of my life they occupied and how all I really ever wanted to do with my free time was jump on my bicycle and ride for hours with no particular destination in mind.
So of course from time to time I would stumble across various signifiers and symbols of motorcycle culture but in my age-appropriate cluelessness (see above) it often would not even occur to me that the “bikes” to which they referred were not the same as the “bike” that was my prize possession. So when I was drawn to these things it was not a case of precocious subversive co-opting of counter-culture, it was pure dumb kid self-absorption.

Anyway, there I was in the t-shirt shop scanning the walls which were just papered floor-to-ceiling with iron-on decals, and I saw one which blew all others out of contention. Picture, if you will, a lushly painted vista of a highway stretching off toward the distant craggy horizon at sunset, the entire scene bathed in blazing oranges, yellows and reds (if you are picturing something done in a style which might also be seen on the side of a van, you are in the zone, my friend). Imagine this landscape circumscribed by a border of chains. Dream, if you dare, of a grinning steel skull with feathered chrome wings superimposed atop the middle of that circle, and finally add the words RIDE TO LIVE curving above the picture and LIVE TO RIDE beneath it. Holy sweet hell did I fall in love with that at first sight, and I desperately wanted to be emblazoned with that exact badass imagery every time I took my ridiculous, pudgy ten-year-old butt on my bicycle down to the dirt tracks in the woods.

Unsurprisingly, my father was not as super-enthused about it as I was. I think he had just expected we would get t-shirts to remind us of the trip in some obvious way, maybe even ones that said Lake George on them somewhere? I semi-remember him suggesting as much to my Little Bro, and Little Bro asking dad if I was getting a Lake George t-shirt, and my dad answering in this really aggrieved tone “no, because I guess all he’s into now is skulls and devils and crap like that” loud enough that there was no mistaking that I was meant to hear it and feel ashamed (and I didn’t mistake that intention, clueless as I was I still wasn’t that clueless, but neither did I feel particularly ashamed for all that). But, to my dad’s credit, he had said I could pick out whatever I wanted and he bought me a gray-and-black ringer tee with the RIDE TO LIVE skull logo affixed because that was exactly what I wanted. And I proceeded to wear the hell out of it until I outgrew it. (And I wish I had kept it all the same, maybe turned it into a small decorative pillow eventually or something.)

I have to say, for years and years I just kind of assumed that my father thought that certain things were proper and respectable and other things weren’t and he was just chagrined by the thought of his children getting into things he didn’t particularly care for. Once I got a little older and did realize the things I had thought were made just for me were actually aimed at the Harley crowd, and that that crowd was fairly rough around the edges in broad and general stereotypical terms, it only reinforced my theory about my dad wanting us to mirror his own tastes. But nowadays I’m not sure that was the whole answer, maybe not even most of the answer. I suppose when your own child gets into those pre-tween years (not that the term existed when I was that age, but you know) it’s not so much the differences between their personality and your own that can get you down, but simply the idea that they’re growing up so much, so fast, at all. There’s no doubt in my mind my father didn’t think very much of the trappings of heavy metal, punk rock and lots of other underground scenes, but I think his disdain when I gravitated towards those things was really masking a certain sadness about me being interested in anything vaguely mature at all (even if it was an example of the most puerile definition of the word). I am a huge fan of postures of badassery in ways that range from ironic to sincere to mindless, so I certainly won’t have any aesthetic objections or snide sighing comments to make the first time my little guy comes home with anything at all cut from that cloth. But it will break my heart a tiny bit all the same.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eternal Struggles

Well that didn’t last long. Apparently the bloom is off the rose for the little guy’s toddler bed, as he has increasingly been challenging the very idea of bedtime in head-on manner, climbing out of bed and being escorted back multiple times per evening before finally resigning himself to making an half-hearted attempt at sleep. Gone is the irresistible allure of the Cars-bedecked bedframe and linens which not so long ago had the little guy snuzzling his head into his pillow with a beatific smile on his face. Gone, gone, may it rest in peace (because nobody in my house is going to).

Last night was by far the worst (so far). The little guy was compliant enough as far as getting into bed at the appointed time, but he wasn’t exactly smiling about it. And less than five minutes later he was up and about; when I went back upstairs to guide him back to his bed, he informed me that he was “done sleeping” and wanted me to come and wake him up. When I left his room and closed the door behind me for the second time, he started yelling (not screaming, there is a subtle but important difference) from his bed “Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!” which went on for about a full minute, ignored by me, until he suddenly remembered he could get out of bed and open the door to his room and stand at the top of the stairs and keep yelling from there. Which he proceeded to do, and that was my cue to head upstairs and silently steer him back to bed. Which simply reset the cycle to the yelling-from-bed point, and this continued for about an hour or so.

It verged on heart-wrenching when, maybe the fifth or sixth time I was escorting him back to bed, the little guy started insisting, “Dad, I couldn’t keep up with you! I tried but I couldn’t keep up!” which of course made me feel extremely guilty about subjecting my child to feelings of abandonment. Maybe he had started to doze off and immediately went into an anxious, unpleasant dream state, one of those running-in-place nightmares, and I wasn’t doing much to comfort him by stonefacedly shoving him back under the covers over and over and over again. Fortunately not long after that he went from yelling “Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!” to “Mack! Mack! Mack! Mack! Mack!” which clued me in that he was once again just playing out the plot to the first Cars movie, where Lightning McQueen falls off the back of his trusty tractor trailer Mack and can’t catch up again, thus ending up stranded in Radiator Springs. It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, that both interpretations might be true, and the little guy was feeling abandoned in his darkened bedroom and was using the vocabulary of Pixar’s anthropomorphic vehicles to articulate his emotional state, but given the little guy’s penchant for imaginary reenactments I tend to think he really was just bored.

At any rate, the battle of wills went on and on, until finally I remembered a tip my wife had passed along. The little guy may seem underwhelmed by his now-familiar sleeping arrangements, but he truly does love having a big boy pillow after years of a flat crib mattress, and thus the Ultimate Weapon entails threatening to take the pillow away if behavior is unacceptable. For the first hour post-bedtime I hadn’t spoken a word and barely looked at the little guy (which I totally admit is a strategy co-opted from Supernanny which is supposed to simultaneously reinforce that children have to stay in bed at bedtime and also circumvent blatant attention-seeking acting out) but with no end in sight I finally told the little guy that any more jumping out of bed would result in immediate loss of pillow. He fake-cried pretty loudly in protest for a long interval after that, but all from within the confines of the bed itself, and finally he fell asleep. So, score one for the Wave Motion Gun (which, as always, I really should have just busted out at the beginning).

We mu-u-u-ust be strong and bra-a-a-ave/Our ho-o-o-ome we've got to sa-a-a-ave!
I know this is just a phase he’s going through and even now, less than 24 hours later, I find it if not awesomely hilarious at least appreciably farcical. I also know I simply need to hang in there and not buckle or cave, so this isn’t a desperate cry for help or anything, just standard venting.

In other exciting news, this morning the little girl rolled from her stomach to her back for the very first time! I haven’t delved into the pediatric percentile assessments or anything but it seems subjectively like she’s coming along super-fast in the motor skills. Of course that means it’s becoming ever more perilous to set her down someplace and turn my attention elsewhere even for a second … which makes it extremely difficult to constantly, oh, say, run up and down the stairs because I have to keep corralling a toddler who won’t stay in bed. But so it goes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Half-Giants

Just this past Monday the fam and I had dinner over at the house of some friends. They have two daughters, ages 4 and 1, and it was highly amusing watching our little guy interacting with the older of the two girls. I was very much put in mind of half-giants.

