Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Programming Notes

I am switching things up a bit this week, as follows:

Usually Tuesday is my wild-card day on the blog wherein I allow myself to post about whatever I please. With sporadic regularity, Tuesday often becomes Book Day, whenever I feel the need to hold forth about the latest book I’ve read or possibly my newest plan to organize what I want to read into some kind of thematic project.
Wednesday is Geek Out day around here, and a lot of comic book and video game and other nonsense-inspired thoughts wind up getting aired out midweek. I also recently indicated that my entries for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club would go up on Wednesdays because that whole enterprise is pretty geeky, in the film-geek sense if not in the classic arguing-hypothetical-orc-versus-Klingon-battle-outcomes-geek sense.

You cannot unask the question.
(Incidentally, the main portal for the 1001 MYMSBYD Blog Club updates once a week, usually late Thursday night, so as a practical matter it makes sense for me to post my review on Wednesday so I can send the link to the review to the portal-runner so that he has it for Thursday. This is also why I didn’t link my review of Gangs of New York back to the portal, because at the time that post hit the blog, the portal would not have shown any other links to Gangs of New York reviews, nor any indication that I existed, since it was my first Club review. I’ll be linking back to the portal more in the future now that we’re past my initial debut. If you want to go check out other people’s takes on Gangs of New York Now, knock yourself out.)

You may have noticed that today, Tuesday, has already featured a Club review for the movie Daisies. The reason for this is because I’m saving tomorrow for … a book review. Which may seem to completely contradict my initial premise above, but trust me, the book in question is uber-geeky and in fact concerns itself with uber-geekiness in both plot points and themes, on top of which (if all goes well and I can find the time) I will be writing the review in a particularly geeky way. So it belongs on Wednesday.

Thursday as always will be devoted to my maniacal little moppets.

You may now return from the edge of your seat.

Flowers of youth (Daisies)

When I resolved to participate in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, it was partly to make sure that I stayed on-target with my movie consumption in order to justify my continuing Netflix membership, but it was also a conscious effort to broaden my horizons, or more specifically to match my actual consumption with my horizon-broadening intentions. Because of course there have always been Japanese films and French films and old black-and-white Hollywood classics and whatnot on my Netflix queue, it’s just that they always seem to get leapfrogged by the latest comic book adaptation that I didn’t quite manage to catch in the theater. A little structure and a few deadlines for specific reviews really does wonders for my efforts to be a little more eclectic in my viewing habits.

They look like cyborgs!
Which brings us to Daisies, which is about as far from my usual brain candy as you can possibly get. In fact an equally apt title for the movie might be Lima Beans, to continue the (already overwrought, I know) metaphor that some movies are the equivalent of mental junk food and others are akin to eating your vegetables, good for you but not necessarily inherently pleasant. Although, of course, some people like lima beans. Including me.

Lima Beans might also be a good alternate title for the movie because it’s a bit nonsensical, as is Daisies, an experimental avant-garde surrealist experience, a product of 1966 Czechoslovakia self-described (in the post-script dedication) as a trifle. Also a great deal of Daisies revolves around food – granted, not lima beans specifically but a wide bounty nonetheless. Enough about my attempts to re-title the film, though.

Daisies, in the early going, seems like the artiest of art films, a pile-up of scenes that are disconnected except for being contained within the movie (and starring the same two actresses), like discrete exhibits in a themed wing of a museum. But gradually something like a narrative evolves, and despite all the camera tricks from colored filters to stop-motion, what takes shape becomes all the more realistic. The story of Daisies is the story of two young women giving up on trying to make sense of a world gone mad (which is of course the world that all of us live in) and indulging in their whims and worst impulses, all the while fighting without much success against the fact that it’s kind of an inescapable element of the human condition to constantly try to impose reason and order and meaning on life. That conflict gets literalized on-screen, and what else would it look like? The average person’s life does not usually have a well-defined character arc; much more common is a life that seems more like random accumulation of experiences. Instead of well-sketched supporting characters, we have people who drift in and out of the frame, unnamed, and if you’re not sure if by ‘we’ I am referring to the audience watching Daisies or all of us living our lives, then you are taking my point.

If you went your entire life without watching a subtitled New Wave film, the lack represented by that fact would be pretty slight. What truly makes Daisies worth watching, I think, is the historical geopolitical context. It was created within a Communist state-sponsored film industry shortly before the director, Věra Chytilová, was banned from further work because her films were too inaccessible and depicted wantonness. This of course sounds to me like something out of a sci-fi allegory: “Your art is too difficult to understand! Also it gives people the wrong ideas!” It’s a little too easy to forget, some two decades after the Cold War effectively ended, that things like this actually happened all the time in Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. (It probably still happens today in places like the Middle East, even if the proof won’t come to light until years from now.) Chytilová was (is, as she’s still alive as of this post) a proud provocateuse who believed in the inherent power of all art that forced people to think for themselves, which of course made her dangerous in the eyes of dictatorial state apparatus. It’s always worthwhile to expose yourself to the forms and ideas that make tyrants nervous.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Same old, same old, same obsolescence

I have a pretty standard routine for settling into my workday, almost all of which of course I do in the same order every day primarily so that I don’t forget anything I’m supposed to be on top of. Drop my workbag, hang my coat up, start my computer, take chargers out of my workbag for anything that needs charging (cell phone, Kindle, portable DVD player) and get them plugged into an outlet and hooked up to the device, sign in on the emergency contact sheet near the department secretary’s desk, stow any perishables I brought for lunch in the communal fridge, hit the men's room to bid farewell to my extra-large morning coffee, brush my teeth (which I couldn’t do at home because I was, as always, finishing the last of the extra-large morning coffee on my way out the door), back to my cubicle, record my voicemail greeting for the day. Another benefit of going through all of those activities first thing in the morning is that, generally, the computer has finished booting up and/or unlocking by the time I’m back in my chair. Because, yes, it takes an inordinately long time for my machine to wake up when I arrive at the office every day, which you may add to my previous laments about the GFE.

By the same token, once the computer is receptive to the notion of performing actual tasks, I have yet another virtual set of routines I go through every day. Fire up Internet Explorer, (which defaults to the Army intranet portal), launch Outlook, Excel and Word, open the documents I’ve recently been working on, then usually wait a couple of minutes and see if the GFE decides to crash because four whole programs are running at the same time. If everything seems stable, I can go ahead and open my coding and database management software.

The intranet portal is fairly useless to me but I do log in every day because I more or less assume it’s expected of me. This does afford me the opportunity to verify that I don’t have any stray messages inadvertently delivered to the redundant webmail account in my name on that system, and it also allows me to take a quick look at the announcements and make sure there isn’t anything crucial or vital being promoted there. Since I tend to skew wildly one way or the other, if I didn’t check the portal every single day I would probably never check it at all, and inevitably at some point I would miss an important deadline that had been touted on the site for the previous six months.

This morning when I logged into our portal – which, I hasten to point out, has both its technological underpinnings maintained and its content managed by the DoD – I did not see any earth-shattering announcements with future deadlines or the like, but I did see a system message in a banner across the top of the page informing me that “To improve performance, it is strongly recommended you upgrade to Internet Explorer 8.0 or higher.” I wish I were joking. You might recall, if you read the post from earlier this month I linked to above, that I bemoan that laughable fact that our standard browser around here is the severely deprecated IE 7. I assumed that was because the DoD did not officially endorse any of the higher versions, but apparently IE 8 (or higher!!!) is not only vetted but recommended by those in charge of the DoD-wide intranet. So having IE 7 on my computer just became even more laughable. I am half-tempted to submit a work ticket to the Information Technology Help Desk requesting IE 8 just to see what happens. But I’m afraid I already know the answer.

Anyway, the IE alert on the intranet got my morning started in a bit of a grumpy mode, but then I did some image searching for Internet Explorer logo variants …

Sometimes the obvious jokes are the best
… and this made me chuckle. So the day wasn’t a total loss.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mass transit manners

I’m not sure if it was the rain, the fact that it’s Friday, a combination of both of those or something else altogether, but the VRE car I boarded this morning had significantly more empty seats than was the case every other day this week. Which is a nice surprise, but unfortunately had the effect of reminding me once again of a pet peeve that’s been gnawing at me for a while.

Here’s the thing: I like to sit in the upper level of the car, where there are single seats against the windows. I just prefer the feeling of having that little bit of space to myself, without someone right next to me and the accompanying inevitable dancing if I’m on the inside and need to get off the train before them, or I’m on the outside and they’re detraining before me, and it’s an incredibly minor thing, but there it is. I suspect a lot of my fellow commuters feel the same way.

