Thursday, May 31, 2012

The never-knowing

Given sufficient time to pause and reflect on my own experiences, I do tend to think that the good, fun, happy, magical aspects of having small children under the age of five outweigh the bad, unpleasant, frustrating and wearying ones. I wouldn’t trade my lot in life, or a single moment enjoying the company of my little guy and little girl, for anything in the world.

But I can focus on the positive all I want, and accept that it’s all a mixed bag, and none of that makes the difficult parts any less difficult. Lately it seems like the most difficult part is just trying to figure out what the kids are capable of handling, and what is still way beyond them.

Maybe it has something to do with the imminent change of seasons, and the typical summer uptick in socializing potential. I find myself considering possible courses of action, realizing that I don’t know exactly how they’ll play out, and as a result shying away from actually committing due to the paralyzing terror of uncertainty. For instance, there was a good long stretch of my young adulthood where getting together with friends to catch up hinged on picking a mutually convenient restaurant at which to convene for dinner. Now, though, dining out is a much dodgier prospect, as both children tend to get bored and antsy in sit-down settings, in far less time than it takes for a typical waiter to take orders, bring them to the table, and clear away the remains. The good thing about the little girl being only fourteen months is that she, at least, can be confined to a high chair, although in practice that really only limits her to squalling loudly, as opposed to her older brother, who prefers sliding out of his chair and running about amongst the other diners. And honestly, he’ll do that when it’s just the four of us trying to grab a bite out because we haven’t had time to go grocery shopping for proper dinner-at-home components; if we try to have a two-family restaurant excursion, and my wife and I pay more attention to interacting with our friends and less to the little guy, his tolerance for remaining seated absolutely craters.

Harsh.

Or, here’s another fun one: the road trip. My dad lives about six hours’ drive north of us, and my mom lives far enough west to require a multiple-hour flight to reach her. Not so long ago, six hours on the highway seemed like a drop in a bucket, and a cross-country flight was exactly as feasible as budgetary restrictions would allow with nary a thought to logistics. But I have almost no desire to go to an airport and get on a plane with my two munchkins, and try to force them through all the rules and schedule-adherence that would entail. Getting behind the wheel at least creates a sense (however illusory) of some control, in that we can always stop, pull over, take a break, or at the very least plow ahead with teeth gritted as weeping and wailing ensues, without inflicting said weeping and wailing on a whole cabin full of strangers. But the fact remains that asking two small and extremely high-spirited children to remain strapped into car seats for a quarter of a day seems not just arduous but a little bit mean. Alternatively, we could schedule the travel time so as not to steal too many of the kids’ waking hours: drive for an hour or so in the evening, stop for dinner, change into pajamas, keep driving and let the little ones drift off to sleep while we voyage on and on. Fine in theory, but possibly an unmitigated disaster if it doesn’t work, and we’re dealing with driving, parental fatigue and overtired miserable children all at once.

But that’s the thing about the phase we’re in right now: maybe it could work, maybe it couldn’t. There are times (few and far between, but times nonetheless) where the children come to the dinner table hungry and slowly and steadily chew up both food and the clock. There are times when taking them somewhere far from home and returning past their bedtime isn’t any more challenging than remembering to pack the pj’s in the first place. I simply have no way of knowing how to predict a specific episode’s outcome. If my children were a little younger, I’d likely just rule things out unilaterally and without a second thought. If they were a little older, I’d have more confidence that with the proper encouragement/motivation they could hold it together for a restaurant outing or a longish car ride. But they’er very much in the could-go-either-way moment right now, and that’s a drag. Mainly because it makes every possible decision feel like it’s bound to be wrong, thanks to the utter dearth of consistent examples of what works out all right.

So it could be a very long summer, is what I’m saying I suppose. Fortunately it’s one of my favorite seasons, and also fortunately I’m in no rush to see my babies grow up all that fast. If indecision and lost grown-up hangout opportunities is the price I pay for living oh so slowly through these precious days, no argument here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Street Opera (American Graffiti)

Time once again for the 1001 Movies Blog Club!

There was a brief period in my life (let’s call it, oh I don’t know, “most of college”) where I concerned myself more and more not with exploring what kinds of pop culture I liked, but with figuring out and exposing myself to the kinds of pop culture I should like (not to mention distancing myself somewhat from things I liked, but was ashamed to admit to liking). I’m pretty well over that now, as you no doubt can tell. I mean, sure, the whole point of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die project is a large dose of that notion of should - to some extent, at least. It’s actually not called 1001 Movies You Must Love, after all. It’s a large sampling of movies that it makes sense to be conversant with, because they loom large in either mass popularity or technical achievement or insider influence or whathaveyou. Case in point, I would argue, would be 1973’s American Graffiti.

Now, given that I’m comfortable once again owning up to loving the things that I love, there are a couple of reasons why American Graffiti had actually been on my “gonna get around to it one of these days” list for way longer than I’ve been doing the 1001 Movies Blog Club. It is of course infamous for being the movie George Lucas did right before he did Star Wars. I’m no George Lucas apologist and I am thoroughly familiar with the shortcomings of his signature saga, particularly its unnaturally extended lifespan. But once upon a time, Star Wars was the biggest thing in my world, and I fully expect to share it with my kids someday for what it is: an exciting, slick sci-fi fairytale. Lucas the auteur may have steadily unraveled over time, but there used to be something I liked about him, and maybe actually going backwards through his filmography would be a positive thing.

The other reason I could see myself being well-disposed to American Graffiti is that it’s a musical. Kind of. By certain definitions of the term. And I’m not sure which is more likely to earn hipster derision these days, being an avowed Star Wars fan or loving musicals, but either way I would put myself in both camps, willingly and happily. So there you go, with my street cred neatly obliterated, let’s talk about the movie.

Check out the license plate - I see what you did there, George.