Perhaps I should back up.

So there is this game called Dungeons and Dragons with which I believe I have copped to a certain acquaintanceship. The original D&D is rooted in a fantasy setting which is pretty much indistinguishable (read: ripped off) from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in every aspect: ecology, sociology, technology, etc. I’m assuming that much is, if not common knowledge, at least reasonably close to what most non-hardcore-geeks would come up with if asked to describe D&D on the spot. What the uninitiated might not know, I’m guessing, is that the company that originally produced D&D created numerous other world-settings in which the game could be played, each with its own flavor. These variations on the theme covered everything from gothic horror to medieval sci-fi. Possibly the strangest – and in my mind the best – was called Dark Sun.

I don’t want to get bogged down too much in the wonkiness of it so I’ll attempt to be brief (and preemptively apologize if this gets confusing as I gloss over stuff) but the basic idea is post-apocalyptic D&D. Still early medieval technology, though, so the apocalypse wasn’t nuclear war or anything like that but rather the abuse of magic. In most standard fantasy settings magic is just kind of lying around for anyone’s use if they know the secret words. In Dark Sun, magic draws its fuel from life energy, which most sentient creatures are understandably reluctant to let go of, and thus most wizards powered their spells by stealing life energy from defenseless plants. This led to a slow-motion disaster where the vast majority of plant life on the planet died, disrupting food chains and turning the whole world into a desert full of monstrosities that adapted to a harsher depleted biosphere. The survivors who inherited this world were by necessity strong and cruel, leading to everything from iron-fisted despots controlling city-state oases and widely practiced slavery to vicious outlaw gangs and cannibal tribes and so forth. Fun for the whole family!

Another Tolkien riff that has permeated a ton of other fantasy is the idea of love between the flawed but vigorous humans and the delicately beautiful elves, which can yield half-elf children who represent the best aspects of both races. Dark Sun has its own warped take on that notion and expands it to include other potential hybrids, partly because slavery allows for (admittedly icky) forced breeding and partly because in a desolate desert world, one takes what mate one can get. Thus there are half-dwarves, as tall as humans but as strong and hearty as dwarves, and also half-giants, midway in height and mass between humans and giants (which is pretty tall!) and also midway between both parents in intelligence (which is pretty dumb!).

The human skulls are for scale.
The whole point of having multiple races in fantasy games, in particular, is that the whole game is a combination of planning and luck. Challenges encountered by the game characters are resolved by rolling dice, but whether or not and how much the odds are for or against the character is determined by numerical stats associated with the character. So choosing a character pretty much comes down to how you would like to play the game of chance. If you want good odds of succeeding in physically oriented struggles, and are willing to take worse odds on intellect or personality centered ones, or vice versa, then that can steer your character choice. In the games’ purest forms the character stats end up being determined by chance as well, but the races can influence that as well. Elves are more graceful, so whatever the dice say your character’s agility is, if you chose to play an elf that stat will be automatically bumped up. And so on.

Of course the whole fantasy genre has a long tradition of primarily occupying itself with dragonslaying and other feats of strength, so why doesn’t everyone just play the strongest race of whatever milieu they are in? (In Dark Sun, for example, that would be the half-giants.) Basically, to avoid that very predicament, the game designers tried to balance every advantage with some kind of drawback, such as elves being extra susceptible to poison. Sometimes it seems like a zero-sum situation, where a character who is so fast they are going to get hit by attacks 10% less of the time is also going to take 10% more damage when they do get hit, and thus it becomes not so much a matter of finding the race that is best at winning the game but rather personal aesthetic preference. Other times it’s a little bit weirder.
I’ve been talking about games here but avoiding the role-playing modifier, for no good reason other than to really slam down hard on it now. D&D and the like can be played like pencil-and-paper video games, with characters that are just invisible ciphers moving through a math-based world of hacking and slashing at beasties and bad guys. But they can also be played as evolving stories with nuanced characters who have emotional arcs and respond to things a little more, dare I say, cerebrally. In the latter case, playing the game not only becomes an outlet for the destructive impulse to run around decapitating orcs, but also for assuming another identity, as close or far from the face you normally show the world as you like. And if you play the games that way, for a long enough time, then after a while you’ll look for interesting wrinkles in that specific side of it, the bringing-a-character-to-larger-than-life aspect.

So here’s the thing about half-giants. You want to play the huge brute in the game who smites at will, who’s tough as stone and dumb as dirt? Have at it, but there’s one more catch. You have to play by the rules of the Dark Sun world, which state that half-giants are more than simply unintelligent. They’re childlike. They’re impressionable. And they’re halfway-decent mimics. So if you’re playing the game correctly, in the course of inhabiting your half-giant character, you’ll look to another character in the game and behave exactly like them. Repeat what they say, do what they do, and in any case where you’re forced to act independently try to live out the answer to “What would Gorvort do?” The game itself even has rules for determining which character the half-giant is going to mimic each day. (It comes down, as always, to a roll of the dice but is modified by what happens in the game; if the half-giant has been imitating Gorvort the Barbarian for a while, but then Deelulu the Thief manages to save the party by killing an impressively dangerous critter, there’s a much higher chance the half-giant will start imitating Deelulu the following day.)

Assuming a high level of commitment to the roleplaying (which I’ve always counted myself very fortunate to be able to depend on from the people I tend to game with) this makes half-giants awesomely hilarious to have in a campaign. There are novels set in the world of Dark Sun, too (of course there are) and I’ve enjoyed immensely the half-giants described therein (because of COURSE I’ve read those novels).

And clearly, the best guide you could possibly be given to the personality of the mythical half-giant would be to watch an almost-three-year-old in the presence of a four-and-a-half-year-old, which is precisely what I was doing Monday night. Everything that girl did, my little guy had to do as well. Sometimes that meant she was shouting something which the little guy semi-echoed, in equally loud shouts, as phonetic gibberish (to be fair, they were also both spinning around at the time, and that can make critical listening difficult). Sometimes that meant enthusiastically heading off to some new activity as if it were his favorite thing to do in the world ever, even though he had never heard of it before the young lady in question brought it up. Sometimes it simply meant running over to me to be picked up because she had just run over to her dad for same. Which was great and all, except of course as soon as she got down to run somewhere else, my little guy was howling to be set down as well. Still, all in all, he’s my little half-giant, and without fail he is awesomely hilarious.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thoughts run semi-wild

Conveniently, Tuesday being my free-form blogging day is lining up with my mind being in a bit of a stochastic mode, so rather than trying to tame everything into a cohesive argument or the like, I’m just going to jump around from riff to riff.

For some reason this card makes me thirsty.
The new computer is still working out well, except for the challenges I’m currently having with iTunes. Not that iTunes didn’t install just fine on the machine, but I had (foolishly) assumed that once I had cleared that hurdle it would be easy enough to hook up the dock, plug in my iPod, and download all the music contained therein to the iTunes library. Apparently not, for reasons I can only assume have something to do with Apple not wanting people to be able to share (read: pirate) music quite that easily. Although there are no such restrictions against using some other kind of storage device besides an iPod and transferring music files from the old PC to the new like so. In my particular case, though, the challenge then becomes getting the old PC to work just long enough to pull off the music files. I’ve tried once and the results were dismal. Fortunately I have friends who are much more capable than I in these arenas, so I’m still optimistic that the whole library is recoverable. We shall see.

