Friday, March 30, 2012

All Fool’s Eve

Right, well, technically I guess tomorrow would be the eve before April Fool’s Day, but either way the whole ha-ha-did-you-forget-we–changed-calendars-448-years-ago thing goes down this weekend and this would be my chance to comment on that, possibly by recollecting a random anecdote about some great April Fools prank of my wasted youth. The thing is, though, I really don’t have any anecdotes like that. At all. I like a good practical joke as much as the next easily-amused guy, I’m just not much at masterminding them.

Oh, what a fool believes.
I’m actually kind of bummed that April 1st falls on a Sunday this year, because usually that’s something I look forward to as a break from the monotony of the workweek. I mean, not that anyone in a government agency is really big into wacky hijinks to commemorate Hilaria. But since I spend eight hours a day at work in front of a computer, and the majority of that online, it’s at least moderately entertaining to see how many websites temporarily go surreal or try to pull off a plausible hoax or what have you. Between spring cleaning, yardwork and preparations for the little girl’s imminent birthday, I don’t foresee spending much time interwebbing on Sunday. And by April 2nd, all the jokes will have been packed away for another year. Ah, well.

But then again, who knows – maybe we’ll win the obscenely inflated $640-million-and-counting MegaMillions drawing tonight, and I can indulge in all the time-wasting I want this weekend, secure in the knowledge that anything I’m neglecting is something I can pay someone else to do later. Here’s hoping!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cats to the left of me, babies to the right …

Of our two kittens (who I suppose might be considered kinos at this point, kittens in name only, as they’re both getting pretty big) the male has become the decidedly more strong-willed and adventurous one. He also recently began making it quite clear that he would like to be able to spend some time in the out-of-doors as the dogs and the dowager cat do. So, having duly gotten him neutered and implanted with microchip ID, my wife began to let him roam the yard on request. So far so good, as he always comes back, even as his walkabouts have very lately begun to stretch from the time my wife leaves for work in the morning until the time I feed the pets dinner in the evening. And the boy-kino apparently understands very well what “on request” means, as he yowls super-loudly at the rear sliding glass doors when the urge to stretch his furry legs strikes him.

You might wonder what this all has to do with the childrearing type stuff I usually give Thursday over to. (Believe me, I am not one to conflate the concepts of pets and children.) I suppose it’s the yowling in particular that brought me to a realization just the other day in regards to the little guy.

I think one of my personal pitfalls of parenting is that I am quick to defend my son and shield him from attacks from any quarter except one. And that quarter is not my wife; not too long ago the little guy inadvertently broke some part of the hinge mechanism of our dishwasher door, so now instead of maintaining a level parallel to the floor and supporting the weight of the lower rack, it droops at an awkwardly inconvenient angle when open. This happened when the little guy put all his weight on the open door, but that only happened because I opened the dishwasher myself and then wandered off distracted by something else, and the little guy innocently stumbled into it and lost his balance and landed on it. My fault, not his, as I pointed out with no hesitation when my wife got a little understandably and justifiably annoyed by the state of the dishwasher. I might also point out that this annoyance surfaced long after the little guy had gone to bed, so it was essentially victimless and harmless, but that’s how little I can bear the thought of anyone directing any rancor whatsoever towards my boy. Except, of course, myself. I constantly urge others to be patient with him and remember he’s only three, yet I find myself regrettably short-fused with him more often than I’m happy to admit.

And one thing that unfailingly sets me off is when the little guy makes both his life and my own more difficult by refusing to talk to me. There are times when he devolves back to babytalk, and there are times when he pretends to be completely nonverbal, trying to get my attention or convey an idea just through wordless whines and grunts. He’s a bright kid with a big vocabulary, and I am someone who more or less thinks that the ability to put ideas into words and communicate them to others is the be-all and end-all of enlightened human existence, so I was thrilled when he started speaking cogently, and utterly baffled whenever he rejects the same.

Then suddenly, three years later, a LoLcat
Or I was baffled, until the other evening when the boy-kino was yowling at the door and I let him out. Of course, I talked to the boy-kino too, as I’m wont to do: “OK, you can go, have fun out there.” Just like how when we get home from work/daycare and the dogs greet us at the door with plaintive little yips and I say, “All right, I’ll feed you guys in a minute, calm yourselves.” And not too dissimilar from the way I talk to the little girl, who makes a fascinating and entertaining variety of not-word vocalizations herself these days, which are likely to elicit a response from me along the lines of “Hey, little one, daddy’s here, I got you. I know you’re looking for something to bite on, let’s find you a teether toy.” When everybody and everycritter in our household is home, there are nine of us, two adults and a child who can talk, one baby and five animals who cannot, and the stream of conversation is seemingly nonstop.

So what occurred to me is just how this must all be perceived by the little guy. He may be the older child, the first-born, but in the hierarchy I just described he’s very much stuck in the middle. He can’t operate as independently as me or my wife (between both his own physical limitations and the rules of the house) and he can’t always express himself as clearly as we do, either. But we expect so much more of him, behavior-wise and communication-wise, than we do of his sister or the pets; they need forbearance and understanding, but he needs to do what he’s told. It must border on dispiriting sometimes, how clearly my wife and I are in charge, and everyone else is allowed to just be totally inarticulate and still get us to do what they want and engage in one-sided conversation with them, but the little guy is constantly getting reminded to say “please” or earning nothing but a sigh and an eyeroll if he lapses into proto-speech (which makes him sound like a squeaky-voiced caveman, more than a baby, but still). I knew that having a baby sibling would likely elicit a certain amount of jealousy and age-inappropriate behavior in the little guy, but I wasn’t prepared for him to go feral. Because I forget sometimes about all the animals, until one of them really cranks up the volume on the woeful meows and is summarily rewarded with his present desire.

So, I don’t think the answer here is to let my getting-closer-to-four-years-old son pretend he’s a baby (or a dog or cat) all the time, but at the same time I’m going to try to stay calm whenever the urge strikes him and maybe even play along a little. There will no doubt be times when he wants something non-obvious and me misinterpreting his “ooh”s and “uh”s will be too frustrating for both of us to bear, but there must also be times where letting him slack off – on a level playing field with his sister and our pets – is probably not just harmless but good for him. I just have to keep reminding myself of that, but it’s not like I don’t have lots of practice with talking to myself already.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fool Me Once (Gaslight)

It’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club time!

Some time ago, I read a novel’s afterword in which the author put forth a compelling definition of melodrama as “stories where nothing really changes”. I don’t rightly know if this was a technically exacting definition, in terms of literary theory, but that’s kind of beside the point. Melodrama is one of those words where everyone basically gets the gist of what it means even if they can’t nail it down precisely. Soap operas are melodramatic, teenagers are melodramatic, golden oldie movies are melodramatic, all in different ways (which frequently overlap). One of the ideas that seems inseparable from melodrama is its association with the hyperbolic: when an adolescent claims that whatever is happening to them is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, we tell them they are being melodramatic (or, more likely, tell them to stop being so melodramatic). So it goes with movies and soaps in which the villains are irredeemably awful and the heroes are unassailably good and the stakes are nothing less than life and death. Everything is exaggerated.

But also, and maybe more importantly, everything is very simple. It’s easy to take sides and easy to form expectations when the elements in play are so stark. That’s what the author I read was really much more concerned with, that in melodrama the villain and hero (and hero’s love interest) never change places, not for a moment. The villain is villainous at the outset and villainous at the conclusion of things, just as the hero never strays from the path of virtue, and the love interest … unfortunately (and coincidentally in total contrast to everything I brought up yesterday while I was gushing over The Hunger Games) the love interest is consistently nothing more than arm candy and/or the damsel in distress whom the villain can threaten and the hero can rescue. The author’s point, in illuminating all this, was that his initial inspiration was to take the archetypal elements of a hero-damsel-villain melodrama and establish them in the traditional way, but then slowly twist and turn the story so that the hero became the villain and the villain became the love interest and the love interest became the hero. Which was interesting enough to stick in my head.

OK, I kind of wish we still had top hats as a thing.
This all came back to me when I watched Gaslight because it hews pretty dang closely to these melodramatic idioms. The movie itself is 68 years old, which means that although the story takes place in 1880 there’s now more time between us and the world the movie premiered in than there was between the movie and the world it depicts at the time of that premier. It’s a weird double-layer of remove, the combination of Victorian mores and manners as necessary plot elements with the “modern” style of portrayal of them which was appropriate to 1944. It’s also a movie based on a play, which tends to bring along a certain stilted staginess that can be hard to overcome. Combine all that with the fact that it is very much a story about a villain (Gregory), a hero (Brian) and a damsel in distress (Paula) and everything seems to be in place for this to be a classic melodrama in the most dispiriting sense of the word.

It’s especially hard to disregard all of the above when you know where the whole movie is headed, which I did. (When a movie’s title provides the name for a form of psychological abuse, as Gaslight does for “gaslighting”, you end up with a bit of trivia which is also inherently a spoiler, another phenomenon which someone needs to cook up a neologism for.) Charles Boyer plays Gregory’s nefariousness pretty broad (and enjoyably so!), totally telegraphing the Big Reveal when you’re biding time waiting for it. Joseph Cotten as Brian is all square-jawed resolve and never allows a moment’s doubt that he’s going to make everything all right. And then there’s Ingrid Bergman as Paula.

