Friday, August 31, 2012

Stowin away the years

Before September comes and I wander away from commenting on the beach vacation altogether, I do want to re-emphasize that it was without question a positive experience, difficulties and challenges notwithstanding. The days were largely unstructured, I ate well and drank quite a bit of beer and watched a lot of cartoons. In other words, it was very reminiscent of college (not just of the old college-days beach weeks, mind you, but the characteristic semester-by-semester dormitory life of those four slacker years).

Speaking of college, we stopped by the old alma mater on the way down to NC the first Sunday of vacation. We’ve done this before and doubtless will do it again; it’s a convenient halfway point where we can grab lunch at one of the campus-accessible watering holes, and then meander through campus itself which is pleasant and charming for my wife and myself, and a reasonably safe traffic-free place for the kids to run around and get some carseat fatigue out of their respective systems.

I started my freshman year of college twenty years ago, right around this time of year, and that is fairly mindboggling. It means it’s statistically likely that the bar where we ate lunch has waitresses on staff now who weren’t even born back when I was getting kicked out of said bar for clumsy attempts at underage drinking. Time keeps on slipping and we slide along with it, but it does manage to catch me off guard every now and then.

The bar still has a jukebox soundsystem which plays pretty much round the clock (or at least round the hours of operation), so we had a soundtrack for our mid-roadtrip repast. At one point a fairly recent tune came through the speakers and my brain went immediately into an involuntary rejection reaction. I simply could not reconcile those particular environs with pop music released in this century, let alone this year. Which is deeply weird, because it’s not as if the entire college town is frozen in amber by any means. The road into town from the highway has had businesses come and go over the past couple decades (mostly restaurants; no such thing as Chipotle back when I was a student but you better believe there’s one now) and the campus itself has had old lecture halls and dorms refurbished and new ones constructed. Even the bar has changed somewhat. Not the layout, and not the menu (thank goodness) but certain elements of the décor: old boxy tv’s replaced by hi-def flatscreens with satellite hookups, and more recent photos of student athletes rotating in and bumping older ones from their places of honor on the walls. And I take all of those things in stride.

But for some reason, the music just occupies a more primal place in my memories, I guess. It feels fundamentally wrong to sit in one of those booths and hear any songs in the air that weren’t released prior to my graduation. Oldies are fine, even songs from before I was born, because they were always part of the bar scene soundtrack back in those pre-commencement days, too. But post-millennial pop? Not the place, not at all. It feels alien.

I recognized the absurdity of this line of thinking immediately, and didn’t even feel the need to comment on it to my wife across the table in the moment (and I babble to her pretty much non-stop, so that is a very low bar to fail to clear). It’s one of the many things I’m inconsistent about, I guess. In the abstract, I’m quick to mock irrational nostalgic attachment to anything in anyone, myself included, with the hope that I don’t really fall prey to such regressive thinking all that often. Then lo and behold, a situation comes along where I fall prey like a slow, fat ungulate. I don’t turn my nose up at new music and in fact make certain efforts, however small and sporadic, to stay at least peripherally aware of what the kids are listening to now and not turn into that guy who just listens over and over again to the same old CD’s or MP3’s he bought back when new music appealed to him (inevitably translated as “in college or shortly thereafter”). But it seems that when I’m back in a physical location that’s much more a part of my memories than part of my current life, I subconsciously expect auditory reinforcement of that. I realized the short-order cook who I knew by name couldn’t live forever, and obviously the classmates who were waitresses in the 90’s have all moved on and probably gotten careers and families just like I did. It makes no sense whatsoever to not similarly anticipate that whoever has been in charge of the jukebox at the bar would update the selections as twenty years roll by. I get that, I do.

But music apparently plays by its own rules, according to my gut. Considering how I’ve been obsessing lately about my own deteriorating memory, and my need to re-read books and re-watch movies that I’m losing, it’s interesting and a little bit heartening to realize there’s another area of my brain that’s got a much higher retention percentage. Still crazy, but at least a different kind of crazy, and I am nothing if not someone who prizes variety.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Frick and Frack and Freaking Out

It has gotten to the point where the little girl has just enough independent agency that she can give a reasonably good try at imitating almost everything her brother does. And I have known all along that this day was coming. What I didn’t really expect was that the mimicry would be a two-way street. And yet here we are, and one day the little girl will spend fifteen solid, silent minutes sitting trying to put her brother’s shoes on her own feet all by herself, just like he does (she really is inordinately fond of footwear, slipping into her own and carrying others to their proper owners, and “zhoo!” is one of her most distinct proto-words at this point) and the very next day it’s the little guy who will be imitating her, running amok and shrieking wordlessly right behind her whenever such a fancy, for whatever toddler-id reasons, strikes her as unavoidably necessary. Granted, I’ve seen (and commented on) plenty of regression-style behavior on the little guy’s part, but I’m marking this as something distinctly different: he’s not imitating his little sister in order to get some attention he’s feeling jealously deprived of, he’s just imitating her because what she’s up to looks like fun.

For the most part, I find it sweet and heartwarming to see the two of them doing the same things together, playing with one another as opposed to merely near one another. It does have its problematic moments, of course. We spent a couple of afternoons last week at a small beach on the sound side of the island, where the water was nice and shallow and virtually wave-free and thus suitable for toddler/pre-schooler wading and splashing. But the little guy wanted to wander out farther and farther, and the little girl wanted desperately to follow him, only to find that she lost her balance rather easily on the soft footing of the sandbar. And then she thought running in the water and losing her balance and falling over was hilarious, and started doing it on purpose, which was all well and good except that she still has tubes in her ears and isn’t supposed to submerge them, which her mother and I understand but she clearly does not, so that became a bit of a contest of wills, and the little guy continuing to frolic wildly very nearby did not exactly help us keep her subdued. But, so it goes.

Not that I really needed to have the point pounded home any more than that, but life does have its way of serving up walk-in parables now and then. On Sunday, as we were in the final leg of our trek back home, we pulled off 95 somewhere in the vicinity of Thornburg to stop at a McDonald’s for a late lunch and stretching of the legs. The fast food transaction elements were totally standard, but as it happens this particular McD’s has a Playland jungle gym which is one of the larger examples of the breed. It seemed as though the Playland had once been at least semi-detached and exposed to the elements, and later enclosed by permanent walls composed mostly of windows, but no one had ever run the HVAC of the restaurant out to the addition, so it felt like a greenhouse in there. But neither of our children were deterred by that, and insisted on exploring the structure before and after the meal portion of the visit.

It was during the after-meal play session that the little girl managed to almost completely disappear into the Playland. As I said, it was a large structure, multi-level and multi-compartmented in addition to multi-colored, the kind my wife refers to as “hamster habitat” for very good reason. It’s designed to be safe in a litigation-proof kind of way, since the kids can’t fall very far or move very fast with all the twist and turns and widely separated steps up and so forth. (Climbing on the outside of the structure is clearly verboten, which is emphasized by a heavy duty kind of netting over the entire Playland and several strategically place Plexiglas panels all of which make it impossible for kids to clamber up the inside and then poke their way out.) The only flaw in this set-up is that as, say, a sixteen-and-a-half-month-old ascends from one pod to the next to the next, it becomes harder to even see her through all the plastic layers, and outright impossible to reach her. One minute the little girl was near the entrance at ground level, the next we could kind of hear her giggles echoing from very near the top of the Playland. We cannot be 100% certain, but we believe she would not have been able to scale the entire thing on her own, and thus was aided and abetted by the little guy.

From the top of the Playland, children can escape via a somewhat twisty slide, and my take was that we should just get the little guy to help his sister sit at the top of the slide, maybe give her a gentle push, and then we could catch her at the bottom. She likes slides. My wife is somewhat more conservative in her stance towards our children’s physical safety, I guess, because she proceeded to enter the Playland herself to catch up with the little girl. Not only are grown-ups technically not allowed inside the Playland, but they can scarcely physically navigate its child-sized confines, yet somehow my wife’s determination carried the day and she ended up sliding down the slide with the little girl in her lap, no harm done. The little guy followed and we pretty much took off after that.