The reason why this is something I feel somewhat compelled to resolve sooner rather than later is due largely to my father’s birthday, which has been tasking me for the past six weeks. My Little Bro and I came up with the fantastic idea of assembling some playlists of songs that remind us of our father (not too terribly hard since he is a big music fan and had a lot of influence on our pop education growing up) and burning him CDs thereof and presenting them along with liner notes as his birthday present. We also got Very little Bro and Baby Sister involved in the effort, and everything was going well as far as people picking their songs (with astonishingly little overlap) and drafting the liner notes and then it came time to actually assemble the compilation. Originally Little Bro had volunteered, then had to back out because his home PC is no longer capable of burning CD’s. Very Little Bro is unemployed and Baby Sister is 13, and both of them are currently living with my dad, so they’re not ideal candidates for either buying the MP3s or surreptitiously assembling the CDs. Thus it fell to me, and I was fine with that once I had the new PC up and running and everything. But I hit a minor stumbling block when Very Little Bro had requested a song that I knew I had on my iPod but which I could not add to the new playlist I was assembling on the PC. Frustrating.

There comes a point (probably right about now at the six-week mark) when a gift meant to commemorate a certain occasion is so egregiously late that it simply doesn’t matter when you finally get around to delivering it, because in every meaningful sense it will still be the same subjective amount of “late”. Nevertheless, I do want to get my dad’s birthday CDs finished soon, not only to get the to-do crossed off my personal list but also because he recently suggested that he drive down for a visit around the third weekend in August. I believe his car is equipped with a CD player and I think it would be nice for him to have four new mixes to listen to and help pass the 8-hour drive. So one way or the other I’ve really got to bang them out.

Of course, the entire notion of my dad, step-mother and Baby Sister (and, presumably though not guaranteed, Very Little Bro) coming to visit is something which is challenging to grapple with mentally. My dad hasn’t done anything recently to put any more strain on our relationship than is usual, with the possible exception of not coming to visit all that much. So on the one hand it is an unalloyed Good Thing that he is willing to make the effort and put in the drive-time and venture southward for a couple of days. But at the same time it’s impossible to think about without also thinking of how long it’s been since he came anywhere close to visiting, which by the time of this upcoming visit will be almost exactly two years prior, and then only a stop-in while returning home to Connecticut from the Outer Banks. In the interim we have moved, and he’s never seen the new house, and we’ve had our daughter, whom he hasn’t met. I don’t know how one goes about breaking a streak without being hyper-aware of said streak, so that’s where I’m at. And then on top of that is the constant fear that while he’s visiting there might be awkwardness or unpleasantness resulting from all the personality clashes under one roof. I’m not going to lie, it stresses me out, I wish it didn’t, but it does. But as my wife always says, our kids have six living grandparents and in the best of all possible worlds the kids would get to know and spend time with each of those grandparents, completely irrespective of whatever difficulties their parents and grandparents may struggle with. (Or words to that effect.)

So yeah, those are the kinds of things that bounce around in my head, and will no doubt continue to ricochet for the next month or so, after which hopefully I can look back on the now-impending visit and not see too much wreckage strewn about in the aftermath.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Working around the gaps

At this point we may very well be getting down to the final few weeks of my agency being split across two different offices. Supposedly everyone I used to work with in Rosslyn (who stayed behind while I and some other folks moved to Crystal City) is relocating here to the new office sometime in August, and I’m not sure exactly how this happened but, look at that, August is only about 13 days away. It should be interesting to see how, if at all, the dynamic around here changes.

This week, though, things are beyond dead quiet. My government boss is on vacation, as is the nearest person to me in the cubicle farm, which means the stretches of quiet isolation are the dominant vibe around here. As always that’s not exactly a complaint, since I prefer a relatively unhassled workday where I can tackle my own projects and set my own pace without feeling like too many people are looking over my shoulder. But it’s not doing me any favors in terms of getting me mentally prepared for everyone to descend on this office next month.

So, no news from the office, and I’m not feeling up to the task of spinning some non-newsworthy observation about office life into something bloggable (the above notwithstanding, obviously). To be fair I’m still somewhat in mental recovery mode since my wife had to work this past weekend and I was primary caregiver for an almost-three-year-old with an abundance of energy and a barely-three-month-old who is too sweet, and thus has yet to convince me she won’t melt in the heat outdoors. You see the position this puts me in. Hopefully by tomorrow I’ll be back in my usual frame of mind.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Registering a complaint

Yesterday, on the train ride home, I sat down next to a girl I would guess was somewhere between five and fifteen years younger than me. I’m not basing that on looks, mind you, because my field of vision basically took in the fact of an empty aisle seat and a female person endomorphic enough not to spill over into it seated by the window, and then I sat down and continued reading my book. No, I’m basing the age estimate purely on the subject matter of her cellphone conversation, which centered around things like the busy social calendar of wedding season, and baby showers, and other domains primarily of interest to people in their 20s or maybe early 30s. I had an expansive opportunity to amass these context clues, because said cellphone conversation was carried on at the same volume one would use if one were at home alone and speaking over background noise, and the conversation lasted the entire 50 minute train ride.

Of course I found this girl’s blistering obliviousness a bit irritating, but also please note that I am not conflating that with my stab at her age. This is not an “oh those Gen Y-ers or Millennials are so self-absorbed and rude” screed. There’s plenty of rude Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers and Greatest Generationists to go around, too, and stupid knoweth no age. That said, man this girl was dumb. Above and beyond the whole conduct-a-too-loud-to-ignore-hourlong-conversation-on-a-crowded-train thing, part of her call jumped out at me when she said (pretty sure this is word-for-word) “Yeah, I didn’t want to get you anything off your gift registry because, you know, that’s so impersonal … but, I didn’t really know what you needed or wanted? Sooo …”

If you can't think of something nice to give, give nothing at all, right?
The crazy thing is, I’ve heard similar arguments before and they never fail to blow my mind. I know that some people, who by and large already have problems with feeling overly entitled to begin with, can abuse the hell out of the notion of gift registries, or turn them into testaments to a complete lack of common sense, or whathaveyou. But I think that gives registries a bad rap. On balance I think gift registries are awesome. Personally I always get a little stressed out around gift giving occasions because I know it’s the thought that counts but I would also like to think that I can get the person something they actually might like or need (or ideally both). I just find that to be much harder in practice than in theory.
I get where the opposite side is coming from, I do. If you are truly close to someone then you should know them well enough to know their likes and dislikes and possibly even anticipate their needs. It’s not hard to understand someone envisioning their strongest friendships as being so full of sharing and caring that Friend A knows engaged Friend B has already inherited Great-Grandmama’s 19th century china service for 12, but what Friend B could really use in health and happiness would be a crepe pan to remind her of their senior-year trip to Paris, and perfect wedding gift QED. By which I mean I can relate to wanting that scenario to happen, but I also think it’s wildly improbable. So get over it.