Essentially, in my humble estimation, Ingrid Bergman is the main reason to see the movie. Because, in many ways, she’s what elevates the whole thing above the level of simplistic and hyperbolic melodrama, which might seem like an odd thing to assert considering how much of the movie she spends emoting gigantically as a woman on the verge of losing her mind, but go with me on this. For one thing, her position within the story is a little bit off-model. She starts out as very much the hero (though the audience doesn’t know it at first, except that she’s the first character we meet) and then becomes the love interest … of Gregory, the villain. Gregory then proceeds to terrorize her with mind games, which does have the unfortunate effect of making her seem helpless and weak. Brian arrives to save the day, but all he really does is provide some crucial information to prove that she’s not going crazy and that Gregory is trying to convince her she’s going crazy. For as it turns out, Gregory murdered Paula’s aunt but was scared off by a young Paula before he was able to find and steal the jewels he had murdered her for. Thus began a years-long (and wildly improbable, but whatevs) scheme on Gregory’s part to woo Paula, marry her, gain access to her aunt’s house, drive Paula insane and institutionalize her, thereby gaining access to the jewels’ hiding place and removing the one potential witness to his crime in one masterstroke. But because Paula didn’t quite succumb, and Brian rescued her from the brink of madness, justice will ultimately be served.

Which would all be well and good, except for the end of the movie. If it were nothing more than melodrama then once Brian had rescued Paula he would apprehend Gregory and send the villain off to jail. Brian would then tell Paula everything was going to be all right, they would kiss, roll credits. Instead, what we get is Brian apprehending Gregory (offscreen, no less) and then Paula asking if she can have a moment or two alone with her husband, which Brian reluctantly gives her if only because Gregory is literally tied to a chair.

I’ve often said that I enjoy a good cathartic work of art but that in order for me, personally, to get the most out of it said work has to really lay the comeuppance on with a heavy hand. Probably moreso than most people would care for, and thus I’m often a little disappointed by the way in which I’m left wanting more. But Gaslight, or rather Bergman specifically, gives all that I could ask for in the comeuppance department and then some. Once Gregory is alone with Paula he asks her to set him free, if she ever loved him, as she must realize that if he faces justice for murdering her aunt he’ll be executed. For a brief moment Paula has choices and agency and all the power in their relationship, and she wrings every drop out of that moment just stone-cold torturing Gregory. She pays back everything from earlier in the movie (nearly two hours of running time but, within the narrative, months and months of sadistic brainwashing) within less than five minutes and just destroys Gregory’s spirit, as evidenced by the docile manner in which he allows the constables to take him away afterwards. Ingrid Bergman just sells the hell out of it and it’s amazing.

All that and the screen debut of an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury as a saucy maid! Not bad at all for one from the Hollywood archives.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reaping Rewards (The Hunger Games)

So for the past few days I’ve been getting in touch with my inner 13-year-old girl, as I’ve been reading my way through the Hunger Games trilogy. Friday night, once I was home in the invisible embrace of my wifi network, I synchronized my Kindle to make sure that the free download of all three books had in fact been executed. And of course the best way to really truly check this was not simply to visually verify that all three cover images were on my shelf, but to actually tap and open the first book and read the first page. Which, I admit, drew me in right away, so much so that I spent a good chunk of time on Saturday devouring the first book. (It’s not terribly long, and it’s written in deliberately straightforward first-person prose.) I was so enthralled by the end of the opening volume that I made almost no effort to resist the temptation enabled by the whole e-reader set-up: I closed the Hunger Games file and opened the Catching Fire file and started reading the second book. In my defense, it’s a trilogy-by-design and the first book ends on an almost egregiously To Be Continued vibe, so I wanted to know at the very least where the second book would pick things up, how much would be assumed or explored or implied or what.

I didn’t have as much time to read on Sunday, but I toted my Kindle onto the VRE on Monday morning, stayed awake on the afternoon ride home to keep reading (a ride which was unexpectedly extended as we hung out at one station for fifteen minutes so paramedics could come on board and check over a rider, who apparently was fine after all because no one was carried off the train on a stretcher or anything), and finished Catching Fire this morning. I was a few pages from the end when the train pulled into Crystal City, so I kept reading as I walked very slowly down the platform, across the street and into the Underground, and hit END OF BOOK TWO by the time I rounded the second corner. Knowing that I needed to make up some walking speed to get to work at my usual arrival time prevented me from immediately plunging into the finale, and I may very well try to hold off another day or so.

As I alluded to on Friday, one of the things impelling me to read The Hunger Games is the fact that it’s all anyone is talking about lately. I already had a plan for doing mostly re-reading this year, but the omnipresent Hunger Games coverage has disrupted that a bit. The bright side is that the timing worked out reasonably well, since I finished the first re-read endeavor and hadn’t yet started the second. And, as is well documented hereabouts, I like to do things in orderly fashion with beginnings lining up with beginnings and so on. So, this afternoon I’ll read some new comics I had the foresight to shove in my workbag over the weekend, and tomorrow I’ll watch some more Smallville Season 7, and then the Thursday and Friday commutes together should be just enough time to read all of Mockingjay. Then I’ll be done with The Hunger Games and I can start The Dark Tower next Monday – the first Monday of the month, no less! – and that will be acceptable enough to the anal-retentive little pop culture curator in my head.

Anyway, it may be a bit premature to judge The Hunger Games before finishing its climactic third act, but I can say that I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s very outsized and over the top, but it’s a coming of age story AND a sci-fi dystopia story, so you kind of have to expect everything to be huge and a little bit ridiculous, which sounds negative but which are actually story elements which I’m quite fond of. Slice-of-life is all well and good but I will take gladiatorial combat including genetically-engineered war-animals pretty much every time. Although of course Collins very wisely grounds the genre elements in a fair amount of slice-of-life stuff, in the protagonist’s relationships with her family and friends and authority figures and so on.

OK, granted, I have a soft spot for old boozehound characters, but: HAYMITCH FTW
Beyond the pulpy page-turner of a plot, there are a couple of things that jumped out at me about the story so far. (Not a lot of these are going to be plot-spoilers, but they’re essentially theme-spoilers, I guess? So if you plan on reading the books and like to discover things like that as you go along, consider yourself fairly warned.) One is just a little personal bit of amusement. When I was in college I wrote my thesis on folklore and did a lot of reading along the way on the analysis of fairy tales and children’s stories (which ended up being significantly less fun than it sounds). And I learned a fun word: coal-biter. It’s a catch-all for the common trope of a protagonist who rises up from nothing, who is so humble that they live among the ashes and sometimes literally eat black coal; Cinderella is obviously the most well-known example. A lot of people have already observed that Katniss’s story is half Cinderella and half Most Dangerous Game, but the majority of the Cinderella analysis is (probably rightly) on the dreamy dress-up angle, how she gets to dress up in these magical transforming/transformative gowns and go to balls and things like that. The flip side of that is that she comes from District 12, the poorest and most backward district in Panem, and the single industry that supports District 12 is … coalmining. There’s a lot of practical, non-folkloric justification for that narrative choice. District 12’s loose real-world analogue is West Virginia (I think) and coalmining is a real enough industry there. And the whole notion of coal as a fuel source opens the way for the symbolism Katniss’s stylists employ to incorporate fire into her signature looks throughout. But Katniss as a straight-up coal-biter, that got my attention right there.

The other thing I’m genuinely impressed by is how subversive it all is. And yes, I know as I knew going in, The Hunger Games is all about a big, evil, corrupt, entrenched totalitarian government and small but significant acts of rebellion against it, but that’s not the kind of subversion I’m talking about. I led off this post making fun of myself for falling under the spell of a book written for tween girls, but while Hunger Games has a certain universal appeal there’s no denying just how much little girl bait it makes use of. The protagonist is female, and has not one but two love interests. She becomes famous and gets to be on television, and go to parties, and get amazing makeovers including dresses (including, as things progress, bridal gowns) and shoes and makeup and jewels. I was going to say the only thing missing is ponies but then I remembered the opening ceremonies of the Games, during which horse-drawn chariots figure into the proceedings. And yet! All of these things, superficially appealing to the average sixth-grade gal, ends up undercut in major ways. Katniss spends a great deal of mental energy figuring out how she can rescue or protect her love interests, when she’s not busy reflecting on how she never wants to get married to or have a family with either one of them or anyone else, an attitude which makes perfect sense in the context of the story (as opposed to being presented as something about her which is “broken” and requires The Love Of A Good Man to set right). The tv appearances and galas and spectacle are all part of the state-sponsored opiate of the masses under the control of the evil Capitol, and Katniss sees right through all of it and pities the people who’ve always lived in opulent decadence, rather than envying them. She likes people who are genuine, even if they’re flawed, and disdains the vapid and the phony. She’s no saint herself, but she takes charge of situations in her own aggressive, impulsive way. The point being she’s not the protagonist because she looks pretty and boys fight over her (*ahem ahem BELLA SWAN ahem*); she’s the protagonist because she kicks ass and how she looks while doing it is irrelevant.