I was saying something about parables? Oh, right, well see, the Playland represents childhood itself, this bright-bordering-on-garish jumble of experiences and discoveries. And at this point, our son and daughter are going through it the best they can, and although my wife and I are right there watching out for them, we are in a sense on the outside looking in. At the very least, though, the little guy and little girl can help each other out sometimes (even if that involves him hauling her upwards by her arm in an enthusiastic but unmindful manner which we are all lucky did not dislocate her shoulder). In extreme circumstances, maybe we the parents can intervene ourselves. We just want them to come out the other side OK, is all.

Also it smells like french frys? The symbolism may be a work in progress.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ain't so tough (The Public Enemy)

I've said it before (and here I go again): I'm far more likely to be open to sampling older works or genres outside my comfort zone if they at least partially incorporate something which comes from said zone. So it went when I was semi-recently asked to pick the movie of the week for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, and was further asked to restrict myself to pre-1965 offerings. I went with 1931's The Public Enemy, mostly because of its overt focus on the criminal underworld (which occupies approximately 50% of all superhero comics' subject matter, so clearly I am a lifelong connoisseur). I knew nothing else about the film, other than the fact that it starred James Cagney, but I figured stories from the villain's perspective are always fun.

If I had thought about it a bit longer, it might have occurred to me that the movie was made two years before Prohibition ended. In fact, the story is centered on exactly the kind of criminal who arose and flourished during (and largely because of) the enforcement of the Volstead Act, so in a sense it's as much a movie about the Prohibition phenomenon as about Cagney's character, Tom Powers. Prohibition is undeniably one of my pet favorite historical interests, so that made the movie especially intriguing to me, as a contemporaneous document of the era unfiltered by latterday perspective. (I was especially amused by the matter-of-fact scenes of rampant stockpiling, bordering on rioting and looting, on the eve of Prohibition's enactment, which very much conveyed what it must have felt like to live through that event.)

The greatest surprise for me in the movie was that its overall tone was, for lack of a better word, fairly objective. There are moments of that are funny, and moments that are thrilling, and moments where a moral and social message is beaten like a drum, but all in all Tom Powers is portrayed as a realistic person, not an object of ridicule, nor a folk hero, nor an unfathomable monster. The story begins during his childhood, with a mother who dotes on him and a father who beats him, living a hardscrabble life, all of which provides context for how he might become both cynically embittered and eager to rise as quickly as possible to greater wealth, power and respect. And he eventually gets there, at tremendous cost.

The above has to be one of the most iconic images from the movie (possibly from all movies) but seeing it framed by the larger narrative is fascinating. It's just one more example of Tom Powers lashing out, because he's got a mean streak. He doesn't really gain anything from it, nor does he really pay for it - unless you consider his brutal (offscreen) murder at the movie's conclusion to be comeuppance for every act which precedes it.

The acting (outside of Cagney) and the direction are nothing special, to my eye, so it's not as though The Public Enemy is a keeper in terms of pure artistry. But as an unsparing, unsentimental document of the dawn of American gangsterism, however fictionalized, it's well worth remembering.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Long before we began packing clothes and food and other sensible provisions for our trip to the beach, I set a large plastic tub next to my side of the bed and started tossing in items of entertainment. By the time we set off, I had the tub pretty well-stocked: three different paperback novels, all of which had some kind of sci-fi or fantasy bent and thus were suitable for beach reading; two Netflix discs (a foreign shoot-em-up and half a season of an Adult Swim series); several other DVD’s I own but haven’t actually managed to watch (like the director’s cut of Watchmen and the first CGI Clone Wars season); a couple of comics TPBs; my Kindle; my iPod (with some new-to-me but yet-unlistened-to music loaded); and doubtless a couple other things I am forgetting. And those were just the things intended for my own selfish, solitary consumption. I also threw in Season 3 of Buffy (since my wife and I are theoretically in the midst of that re-watch, still) and the first 30 For 30 box set (another large anthology my wife and I are consuming together) and a copy of Hot Fuzz someone loaned my wife a while back (which I’ve already seen but would happily watch again).

Thus was I prepared not just for a rainy day or two at the beach, but for the admittedly unlikely event of being snowed in for the better part of a month. Of course, to me, that’s the beauty of a week’s vacation, the ability to consume massive amounts of pop culture at my leisure, rather than in discrete 50-minute chunks on the train. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t exactly feel deprived, and I remain as ever grateful for the ease with which I can commute on the VRE from home to office every day. Reading for the better part of an hour twice a day is a fantastic way to get through a new book every week or so, and although it’s still a bit awkward to watch half a movie, spend a shift in the cube farm, and then watch the other half (or in the case of longer epics, spread across two workdays) I am hardly complaining about the fact that I’m watching a lot more movies these days than in the recent past. But vacation, by way of differentiating itself from the everyday routine, should provide ample time for long uninterrupted stretches of immersion in page or screen.

I seem to dimly recall this being the case the last time we went on family vacation to the beach, at any rate. I think I read an entire book and at least started another, and I watched a Netflix movie by myself one afternoon. What a difference a couple years makes. Now I have two children rather than one, so whereas two years ago my only-child son would take a nap for a couple of hours and my wife would follow suit (and I would divert myself into a trashy novel or indie sci-fi flick) this time around there was more often than not a bit of juggling between the beginning of the little girl’s naptime and the little guy’s designated quiet playtime, and the latter always ended up shorter than the former. Plus the little guy would be relegated to one room while his sister was napping in another, and that other room for her was the room with the couch and DVD player where I’d screened siesta-time movies for myself a couple years ago. Without that venue (which was similarly unavailable at night, when I might have left the upstairs to my in-laws and said early goodnight to my wife and stayed up watching junkfood cinema otherwise) the Netflix envelopes remained unopened.

I also tend to think there were times outside of naptimes when I would idly read a chapter or two in the past, because with only one child it was entirely possible for my wife to play with our son while I amused myself (and vice versa). But two kids tend to keep us both busy with no breaks in the action, and as I may have said before (but certainly bears repeating) the energy requirements for additional children who feed off each other’s hyperactivity do not increase additively, but geometrically and sometimes exponentially. So in all honesty, by the end of each day I would not have had the energy to stay up past midnight for a recorded cable series marathon even if the equipment had been in a standalone home theater devoid of toddlers sleeping in playpens. The few times I legitimately tried lying in bed and reading on this trip, I was dozing off within a page or two.

So, to cut to the punchline, I ended up over the course of the week reading about half a novel. On the second-to-last day or so I set the novel aside and read Demon Knights, one of the two TPBs, cover-to-cover just to get the feeling of completing one whole item from my absurdly deep stash. (It was quite good, for what it’s worth, and now I’m greedily looking forward to the next volume.) I listened to about four new songs on my iPod, too, simultaneously to reading Demon Knights, before giving up with the realization that I could keep an eye on the little guy and engage in a half-distracted conversation with him while reading comics, but not with earbuds in. And that’s about it.

In all fairness, there was still quite a lot of midday movie-watching going on throughout the course of the week. They were Disney movies screened primarily for the benefit of my son, but I sat right there on the couch with him and watched them, too, and was sufficiently entertained. We had bought Lady and the Tramp on DVD expressly to watch at the beach, because we recalled that the beach house’s (surprisingly extensive) children’s library included a little Golden Book entitled Lady which had been a favorite of the little guy’s when he was two. The little guy loved the animated feature (despite some glaring discrepancies between the movie and the Golden Book’s condensed storyline); I probably hadn’t seen it since I was eight or younger, and it held up. I was also pleased to discover that the beach house’s (also surprisingly extensive) movie library boasted both A Bug’s Life and Robin Hood on VHS (not to mention multiple working VCRs). I had never seen A Bug’s Life, and enjoyed it immensely, whereas Robin Hood is one of my all-time favorite Disney adaptations, so sharing that with the little guy was a treat.

Best. Ratzenberger.  Ever.