I’d like to talk about it, truly, but there’s not that much of a movie there to talk about. It’s a slice of life piece set over the course of a single night in 1962 in a single town in California, specifically within the cruising car-crazy youth culture. A couple of high school buddies are supposed to leave for college in the morning. Steve (Ron Howard) can’t wait to shake the smalltown dust off his heels, gives his hot rod to one of his younger friends, and then spends most of the night trying to determine what’s going to happen to him and his one-year-younger high school sweetheart. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is having second thoughts about leaving the comfortable familiarity of youth behind, and vainly pursues a mysterious blonde until the break of dawn. A greaser named Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the champion drag racer of the scene, inadvertently picks up a young female passenger, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in his hot rod after unsuccessfully hitting on Carol’s older sister, and is sought out for a race by a cowboy named Falfa (Harrison Ford). (The cast of the movie is kind of ridiculously wall-to-wall future stars.)

Basically everybody drives up and down the streets of Modesto all night and listens to the radio. That’s about it, but that’s where the “musical” characterization enters into it, because the DJ-assisted soundtrack never lets up, and every song is not only a hit from the early 60’s, but a hit that managed to stand the test of time well into the 70’s. American Graffiti may legitimately be the first jukebox musical, except there’s no effort to incorporate the songs as part of the narrative delivery-mechanism rather than simply setting the scene, nor are there any characters singing the songs instead of hearing them in the background. But as pure nostalgia-driven pop-culture recycling, it’s utterly relentless. Fortunately, I also happen to enjoy golden oldies, but I can see reactions to this film swinging wildly depending on the presence or absence of a similar predisposition.

The overarching nostalgia is in fact so pervasive that it washes everything out to the point where it’s a tapestry of pleasant fuzzy memories with almost no conflict whatsoever. (Spoilers ho!) Steve and Laurie stay together, and Steve ends up the one who decides not to go to college for a year or so (maybe). Curt never finds the blonde but does ultimately get on the plane to head east for his freshman year, although not until after he spends a good chunk of the night being menaced by members of the Pharaohs gang, who prove to be toothless and harmless. Milner and Falfa race, Milner wins, Falfa crashes his car, but everyone walks away from it in one piece. And so on. The only elements of consequence allowed to sneak in are during the brief epilogue when the four main characters (including Toad, the boy who temporarily inherits Steve’s car) get a line of text each indicating how their lives proceeded after that night, and two of them died young. Just in case anyone missed the symbolism, I’ll underline it: in 1962 the world was in a perfect golden age as established in the Fifties, then the Sixties started for real and it all went to hell, sigh.

My wife and I like to repeat a joke (from Community, of course) about how it’s easy to get baby boomers on your side by appealing to their well-known self-regard. Clearly, making American Graffiti in 1973 was a genius move on George Lucas’s part, as it was a hangout film which was essentially about its own audience that reinforced how wonderful everything was back in the day. I may roll my eyes at it a little, but I can’t argue with the logic of it. And honestly, I don’t think it was really a calculated, cynical move on Lucas’s part. His affection for the period, his attachment to the joys of his youth, is completely genuine. American Graffiti is a movie with its heart on its sleeve, a heart that happens to be wearing backwards-looking rose-colored glasses, which is a terribly mixed metaphor but so it goes.

As the apocryphal stories go, the soundtrack for American Graffiti supposedly marked the moment in Hollywood where Music Supervisor became something that every major motion picture production had to have. To me, at least, that’s comparable to the fact that Star Wars marked the moment where movie merchandising from action figures to shower curtains became the most important revenue source attached to blockbusters. And thus does George Lucas loom large, even though he’s more remembered (or reviled) these days for tinkering too much with his old favorites (including not just Han Solo but Indiana Jones) and other many and varied creative missteps. He’s literally a victim of his own success, because the brief moment during which he was pushing boundaries in productive ways earned him such ungodly sums of money that he can afford to do whatever he wants until the day he dies, and no one can ever say “that was your last botch, you’re cut off.” Which simultaneously makes me feel sorry for him and makes it impossible to feel sorry for him. Still, it’s nice to look back at a simpler time, when all he wanted to do was make a movie that … looked back to a simpler time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shucks

At this point I suppose maybe I should assert that I simply went on Memorial Day vacation a bit early? There were a variety of reasons for me to leave off the blogging last week, none of them really worth digging into here, the biggest one probably being simple, boring old burnout. I know that there’s a part of my brain that really craves structure and repetition and whatnot for their own sake, but I also suspect there’s an equally deep-seated desire in me to have rules in place explicitly so that they can be broken. The nice thing about holding myself to an expectation of daily weekday posts is that if I start to feel overburdened I can just give myself permission to blow off the daily posts; it feels like I’m shirking something (which admittedly can feel pretty good) but the stakes are low and the repercussions are zilch. It’s the old joke about how long-distance running is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer: it feels so good when you stop.

In any case, Memorial Day has come and gone and I am going to climb back on the horse. The actual long weekend itself was pleasant, especially since it somehow managed to combine my wife being off from work with a lack of major plans or traveling. Saturday we had a very casual take-out dinner with some friends in D.C., and even the extra traffic from Rolling Thunder didn’t cause us too much delay in either direction. Monday saw us observe our various patriotic and civic duties, including stimulating the economy by taking advantage of a Memorial Day furniture sale to acquire a new master bedroom set (really just a bedframe and his-n-her dressers, but that’s really all we needed) and also buying some new summer clothes for our munchkins, as well as me mowing the lawn before it got too aggravating to the neighbors, although that had to wait until about 8 p.m. Monday night. We also, of course, remembered the troops.

But for my money, summer officially began on Sunday evening as we got ready for dinner, because the menu that night was simple cookout fare including burgers, dogs, baked beans and corn on the cob, and part of my prep duties included husking said corn. Since it was the first time this year the corn has been in season, and the first chance I’ve had to strip ears, sitting out on the back deck peeling leaves and silk into a bag, it’s the first time I’ve really felt like it was summertime (as opposed to overly warm springtime). And the entire dinner was delicious if I do say so.