And not for nothing, but Collins doesn’t shy away from female body image stuff in the books, either. In my reading of it, at least, she manages to touch on both anorexia and bulimia and, without being preachy about it, get across how terribly destructive they are. Again, there are meaningful reasons directly connected to the narrative for this. Panem’s rigid system of haves and have-nots ensures that most of the populace is forever on the brink of starvation, which gives Collins the opportunity to point out that being able to count someone’s ribs does not mean they have a good shot at a modeling contract, it means they are close to death. Similarly, at one banquet some of the upper-crust offer Katniss a purgative when she says she’s too full to eat anymore, and she suddenly realizes that while her people are starving the wealthy elite have so much surplus food that they binge and purge as a matter of course, cue shock and disgust and outrage. A reasonable thematic callback to (at least the popularized images of) Roman imperial decadence which Panem’s Capitol is clearly modeled after, but a target I’m still happy to see held up for ridicule in any case.

So yeah, a pulse-pounding adventure yarn with a strong female role-model at the center of it, and subtext galore that self-reliance is good, conformity is bad, and superficial appearances are meaningless. Basically I can’t wait for my daughter to read these books in another five or six years.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bumps

Towards the end of last week my contracting boss swung by my cubicle and asked me if I had a minute for him, and as soon as I acknowledged that I did he started leading the way from my desk to the nearest conference room. As kind of a thematic bookend to my post last week about how long I’ve been working here and how comfortably unchanging a pattern things are settling into, I can still recall how such an ambiguous-to-ominous overture might have once caused me a few moments of cold-sweat terror, but now I know better. I followed my boss into the conference room and we had a two-minute meeting (on our feet, no less, despite the presence of chairs) about the latest round of salary adjustments. It’s all very boilerplate at this point, with my boss telling me that I do good work and he wishes the increase could be more, but his hands are tied for various reasons, and me telling him that it’s perfectly fine, I appreciate the recognition and obviously every little bit helps and is significantly better than no bump at all (or the various hypothetical cutbacks and layoffs that need not be spoken of).

At this point I also understand the assorted factors in play which are never really discussed out in the open. Not that they’re inherently bad; one, for instance, is that it’s pretty widely accepted that the boss likes everyone on the contract team and thinks highly enough of all our work, so there’s no dead weight he’s looking to unload (or trying to disincentive into unloading themselves), but neither is there anyone who’s his golden child he would fight tooth and nail for. The point being that when corporate says to our boss “Here’s the mathematically determined amount of money allocated for your compensation adjustments, do with it what you will,” basically our boss just takes that and spreads it around pretty evenly among us. And honestly I have no problem with that, just like I have no problem with the context-free “Got a minute?” that kicks off this part of the process every year, because I know the whole idea is not to draw attention to it, and not rub in the face of the government employees the fact that the contractors are handing out raises again. I get it, because I’ve been repeating the annual cycle too many times at this point not to get it.

There was one minor surprise, though, as my boss off-handedly mentioned having my labor category reclassified soon. That is of course one of those borderline-unforgivable and all but meaningless bits of corporate jargon but it sort of translates into a promotion. Right now my official job title is “principal developer” which means I could move up to “senior principal developer.” If I did, it wouldn’t change much, not even my salary, at least not directly. But the senior position has a higher salary range, and apparently I’m getting close to the upper limit of my present position’s range. So to my boss, at least, this is a no-brainer, to move me up to the next position and its attendant higher range so that every year he can continue bumping my compensation. I can only assume that means he plans on keeping me around for a while.

Dare to dream
I’ve never really shied away from the fact that the money is what keeps me in the job, and would be the hardest aspect of the job to walk away from. Maybe I won’t have to walk away from it entirely, because maybe someday I’ll find another job opportunity which actually challenges me or inspires me and also happens to have a commensurate salary and is clearly a win-win. But those kinds of best-case scenarios are exceedingly rare and some type of trade-off is far more likely to be the order of the day, some day. Or not, if I just keep plugging away tolerating the job and enjoying the lifestyle to which it has me accustomed. I don’t know. I do know that these are far and away the best kind of problems to have, to the extent that I probably shouldn’t consider them problems at all, but my mind goes where it goes some times.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Formatting

Yesterday evening I drove home from the train station, parked in the garage, walked up to the top of the driveway to wheel the garbage cans down to their customary spot beside the house, walked back up the driveway again to grab the last few days’ worth of mail from the mailbox, and finally went inside. My in-laws were in town, helping to watch their grandkids while my wife kept some important appointments on her day off, and at one point the conversation rolled around to e-readers and how much use my mother-in-law has gotten out of hers, which makes the somewhat slight use I’ve made of mine seem all the more pitiful. Extra-specially so, because one of the things I had brought in from the mailbox moments before was a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger which I ordered specifically for my re-read of the Dark Tower series and because at the end of said re-read I would like to have a full set of all seven (soon to be eight) books in hardback on my Stephen King bookshelf (which technically is two shelves on a bookcase in my dorkitorium because, as is well known, dude writes a lot of books).

And that’s my biggest mental block against the e-reader phenomenon, really: I’m a collector through and through (as I alluded to yesterday talking about my son’s similar burgeoning tendencies) and when you download and read something on a Kindle it doesn’t get to become part of any of the physical displays of which I am so foolishly fond. That’s proving really tough for me to get over. Given a choice between a $9.99 e-book that I can download and start reading immediately, or a $10 (plus shipping!) used hardcover that has to be dropped off by a truck after a few days BUT which can then stand amongst the other spines in my personal library forever, I’m generally drawn towards the latter.

Kinda kills me to not be able to follow the online debates about how the finale is unfilmable
One of my college buddies is about as big a Stephen King fan as I am, including the Dark Tower series, although he doesn’t feel compelled to reacquaint himself line by line in advance of the eighth volume’s release like I do. He’s a voracious reader in general, and he asked me earlier this week if I had read The Hunger Games yet. Which I haven’t, though I want to, and as I told him it’s kind of starting to drive me crazy because I read so many entertainment websites on a regular basis and they are all about the Hunger Games coverage, and of course unafraid to plunge into spoiler-ish territory in discussing the film adaptations of the books. Few things increase my sense of urgency for consuming an entertainment like it becoming a much-hyped multi-media property.

So today just out of curiosity I looked to see how much it would be to download The Hunger Games to my Kindle, because although I know some very attractive box sets of the dead-tree books are available in retail outlets, I feel like that’s one I could deny permanent shelfspace for. They’re YA books, after all. Granted, so is Harry Potter and I think having those seven volumes on a shelf is cool, but the last few years at Hogwarts are great big toe-breaker tomes, while all three Hunger Games novels are kind of slight. Or maybe the distinction between the two is negligible and arbitrary but dangit it’s my personal library. The point being reading the Hunger Games as e-books wouldn’t feel like a massive missed opportunity … especially once I discovered that my Amazon Prime membership means I can get those e-books for free. Which is always appreciated! So of course I marked them for download immediately and the next time my Kindle goes online I will have them, which is fairly rad.

So above and beyond the serendipity of various conversations echoing each other, maybe the real takeaway here is that I should be a little more aware of books I want to incorporate into my permanent physical surroundings for whatever reasons, and books I just want to read (meaning books I would be just as happy to e-read) and how there’s room for both which would allow me to make use of the new toys I have and also maintain the collection-based hobbies I’ve long enjoyed.

And if I can manage that, then maybe there’s hope yet for me to cull my comics collection at some point.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What’s mine is mine

With the little girl standing, however unsteadily, on the cusp of toddlerhood, my wife has been steadily introducing new playthings into our house’s sprawling toy-ecosystem. Or, I should say, she has been re-introducing the specimens, as almost all of them are toys which we’ve had for a while and held onto even as the little guy outgrew them. Our daughter is beginning to move beyond the simple teething rings and other sensory objects, and while she’s not quite ready for fiddly little things which are choking hazards (or large and overly complex things which are simply piles of interconnected choking hazards) it nevertheless seems like a watershed moment when her talismans of distraction move from “only fascinating to a baby” to “yeah, I can kinda see what’s fun about that”.

The main problem, of course, is that if I can see what’s fun about a toy, then so can her brother, which is especially fraught with peril when combined with the fact that all of these toddler toys at one time or another belonged to him (for some value of “belong” within the context of our familial anarcho-syndicalist commune). And a certain amount of sibling rivalry factors into the equation as well. If I were simply to drop the primary-colored plastic vacuum cleaner that sings the A-B-C’s in the little guy’s room, in the midst of his Legos and Cars and whatnot, I’m reasonably certain the vacuum would be utterly ignored. But if his sister is half-crawling, half-hoovering around, he will drop whatever fire engine or locomotive happens to be in hand and claim the stout little pseudo-appliance for himself. To say nothing of the fury set off in his brain when his mother is actively showing his sister something like a shape-sorting bucket, and praising the little girl when she gets a block through the right slot, and he becomes not only jealous of an old toy made new by the passage of time, but of the parental attention it invites. And in the little guy’s mind, yanking one of those toys away from his sister is perfectly legitimate behavior, because they’re his toys and he’s entitled to have at them whenever he wants. We’ve been … working on that. But we’re still working on sharing and taking turns in general, so this facet in particular will likely take significantly more practice.

All of which kind of begs the question of what we’re going to do when the little girl’s birthday – her first – arrives, and she is buried ‘neath a pile of gifts and there are none to be had for the little guy – also a first, since the only remotely similar experience was her first Christmas, which is much more equitable in terms of present-opening. I’m hoping that by strategically inviting a few people to the party who have children who are friends with the little guy (or near his age, which at this point is essentially the same thing) he will have enough fun to not care about the loot disparity between all the loot for her and none for him. The other obvious approach would be to just go ahead and get him some kind of present of his own to soften the blow; we certainly weren’t averse to that when the little girl was born and the little guy got a trio of new Cars when he came to the hospital to meet his new sister.