I’m torn between trying to determine how many years it will be before not just the little guy but also his baby sister are old enough to essentially come and go, amusing themselves unsupervised without risking death or maiming, such that vacation time for me can be primarily unstructured, unencumbered lounging once again … and, on the other hand, mercilessly berating myself for coming off a solid week of no commute, no dress code, no office busywork, no homestead upkeep, just heaps and heaps of quality time with my loving and much loved family, and grousing about how I didn’t get quite the optimal number of escapism hours logged. This is, as they say, the kind of problem which is not in fact any kind of problem. I know. Consider it just one more notch in the lengthening Everything Is Different Post-Kids column, and consider this post nothing but my acknowledgment and awareness of same. I still notice how things are different, is all. I’m not complaining, I’m not wishing things were otherwise (not really, much). Just noticing.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Re-open for business

They say time seems to go by faster and faster as you age (for obvious proportion-of-the-whole reasons) and I guess vacations are no exception. A week in the Outer Banks went by in the blink of an eye, and here I am back at work once again. I’d like to say that my mental batteries are fully recharged and I’m now ready to finish the year strong, but … they key revelation for both my wife and myself this past week was the wide gulf between a “vacation” and a “family vacation” – the latter being what we got, which meant taking care of a toddler and a pre-schooler with all the usual early rising mornings and juggled nap times and dinner-bath-bedtime rituals same as always. We didn’t have to go to work (which is undeniably a valuable respite) and we had a certain amount of help from grandparents and other extended family members (which we appreciated deeply) but if a “vacation” is a prolonged period of uninterrupted self-indulgence, a “family vacation” is … pretty much not.

Anyway, that doesn’t mean the week was by any means bad! It was all sorts of happy lovely fun and I will of course delve into details a bit more as this week rolls along, but I was making a point about how it feels to be back at work in terms of my overall energy level and motivation and so forth, and in that specific regard it’s as if I never left.

One way in which things in my cubicle are not the same as when I departed is embodied in the large pile of computer equipment sitting on the corner of my desk. None of it is hooked up at the moment, and in fact much of it is still in boxes. I haven’t touched it myself, figuring that the actual installation should be performed by an authorized member of the IT staff, which (despite the frequent assumptions around these parts) does not include me. Not too long ago we got new monitors, and I was happy to set that single component up on my own, but an actual computer that needs to be recognized by the network and whatnot? I can wait.

And it’s ultimately a good thing that I did, because once I fired up my old computer and started checking through my e-mails, I began to question what exactly this new hardware on my desk was for. My initial thought had been that it was a brand new unclassified tower, which had been promised some time in the hazy past and which would be wonderful because my current machine is a painfully sluggish, borderline obsolescent piece of garbage. But, you may recall, we are also at some point supposed to get classified computers here in the office, to obviate the need to trek down eight floors to a windowless vault in order to perform any required duties utilizing the secure network. So perhaps this new computer sitting at arm’s length from me is said classified workstation at long last. I suppose whenever someone shows up to set it up, I’ll be informed. Probably!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gone deep sea fangly fishin'

I am on vacay, and I will fill you all in on the deets later. But there may be one or two posts that go up this week even as I'm lounging poolside, if I can figure out how the automated update feature works here. If you're reading this post on Monday the 20th, that's a good sign!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Suitable for framing

Here’s a cool picture:

I’ve talked about The Sandman, and my belatedly-discovered but forever-unabating love for it, recently. This is a watercolor which was painted by Jill Thompson when Neil Gaiman was doing a pitch to Warner Brothers for a potential Sandman movie (that never happened, obviously) and needed some concept art.

It’s a picture of the Sandman himself (the Robert Smith-looking guy) and his old friend Robert “Hob” Gadling. Hob is one of my absolute favorite characters from the series.

It is, furthermore, set in a London nightclub, with Hob sitting at the bar. I of course have a certain longstanding fondness for cocktail culture and I would in fact think it was nifty to have this particular piece of art hanging over the bar in my basement.

It’s for sale, here. It’s $900, which is at least one order of magnitude more than I am comfortable with or capable of spending on wall decor right now. But hey, if you are an anonymous fan of the blog who has money to blow and you’ve never been quite sure what kind of token of appreication to gift me with, now you know! Leave a comment including your e-mail and I’ll send you my home address for shipping the painting!

Whether or not the original painting ever finds its way into my possession (read: not) I’m going to come back to this image … at some point. It kind of ties into a lot of things that have been rattling around in my head lately. I’m just not quite ready to dig into them, and of course I’m leaving on vacation soon. But hold that thought.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Another day, another party at the bounce-house warehouse

It’s true, despite just having been there not too long ago, this Tuesday my two munchkins and I found ourselves back at the local house-a-bounce-a, as the little guy had been invited to a birthday party once again. It was a slightly different experience going on a mid-week evening rather than a weekend afternoon, and to be honest I’m not even sure if the reasoning behind the scheduling was so that the party could be on the birthday girl’s actual D.O.B., or because the host family is just as overscheduled on weekends as we are, or because the facility is significantly cheaper to reserve on a Tuesday than a Saturday. The honoree in question is someone the little guy met at a neighborhood Gymboree-style place, where my wife would take him to get him out of the house on their days off from work/daycare, and the honoree’s mom and my wife hit it off pretty well, hence the kids get invited to each other’s birthday parties but all I really know is when and where we’re supposed to show up. Of course lately my wife has been working double-time on Tuesdays, teaching in the morning and working at the vet clinic in the evening, which means I was on solo parental escort detail (not that I minded) but which also means the kids had been up since the crack of dawn and dropped off at daycare extra early, so by the time we arrived at the 6 p.m. party, I suspect they were both a lot more tired than they would normally be on an average Saturday afternoon. The little girl was extra-clingy, and the little guy was only semi-enthusiastic about running around, jumping, sliding and so forth. As I said, a slightly different experience.

The standard birthday party template, as I’ve ascertained it, has the kids going nuts on the bounce-houses for a solid hour, after which they are summoned to the party room where they can have food and drinks and the birthday-haver may open gifts and hand out goodie bags, the end. When the kids arrive they all dump their shoes in one big bin and hit the bounce-houses in their socks; the staff empties out the bin in front of the door to the party room and lines up all the pairs of shoes right before they summon the kids, and the kids put their shoes back on and line up and each get a squirt of hand sanitizer, and then the door is opened and the kids can all grab seats at the long picnic table where there are place settings and Capri Suns waiting. I’m drawing this detailed picture so that I can mention that, on Tuesday, when the staff called the kids to come get ready for the next part of the party, my little girl not only went quickly toddling in the proper direction (with no urging from me) but walked right up to her own pair of shoes in the line, picked them up, and turned around to come back to me, brandishing her footwear in an unmistakably “You need to help me put these back on!” way. She is kind of a super-genius.

And in all fairness, the birthday girl’s mom might be some sort of super-genius too. The first 60 minutes of these parties are, as I mentioned, just kids running wild, but it’s the back half that can either be tightly run or a bit of a mess. And Tuesday was very much the former. The kids went in and sat down and each had a slice of cheese pizza waiting for them. There was also a pepperoni pizza for the parents, and birthday-mom walked around the room handing slices of that to the parents who wanted some. I’m pretty sure she only ordered two pies, which was exactly enough slices for everyone at the party. As soon as the pizza was gone, boom, time for cupcakes, and again there were exactly enough for each attendee. “Happy Birthday” was dutifully sung. As soon as the cupcakes were finished, boom, the birthday girl started opening her presents. Birthday-mom was appropriately enthusiastic about how awesome and wonderful all the gifts were and ensured that her daughter said thank you for each one, but there was absolutely no lingering appreciatively over any of them. Open, open, open, done! Hand out the goodie bags! Thanks for coming everybody! It was a dazzling display of efficiency, but still managed to feel like fun and not an enforced agenda. I gotta say, I really appreciated that. Whatever the imperatives that put the party on a weekday evening, at least everything was done to make sure that it was no inconvenience. Gotta feed the kids anyway, so dinner was served. Gotta get the kids home and ready for bed, so let’s get through the formalities without any delays. Not bad at all!

And speaking of not bad at all, the little girl found the pizza quite to her liking. She, in fact, positively chortled with joy as she ate it. I had to hold the slice for her as she took itty-bitty bites of it, but every time she got some in her mouth she would, literally, look at me and smile with her lips closed and jaw working and make little “hm-hm-hm-hmmm!” laughing noises of delight, and then immediately open her mouth for more as soon as she swallowed it down. She also kicked her chubby little legs with excitement more or less non-stop. It warmed my heart, and made me feel much less guilt about keeping her out past her bedtime, if she enjoyed the dinner so very much. And if that means I can look forward to many a pizza party on her future birthdays, if it’s now and forevermore her favorite food, I can be pretty enthusiastic about that, myself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Three to go

I finished watching season 7 of Smallville last week – somewhat abruptly, as I hadn’t quite realized (or remembered) that ’07 – ’08 was the Writers Strike which shortened quite a few shows’ runs. Things in Smallville season 7 build to a fever pitch by the end of episode 20, which had me wondering how exactly they were going to continue upping the ante for another two hours. Then I realized the box set was out of discs and I had just been watching the de facto season finale.