So that catches us up, more or less. In theory I should have plenty to yammer about after a week of keeping things to myself, but we shall see how long it takes before I’m scraping for subject matter once again. Hopefully I can make it to the big family vacation in August without another major outage, but only time will tell.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Relapse

Things have very much lapsed back into quietude here at work, although I still have little bits and pieces of things requiring my attention, mainly stuff that I completely neglected while the hammer was coming down for a couple of weeks. I started looking at one of those tasks today and discovered that what had initially been handed to me as a list of changes I should implement was really a list of questions and suggestions, more specifically questions that I have no way of answering and suggestions requiring follow-up from someone with more expertise on the relevant subject matter. I make the websites work but I don’t really have any input or insight into what they say. So I will have to ship that assignment back over to my boss and ask him to answer the questions and follow up on the suggestions and turn the task into a somewhat more specific series of website updates, if possible. And that could take months, so who knows when I’ll actually start working on it.

And, not that I would ever really complain or say the timing was bad for my workload to be lightened, but it’s especially fortunate today. On Saturday my wife had to work and I supervised an electrician’s visit (two and a half years in, slowly but surely the bizarrely haphazard wiring of our house is getting straightened out), ran some errands with the kids, worked out a bit while they were napping, and once my wife was home again got through the whole dinner/bath/bedtime routine reasonably on schedule. Sunday I mowed the (crazily overgrown) lawn, took the little guy to the park, straightened up the house during nap time, and then we had a few of our college friends and their kids over for a cookout dinner. The little girl made it abundantly clear that she needed to go to bed right about at her usual hour, but we let her big brother stay up until all the guests had left (which all told was only about an extra hour and a half of awake time for him, tops) and then shuffled him off, too. Then, despite the fact that we had already eaten large helpings of dessert with our guests, my wife and I realized there was so much confectionary food left in the house that we really needed to have another go at it before calling it a day. In other words, the whole weekend was physical exertion, physical exertion, physical exertion and then segued into beer, grilled meat, refined sugar, more beer, still more sugar, none of which portends good things for my feelings towards my alarm clock come Monday.

I know I was just ululating this particular lamentation on Friday, but urgh it was hard to get up from my bed and get out of the house this morning. The fact that it was actively raining yet also muggy didn’t help. But coming in to a reasonably undemanding work situation is a blessing and I am absolutely going to count it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Late at night and into the morning

When I was in high school, particularly my senior year, I used to spend a fair number of Friday nights sleeping over at the house of a good friend. There was a circle of four of us who would attend these sleepovers, which were always at the same house; two of us lived in virtually identical split-level ranches, and another lived in a tiny apartment (with both of his parents and a brother and a sister, which is a whole ‘nother cautionary tale for another day), but the permanent location of the Friday all-nighters was a great big Victorian-style house with a finished basement rec room and a good-sized attic that had been converted into my friend’s bedroom. So it just kind of made sense for four teenage dudes to hang out in the space that could best accommodate us – when most of my friend’s family went to sleep, we were still in the basement with the entire ground floor of the house as a buffer between us and the second-floor bedrooms, and then some time barely before dawn we would make our way all the way to the attic bedroom, where there was more than enough room for three bodies in sleeping bags, and when we were sleeping late into the morning, but the rest of my friend’s family was up, the second-floor was the buffer between them and us. It was pretty sweet.

The four of us had some diverse interests, and I honestly wonder sometimes in retrospect how we became such a tight quartet (other than, y'know, all being white and male and straight and middle class in the same grade at the same school). I suppose rather than one huge and specific unifying element there were lots of little overlapping connections. Let us for the sake of argument call these childhood chums of mine Kingsley (our host in the Victorian), Boomer (who lived in the replica of my house) and Scud (who lived in the apartment). All three of them were athletes, Scud and Boomer played soccer together, Boomer and Kingsley had been in Little League together (though by high school Kingsley was focused on the golf and bowling teams), whereas I never played organized sports in my life. Scud and I had both been in the school band together since junior high and liked a lot of the same music (classic rock and heavy metal), and Kingsley also appreciated at least half the same bands, while Boomer (despite being one of the whitest of white people in my thoroughly whitebread blue collar town) was way more into R&B (I swear in fifth grade Boomer’s favorite music acts were Prince and New Edition). Kingsley and I were both deeply into comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, Scud also liked D&D, not so much comics but read a lot of the same fantasy novels I did (Donaldson and Feist and whatnot), and Boomer was willing to play D&D now and then. I’m painting the picture (accurately, at that) that I had more in common with Kingsley and Scud, but Boomer was the one I had known the longest, basically from the day that I started at a new school midway through fourth grade when my parents moved to New Jersey.

One thing we unanimously agreed on was horror movies, which kind of blows some of my previous theories all to hell and gone because, as I’ve outlined, we had lots of different tastes. Maybe just being young, male and hormonal overrode other aesthetic considerations or dictates of our personalities. But I watched a lot of horror flicks during no-special-occasion Friday night sleepovers at Kingsley’s house, during the golden age of VCRs and mom-and-pop rental stores. It’s where I saw The Exorcist for the first time. It’s also where I saw numerous pieces of total trash not even worth remembering the names of. That’s probably the best way to develop a taste for horror, or at least have positive associations with it: experiencing it with your friends, at slumber parties, where when the lights go out and you’re trying to get to sleep you don’t feel as completely freaked out because you’re not alone.

The other thing that stands out in my minds about those nights is the sheer amount of food we would put away. We would order at least three pizzas (at the risk of sounding like That Jersey Guy, these were not 5 dollar Domino’s medium pizzas, either, but substantial large New York style pies) and also pick up an extra-large bag of Ruffles or Doritos, a 1-lb. bag of M&M’s, and multiple two-liters of Coke. And in the morning it would all be gone. Kingsley was in fact a hella-big guy, over six feet tall and notably girthsome, but he only barely out-consumed me and Scud and Boomer. Oh, the youthful metabolism.