Letting the good times roll
But at the same time I feel like maybe we are edging our way into the danger zone there a little bit. All this time I’ve been self-deprecatingly lamenting the various ways we bribe our son into acceptable modes of behavior and whatnot, it’s been an exercise in remaining mindful of what we’re doing, how it’s working and what the unintended consequences may happen to be. I want children who internalize the family rules with a minimum of frustrating the bejeezus out of their mother and me, but I don’t want spoiled brats or entitled monsters who are exceptionally good at following the letter of the law. And I think there’s a middle ground to be found between those two, if I’m vigilant, but that vigilance is pretty dang crucial. The other day the little guy opened a conversation with me about Chuck the Truck, who is yet another anthropomorphic vehicular toy, or line of toys, who along with a few friends in the same line constitutes a relatively small minority of the over anthropomorphic vehicle demographic in the little guy’s playroom. In fact this conversation was accompanied by a visual aid in the form of a Chuck the Truck sticker book which the little guy was using to illustrate exactly which of Chuck’s friends he does not currently own, but expects to acquire in the near future. The fact that he already has a few of these characters and wants to have them all didn’t really faze me; having bred and/or cultivated a little completist collector is about as unsurprising as developments in my life might get. But it was a little alarming to pick up on the note of inevitability in his delivery. He wasn’t asking for the toys, he wasn’t telling me he wanted them, he was just asserting that he was going to get them. And I’m sure if I had pressed him on it he would admit that he also assumed he was going to get more Cars and more Thomas trains and more and more and more. Simplistic outlook of a child, or warning sign of what’s to come? I’m not about to drastically overhaul things, but it does make me want to fine-tune my vigilance a bit.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

(Super)girl trouble

Between Target ditching some DVD inventory on clearance racks and Amazon’s ever-fluctuating prices on their back stock, I managed to pick up the box sets of Smallville seasons 7, 8 and 9 recently, and last week I dove into S7. You may recall when I was watching the sixth season last fall I explained how much of the show that year ended up devoted to Green Arrow. The seventh season (four episodes in, at any rate) opts to do much the same for Supergirl, completing the sidekick cycle from ersatz Batman to distaff Superman. (Note: “sidekick cycle” may or may not actually be a thing.)

Supergirl-as-fictional-construct is an interesting thing to me. At a certain point (roughly the 1950’s) Superman was a character so beloved and so popular that it not only made perfect sense to expand the brand but probably looked to the Corporate Publishing Overlords like they’d be throwing money away if they didn’t capitalize on the craze in every possible way, and the inevitable end-point was the Superman Family. The comic book creators looked at all these kids going crazy for an adventurer who could fly and was superstrong and bulletproof (and could basically invent new powers at will, it seemed) and came up with a deep bench of near-knockoffs. They gave Superman a female cousin from Krypton who had all his powers, and a dog from Krypton who had all his powers, and a shrunken Kryptonian city in a bottle essentially full of people with all his powers (but who were all very very tiny and were only let loose on Earth in case of emergency) and so on and so on. As disposable entertainment for children goes, it was a success on every level; today one of the easiest ways to evoke those Silver Age sensibilities in a new fictional character is to give him (or her) a “family” of associates, human and/or pet, who embody all the same traits as the hero. It practically screams classic old-school Superman.

But then came the 1980’s and a desire amongst comics creators to tell stories with a little more meat on their bones, stories with relevance and emotional heft and more thematic aspiration and less embarrassing goofiness. And that applied not only to brand new stories but to the ongoing adventures of the cornerstones of superhero universes, up to and including Supes. With 50 years of historical hindsight, it seemed appropriate to go back to basics. Superman needed to be an alien who chooses to embrace his adoptive humanity, in part because he’s the very last of his kind. No exceptions for dogs or victims of shrinkrays, and especially not for cousins who dilute the Superman concept by basically being him with blond hair and a skirt. So no more Supergirl.

Except comics are always cyclical and no sooner will one writer clear the decks to get satisfyingly back to key elements than another writer responds to fanboy outcry to bring back a beloved character. So this led to some really weird stories in the 1990’s where Supergirl was reintroduced … but Superman was still the Last Son of Krypton, because Supergirl was a strange shapeshifting alien consciousness who modeled herself on Superman despite being no relation. Because she wasn’t from earth, and also wasn’t from Krypton’s advanced society, this new Supergirl was na├»ve and easy to manipulate, which made her easy prey for Lex Luthor, and she even ended up in a romantic relationship with him. Edgy! Then later the amorphous protoplasm (called Matrix) bonded with an Earth girl as well as some kind of hand-to-God angel, and was reborn … I don’t know, it got really complicated. And, cyclically, got wiped away eventually and then yet another writer had a for-real-and-true blonde girl Kryptonian survivor show up and take on the Supergirl mantle, sometime in the early 21st century, which was all well and good until they rebooted the whole universe six or seven months ago. Got all that?

If not, that’s kind of my point: Superman is more or less constant, and has been since 1939 (there are some glaring exceptions but let’s just assume they prove the rule) which is pretty impressive. Supergirl wasn’t there from the beginning, isn’t considered a sacred part of the mythology, and she comes and goes and gets reworked and reinvented in ways that more or less mirror the trends and trials of the comics industry as a whole. Like I said, interesting, as meditations on four-colored intellectual property go.

It's a tough look to pull off.
Anyway – the Smallville supergirl, coming along in 2007 or so, presents an opportunity for the show’s writers to riff off of any and all of the character’s many incarnations, as on some level that’s what Smallville is dedicated to. (On another level it’s a teen soap which actively punishes thinking about too deeply, but still.) And they got off to a decent start! Season 7’s premier has to resolve a ton of storylines from 6’s cliffhanger ending, including: Lois Lane and Chloe Sullivan being trapped in a collapsing hydroelectric dam/secret laboratory; Lex Luthor being arrested for murdering Lana Lang, cuffed in the back of a police cruiser, which is then washed away in the flood after the dam collapse; and Clark Kent fighting a Bizarro clone of himself accidentally created in the secret lab, kinda (Bizarro being another subject for a whole ‘nother post). Between trading blows with Bizarro and rescuing Lois and Chloe, Clark actually doesn’t have time to save Lex’s life. Enter Supergirl, whose own rocketship was submerged near the dam but dislodged in the flood, allowing her to emerge from suspended animation and appear luminously to avert Lex’s death. So right off the bat, that’s a lot of references to the source material crammed into her introduction. The Smallville Supergirl, Kara, is Kryptonian (and we find out later her father and Kal-El’s were brothers, so she’s restored to full biological cousin status) but the imagery when she saves Lex is pure angel-from-heaven stuff, which is a cute nod to the last non-Kryptonian version in the comics. Plus Lex immediately becomes smitten/obsessed with her, which hearkens back to the Luthor-Matrix romance. And there’s a hint of “is she friend or foe?” which evokes some of the 21st century re-introduction of the character as well. If you’re inclined to be a Smallville apologist and be extra-appreciative on the occasions when it seems like they get it and they’re having fun playing mythos-mashup (as I clearly am and tend to be) then it’s pretty solid.

So of course this inexorably leads to the third episode, wherein Kara has decided to live on the Kent farm with her cousin Clark and try to blend into human society, and the first opportunity she gets comes in the form of a local harvest festival which includes a beauty pageant, complete with swimsuit competition, a strange and unfamiliar human ritual which Kara has to practice for at home, so basically like a third of the episode is gratuitous shots of Kara in a red bikini and high heels. Sigh. Smallville, Smallville, Smallville. There’s a reason why just the other day I was talking to one of my buddies about appropriate ages for introducing our kids to various geek-entertainments like Star Wars and Spider-Man, and my response to when my kids could watch Smallville was “never”.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fight For Your Rite

Yesterday I was ruminating on the passage of time and the inevitable receding of easy markers differentiating the years, all as relates to my work situation. There’s a somewhat similar phenomenon going on at home, too, and since today is technically the equinox it’s as good a chance as any, I reckon, to give that side its due consideration, too.

It seems like the seasons have very little impact on my job, which isn’t influenced by the weather terribly much. There’s a few things like quarterly accomplishment reports and annual performance reviews that are directly tied to the calendar, and then other things which are in fact subject to nature and the elements (here of course I’m thinking more of my commute, the fabled Leaf Oil Incidents and the once-a-year three-hour train ride home) but by and large a day at work in April is much the same as a day at work in July or October.

Around the house, on the other hand, things move in more changeable cycles. Examples abound but a couple of obvious ones leap to mind: yardwork and spring cleaning, both of which are very much at the forefront these days.

