Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Series ... es 2

Almost a year and a half ago I was ruminating on the various trilogies and tetralogies and longer series of books which I have begun but not yet finished reading. I called out something like nine specific multi-volume works by various authors and I believe I had a notion at the time that if I forced myself to confront such a tabulation I would bear down and finish some of those series off before embarking on any new ones. Sadly here we are seventeen months later and – sit down, hold on, and brace yourself for the shock to your sensibilities – I have not finished a single one of those nine series. And, of course, equally shockingly, I’ve managed to throw a few more onto the pile as well.

It’s not entirely my fault! (By which I mean I can come up with some moderately diverting excuses.) I did read the second volume of The Kingkiller Chronicles when it was published, and had the third been released yet I no doubt would be able to cross that series off my list, but it hasn’t. Similarly, while I haven’t gotten around to the third installment of the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the author hasn’t finished the fourth and final volume either, so no matter what that would still be hanging around. The third, last Millennium book by Stieg Larsson has been out for a while but I am obstinately waiting for it to be released in paperback like my editions of books one and two already on the shelf at home – but of course Larsson-mania fueled by both the European and American remake films of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have kept the hardcover sales so brisk that paperback publication is still apparently a ways off. Ditto (more or less) A Dance With Dragons, which I await in cheaper format even as HBO’s A Game of Thrones mini-series has kept the hardcover a hot must-have. (And even then we’re still only up to the fifth volume of Martin’s proposed seven installments, so Dance With Dragons thwarts me for the cycle, I guess.) Tracking down Spelljammer D&D novellas and/or James Herriott paperback editions I simply haven’t forced myself to do the advanced legwork for after cursory scans of used bookstores haven’t yielded low-hanging fruit, and I must have for all intents and purposes given up on Adelia Aguilar and Spellsinger because at no point in the past year and a half have I felt especially compelled to even think about cursory scans for them. Oh, and I did read another Dresden Files novel recently, but that open-ended series is more like collecting comic books and probably didn’t belong in the discussion to begin with.

Meanwhile … not too long after that original post’s attempt at self-shaming I bought the first book of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar tertralogy specifically to read at the beach (and since I haven’t been back to the beach since, I haven’t continued on with that series, but I plan to do both this coming summer). I also recently picked up the first volume of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy based on its inclusion on these best-of lists. Plus just the other day it was announced that what I had thought was one of the book series I was already done with – Stephen King’s Dark Tower/Gunslinger magnum opus – was going to get an official eighth volume sometime in the spring of 2012, which amazingly pulls a series out of the Finished column and dumps it back into the Unfinished ranks. So instead of bearing down and crossing the finish line on any of my in-progress serials, I’ve seen their ranks increase, even when you factor in totally dropping a couple due to lack of interest. I’m the worst.

I used to get my dad to tape this series on the VCR because it aired on nights I had marching band practice TRUE FACT
But book series aren’t even really the series I wanted to talk about today. Nope, I simply was reminded of the whole “start one series before finishing another” phenomenon because of what’s currently going on with me and the wonderful world of watching tv on DVD.

The Buffy project continues to hang out in its fallback position, which is fine, especially since that’s a re-watch. But there are, at the moment, three other television series I’m working my way through on disc: Smallville, Supernatural and Arrested Development. One of those (Supernatural) is still on the air and you could argue that I’m trying to catch up to the regular broadcasts. (I’m not, but theoretically, you could argue that.) One (Arrested Development) is widely considered to be a triumph that went shamefully unrecognized in its own time, was cancelled too soon, and has developed a staggering cult-following since. (I’m beginning to consider myself part of the cult.) One (Smallville) just wrapped up last year, was beloved by a small but loyal segment and derided by many more, and has been documented in this very blog as being bat-poop insane. All in all, other than the fact that two out of three are genre pieces starring pretty young people which air(ed) on the CW, they don’t seem to have a lot in common.

But there’s a shared time-warpiness to them, too, which I suppose stands out more to me because as a culture we’ve always taken our pop conversation topics more from the world of television than books. Arrested Development’s first season aired from 2003 to 2004, while Smallville’s sixth and Supernatural’s second (the very ones I’m working through now) were on air in 2006 and 2007. So I’m somewhere between four and eight years behind everyone who actually made time to watch these shows when they were intended to be watched, with a triple-reinforced mid-last-decade vibe humming in my brain. Not that this is a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. Just odd.

And for some reason, tv series seem to occupy more mental space than books (for me, at any rate) to such an extent that I’m already starting to feel like three simultaneous DVD-facilitated intakes of tv series is verging on too much, while I could easily stumble into a few more prose pentads of a thousand pages per volume and not really bat an eye. There are lots of other series I very much want to get a hold of on disc and finally watch for the first time, from The Wire to Frisky Dingo, but I don’t see myself doing that until I finish (or take a break from) the three presently in rotation. An exception of course will be made when HBO finally gets around to putting A Game of Thrones out on dvd, because come ON people, I’m not made of stone.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking

My wife and I find ourselves in similar straits at this point in the NFL season, with our respective teams both fighting to hold on to wild card slots in their respective conferences. Her Steelers are faring a bit better than my Giants, as Pittsburgh won (just barely) on Sunday night and New York got trounced last night, but with five games to go the fact remains that neither team can coast into the playoffs, but it’s not time to give up and sigh wistfully about next year, either.

I am also duking it out for something like a wild card berth in the pick’em pool, as I think I’m in something like fifth place overall (which is really a tie for third-best record). This week was helpful to my cause since I got 12 of the games right, including Sunday night and Monday night, which I feel slightly guilty about because I had bet against the Steelers and the Giants. In the Steelers case, I honestly thought they would win but not cover the 9.5-point spread, whereas in evaluating the Giants’ chances against the Saints I figured the Giants had been struggling too much lately to keep it close. But all of that worked out serendipitously because I always feel slightly disloyal to my life partner when I bet against the Steelers (though honestly the unbiased facts rarely give me cause) and if I’m also being disloyal to my one, lifelong team fandom at the same time somehow it’s a wash? Maybe the karmic punishment, such as it is, came in the form of not winning the week outright, because 12 correct guesses is pretty good but 13 is better and that’s how many the winner ended up with. But I’ll take my even dozen and keep breathing down the necks of the overall season leaders (which, yes indeed, still includes my grandmother).

My wife’s family has some (transplanted) roots in Michigan so they are Lions … not fans, per se, maybe sympathizers is the word I’m looking for? I was certainly sympathetic for all of Detroit when, after years and years of hosting Thanksgiving games but losing them all, this year the card they pulled said Green Bay, and that team is as you may have heard on a bit of a tear. (Oh, and did I mention the Packers are the Giants’ next opponent? Oy.) I forgot to mention yesterday, but apparently two of my co-workers had made a friendly wager over the Packers/Lions outcome where the loser of the bet would have to bake the winner a cake decorated in the victorious football team’s colors. So yesterday morning there was cake with green and yellow icing for everyone. No one can starve to death in the Big Gray between Halloween and New Years.

But really, of course, Turkey Day traditions and longterm pro sports affections paled in comparison to the most meaningful football exhibition of the entire holiday weekend as far as my wife and her family (including myself) are concerned: the Michigan/Ohio State match-up, which I personally was delighted to see the national media referring to as simply “The Game”. My wife and I have been romantically intertwined since about October of 2004, and the last time Michigan had managed to beat Ohio State in The Game was 2003. The closest thing to a bright spot in the rivalry was when I was on a trip to Vegas with a couple of buddies a few years back on The Game weekend and bet on the Wolverines on my wife’s behalf; Michigan lost but covered the spread, and winnings are winnings and dulled the pain a bit. None of which matters now, though, as Michigan prevailed in the 2011 edition and all is right with the world.