So, three more years’ worth of Smallville to go! I would not yet say that I’ve reached the point of working my way through the DVDs out of sheer cussedness, but there’s definitely some advanced interplay between the entertainment value and my pre-determined commitment to seeing it through (however belatedly) to the end. Season 7 at least shook things up as it drew to a close, writing out mainstay characters like Lionel Luthor and Lana Lang who had been spinning the same plot wheels for a while. I have moderate hopes for Season 8, and if nothing else, I can rip through it pretty fast thanks to the wonders of portable DVD technology: if I maximize every possible viewing minute of my train commute, I can squeeze in three full episodes over the course of the morning-and-afternoon round trip.

One of the funny things about watching episodes back-to-back, as opposed to a week (or more, with re-run breaks) apart, is the amusing contrasts and compliments that get highlighted. A couple of episodes that wound up paired during my charge towards the season 7 finish line were “Sleeper” and “Apocalypse” and they stand as pretty good examples of both. Complimentary, in that they were both pastiche episodes; contrasting, in that I hated “Sleeper” and loved “Apocalypse”.

Well, maybe hated is a strong word for “Sleeper”. It just didn’t do anything for me. It’s a James Bond pastiche, and while I enjoy a good Bond flick that usually has more to do with who’s playing Bond, and more importantly who’s playing the villain, than the trappings of the plot or the gadget-assisted action setpieces. Smallville does a James Bond, Jr. storyline with Jimmy Olsen being forced to act as a secret agent, trying to exonerate his girlfriend Chloe (who is the show’s resident super-hacker) at the same time the U.S. government is trying to cement their case against her as a terrorist. Yeah, it doesn’t make much more sense than that if you watch the episode, or even if you have previous watched all the other episodes and know Jimmy and Chloe’s backstories. Ostensibly the purpose of the episode was to address the long-unasked question as to how Chloe could constantly hack into networks to get vital information for Clark Kent to solve the problem-of-the-week, and do so without drawing attention to herself. I can honestly say this question was unasked by me, and when the episode raised it, I didn’t particularly care. Clark Kent is an alien from another planet, with implausible superhuman abilities, who tends to constantly run afoul of other aliens with powers plus scads of human beings who get very individually-tailored powers from exposure to radioactive meteor fragments that accompanied his rocket to Earth … that, convoluted as it may be, is THE premise of the show. The fact that Clark is also besties with a girl who can cyberworm her way into highly defended targets? Suspension of disbelief already has that sideshow pretty well covered, I think. Thus, an episode devoted to dissecting that subplot point as an excuse to dress up a secondary character in a tux with tranq dart cufflinks just registers as a waste of time with me.

“Apocalypse” at least gets a leg up with its choice of source material to pilfer: It’s a Wonderful Life. I unironically love It’s a Wonderful Life. I often enjoy telling people that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the answer to both “What is my favorite Christmas movie?” AND “What is my favorite sci-fi story?” (A wish-granting celestial being shows a man a parallel world with an alternate history that omits him = pure geeknip.) So Smallville, at this point already embroiled in a storyline in which (deep breath) Brainiac has kidnapped Supergirl and disappeared with her INTO THE PAST where he plans to prevent infant Kal-El from ever rocketing away from doomed Krypton, decides to go ahead and show what would happen if the villain were to succeed and there had never been a Clark Kent. Color me intrigued.

But then rather than just coasting on that premise, the writers more or less subvert it. For as sweet as most of It’s a Wonderful Life is, and as heartwarming and tear-jerking as the last five or ten minutes are, the alternate history stuff is pretty dang darkest timeline, as from the moment he and Clarence leave the bridge together, George finds out that basically everyone whose life he ever touched is so much worse off without him, convicted of felonies or engaging in prostitution or dead in the cold, cold ground. Clark Kent’s revelations start out going in the opposite direction: he finds out that his adoptive father is still alive and well, that Chloe (who has always carried a torch for Clark) is blissfully engaged to a seemingly very decent guy, and that Lana (who at this point in Clark’s timeline is in a crazy nanobot-induced fugue state thanks to Brainiac) is also happily engaged, living in Paris no less. The whole plot gets kicked off when Clark is musing that maybe he should stop interfering with Brainiac’s plans and let Brainiac change history, because maybe everyone he loves would be better off without Clark’s disruptive presence in their lives. This of course is one of the problematic areas of Smallville that a lot of critics ding it for: Clark says and does really stupidly juvenile stuff all the time, none of which is terribly heroic. To which I can only say, as I’ve said before, that Smallville is not a superhero action show, it is a teen soap opera that borrows certain trappings of a particular comic book mythology. By Season 7 Clark is supposed to be 21 or 22 years old or so, but the dictates of the kind of show Smallville is put him in ultra-angsty positions that the target demographic should be able to relate to, including good old “I wish I had never been born.” And for a while this episode makes it look like he is absolutely right to wish for that! People really are better off without him!

The episode still needs a plot, though, and not just an extended meta-joke, and it turns out that in this alternate timeline Lex Luthor is President of the United States and exceptionally eager to start a nuclear conflict, possibly due to the influence of his Chief of Staff, who is of course a disguised Brainiac. (Also, President Luthor’s Head of National Security is Supergirl, because why not.) It’s not entirely clear how Clark never arriving on Earth led directly to Clause 5 of Article II of the Constitution being revoked (if Clark is supposed to be 22, Lex should be 29 or 30, tops; if Lex is the youngest POTUS ever at, say, 37 then that means when the series started and Clark was a freshman in high school hanging out with too-cool Lex, then Lex was 30 and that is hella-creepy) but nevertheless Clark is given something to fight for … although he fails, in another fairly cool subversion, which leads to some neat CGI from-orbit shots of nuclear explosions detonating across the face of the planet …

… at which point Clark wakes up. It was all a dream, specifically one given to him by the disembodied spirit of his Kryptonian father to convince him to go back in time and save his younger self from Brainiac, and amazingly that all goes down in like the final five minutes of the episode; I thought they were setting up an entire To Be Continued where it would take the whole following show for Clark to travel back in time, find Brainiac, rescue Kara and foil the plan. Nope! The important thing apparently was that Clark want to save himself, and after that it’s bingo-bango. At any rate, the fact that it was all a Jor-El authored vision explains a lot (including Lex being too young to be elected leader of the free world). The lighting is always very weird during the alternate timeline scenes, which is a hint that it’s not truly real. Not to mention the fact that the Oval Office where Clark confronts President Luthor looks exactly like Lex’s personal office at his mansion except with the Seal of the President in front of the desk like a big FatHead floor decal. Presumably Jor-El is just recycling elements from his son’s subconscious. Or maybe it’s just a show with severe budget restrictions compressing what could have been a long season-defining arc into a single insane episode.

But lest I forget, there’s a third element of “Apocaplypse” which is utterly charming. Smallville has often gone out of its way to differentiate itself from its source material in Superman and/or Superboy comics. Sometimes this is done in the name of “realism” and sometimes because narrative choices made in the early seasons (when I’m sure the producers thought the series could easily be cancelled at any moment) make it impossible to incorporate other mythos elements later without major modifications. Even at the outset, certain decisions laid down divergent groundrules: in the comics, Superboy operates publicly and Clark Kent can’t let anyone figure out he and Superboy are one and the same. On Smallville, there is no Superboy, and Clark uses his powers secretively (usually by moving at impossible-to-track superspeed). That means no costume for his heroic guise, and in his civilian identity, no glasses. The show also opted not to make Clark a goody-goody who excelled at everything, and to give some of his skillset to other characters. Chloe the super-hacker started out as Chloe the aspiring investigative journalist who worked on the school paper, and later at the Daily Planet, and those reporting-driven plot devices have always run through her. And the show started with no Lois Lane at all, focusing on the Clark and Lana romance, so that when Lois was finally introduced in Season 4 it was as more of a foil for Clark; Lois thought of Clark as her cousin Chloe’s dorky bumpkin friend. (By season 7 Clark and Lois have gone from sniping at each other like competitive siblings to something like a real friendship, clearly setting the stage for true love to blossom in its own sweet time, which is kind of cool, but I digress.)