This past weekend I actually did a fair amount of yardwork, aerating the front and side lawns and then spreading weed-n-feed all around. This will be our third spring in the house, but it’s the first time I’ve really felt like we got a jump on things. Partially this was aided by the unseasonably warm weather, not only arriving early but with great staying power so that it was possible to be mindful of getting groundskeeping-type stuff done one day and still have favorable conditions for it a few days later. Also, we’re finally getting to the point where we’re not starting from square one with every single project. We already own an aerator, working hoses, sprinklers, etc. There’s some grass seed in the garage and some straw in the shed, leftovers from last year’s attempts at lawn salvaging. I bought more weed-n-feed, but they sell that at Costco where I had to go for various sundries (diapers, granola bars, coffee, y’know, the essentials) on Saturday anyway. Up til now it has always seemed like everything has a two-stage launch: a day just for running around to stores and assembling the materials, and then another day for getting the physical work underway. This time I was able to just walk out the front door and get to it, which is pretty nice. Yardowrk’s still an ongoing project, of course, almost by definition, but a manageable one for once.

What?  I like art.
Spring cleaning is a bit more complicated given that we have a house full of stuff and only half of the resident human beings who have a tendency to take stuff out of wherever it’s put away have any concept of putting things away again once their use has been completed. (To say nothing of the animals who are even less helpful.) But it’s more than just clutter; two to three years in is just about the point where “we just moved in” no longer really works as sufficient explanation for physical objects not having a designated place to be stowed in the first place, or for potential places of stowage to be ferociously disorganized. We’ve gone from entire rooms more or less functioning as bins-of-miscellany in the house schema, to certain corners of certain rooms as same, to not having extra space at all, knowing with reasonable certainty that we do have enough space, if we use it wisely. And the thought of tackling such an endeavor isn’t offputting to me in the least: designing and implementing organizational schema is seriously one of my favorite things to do! As with all things, it’s just a matter of finding time to make it happen.

Plus, of course, finding time for the little fixer-upper home improvement projects which aren’t really cleaning, per se, but would no doubt help with the overall freshening up which the blooms and blossoms outside seem to call for. There’s extra motivation for some of those tasks in the form of the little girl’s first birthday party, mere weeks away. As well as her big brother, who has taken it upon himself to start asking questions as he did last night during bathtime: “When are you guys going to paint this room?” (To be fair, the kids’ bathroom really is an eyesore, albeit one I’ve apparently habituated to since moving in.)

But again, isn’t that the great thing about spring? Not only that it periodically reminds us of things we should do (or, arguably, should have been doing all along) but that it invigorates us with the sense that these to-do’s are actually possible to achieve. How magnificent. (I say now. But check with me again after several weekends’ worth of manual labor.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dust, no wind

I realized today, as I’ve been drumming my fingers against my skull trying to come up with a post thematically appropriate for Monday, that not only is there not much going on at work but there’s likely not going to be much going on at work any time in the near future. On the one hand, that probably doesn’t seem terribly surprising given how often I reiterate that my job tends to swing back and forth between gut-wrenching-crisis-that-must-be-solved-five-minutes-ago and casting-about-for-any-kind-of-busywork-at-all, with the latter being more common than the former. But even given that fundamental assumption, there have almost always been peripheral circumstances to break up the monotony.

To recap: I’ve been a government contractor for nearly five years now, with my anniversary coming up in June or July. This is a little bit remarkable because when this opportunity more or less fell in my lap back in mid-2007, I had been working for the same company for … close to five years, almost exactly four and a half if I remember correctly. And at the time, changing jobs was a big deal because I had never worked anywhere else for that long before, usually maxing out at two or three years tops. Sometime around the beginning of this year I seem to have broken my personal record for length of time collecting paychecks from a single employer, and I didn’t even notice. And as I’ve alluded to recently, I’m not planning on going anywhere at the moment, with “moment” more or less defined as the current arrangement wherein I have two mortgages to pay and two kids in daycare and so on, none of which looks to be going away anytime in the next year or so either. So the streak is only going to continue.

Within those nearly-five years of my present job position, I worked on one contract for about two years before it went away and I landed on the bench, but fortunately I quickly transitioned over to the contract I’m on now. And I could keep chopping up this contract into different eras, as well: the time I spent working out of our corporate HQ, followed by (theoretically) splitting my time between HQ and the client site, followed by reporting every day to the client site. At first I had a cubicle by the window in the client’s office space, then I was relocated to the former-closet, then I began to accumulate closet-mates (and lost one, after a period of intensely uncomfortable weirdness). And then my daughter was born and I went on leave for a few weeks, during which time the entire client office moved from Rosslyn to Crystal City, and when I came off paternity leave I had a new commute, a new cubicle, and the most concrete sense of actually being part of the agency, on par with all the other contractors, that I’d ever experienced here.

Clocks on the wing ... all we are is clocks on the wing
And that last part, the great post-paternity-leave return? That was almost a year ago at this point. My wife and I are reasonably certain we’re not going to have any more kids. The grand security-upgrade construction project (still ongoing) here in the office leads me to believe that the agency is in this space to stay. The contract I’m working is on Option Year 2 of 5. All of which is to say that I’m not going anywhere, the job isn’t going anywhere, and what I see is what I’m gonna get for a great long open-ended stretch of the foreseeable future.

It’s odd, to say the least, to realize that things moving in a constant state of flux became my normal, and knowing that things have largely stabilized feels somehow off. There’s no longer any reason for me to say “well things are only going to be this way until X”. I’m sure at some point there will be reason to say it again (in fact some might argue that simply composing and posting this all but guarantees I will get hospitalized on two months of short-term disability this winter or something crazy like that) but for right now the dust that I’m forever waiting to settle seems to have done just that.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday Grab Bag O'Blarney

So apparently every once in a great rare while I still have time to crank out a Saturday post! Ta-da!

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Follow-up #1: So on Wednesday evening I dutifully followed the recommendations of the Amazon.com troubleshooting guide for Blu-rays and gave my player a full five minutes to read and start playing the first disc of Game of Thrones. (I timed this by warming up a bottle for the little girl.) Lo and behold, it worked! Not only was this a great relief because it meant my wife and I could start watching the series that much sooner, without the boondoggle of waiting for the set to ship back to amazon and the replacement to ship back, but also because when the disc didn't work immediately a lot of my annoyance was aimed at Amazon, and I hate being mad at Amazon. I know Amazon is responsible for the slow death of the small independent book store and whatnot, but I don't care. When Amazon works the way it's supposed to, my cup runneth over. Let's never fight again, Amazon!

My wife and I happily settled in to watch the first episode last night, and it was pretty rad. Having read the books, I thought the casting and the sets and the whole realization of the world was excellent. Having never read the books, my wife nonetheless found the pilot sinking its hooks into her pretty deep. She woke up this morning trying to figure out when the earliest possible opportunity to watch episode two might be. I kind of hated to remind her that the whole series is only ten episodes and we might want to pace ourselves. But it's sweet to have that luxury nonetheless.

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Follow-up #2: One thing I neglected to mention in my review of Fitzcarraldo (because it's honestly pretty tangential) was that there are a couple of documentaries about the making of the movie, the process which is the greater source of my fascination with the flick in the first place. Apparently Burden of Dreams is the main one to see, and I of course fully plan to do this, even though that is not technically one of the 1001 Films. I do still watch other movies from time to time!

Young Werner Herzog and his SWEET 'STACHE
This inevitably reminds me of a notion I had a while ago to spend a year trying to build long, unbroken chains of pop-culture consumption based on pop-culture references. By which I mean I would pick, for example, a book to read and I would pay attention to any name-dropping in the text, mentions of other books or movies or albums or whatever. If one or more of those references were to a work I had never read/seen/listened to, then that would be the next thing I would check out. And look for references to other works there, and repeat. I'm sure there would be a number of dead ends, but it would be an interesting game/experiment. Maybe next year.

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From the Vanity Plates Archive: I noticed a car in the parking garage at the train station this week. It is a red Porsche Cayman and its license plate reads HENTAI.

...

...

HENTAI.

OK, this is a bit of inside geekball, and honestly the last thing I want is to send any of you on a Googling expedition to try to figure out what I'm talking about, so how can I put this delicately. Hentai is a Japanese word that roughly translates as "strange attitude" and when used in relation to sex idioms generally means "perversion". Japanese people may also use it as a noun to mean "pervert". Here in the States, it also refers to a genre of Japanese comics and cartoons which are both explicit and twisted. I assure you, if you asked anyone remotely aware of anime or manga to explain what "hentai" was - even if they were totally not into it themselves - the words "rape" and "tentacles" would come up early and often.

I know it takes, ahem, different strokes to move the world, but given all of the above, there is just about no way the guy in the Cayman is anything other than a major creep, right? I can only hope I never actually run into the dude.

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And in an effort to end on a bit of a brighter note, it's a beautiful day out there today, still unseasonably warm for Saint Patrick's Day, so the plan for today is to do quite a bit of work around our property and try to bring our lawn back to life! Or parts of the lawn, at any rate, as the de facto dogrun part of the yard is going to take a while to tend to. One thing at a time!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bombs away

One evening a week or two ago, my wife turned to me and asked, very seriously and solicitously, what I thought we should do this coming Saturday. It took me a moment to realize that this was a piece of gameswomanship (and a darn good one, too) in an ongoing bit of amusement between us, wherein we take turns occasionally saying outrageous things as straightfacedly as possible, the goal being to get each other riled up beyond all reason when we think our lifemate is being serious and has also gone insane. There is a close-enough-to-zero chance that my wife and I would ever make plans to go out and celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, even if it falls on the weekend, even if we had babysitting coupons burning holes in our pockets. Amateurish overindulgence and deliberate obnoxiousness is not our scene, neither one we care to partake in nor one we care to observe up close. Not even ironically!