I know, the whole gift registry process inserts a department store’s digital inventory system as a middle-man in the “I care about you, I want to get you something special” configuration, but I still don’t get the whole “impersonal” thing. It’s extremely personal, since the person you want to get the gift for is the person who set up the registry in the first place! (Unless you are more of a friend of the groom, because obviously it was his fiancée who set up the registry, but assume same-difference for the sake of argument.) If you knew me, personally, only well enough to know I love books, and you wanted to get me a gift, you could go to a bookstore, go to the new releases table, pick up a best seller, and deliver it to me while saying “I thought you might like this.” OR you could go to my Amazon wishlist and get one of the hundreds of things I’ve put there myself. Which of those approaches is more “impersonal”?

Gift registries can be annoying, or vulgar, or any number of other offenses. But if you accuse them of being “impersonal” I think what you really mean is “I am feeling sorry for myself because I won’t have a chance to show off what a great giver I am”. Although that’s not really true, because as much as I appreciate registries for providing me with exactly the kind of crutch I like to lean on, I also fully think that no one should feel obligated to stick to the registry exclusively (for that matter I don’t think anyone should feel locked into giving a gift at all, and brides who bitch about people who gave them cheap, off-registry gifts are among the ‘zilla-est) if inspiration leads them a different way. So what kills me is the kind of person who can say “Oh, I have NO idea what I’m going to get Madysen for her wedding, I just know I don’t want to get anything off the registry because that’s lame” and not recognize the slightest incoherence in that train of thought.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sleep, perchance

Last night the little guy was seized with a certain mania (that being a commonly seen high-end of his personal spectrum and not at all unusual for an almost-three-year-old, at that) which caused him to ravenously gobble down his bedtime snack of goldfish crackers and milk. The inevitable result was hiccups, and although I was fully aware that he had brought it upon himself, I still sympathized with the little guy, saying something to the effect of “oh no, you have the hiccups!” with an appropriately downcast tone of voice. But the little guy was having none of that: “No, Daddy, these aren’t sad hiccups, they’re happy hiccups!” All right, then.

The little guy has been pretty happy in general at (and on the subject of) bedtime this week, which I’ve been eager to mention yet somehow managed to pace myself so that I could hit it squarely today. This past weekend, in addition to picking up a few things to remodel the basement workout area for my wife’s birthday, we also went ahead and bought a new bed for the little guy. This took some seriously dedicated shopping time, since first stop Wal-Mart had none of the things we were looking for, and second stop Toys R Us had a suitable bed frame (the indispensible criteria being that it support a crib mattress; optional criteria being the incorporation of Lightning McQueen from Cars; nailed it on both counts) but was a bit lacking on non-babyish linens. This then necessitated a third stop at Target, which my wife undertook after dropping me off at home with both kids so I could start building the bed, and fortunately she was successful in obtaining Cars-themed sheets and comforter and pillowcase.

We did not, as it turned out, end up getting a bedframe in the actual shape of a sports car, but the one we opted for at least has a footboard shaped like Lightning McQueen’s face as well as a headboard decorated with a huge picture of Lightning, Francesco Bernoulli (his main rival in Cars 2) and Shu Todoroki (an incredibly minor fellow World Grand Prix racer from Japan in Cars 2, which I find delightfully random). We have all been calling it the “big boy bed” but it is very clearly a toddler bed, with its bright blue and red parts of mostly plastic and its approximate four-inch ground clearance and its bumper rails on either side to make sure the little guy doesn’t accidentally roll out. But he’s thrilled with it, and I’m thrilled for him, so who cares about semantics?

Gateway to Akira
Speaking of rolling around in one’s sleep, the little girl is proving shockingly adept at that herself. More accurately, she has just about perfect the art of rolling over onto her stomach after being laid down on her back in the crib, and in that position settling into nice, peaceful sleep. I sleep mainly on my stomach, and so does the little guy, so presumably the little girl is doing something which comes very naturally and which I hope (at the risk of jinxing the whole thing) bodes very well for her ability to transition from our room to her own room and sleep through the night at a significantly earlier stage than her big brother managed.

Still it’s a bit strange to think about it in those terms. I think as the birth of our daughter approached, my wife and I both resigned ourselves to long, long months of (understandable but nevertheless trying) neediness because that was the main personal point of reference we had. If and when our second child proves to be easier than the first, it’s always going to come as something of a surprise, not to mention make us feel like time is flying by: the little guy barely let us sleep more than four hours at a stretch until he was one year old or so, so if the little girl is allowing us six or more, did we somehow miss a birthday in there or something? It’s always an adventure, I suppose. Climbing one mountain does not mean you’ve climbed them all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Scraps of entertainment

Now that I no longer have the He-Man well to go to on Wednesdays I find it more of a challenge to come up with something worthily geeky to ramble on about at this point in the week. I haven’t been delving too deeply into the pop culture freakyzones of late, which is probably as much a symptom of time and circumstances as much as anything. And by that I mean, on the one hand, it’s mid-July and the tv shows are (largely) all in re-runs and the Captain America movie doesn’t come out for another week and a half, so there’s your factor of time; but on the other hand lack of time, as always, is an even more prominent factor. I haven’t been collecting new comics because I lack opportunities to get in the same places where they are sold. I’m no longer hosting weekly gaming nights at my house because weeknights tend to be given over to keeping two small children relatively intact. I won’t be going to see the new Harry Potter straightaway this weekend because I still haven’t managed to watch the previous two film installments. And so on. As always, it’s not that I mind in the slightest having two children or wish things were different or anything like that. But the regular bloggery tells the tale: Thursdays come easy, and Wednesday either requires a childhood-plundering gimmick or leaves me scratching my head.

It's going to be HUGE.
I suppose I did encounter an exception to this last night, as the little guy was adequately agreeable about going to bed on time and his little sister passed out on my chest not long thereafter. So daughter and I were couchbound, waiting (as we would be for a while) for my wife to come home from work, and I channel-surfed for a bit and found the pilot episode of Alphas just as it was about to begin.

I should mention that I did not find the premier airing of this pilot, or even watch it on its home network. Alphas is a new original series on Syfy and is regularly going to be televised at 10 p.m. on Mondays, apparently, which is highly inconvenient for me. 10 p.m. is right about the time when, whether she worked that day or not, my wife is more or less guaranteed to be home and we split up the tasks of walking the dogs and prepping the little girl for bed and prepping ourselves for bed and so on, so appointment television in that slot only works if it’s an appointment I can regularly be about 20 or 30 minutes late for (and then maybe pass out early on, once everyone is tucked in and the lights are off). And while there are shows where such flexibility requirements aren’t a huge issue (most Monday Night Footballs, for example), Alphas is an urban fantasy character drama with government conspiracy subplots and so forth. This would be yet another argument in favor of getting some kind of dang DVR upgrade to our cable package already, I know. Maybe the next time I get a raise.

Anyway, for some reason not entirely clear to me, the pilot of Alphas which ran at 10 on Syfy on Monday was being shown at 9 on Tuesday on my cable package’s Universal HD channel, and I wasn’t about to argue. It’s one of those wheelhouse shows (for me) which is kind of comicbooky but not really. No costumes, no codenames, but strange powers for the protagonists and antagonists, who are very much aligned in classic good-vs-evil formations. I had been hearing about it as its debut approached and I was curious enough to waste an hour and a half on the first episode.