The thing is, the alternate timeline that Clark visits provides a perfect opportunity to do a version of Smallville that is much, much more faithful to the source comics. Clark and Lois get to have a meet cute and she is instantly smitten with him! Later he saves her using his superpowers, literally sweeping her off her feet! When Clark needs to get close to President Luthor, Lois has the brilliant idea of disguising him as a Daily Planet reporter so he can get into a press conference, and the disguise consists of a dark blue suit and heavy-frame glasses! Supergirl in the alternate timeline goes by the name Linda Danvers, because that was Supergirl’s secret identity in the comics in the 80’s and 90’s! (OK, that last one’s an Easter Egg aimed at hardcore geeks like me, but still.)

I can only imagine how all of this went down in the writers’ room: Hey, let’s do a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but we’ll flip it at first by having a world without Clark Kent shown as shiny and happy, then we’ll flip it again and have the Luthor/Brainiac team start World War III, and throughout it all we’ll weave direct shout-outs to the comics archetypes we’ve avoided for seven years. They may not have stuck the landing, but it was an admirably ambitious episode and the ambition was to play a concept for maximum fun. And the fact that every once in a while the show can hit those highpoints is why I will continue ahead undeterred into the 66 episodes remaining before me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Given the weird way my brain works, and how often those aberrant processes are on display here, you may not be terribly surprised to hear that right now, on the cusp of my long-awaited summer beach vacation, I am thinking a lot about the fall. My mind just can’t help constantly looking ahead, and since the vacation is practically here and now, I’m gazing down the road at what comes next. The week at the beach is more or less the end of summer, ergo, autumnal type musings.

A year from now we’ll be getting ready to send the little guy off to kindergarten, but I’m not future-casting quite that far yet. School years will dominate decades to come in our house, but for now the cultural significance of the turn of the seasons is still pinned primarily to sports and the tv schedule, and that means I’m mentally preparing myself for the return of my beloved Community, minus its mastermind Dan Harmon.

I should be bracing for said return in just a matter of weeks, but of course NBC cannot stop messing with me and all the other Community fans, and will not be bringing the show back for its fourth season until late October, at which point it will air on Friday nights rather than Thursdays and be sandwiched between Whitney and Grimm, two shows I would be hard-pressed to care less about. I’ve honestly never seen Grimm, but it’s so weird I could see myself maybe getting sucked into it after Community through sheer inertia; Whitney, on the other hand, I have sat through once or twice and I’m anticipating that I will rarely do so again, opting rather to enjoy the fact that I can put the kids to bed without having to race against a 7:59 pm deadline to make sure I don’t miss any must-see moments. I can use that extra half hour before Community to wash the pots and pans from dinner or something.

On the silver-lined side, my wife and I were beginning to feel the irresistible urge to get DVR service from the cable company, because her Friday night work schedule would have her missing Friday night episodes of Community otherwise … but that’s become a moot point since she should be off the clinic schedule completely by early October and down to one job, teaching only during more-or-less normal workaday hours. But, again, that’s a happy happenstance for us with my wife’s career realignment, and has nothing to do with NBC doing us any favors.

Still, NBC is bringing Community back, despite having no obligation (and arguably few good reasons) to do so, and I can’t deny a feeling of something like gratitude in my geeked-out heart. I even saw some ads touting the new Whitney/Community Friday night combo meal during the Olympics, so apparently the network hasn’t completely forsaken it to a slow death of utter neglect. The fourth season may be a total trainwreck without Harmon, or it may be a pale reflection of former glories but still fun and worth hanging out with, or (the optimist grins with savage desperation) it might even be better than ever in a crazy rising-from-the-ashes kind of way. Nothing to it but to view it, and so we shall. But of course the thought occurs that maybe I should keep an eye out for another show to transfer my affection to, if Community finally succumbs to a fatal case of ratings deficiency.

What I did not expect was that a promising candidate for my mental investment would be the Munsters reboot.

I know, I know, this sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. The Munsters was a thoroughly dumb show; I didn’t even like it much when I was a kid and it was in syndicated reruns after school, this despite generally enjoying all things monstrous and horror-inflected AND having a weakness for zoning out to sitcoms, both from a pretty young age. But The Munsters just didn’t do anything for me. And the forthcoming reboot, Mockingbird Lane, is not a sitcom but an hourlong drama. Or dramedy? Either way, portentous, and possibly pretentious. Portentious!

OK, fine, given. And yet, I give you four words (plus a promo picture) of hope:

Possibly that photo is too small and/or too artsily fuzzed out for you to be able to cdetermine what it is supposed to be (you may click to embiggen if you like) but the four words are EDDIE IZZARD AS GRANDPA. That is he, in his totally baller red-velvet vampire robes, baby.

I love Eddie Izzard, I really do, and I can’t help but root for things he’s involved with to succeed. I tried watching The Riches when it debuted a few years back, but that show definitely took itself way too seriously to be much fun. (Plus the accents were a bit distracting.) Mockingbird Lane is, must be, fundamentally so inherently ridiculous that I can’t imagine it suffering from the same hang-ups with self-seriousness. And as if Eddie Izzard weren’t enough of a draw (and he is), the show also has Portia de Rossi playing Lily, and she has won me over big time as I’ve belatedly gotten into Arrested Development. Two ringers in the cast about a family of five is a pretty decent ratio. Granted, Herman is being played by Jerry O’Connell, who has frequently struck me as kind of a douchebag in desperate need of repeated punches to the face, but I am willing to let that slide and fully watch the hell out of this show! That’s how much I love Eddie Izzard! (And, to be fair, monster/horror stuff, campy or not.)

So, of course, with this much enthusiasm on my side for a project so outrageously absurd it might just prove to be genius, NBC has gone right ahead and … taken the Mockingbird Lane pilot off its fall schedule and pushed the series premier off to some time in 2013, if ever. Oh, National Broadcast Company, why you gotta treat me so wrong?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Go with the (work)flow

Late last week yet another one of my co-workers dropped in on me in my cubicle, but this time the reason for their approach was something I could potentially regard with positivity: apparently she and another colleague of ours have been trying to stay on top of their own shared workflow with an ad hoc spreadsheet tracking mechanism, and they went to our contracting boss to convey to him that the spreadsheet just wasn’t cutting it, and he in turn pointed them toward me and said I could probably build them something better. He wasn’t wrong, in fact arguably that’s what I’m best at: building databases (and web interfaces for them) which are just beyond the most-complex end of the tracking-spreadsheet continuum, which places them at the least-complex end of the proper database continuum. And, also, that’s what I’m here for in theory, not just as the guy who can fix what was built long ago if anything ever goes wrong with it, but the guy who can actually develop new functions for the old stuff or even completely new stuff.

Of course this would have to come up right before I go on vacation, right? My co-worker originally asked me if we could get together and talk specifics on Friday, and I agreed, but then apparently she and her colleague got too busy so it was pushed off to this week. And now Monday’s more than half gone and I haven’t heard from her yet, so who knows. Maybe she’ll want to sit down and hash things out first thing tomorrow morning; maybe it won’t happen this week at all, then I’ll be gone next week (which means I’m mentally half-checked out already anyway, which is why I won’t be chasing my co-worker down in the hallways reminding her about it), and by the time I get back it’ll be entirely forgotten. The major consolation, of course, is that it's not as though the project is going to be assigned to someone else in my absence if this week slips by; this worksite remains a one-programmer cibicle-town, and I am he. If it is still a going concern when I get back, then I reckon I'll get down to it then.