It wasn’t always that way, of course. We’ve reached a point in our lives now where St. Paddy’s as an inebriated social occasion holds no appeal, but the key there is the “point in our lives now” part. I’m neither patting myself on the back for my maturity nor lamenting the loss of unrecapturable glory days, I’m just stating some facts. People, myself included, grow up and their priorities change (hopefully). I used to spend lots of times in brewpubs and bars, with an epic night of poor judgment every now and again, but I have better ways to spend my nights (not to mention days lost in recovery) at the moment.

Still, the Friday before Saint Patrick’s Day surely calls for a green-tinged alcohol-soaked anecdote, right? My favorite one involves the 17th of March about eight or nine years ago, which was also the last time I made any effort to hit the bar scene for the holiday. It fell during the period between the end of my manifestly misjudged first marriage and the beginning of my romantic relationship with the true love of my life, a period which paradoxically yields up a lot of reasonably good memories while also completely fairly qualifying as personal rock bottom in a lot of ways. And the St. Patty’s in question perhaps exemplifies both sides of that particular leprechaun’s gold coin.

Preternaturally charming!
Back then I hung out from time to time with a girl who was just barely out of college, let’s call her Megan for the sake of this story. She invited me along for her Saint Patrick’s Night Out along with a few of her friends, including a couple of guys who we will call, I don’t know, Sean and Colin. Sean was a little more intense and alpha-doggish, while Colin was more laid back. So the basic dynamics of the evening would go like this: Megan would pick a bar to visit, Sean would insinuate himself up to the bar to get a round of drinks, and Colin and I would hang back and try to out-mellow each other (not that we were trying all that hard, we were just both on the same “just happy to be here” vibe). Then when Megan decided the bar was too crowded or too boring or whatever we’d move on to the next place, and so on. That was also the first and last time I drank an Irish Car Bomb, which fell into the “dangerous because I like it” category as I, in point of fact, lost count of how many I had. I think there was also a round or two of Flaming Dr. Peppers because, as I recall the drunken logic, we were having fun with the ritual of dropping a shot glass in another glass and whatnot (see also my love of all the elements of tequila consumption) but we didn’t want to have too many Car Bombs and it seemed wiser to spread the intake across multiple styles of liquor. Something like that? It made sense at the time.

Part of me would like to say that this is a story about how I realized that I was closer to turning 30 than I was to reaching the legal drinking age and I just couldn’t keep up with the young’uns as they drank me under the table, but it’s really not. The night didn’t yield any particular epiphanies, it was just kind of weird in that I had given myself over to a group of people, only one of whom I knew remotely well, and I just followed their whims for an entire evening because I had nothing better to do. Nobody got hurt or anything, and the whole affair ended with our group stranded inside a Metro station, where the turnstiles had admitted us right before closing time because normal people moving at normal speed would have been able to catch the last train of the night, but we were stumbling lushes who missed the final train and then had to be escorted out by security and had to call a cab to get out of D.C. and back to Arlington, which was annoying but not the stuff which revelatory self-examinations are inspired by.

If anyone got obliterated that night (and someone did), it was Megan. The endpoint of our shenanigans isn’t what I remember most from that night, it’s the middle point at which Sean decided he needed to take charge and get us someplace where we could have some food and coffee so that Megan could sober up a little. So we ended up waiting in line outside a late-night diner in Adams Morgan which was of course doing a booming bit of microseasonal business that evening (or, more accurately, wee-hours morning), we finally got seated, and Sean became increasingly more insistent that he was going to get Megan to rally, as well as increasingly more agitated at how slow the service was (in a maximum occupancy-straining diner in a bar district at 2 in the morning after Saint Patrick’s Day) while Colin and I looked askance at each other but never for too long, for fear that we would both start laughing at how absurdly intense Sean was getting and that laughing at him would just send Sean plunging off into the deep end. Even with me and Colin maintaining our respective mellow composures, Sean eventually lost his mind anyway, pushing himself dramatically to his feet and announcing with aggrieved indignation “This is BULLSHIT. We’re out of here!” when our orders did not arrive according to his personal standard of timeliness. I don’t know how many of you have ever walked out of a restaurant in an outrage, or been out with someone who attempted that maneuver, but it’s somewhat shocking no matter what the context and, in my usual circles at least, it just isn’t done. I think at that point Colin and I were too stunned to laugh, and we ended up just kind of following Sean as he half-carried poor semi-coherent Megan toward the door, out onto the sidewalk, and down the block to a small pizza joint that sold individual slices where we finally all got some food in our sloshy bellies. And then, as I already mentioned, we had a bit of a tricky time getting to our respective homes but we all lived to tell the tale.

So yeah, all in all, it was a pretty gloriously stupid night, and very fortunately free of adverse consequences (so long as you don’t count the slight guilt I will carry to my grave that we at least got our drink orders at the diner and I drank a Coke and then we all left without paying the check). I imagine this is pretty apparent, but I’m pretty pro-youthful-stupidity in most appropriate circumstances. At this point I can say with a certain amount of authority from personal experience that it’s easy and painless to acknowledge that you’ve gotten too old for certain things if you made sure to go ahead and do those things when you were young enough for it to be all right.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cruise, baby, cruise

So the little girl has recently rapidly progressed from “fairly mobile” to “hey where did she go?” She has developed her crawling skills to the point where she can fearlessly climb an entire flight of stairs though of course, as with almost all pre-toddlers, said development has come before completely figuring out that if she loses interest halfway up and tries to sit back, her butt will actually miss the step she’s on and she will tumble pell-mell and painfully on down to the landing. That hasn’t actually happened, as her mother and I have been keeping a close eye on her, but in order to not have to constantly monitor her I did go out yesterday and buy yet another movable baby gate to cordon off the stairs leading from the main floor to the upper level of the house.

Incidentally, the little guy saw the new gate and noted that we now had one for the stairs going up, as well as one for the couple of steps leading down into the den. He then proceeded to ask me, since keeping the little girl from falling down any stairs was covered, how we were going to keep his sister from splashing in the pets’ water bowl in the kitchen, which remains one of her favorite things to do. I confessed that we hadn’t quite solved that one yet, beyond the eternal cycle of picking her up when she gets too close and carrying her to the living room and setting her down amongst her toys, which she will ignore as she starts crawling toward the kitchen again.

Incidentally also, speaking of the pets, I actually bought two baby gates yesterday, one of which is for the basement stairs. The basement stairs have a door separating them from the main floor, and that door is always closed, but the litter boxes are down in the basement, so a while ago we installed a cat door in the basement door. The cat door functions in the sense that it allows the cats to access their privies, and keeps the little guy and little girl from wandering into the basement without parental supervision, and keeps the dogs from helping themselves to an all-you-can-eat cat poop buffet … except not so fast on that last part, there, because eventually our toy-sized backup dog figured out he could just squeeze through the cat door and has been doing so at will. One solution to this might be to make the litterboxes themselves more inaccessible to dogs by putting lids with hatchways on the boxes, but that isn’t feasible for our oldest cat, who is getting arthritic and can’t navigate such configurations like she used to. So now it’s: basement door, closed, keeps out kids and one dog; cat door admits cats by design plus other dog by accident; baby gate across first landing of basement stairs can be leapt over by cats but effectively thwarts progress of other dog; open litterbox in basement storage area for older cat, more closed-off litterbox for two kittens. If any more Law of Unintended Consequences hilarity spins out from here, I am just going to put straw down on all the floors and stop thinking about it.

The Importance of a Stable Home Life
But back to my baby girl, who is extremely close to making the great lurch forward into toddlerhood. In addition to adding the z-axis to her crawling capabilities, she’s very good now at pulling herself up to a standing position and sideways-walking the length of the couch or table or whatever object she’s got a hold of, all by herself. She can do a fair approximation of walking forward if someone holds her hands, too, and in fact on more than one occasion she has crawled over to me, pulled herself up with handfuls of pants-leg, and if I move slowly enough she walks along with me without any encouragement or hand-holding to speak of. She seems much more self-sufficient than her brother was at the same age, but as my wife and I were discussing last night, it’s really hard to say if that’s because we can’t give her the undivided attention we gave him because she’s child 2 of 2, or because she has an older sibling as a role model and forms certain expectations based on what he can already do, or just a fundamental difference in their temperaments, or what.

Either way, though, it’s pretty sweet, especially as she always seems really excited and pleased with herself with every new micro-slice of mastery. Her enthusiasm is infectious, almost to the point of entirely offsetting the end of an era and knowing we will very soon have to say goodbye to the tiny person who would rather be held and carried than anything, and say hello to an independent little whirlwind who needs to run free. Almost.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Conquistador of the Useless (Fitzcarraldo)

For this entry for the 1001 Film Club, Fitzcarraldo, I have no one to blame but myself. As an official member in good standing I will periodically get a turn in the rotation to select the movie-of-the-week, and this was my first shot. It wasn’t a random selection at all, but neither was it a simple matter of identifying a flick about which I could say “this is a movie everyone says is great and I really need to see for myself”. In fact, choosing Fitzcarraldo didn’t have a lot to do with the film’s reputation of quality at all, but rather with how bizarre the story (stories, really) behind the film happen to be.