You might think I’m reminiscing about these halcyon days because I’ve been thinking about horror movies lately, or because it’s Friday, but I think honestly the metabolism angle is the one that’s most resonant right now. Last night I gorged not on horror movies but on Community, since the show’s early-spring hiatus combined with various network scheduling concerns led to the final three episodes being shown in a single night. (I confess to slight trepidation going in, that I would somehow get bored of too much Community, but I’m happy to report that all three eps were fan-freaking-tastic.) The evening also included some gustatory indulgences: due to a variety of circumstances, the family ended up eating out last night (I had the create-your-own-pasta special), while later on at home on the couch I shared a bottle of rioja with my wife and treated myself to a diet fudgsicle. Not exactly five or six slices of pizza, a quarter pound of M&M’s and a small trough of soda, granted, and neither did we stay up until the sky was getting light, as my wife and I were in bed by about 10:30. But I was feeling it this morning in every way, carbs-hangover and wine-fuzziness and alarm clock going off way too soon. Really almost entirely the opposite of those bygone nights of idle amusement, but my brain (with its perverse love of contrasts) made the connection all the same. Times change, oh yes they do. You can’t rely on that teenage metabolism to keep on running forever, but at least I enjoyed it while I had it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Personalized approaches

At the moment, the little girl’s whole life seems to pretty much come down to the three T’s: talking (or at least babbling with cadence and intonations that make for a fair mimicry of actual talking), toddling (she can string together several steps in a row on her own before grabbing onto something or sitting down) and teething. Oh ye gods of tooth and claw, is she teething.

Normally her mother and I are fairly circumspect about cutting up the solid food we give the little girl into extremely small pieces; she may have a mouthful of choppers but that doesn’t mean she can be completely trusted to use them correctly and consistently. But in light of the frequent discomfort going on with her gums at any given time, we’ve made some concessions here and there, like giving her apple slices that are exactly the same size as the ones we might set in front of her big brother, because gnawing on those does seem to make her feel a little better. Of course sometimes she shoves the whole slice in her mouth in a rather point-missing way, but we stay close enough to intervene in those circumstances anyway.

This also can lead to certain misunderstandings, such as this past weekend. After my wife and I got out of The Avengers matinee we went back to our babysitting friends’ house and all had dinner together. The little girl was in a high chair right beside me and kept pointing demonstratively at my plate, which had some rotisserie chicken on it. So I broke off some tiny bits of chicken with my fingers and put them on the little girl’s tray. She was not pleased. I tried finger-feeding her the chicken and was rebuffed. So I let her be. But she kept pointing at the chicken on my plate. Slowly I came around to the nuanced difference between “I want some of that” and “I want one of those” her “dat dat dat” was intended to convey. So I went to the takeout container and got a good-sized piece of chicken breast that was both skinless and boneless and handed the whole thing to the little girl. And she proceeded to gnaw on it quite happily (it was slightly too big for her to shove the entire thing in her mouth, thankfully) and let me eat in peace.

Point being, I suppose, that my wife and I try to figure out the best ways to meet our children’s needs but they still manage to surprise us sometimes with remarkably effective ideas of their own. In the little guy’s case, his needs are pretty well met in predictable ways but he continues to show hilarious inventiveness in the realm of amusing himself (and, by extension, us). My wife is a big fan of rock-paper-scissors and the little guy has doubtless seen us utilize the game dozens of times to resolve certain questions (like whose turn it is to change a diaper). He sort of has the hang of playing r-p-s himself, which was more than enough mastery to give him the confidence to some up with his own variant on the game called star-people-bridge. The star is an open hand with five fingers waggling (or twinkling, I reckon); the people are two fingers pointing down and moving back and forth like walking legs; the bridge is thumb and pinkie extended with the other three knuckles pointing straight up. The star can shine down on either of the other two and the people can walk across the bridge, and I can hear you asking “How do any of those configurations result in one naturally defeating the other?” But this is my boy we’re talking about here, whose seminal holy text will always be the movie Cars, wherein most of the narrative is set in motion by the early occurrence of a three-way tie. So there tends not to be a lot of winning or losing in games where the little guy makes up all the rules. Which is not to say those made-up games are anything less than fascinating.

I think there’s a tendency that both my wife and myself have to harbor some concerns about how our children will relate to the world at large. We have a decent enough handle on the family angle and feel like we’re doing a better-than-middling job at creating a positive, supportive home environment – but of course that ends at the front door. And both my wife and I had experiences as youngsters, adolescenthood especially, where we went through periods of not fitting in or belonging anywhere in the scheme of things. (I know, I know, I know, the great secret of adolescence you supposedly learn as an adult is that nobody ever feels like they fit in or belong and everyone’s scared and insecure and blah blah blah – be that as it may, as a former fringe-dwelling weird kid I am hard to dissuade from the belief that there’s a wide gap between “sometimes I feel like the only person at this party who has these thoughts” and “sometimes I wish I would get invited to parties”, so assume I’m talking about the latter here.) There’s a part of me, at least, that would be pleased and relieved if our children never develop iconoclastic streaks a mile wide that essentially disqualify them from sailing along in the mainstream. But that part of me struggles mightily with another part that revels in seeing them do their own thing in their own way, utterly oblivious to what anyone else might think. I know from experience that there are potentially negative consequences there. And I know most people tend to grow out of it fairly quickly anyway. I just hope that if my kids never do outgrow it, and are forever reinventing their reality and/or freaking out the squares, that my worrying side can suck it up, keep quiet, and let it happen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You had me at helicarrier (The Avengers)

I knew late last week, as my wife and I were finalizing plans to drop off the kids with some friends of ours and then go see a matinee of The Avengers on Sunday, that the movie would end up being the subject of the following Wednesday’s post. And here we are, and I’m not about to pass up the opportunity to say that I have in fact seen the movie and I am in total agreement with everyone else who thinks it’s not just the awesomest superhero movie ever made, but an awesome movie without qualifier, with indisputable appeal well beyond the usual superhero-loving subset of moviegoers, as evidenced by the record-breaking box office numbers.