(Oddly enough, yet another co-worker was walking around yesterday morning handing out leftover candies from his family Thanksgiving. Chocolate covered peanut butter balls, specifically, colloquially known as … Buckeyes. I ate one and refrained from comment.)

Finally (in the same general category of hindsight in which I started out boasting of my own sports prognostication ability) I will explain my weekend illness alluded to at the end of my last post. When everyone had cleared out of our house on Thanksgiving after a pleasant day of overeating, my wife and I retired to bed only to be awakened by our baby daughter shortly thereafter. Repeatedly. With no method of soothing seeming to gain us anything more than a few minutes of light sleep followed by a distressed outcry for more attention. Since I had Friday off but my wife had to go in to work the next day, I decided the best thing to do was to take the little girl downstairs and out of earshot so that her mother could sleep. I decamped to the den and turned on some mindless late-night tv with my daughter sleeping on my chest. I drifted and dozed here and there but never for very long, since the little girl woke up every half-hour like clockwork. She generally fell back asleep again a minute or two later with the help of some gentle jiggling and shushing, but my sleep cycles were clearly wrecked.

And the next day, as mentioned, my wife had to punch the clock and I was home alone with two munchkins. I tried to take things easy but by late afternoon I was feeling decidedly run down and under the weather with cold symptoms like sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, fatigue (duh), etc.

Mucal invader, is there no end to your oozing?!?!
Well, cold symptoms +/- allergy symptoms, and here’s where I kind of lost the thread at the time but may have picked it up in hindsight. The den has pretty much been the province of our two new hyperallergenic kittens since they arrived at our house, and I spent the entire night down there. I also didn’t take my allergy medicine on Thursday or Friday because that’s generally part of my morning get-ready-for-work routine. Both of our daycare-attending kids have had runny noses (and will continue to all winter, no doubt) so there’s at least some form of inimical microorganism culturing in our house at all times, but what I assumed was a straight up cold was more likely a combination of slight cold and good old major type I hypersensitivity freak-out. At any rate, I dumbly struggled through Saturday and Sunday taking a wide array of cold medicines but re-started my allergy regimen yesterday morning and I’m feeling much better. Live and learn.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Terrible petty things

Last Wednesday we had a departmental pizza party for lunch as kind of a pre-Thanksgiving meal. I had been nursing some elevated hopes about the food at said shindig because there is a pizza place on the ground floor of the next building over from ours which does a passable NY-style pie, and I thought there was a decent chance my government boss would order from said establishment. Alas, no, it was Domino’s delivery, which I believe was the first time I have sampled the fares of that franchise since their much-vaunted “we honestly had no idea everyone thought our pizzas were cheap garbage but now we’ve changed everything!” advertizing blitz. My verdict: I’m pretty sure I still would have known it was Domino’s if I had participated in a blindfolded taste test. Domino’s is still terrible, as pizza goes, which as we all know means it’s pretty good, it’s just that I’ve had so much better.

Be wary of foodstuffs whose biggest selling point is not the food itself, but how fast it gets to you.
So the food was a letdown but there were one or two bright sides in terms of the mealtime conversation in the conference room. A co-worker of mine shared a recipe with me for bacon-wrapped baked turkey breast which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like and which I am determined to try out before the end of the year. And another co-worker broached the subject of the new Twilight movie which gave me the opportunity to rant out loud a little bit about the series’ general terribleness. This co-worker, I hasten to add, was not the same co-worker who had aroused my ire the week before with her weird disavowal of personal agency in her Twilight fandom (she taken off a day or two early for the Thanksgiving break) but from my perspective that was a good thing, because if I had found myself ranting at that co-worker specifically I might easily have gotten so het up as to cross some inadvisable office etiquette lines, whereas the actual recipient of my uninformed disdain was not someone I would feel the need to turn it into a personal vendetta with, and I was able to keep it breezily sarcastic and hopefully a little funny. Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Lady laughed, at least.

And then the short, bordering on pointless work week was over and it was time for Thanksgiving proper, which was lovely, and the long weekend thereafter, which was unfortunately marred by some ill-timed illness, but post for another day and all that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I haven't quit my job, no no no, calm down. I have the purely pre-vacation variety of short-timers, is all. With this being a three-day work week, and several other cube-denizens spending personal leave time to make it a two-, one-, or no-day work week, I'm finding that almost nothing can hold my attention long enough for me to focus on it. Not my assigned contractor duties, and not even my self-imposed blogging schedule.

So no new content this week, I guess, unless you count this very post today - which I probably wouldn't. But come on back on Monday and I am sure I will just be overflowing with posts anew.

Friday, November 18, 2011


In honor of the intersection between Random Anecdote Friday and What’s Up With Work Week, here is a little vignette from the cube farm which played out just this morning.

The woman who sits in the cube adjacent to mine is not someone I work with very often, but she seems to be competent in her role at the agency and perfectly nice human being as well. She has some interests which might preclude us from being best friends (e.g. she’s a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, though at least I can respect how against-the-grain that is here in Redskins country) but really, bottom line, I have nothing against this woman. So there was no baseline pre-existing annoyance to start with when she and a couple of other women in the office got to conversing before settling in for the daily grind.

What they were talking about was Twilight, because my cube-neighbor had gone to the Thursday night showing of Breaking Dawn Part 1. I do have a standard level of animosity towards all things Twilight, for reasons which I am going to huffily assume are self-evident in order to get on with the story. Personal antipathy aside, though, it’s a big whatever and other people can talk about it within earshot and I will do my best to tune it out. Which is more or less what I did, so I kind of missed the part where they segued into talking about Harry Potter movies. (Maybe it was the whole splitting-the-final-installment-into-two-movies parallel, maybe it was how the original books in both series were written for 12 year olds, I really don’t know.) My eavesdropping kicked back in, though, when my cube-neighbor started very adamantly saying “no, no, no” to the very concept of Harry Potter. She said, “I’ve never seen those. And I never will. Because, you know. It’s too much against what I’m supposed to believe, wizards and all that.”

Now, granted, I also knew before today that my neighbor is a serious Christian who’s not above a little casual testimony in conversation. I probably could have extrapolated that she’s more sympathetic to people who think J.K. Rowling promotes an unhealthy laxness about suffering witches to live than, for instance, I am. But I still thought that admitting she dismisses Harry Potter out of hand was thuddingly lame. And yet before I could even mentally draw the “hypocrite much?” card, my co-worker went on, “Of course, I’m not supposed to be into Twilight either and all that occult vampire business but I sure got sucked into that!”

Ordinarily that would have scored some mitigating points in my estimation, at least being self-aware enough to acknowledge inconsistencies and contradictions, even if that doesn’t prompt an immediate re-evaluation of how loudly you’re going to declare yourself pro- one thing and anti- another. But set all that aside, and seriously? Seriously. People. OWN YOUR OWN SHIT.

I am as usual paraphrasing slightly because I don’t have a recorded transcript of the conversation, but I think I’ve captured the spirit of it. Specifically, my neighbor’s curious formulation of how she’s “supposed to believe” certain things, that the question of whether or not she really believes them or not is secondary to the fact that they’ve been imposed upon her by authority and she accepts them and abides by them. And on the flipside, she “got sucked in” by Twilight somewhere along the line and going to see the penultimate film adaptation was never in question. So it’s nothing personal that she’s not into Harry Potter, it barely has anything to with her at all, she just rejects it because her church tells her to. And it’s not her fault she loves Twilight, because she no longer has a choice now that the story has gotten its hooks into her.