So if you climb the stairs to the upper level you find yourself on a narrow walkway that can only physically accommodate one person at a time. No big deal considering everyone boards the train fairly calmly (as opposed to my old nemesis the Orange Crush of the Metro) and those of us heading upstairs can proceed single-file with a minimum of hassle. And there are certain ways one can reduce the hassle even further, if one is self-aware. Suppose, for instance, that you are the first person to board the car, or at least the first person to head up to the elevated seats. You have three choices as far as settling into your seat is concerned:

Option 1 You can head towards the far end of the car, away from the stairs, bypassing empty seats. That way, anyone else coming up behind you can get to those seats you walked past, and you can feel free to take your time getting out of the aisle walkway (meaning you can take your coat off, stow your briefcase in the overhead rack, lower your carcass into the seat at your own pace, &c.) This is perfectly acceptable.
OR Option 2 you can sit closer to the stairs, in the very first available seat if you like, provided that you never stop moving. Walk forward down the aisle, turn around and sit down fast with your arms and legs completely removed from the aisle, and allow anyone else coming up behind you continue walking without breaking stride, so that they may reach the farther seats as quickly as possible. Then, once no one else is trying to get down the walkway, you can lean out into the aisle to take your coat off/stow your briefcase, or even stand up in the aisle for any other settling-in reason. This is also perfectly acceptable.
OR Option 3 you can stop next to the first available seat and block the aisle so that no one else behind you can get past and get a seat of their own, and futz with your coat and briefcase and whatnot, and in your own sweet time sidle into your seat and allow the flow of fellow passengers to resume. This is RIDICULOUSLY RUDE.

I prefer Option 1 above for myself, but a few months ago I stopped spending so much time standing on the VRE platform in the morning. I still leave the house at the same time to get a parking space in the garage, but then I sit in the relative comfort of my car, shielded from the elements, listening to the radio, until about 3 minutes before the train is due in the station. By the time I reach the platform there’s a considerable crowd waiting where the doors will open after the train comes to a stop. So I’m never the first one to board anymore. And I have to admit, another reason I started hanging out in my car (in addition to not really liking the cold) is because there’s another rider who always got (gets) to the platform before me AND always made (makes) damn sure he’s the first one to climb onto the car. He hasn’t been riding the VRE as long as I have (or at least hadn’t been taking it from my stop or riding my usual car until last fall) which makes it all the more irksome, but not worth trying to outmaneuver him. I’ve completely ceded first-boarding privileges to him.

But as you’ve no doubt sussed out by now, he is an obnoxious Option 3 type. Every. Freaking. Morning. Every once in a while he might make a token gesture toward Option 2, but not all that much. And it makes me scream inside my head. Especially on a day like today! I’m well aware that some mornings there are only two or three seats left in the upper section, one very close to the stairs and one very far away, so when this fellow chooses to block the aisle it’s a choice made with a stark contrast of how much further he’d have to go plus how much further he’d be from the stairs/door when it’s time to get off the train (and yes, I’ve noted that I detrain before he does, and I’ve never ridden in all the way to Union Station, for all I know maybe it’s a bloodbath scrum to get off the train if you’re not well-positioned) (but also, for the record, the gentleman in question is in his late 50’s or 60’s but doesn’t walk with a cane, isn’t morbidly obese, and doesn’t show any other signs of how a little extra walking would be a hardship). Today, though, there was practically no one in the upper section, and literally the first four or five seats up there were totally open, the time/distance difference to reach them was negligible and yet he STILL BLOCKED THE AISLE WHILE CLAIMING THE VERY FIRST SEAT.

I know this is an incredibly trivial thing to get worked up about, but I’ve been holding this one in for a while so today’s the lucky day it became blog-fodder. After this my only recourse is going to be to stab the guy, so I hope it doesn’t rain in the mornings because I’m not sure I trust myself to carry an umbrella peaceably.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Island of Unfit Toys

One evening earlier this week I was cleaning up after my children, putting toys away, and I had to stop chucking things at random into various receptacles in order to find a specific toy and fit a small piece back onto it. Again.

This is mostly my fault, of course. There really shouldn’t be any toys in the house which have small, loose parts. The little guy can handle them but his sister is deeply entrenched in the “grab everything and shove it mouthward” phase so we must be vigilant against choking hazards at all times. I accept that responsibility and would even go so far as to assess myself at being pretty good at its enforcement. The mitigating factors which might make it not entirely my fault lie somewhere in the gray area between children’s toys and grown-up collectibles which I am still (constantly) learning to navigate.

The toy in question is Red, who is the fire engine character from the Pixar movie Cars (depending on how often you read this blog, at least some portion of that previous sentence no doubt could have gone utterly without saying). Being a firetruck, Red (the character) is a little bigger than most of the other denizens of that world, and thus Red (the toy) is not standard sized, either. When the little guy said he wanted Red, we incorporated it into the reward system as a goal to work toward and I set about tracking Red down online. When I found him, the picture of the toy looked exactly like what I expected based on the dozens of Cars toys the little guy already owned, and I order it unhesitatingly.

Then the toy arrived, and instead of coming on a modest cardboard and plastic blister backing, it was mounted in a Lucite cube and marked as a Disney Store Exclusive or something like that. I didn’t really pay that much mind until the day came to actually give Red to the little guy, at which point he opened the cube and … we discovered that Red was screwed down on the little replica stretch of asphalt under his tires. Unfortunately I presented Red in the car, on the way to the pediatrician’s, so we had to wait through the appointment and all the way home before I could liberate the firetruck from its base with a screwdriver. But I did, and the little guy was pretty psyched.

But even more unfortunately, not long after that, things started falling off Red. He has a ton of tiny-fiddly delicate sculpted bits, his itty-bitty rearview mirrors and brittle hose nozzles and so on, and it gradually dawned on me that we were not simply dealing with some semantics used as justification for jacking up the price of a toy. Red really isn’t a toy. He really is a collectible intended to sit on a shelf, permanently affixed to his display base, not to be touched and certainly not to be played with. He was neither designed nor constructed to stand up to the rigors of actual play. He might very well shatter if you looked at him funny (which I admit is very in keeping with his characterization in the movie).

Shrapnelriffic!
Even if I had realized this when I spotted Red online, I probably still would have gone ahead and clicked my way through the transaction, because I am firmly committed to the principle of letting playthings be playthings. I admit, there are a couple of action figures in my Green Lantern shrine which remain in their original packaging, and I even know that if I ever listed them on eBay it would be as MOC, not MIB (“mint on card” as opposed to “mint in box”) but those are far outnumbered by the toys which are loose. And while I am content to pose those loose action figures amongst my books for pure aesthetic enjoyment, I’ve never stopped the little guy from grabbing them and putting them to what I believe is their intrinsically correct purpose. So anyone telling me that a toy (or at least something that looks like a toy, sounds like a toy, and hangs out with other toys) is actually a collectible, well, that rankles a bit. Disney in particular occupies this very strange area where they seem to be expressly and almost exclusively in the business of entertaining small children, yet there are so many adult Disney fans that it’s actually (arguably) kind of hip to get a Tigger tattoo or have a Maleficent snowglobe out in the living room or whatever. But be that as it may, grown-ups (non-geek) aren’t supposed to buy themselves toys, so Disney has to market “collectibles”.

All well and good in the abstract, but dealing with the reality is something else. Apparently sometimes a toy truly is not a toy, those times being when treating it like a toy results in dangerous fragments breaking off on a regular basis. But of course in the time it has taken to figure that out, Red has become a beloved part of my son’s Cars collection, so it seems cruel to take it away now. Of course it also seems cruel to willingly let my daughter gag on a stray firetruck ladder, so some kind of compromise is inevitable. And henceforth I will be significantly more cautious about restricting myself to the designated toy aisle.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blessed to repeat (11/22/63)

Stephen King’s latest novel (a phrase with an onrushing expiration date if ever there was one) also happened to be one of his best received and reviewed; 11/22/63 made the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2011 list, for instance, which put it in some highbrow literary company. Which is not to say that it is highbrow literature in and of itself, because after all we are talking about Stephen King here. And I’m allowed to downplay his technical merits, I think, because I am a fully geeked out hardcore SK fan who semi-stoically bore the interminable wait between 11/22/63’s release in November and a copy coming into my possession as a Christmas gift from my wife. I finished reading it early last week, on the quieter of the two sick days I spent at home with the little guy.

It was pretty amazing. The height of the brow is debatable, but it is a very honest, very human book. Honesty and humanism have always been traits that SK has brought to bear on his best works, although sometimes they get lost amidst elaborate cosmic mythologies or horrific explorations of supernatural violence and madness and so on. 11/22/63 hinges on the trappings of time travel and alternate history, but it’s really a story about second chances, and about good intentions with bad outcomes, not to mention a well-observed period piece that deconstructs a fair amount of nostalgia along the way with the benefit of temporally-displaced hindsight. Much like one of my other all-time favorite Stephen King novels, Bag of Bones, it’s told in first-person by an SK surrogate, which is really the best approach for what I think is SK’s greatest strength as an author: the ability to make you feel while you’re reading as if you’re actually listening to someone talk, someone relating a juicy tale as you hang on their every word. One of the more interesting things about this go-around’s protagonist, Jake Epping, is that he’s a school teacher. King has written about teachers plenty of times before, of course (as SK main character professions go it’s probably tied with doctor for second place, behind author in a landslide), and that makes perfect sense since SK was a teacher before he hit the publishing jackpot, but Jake is no frustrated writer forced to eke out a living on whatever wages the Board of Education allows; Jake approaches teaching as a vocational calling, loves it and is really good at it. It’s almost as though King was finally getting around to making amends with all the teachers in the world, whom he no doubt deeply respects, for continuously implying that all of them work in second-choice positions.