Here’s what I had heard about Fitzcarraldo going in: it’s a story about a doomed plan to build an opulent opera house in the Amazon jungle, which somehow leads to a series of events culminating in dragging a functioning steamship up the side of a mountain. That struck me as a bizarre bit of fancy, but clearly I am a big fan of the bizarre and the fantastic. (I rather enjoy a series of films which hinge on the existence of such physical impossibilities as an empire ruled from a central world which is entirely covered by a single city, and a space station capable of channeling enough energy to explode planets, for example.) What really drove the idea of the movie into my brain were two further factoids: 1, that it was supposedly based on a true story; 2, that rather than using special effects or tricks of any kind, the filmmaker went ahead and actually dragged a steamship up a freaking mountain with the cameras rolling. This I gotta see.

The filmmaker in question is Werner Herzog, and I’m also a fan of his (at least in general principle) after having watched Grizzly Man a few years ago. So, with high hopes, I gave myself over to the movie in all its two hour and thirty-seven minute running time glory.

And in the end I’m glad I did, but the movie is such a mixed bag that I can’t imagine I would ever recommend it to someone unreservedly. It’s a slow-moving film, for one thing, which doesn’t really justify its bloated length. The location shots in South America, in the town of Iquitos and on the Amazonian tributaries, are gorgeous and undeniably evocative of the place. But they linger, and linger, and linger, well beyond what’s necessary to immerse the viewer in the story. That’s doubly true for the scenes involving the steamship slowly climbing the mountain (really more of an elevated ridge between two rivers), although I found myself torn about those. Rising on a system of pulleys and ropes drawn simultaneously by the ship’s own engine and teams of natives pushing on giant wooden winches, the ship ascends incredibly slowly, and in a wide shot you practically have to stare at the edge of the frame to watch the bow of the ship disappear inch by inch in order to perceive any motion at all. It seems gratuitous and deadly dull, but at the same time, it’s remarkably effective at conveying the weight of the steamship and the insane difficulty of moving it at all, let alone uphill. Would the story have the same narrative weight without that deliberate visual meditation on the ship’s physical weight? I’m willing to give Herzog the benefit of the doubt on that particular judgment call.

No smoke, no mirrors
Let me pause a moment and try to give a more sensible explanation of the plot. The main character is Brian Fitzgerald (his last name is mispronounced by the local Peruvians as “Fitzcarraldo”), who is an impractical dreamer and opera fan. He longs to have an opera house in his adopted home of Iquitos, which he relocated to in order to build the trans-Andean Railway (a venture which failed). He knows the opera house would require immense wealth to build, so he needs a way to make a lot of money fast, and the booming industry in the area is rubber. Most of the good lands for harvesting rubber are already claimed, but he studies the maps and identifies a parcel that is not spoken for and would be ideal except it is not ship-accessible. The land is on the Ucayali river, which could be useful in working the land, but once the rubber is harvested it could not be transported anywhere because there are impassable rapids where the Ucayali meets the Amazon; for that matter, the same rapids would prevent a working ship from reaching the upriver unclaimed parcel in the first place. However, the more navigable Pachitea river runs very close to the Ucayali well upstream of the parcel. The solution seems simple: steam up the Pachitea, jump over to the Ucayali, steam down a ways, work the land, steam back up and jump back over to the Pachitea, and transport the goods to any number of places along the Amazon. Except substitute “expend enormous effort of time and labor and minor engineering miracles to drag the 320-ton boat” for “jump”. But after that, make your fortune in rubber and then use it to underwrite the opera. Cake!

I should note at this point that I learned after watching the movie that, in the true story upon which Fitzcarraldo is loosely based, the steamship weighed about 1/10 as much and was disassembled, carried across an isthmus, and reassembled. Which strikes me as a crucial distinction. But, as I always say, never let the truth get in the way of a really good story. And Fitzcarraldo is a story about obsession, two obsessions really (the fictional protagonist’s obsession with bringing opera to Iquitos no matter what elaborate hoops he has to jump through, and Herzog’s real life obsession with capturing the spectacle of a steamship crawling up a mountainside on film), and obsession is a topic near and dear to my own heart, a subject which fascinates me and a phenomenon which takes hold of me more often (and sometimes more maniacally) than I should probably be proud to admit. Although of course this entire blog project is a monument to the breadth and depth of my obsessions, so there’s that.

At any rate, lush scene-setting and ponderous pacing aside, one of the true highlights of the film is Klaus Kinski as Brian Fitzgerald. He comes across throughout the entire movie as slightly-to-very unhinged, which makes perfect sense considering how his own obsessions have him totally mentally throttled, and his buggy little eyes are just hypnotic whether he’s managing to mostly hold everything together or completely losing his mind. It’s hard to believe that Kinski wasn’t Herzog’s first choice for the role. I’m sure Jason Robards would have performed admirably, but man.

Kinski even manages to pull off the happy ending, which I have to admit completely surprised me. Given my overly developed sense of self-deprecation, I tend to expect any story about obsession to end badly (thus presenting me with yet another lesson which I intellectually understand but refuse to take to heart). And in a sense, the grand scheme at the heart of Fitzcarraldo does fail: they get the steamship over the ridge and into the Ucayali, they have a great big party, and while Fitzgerald is passed out that night the chief of the natives who provided all the physical labor machetes the mooring lines. All along Fitzgerald wondered why the natives were helping, beyond their fascination with the “white ship”, and it turns out the answer is they wanted to make a sacrificial offering to the angry river gods by sending the white ship into the rapids. The steamer barely survives the unexpected early-morning tumble down the rapids, at which point Fitzgerald is back where he started with no rubber harvested and his government grant of land use about to expire, without enough time to do it all over again.

So all he can do is sell the damaged steamer to make back a fraction of the money. But instead of despairing, he takes that last bit of cash and uses it to buy three things and rent one other. He also makes the sale of the steamer contingent on being able to use it for one final trip. The movie ends with Fitzgerald riding the steamer back to Iquitos, with the full cast of a production of Bellini’s The Puritans, performing in costume on the topdeck (the performers’ time being what he rented). Fitzgerald is wearing the filthy suit he dressed in every day of his doomed expedition, with a new black tailcoat (purchase number one) on top of it. He smokes a fine cigar (purchase number two) and stands beside a red velvet upholstered chair (purchase number three, and undisputably my favorite as he bought it to fulfill a promise he made to a fellow opera lover that he’d get a seat in the box on the opera house’s opening night; said fellow enthusiast is a wild pig). And all of Iquitos comes out to cheer wildly at his return, and credits. It really, really shouldn’t work because it’s so goofily cheesey, but again, all due credit to Kinski for selling the soulful satisfaction that Fitzgerald must feel in managing, after a fashion, to bring opera to Iquitos, all conveyed without a word in the way that he smiles and holds his head high and sucks contentedly on his cigar.

Obsessions can lead you to greatness, or they can lead you to ruin … OR they can lead you down interesting less-traveled paths and help you figure out non-standard ways of getting what you want. It’s the difference between focusing on where you’d like to be and fixating on how you end up getting there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tease (2)

I mentioned last week that my copy of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray had arrived on its release date, and I was fully stoked to finally catch up on what word on the street held was some fantastic serialized television. My wife had also expressed a more-than-fleeting interest in checking out the series herself, which I of course heartily encouraged. I warned her that the source material has a certain grimness to it and, from what I understood, the cable series was a faithful adaptation, so I offered her a guilt-free out in the form of unquestioned permission to bail at any point if she was so inclined. But, at the outset at least, we would watch Game of Thrones together.

Of course that meant we weren’t going to start it Wednesday night, since that’s generally my wife’s latest work evening of the week and she frequently gets home with mere minutes to spare before bedtime. Nor were we going to start it Thursday, since we already have some well-documented appointment television to watch then. Friday night, again, my wife worked late, and Saturday just kind of ended up getting consumed with this and that, mainly my wife bringing home some unavoidable paperwork from her shift that morning and afternoon, but also the anticipated loss of an hour’s sleep which did not predispose us to stay up any later getting to know the Starks and the Lannisters.

But finally Sunday came along and we came up with what seemed like a pretty good plan for the back half of the day: out for an early dinner, grocery shopping, head home and get the kids to bed, and watch Episode 1. Three-fourths of the plan went off accordingly, not entirely without a hitch (the kids fell asleep on the way home and we had to do a highly truncated version of their bedtime-prep routine to avoid waking them up so fully they’d never go back to sleep) but close enough. We made our way to the den, fired up the Blu-ray player, loaded Disc 1 of the Game of Thrones box set, and …

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is MORE DINKLAGE
… some kind of read error? I honestly don’t know. For a while it seemed like the player had frozen up, and wouldn’t even turn off, so I used the tried and true method of unplugging the device and then plugging it back in. The player then said an update was available, and I downloaded that, but it still wouldn’t play the disc. I tried a totally different Blu-ray disc, and that worked fine. I tried Disc 2 of Game of Thrones, and that worked fine. Then I tried Disc 1 again and … nothing. So, despite much anticipation and every effort, we still haven’t watched a minute of the series.

(The thought briefly crossed my mind to just go ahead and watch Episode 3, which is the first episode on Disc 2, since I already know the story and figured I could bring my wife up to speed reasonably well, but ultimately I decided against it. So we watched some Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead. Remember how we’re supposed to be working our way through a second end-to-end viewing of that series? That’s still a thing, in a very low-key way.)