I’m not entirely convinced that the world would be a better place if everyone enjoyed the stuff that I love, and everyone found equally insipid the stuff I abhor. It would probably be a little boring. But I am fairly certain that the world would be a better place if people owned their opinions, instead of foisting them off on external loci of control. It doesn’t even matter if someone genuinely hates something and uses a doctrine of condemnation to justify it and distance themselves from it, or if the person wouldn’t have hated it to begin with but allows someone or something else to dictate their feelings, or if the person really secretly likes something but has to put on the false face of disapproval to fit in with the larger culture/institution. All three of those possibilities are terrible. Just formulate your own opinions and then acknowledge them as your own when called upon to express or defend or act upon them. Imagine what the discourse would be like if everyone could do that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

TV Plug

Riveting stuff!
We interrupt a solid week of posts about my life at work to lament the fact that Community, which is my favorite show currently broadcast on network television, is going to be replaced by 30 Rock at the post-holiday mid-season resumption of original Thursday night programming on NBC. And I love 30 Rock, too, but I will be supremely sad if Community goes away forever. Supposedly it won't, because supposedly the network is still committed to shooting and airing the rest of this season's full order, but ... these are grim portents.

I wish I had a Nielsen box on my tv, but I don't. I'm the ideal viewer: male between 18 and 49, and I don't DVR the show and fast forward through the commercials, I actively faithfully reserve 8:00 p.m. as sacramental time to bask in the sitcom's magnificence. If you aren't watching Community, catch it while you still can! And for the love of Philo Farnsworth, if you are part of the Nielsen ratings sample, give the Greendale gang some love!

Triple Whammy Averted

I mentioned the other day how everyone was freaking out about the e-mail migration this week, which officially went down after COB yesterday. It turns out not to have been that harrowing of a transition, and I give the IT department all the credit in the world to dedicating seemingly 100% of their manpower today to being physically present and visible throughout the office, checking and making sure that everyone’s new e-mail configuration is working as it should. No fewer than three different people stopped by my cubicle; I let the first one sit at my desk and run through everything and pronounce it correct, then told the next two I was good thanks.

I would in all honesty say that the transition wasn’t significant enough, because alone the way I had developed the impression that we were going to now use a web-based interface all the time for e-mail, when that turns out not to be the case at all. There’s some cloud-based storage going on at the back-end, and there is totally a website that I could go to and check my work e-mail remotely and see all the same saved messages in my Inbox I would see on my cubicle box, but Outlook the Office Suite program is still the de facto client, and I still hate it. Oh well.

On top of the e-mail freak-out, though, my government boss had decided late last week to finally start pushing everyone in our agency to make use of the online library which has been my long-term project just about forever here. That push, unsurprisingly, has been the source of more freak-outs aplenty, which I’ve been navigating as best I can. I expect the fallout will continue for weeks if not months to come.

And just to pile on atop all of that, we were supposed to have a safety drill in the office this week, too. We had a lot of fair warning about it, because it was going to be a little more elaborate than the standard fire drill or whatnot. All the employees at my agency are supposed to stock their own “go kit”. The government springs to provide a large clear plastic bag but it is then incumbent upon the employee to fill said bag with certain supplies that might be necessary in an emergency, including a change of clothes and comfortable shoes, bottled drinking water, non-perishable food, etc. To spell it out more explicitly, here is the hypothetical “go kit” scenario: terrorists set off a dirty bomb at Reagan National Airport, which I can literally see out the office window. The area including our office building would immediately go into a weird state of simultaneous evacuation and quarantine, and we’d grab our go kits and be herded out of the building and into some centralized field hospital where we’d probably have to surrender everything we were wearing and get some kind of decontamination chem-bath, then dress in our emergency clothes, put those comfortable shoes to use hoofing it to someplace far away where trains and cars were still allowed to run, and fortify ourselves en route with stale granola bars. The bags carrying these provisions are govt. issued and clear presumably for security reasons so that MPs at the field hospital could make sure no one was smuggling contraband.

I don’t know about you but that freaks me out an order of magnitude or three more than the possibility of losing some e-mails or adopting a new process for document management. But the drill ended up being cancelled (technically rescheduled but the future date remains TBD) so there was one less thing to worry about this week, which I suppose has been action-packed enough as it is.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Train Story

So I promised you all a story about how my long federal holiday weekend was nearly derailed before it could properly start. (Derailed! Pun intended!)

Last Thursday I took the same train that I always take, which is one of the earlier westbound-commuter services but which was nonetheless fairly crowded with government employees who had all been dismissed early in advance of the holiday. I did manage to get one of the last seats on one of the last cars, though – verily luckily, indeed.

Thursday around here was a little rainy and a little windy, I should mention before I get too much farther, and one of the few downsides of the VRE rails is that they are entirely aboveground and thus susceptible to disruption due to the elements. (On snowy days, for instance, they only run about half as many trains total throughout the day. A day where everyone takes the train in to work in the morning and then it snows in the early afternoon turns into a real nightmare as a result. But I digress.) I’ve experienced slow rides home on days when it rains heavily, because there are several waterways that either run alongside or under the train tracks, and there is a risk of flash floods in spots, but as I say, Thursday was only a little bit rainy. So when the train decelerated to a mind-boggling .5 miles per hour, I was a little confused as to why.

Apparently I need to do a little more research into the VRE’s communication initiatives, because either everyone else on my car had a smartphone, or some of them have signed up for some kind of service updating text messaging program. The point being, while I sat on a train progressing at a geriatric snail’s pace, people around me started talking about what was going on and why we were moving only in terms relative to the earth’s rotation at best,. And the story as I began to piece it together was this: the day’s weather had combined just enough rain with just enough wind to knock off almost all the leaves on the trees lining the less built-up sections of the rail route. And those leaves were at just the right stage of autumnal turning, not green and healthy enough to hang onto their respective branches, but not desiccated and brown enough to essentially turn to dust upon impact after falling. Instead, all that eye-pleasing foliage had fallen from the trees and stuck to the rails like pre-chewed Fruit Roll-Ups. And then the afternoon trains had rolled over those leaves and pulped them, coating the steel wheels of the cars and the rails themselves with leaf oil. LEAF OIL. I did not know that was a thing, but apparently it totally is.

And also apparently, when a train has its wheels lubed up with leaf oil and tries to turn those wheels against similarly greased rails, the likelihood of the wheels simply spinning in place is progressively higher (a) the faster the train is going and (b) the steeper the incline the train is trying to climb. With regards to (b) this becomes a factor at any incline whatsoever above “dead flat” and there are a couple of sections on my route home that climb something like a 1 or 2 percent grade.

So, physics! The answer to everything, and the reason why it took 3 and a half hours for me to get home on Thursday. It was kind of a drag, but at least I had left early enough that three and a half hours of travel time put me through the garage door of my house by 7:30. At which point I could crash and relax and enjoy the long weekend. Well, except for the predominantly sleepless night that followed due to neither of the children being able, for various reasons, to stay happily and quietly abed for more than a couple hours at a stretch, but that is yet another post for yet another day!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Migration, Your Gration

Super-short, better-than-nothing post today on what is apparently becoming All About Work Week, of which I will reveal more tomorrow &c.

My government agency office is undergoing an e-mail migration from your usual Microsoft Office Outlook software and Exchange Server set-up to a web-based, cloud-oriented model. This is the kind of thing I do for a living, on a different scale, and theoretically I'm all for it (especially because I really hate what an inefficient resuorce hog the Outlook client is). But everybody in the office, confronted with major changes to something as fundamentally indispensible as e-mail, is FREAKING THE HELL OUT. And of course a lot of them are coming to me for help, even though I am in no way officially affiliated with the agency's IT department, simply because I am "a web guy" and I "understand this stuff and can get it working, right?"

So, it's been a fun day. More tomorrow, assuming the internet connections don't all spontaneously melt down under the weight of the collective mind-losing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Super Secret Day Off

Last Friday was Veteran’s Day, and my wife and I had a wonderful liesurely afternoon together. I alluded last week to the somewhat non-standard way in which it became a work-free day for me. Not a company holiday, not a day on which the government office was closed (although all of the government employees had the day off as an official holiday), yet not a day where I had to utilize any paid leave time or floating holidays or anything. Just a day I get to charge as if I had shown up for a full day of work, even though I emphatically did not, with the accounting side of who gets charged for the billable hours handled somewhere up above my paygrade.