Anyway, if you want to find more in-depth analysis of the broad merits of 11/22/63, I’m sure you could search them out elsewhere. What I really wanted to dig into is something I re-realized in the early going of 11/22/63: Stephen King has not only created a universe of continuity that rivals the major superhero comics, he’s become utterly comfortable having fun with it in ways that don’t smash you over the head.

Because 11/22/63 deals with the assassination of JFK in Dallas, the action moves into Texas for the majority of the book, but of course everything starts in Maine, just like most of SK’s other books. And SK makes references to those other books, sometimes in only the most fleeting ways. A janitor Jake knows from school is established as originally hailing from Derry, before moving to Haven after a childhood trauma. Both towns are fictional. Derry is the setting of SK’s infamous novel IT (as well as the lesser-regarded Insomnia), whereas Haven was the setting of The Tommyknockers. Whenever Jake travels through time he can only go backwards and only to one fixed point in 1958, and every time he emerges in the past he notices a red and white Plymouth Fury. SK’s automotive nightmare Christine was, of course, a ’58 Fury.

How long until they remake this movie???
There’s no deeper understanding of 11/22/63 to be gained from having read The Tommyknockers beforehand, it’s just a neat little Easter Egg for the deepest devotees (like myself). IT plays a bigger part, however, as Jake picks up on the vibe of unnatural evil in Derry that forms the spine of IT, and eventually Jake meets a couple of the young protagonists from IT (Richie and Bev). The Plymouth Fury also has a part to play in Jake’s own story, which I don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say that SK picked absolutely the right story in which to indulge in self-referential antics like these. Not only does travel into the past allow a fairly literal venue for revisiting classic (or not-so-classic) SK novels, but a theme emerges over the course of 11/22/63 about how time harmonizes with itself, and how déjà vu takes on all kinds of maddening forms for a time traveler, particularly one intent on changing history. By alluding to himself, SK sets up those harmonic echoes as if he had planned it that way all along.

But, again, the thing that really struck me was that SK is confident enough to namedrop George Denbrough or the Kitchener Ironworks but not Pennywise the Clown, e.g. If you get the connection, you get it, but if not, there are no metanarrative footnotes to point the way. And of course in my ever-humble opinion that’s the way it should be. Even though, I strongly suspect, there may have been even more cool little self-shout-outs than I managed to catch, and I’m someone who’s been reading Stephen King books non-stop since about 1990. But I wouldn’t want the in-jokes I missed pointed out to me, necessarily. Maybe I’ll catch them myself next time.

Which brings me, at long long last, to one of my pop culture resolutions for 2012 that I’ve been hinting at for a while now. The next Stephen King book due out is an eighth volume of The Dark Tower series, the unexpected expansion of which is something I’ve touched on before. Of course there’s no question in anyone’s mind that I will read said book, but I am strongly questioning how resonant it will be to me at this point, a few years after having read the supposedly final seventh volume and around fifteen years since I jumped on board the series with The Gunslinger.

See, it’s not just the passage of time in the abstract that worries me, it’s a trend I’ve noticed in my own ability to recollect books I’ve read. Namely, that ability is lousy and getting lousier. Maybe my brain is graying, or I’m reading too much overall, maybe the books I read aren’t that memorable to begin with, most likely some combination of all those factors, but it is distressing nonetheless. Even moreso when I go out of my way to recommend a series to someone, or a friend just happens to stumble upon something I’ve already got under my belt, and then in an ensuing conversation about said books I find myself wishing I had notes to refer to.

Hence, be it so resolved: this year I am going to devote ample reading time to re-reading. I have a very specific plan for this based on what I consider fairly relevant circumstances. To wit:

1. I introduced my wife to Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles when the first book finally came out in paperback. (One of the very few differences of opinion between us: I love big old hardcover tomes, but she’s not a fan of that format.) The second volume comes out in paperback this spring, and she is eager to devour that as well. I will not be as unprepared to discuss its intricacies with her as I was when she read part one! So I have between now and late March or so to re-read The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.

2. Also this spring, A Game of Thrones comes out on DVD. Then at the end of the summer (hopefully right around the time my family will be heading Carolina-ward for a week at the beach) the fifth book of the source series, A Song of Ice and Fire, comes out in paperback. (In this instance I got into the series late, started collecting it in paperback, and am committed to assembling a matched set for my bookcases.) I’d like to re-read A Game of Thrones before watching the television adaptation, and keep going refreshing my memories of the series before finally taking on A Dance With Dragons.

3. Finally, the aforementioned The Wind Through the Keyhole is my prompt to re-read The Dark Tower series in its entirety. Funny enough, I originally read the first three books in the series by checking them out of the library. I think I knew that they were part of an unfinished series and for some reason I thought they might never be finished? Also I was in college and flat broke back then? At any rate, I bought the fourth book in paperback and the last three in hardcover, then proceeded to loan the last three to an acquaintance and haven’t seen them since. So whereas with Rothfuss and Martin I can pull those books off my shelves at home and re-read them for free, I haven’t quite worked out all the logistics yet of re-reading The Dark Tower. But it’s on the list.

So there it is. A series I want to be able to talk about with my wife, a series I want to see on the small screen (and also discuss with my buddy Clutch, at that) and a series from the heart of one of my oldest obsessions. 13 books total to re-read, 15 books altogether when you factor in the new Dark Tower and new (to me) Song of Ice and Fire. I reckon it will take me pretty much all of March through July, and no doubt I will give intermittent updates on the progress here. Hopefully my employer won’t suddenly re-assign me to a different contract that I can’t mass transit to.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Going to the Show

After the New York Football Giants’ improbable victory over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, pretty much everything else this season is just icing on the cake. (I’m half-tempted to say that the only thing that could have been sweeter would have been an improbably victory over a hated rival like Dallas or Philly, as opposed to a team I have absolutely no beef with, but the win-and-in Week 17 game against Dallas did satisfy that scenario in a big way already so I’m not going to get crazy greedy here.)

Spite Quenching!
I was, therefore, somewhat ambivalent about the NFC championship game this past Sunday. I mean obviously I wanted the Giants to win, and thought they had a good shot, but I didn’t need them to win. They were already NFC East champs and had won two playoff games to convincingly prove their post-season appearance was no fluke. A historic Super Bowl win for the G-Men is also within recent memory. I could hold my head high as a fan no matter what the outcome against San Francisco, and as I’ve mentioned before, if the Giants weren’t going to Indy in February then at least I could enjoy an anxiety-free Super Bowl party with my friends.

Plus the NFC championship was scheduled to be televised at 6:30 Sunday evening, which in my household is right about when the concerted nightly effort begins to transition from post-dinner playtime to pre-bed bathtime with a minimum of screaming all around. I wasn’t about to alter the routine, and I was perfectly content to simply have the game on (both tv’s, in the den downstairs and the master bedroom upstairs, plus the satellite radio feed on the stereo in the dining room) as part of the background. My wife, superlative-sweetly, tried to excuse me early and take over story-reading between baths and bed, but the little guy put his little foot down and demanded that I stay, and I declined a protracted battle over that. (The little guy has been slowly but surely ramping up his sibling jealousy, still not acting out with anything overtly negative towards his sister but definitely pushing for more and more attention commensurate with the amount we give the baby, which is of course is more than a three-year-old technically requires, but try telling him that when he wants to be picked up immediately because you just set the little girl down for a moment.) When the little guy was finally tucked in for the night and my wife turned her attention to getting the baby to sleep, I finally joined the game in progress, watched the back and forth for about five minutes (real time, not game clock time) and then ran back upstairs and offered to sub in on the rocking chair detail. I explained to my wife that the game was tense and tough to watch, which was absolutely true.

But eventually both kids were down and I braced myself for the game which – all expectations and wants and needs aside – was a roller coaster. I tore myself away to walk the dogs when regulation ended, at which point my wife advised me not to dawdle because (as Denver had shown her Steelers a couple of weeks earlier) even with the new overtime rules the game could be decided in just one play. I missed a bit of the first OT possession but was back in plenty of time to see NY’s special teams come up huge and the offense set up a field goal attempt without disaster and Tynes do his job and one of the two teams with a booster in my immediate family advance to the Super Bowl for the fifth time in seven years.

Of course earlier in the day the Patriots had edged the Ravens, which was a bit disappointing. In my wildest dreams as Sunday dawned I had been envisioning a New York/Baltimore Super Bowl. Either way, if the Giants made it, there would be a Super Bowl rematch, but it’s been over a decade since Giants/Ravens and the line-ups are almost completely different now (except for the disturbingly ageless Ray Lewis), so that just struck me as more interesting. Not to mention the fact that the Ravens crushed in XXXV, the only times the Giants made it to the Super Bowl and lost, and the possibility of payback was tantalizing. And, fine, I admit it, I’d rather see my guys go up against Joe Flacco than Tom Brady. But it was not meant to be, and Belichickzilla Vs. Megacoughlin 2 is gearing up, and it could be a really classic showdown or it could be a blow-out in either the exhiliarating or demoralizing direction, but I am looking forward to it. Not necessarily looking forward as much to the obligatory trash-talking face-off with New England-aligned guests at the Super Bowl shindig, but I’ll just have to roll with that one. (Oddly enough in this particular social circle there is one woman who is a Patriots superfan but there’s also another woman who is a Ravens superfan, so I was bound to get caught up in that one way or the other.)