I do still get psyched when I get genuinely meaty development projects to work on around here, but I’ve also learned not to get my hopes up until there’s a concrete record of deliverables and deadlines that I can reference in my annual review time self-evaluation. So, once again I am hurrying up and waiting, with the nice bonus that if I hurry up and wait for nothing by week’s end, I get rewarded with a trip to the beach.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Too much of a good thing

One night this week, Tuesday I believe, my son was fully immersed in pretending that he was a bat. This culminated in a near-meltdown after the second or third time I had to go back into his room after putting him to bed, because he refused to stay in bed, which turned out to be due largely to the fact that he was literally falling out of bed trying to find a way to sleep head-down and feet-up like a bat in a cave does; I insisted that he was going to have to pretend he was a bat in his mind only and keep his body physically oriented on the bed in a more traditional configuration, and he did not take kindly to that. But prior to that it was fairly cute, with him ending everything he said with a high-pitched echolocation-emulating “eek!eek!eek!” and informing me that when I tucked him in for bed I should say “good morning” and when I got him up the following day I should say “good night” because, of course, bats are nocturnal. At any rate, given the little guy’s propensity for immersing himself in pretend play that is rooted in specific fictional works (Cars, Mickey’s Clubhouse, The Jungle Book) which can be hard to keep up and play along with if you flub the direct quoting of lines of dialogue from said works, it was somewhat reassuring to see him playacting something a bit more creatively freeform and interpretive.

But, on the other hand, one downer element of him pretending to be a bat was that we skipped his bedtime story altogether that night, at his insistence. Technically he was insisting that we keep the lights in his bedroom off even as he got ready for bed, because bats like the dark, but when I informed him that no lights meant I couldn’t read him a story, he willingly gave up story time to maintain the bat-in-a-cave motif. I clearly didn’t want to be a spoilsport about that, but in the back of my mind I very much hoped it was a one-time thing because I really enjoy reading to him. (And it was in fact a one-time thing, so, whew.)

Of course that day is coming, I know, when the bedtime story ritual will more or less naturally fade away on its own. On occasion I’ve thought about how it would be fun to read through the Harry Potter books together, a few pages per night, a re-read for me but the first time for the little guy. He’d need to be a lot older, of course – seven? Nine? But in those three to five years from now, a lot can happen, and I can’t necessarily take for granted that he’ll still be expecting to be read to nightly by the time YA novels would be appropriate.

Sometimes it seems like he’ll be reading on his own really soon. He’s not reading yet, but he has gotten us to read the same favorite books over and over again enough times at this point that he essentially has them memorized. So he can sit by himself with a book on his lap and turn the pages and recite what’s on each page, which if nothing else is at least a form of practicing the motions of independent reading. Unsurprisingly, the reigning champ of the bookshelf at this point is the oversized compendium of Mater’s Tall Tales, and the little guy’s recent preference is to open the book across his knees and hold a Cars toy in each hand, corresponding to ones that appear in the story he’s “reading”, and recite the narration and dialogue (with voice acting!) while acting out the scenes with his props, driving the car-characters around on top of the pictures on the pages. When he gets to the end of one story, he sets the book down, swaps for cars which star in the next one, then sets everything up all over again.

It is fundamentally adorable when he does this, no question, but I find myself roiling with mixed emotions over it. I’ve noticed him engaging in the toys-on-books reenactments mostly in the evenings when my wife is at work and I’m juggling both kids and his little sister, who is sixteen months old and a high-energy, high-decibel handful of age-appropriate neediness, demands 99 % of my attention. So it’s kind of a godsend that there’s this relatively quiet, safe, self-contained activity the little guy derives so much pleasure from. And as I said, it’s somewhat pattern-forming for actual reading down the road. There is no way that an entertainment-consuming, English-degreed bibliophile geek like me could possibly have a problem with that, right?

I want my kids to be smart, not because of any notions I have of how their intellect reflects on my own in the eyes of the rest of the world, or how conversationally compatible I want us to be as our parent-child relationships evolve over the years, but just because I want them to be happy and I genuinely believe life is easier on balance when you’re smart. School, higher ed, getting a good job – I don’t want any of those major mainstream milestones to be a struggle, which they are less likely to be if you are smart. Yes, I know, there’s more to life than those things, and a lot of things that tend to make people happy fall outside of those structures and institutions, and I know (by argument and by experience) that there are particularly burdensome aspects of being smart in various scenarios, but as I said – on balance, smart trumps not smart, that’s my conviction. And being well-read, and being good at reading, go a long way for reaping those benefits of being on the smart end of things. If it were actually in my power to make an up-or-down decision as to whether or not my kids would be drawn to books and reading, I’d opt them in every time.

I was drawn to books and reading at a very young age, and I think that worked out for me pretty well. But I also learned over the years how many pitfalls my extreme bookishness steered me towards. People thought I was weird, and I simply didn’t notice the funny looks they gave me at the time because my nose was always buried in a book. But I put a lot of things together in retrospect, and the truth is that I know how I turned out to be good at school and managed to breeze into a fairly comfortable adult life, but I have no idea how I turned out remotely well-adjusted rather than emotionally stunted and socially inept. I think a lot of it may have been pure luck. And if I pushed my children towards reading, and they over-developed that portion of their respective brains and personalities but failed to catch the same breaks I did in terms of cultivating different aspects of being a human who’s not completely insufferable … I would feel terrible, it should go without saying.

I recognize that I’m being overly dramatic, not to mention somewhat delusional in estimating how much I can control how my offspring turn out one way or the other based on my actions, inactions, or incessant overthinking in-between. (Although if the main purpose of this blog isn’t getting those overwrought thoughts processed and out of my head, and I don’t rightly know what I’m doing here.) For now, the little guy is simply physically incorporating books into the mix of toys he plays with, in a really amusing way. He doesn’t do this forsaking any and all other forms of activity and/or interaction. There is nothing to worry about, nothing to see here. I just really, really want to see how it’s all going to play itself out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Third time's the catharsis (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)

As I’ve explained more than once in the past, I have a combination of both eclectic-skewing-to-geeky tastes and a stubborn sense of completism. This leads me to constantly red various new and different books, and because of the geek factor steering me towards the genre ghettos of the publishing world, a fair number of these new and different books end up being initial installments of multi-part series. The completist in me then generally wants to finish each series, even as I spread my attention around to other books and end up getting caught up in new series demanding my time and attention, and so on. At the moment there are nine distinct series I am somewhere in the middle of; earlier this week there were ten, but I can finally cross one of them off. Thus I am instituting a new, sporadic feature here at the blog under the general banner of Series: Completed.

Series: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series
Started reading: April, 2010
Number of books: 3

I got into this series right before it totally blew up, in fact right before the third volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s nest, was published in the U.S. and around the time that the Swedish film adaptations had become such huge successes that the U.S. remakes were coming on fast. Obviously it had already started blowing up a little bit, which is how it came into my consciousness to begin with. The mystery/suspense genre is actually one I’m not usually drawn to, but in this case I was fairly intrigued.

The entire Millennium series is populated with violent criminal characters and there is no shortage of legitimately shocking material. The first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is a fairly straightforward serial killer story, like Silence of the Lambs with a worldly male investigative journalist instead of a young female FBI recruit, plus a badass punk hacker girl sidekick who probably has Aspergers. The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, pivots to focus more on institutional atrocities by delving into the background of said Aspie punk hacker and detailing the brutal ways in which the social system has done her wrong.

I liked both of those books, but after the second one I needed a bit of a break because it was extremely depressing for a thriller. The stance of the first book seemed to be that lone predators may sometimes perpetrate horrible acts, but good people willing to use unorthodox methods can catch them and stop them. (This is, of course, not a terribly uncommon stance for most good-vs-evil action adventure stories.) The second book, however, seemed intent on exploring all the various ways that people can get away with horrible acts and never be stopped, because they are embedded in corrupt institutions. That’s no less true, but a lot less escapist.

So the Millennium series sat on my list of unfinished series for a long time, partly because I was waiting for the last book to come out in paperback (which the publishers were in no rush to make happen, once the movie mania hit full blast and most people were more than willing to shell out for the hardcover edition to find out what ultimately becomes of Lisbeth Salander) and partly because I was convinced that the third and final installment was just going to be another wallow in ultraviolent misery porn. When the paperback edition showed up at Costco recently, I snagged it, and as I’m still in a lull in re-reading The Dark Tower, here we are.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The previous volume ended on a quasi-cliffhanger and the book picks up almost exactly where the story left off, which does not seem to bode well for getting away from the dire fatalism. Yet that’s exactly what happens, as the trilogy ends with a complete and unequivocal victory for the good guys, who manage to expose and take down the corrupt conspiracy at the heart of book two. It is almost pure wish fulfillment, an expression of the unshakable conviction that stout hearts committed to truth-telling and practicing the noblest of professions (journalism) can effect real change in the world, even bringing down secret cabals within the intelligence community of national governments. Absolutely everyone gets their comeuppance. And while I wouldn’t want to have to debate how realistic all of the plot twists may or may not be, I for one was highly entertained by them.