One thing I didn’t mention about all that, though, is how the overall awesomeness of my boss’s gestures (he has done stuff like this for the contract team before, in the two-plus years I’ve been on this gig) is so often muted or marred by everybody being exceptionally squirrelly about it. It always goes down the same way, too, with one person saying “Hey, did you hear the boss is getting us Friday off?” and someone else hissing “Shhhh!” because apparently it needs to remain this totally secretive thing. I have no doubts whatsoever about my supervisor’s integrity, nor my employers, and while I snark about the bookkeeping mumbo-jumbo required to let us all play Veteran’s Day hooky on the company dime, I remain convinced that the whole paying-for-extra-time-off-out-of-discretionary-contract-funding is a legit move. And since the government folks have the day off already, I can’t imagine them being horrible distraught that we contractors are taking the day off en masse as well. I think maybe it has something to do with the sub-contractors, over whom my boss does not have the same degree of control and therefore cannot just blanket excuse for a long weekend? And how it would be bad form for us to crow too loudly about our good fortune when they all have to either come to work or use personal time off to stay home?

U!S!A!!! U!S!A!!! U!S!A!!!
The colleague I work most closely with on various projects is a sweet matronly woman who strikes me as not super-bright and just kind of riding out the contracting equivalent of tenure until she can retire. She took the whole secrecy thing to another level last Thursday, as she swung by my desk to ask something on her way out the door, and as we were saying good bye to each other she said, “OK, see you …” and then she MOUTHED the word “Monday”. I just nodded because I really wasn’t sure what to say. Did she think if no one heard her say that in effect she wouldn’t be in on Friday, that then no one would notice when she didn’t show up? And what difference does that make either way? It wasn’t as though she were covering up an attempt to express “Enjoy the free day off the boss gave us!” Just saying “See you Monday” could imply she was taking her own personal day off Friday, or I was, or any number of non-controversial things. But old habits die hard, I guess.

A little later on Thursday afternoon I headed out myself, and there began an epic adventure in getting home which seemed more akin to what happens around here during blizzards, but I think I will save that recap for tomorrow.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chickens and Eggs

My contracting manager has given all of us the day off tomorrow for Veteran’s Day, so I’ve had a lot to get done today in anticipation of that, which means this post is going to be shortish. I know earlier in the week I was reflecting once again on how my current boss is one of the least touchy-feely supervisors I (or I expect anyone) has ever had, but sometimes that is an unreservedly good thing. There’s a certain amount of money associated with our contract which is discretionary, and our boss could use it to take us all out for ice cream or do other little morale-building things on a regular basis, but usually what he does is save it up until there’s a federal (but non-company) holiday and pay for each of us to get a bonus vacation day that day. It’s not very personal and doesn’t involve the whole team sitting around bonding with one another, but I still say it’s frighteningly good for morale.

Anyway, my wife normally works Fridays but she has some extra vacation time to burn before year’s end, and she was planning on taking November 11th as a personal day before I found out my fellow contractors and I were being so gifted with free time. So that means we find ourselves with a weekday off together AND both of the kids scheduled to go to daycare, so it’s going to be like a six-hour staycation and we’ll have to see just how much decadence we can cram into the time between dropping the kids off and picking them up. (Lunch, then Buffy the Vampire Slayer on dvd, then nap? Or Buffy-nap-late lunch? Oh the possibilities!)

Speaking of the kids, the little guy has been amusing me lately as he expands his repertoire of conversational techniques. He still asks “why?” a lot, as much as you would expect any inquisitive three-year-old to, I reckon, but recently he’s begun to incorporate “what would you say (or do) if …?” Much like its predecessor “why”, the “what would happen” seems to be split almost 50/50 between genuine requests for information and set-ups to hear an answer he already knows perfectly well. I just find it interesting to see him flipping around and looking at things from the opposite direction. He used to see effects and express curiosity about their causes; now he imagines hypothetical causes and wonders about what the resulting effects would be. Not that he thinks about things in remotely those terms, I’m sure, but as I said, it’s amusing to me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Weddings and Fight Clubs

Last week I watched a bit more Smallville, so I’m down to four more episodes to go before the end of season 6. What a strange storytelling beast this season is. I went on at length earlier about how the writers clearly wanted to do a Superman/Batman story, couldn’t, and settled for doing a Superman/Green Arrow story. But as the season rolls along, it becomes apparent that they really only had about a half-season’s worth of those kinds of episodes in mind. So while a good chunk of the overarching storyline is about Clark Kent learning about whether heroes should be proactive or reactive from a fellow costumed adventurer who is a stark contrast to him in every way, another good chunk of the storyline is about Clark hunting down superpowered monsters who escaped from the Phantom Zone due to the events of Season 5’s cliffhanger and Season 6’s resolution thereof. Cocky rich dude with a bow and arrow on one side, alien embodiments of evil from a prison dimension on the other – it’s a weird combo.

But there’s a third ingredient, too, and arguably it’s the most important one of all. One thing I’ve been almost constantly surprised by over the past decade since Smallville premiered is how many people fervently despise it. And the theory that I’ve developed is that they hate it for not being what they want it to be, although the reason it fails to be that is because it was always intended to be something else. These “people” I am strawmanning are of course comic book geeks who heard “Smallville” and “Clark Kent” and thought “Right on, an action-adventure tv series based on the early days of Superman from the comics I know and love, bring it on!” But Smallville is actually a teen soap, which uses a couple of sci-fi elements (the protagonist being a human-looking alien with powers, and various other bits of mad comic book science) to propel plots and give it a distinct flavor. As a faithful adaptation of the source material, Smallville fails miserably. As generic action-adventure, it’s hit or miss. As teen soap, though, it’s almost always firing on all cylinders. But teen soaps aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t think Smallville ever meant to fool the hardcore comic book geeks into thinking it was aimed squarely at their sensibilities. (It was broadcast on the WB for crying out loud.) But, geeks latched onto it early and then came the immense, inevitable backlash. So haters gonna hate, what you gonna do.

So, right, that third element, the teen soap stuff. This is where season 6 gets completely insane, as Lana Lang (who was introduced in the pilot episode as the object of Clark’s affection) becomes more and more emotionally estranged from Clark (they got together and broke up in season 5) and ends up in the arms of … Lex Luthor! And impregnated by him! And engaged to him! Clark for a long while is convinced he and Lana can never be together because she would never be safe considering how dangerous his life is (and the geeky haters can suck it on that point, because that is straight out of the original comic book playbook) and when he belatedly tries to see if love can really conquer all, Lana gets manipulated into marrying Lex via complicated blackmail coming from the direction of Lex’s father. And then it turns out she was never pregnant, and the explanation seems to be that Lex orchestrated a chemical pregnancy with a shady doctor to trick her into marriage! This is all unapologetically bonkers, of course, but I watched a lot of Days of Our Lives in college so I’m taking it in stride.

I admit I was genuinely surprised they pulled the trigger on this plot.
It’s interesting to me, though, from a story-crafting perspective, how the showrunners structured this patchwork season of Forbidden Romance plus Monster Hunting plus Contrast of Champions. It’s a little bit easier for me to see some of the seams as I watch back-to-back episodes on DVD, but I was especially struck by the wedding episode itself and its follow-up.