I think they chose a reasonably good approach, in the way that they are presenting the titular Alphas as human beings who have extraordinary abilities which require minimal amounts of suspension of disbelief in order to get over. There aren’t any people who shoot bolts of flame from their eyes or can fly or anything like that, and certainly no aliens or gods or vampire werewolf zombies. The in-story pseudoscience posits that some people in the world can do normalish things turned up to 11. One guy’s adrenal system can give him temporary superstrength, but certainly doesn’t make him invulnerable. Another guy has uncanny aim and agility, but only reflexively, not when he’s trying and screwing it up with his own thinking process. A girl has heightened sensory perception but must concentrate to use it, which means when she’s sniffing a crime-scene like a bloodhound she can barely hear or see anything because she has brain-blinders on. On the one hand, as I said, this seems like sci-fi designed for mass appeal because it borders on plausible. And on the other hand, it’s a good fit for basic cable because they can save a ton on special effects. They do make use of some nifty CGI when powers get introduced early on, including House, MD-style shots inside of blood vessels to show the team tank getting pumped up, or (even more hilariously awesomely in my mind) the psychedelic stink lines emanating from things when the human bloodhound is at work. But then after that, they just spray some beads of water on the tank’s forehead and the implication is clear that he’s sweating as he exerts his power, or they show the sensor-girl with her eyes half closed and wearing a look of concentration, and obviously she’s in the zone. Pretty slick, that.

All in all Alphas was a fair timekiller, which seems to be my default line of demarcation between good and bad entertainment these days. But like I said, I have no idea if I’ll catch any more of the episodes this summer, though it does seem unlikely unless Syfy does catch-up marathons on weekends. Cable channels still do that sometimes, right? Even though everyone else on the (first-world) planet has a DVR? I guess I'll have to find out.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Travelin' show

I’ve realized that I have a lot fewer craziness-of-commuting stories these days, and even fewer still that are worth even mentioning here on the blog. A week ago I experienced a moment of awestruck gratitude not to be on Interstate 66. I had left work early to pick up the kids on the little girl’s first day of daycare, and after getting off the VRE and getting in my car I heard a report on the news about the old Highway of Doom – apparently there was a truck fire involving a hay trailer, which of course was sited (a) on the westbound side I would have taken home from the Metro and (b) almost immediately west of the Metro which is where the traffic on 66 always snarls even on a good day. But as profound as the there-but-for-the-grace moment was at the time, it was quickly forgotten and thus hasn’t even come up until now.

But despite (or more accurately because of) the lack of drama associated with the easier and more direct train, I am enjoying my new mode of commuting, even though (as I mentioned previously) it does render my annual tradition of Beach Books on a Bus something of a misnomer. Still, semantics notwithstanding, the tradition must go on! Because basically I am the kind of person who does something twice and then becomes so co-dependently attached to perpetuating it some form of intervention may eventually be required.

(Before I plunge into my recent reading list, however, you know what makes for great summer reading? All the short stories (including mine!) in How the West Was Weird Volume 2! Now available at Amazon.com!)

I’m not sure whether or not BBB 2011 started with The Lost City of Z by David Grann. It’s a non-fiction book composed of equal parts academic research and investigative journalism, not the usual unapologetically trashy genre-ghetto fare which is BBB’s whole reason for being. But the main subject matter is drawn from the pulp-tastic era of exploration in the early 20th century, and evokes everything from Indiana Jones to The Lost World, so that has to count for something. It’s the kind of book I would read for fun at the beach, at any rate.

If that doesn’t qualify, then BBB indisputably got underway with the continuing sci-fi epic of Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah. My Little Bro is a big fan of the Dune books but up until this summer I had only ever read the eponymous first novel in the series, so if nothing else I was looking forward to being able to discuss the expanded world-building with him. I grabbed book two in paperback at the used book store for 35 cents and I can confidently say it was worth every penny! It’s so radically different from the first book that I’m still not sure how much I enjoyed it on its own merits. I also picked up the third book, Children of Dune, for 70 cents recently and may very well end up reading that before this summer is over.

It makes sense if you read the book, believe me.
Next up was Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon, which was a paperback published in the early 90’s that made its way into my possession not long after but which somehow I was forever putting off reading. I believe I started it once, I don’t remember when, and it just didn’t grab me, so I always believed that reading it would be a chore and there was always something else more pressing to read first. I must have packed up and moved that book at least seven or eight times since graduating college. Now that I’ve finally conquered it, I’m not sure why I was so resistant to it all this time. The early, abortive attempt must have come at a strange time that limited my receptiveness to it, though again it’s hard to reconstruct what that would have been. The novel is a love letter to the pop entertainments of male childhood in the mid-20th century: comic books, rock and roll, baseball, monster movies, stop me of any of this sounds extremely familiar. And it’s done in a style which I’m just going to call American magical realism, and that part probably doesn’t sound familiar but my senior thesis for my English major was on American urban legends and I did a lot of research on the literature of magical realism throughout that project and it’s one of my nerdier obsessions, so yeah a story of pure unfettered geek-Americana where the protagonist at one point loses his dog but then wills the dog to keep living as a zombie dog until he realizes that’s no good for either of them and releases the dog to go be the pet of the ghost of a local boy who died in a fire … THIS IS ALL KINDS OF MY BAILIWICK. But, not to sound too ungrateful about such a custom-tailored thing existing, the book was just kind of all right. It did make me want to check out more McCammon, though, so that’s something.

You may also recall that I promised this year during BBB I would balance out the book-reading with a fair amount of SMOAT (summer movies on a train) but sadly I have even less to report on that front. I did finally watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! Which was something of an embarrassing gap because it’s such a geek shibboleth, but man, that movie is not very good. The follow-up to that was going to be Jaws, an even more egregious oversight in my lifelong film intake, but the DVD copy sent to me by Netflix was unwatchably jacked up and kept skipping and stuttering every few minutes. I’ve already sent it back and gotten a replacement, so hopefully the second attempt will fare better.

Now if this absurd triple-digit heatwave would blow out of town so that I’m not totally spent after my fifteen-minute walk to the train platform in the late afternoon, which reduces me to doing way more sleeping on the VRE in the evenings than reading or movie-watching, I’d appreciate it immensely.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Seven Eleven Eleven

This morning I went skimming back through blog entries from about a year ago to ascertain how I had commemorated my wife’s birthday in 2010. I belatedly realized that, technically in a day-of fashion, I didn’t, because her birthday fell on a Sunday last year and Sundays are far and away my least-likely-to-post days. But on the day after her birthday I recapped our indulgently decadent double-dinner adventures of the night before, so there’s that.

Trust me, she knows why I chose this picture
Of course, a mere matter of days later my wife would be newly pregnant with the little girl, which leads in turn to us having a three-month-old one year later, and means that as we (and, therefore, the world) celebrate the magnificence of another year of my wife’s life today we find ourselves in differently proscribed circumstances. They are happy circumstances, beyond any conceivable argument, but they are almost the opposite of a year ago. One summer ago our little guy was getting big enough to be left overnight with his grandparents while his mother and I enjoyed a mini-getaway; now we’re back to keeping the needs of an infant first and foremost in any social planning (or lack thereof). Also around this time last year we were feeling good about the steady decrease of daycare fees (or “tuition” as the centers call it, which never fails to amuse) from our household outlay as the little guy got older; tomorrow I’ll hand over the second (of what will be many) staggeringly ballooned check for daycare costs now that we have two little ones enrolled at once.