It went a long way to restore my faith in Stieg Larsson as an author, as well. I believe a fair number of people accused him of being a sick, sadistic misogynist based on the darker elements of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I could kind of see their points. But now, in retrospect, I think those people were jumping the gun, because they were pre-judging only a portion of what was then an unfinished story.

Depicting violence against women is not the same thing as condoning, excusing, or reveling in violence against women. And it’s almost impossible to write a story (or create any other kind of art, for that matter) about what is right and what is wrong and the dramatic struggle between the two without including examples of both. On the other hand, one can depict violence against women (or children, or minorities, or take your pick of potential victims) in a way that does glorify it, or minimize its wrongness. But I don’t think that applies to Larsson. There are some savage atrocities in his books but they are ultimately rebuked and the perpetrators punished. Sometimes it takes two or three books for the punishment to come about, which might be too long for some people’s tastes, but having read all three books it’s pretty hard to cast aspersions on the man’s intentions.

Allegedly, Larsson was going to write as many as ten books starring Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, but he died shortly after completing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Also allegedly, there may be fragmentary manuscripts of volumes four and five (and possibly six) out there somewhere, and someday someone looking to cash in on the series’ success might very well publish them. I’m sure I’ll end up reading those books myself if they do see the light of day, even though it will temporarily push Millennium back in the “haven’t finished reading” column. I think Larsson had enough interesting things to say that, even in partial and unfinished form, it would be worth it to spend time in his world again.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wildly arcane computer knowledge

Maybe a week or so ago, one of my co-workers stopped by my desk because he was having a problem using the main web application I’m responsible for. I should perhaps point out that this is not a co-worker I tend to interact with much on a regular basis. We don’t sit anywhere near each other, or go to the same staff meetings or anything like that. In fact, when this co-worker approached me he basically led with “So I was told you’re the guy to come ask when I’m having problems with the system …” And that was true enough, and I was happy to help him with his problem, which was legit. There’s a weird quirk that pops up in the web application every once in a while that I could address in one of three different ways:

1 – Fix the underlying cause, which would actually be hugely time-consuming and effort-intensive (for something that honestly doesn’t pop up that often)
2 – Train my coworkers how to deal with the problem themselves (which … is not going to happen)
3 – Fix the quirk myself every time it pops up

So I took care of my co-worker’s problem and he was back up and running with no worries.

A few days after that, he stopped by my desk again. This, of course, is how it often goes in cubicle-land: when users feel like they are on their own, they will struggle through problematic experiences on their own, discover workarounds, etc. But as soon as they know there’s an office whiz who can fix things quickly, turning to said whiz is their kneejerk response to any problem. So, round two, my co-worker says “I can’t get the system to come up.” Which sounded significantly worse than the quirk I had fixed previously, so I followed him back to his desk to see what was going on.

Here’s a couple things to keep in mind about my government office with its computer systems riding on the DoD network. One, the users’ desktops get updated all the time, with patches and system updates and new software version deployments and all manner of things which, if you’ve ever worked in a larger corporate environment, I’m sure you’re familiar with. Two, the web application I administer is, bottom line, a website. It has a lot of moving parts and bells and whistles and interacts dynamically with a very large database, but it’s a website. You get to it with a browser, which for all of us here means good old Internet Explorer 7.

So what my co-worker was showing me was that when he opened IE, his home page was the intranet landing page. Which is exactly what happens when I open IE on my computer, as that’s the default setting for all the browsers in the office. So for a couple of seconds I waited for him to show me the problem with accessing the system until I realized that was the whole problem for him. Apparently he used to have the web app login page as his homepage, but it somehow got changed to the network default. (NB: there should be huge scare quotes around “somehow”; I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that it was in fact an overnight update of some sort that caused his browser to reset its homepage settings, but I know it’s just as likely my co-worker changed it himself without realizing it.)

Anyway, it was all I could do to non-condescendingly explain that no matter what page was coming up when a browser was opened, the browser could navigate to wherever he wanted to go, including of course the web app he needed. I showed him the dropdown for the browser history, and the address of the web app was in there of course, and once he was pointed at the right page I left him to do whatever he needed to do.

Normally you would think that would be the end of it but today he stopped by my desk again. “I can’t get into the system,” he said, and I don’t know how it’s even possible but my initial assumption was that he really was having trouble logging in, getting an error message, maybe getting no response from the server, etc. I dutifully followed him back to his desk, whereupon he opened IE, and clicked on the down arrow for the address bar history, and then turned to me with an expectant “See? SEE?” look on his face because the address of the web app wasn’t in the dropdown.

To which I could only respond, “OK, right, well, if the site you want to go to isn’t there you can always, you know, type it in yourself?” The app, because so many people use it every single day, is one of the few in use around here that has its own intuitive vanity URL, which I swear is all of about ten characters long, total. I typed it in for him and, of course, the web app appeared right away, ready for him to log in.

I don’t know how my co-worker’s dropdown history got erased but that’s really entirely beside the point. My main question is, how did he ever manage to use the system day in and day out before he knew there was an in-house tech support guy for the web app who could type in URLs for him???

Friday, August 3, 2012

Skipping along

Another gap in the blog posting, same old song and dance in the explanation: a childcare-related sick day. This time it was the little guy, but things were slightly more complicated than the usual drill.

Tuesday, the little guy had quite the rough night. He gave me a fair amount of grief about taking his bath, and no sooner was I about to deploy the “watch it or I will rescind your bedtime story privileges” than he was screaming about wanting to go straight to bed RIGHT NOW. And so I obliged him, which I thought might have been the end of it, if his mood was due to being cranky and (over)tired. Instead, it was just the beginning, as he periodically cried and screamed for me, at which points I would go to his room and find him in various states of distress and confusion, half-awake and hot and sweaty and offering non-sensical answers to my what’s-wrong questions. I wasn’t able to locate the thermometer, but ultimately decided to dose him with Tylenol because it couldn’t hurt and might help. And it seemingly did.

My wife was at work for all of that but I filled her in as she was on her way home (which prompted her to stopa t CVS for a new thermometer). The next morning she took the little guy’s temperature and it was normal and he seemed fine, so off to daycare he went. No odd reports on that front, and he seemed fine when I picked him up, but although bath time was a little less confrontational, the rest of the night went down much as the one before. Rather than continue medicating him, my wife and I tried various other methods to get him to stay asleep, culminating in him sleeping in our bed, for the first time in ages, from about 1 a.m. until alarm clocks started buzzing. Somehow we groggily decided that I would stay home with the kids yesterday and try to make a day-of doctor’s appointment for the little guy, under the working theory that maybe he had another ear infection, which are notorious for waking him up shrieking from a sound sleep and generally confusing the bejeezus out of him.

The pediatrician was able to see us mid-morning but, sorta surprisingly, the little guy got a clean bill of health. I say sorta because my wife and I also suspected that his sleeplessness might be rooted in matters more emotional than physical, and with a physical cause ruled out, that seemed more and more probable.

My wife has been working two jobs for the past four weeks, which has meant increased time at daycare for the kids: four days a week instead of three, and two of those four days starting very early in the morning relative to the old schedule. This arrangement is supposed to be for a finite period of time, extending no further than early October at the absolute latest, but it’s where we find ourselves right now. Much of our focus has understandably been on the effect this has on my wife: it’s exhausting, and she misses the kids (and me), and she was also worried that the kids might not be thrilled about it either but I assured her that the kids would roll with it just fine, since they like their daycare center and are overall well-attached, happy munchkins. I may have even gone so far as to say that as small as the kids are, and as elastic as their underlying concept of time is, they might not even notice the schedule shift. But I have perhaps been off-base there.