The wedding episode is 110% teen soap, wall-to-wall people monologuing about their feelings and discovering secrets and making threats and it all culminates in the exchange of vows between Lex and Lana and then a sad ballad while the bride and groom leave the church and Clark watches from the crowd and Lana looks back at him regretfully &c. There is no Villain of the Week. Clark barely uses his powers, and then in the most mundane way possible (detaching and then repairing a stuck door when his friend gets locked in a walk-in freezer) which really only happens so that Lana FINALLY (after six years!) sees incontrovertible proof that Clark is a little more than human. This would be one of the “miss” episodes on the action-adventure front, and it’s a huge deviation from the source material as Lana and Lex never had any relationship, let alone a (sham, only-in-soaps) marriage. It’s pretty unequivocally a chick-oriented episode.

The episode after that, to its credit, builds off Clark’s feelings of utter betrayal stemming from Lana actually going through with it and marrying Lex, so there isn’t a total disconnect. But it seems like an episode of an entirely different series. Clark finds out (from Ollie Queen, off-screen pre-opening, seriously where was the actor who played Ollie/Green Arrow during the second half of the season?) about a fight club that streams live deathmatches on the interwebs. Their star performer is clearly a superpowered Phantom Zone escapee named Titan – and is played, I’m 99% sure, by the professional wrestler known in the WWE as Kane. (Frankly, considering one of my good buddies used to watch Smallville a lot and is the biggest Kane mark on the planet, I was shocked he had never mentioned this episode to me before.) The emcee is a hilariously over-the-top huckster, and the ring girls are hot and scantily clad, as is one of the fight club’s security guards who is practically a parody of all bad girl imagery, combining snakebite lip piercings and strippertastic schoolgirl outfit. Lois Lane, who is now working for a tabloid as a reporter, somehow gets wind of the fight club and investigates it, and for some reason her undercover investigation requires her to wear a red vinyl catsuit. Basically I am saying this one episode had more fanservice in it than the last five or so I’ve cited combined. And the final five minutes are special-effects heavy with Titan and Clark just whaling the holy hell out of each other. It is pretty unequivocally a dude-oriented episode! And it’s plain to see that it was totally intended to directly counteract the gauzy romanticism of the episode that aired one week prior. Watching the pair consecutively makes for a nasty case of tonal whiplash, though.

But I guess that’s one thing I do so love about Smallville. It may be a teen soap that borrows (and abuses) tropes of the Superman mythology, but it recognizes that a multitude of different kinds of stories can be told within that framework, and dang if it isn’t trying to tell at least one of each kind before it’s done.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tiny pawprints

Over this past weekend, we were forced to say farewell to the most recent addition to our menagerie, due to a nasty case of feline infectious peritonitis. I am not the veterinarian in the family, obviously, but my wife informed me that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the kitten from succumbing to the virus, as it’s one of those things which just happens to some cats. It is also incurable and fatal. Notwithstanding all of that, euthanizing the kitten wasn’t an easy decision and elicited no small amount of sadness. The kitten was lovely and sweet and will be missed.

The one silver lining, arguably, is that the slow progression of the disease allowed us not only the mental space to prepare for the inevitable but also time to line up … not a pet replacement, exactly, because that doesn’t just sound fairly mercenary but is mostly inaccurate. Let’s just say we knew we would soon have the logistical room to adopt another kitten if we so chose, and if the old kitten-shaped hole wouldn’t precisely be filled, at least it could be distracted from.

So somehow we ended up with two kittens, who were essentially a package deal, a brother and sister, one mostly white (the boy) and one predominantly black (the girl). They were being given away as the previous owner belatedly discovered a severe allergic reaction to them. I admit I was slightly paranoid upon hearing that, since I used to be ragingly allergic to cats before my relationship with my wife forced me into habituation, which might for all I know only apply to certain cats while leaving me still vulnerable to certain other long-haired and fluffy breeds. But so far, so good. The new pair of kittens came home the very day we put the sick kitten to rest, which was Saturday, and we’re all acclimating well enough so far.

Still, astute readers no doubt cannot help but notice that instead of getting any closer to our professed ideal configuration of one dog and two cats, we are moving ever farther away from it, with the current pet-census standing at two dogs and three cats … and counting? One never knows.

Monday, November 7, 2011


So last week I actually had the gumption to e-mail my contracting boss and ask for a few minutes of his time to discuss the upcoming goal-setting cycle of the annual review process. (Just as a quick sidenote: when I was in high school I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up but I knew I didn’t really want a desk job in an office, and although I didn’t know the corporate jargon-speak at the time I’m quite sure anything that involved ‘goal-setting cycles’ and ‘annual review processes’ or even ‘contracting managers’ would have been right out. Yet twenty years later, here I am.) My boss, as I believe I’ve mentioned in the past, is pretty hands-off and not terribly expressive on those few occasions when he deems it necessary to be hands-on. So when he did not reply to my e-mail immediately I almost took it as some kind of a test. I didn’t pester him or even follow up with him at all. I bumped into him a couple of times but didn’t mention my request for a face-to-face. Then a few days later he e-mailed me back and suggested I stop by any time that day. Which I did.

Basically the point of meeting with him was to tell him that, after much thought, I had decided to start steering my career with our company in more of a project management direction than a subject matter expert role. And my boss’s response was … muted. On the bright side he seemed to understand why I would be interested in going that route and he essentially agreed that I could do that. I wouldn’t characterize his response as supportive, really, as there was no “yes, you’d be great at that, I’ve bene waiting for you to show some interest in it!” or anything like that. It was more in the “yes, that’s fine” vein but, you know, I’m not a Millennial so I don’t need constant praise to feel like I’m doing the right thing. And having worked for a variety of different bosses over the years, I’m legitimately grateful that my current boss’s reaction was neither to knock me down a couple of pegs by questioning what made me think I could handle the management side of things, nor to get weirdly defensive and interpret my desire to expand my work horizons as a need to get away from him personally by blazing a new trail on my own. (Yes, both of those potential negative reactions have actually happened to me before.)

All in all, then, it was good to get that out in the open with my boss and he provided me with some rudimentary info on how climbing that ladder from where I am now would work in the context of both our current contract and our employer at large. I expect it’s going to be a slow process going forward to remake myself, but thousand miles and first steps and all that.

Of course the journey almost crashed immediately upon embarkation as the end of the week saw me actually getting called on to troubleshoot a showstopper of a technical error on one of our web applications (in other words, to do the job they pay me for currently). And this error would have to crop up at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and not have an immediately obvious solution. I scratched at for an hour or so (and also e-mailed the help desk for the server center, because when I haven’t touched an application in a long while and it suddenly and inexplicably breaks, I always suspect someone’s been mucking with the server) and then I had to leave for the day. I didn’t really believe that staying late would accomplish anything in terms of resolution of the errors … but it might have accomplished something in terms of showing how dedicated I am and how ready for a leadership position I might be. But I work an early shift so that I can get home to either pick up my kids from daycare or give my wife a break after her full day home alone with the munchkins, and I wasn’t willing to deviate from that.

Fortunately, I was able to go in early the next day and fix the error almost immediately, having noodle out the likely cause overnight. So hopefully I salvaged a bit of my reputation that way. Not that anyone, including my boss, had given me any guff about leaving the afternoon before anyway, which again is one of those elements of having a buttoned-up non-demonstrative manager in the first place, and one for which I am grateful.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Delayed anecdote

So in the summer of 2001 I found myself an unemployed victim of the tech-bubble’s bursting, a situation which exacerbated pretty much all of the fundamental problems of my marriage, and by Labor Day I had moved away from Virginia and back to New Jersey to live with my mother, ostensibly because I had made no headway in the DC-area job search and perhaps would have better luck in the NYC-area market, but tacitly (and more importantly) because separating from my then-wife was a good idea given how things were deteriorating on the home front. Come the dawning of 2002, I was at least gainfully employed (though just barely) and also, with no small relief, no-fault divorced.