Timing is a funny thing! But my wife is taking it all in stride, good spirits and good humor intact. We may not be logistically able to wander the city streets at our leisure or financially able to satisfy every culinary craving, but we will make do. Yesterday we bought a no-frills DVD player and a three-shelf bookcase; I spent a bit of the afternoon assembling the latter and hooking up the former to our old tv in the basement, so that it will now be possible to watch movies and such while working out. We also managed to get out to Wegman’s* yesterday and pick up a celebratory pie for the birthday girl, which will be the dessert-a-la-mode after her requested, reasonably-priced takeout dinner. (Chipotle. Of course.)

So not exactly the rock-n-roll lifestyle, but we’re happy and life is good and points earned in the previous year will simply roll forward to be applied to a subsequent out-of-control over-the-top birthday celebration at some point in the future. And my wife earns a LOT of points in any given year. I am a lucky, lucky guy.

(* You might think grocery shopping at Wegman’s is not really in keeping with the budget austerity we are currently attempting to enforce, but while the big W has lots of fancy, gourmet prepared foods and whatnot which are in fact luxuries, the only thing we picked up in that category was the pie. Their staple foods are pretty reasonably priced and in fact, as we discovered yesterday with no small amount of pleasant surprise, Lean Pockets are hella-cheaper at Wegman’s. So there you go.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tourons

I went to college in Williamsburg, VA, which is home (or reasonably adjacent) to multiple tourist attractions. That creates an interesting dynamic in the town between the locals who happen to live there, the students who reside on campus for eight months out of every year, and the families who visit for a few random days on vacation. One oft-repeated joke was that there were few things more annoying than blearily making your way from your dorm to an academic building, probably around mid-morning but feeling like a crueler earlier hour due to the previous night’s festivities, running late as usual, and being flagged down by a dweeb wearing a fanny pack wondering how to find the butter-churning re-enactments. We generally referred to these more obnoxious tourist types as “tourons” which of course is just a portmanteau of “tourist” and “morons”, but I always liked the fact that it sounded like a rare type of subatomic particle, just another aspectof the nature of the universe, omnipresent and unavoidable. (I’m sure the locals had their own disparaging names for the college kids, but I remained blissfully unaware of those.)

Stereotypes sure are a real timesaver
I’ve had that old made-up word on the tip of my tongue lately because we are heading into the heart of summer and the capital area is approaching high tide in terms of visitors and sightseers and whatnot. The odd thing is that I barely work in what’s generally considered the capital area. Yes there’s a stop on the Metro lines hereabouts but there aren’t any monuments or large parks or anything noteworthy outside of massive office buildings, a few business-traveler hotels, and an extravagant number of restaurants. Yet every day lately while I’m walking from the train station to my office or back again, I see families in summer casual attire looking vaguely lost. And yes, I have been stopped once or twice and asked where that Metro station is. I try not to think much about these far-afield tourists one way or the other, because if I do let my mind wander that way it ends up grumbling about how I just need everyone to stay out of my way so I can get to work (or home as the case may be).

(This attitude was not helped in the slightest by an incident a couple of weeks ago when I got on the VRE in the morning and then watched a family get on at the next stop, equipped with a metric ton of luggage. I assume they were taking the train all the way to Union Station to switch to an Amtrak line, though they could have been going to Crystal City to get the Metro to National Airport. Anyway. The family took up four seats themselves, but also piled up their suitcases in front of a bench of five folding seats, essentially taking them out of use. I felt like screaming at them that it was a weekday morning and they had boarded a commuter train during rush hour when it’s always full and good for them for being on vacation but the rest of the world isn’t and what the hell is WRONG with you? Felt like it, but didn’t, of course.)

My parents and Little Bro and I went on a lot of traveling vacations in the summertime when I was a kid. In point of fact, we went to Williamsburg once, though I don’t remember us expecting any of the college students to serve as impromptu tour guides. (Not that there were many students on campus that time of year anyway.) But in addition to the ‘Burg, most of the places we went were more recreationally inclined, from Lake George up in New York to Myrtle Beach down in South Carolina. (We almost never went anywhere we couldn’t drive, in the summer; sometimes in the winter we’d jet down to visit the grandparents in Florida.) So I don’t remember ever feeling like I was intruding on the non-vacationing, working world on any of those trips. We never had a family vacation to, say, Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles. Maybe that was because my dad commuted into Manhattan every day for over a decade, and when he got his vacation in the summer the last thing he wanted was to go someplace with skyscrapers and a mass transit system. Or alternatively, maybe the fact that we lived so close to New York City and enjoyed its various offerings as no big deal meant that any other U.S. city would have suffered by comparison and didn’t merit becoming a getaway destination.

I look forward to traveling with my own family as the kids get a little older, and I tend to think we’ll probably gravitate towards mountain lakes and laid back beaches as well. But if we do broaden our horizons to include urban adventures, I am positive I won’t take for granted that rush hours and office work and so on are just as common in July and August as any other time of year.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Start and start again

OK, really and truly now, our daughter is attending daycare. We’ve navigated from my wife’s return to work a couple of weeks ago, where she (my wife) had to cope with letting the baby out of her sight for the majority of a waking day yet knew she (the baby) was safe at home all the time with Nana; to a couple of acclimating drop-ins at the daycare center of no more than an hour or so; to a slightly truncated day at daycare on Tuesday which ended when I picked up both kids a couple hours early (which involved leaving work about two and a half hours early, something I’m going to be hustling to make up for over the rest of the pay period, but it was worth it); to finally yesterday which was the first of many essentially typical days of daycare, the kids dropped off in the morning (on the early side, even, as that’s how Wednesdays have to go given my wife’s work schedule) and not fetched out again until 5:30 or so. And as I predicted, once again the little girl was pretty mellow about the whole thing and no calamitous maladjustment has been reported.

(I know I covered the same basic material yesterday but there’s a very good chance that my mother-in-law skipped reading the Wednesday post in its entirety because it was are-you-kidding-me another He-Man diatribe, so the preceding was mostly for her catch-up benefit.)

If I haven’t expressly said it before, I don’t think of daycare as a necessary evil, or evil of any sort. I’m not even neutral on it, or silver-lining-seekingly optimistic; I genuinely believe it’s a good thing. I like that it socializes children with other children, and exposes their tiny immune systems to creeping cruds they might as well toughen up against while also giving them opportunities to develop mentally and emotionally with their peers. I like that, when it starts before they can even walk or talk or focus more than 12 inches away from their eyeballs, it turns “school” into something that’s always been a part of their lives since before they can remember, a reason to get out of bed and get dressed and leave the house, which on the one hand gives them something in common with mom and dad, and on the other means state-mandated kindergarten in a couple years won’t be a mind-blowing shock to their system.

Riding the bus might blow the little guy's mind, but only with sheer RADITUDE.
So I’m not exactly torn up or sad about the transition of the little girl into daycare, multiple running starts notwithstanding. Everything’s going according to plan. But in a larger sense, it is another step away from that magical timeless moment of baby’s entrance into the world. It does bring to mind that kindergarten is around the corner and five years can go by in a flash (indeed almost 60% of that has gone by for the little guy already) and time keeps on slippin’, slippin’. It’s not so much where we are that gets to me, it’s just the knowledge that for good or bad there’s no turning back, ever. At least that's the universal condition, though, so if everyone else has to deal with it the same as me I really shouldn't complain.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (5)

So my daughter spent her first full day at daycare yesterday, which was a major milestone approached in our household by equal parts impatience and dread. The latter simply because it’s hard on a gut level to reconcile the necessity of daycare with the impulse to just forget everything in the world outside of being a primary caretaker for the flesh of your flesh; the former because we knew that same necessity was essentially unavoidable and we’d all feel a lot better once we had gotten through it to the other side.