In the mean time I probably won’t have much else to say about football for the next couple of weeks (barring off-the-field scandals erupting) so enjoy the reprieve!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Annual Existential Dilemma

I had my face-to-face annual review at work last Friday, which is just one of many milestones throughout the overall annual review process which takes something like 3 months of real time total, and in and of itself it went absolutely fine. My contracting manager continues to appreciate my contribution to the gig (however little he himself may understand exactly what technical wizardry I purport to practice in fulfilling my job duties) and he gave me relatively high numerical scores and positive comments. The strangest aspect of the whole experience was that my boss had swung by my cubicle on Thursday to ask if I was planning on being in the office on Friday, because if so we could grab some time for the face-to-face. I agreed I would be around and that sounded good. So on Friday he buzzed my cubicle again and said “Ready to talk?” and I confirmed I was and started to get out of my chair to follow him to an empty conference room … at which point my boss said, “Or, like I tell everyone, you can just skip this part if you agree with everything I wrote about you and don’t have anything to add.” A problematic lob to volley back for the following reasons:

- My boss has a notoriously dry sense of humor and plays his cards very close at all times, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a time or two before around here. So was he serious about skipping a mandatory part of the corporate annual review process? Or was he joking? Virtually impossible to tell!
- If he were being serious, though, was there some kind of test hidden in the ostensible offer? Is my seriousness as an employee and team player (particularly one who recently expressed interest in potentially moving up the management ladder within the company) something which would take a hit if I opted out of the face-to-face?
- But at the same time, I really did agree with everything my boss had included in my review and had little if anything to add myself. So there was at least a hint of plausibility to it as well.

But then again, I was already out of my seat. So we proceeded to the conference room and went through the review very quickly, mouthed some platitudes about job performace at each other, and spent a few minutes actually talking about, if not substantive matters, maybe the anti-substantive? Basically I caught him up on projects I had picked up but then been specifically asked by my government boss to abandon, the kind of stuff that would never make my weekly status updates because they ceased to have any official status. And before we finished my boss let me know he had been keeping an eye out for potential project management tasks he might be able to steer my way, so if nothing else that made me glad I had taken the time for the actual sit-down, at that.

Still, there was a weird bit of cognitive dissonance for me with the whole rigamarole, simply because it’s strange to be praised (however formulaically) in one area of my life when I feel like a gibbering idiot in another. This would be the home maintenance area which I alluded to late last week, and which I will further now specifically identify as a plumbing problem, or rather the culmination of several plumbing problems. The litany goes like this: when my Little Bro and sister-in-law visited a couple weeks ago, he alerted me to a dripping leak in the basement Dork Room which was serving as their guest accommodations. I had noticed some water evidence when I was replacing ceiling tiles in that room, but I had assumed it was leftover damage from the ol’ dishwasher malfunctions of late ’11. Not so, apparently, and some eventual testing revealed that the leak was only noticeable when the main floor half-bath toilet was flushed. Only a few drops at a time, but still, kind of unsettlingly gross. Meanwhile, the toilet in the upstairs hall bathroom was prone to running at odd times due to a slight flapper leak which let the tank empty just enough to need intermittent refilling. Fixing that was on my to-do list, but shutting down, dismantling and reassembling a toilet even for a minor repair requires more child-free time than I’ve had access to in a while.

Now on top of that the same upstairs toilet got a little bit clogged, some time mid-last-week, which I noted and resolved to attend to … sometime … soonish? The issue was forced, however, when the fill valve in the tank simply expired Thursday night, causing water to run incessantly, even though the clog prevented it from rushing down the pipes, and thus there was a minor flood which covered the bathroom floor and ended up coming through the main floor ceiling in the foyer. You can imagine the ensuing scramble: water shut off, towels sacrificed, mops fetched, pots placed strategically beneath steady drips coming through light fixtures (circuit breakers turned off, for that matter) – and the next day, of course, the services of a plumber beseeched with all due haste. The plumber came out on Saturday morning and the good news is that everything is fixed (at the moment) – or I should say all of the plumbing is fixed. The main floor toilet had a bad wax ring under its base, that’s been replaced, no more leaking into the basement. The upstairs toilet got snaked and needed almost every moving part inside the tank replaced, all of which was handled as well. The outstanding issue at this point is the foyer ceiling which was seriously saturated with water and needs to be replaced – something we had been meaning to do anyway because there had been some minor damage pre-existing when we bought the house, and now we just can’t put it off any longer. (Well we will probably put it off another two weeks or so for scheduling purposes but you get my meaning.)

Look if I'm going to make poop references I might as well go all the way.
The total cost of all the plumbing repairs was pretty minor, especially in comparison to the hardwood floor replacement and the HVAC replacement both still fresh in my mind (my in-laws very graciously gifted us with the HVAC funds, and the hardwood was mostly covered by homeowners insurance, but still). But the fact that it was the third major calamity in a row rankles a bit, as did the specifically earthy nature of it. A while ago I joked around to a friend of mine in an e-mail about how between two kids in diapers, two dogs that get walked every night and cats whose litter boxes need frequent changing, a disproportionate amount of my time is spent dealing with biological waste matter. Ha ha ha, just a little potty humor there, love my kids, love the pets (mostly), don’t mind me. But last week the toilet misery was actually coming on the heels of an incident in which one of the cats (we think? Though we don’t know which one? Possibly a sign we do have too many pets?) peed all over the bedclothes of my wife’s and my bed, plus the little guy’s recent bug-induced gastrointestinal distress which also caused him to undergo a bit of backsliding in having daily accidents even after the illness had passed … it’s a strange span of days indeed that make diapers, doggie-doo bags and litter boxes the paragons of longed-for simplicity. And you can see why on Friday I was a bit too shellshocked for regular posting. Aren’t you glad you asked?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Unbegun

"Begun" and "finished" are opposites, and yet "unbegun" and "finished" do not mean the same thing at all.

Sorry for the non sequitur but it's about the best my brain can manage at the moment. All I'm thinking about is how glad I am that this week is just about over. It started out well enough with a federal holiday but since then its been a sick little guy, unplanned days off from work that proved maddening in how little I managed to accomplish with them, a long day finally back at work trying to make up for leave time I didn't really have in the first place, and then late last night yet another unfortunate incident which will necessitate a considerable amount of Professional Home Repair. (Said incident - which I will elaborate upon after putting some temporal distance between myself and it, as is my wont - has nothing whatsoever to do with the last two recent major incidents involving the dishwasher leak/floor warping/hardwood replacement and the HVAC near death/replacement. I'm honestly not sure whether to be relieved or appalled.) Trying to shift mental gears from stewing over the constant stream of cruddiness and into summoning forth some kind of amusing anecdote has proven untenable. Hence, the week is all but finished, which is good, yet the weekly blog capper remains unbegun, which ... well it's annoying but I suppose it's not the end of the world.

Zen-tinted
If I were a meditatin' man I might try to take advantage of this opportunity of circumstance, wherein I find myself not contending with an endless flow of boisterous thoughts, and just fully empty my mind in order to ... do whatever it is you're supposed to do with a mind emptied of thoughts. I've never really gotten the hang of it, obviously. But more than likely I'll just seek the solace of pizza and a bottle of wine with my wife tonight and try to do what I can over the weekend to set up a more positive week come Monday.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Baby bootstraps

She will never be second in my heart (as I love both my children with a fervor identical to the millionth decimal place, just as a good parent should) but the fact remains that my daughter is the second child born into our family and I am constantly discovering new elements among the myriad ways in which her brother’s precedents affect her.

For example, when the little guy was getting close to his first birthday, he owned some toys, but really not that many. It wasn’t hard to tidy up the townhouse by tossing a few plastic animals in the playpen in the living room and chucking a few more into his bedroom. Now, of course, another couple years on and he has amassed loot in literal heaps, while at the same time progressing from ultra-safe teethers to vast fleets of choking hazards on wheels. And my wife and I have dealt with the choking hazard issue pretty well, I think, between drilling into the little guy’s head the idea that he has to keep his tiny cars and trains up off the floor (either in one of several plastic bins doing toybox duty or on the top of his train table) and insisting that certain toys must be kept in his bedroom at all times, plus following in his wake ourselves regularly picking up the playthings he may have missed.

The plastic bins full of toys, though … I was pretty proud of myself for seizing on those as a good defense against Total Living Room Chaos. They’re big enough to make scooping and dumping toys into them reasonably easy, but squat enough to slide out of sight under the train table when we need to clear as much floorspace as possible (and lightweight enough that the little guy himself can drag them back out again whenever he takes a mind to). They make a ton of sense for managing the epic fallout of living with an energetic three-year-old. But, again, they weren’t necessary until he had acquired about three Christmases plus three birthdays plus a couple random holidays and vacations worth of toys. They weren’t necessary when we counted his age in months, and we didn’t have them then.