But beyond that? It’s hard to find a more personalized take on the flick to build up an entire post around. I described it to a buddy of mine (who had also seen it) as a total meat sandwich, by which I meant something akin to the KFC Double Down, assuming that a Double Down were capable of leveraging other times in the past when you had eaten something on a bun. All good stories need fundamental character development in order to work, just like sandwiches need bread to hold everything together. So basically the Iron Man franchise and the Thor, Captain America and Incredible Hulk movies were regular (and quite tasty) sandwiches with nice hearty rolls. The Avengers was 100% savory stuff, the deepfried chicken breasts of action sequences and the deliciously salty bacon of perfect one-liners. Plus cheese. Not terribly complicated, not thought-provoking in the way Cabin in the Woods was, but that’s fine by me. It was everything I wanted it to be with all the dials cranked.

I mean, sure, I could quibble with little things here or there, because apparently I have reached the point where no matter how rocking-my-socks-off a movie (or show or book) may be, I’m forever taking it apart and putting it back together in the moment as I’m enjoying it, because I’m compulsive about figuring out how things like that work. But I’m just so pleased with how it all turned out, and not just pleased but genuinely impressed, that I can’t quite bring myself to tear it down.

OK, well, maybe I can voice one incredibly minor disappointment, or add my voice to the small chorus of other similar-minded folks who were only 99% smitten with the movie. They could have handled Hawkeye a little differently (read: better).

The Hawkeye from the original Avengers comics is a mainstay of the team, no question, and I’m glad that they saw fit to include him in the cinematic interpretation. But he’s also a totally different character who also happens to be named Clint Barton and use trick arrows. The guy from the comics was no SHIELD black ops soldier. He was a carny, who learned to draw a bow as part of the sideshow. He wore a flamboyant costume of fuchsia and cerulean and an ornate mask. He was a wisecracking swashbuckler type, often taken to task by his fellow heroes for acting rashly and taking nothing seriously. He was pretty awesome.

Totally in the running for Best Boots EVAR.

And in the movies (Avengers and Thor) he’s just a dark, dour badass manhunting machine. Which, don’t get me wrong, I understand. There’s so many factors at play in bringing this whole crazy superteam idea to the big screen. They could have made the Avengers a team consisting solely of the larger-than-life characters interesting enough to shoulder their own franchises: Cap, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk. But they wanted the geopolitical SHIELD connection, and to underline that they introduced Black Widow and Hawkeye as non-superpowered but still highly specialized agents who could potentially stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Big Four. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to accept Hawkeye holding his own beside the super-soldier or the demigod or whatever even on the comics page, and putting an actor in his blue-and-violet togs … it would collapse under its own ridiculousness. So Hawkeye needs to be straight as a heart attack. Not to mention the fact that the movie version of Tony Stark is the resident wisecracker of the team, and a pretty unbeatable one at that.

(Incidentally, the reason I’m focusing on Hawkeye rather than Black Widow is because she actually didn’t get changed that much from the comics version, personality-wise or in wardrobe. I’ve always liked Black Widow, and liked her a lot in the movie. If you liked Avengers in general and/or her specifically, and you’ve never checked out the Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv series, consider this your wake-up call because Black Widow provided something pretty dang close to the only Buffy/Captain America team-up we’re ever likely to see. The budget is orders of magnitude smaller for Buffy, but the ass-kicking and the witty repartee, those are basically Whedon’s bread and butter.)

So, yeah, anyway, Hawkeye was brought in as a moderately interesting supporting character and elevated for various plot-device reasons to founding Avenger, and there was a requisite attitude-transplant along the way. That really doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm at all, if only because of how improbable the whole sequence of real-world events really is. I have pretty distinct memories of being a kid of no more than 12 or 13 and discussing with my Little Bro the possibility of some of the great comic book stories being turned into movies. And in my opinion (then as now) the best stories were the ones with casts of dozens and a million moving parts, which is difficult to pull off in even a two-and-half-hour movie if you are starting from square one introducing the dramatis personae. And I swear at one point I floated the idea of building up to it, making movies introducing each of the characters and then combining them all into the cinematic crossover of my dreams. But even as a wide-eyed prepubescent lad I knew that was extremely unlikely. Yet that’s exactly what has happened here. And sometimes just the fact that something manages to exist makes it too cool to criticize. The fact that The Avengers was actually enormously entertaining is just icing on the cake.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Renewal of wows

As you have no doubt noticed, I am not usually the kind of person who is visited by thoughts like “Hey, whatever happened to that show I used to watch last year?” I read (more than) enough television criticism-analysis as well as inside-industry journalism to remain more or less perpetually aware of what’s happening with the shows I’ve been watching (and, for that matter, shows that I don’t watch but many other people do faithfully tune in for, which just might come up in conversation at some point). So on the one hand, lately I’ve been living from Thursday to Thursday enjoying every new episode of Community that’s aired since it came back from hiatus and simultaneously anticipating the season finale with equal parts excitement and dread. But on the other hand, I’ve been living from online article to online article, because now is the time of year when networks announce which shows are being renewed and which shows are being cancelled, and what their fall line-ups are going to look like and so on, and the announcements are dutifully reported by the entertainment press. And I’ve been just as dutifully scouring those releases looking for clues to Community’s fate.

So the good news is that a fourth season of the show is due in the fall, or a partial season at any rate. A full season would be 22 episodes, and NBC ordered 13; this happens to all kinds of shows all the time and ordering the remaining 9 somewhere down the road is quite common as well. At the very least, it’s a stay of execution, and there are potential upsides and better-case scenarios, too.