I ended up staying at mom’s for a little over a year, which was good for me in a lot of ways, but the hardest part was being geographically separated from my social support network in Virginia. I visited VA a couple of times, including Halloween 2002, on which occasion I attended a costume party (wearing an extremely low-budget homemade costume of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons) and ran into an old college acquaintance who found out I had little love for my current lousy job and offered me a much better one. I also had the license plates on my car reclaimed by the police – they were VA tags which had expired, because I had never gotten around to registering the car in NJ – and that struck me as a sign that I should take the new job and get back to Virginia, which I managed to contrive within a week or so.

The resemblance was truly uncanny.
And I very quickly got back into my old social circles, which included the gaming group I had played with on a weekly basis earlier. The group had changed somewhat in my absence, incorporating some new faces, but all were positive additions. One of those new guys (who truthfully was only new-to-me, since he had gone to high school with several of the other gamers and then drifted away for the better part of a decade only to re-emerge and be welcomed back into the circle during my year of exile) was actually such a hardcore geek that one night per week of gaming was not enough for him, nor was one style of gaming. While my old group was still gathering on Wednesday nights for pencil/paper/dice roleplaying games, the new guy was attending those sessions and also hosting Xbox HALO parties at his house on Friday nights and also setting up impromptu tabletop miniatures games at his place on other random weeknights. And since I am something of a hardcore geek myself, and much of my motivation for moving back to Virginia was to be able to hang out with peers with common interests again, and I wasn’t necessarily yearning to date or even meet romantic prospects yet (not to mention little did I know that I had already met the person I was really supposed to be married to, years before), I gleefully got on board with the expanded gaming schedule.

The tabletop miniatures games are the ones that feature multiple levels of addictiveness because they are also hobbies of acquisition. You buy an Xbox, you buy a HALO game, and you can play all you like and get the complete experience. Pretty much the same deal when you buy the core rulebook for a roleplaying system, though they offer periodic supplemental materials as well. But minis (some of them, including the ones featured in this anecdote) are like baseball cards, sold in small sets where you don’t know what you’re getting until you’ve bought and opened a pack, and you have no guarantee against getting duplicates or of ever getting every last piece, and collecting and trading becomes just as much part of the game as actually playing. When I first started attending these games using the minis (all of which were based on comic book characters, as if the whole concept needed another barbed hook to sink into my brain), I didn’t own any myself and would borrow from the vast collections of others, especially the host. But of course I started buying my own soon enough.

At that point there had been a core set of minis released when the whole game was launched, plus one expansion set. It wasn’t long after I started playing before a second expansion set was announced. And on the heels of that announcement came another, that before the nationwide retail release of expansion #2, limited quantities of packs would be available at a comic book convention in Orlando, Florida. The latter announcement soon became the subject of a great deal of speculation, rumination, and wild-ass blue-sky fantasizing.

The mini-gaming host, whom I have just now remembered I once christened “Clutch” for blogging purposes because he has always been there for me in tight spots, was and is a family man, happily married with … well now he has three kids but I believe at the time this story takes place, early 2003, he only had two. But part of his domestic bliss seemed to be an understanding between himself and his wife that they should each be allowed a great deal of latitude and freedom in following their own bliss, within the bounds of their wedding vows and other laws of the land. So his gaming nights were never a source of conflict, nor were her girls’ nights out, and if one or the other wanted to do something really outlandish every now and then, which didn’t bankrupt the family or anything, so be it. Therefore it quickly came to light that Clutch could, conceivably, go to Orlando for a comic book convention if he really wanted to. And I had no reason not to go, myself, since I had no significant other, no kids, nary a pet or houseplant. For the three years or so of my mistake-marriage I had felt decidedly not-myself, and getting laid off and taking a crappy job when unemployment ran out and living with my mom didn’t do a lot to ameliorate that. Getting back to Virginia had been helping, but I was still susceptible to thinking along the lines of “the old me was always up for anything, even eager for poorly-planned adventures, and generally defaulted to saying YES to things when there was no good reason to say no.” So when Clutch said, “I’ll go to Orlando if you’ll go with me,” despite only having really known each other a few months, I agreed to share the drive-through-the-night roadtrip.

It was a bit of a mad dash, since we both worked on Friday, met up that afternoon at his place, threw duffel bags in his Mustang convertible, and set off down I-95. We took turns behind the wheel (my turns may have been foreshortened because Clutch was always slightly agitated at my tendency to take my hands off 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock to gesticulate while I talked) and arrived at the convention center just before dawn, slept in the car for maybe an hour, changed our shirts and got in line so that as soon as the convention hall opened we could dash in and head straight to the booth where the new mini figure packs were on sale, because the only way the trip could be a failure would be if we drove all that way only to find the limited supplies had been depleted before we could pick any up. We may have been a bit overzealous but I can report the trip was not a failure. After we had obtained our new minis we enjoyed the rest of the day in a much more leisurely fashion, headed to bed fairly early, and then hit the road the next morning because it was already Sunday, we were 863 miles from home and we both had to be at work on Monday morning. We did, however, make time to stop at South of the Border on the return leg of the trip.

Anyway, before we roadtripped to Orlando, Clutch and I were acquaintances with common interests who were willing to take a chance going on an adventure together that neither of us could have pulled off alone. The trip itself was what really cemented our friendship, as we passed the time in the Mustang exchanging life stories more or less in their entirety, partly because there was nothing else to do, partly to stay awake (not that that tactic would work now; it’s astonishing what my 28-year-old self was physically capable of), and partly because everything’s connected. Clutch didn’t really know the details of my recently-ended exile, only snippets he had heard from the rest of the gaming group, so I told him how I ended up making the mistake of marrying the wrong person, which I felt only really made sense if you knew how my childhood view of my parents set my expectations and how my life unfolding messed with them. Clutch didn’t have his own divorce sob-story to relate, but he did get married fairly young, after a childhood and adolescence overflowing with cautionary tales, and I was fascinated to hear all of those details. Not to mention I’ve always found that asking someone “so how did you get into comics/roleplaying/pick-your-geek-poison?” will usually wind its way around their entire life story along that whole we-are-the-things-we-love (especially when the things we love are outside the mainstream) axis.

But good bros with a tight bond and at least one insanely impulsive shared experience between us or no, Clutch very nearly strangled me to death while I was driving (my own car this time, at least) and recounting to him how mind-numbingly awful the movie Hackers is. And he would have been totally justified, too. Live and learn.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

After the gauntlet

My two children are really pretty much champs when it comes to rolling with whatever comes along. The little guy still sometimes loses his cool altogether during actual moments of transition, but as long as we inform (and repeatedly remind) him ahead of time what to expect, he hangs tough, three-year-old style. His sister, meanwhile, is simply one of the most mellow babies I’ve ever met.

So we took things to the limit over the course of last weekend. On Saturday we visited friends at their house for dinner, which entailed a half-hour car ride out, three or four hours of hanging out, and a half-hour car ride back. There were no waste-elimination accidents, happily, and despite getting home well past bedtime the actual process of getting the little guy ready for and into bed was not seriously derailed. Sunday the whole family went warehouse-shopping (at a warehouse store, not for a warehouse) in the early part of the day, then visited different friends for dinner, in D.C. no less. Same results: no accidents, got home after bedtime but dodged the off-schedule tantrum bullet, all was well. Monday was of course Halloween and I got home from work (I can’t legitimately claim to have “raced” home because the train moves at constant speed no matter what I personally have got going on) and gathered everyone into the car to head over to yet another friend’s house, because they live in a neighborhood that takes trick or treating seriously: almost all the houses are elaborately decorated and residents take pains to be home throughout the evening to give out candy. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s a new-ish development where all of the houses have very small yards and are built right on top of each other, which is exceptionally handy for the short-legged walking door-to-door. The little girl was underwhelmed by riding in her umbrella stroller in a strange place in the dark, so she ended up only accompanying her brother to the house next door to our friends, but the little guy gamely knocked on eight or ten doors (when he wasn’t spouting dialogue from Cars and running around like a racer on the track because he was, inescapably, dressed up as Lightning McQueen) and got his handful of candy and then luckily was just as ready to go home as we were. That still put us home after bedtime, though, and right about then came the unsettling realization that we had really put the kids through the ringer with driving around and staying up late for three nights in a row.