So it was just the other day that I got to see for the first time what an energetic (and, no joke, remarkably strong) nine-month-old does in the presence of those toybins. Which is, of course: she grabs the lip of them and tries to pull herself up. Emphasis on “tries”, extra emphasis on “at the moment” and I have no doubt that within a week or two at most she’ll be succeeding in pulling herself up. Oh noes.

Not in good taste, but still a little teensy bit funny
Granted, I don’t think it’s actually physically possible to drown in toy trucks even if one’s head is fully submerged under a mound of plastic construction equipment. It’s also far more likely that the bins would simply tip over and spill toys everywhere while also causing the little girl to fall awkwardly and maybe at worst bump her head. Still, it’s a hazard that should be minimized as much as possible, though I confess I haven’t quite figured out what that will entail. Latching the lids on the bins at all times? Stacking them someplace weird and inaccessible like behind the end table beside the couch (which negates some of the little-guy-plays-well-on-his-own advantages I outlined above)? Weighing down the bottoms so they stay flat on the floor and wrapping the corners in Nerf-foam?

I’m sure we’ll come up with something. And at the rate we’re going, it’s entirely likely that by the time our daughter is a little over three years old our entire house will be furnished entirely in Early 21st Century Daycare with every available surface covered in nothing less yielding than ethylene-vinyl acetate and every three-dimensional object hollowed out for maximized storage space.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Also a lot of those 19th century gangs reminded me of The Warriors, and I mean that as a compliment

Just a few nights ago my wife asked me if I had seen Gangs of New York, in a manner that indicated she wasn't sure whether or not we had just talked about it recently. (When you have two small children who are highly unreliable about sleeping through the night, conversations with that imprecise quality about them are fairly common.) I indicated I had not seen it, and she followed up by confirming that I was going to see it soon (as I had alluded to hereabouts). I, in turn, asked if she had seen it, and she said she had and was also prompted to ask if I had heard anything about it. I felt like I had, although I couldn't really put my finger on any specific sources, but told my wife I was under the impression that it was ... not as good as it should be? She agreed wholeheartedly with that assessment.

(Incidentally, the context in which Gangs of New Ypork came to the forefront of my wife's mind was watching the Ravens in the playoffs, as she believes Joe Flacco's current, semi-goofy facial hair gives him an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. It's a fair point. Also I haven't had a chance yet this week to bring up the NFL but HOW BOUT THEM GIANTS!!!)

So, prejudicial assessments aside, was Gangs of New York worth watching, two hours and forty-seven minutes across two DVDs and all? Most definitely. There's some virtuoso work from Scorsese there, which is pretty much to be expected, I suppose. Every shot is composed and considered, as is every juxtaposition from one scene to the next. I was especially taken with one long, unbroken shot that tracks along a line of immigrants getting off a boat in New York harbor, filing past a table where the able-bodied men are heavily recruited into the Union army, moving on to the area where uniforms and rifles are handed out, panning across boys in uniform standing in line waiting to board another ship bound for Tennessee, then rising up off the ground to sweep up the gangplank only to be intercepted by a wooden coffin being lowered by ropes and pulleys down to the docks where it will join dozens of other identical pine boxes. I'm a sucker for elaborate displays of technical proficiency like that (not to mention practically comicbook-like tapestry storytelling).

And of course Daniel Day-Lewis is just genius as William Cutting. I remember reading once that a melodrama is a story that locks its dramatis personae into well-defined roles from beginning to end - the hero always behaves heroically, the villain is forever villainous, the damsel perpetually distressed, &c. I found myself thinking of that quite a bit during the course of the movie (no doubt many people would dismiss the whole period costume epic as "melodramatic") particularly in the case of Bill the Butcher. He has a certain monomaniacal point of view in the prologue, which never wavers from the time the action picks up again sixteen years later to the very end of the film. He does not, as they say, demonstrate any particular character growth. And yet he's the most watchable thing up there any time he's on screen. Maybe it's just that the bad guys always seem to be having the most fun, maybe it's the hypnotic combination of his exaggerated lower-class native accent and his propensity for flowery turns of phrase which altogether sound like no other human being's speech. Whatever the underlying cause, he's worth the price of admission.

Could it be SYMBOLISM???
And yet despite a fantastic director and a fantastic heavy, it's not quite a fantastic movie. It's very good, but that can be true without contradicting our initial premise here, that it's just not as good as it should be. I don't really think that it's the fault of young Leo DiCaprio's unsteady Irish accent, or Cameron Diaz playing slightly out of her league (or not entirely those things, at any rate). I think maybe it's the sense that the whole movie feels somewhat overstuffed, combining a classic tale of an orphan son returning to his home after years of exile to avenge the murder of his father with a detailed history lesson about Civil War-era New York City. There's a lot of explication to underline the social studies coursework, between stilted dialogues and even more stilted overdubbed interior monologues and intercut newspaper clippings and so on. And the entire movie builds up to the Draft Riots, which certainly make for an interesting resolution to the tale of gangs and power struggles and corruption and such, but ... in order to set up the personal enmity between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Vallon, while at the same time establishing the Conscription Act and the immigration issues and the pervasive sleaze of Tammany Hall and so forth, the movie is really serving two masters. Yes it all comes together tragically and brilliantly at the end but it is a long trek back and forth on parallel paths to get there.

Combining two movies into one requires some stitching at the seams, and I think the seams become pretty visible in spots, and once that happens all the amazing tracking shots and historically accurate recreations of the architecture of Five Points seem like so much artifice, and the film ceases to be something transcendant that can sweep you up in it. But I suppose there are worse cinematic crimes than being overly ambitious and coming down just short of awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lest I go silent for too long

The three-day weekend went by way too fast, as all weekends inevitably seem to do. It further seems tha the longer the weekend, the faster it goes, like a heavier freight train with more momentum behind it or something like that. In any case, my wife and I set ourselves a fairly ambitious to-do list for the Saturday-to-Monday span, and still didn't get it all done.

Of course, things were complicated somewhat by the little guy getting a touch of ... the flu? Some other, unnamed bug? It started out as an isolated upset stomach Sunday afternoon-to-evening, then he seemed better on Monday morning, only to backslide last night by adding a fever into the mix. So today I took a day off from work in order to nursemaid him, and it's encompassed both extremes of toll-taking; on the one hand, he's been pretty easy to watch over because all he wants to do is lay quietly and watch DVDs, but on the other hand, that's very hard to contend with emotionally because I know how he must be suffering if he's so listless, and it just about breaks my heart.

He's napping right now so I figured I could spare five minutes to update the blog with an explanation for the lack of posts since Friday. (I mean, y'all probably could have pieced it together given my track record with federal holiday weekends, but I didn't want to skip today as well, even if I haven't got all that much to say about how we got here.) I hope to have a meaty post for 1001 Movies tomorrow, but it all depends on how the next 12 to 24 hours go, so no promises.

Sorry, WOW fans, I just thought this out-of-context picture was a hoot.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Let's pretend all these meandering thoughts qualify as a "random anecdote"

Last night was superlatively uneventful, the only pseudo-excitement coming in the form of a drawing room mystery, or I suppose technically a tv room mystery, as for the longest time my wife and I couldn’t figure out why the den where we were watching (3/4 of) our usual Thursday night programming remained so stubbornly cold even with the fireplace blazing. Eventually it dawned on us that when I had gotten home from work I had opened the garage door, but not pulled in because the little guy’s push/ride Tonka truck was in the middle of my side, and I came straightaway inside the house with the intention of going out again a little later to rectify all of that, but I never did. Amazing how drafty an open garage can be.

Anyway, for the past few years my wife and I have been diehard devotees of Community, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock and The Office (in approximately that order of relative affection) and last night The Office and Parks and Rec returned from their December holiday hiatus, and 30 Rock rejoined the lineup for the first time since late last spring, but Community was nowhere to be found. This, in contrast to the previous paragraph, was no mystery at all, since I follow more than enough entertainment news on teh interwebs to have been warned well ahead of time that Community was going on indefinite hiatus (a specifically different thing from cancellation, I continue to hope) in the spring, to make room for 30 Rock’s return. I may even have mentioned it around here somewhere. Weirdly, a terrible new sitcom called Whitney was on Thursdays in the fall but got shuffled over to Wednesdays, which you would think would mean Community could stick around after all, but instead another new show called Up All Night got the fourth sitcom slot, and that’s definitely an improvement over Whitney, but still disappointing. My wife and I had been enjoying Community tremendously and faithfully ever since it premiered three years ago, and we each got each other Community licensed merchandise for Christmas, so not being able to watch the show as we’ve been accustomed to amounts to a dark timeline indeed.