Yesterday I stole a little time at work to go to Amazon and find out how I could go about getting a replacement for what seems to be a damaged disc. But I noticed there was a dedicated FAQ section specifically about Blu-rays, and I will confess to not being very big on owner’s manuals and never having read the documentation for my player. One of the pointers in that FAQ stated that sometimes it can take a Blu-ray player up to five minutes to load and read a disc for the first time, depending. Five minutes feels like an eternity when you are standing in front of the blank-screened tv, waiting for a sign of electronic life before retreating to the couch, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t give it a full five minutes to unfreeze. So I need to carve out some time for that (probably tonight or tomorrow) and either it will work (yippee) or it won’t and I’ll initiate the return process for real (grr argh). At least if I have to send the box set back for replacement, it will no longer be sitting on the credenza in the den silently mocking me for being so close and yet so far away.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tease (1)

I got some mixed news at work last week, either mostly-good or mostly-bad depending on your perspective. I’m leaning towards mostly-good, but then again it is Monday and I’m just coming off a weekend which managed to be both fairly restful and fairly productive, two very important restorative elements. It’s entirely possible that by Thursday or Friday the work goings-on will not seem quite so shiny.

The gist is that one of the web applications for which I am responsible, the one which gets the heaviest day-to-day use and (not coincidentally) tends to suffer the highest incidence of performance glitches and whatnot, is going to be offloaded onto a new server. The person responsible for the current server’s maintenance contacted me to verify some specification benchmarks a new server would have to meet to make the transfer possible. I’ve been of the opinion for quite a while that this is something which needs to happen, as the web app continues to suffer from poor performance in ways which are only getting worse with every passing month, almost all of them due to issues like lack of disk space as the database grows and more users access it combined with the proliferation of other programs on the same server, all squeezing the life out of the decrepit old processor. I’ve even gone so far as to ask for our web app to be moved to a new server, and I would have been perfectly happy with dividing up the current load across two servers (as opposed to irrationally demanding we get a dedicated server all our own, which I know is pure fantasy), but in the past I’ve always been told there are no extra resources end of discussion. So the sudden policy reversal was a very pleasant surprise.

What I imagine the current server looks like.
The bad news is that while the idea has gained some necessary traction it is not explicitly a 100% done deal just yet. And if it does come to pass, it likely won’t be any time soon. So I still have to contend with my application limping along on a not entirely stable platform for a while yet, but I’m choosing to look on the bright side of that as well: if this were happening next week it would undoubtedly become a botched up rush job where something crucial got overlooked and my application was no longer limping but effectively dead in a ditch. Plus this way I have something to look forward to for a while, and the quotidian ministrations the current configuration requires will give me something to do so I can look busy.

Still, it was kind of a tease to get an e-mail out of the blue asking for specs for a new server, to which I replied immediately with the info requested as well as my own questions about when it would happen, only to receive “not for a while, if at all” in response. But the way things usually go around here I will take my miniscule movements of the emotional needle and my promises of slight improvements wherever I can get them.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Limping across

This really wasn’t a bad week, when you tick off all the major categories: work was a little annoying but essentially disaster-free; the kids are both reasonably healthy and actually managed to put together three nights in a row during which they both slept through the night – no teething pains or couching fits for the little girl, no nightmares or awaking-fully-rested-at-4-am for the little guy; nothing major broke around the house (unless you count some slight damage to the dishwasher door when the little guy stumbled over it, my fault for leaving it open and walking away), nor was anything in the process of being repaired or reconstructed. Minus the Wednesday art show, it was a typical and uneventful stretch, and yet I find myself on Friday more than ready for the week to be over, feeling a little brain-fried and unable for the life of me to summon up a particularly compelling or amusing anecdote to round out the week’s posts.


It’s possible I’ve just been so used to the siege mentality for so long that I feel exhausted every Friday simply because that’s how I now expect Fridays to feel. If so, that’s a little bit sad and I’ll have to give some thought to how I can counteract that. I mean, there’s always vacation for recharging the batteries but that’s five and a half months away, still, so I’ll have to dig a little deeper.

In any case, the weekend is almost upon us and apparently I’m just going to kick it off with this undeniably lame post (that is mostly about how it’s not really a post) and hope that if any particularly magnificent anecdotes are called to mind in the next few days I remember to jot them down for next Friday.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Artistry

I still recall almost viscerally a certain feeling of aggravated annoyance I used to experience intermittently while carpooling to my old job with my buddy Clutch. These moments would occur whenever Clutch needed to adjust our well-calibrated schedule because his presence was requested for an event at his youngest daughter’s daycare. And my annoyance wasn’t entirely focused on Clutch, in fact the majority of it was directed at the daycare center, which I felt was guilty of missing the entire point of daycare (please bear in mind this all hearkens back to my own pre-child days), that point being, in my mind, to make the lives of working parents easier. While mom and dad have to show up at their respective places of business day in and day out in order to bring home a paycheck, their child by necessity must be under some kind of third-party supervision to ensure their continued healthy survival. If it’s not extended family fulfilling this role, it’s some kind of professional, and if the supervision happens to be somewhat intellectually or culturally enriching, hey, that’s great, but the purpose is to allow the parents to work a normal job and obey the dictates of that job’s schedule. So if a daycare center wants to teach all the kids to sing together choral-style, more power to them. But if they then decide that a choral performance for the parents is in order, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday? What. The. Hell. It strikes me as implicit in the child’s very presence in daycare that her parents are not going to be free at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday without massive schedule juggling. Even if it’s only once in a while, it’s an imposition, and it puts the parents in an impossible situation, because if they blow off the choral concert they are presumably sending a message to their own child that they don’t care as much as someone else’s parent who did make it. How infuriating.

Boom, cut to … six years later or so, and now I have kids in daycare and I’m in the same boat Clutch was once in. I will gladly credit the Montessori class the little guy participates in with this much: they had the good sense to schedule their show for 5:30 on a Wednesday, which makes a huge difference for me. Of course that does still fall square in the middle of my wife’s eleven-hour work shift, but her schedule is a bit more of an outlier than most. And she still made a heroic effort to clear her appointments around that time so that she could jaunt the ten minutes across town and put in an appearance for the show, only to be summoned back for an animal emergency, alas.

The show in question was an art show, which was an interesting choice in that it consisted of the following:

- Printed invitations indicating the time and place, as well as “formal attire required”
- Multiple displays of art projects done by the class, plus a few photos of the children engaged in artistic endeavors, set up in the central lounge area of the daycare facility
- Light refreshments including sparkling cider in little plastic champagne glasses

And again, I will give credit to the teacher for attempting to do something special and rewarding for the kids which was free-form enough that people could come late or leave early (or come early and leave early as my wife did) and not feel shortchanged at all. It was, all in all, very small-scale and low-key, and I have to admit I felt a little bit like it hit what it was aiming for by splitting the difference in a way that might as well have been a miss. For the adults, it was cute but potentially underwhelming, and for the kids, it was a little too subtle. Fourth or fifth graders probably would have gotten a huge kick out of it; three and four year olds, maybe not so much.

Still, let me run down the aspects a bit more. The formal attire extended to the children as well, and several of the girls wore fancy party dresses and some of the boys wore little clip-on ties. My little guy actually had the chance to get a second use out of the tuxedo he wore in his uncle’s wedding last summer, which still fit remarkably well. He was genuinely excited to put the whole elaborate rig on, vest and jacket and shiny black shoes and all. Of course he looks ridiculously adorable in eveningwear and received numerous compliments to that effect. There’s a photo I took of him smiling charmingly at the camera while holding a full champagne glass that will no doubt be part of the hologram montage shown at his wedding rehearsal dinner in 2034.

Purple!
Since the little guy only goes to daycare three days a week, he hadn’t done all of the art projects that were on display, but his collagework and watercolors were very nice and he was duly proud as I expressed my own pride in him. One of the projects he missed out on I was legitimately fascinated by, as it consisted of taping together plastic cups and random Happy Meal toys (or parts thereof) and then coating them in monochrome tempera paint, which I swear is neither exaggeration nor oversimplification and is also kind of gloriously weird. The little guy was watching me staring at those particular pieces and then explained to me, very seriously, “That’s modern art,” and I had to agree with him there (though I spared him any further meditations on how that’s certainly what most people think modern art is &c.)

5:30 happens to be snack time at daycare, so it was logically sound to include refreshments at the show. I helped the little guy put together a very modest plate of one cheesecube-on-toothpick, four grapes, and three crackers, and once he finished that he was hungry for more, but of course by then all the food had run out. So not getting enough snack was the low point of the art show for the little guy and very nearly led to a fullblown temper tantrum, but I somehow managed to get him under control with promises of more cracker-snacking at home. (Said home-based crackers basically ended up turning into his entire dinner but, you know, any landing you can walk away from and all that.)

I like to (gently) mock, but I’m sure the memory of my little monkey-suited guy excitedly giving me the guided tour of the art installations is something that will make me smile for a long long time. I don’t even really see much contradiction between knowing that I should cherish every special moment of wonder and discovery and joy before it all turns into unpleasant pre-adolescent struggles for identity and all that, and on the other hand thinking daycare sometimes extravagantly overreaches way past geez-just-keep-my-kid-from-electrocuting-himself-for-eight-hours-k-thx. It’s all just part of the grand design.