Note: felt like, but did not actually happen.
Now of course I’m firmly resolved to not take the kids anywhere requiring automotive transport this coming weekend. We can play in the yard or walk to the park but that’s it for what should be a car-seat-free couple of days, I hope. To their credit, though, the kids seem to have taken it in stride and after just a couple nights showed no signs of being reborn as unrepentant night owls or anything. Just last night the little picked out as his bedtime story “Head to Toe” by Eric Carle, which involves all manner of body movements emulating animals, and I sat with the book in one hand and the little girl on the opposite knee while we both watched the little guy imitating monkeys and buffaloes and crocodiles and elephants, and the little girl was entranced and delighted, and the little guy had a blast showing off, after which he got in bed (twenty minutes early!) and didn’t make a peep the rest of the night.

So really the primary toll was taken on my wife and myself, because of the hecticness of all the driving and kid-wrangling and, let’s be totally honest, the relentless socialization. It’s not like we don’t like our friends and have weird toxic relationships propped up by mutually assured social destruction or anything crazy like that. Ordinarily we’d be pleased as proverbial punch to spend time hanging with our respective peeps and/or homies, it just was a mistake to dogpile so many get-togethers one on top of the other, because no matter how amazing those people are it just gets to be too much with no break. And then compound all of that with no small amount of guilt because we’re lugging our kids around hither and yon rather than spending quiet restful time at home with them … there was a certain overheated smoke drifting from our braincases by Monday night, is all.

The strange thing about it, though, is that it’s all self-correcting. Soon enough the kids will be old enough to actually express whether or not they like visiting mom and dad’s friends, or riding in the car, or staying up late, or whatever, and we won’t have to fill the void with imaginings and projections and such. And not too long after that, we (my wife and I) won’t even logistically have the ability to overbook ourselves socially, because the kids will have sports tournaments or recitals or scout camps or whatever which take precedence. So maybe we’re just trying to squeeze every moment of opportunity out of these days of small accessory-sized children that we can? Maybe so.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wanted by no one

Right, so last week I was bemoaning the 90 minutes of my life I would never get back after watching the movie Wanted, and I stopped short of explaining exactly what made it so execrable in my opinion. I shall hold forth on that subject … now. I had said last week “spoilers follow!” but then spent all my time just babbling about how various movies came into the orbit of my awareness and never got down to narrative breakdowns. This time, though, for reals, spoilers. Also be forewarned that I’m going to have no choice but to use some NSFW language along the way, partly because it’s an actual plot point in Wanted, and partly because I can only wallow in garbage but for so long before I curse like a barge captain.

So here’s the biggest flaw with Wanted, in a nutshell. The story starts with a protagonist who is absolutely pitiful, working in a thankless white-collar cubicle-rooted position for a stereotypical harpy of a boss, having panic attacks for no reason which require prescription medication to deal with, living in a tiny crappy apartment with a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his own best friend. Clearly this is meant to be emblematic of modern life in general and the crap we all swallow daily, if slightly exaggerated for effect. The story ends with the protagonist having found a way to rise above his humble beginnings and take control of his life by transforming it into something grander, namely embracing his destiny as a super-powered assassin. This is meant to be awesome, though I would argue that it’s not for various reasons (not all of which necessarily are about blanket condemnation of assassins).

Now the way the protagonist gets from the start to the end is, by and large, a bunch of nonsensical garbage, but as I’ve said before I don’t have a huge problem with that as long as the plot is irrelevant and the movie has something else to offer. Wanted tries to substitute comprehensible story development with its own swaggering philosophy that probably means to Say Something Important and a final line of dialogue that no doubt was intended to Really Make You Think. But the movie fails, and a lot of that failure can be attributed directly to the fact that the movie woefully undercuts its own supposed philosophical viewpoint at every possible opportunity.

When we meet Wesley, the aforementioned protagonist, and through at least the entire first half of the film, he is referred to as a “pussy” countless times: in his own interior monologue voiceover, in harangues delivered by the other assassins reluctantly training him in their arts, and so on. In the movie’s own estimation, ignoring evidence of infidelity rather than breaking up with one’s horrible girlfriend is a pussy thing to do. Never standing up to an obnoxious boss is pussy. Taking medicine is pussy. Basically any form of following the rules, going along to get along, and blending in is pussy. And the opposite of being a pussy is being a stone-cold killing machine. I actually kind of get that; I think it’s wrong-headed and trite, but I understand the impetus that would lead someone to say that almost every aspect of modern Western society is inherently emasculating and humiliating and soul-crushing for the everyman, and the only way to throw off the shackles is to completely opt out and stop following the rules, all the rules, up to and including bedrock fundamentals like Thou Shalt Not Kill. The only way to be your own man with your own righteous power is to say the hell with everyone else. Murder others at will, or the collective will of others will slowly kill you.

But that’s not where Wanted goes with it. Wesley gets introduced to a secret society of assassins because his father (whom he never knew of course) was a member but was recently killed and the legacy must be passed down and blah blah blah. Then comes the big twist: these assassins? They’re really the good guys! They don’t kill indiscriminately, or for personal gain, or for philosophical freedom or anything like that. They get orders from the hands-down absurdest Macguffin of all time, a magic loom that spits out people’s names in binary code (derived from out-of-place threads being over or under the weave) and those names are always people who will at some point in the future kill more people, so by sending the assassins after those fated murderers the loom is saving lives and preventing all of civilization from collapsing into chaos. Or something like that. There’s tons of contrivances and coincidences to back all this up, but the point is Wesley trades being a pussy who works at a computer under the guidance of an unpleasant human being for the glory of being a dude who works with a gun under the guidance of a loom which only communicates in cloth. Progress, I guess, but not really a revolution. He still has rules he has to follow, he’s still part of a larger group (the Fraternity of Assassins) he has to go along with to get along with. His existential situation hardly changes at all.

The irony here is that this is essentially the movie itself pussying out. It might have started as a really interesting examination of what power is and how modern society neuters people and only through extreme transgression can the self be reclaimed, but it ends up being the most bog-standard version of the hero’s quest, where the protagonist ends up fighting to save lives, a figure as noble as a soldier or policeman or fireman, just one who uses pre-emptive execution of scumbags to let the rest of the world sleep peacefully at night. Lame.

Also in the comics The Fox is drawn to look like Halle berry, not Angelina Jolie.
Actually, I know exactly where Wanted started: as a comic book miniseries, albeit one you would hardly recognize if you read it after seeing the movie. I read it years before, but tellingly I could only remember the premise and not how it all ended. (I have since looked up the ending on Wikipedia and said “ah, yeah, that’s right.”) The premise of the comic is that Wesley’s long-lost dad was not just an assassin but a deadly supervillain, and the Fraternity is actually all the supervillains in the world, who have conquered said world and eliminated all the superheroes without the general populace noticing. When Wesley inherits his father’s legacy, it’s not so that he can protect innocents by strategically taking out the worst of the worst. It’s not for any greater purpose at all. He just goes nuts breaking the law with impunity satisfying his every desire with the entire Fraternity’s backing, making sure he never has to face any consequences whatsoever. That is some ballsy anti-hero wish-fulfillment storytelling! I can at least respect it for setting up the law-abiding pussy/law-breaking rockstar dichotomy and following through with it no holds barred. The mini eventually got bogged down by an actual plot where there was a civil war within the Fraternity and Wesley had to pick sides and fight for his life and so on, but said side-choosing was never presented as the contrast between right and wrong, just between his wants and the desires of others, and ultimately his own survival.