Mo' worlds, mo' first world problems
And I relayed all of those things in a letter I wrote to the entertainment chief at NBC. I am not even a little bit joking. The news about Community not returning in January broke before the final episode of the fall aired, and in one of the online review write-ups for that episode the reviewer advised his readers that the best thing they could for the show was to write a letter to Robert Greenblatt, and proceeded to give out his business address. I thought about it for a month or so and ultimately realized that if I couldn’t spare twenty minutes and a 44 cent stamp then I was nowhere near the superfan I claimed to be. Granted, I also had to do a little bit of online research to refresh my memory as to how to properly format a business letter, because I wanted my plea for a stay of execution to be taken seriously, but that was still time well spent. Though it did make me wonder how middle school teachers these days expect their students to pay attention to anything when they know they can always Google or Wikipedia it later. Adulthood truly is one long open-book exam.

That wasn’t the only opportunity I had this week to reminisce about my old teachers this week, either. I’m in the middle of Stephen King’s latest novel at the moment (yet another awesome Christmas present from my wife, and it’s fan-freaking-tastic, so expect a longer post on it when I finish it next week) which is about a teacher who goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. The protagonist’s profession in and of itself didn’t necessarily evoke high school memories, but at a certain point in the narrative he directs the school play, which is Of Mice and Men, and that did remind me of my junior English Honors teacher, who not only assigned Mice and Men on the syllabus but put us into groups for projects wherein we wrote our own playlets which were alternate endings to the story (like Lenny being put on trial for murder). Funny enough, King develops a running theme in the novel about the past and present harmonizing with one another with coincidences and repetitions, and that got into my head along with the events in the book harmonizing with my own life, which was a pretty trippy feedback loop. I haven’t fallen asleep once on the train this week; I’m not entirely sure which timeline I would wake up in.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wit and Wiffdom

Our children are both still young enough that bathing them together seems like very much a non-issue, so much so that it’s our default approach for getting from the sticky end of dinnertime to the finish line of bedtime. If anything has the potential to convince either my wife or myself to deviate from that pattern, it’s the caprice of our son on a day when we’re carefully picking our battles with him (which, let’s be honest, is most days).

Somewhere along the line, my wife (perfectly capable of capriciousness herself) asked the little guy if he wanted to take that night’s bath “Wit your sister? Or not wit?” in a hilarious Pat’s King of Steaks accent (or approximation thereof). Unsurprisingly, the little guy found this blatant mispronunciation of simple English appalling and unacceptable, which was hilarious enough in itself to virtually guarantee that would be the way my wife would always ask him the same question every night.

Please stay in business until I can introduce my kids to your greasy goodness.
What’s even funnier, of course, is when the little guy tries to correct mommy, complete with his own three-year-old speech peculiarities: “No, Mommy! It’s not ‘wit’! It’s ‘WIFF’!” Gets me every time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A book and a movie and a bunch more movies

Last week I spent a chunk of my commuting time reading a book entitled “Fire and Rain” (exhaustively subtitled “The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970” and please note that about one-fifth of that is severely abbreviated) which was an enjoyable but not really life-changing slice of American pop culture history. The premise was moderately interesting, hinging as it did on the fact that the break-ups of the Beatles, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Simon and Garfunkel all happened within the same year. Sweet Baby James shot up the charts that year too, which is how James Taylor gets in the mix, a star on the rise at the same time all these legends were blowing apart. On the one hand that’s kind of a weak connection, but then again the three break-ups aren’t really connected, either. It’s not as if there’s a meaningful throughline, something in the political or cultural essence of 1970 that caused those acts to break up; they all just did, coincidentally within a short span of months. So ultimately what we have is an author for whom 1970 was a personally significant and noteworthy year, who remembered getting into James Taylor and saying goodbye to some big names of the 60’s, and who wanted to write a semi-scholarly book about that year so that he could both research and relive it. Thing is, I’m totally fine with listening to people talk about things they’re extremely passionate about, even if I’m not so passionate about those same things and even if the other person’s passion causes them to overreach in terms of placing judgments of importance. I just find other people’s excitement endearing and entertaining. So reading the book was far from a total loss.

One side effect of reading “Fire and Rain” was that I realized that while I take for granted that I know basically everything there is to know about the Beatles or CSNY or whathaveyou, it’s all fairly superficial stuff. My dad was a huge Beatles fan and big into CSNY (and Buffalo Springfield and other various predecessors and spin-offs) and Simon and Garfunkel, and played the classic rock radio station all the time when I was growing up, so I knew who he was talking about. But of course the classic rock station would play the one or two biggest hits of those bands, whereas author David Browne goes into each and every deep cut on albums like Déjà Vu and Bridge Over Troubled Water and it’s all new to me. Which of course makes me want to go back and actually listen to those albums instead of just the singles – yet another project for when I have a lot more time.

Chicken's not vegan?
When I finished “Fire and Rain” I turned back to the eternal make-use-of-Netflix cause and watched a recent movie I hadn’t caught yet: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It’s based on a series of indie graphic novels and it got mixed reviews from both comic book nerds and the general film-appreciating community. I was amused by it, in my typical fashion (meaning I could see a lot of the flaws that might bother other people but I either didn’t mind them or actively liked them for what they were) but perhaps the greatest part came in the first few minutes, when protagonist Scott introduces his high school girlfriend to the other members of his band Sex Bob-omb. The lead singer is named Stephen Stills. There is also a kid named Neil who hangs around as a roadie and emotional support, but while the rest of the members of the band are in their mid-20’s, Neil is just barely 20 himself, and so his nickname is “Young Neil”. I’m fairly sure I might have completely missed the Stephen Stills/Neil Young joke if I had not just finished a book chronicling some of CSNY’s misadventures the day before. But of course once I chuckle at a sly throwaway joke like that, a movie has pretty much gotten on my good side for most if not all of its running time.

Speaking of movies, though … as one of my pop culture resolutions for 2012, I’ve made the momentous decision to join a blogging club: the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, to be precise.


What this means is that every couple of weeks I will watch a movie which has been included in at least one edition of the namesake book, and a bunch of other bloggers will be watching the same movie (many of them will be doing a different movie every single week, but I’ll be pacing myself), and then I’ll post a review of the movie, as will everyone else, all linked from a portal site for the club. I’ll try to remember to link back to the club so that you can see what other people have to say (if you’re so inclined). The 1001 Movies book includes a pretty broad range of films – American and foreign, from 1902 to the present – so I look at it as a good way to broaden my horizons beyond my usual fare. Since this is a typically geeky thing to do, the reviews will likely go up every other Wednesday, starting next week with Gangs of New York – mark your calendars accordingly!

(I know, I know, Gangs of New York is pretty mainstream and pretty recent, but trust me, the next one after that will be a Czechoslovakian headtrip from the 60’s. Good times.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Amazingly still talking about sports

So how about the football, huh? Bit of a mixed bag this past Sunday with the first round of playoffs results, and my wife was understandably bummed when the Steelers’ season came to an unexpectedly quick end. Well, maybe not entirely unexpected; the Steelers are a great team but by the time wildcard weekend rolled around they had a ton of starters on injured reserve (and Big Ben so banged up you could make the argument that maybe he shouldn’t have gotten the start - I’m not making it, mind you, I’m just saying you could) and they had to play on the road … I’m not offering excuses, nor was my wife, I’m just … saying, is all?

The good news is that Pittsburgh’s playoffs departure forestalls for yet another year the possibility of marriage-testing showdown in the Super Bowl. The other good news of course is that the Giants won, and my wife very sweetly has committed to jumping on the NY bandwagon for as long as it keeps rolling. That may not be very long, of course, since the G-Men have to play in Green Bay this weekend. There are some bright spots to note: the Giants won their last two regular season games (they pretty much had to in order to get to the playoffs) and their victory over Atlanta was totally solid (no crazy new playoffs overtime rules, ahem ahem) and even over the course of those sixty minutes hosting the Falcons, every aspect of the Giants’ play only got stronger as the game went along. So tons of momentum, in other words! And all that the Packers have going for them are a 15-and-1 regular season record, a bye week’s worth of rest, home field advantage, and the fact that they are the reigning world champs. Sounds like a good match-up to me.


There was a stretch there during the regular season when I was rooting for the Packers to become the next team to have a perfect season all the way through the Super Bowl, but of course that was also a stretch during which the Giants were kind of foundering and I wasn’t sure they’d be playing in the post-season at all. Now I admit I am somewhat relieved that the Packers already lost one game, so that I don’t feel any lingering conflict of interest about the Giants potentially spoiling something historic. If the Giants continue underdogging their way toward the Super Bowl I will of course be excited, but if they falter along the way I will console myself with the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to enjoy the Super Bowl in and of itself – the socializing with friends over junk food and beer, the critical evaluation of million-dollar commercials, the anticipation of movie trailers, the snarking over the halftime show, the appreciation for a good close game with lots of lead changes and crazy plays on both sides of the ball, all of it – when your team is playing and you just want them to WIN, COME ON. That’s my silver lining, being able to look forward to a Super Bowl party as just a party, not a crucible of agony and/or ecstasy.