The bad news isn’t so much bad as … thought-provoking, I guess? One item of interest is that the showrunner, Dan Harmon, might not be back for season four. On the one hand Community has a fairly well-established identity as a meta-sitcom at this point, and a great deal of the pleasure of sitting down and hanging out in its world for half an hour a week comes from the stellar performances up and down the ensemble, but it’s still worrisome to me to hear that the head honcho of the team responsible for generating the behind-the-scenes magic might be on the way out. I’ve always felt that Community just has a certain sensibility that hits me in very specific cerebral sweetspots, and I attribute that the Harmon’s vision for the show. Maybe that’s not actually true, or maybe it is but over the course of the past three years he’s shared his thought process openly enough with the rest of the writers that they could keep it going even without his day-to-day input, or maybe all of this is just rumor-mongering against the backdrop of contract negotiations and the show will still be Harmon’s baby in the fall. Time will tell.

But speaking of time, the other bit of weird news is that NBC is changing the scheduling for Community, moving it to Friday nights at 8:30. From a certain perspective, there’s a silver lining or two in that: Community’s usually on Thursdays at 8, up against The Big Bang Theory which gets huge ratings and could potentially appeal to a lot of the same geeky sitcom fans that Community might attract, and maybe that explains why Community’s ratings are never as good as they should be, and so a change could do it some good. And moving the show is better than cancelling it, so at least NBC is showing a certain willingness to give Community enough rope to hang itself (the very nature of that metaphor of course implies that at a certain point one party may be falsely appearing to help another party while secretly plotting its demise, but if there’s that kind of politicking between network and show going on, I can’t pretend to know how deep and dark it goes).

If I’m feeling negative, though, there is the undeniable fact that no shows on Friday nights ever get terribly good ratings, since a lot of people seek out better things to do on Friday nights than watch tv. And frankly, whoever thought about rescheduling the show obviously did not stop to take my personal viewing habits and needs into consideration. Why couldn’t they have put Community on Mondays at 8:30?

It’s kind of funny (to me, anyway) but there are a couple of shows my wife and I both really, really enjoy: Community and How I Met Your Mother. We actually like a fair number of other shows in common, as well, but those two have some important traits in common. They’re both major network half-hour sitcoms that follow predictable weekly schedules (as opposed to sporting events or reality shows that air on multiple days a week if not all the time), they’re both moderately-to-heavily serialized to the point where missing any single episode potentially impacts our ability to appreciate everything going on in subsequent episodes, and they’re both on at 8 p.m. on weeknights. Specifically they air on days when my wife does not have to go to work, HIMYM on Mondays and Community on Thursdays. So this is the funny part, the fact that these shows are major motivators in keeping us on a household schedule on those nights. When I get home from work on Monday/Thursday, either my wife or myself can get right to the task of making dinner while the other one keeps the kids occupied, we all sit down to eat, and then my wife and I tag team getting the kids bathed and put down to bed, all the while racing the clock as it approaches primetime. Sometimes we get everyone squared away and settled as early as 7:30, but generally it’s close enough to 8 that we have just enough time to settle ourselves in the den and turn on the tv before the show begins.

Clearly, no, we do not have any kind of DVR service. But knowing that Community is going to be on Friday nights in the fall, and knowing also that every other Friday my wife tends to work the late shift and get home some time between 9 and 10, I am presently very strongly considering looking into how much DVR would add to our cable bill. A tiny irony of that would be that, after three years of lamenting the fact that I do not live in a Nielsen household where my steadfast and unwavering support of Community would be counted in the ratings, if I were to start DVR’ing the show my eyeballs would become statistically significant, not in the traditional ratings but in the new time-shifted numbers that networks are slowly realizing actually matter and might as well be looked at since all the data is sitting there on the cable company servers waiting to be parsed. Living in the future!

There’s also, I should acknowledge, the possibility that my wife could simply find another job before September, and no longer be at the mercy of her current work-schedule demands, and watching network broadcasts together at 8:30 any night of the week will be all the same to us. Not that she would go job-hunting just based on the scheduling of Community, of course. She’s already been seriously mulling making a change in the employment area for a while. And changing jobs over a tv show is something I would do, and really there’s only room in a marriage for one crazy person like that.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Generally quiet

I still have a few leftover to-do’s from the recent explosion of development needs here at the contracting gig, but it’s definitely winding down and I will soon be back to inventing busywork to keep up the appearance of being busy. But it was fun while it lasted and hopefully will reflect well on me the next time someone has to evaluate my job performance. I suppose I might also add another spark of hope, namely that now that my superiors have seen that they can request major development projects of me with tight turnaround times and I am fully capable of delivering, maybe they will be more inclined to make similar requests sooner rather than later, which will eventually lead to an overall increase in my average workload. It’s still a little odd to me to find the prospect of more to do at work a net positive, but that’s what raising a family and prizing job security does to you.

Of course every once in a while I still prove myself capable of accessing that aspect of my professional persona which was in evidence 100% of the time in my younger days, the overarching attitude of “I take very little of this seriously, but I suppose having this job beats sitting at home watching daytime television.” I never feel terribly far away from that rougher-edged kid, in my head at least, but after years and years of hopping from cubefarm to cubefarm I find myself surrounded by fewer and fewer people who’ve ever seen that for themselves.

Example: last week was one of my co-workers birthdays (it is always someone’s birthday somewhere in the office) and so the team was summoned to a conference room in the afternoon for some birthday cake. Of course, the cake could not be cut until after a haltingly sung rendition of “Happy Birthday To You”, as per workplace custom (though arguably this time the haltingness was a little worse than average, for whatever reason). When the song was finished, one of my co-workers said “Now, it’s not how well the song is sung …”

Burn Alert!!!