Wanted, the movie, is only loosely inspired by this but does climax with internecine fighting in the Fraternity of Tablecloth Sewers, where it turns out the head assassin was deliberately mistranslating the thread-binary and sending the other assassins out after targets who were not tomorrow’s evil-doers but simply today’s income-generating rub-outs. (How exactly this worked as a one-man conspiracy, and where the hell the Fraternity got its money before it started taking on profitable hit-jobs, is never addressed, shockingly.) The most surprising thing about this cliché everything-Wesley-thought-he-knew-was-a-lie development is that it turns Morgan Freeman into the bad guy, so it’s slightly harder to see coming. But still stupid. After the big battle – where Wesley slowly but surely revenges himself on all the assassins who were hard on him when he was training to be one of them – Morgan Freeman gets away, which seems to set up the inevitable sequel …

… until the last few minutes in which Morgan Freeman reappears in Wesley’s old office, trying to get the drop on Wesley, but the guy in the cubicle is a decoy and Wesley, shooting from miles and miles away with an outlandish gun and his own super-assassin powers, blows Morgan Freeman’s brains out. Then the film runs backwards but follows the trajectory of the bullet (rather than Morgan freeman’s reverse-dawning realization of who’s pwning whom) and ends up back in Wesley’s gun, where he finishes the end of a tedious rant about how life sucks by looking directly at the viewer and asking "What the fuck have you done lately?"; so in its absolute last gasp, the film is still clinging to the completely false notion that it’s being provocative and edgy with its make-the-world-a-better-place-for-your-fellow-man-through-assassination attempt at having its cake and eating it, too.

Even setting aside the whole “murder is awesome! … but must be committed responsibly at the behest of a piece of fortune-telling medieval machinery” philosophical vapidity, the movie commits an even more egregious example of pussying out. The opening sequences are designed to leave no question in the audience’s mind that Wesley’s girlfriend is a bitch, his best friend is a dick, and his boss is a nightmarish monstrosity in human flesh. Wanted, the comic, does this too, by the by. You would think that when Wesley discovers he was born to be a superpowered assassin he would at a minimum shoot and kill his boss, shoot and kill his best friend, or shoot and kill his girlfriend. Possibly all three! And in fact, in the comic version, he does get some explicit revenge on those who have been wronging him. In the movie … not so much. He says some nasty things to his boss and hurts her feelings. He punches his best friend in the face, twice. And he kisses Angelina Jolie in front of his girlfriend. I guess these are supposed to be moments of triumph but they are such small potatoes it’s laughable. And in that film-rewind portion at the end where we see how Wesley made the shot that took out Morgan Freeman, we also see that the improbable path of the bullet (“bending the shot” is part of the quasi-mystical superpowers deal in the movie, just go with it) goes through the hole of a donut the boss is eating and also punctures the can of energy drink that the best friend is drinking while the girlfriend yammers at him about something. So beyond any doubt those characters make it through the movie totally alive, but … the boss is still fat? And the best friend now has to take on relationship drama with the girlfriend instead of just getting action on the side? Are those supposed to be gratifying components of Wesley’s ascension to pure awesome? Or is it actually a way of underlining, “Look, Wesley can shoot anything anywhere at anytime, he could have killed any of those three creeps, but he chose not to … because he’s the sympathetic hero” right before Wesley has the gall to suggest through the broken fourth wall that the audience doesn’t live in the same rarefied air of freedom that he does?

Wanted looks into the darkness in the human soul and not only blinks but runs away in the opposite direction at top speed to comfort itself with the familiar and the bland, then refuses to just shut the fuck up already about how awesome it was that one time it looked into the darkness, man. It calls its main characters assassins but really (and I’d love to think this is a clever play on the phrase “Wanted: Dead or Alive” but it’s probably just coincidence) they’re cowboys, living by their own code of honor and enforcing it with guns, and Wesley wears a white hat the whole time. The movie tries to have it both ways while pursuing neither one particularly competently, and that gets pretty annoying over the course of its running time. And apparently they are talking about producing a sequel; just the other day I saw the following direct quote from one of the screenwriters: “We're writing and basically picking Wesley up a few years after the events of the first movie and throwing him back into that world.”

But that world is a boring mush of contradictions that I can’t imagine anyone would want to revisit.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

By the skin of my pig

OK, that post subject sounds slightly perverted, but rest assured I am talking about football, narrow victories, etc.

It was a good weekend, this final Saturday and Sunday of October. The Wolverines won, the Giants won, the Steelers won, and there was much rejoicing. And, as is often the case, much satisfaction in the mean-spirited anti-rooting parts of the brain as well. The Steelers beat the Patriots and the last points they put on the board were 2 via safety, which was a fine coup de grace in the overall humbling of New England. The Redskins, playing in Toronto against the Bills – a scenario which the Bills participate in every year but which always managed to result in Bills defeats in the past – were goose-egged. And rounding out the NFC East (where my rooting interests primarily lie) the Cowboys and Eagles played each other, the only downside of which was that they couldn’t both lose. Best-case scenario was that the Eagles would win, keeping the Cowboys two games behind the Giants, and that is indeed how it went.

But funny enough, when the dust had settled from the Sunday night game, I realized that I had somehow managed to position myself in a four-way tie for the Week 8 lead in the NFL pick’em pool. I actually had a reason to care who won the MNF game; more to the point, I had a decent shot at winning the week outright. Of the four of us at the top of the heap, I was the only one who had taken the points with Kansas City, while my three opponents were betting on Sand Diego to cover the spread. If the Chargers won by 4 or more points, the prize money for the week would go to whoever of those three had come closest to guessing the total number of points scored during the course of Monday Night Football. But if the Chiefs won, or even kept it close, I would be the uncontested victor. I was glad that I had picked the underdog and my fortunes rode on them, because with absolutely no other rooting interest in the game it’s just more fun to cheer on the unlikely.

But even though I was quietly cheering along, I couldn’t even stay awake to the end of the third quarter, due to the cumulative effects of pilfered-Halloween-candy-coma and a slightly brutal schedule stretching back to Saturday (which I will expound upon at greater length later on). But I checked the pick’em pool website first thing this morning and saw that the Chiefs and I were both winners. (It wasn’t until I got to work, walked through the lobby past a tv tuned to ESPN, and read the ticker that I even knew the game had gone to overtime.)

It’s funny how my week-to-week performance in the pool rattles around in my head. I grew up watching football with my dad (and all the other adult male relatives on major holidays) and clearly I internalized it as an essential component of masculine identity, not just watching football but understanding it and being able to analyze it thoughtfully and converse on the subject critically. So if I got anything out of all those years of exposure, I should theoretically be able to predict winners and losers with something better than coin-flip accuracy, and when I do I feel vindicated and when I don’t I feel abashed. Part of my brain is telling me I just got luckier than everyone else this week with my wild guesses, but still, it’s kind of a relief to know at the season’s halfway point that I have something I can point to as justification for getting into the pool at all (namely the fact that my cash winnings will basically cover the expense of signing up in the first place).

Lest you think I’m being too hard on myself by downplaying my achievement as nothing more than emerging as the luckiest guesser, I should point out that I only got nine games correct when all was said and done, which marks the only time all season that the weekly winner has been in the single digits in the W column. A dubious distinction, that. It also means that everyone else in the pool had even fewer games correct, and it was therefore an unusually rough and unpredictable week in professional American football. I suppose that still doesn’t necessarily make the case one way or the other, so take it for what it’s worth.

The other nice thing (in addition to the money) about winning out the week is that it slightly improves my overall standings for the season. I was also aided by the fact that my godfather, who has been and remains in first place, finished with a low-end 5 wins this week, so I caught up to him a bit, though he still has a pretty commanding lead. At this point I am tied for seventh place overall – tied with my grandma, I hasten to add. The lady loves football and gambling, bless her.