But let’s not jump the gun, I haven’t given up on the Giants yet, despite the long odds, and I’m looking forward to this weekend. My viewing experience last weekend was interesting, in that the Giants’ game started right about when the little guy was sequestered in his room for Quiet Time, and also when my wife had gone out to do some grocery shopping. That left me and the little girl alone together, sharing the couch in the den as I kept one eye on the tv and one eye on my daughter. She was in a very good mood and perfectly content with the amount of tickling and knee-bouncing and whatnot I offered her. I tried to return the favor by not scaring her into bursting into tears, but it wasn’t easy. I’m naturally given to extraordinarily high-decibel outbursts related to the aforementioned agony and ecstasy, and there was plenty of cause for both frustration and elation as the game in the Meadowlands went down. But every angry shout of protest became a swallowed growl instead, and every in-your-face war whoop became a gentle “Yay!” and a smile and a noiseless clapping of the hands, a gesture the little girl has just recently learned to imitate. So we sat together and delicately clapped our hands and had a grand time. So I look forward to all of that again this Sunday, too.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Wrong tools for the job

Hey, it’s the first Monday of the New Year! At least, it is if you don’t count the 2nd, when New Year’s Day was observed, but it should be fairly self-evident that this her blog is not going to count a day like that. We all know I tend to blog almost exclusively during downtime at work, and not so much when I don’t go in to the office, and Mondays are supposed to be the days when I blog about work, to boot. So a federal holiday on a Monday is, for all intents and purposes, a Monday that never happened.

So what is there to say about work at this point? Not much, really. There was a bit of holiday hangover last week, but it’s all but dissipated now (the too-tall-for-our-office-drop-ceiling Christmas tree notwithstanding, as it’s still watching over the elevator lobby with no signs of going anywhere anytime soon). The standard grind has reasserted itself. But if I may, I’d like to say a word or two about that standard grind, which is at least tangentially topical. To wit:

OH MAN OH MAN DO I LOATHE AND DESPISE MY GFE.

As a courtesy to the latecomers, I’ll explain that GFE is contractor-ese for “government furnished equipment” and almost exclusively refers to the desktop computer in one’s cubicle on which one is expected to work. And my work computer is old and slow, much like the government itself (hiyo!). I actually prefer multi-tasking throughout the day, but trying to keep multiple programs running simultaneously on this box taxes its physical memory a great deal. Having the entire system freeze up is a distressingly regular occurrence.

And in addition to its physical limitations of memory and processing power, my GFE is running Windows Vista and my web browser (the only one I am allowed, by administrator proxy settings, to have installed) is Internet Explorer 7. Lots of sites do not render correctly in IE7, as the world has moved on several iterations past that and most sites take full advantage of the more robust features of latter-day browsers. Of course the web applications for which I am nominally responsible were coded and deployed almost a decade ago, and they still look just fine in IE7, so I am referring to websites which I would visit at work for personal reasons, and I am well aware of how this undermines my case for complaint. Still, there is a wide range of personal internet use which people engage in at work (especially if we consider the broader work world, well beyond the heavily-guarded walls of government contracting) and I would consider personal webmail and MSM news websites to be on the really-not-that-terrible end of the continuum, as opposed to the Flash games and gossip sites and true timewasters at the arguably-terrible opposite end. And all I really want to do is check my Gmail and skim through USA Today, but unfortunately those are some of the most unforgiving sites in terms of backwards compatibility with yesteryear’s IE.

The face of the cyber-enemy
The government is almost always averse to change and a very late adopter of technological innovation. The general regard of the government for the internet, I’ve observed, tends to be totally Wild West, an attitude that cyberspace is some lawless and untamed frontier, and only by firewalling the bejeezus out of the government servers and networks can national security and stability be guaranteed. Nothing will ever be adopted or allowed when it is in beta testing, or even immediately after launch; only programs which have been around so long that all bugs and vulnerabilities have been fixed, accounted for, or rendered extinct can be utilized. I will pause for a moment to allow the fact that the DoD essentially pioneered what would one day become the backbone of the world wide web, and now is utter crap at taking full advantage of what they unleashed, sink in.

So (here’s that timely tangent) if I had the ability to make my employer make and stick to one New Year’s Resolution for 2012, I would without question insist on new computers for one and all, with something like Firefox 9 installed on every last one of them. Though to be honest if I simply found out I was getting an upgrade to IE 8 on my current machine, I’d probably whoop with joy. And then feel very sad and ashamed for a long, long time.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Indelible images

My Little Bro recently has always been interested in art, from when we were both little enough to squabble over rights to the most valuable, and therefore inevitably scarce, crayons in the box (red and black). He was also a huge fan of Bob Ross on PBS, and even tried emulating the Great Fro-ed One a few times after he (Little Bro) came up with the idea of asking for paints and blank canvasses for Christmas one year.

Always remember: we don't make mistakes, we have happy accidents
Anyway, Little Bro recently returned to painting as a hobby, and shook off the rust pretty quickly. Among other things, he painted a blue dragon in flight on an abstract background and gave it to the little guy as a gift, and said painting now hangs over the little guy’s dresser (and goes pretty well with the bedroom’s beige-and-blue color scheme, at that). So it occurred to me a month or two ago that I might commission a painting from my brother for myself.

Some other quick background facts to help this all come together: I am a fan of the classic “Dogs Playing Poker” painting, on levels both ironic and genuine. My fandom extends so far as to include other configurations of “X playing Y” that pay homage to the originator (which I just now realized is kind of like a pre-interwebs meme). As an unabashed geek who has devoted inordinate amounts of time to tabletop roleplaying games, it has crossed my mind more than once that “X playing Dungeons & Dragons” would be something that, should I ever run across it, I would be compelled to buy immediately. Little Bro, while never quite as consumed by it as I inevitably was, has also logged some time at D&D tables now and then and is certainly familiar with the tropes of the Tolkienesque fantasy adventuring game genre.

Hence, I asked my brother if he would paint me “Monsters Playing Dungeons & Dragons” on commission. He agreed, but insisted on making it my Christmas present rather than taking payment. And when he and my sister-in-law visited this past weekend, it was partly so that he could hand-deliver the finished product. Which is GLORIOUS. It’s the most detailed picture my brother has ever even attempted to paint, dense with game-specific details and a fair number of inside jokes, and he nailed all of it. It is an exceptionally nice addition to my dorked-out basement.

It also gives me a nice segue to tell another random anecdote that I’ve been meaning to share for a while. I’ve tried once or twice on this blog to explain how D&D and similar games work, what their appeal is to me, and so on. I may have even mentioned that I got into D&D at a young age, around sixth grade. What I haven’t necessarily highlighted is the fact that not all of the charms of pencil-and-paper RPGs were readily apparent to me as an eleven-year-old, which I have to believe is a fairly typical response. Specifically, the idea of inhabiting a heroic character’s identity while exploring ruins, fighting creatures of darkness, and generally experiencing an epic action story from within was greatly appealing and drew me to the games in the first place; on the flipside, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of running a game session myself, knowing ahead of time how the story was going to unfold, playing the parts of the villains and obstacles and exposition-delivering-gibbering-fools-who-might-actually-be-on-to-something, and so forth. Nowadays, I think I actually prefer game mastering over playing as a creative outlet, but back in my pre-adolescence it wasn’t so much that I preferred it less as that I wasn’t interested in the slightest.

Almost never made it past Set 1
And neither were any of my friends (told you my response was typical) which presented an interesting conundrum, because a Dungeon Master is really a crucial element to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Furthermore at age eleven, not only were none of us interested in taking on the less fun, more demanding aspects of the game, but none of us were mature enough to suck it up and do it anyway despite the disinterest. It therefore took a minor miracle for us to be able to play at all. And that minor miracle was my dad.

I give my dad a lot of grief, both here and in real life (including talking to other people and talking to the man himself directly), about the many ways in which he made my childhood difficult and continues to be a constant worrisome presence in my mental landscape day in and day out (because I am a Gen Xer and that is what we do) but I have to admit, he did have his moments. When my friends and I wanted to play D&D in middle school, but none of us wanted to be the organizer and arbiter of said game, my dad could have reacted in one of three ways. He could have freaked out about devil-worship and whatnot and forbidden me to speak of it again. He could have blown it off as too bad so sad for me and suggested my friends and I figure it out ourselves. Or he could have volunteered to be the Dungeon Master, and that was in fact the option he chose.

It wasn’t really that huge of a stretch. I’ve alluded previously to my dad’s love for fantasy paperbacks, which is a big source of my own interest in the genre, and he was a big fan of Tolkien as well (because he’s a Boomer and he went to college between 1969 and 1973 and rediscovering The Lord of the Rings was what they did). He also, I’m guessing, had just enough of the thwarted writer/English graduate school dropout to enjoy the opportunity to mastermind a story-game. He got really into it, too. I will always vividly remember sitting around the dining room table with three of my classmates and my dad, the dimmer on the chandelier dialed down low, tall candles lit for ambience, as our very first gaming session began. My dad facilitated all of that, not because he had to, but because I really wanted him to. I gotta give him credit for that.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cherubic chaos

I was kind of looking forward to writing today’s entry, reveling in and marveling at all the wondrous joys of my children. And then they went ahead and turned today into a bit of an epic debacle; as per pretty much every Thursday they are home with their mother while I am at work, and I have already fielded multiple WTH phone calls and texts in regards to their mass insanity. (Said combined mass being only about 22.3 kg yet still capable of yielding surprising amounts of insanity.)