“… it’s the fact that it’s over,” I finished automatically. I mean, come on, that’s a no-brainer, right? When I was in high school the music department was headed up by a notoriously self-serious choral director who somehow managed to combine every stereotype of both divas and schoolmarms, and she was known to admonish students while sitting in the audience at countywide competition programs: “If you can’t clap for the other groups’ performances because they’re good, clap because they’re finished.” So that’s just kind of been a truism in my mind since long before I was anyone’s salaried employee.

But in the hyper-even-keeled microcosm of my current day-job, apparently this scored as a bon mot of devastating zingosity and caused a minor uproar. Nobody was terribly upset that I had brought the hammer down (on what was obviously being implied by my co-worker in the first place) but there was a surprising (to me; it shouldn’t be anymore! And yet it is) amount of shocked and nervous laughter before the cake slices started circulating and everyone refocused on the much more important business at hand.

I realize that half of the collective flabbergastedness comes from anyone saying anything remotely critical or confrontational, and the other half comes from the fact that I was the anyone, since most people around here only think of me as the quiet computer guy who mostly keeps to himself. And that’s on me, as I’ve essentially cultivated that reputation around the office in a conscious way to make my own life easier. But every once in a while the constant running commentary in my head slips out through my mouth, which used to be the rule rather than the exception back in the day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Post-Op

Two full days on from the ear tube insertion, the little girl is doing extremely well. She was, in point of fact and as noted previously, doing much better in the days leading up to the visit to the surgery center, too, but of course that fact simply gave rise to the possibility that convalescing from the procedure would amount to something of a setback, somehow. But it didn’t! She’s been sleeping well at night, and during the day has been as bright and delighted and delightful as ever. There even seem to be some signs that she’s closer than ever to taking her first steps on her own or saying her first identifiable words; I mean, of course she’s closer than ever, the mere passage of time all but guarantees that, but getting over her back-to-back-to-back ear infections and receiving her tubes seems to have nudged her noticeably in that direction all at once. We shall see how long it takes to actually hit the milestones.

So, of course, I am tempted to declare us all fully out of the woods. The surgery did not take an odds-defyingly unpleasant turn, so in fact we are out of the stretch of trees where the little girl is under anesthesia and her mother and I are holding our collective breath. Similarly, our daughter is currently infection-free and that portion of the woods is behind us as well. The hope is that ear infections as a recurring and ongoing concern are a thing of the past, and more often than not we will be a family of four who all sleep through the night just fine, and peace and harmony will reign throughout the land. One would hope. We’ve at least been optimistic enough to put away the nebulizer and the humidifier and the various infant acetaminophen and infant ibuprofen dispensary syringes for now. Maybe it will turn out to be (yet another) magical silver bullet, maybe not, but things are good. Sometimes good news is no news, but at least that allows this post to be short and sweet.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Playing dumb (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Once again it is time for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club to take centerstage (or, since this is a blog, take upscroll? Toppost?), and once again it is time to admit that my participation in said club has led directly to closing a gap in my general pop culture exposure which may be hard to believe ever existed in the first place: prior to watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes I had never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie. Notwithstanding my well-known enchantment with lists and rankings and the fact that Some Like It Hot tends to come up at or near the top of any rundown of Greatest Comedy Films of All Time and the like, I hadn’t sat through any of the erstwhile Norma Jean’s filmography before.

Which of course – so of course that it is in the running for most goes-without-saying acknowledgment ever – has no bearing on my knowledge of Marilyn Monroe the legend, because being ignorant of that would be practically impossible, like not knowing who Elvis Presley or Mickey Mouse or George Washington or Superman are, even if you’re not a rockabilly fan/animation lover/history buff/comicbook aficionado. Except of course that Mickey and Supes exist entirely as products of certain media, and Elvis’s rock-n-roll records are more or less the point, as is George’s historical significance … whereas Marilyn Monroe seems to have come down through the ages as being famous for being gorgeous, and everything revolves around that: being Playboy’s first centerfold, her dalliances and marriages with famous men, the oft-(mis-)quoted trivia about her measurements and her dress size, her deconstruction by Warhol, &c. Oh yeah, and people put her in some movies, too, but those performances are more or less beside the point, right? The movies themselves yielded up some memorable imagery, to be sure, Marilyn in her white dress blown up by the steam vent, or in her pink gown and diamonds surrounded by tuxedoed suitors, but those are practically static freezeframes, not living performances. (For the record, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has the latter one in it; the former is from The Seven Year Itch.)

But yes, the point being that Marilyn Monroe died eleven years before I was born and her unassailable status as prototypical sex symbol was long-established by the first time I encountered it (which would have been well before I could have really appreciated or even understood it, such is the way of the modern world) which makes it at least a semi-interesting proposition to go back and see some facet of how it all began. There’s also, I think, an interesting meditation to be had on causes and effects now that we’re multiple generations deep into the mass-media eras of civilization, namely did Marilyn Monroe tap into some collective understanding of what desirability always was, or do we now base our expectations of desirability on her specifically because she managed to be in the right place at the right time? (Not to mention the less-pleasant aspects of outright objectification, which I touched on yesterday so that I wouldn’t necessarily have to today, but again, I’m totally aware there’s an unseemliness to it all as well.)

I have to say, though, that despite girding myself with all kinds of socio-cultural questions like the above in order to get through what I expected to be a corny musical comedy from the square old 50’s, I didn’t find my mind turning to them all that often during Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I was too busy being genuinely entertained, even to the point of laughing out loud once or twice. I recently expressed some concerns to my wife that I may just be getting a little bit dumber myself (I laughed out loud at last week’s episode of The Office, too, and everyone knows that creaking hulk hasn’t been terribly funny in a while) but be that as it may, I’m willing to stand up for the charms of Howard Hawks’s work in this case. And Marilyn Monroe is more than a pretty face in it! I never once felt I had to overlook any bad acting on her part, and I didn’t think it was because Lorelei Lee was just Marilyn Monroe playing herself, either. Granted, it’s a broadly drawn character in a pretty broad farce, but she does land some solid punchlines with great delivery and timing.