I am not in any way, shape or form saying that my wife is the bad guy and has saddled our son with crippling toddler insomnia. It’s an unfortunate situation created by my wife doing the right thing in terms of taking advantage of career opportunities, couple with a really draconian contract at her soon-to-be-former employer that somehow requires three months notice for her to leave on good terms. And it’s entirely possible that other factors might have brought this on even without the schedule changing. Daycare for the little guy was a lot more school-like and stimulating up through June, but now they are in summer mode so he’s been fairly bored with it for the last month. He’s also gotten a new classmate at daycare who is extremely disruptive, and that is no doubt rattling our little guy’s sensitivities (i.e. persnickety preferences for orderliness). Plus on the home front, the little guy’s been steadily mounting a campaign to make up for lost time in the sibling rivalry department, trying to weasel his way into getting babied by us (which in his mind simply means being treated exactly the same way we treat his sister, despite their age difference). And I know I have been less than an exemplar of patience in dealing with his jealousies and regressions, partly because they’re irritating in and of themselves and partly because I’m stressed out about my wife’s double-job situation, and the backyard fence that needs replacing, and sundry other things.

So. Night freakouts. I think everyone in the house over the age of two is having them, honestly, it’s just that my wife and I can mostly suck it up and the little guy is less equipped to tough it out.

But he didn’t have to go to daycare yesterday, and he got a fair amount of one-on-one time with me while his sister napped. He also napped (which he almost never does at home any more, but it’s amazing how a fitful night predisposes him to it), but for a shorter span than the little girl, so when he woke up he and I had a long talk about how he wishes that all of us could stay home together every day. And I told him I wish that too! (Boy, do I.) But if it can’t be that way, we just have to make the best of it. There was also much reassurance that his mother and I love him very much, all the time, even on the days where we don’t see each other as much. And I didn’t get into it with him in that conversation, but I made a binding mental resolution to cut the little guy some slack, stay calm and not snap at him so much. He is not yet four and yet it is all too easy to fall into the mental trap of expecting him to make great efforts to make my life easier, which is ultimately absurd. I believe I can raise him and mold him and set boundaries for him and teach him and all that, without stressing the poor kid out. I don’t believe it will be terribly easy, but that’s not really the point.

In any case, we did have a pretty fun day hanging out together. The little guy dabbled a bit in pop music criticism as we drove to the pediatrician’s office and I had a Steve Miller song cranked up on the dinosaur rock station. (Little Guy: “Why does that guy just keep saying ‘abra cadabra’ over and over again?”) And ... I swear there was some other instance of him being cute and funny, but now it slips my mind. Just accept as a given that he is consistently adorable and hilarious.

I did make a deal with the little guy that if he stayed on track going to bed on time every night, that the following mornings I would come into his room to say good morning and goodbye before I left for work (since one of the little guy’s complaints was not seeing me until the end of daycare some days). He kept up his end of the deal last night (and mercifully slept through the night) so I went to wake him up as promised this morning. I found him sleeping on a bare pillow, with the pillowcase pulled up around his legs like he had collapsed into bed after winning a potato race. I asked him what happened to his pillow and he explained he had been pretending he was a dog, and made his pillow a dog bed, and dog beds don’t have coverings. How the covering wound up sheathing his lower half remains a mystery I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Call off the dogs (True Grit)

If there was one drawback to my whole recent “watch more westerns, but only the good ones” approach to my Netflix queue, it was the distinct possibility that at some point I might hit upon a western that was so incredible, it would cause me to throw up my hands and say (all R.-Kelly-via-Aziz-Ansari style) “No-o-o-o-o one can top that! I’m out!”

The Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit (recent assignment for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club!) may very well be that incredible.

It’s superlative in all the ways you would expect from a modern cinematic gem, of course: it looks gorgeous, creating a historical frontier setting that a viewer can absolutely get lost in; the story is simple but utterly compelling; the acting is phenomenal (and I will get back to that in a little bit, below); and the script is wall-to-wall crackling, stylized dialogue. If anyone has any objections to this True Grit, I imagine it might stem from them perceiving the spoken script as hyper-stylized like that’s a bad thing. But I am inordinately fond of miniature musical-sounding monologues whether or not they bear any superficial resemblance to “how people really talk” so I was highly enamored with every word.

Good writing doesn’t get very far without good delivery, and True Grit has talent to spare in every frame. I’m generally a fan of Matt Damon but I was impressed moreso than usual with him as LaBoeuf, particularly the fact that he has to spend the back half of the movie with a ridiculous speech impediment after nearly biting his tongue in half during a shootout. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is simply awesome, owning the character for all it’s worth. But arguably the biggest revelation is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. I vaguely remembered lots of fuss being made over her when the film originally came out, and now I know that all of it was entirely well-deserved.

(Since this is a remake of a famous movie which in turn was based on a novel, both of those being about 45 years old at this point, I feel like I don’t really need to be too cautious about spoilers; but then again, I had never seen or read the original source material myself. And therefore I don’t even know in what particulars, if any, the 2010 True Grit departs and contains its own unique twists or surprises. So, ultimately, proceed at your own risk.)

I often find myself thinking of my son when I watch movies, in particular thinking about whether or not he will grow up liking the same kinds of movies I like now, or the same kinds of movies I liked as a kid, and whether or not he and I will bond over watching movies together, my old favorites or new ones we discover together, and whathaveyou. You may note that I say my son in particular, as opposed to my daughter, which has various root causes. Part of it is simply that she’s still too young to watch movies or tv, and thus I have no experiential basis for thinking of her in that context; she may end up not really being into video entertainment all that much. And part of it has to do with pre-existing family dynamics, and the fact that my wife and I watch plenty of tv together but only rarely do we settle down for a movie, which has everything to do with my wife’s attention span and free time for long movies being constantly adversely impacted by her demanding work schedule, something my daughter won’t have to contend with herself while she lives under my roof, I assume, so that’s not a fair model for projecting the little girl’s tendencies, but I admit I fall into reinforcing the “little guy takes after dad, little girl takes after mom” paradigm more often than not. And also, I tend to really love sci-fi and shoot-em-up’s and all the stereotypically guy-oriented genres, so again, I tend to imagine those being common interests I might share with my son rather than my daughter (not that I intend to steer both children in opposite directions, and not that I want it to go down like that; it’s just what I expect by default assumption).

But on the other hand, more and more I’m on the lookout for entertainment that might conceivably mean something to my daughter and that will be good for her and her self-esteem. I worry about the Princess conundrum, obviously. I worry about raising her as a competent, self-reliant human being in a world where the vast majority of our cultural touchstone stories treat females as accessories and appendages to male protagonists. If any good can come out of my voracious consumption of pop culture, it’s that maybe I can sift through all of it and pick out the good stuff to pass along to my daughter, where the value of good is essentially female-friendly to female-empowering.

And so along comes Mattie Ross in True Grit and she is completely fantastic. She’s precocious, fearless, opinionated, a believer in justice who knows right from wrong. She’s also got flaws, as she’s a bit naïve about the world yet prone to off-putting bluntness in dealing with other people. But she feels real, strong and competent but not in some exaggerated goddess kind of way. And she’s not saddled with an obligatory love story that ties everything off by suggesting her happily ever after was entirely dependent on finding Prince Charming. She wants to settle the score for the murder of her father, and she does so, not alone, but nobody sidelines her and does it for her, either. It may seem very strange given the centrality of her father’s murder, but I got very caught up in thinking that this was a movie I would love to watch with my daughter, when she gets older, because Mattie Ross by all rights should be an iconic role model for girls.

Of course, Mattie ends up getting bitten by a rattlesnake and the dramatic climax of the end of the movie comes from Rooster’s desperate race to get her life-saving medical attention. He literally rides her horse Blackie to death in the process, then carries Mattie on foot from there. It’s powerful, moving stuff but a little girl’s dead horse does put a little damper on my enthusiasm for pushing the whole story on my own little girl. (Also, Mattie’s arm has to be amputated to save her life, but she still manages to live a full life after that. Good lesson about adversity, but … pretty dark.)

Still, we're well into the realm of extra credit at this point when we're debating whether or not a movie might have the additional benefit of inspiring any of my children after it has thoroughly won me over, which True Grit in no uncertain terms did.