Pros: The little girl still crawls on her belly like a snake but has also become quite adept at pulling herself up on things like the edge of a toybox or the tub, demonstrating remarkable upper body strength. I remain happily convinced that she will be cruising in no time and walking shortly thereafter, and soon enough she and her brother will be able to run around together and wear each other out. The little guy got a box of 24 crayons for Christmas, expanding his repertoire of colors beyond the usual 8. Adorableness ensued, including rapt fascination that a gray crayon even existed, assertions that they were “tiny” crayons (when in fact they are what I think of as standard-sized; I also think his prior-experience crayons are “gigantic” so, you know, it’s all perspective), and disappointment that a white crayon was “dried out” because when he applied it to white paper it didn’t make a mark. (I produced some blue construction paper to use the white crayon on and he was suitably impressed.)

Cons: A baby who can pull herself up on things is one that needs to be watched with constant, utmost vigilance. She is also teething yet again, which is disrupting both her eating and sleeping schedules, all of which together makes her a little clingy and needy (insomuch as such terms apply to nine-month-olds). Her brother has not failed to notice how much attention she has been getting and has been demanding equal shares, especially insisting on being picked up by whoever is already toting his sister around. I can just about manage to pick him up with my free arm and hold both children for about twenty seconds before I need to give both arms a rest, so clearly I need to work out more.

So it goes, ups and downs, good days and bad. I still feel that their charms far outweigh their challenges, but I’ve been caught at a bad moment here. Hopefully next week things will have settled down a bit (a new tooth will have crowned, the holiday overstimulation will have faded) and I’ll be back to the worshipful marvelous revelry.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Resolution revolution

This morning I looked back at the post I made one year ago tomorrow, which was all about how many of my 2010 pop-culture-oriented resolutions I kept and how many I whiffed on, as well as which whiffs would become 2011 resolutions alongside new ones, and which would more likely just be indefinitely delayed. Of course it seemed like a good time to do so because I’m on the verge of doing the same thing again, and I have to admit it’s times like this that I’m actually grateful just for the mechanism of the blog which gives me a window into my own thought process fifty-two Wednesdays ago, because pantheons know I can’t be relied upon to actually remember such things myself.

One thing that struck me was the way that I shifted a lot of responsibility onto the lack of certain physical resources. Every year I say I’m going to sell a bunch of stuff on eBay, and I never do. Last January it was because first I didn’t have a scanner with which to create electronic copies of physical items before putting them up for bids, then I had the scanner but the computer itself was dying. I’ve had that whole situation rectified for months now, but of course not a single online auction going as of yet. And I swear this is not some kind of passive-aggressive self-undermining, where I say I’m going to part with old comics and unopened toys because I know that’s what everyone expects me to say as a responsible adult, despite secretly wanting to hoard every relic of my childhood until I die. Seriously, no. I do not want to be a hoarder, I want to get rid of some stuff and it seems silly to shove everything in trash bags and leave it on the curb when arguably a lot of it has value I could potentially recoup (even as I’ve never denied I would probably channel a lot of said recouping right into other bits of self-indulgent junk). So the main obstacle to actually making scans or taking digital pictures and setting up eBay auctions and whatnot is just my own laziness.

That’s the other thing that jumps out at me when I look at my year-end resolution scorecard: I tend to do a lot better at the things which by their nature require me to work on them more or less constantly, and I tend to fail miserably at the things which are smaller and more self-contained. That may seem fundamentally counterintuitive, but that’s just the way I roll. If I’m going to read X number of books over the course of the year, or watch Y Netflix movies, or whatever, then I calculate up front what my overall pace needs to be and I get started on it because I hate feeling like I’m falling behind. So I dive into that first book right away, or make sure I set aside an evening (or a couple of train-rides) for a certain flick before the end of January, and I get into a groove and build momentum and maybe stumble a little along the way but either hit my goal or come pretty close when all is said and done. But if I just say “I’m gonna sell some stuff on eBay” and give myself all year to do it, there’s no reason to do anything at all in January or even February if I can just put it off until April or May (or June or November …)

So, I’m still grappling with that one. For 2012, should I resolve to “Sell one thing every month on eBay”? Or “Sell a bunch of stuff in March (or whatever month I think will give me a lot of free time and few distractions)”? Or just be aware of my own tendencies and leap over the pitfalls of the past in whatever way seems appropriate at the time? When (and if) I figure it out, I will undoubtedly let you know.

But other than hopefully finally overcoming my anti-eBay inertia, 2012’s pop consumption looks to be a lot like 2011. I did, in the past year, go to the movies a handful of times, and I consumed a subscription-justifying number of Netflix DVDs (because, I note ruefully as I look back at last year’s installment, I never was able to take advantage of Netflix streaming video after I got my computer situation settled, due to Netflix raising their prices if you wanted both and me opting to stick with physical DVDs only) and those were never intended to be starting points for building somewhere, so if I can hold steady at similar levels I will be utterly satisfied. I’m probably not going to be playing more video games any time soon, but after the fun I had making my Christmas iTunes playlist, maybe I’ll be downloading more new music in the new year.

The biggest resolution change from one year to the next has always been my reading habit, going for sheer quantity one year and more quality the next (I only ended up reading 9 classics of literature last year, not 12, but still felt good about the experience) and in 2012 I will be going at it from an entirely different angle – but that of course is fodder for another post, coming soon! Because I have to admit, yet another resolution this year is likely to be an endeavor to break the 250-post mark I set back in 2010.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Changing of the seasons

I.

The NFL regular season ended on Sunday, and with it, the Pick’em Pool for this year. All in all, everything went out on fairly high notes: the Giants beat the Cowboys to claim the NFC East title and a spot in the playoffs; the Steelers (my wife’s team) and the Lions (my Little Bro’s team) are also wildcard-round-bound. (None of us happen to be rooting for teams that managed to get a first-round bye, which arguably matters more than any hair-splitting about how the Giants finished with a weaker record than either Detroit or Pittsburgh yet are higher-seeded overall, somehow …) Ideally in a few weeks there will be at least one team still standing that the family can rally around! Or possibly a looming showdown. Either way it should be exciting (unless we end up with two weeks to coutn down to yet another Packers/Patriots Super Bowl, which would be a drag).

In the Pool, my grandmother ended up winning the grand prize for the entire season – which, funny enough, she managed to do by being consistently good week in and week out, despite never claiming the prize for most correct picks in any single week. More power to her, she is adorable. My dad finished all alone in second place, and then there was a six-way tie for third, which I managed to snag 16.7% of. (That comes out to a little less than 10 bucks, which honestly just amuses me.) It will be strange to go back to watching football with zero vested interest in certain games, but that arrangement is at least less stressful, and more conducive to enjoying crazy unexpected upsets and whatnot.

GO BLUE
College football is almost over, too, and of course our household is looking forward to the University of Michigan’s bowl game appearance tonight. Hopefully the high notes will continue! If they do, they may actually succeed in keeping my wife and myself awake until the end of the Sugar Bowl. I miss football when it’s not around, but I have to admit that I am looking forward to a few months devoid of grappling with the temptation to stay up and watch a gridiron battle to the final whistle of the final play. It must be some combination of getting older and yet having a months-old daughter who can still interrupt a good night’s sleep pretty authoritatively, but man, I am wrung out.

II.

And here’s another example of fatigue’s overall effects on my brain: I knew that this morning it was going to be significantly colder than it has been so far this winter, so I made sure to grab my heavier winter coat as I was leaving the house. I also remembered to reach into the side pockets of my lighter-weight jacket that I’ve been wearing lately and retrieve my wallet and keys (granted, I wouldn’t have been able to leave the house without the key to my car) before heading off to work. It was only when the train was about one stop away from the station where I get off that I realized I had failed to check the inside breast pocket of my autumn coat, which of course was where my government building badge and the magnetized keycard to my office suite happened to be. I know I’ve talked before about the general inconvenience of bumpy transitions from one jacket to another, &c. so suffice it to say it’s all come up once again and winter is still my least favorite season. Too many jackets too many pockets blurgh.

Fortunately, the whole forgetting-my-badge thing is not as bad as it could have been. I’ve done it before (though this was a first since the office move to the new building) which means I at least know the process for going to the security office and obtaining a temporary visitor pass and so on. I also happened to bump into one of my co-workers in the lobby and asked her to hang out a minute while I got the visitor pass, since it requires me to be escorted throughout the building. But once that was done, it became a day at the office like any other. The old office building was excruciatingly difficult to work in for eight hours with a visitor pass, because even the restrooms were in the hallway, outside of the secured suite, so you made use of those facilities at any point you ended up locked out of the cubicle farm. Luckily the new office is much more self-contained and I’ve been able to hunker down and not bother anyone as I go about my day. All I need now is to remember to grab my badge as soon as I get home tonight and make sure it joins me on the way to work tomorrow.