As it happened the day was utterly unremarkable. The little girl spent about six hours at the center, from 9:30 to 3:30, and reportedly had a perfectly lovely day. She drank her bottled breastmilk, she took naps, she had her diaper changed, she squirmed playfully. No freakouts to speak of. Today is Day Two and although I made a special point of heading home early yesterday, and today she won’t be picked up until closer to 5:30, I expect the debrief will run in much the same vein. She’s a little trooper.

I felt it only proper that I at least touch on my daughter’s daycare beginnings here before getting to the conclusion (long overdue, yes I know it’s no longer June and way past the end of spring) of my ruminations on the Masters of the Universe. On the one hand, it’s a significant enough occurrence that it merits acknowledgement sooner rather than later. But on another hand, while this whole He-Man riff started because I was letting the little guy play with Castle Grayskull and then wondering how said fortress should be populated with action figures, there are a few elements therein which bear directly on the little guy’s baby sister as well. So, without further ado …

PART FIVE: HEROINE-ISM

I believe I made it clear early on that, in an informal poll of my friends, both Teela and Evil-Lyn made strong showings. And I mentioned that I think a large part of that is due to the formulaic constructions of heroic fantasy which tends to set up a Main Guy, His Sidekick, and the Girl (often equally formulaically mirrored by the Main Evil Dude, His Sidekick, and the Bad Girl). What I didn’t get into at the time was the fact that there were a few actively dissenting voices which I think, in the interest of fairness, merit hearing out.

Cliff Chiang, everybody.
One point raised was the idea of my little guy, or any boy aged three to seven, having any interest at all in “girl dolls”. Of course I could go round and round numerous times trying to pin down exactly what that means, in the vast gray area between toys clearly made for boys which happen to depict female characters, to toys which are intended to appeal to children of both genders but maybe slightly more to girls than boys, to toys clearly marketed right at the female side of the playground. I think it’s particularly telling that the Teela action figures have hairdos made of sculpted plastic, just like He-Man himself does, even though the body mold used for Teela is slender and curvy as opposed to the roided-up bulk of her male allies. But at the same time, the She-Ra dolls all have hair like Barbie that could ostensibly be brushed or otherwise played with. In that light I can definitely see how She-Ra, despite being essentially a distaff version of He-Man herself, would be considered a “girl doll”, whereas I would argue that Teela is at the very least a gender-neutral toy and probably a girl character made for boys.

But really, when it comes to my little guy in particular, I don’t think he would be put off by female characters. He has already demonstrated that he is convinced the character of Percy from Thomas the Tank Engine is a girl. I don’t believe he has rigid gender definitions in his little head yet, and who knows, maybe in this crazy 21st century he was born into we’ve moved quite a bit past all that than we had back in 1982. My dad was undeniably old-school about gender-appropriate behavior, and toys, and since it was just me and Little Bro growing up we didn’t have any girly stuff about. (I was too old for Cabbage Patch Kids when they came out, but my Little Bro wanted one. He was disabused of that notion post-haste.) At least partly in reaction to that, I’ve tried to be more gender-neutral with my son, and I know he plays with baby dolls at daycare and he loves his kitchen playset at home, and also his favorite thing to do with toy cars and trains is crash them, so it all balances out. The point being if I were to bid on a mixed lot of MOTU toys on eBay that had a He-Man and a Skeletor and most of a Trap Jaw and a Buzz-Off and also a Mermista (She-Ra’s mermaid friend) I would not hesitate to turn over all five of those figures to my little guy. And there’s a good chance he would think Mermista’s green nylon hair was awesome. (He would be right, too.)

And I suppose there’s something self-serving at play here, too, as I am through sheer force of will choosing to believe that every figure from Beast Man to Castaspella is gender-neutral because not only does that mean the little guy can play with whomever or whatever he wants but also that when his sister gets a little older, she can play with them too if she’s so inclined. I’m sure this verges on overthinking (as most everything passing through my mind does at one point or another) but I have to consider what I would say if my daughter were to go through a bin of Masters of the Universe toys looking for a character with whom she could escapist-fantasy identify, and she found nothing but male characters. Would I throw her brother under the bus and say he never wanted any of the girl-character toys? Blame myself? Blame society?!? Or, y’know, geez man just throw a couple of chicks with swords and guns in there too from the get-go, OK?

But that, in turn, begs an altogether different question which another one of my buddies articulated: is it ever all right to hit girls? The indisputable fact is that Teela is not some pink-gowned princess who exists only for He-Man to save her from Skeletor’s evil clutches. She’s a warrior fighting right alongside the boys. But there’s a whole host of entanglements that come along with that, which I am beginning to think of as Everything Is Different Now Redux.

The original Everything Is Different Now, you might recall, centers around the fact that I used to not mind action-adventure clichés like children in peril, but now that I’m a dad they tear my heart out and otherwise make me an easy mark for emotional manipulation. The Redux, then, is the fact that I used to be aware of but not hugely in awe of gender inequities in the world, but now that that I have a daughter I am hyper-vigilant about them. So, I grew up with action figures and army men and fake guns and all that and I have no problem letting my son have access to the same. In the case of action figures in particular, I know the primary way they get put to use is not exactly to act out homilies about cooperation and sharing. They are intended to be smashed into each other in violent pantomimes on the level of pro wrestling and Saturday morning cartoons. I have no problem with the thought of a child using two action figures to act out He-Man stomping on Beast Man’s head, nor vice versa. I also don’t have a problem with Teela stomping on Beast Man’s head … but vice versa? It’s at least the outer edges of discomfort, there.

My buddy contextualized this by saying (in effect) that if you give a boy Teela you also have to give him Evil-Lyn because they’re the only two who are allowed to punch each other. The boy characters can’t lay a hand on either of the ladies, because that wouldn’t be right, not so much within the barbaric post-apocalyptic society of Eternia but in terms of the message absorbed by the real-world little boy at play. And to be totally honest I’m just not sure if I agree with that conclusion or not. It’s all well and good to say “girls can do anything boys can do” and live up to it both for my son’s sake and my daughter’s, but I get all knee-jerk traditionalist when I wonder if “anything” includes “take a shot from a spiked mace right between the eyes”. I have a feeling I’m going to be wondering about that one for a while.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Over/Underdog

There are few things more nonsensical and unappealing than going to a post-sundown fireworks display with a toddler and a newborn (except, arguably, a pre-sundown fireworks display?) so I had not incorporated any pyrotechnic expectations into looking forward to Independence Day. I also managed to attend a cookout on Sunday attended by many of my old college friends, which afforded me ample access to my oft-mentioned current vices of choice (red meat, sweets and booze) in appropriately patriotic formats (burgers, pie and domestic beer), and I took advantage of said access with gusto, which similarly obviated the need to incorporate same into the actual Fourth of July. So on the holiday itself, there was really only one thing I needed in order to feel like my day off from work was well spent. And that of course was watching the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest broadcast live from Coney Island on ESPN at noon.

Maybe next year, buddy.
And we managed it, too, the whole family foursome gathered around the tv to watch the spectacle unfold in glorious realtime. I don’t really have a profoundly major point to make about either our nation’s birthday or the Nathan’s contest itself, but I wanted to share a few random accompanying thoughts.

- I was rooting for the above-pictured Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, ranked #2 competitive eater in the world and (as it turns out) doomed to lose once again to the unstoppable Joey Chestnut. What can I say, as long as we’re not talking about the New York Yankees (and after yesterday, yeah, let’s not) I enjoy cheering for an upset. Plus Bertoletti rocks the Mohawk and the fu-manchu mustache in a way I can’t help but respect.
- I give the Nathan’s folks a lot of credit for showmanship. It’s remarkable and absurd that the hot dog eating contest gets an hour of airtime on ESPN every year at this point, but it is a pretty entertaining hour at that. I made a special point of pantomime-tipping my hat when they finally got around to announcing soon-to-be five-time champ Joey Chestnut, who apparently had chosen The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” as his entrance music. That song has a long intro with a gradual build and the MC did a fine job of ratcheting up the crowd noise as the song escalated and finally calling out Chestnut’s name pretty much when the song breaks wide open. I love that song but was having a hard time figuring out how it tied to the whole theme of the competition until I was reminded of the opening lines (“Out here in the fields/I fought for my meals”. Well played, Mr. Chestnut.)
- ESPN actually did a SportsScience feature on competitive eating techniques which was fascinating. Some of the aspects they covered I already knew, since I’ve been obsessed with the Nathan’s contest since around 2005 or so. But other stuff blew my mind. Like the Valsalva Maneuver. Oh and also the little nugget that eating 60-some hot dogs is the caloric equivalent of what most people eat in five days? That more than anything to me represents what’s so all-American – good and bad – about the Nathan’s contest. (It also made me want to give about 200 bucks to the local food pantries and soup kitchens.)
- So this year they had qualifying events in China, where Nathan’s franchises are soon to be opening up. And that, in my mind, is why the USA is going to win. Win what, exactly, I’m not quite sure, but basically I’m not willing to concede the world to China just yet.
- Usually one of the fun things about watching the contest is keeping an eye on the tally-girls (the young ladies with the numbered flip-pads who are responsible for showing how many hot dogs each competitor has eaten as they go, for the benefit of the crowd at Coney Island) because at least once you’ll see one of those gals making an absolutely horrified, disgusted where-did-my-life-plan-to-make-money-off-being-pretty-go-wrong face. But that didn’t happen this year – I think someone must have coached the ladies to keep smiling NO MATTER WHAT.
- The hour-long special is about 45 minutes of pre-game show, the actual ten-minute race, and five minutes of wrap-up. For that first ¾ of an hour my wife kept saying she was craving hot dogs. I asked her if she still wanted hot dogs at about the mid-point of the contest and at that point I did in fact get a good expression of horror and disgust.
- Also weird and funny were the attempts made by me and my wife to explain to the little guy (a) what the heck was going on on the tv and (b) how he should never ever emulate it. “What are those guys doing?” “Eating too fast and taking way, way too big of bites.” “Why?” “Um … for fun?”
- Despite my love of New York in general I’ve actually never been to Coney Island. And I think it’s much better to watch the hot dog eating contest on tv, but I do need to get up there one of these summers.

So, no parades or sparklers this year but still a good Fourth for me and mine. And now it’s on to a short workweek to kick off the remainder of summer characterized by heat, humidity and no more holidays until Labor Day. At least I no longer have to drive on 66 every day; when it comes to mass transit preferences I’m happy to be thoroughly un-American in that regard.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Damn you, Fisher-Price

Last night my wife and I went out to dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary. I mentioned earlier this week that the actual date fell on Monday, but my wife had the misfortune of picking up some kind of stomach bug last weekend and as of Monday evening still wasn’t feeling up for any kind of outing. But we did want to make the most of the hypothetical opportunities provided by my mother’s continued presence in our home before she leaves (early tomorrow morning), and we settled on Thursday as the best rescheduling option (mainly because Thursday is my wife’s day off, and when she works she rarely gets home before 9 p.m. and then too exhausted for anything approaching social gallivanting).

So we finally got a chance to check out for ourselves a local joint that came recommended from several people who have lived in our town far longer than our eighteen months (so far). It’s a Mexican restaurant, but also offers Spanish-style food, including both Spanish and Mexican influenced tapas. That (plus the obligatory presence of Mexican beer) made a pretty compelling case, and we ended up splitting half a dozen tapas dishes from both sides of the menu. The food was tasty but the kitchen was lamentably slow, although our waitress did explain that they were simultaneously preparing the catering for a large wedding, so at least it wasn’t entirely unacknowledged. (The waitress also brought us a second helping of the chips and salsa verde gratis while we waited, and that salsa verde was muy ridiculoso.)

I had honestly believed, in the days and weeks immediately following our exchange of vows, that there was a very good chance I would take my wife back to Hawaii to celebrate our fifth anniversary, and possibly every five-year interval thereafter (because Hawaii is awesome). Of course, if anyone had asked, I also would have said there was a very good chance my wife and I would have (at least!) two kids by the time we had been married five years, too. And the inherent contradiction in those two beliefs never really occurred to me. But needless to say we have both made peace with scaling things like adventurous travel way, way back for the time being. (But I’ve got my eye on 2016, oh yes I have.)

Speaking of the children, I was pretty proud of my wife and myself for largely confining our dinner conversation to subject matter other than our children. But of course reality intrudes as it must and my wife mentioned that we were running low on some things which needed replacing sooner rather than later and would be easiest found at the local Babies R Us. So once we had finished enjoying our meal we got in the car and drove across town to the store in question. In our town, the Babies R Us is actually a department that takes up maybe 30 to 40% of the floorspace of the Toys R Us. Much as I love windowshopping at Toys R Us I sincerely had no intention of doing so last night, and I thought I had a good strategy to ward against it. I dropped my wife off at the door and she went in while I parked the car. The Babies R Us is of course in the back corner of the store, so I hustled to catch up with her, thus preventing myself from lingering too long over the ninja and alien Legos displays. Once I helped my wife locate the supplies I led the way back to the checkout lanes, and I did so by cutting through some of the smaller aisles rather than following the major thoroughfare of the store, because that latter path goes right past the action figures and such aimed at adolescent boys (and the adolescent-minded like me).

I thought my bushwhacking approach was safer because it would only expose me to the toys for the pre-school set, which of course I find cut but I tend not to get all hypnotized by. Until I saw this on a shelf at my exact eye level:

Shoot, I should buy four or five and give them to children's hospitals and such, so that the merchandising numbers make a GL movie sequel more likely.
COME ON. I knew that Fisher-Price’s Imaginext line had made a Green Lantern toy, because I bought it for the little guy well in advance of his second birthday. I figured if daddy has a bunch of GL action figures, the little guy might as well have his own age-appropriate version as well. But now there’s a whole age-appropriate playset (including a couple of alien Green Lanterns and clearly yes I recognize them from the comics) for him, but no equivalent for me? I am not proud of this but I do admit it, I am more than a little envious of this development. And while my little guy likes playing with his Green Lantern sometimes, he’s nowhere near as enamored of it as he is of his Pixar Cars and Thomas and Friends and so on. Which means if I were to buy the Imaginext Deluxe Planet Oa and wrap it up and present it to my son on his third birthday, it would be stunningly transparent that I had really bought it for myself. (The little guy has already requested that we get him some Chuggington trains for his birthday, anyway.)

So yeah. Killing me, Fisher-Price. Killing. Me.