Jane Russell steals the show with a lot more punchlines, though, and that was even more of a revelation. Her Dorothy Shaw is a fantastic counterpoint to Lorelei: cynical and smart where Lorelei is innocent and dumb (but not as dumb as she seems, as it turns out), but also hopelessly romantic and unconcerned about men’s money where Lorelei is pragmatic if not a downright golddigger (which, again, turns out to be a little more complicated than it seems at the outset – and I know I still sound like an ignorant ageist but I’m always pleasantly surprised and heartened when that depth of consideration shows itself in older entertainments which I expect to be as simple and straightforward as possible). Just the buddy-movie yin and yang of Dorothy and Lorelei would be worth the price of admission, and then in the climax of the movie Dorothy impersonates Lorelei in a Parisian criminal court, and Jane Russell absolutely slays with her Marilyn Monroe impression. Again, not hard given the breathy, cooing, exaggerated woman-child Monroe plays Lorelei as to begin with, but still superawesome.

There are aspects of the movie that are undeniably old-timey to many sensibilities, I’m sure. If you don’t like musicals, particularly ones which assault suspension of disbelief with choreographed musical numbers that break out in unlikely venues, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes probably won’t do much for you either. Likewise if retrograde marriage plots aren’t so much your thing. But if those elements are either not obstacles to begin with, or at the very least the kind you can work your way around, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than with this worthy addition to the Must See roster.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Great expense

I’m no stranger to guilt, so much so that you can pretty safely assume that there’s a moderately broad streak of the stuff running as subtextual undercurrent to everything I babble about here. If I grouse about the indignities of my 9-to-5 job, I simultaneously feel guilty about it because I know there are unemployed and underemployed people out there struggling to make ends meet and compared to whom I really have nothing to complain about. And if I vent about home repairs or yardwork or traffic or any other inconveniences, I’m acutely aware of the excruciatingly first-world, upper-middle-class bo-bo nature of these petty grievances. But that’s who I am, and this blog is about my life, and I just figure it would get real old real fast to put that boilerplate disclaimer in each and every post.

There’s actually a sharper edge to those concerns in this particular phase of my life, too, given the three-and-a-half year old little guy who lives in my house. My wife and I are trying to make the most of these formative years and teach him to be conscientious, or at the very least not egregiously wasteful. All well and good that he has internalized the importance of washing his hands after using the bathroom, but we often have to remind him not to spend forever doing it, the admonishment almost always taking the form “don’t waste water”. Same goes for his eating habits, whereby we’re rightfully proud of him for his willingness to eat a reasonably healthy array of fruits and vegetables and grains in addition to his staples of peanut butter and chicken nuggets, the only problem arising when he asks for food, is given a serving, has one bite and then asks for something completely different. “Don’t waste food” comes flying out right quick about then. And as far as the little guy is concerned, wasting something is bad primarily because mommy and daddy don’t like waste, period. Meanwhile in the back of my mind I’m thinking of countries suffering under famine conditions, or villages that don’t have ready access to clean drinking water, and in dire moments the places contending with both of those things at once and more.

Of course there’s a standard coping mechanism I’m very familiar with which basically says guilt isn’t necessarily the most appropriate response to the existence of deprivation elsewhere. I’m lucky I was born to well-off people in the developed world, I’m grateful to have been blessed with such luck, but I shouldn’t feel guilty about it because I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything at all in creating those circumstances which gave rise to me, anymore than I personally did anything to create generations of wealth disparity and/or unbalanced resource allocation in the geopolitical reality we live in. It’s all a gross oversimplification, sure, but it can help one sleep at night.

But then there’s the matter of actively participating in doing harm, which shouldn’t really be separated from guilt at all, because that’s pretty If A And B Then C. And this too has been coming up more and more lately, and I find myself ill-equipped to answer it.

Again, in the realm of constant thematic underpinnings, maintaining a blog that’s really an outlet for all of my obsessive overthinking of popular culture is kind of a double-edged sword, as it gives me some needed space to air out my thoughts creatively, but I sometimes find myself feeling guilty for expending so much time and energy on it in the first place because, really, how does any of this actually matter? That line of thought certainly didn’t originate with the blog, either, since I’ve long struggled with reconciling a general feeling that the purpose of a life well-spent is to make the world a better place against my innate tendency to want nothing more than to lose myself in narratives, be it via a video game or a heavy metal opera or a multiplex blockbuster or a dog-eared comic book. Sometimes I’ve told myself that I’ve been known to tell a halfway decent story myself now and then, and if I can spread a little joy here and there, make the world a more magical place, or even simply generate a tolerable amount of distraction, I can take solace in that. But as a passive consumer of other people’s creations, the best that can be said about it is that at least it isn’t hurting anybody.

They say things often come in threes, and evidently that applies to counterexamples as well. Last week Junior Seau committed suicide, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the 1001 Film Blog Club, and the Avengers movie opened in the states. Somehow all of those things became emblematic of how problematically complicated everything seems to be.

Let’s start with The Avengers, which I actually haven’t seen yet because I couldn’t justify going to a late-night movie and staying out until 2 a.m. when the little girl has been prone to waking up screaming in the middle of the night so much lately. (That’s an entirely different kettle of guilt-fish, and of course once I resolved to put off seeing the flick for a while, the little girl began sleeping through the night with very few problems, because of course she did.) And I almost certainly will go see the movie sooner rather than later, but I haven’t been entirely immune to an interesting line of conversation that’s been floating around the internet in the movie’s wake. Specifically, that the comic book industry’s business practices are kind of morally screwed up. They’ve gotten better this century, but especially at the dawn of the Golden Age they were less than admirable. Basically comic book companies facilitate the mass production and distribution of creative work, and the corporate entities reap massive profits and the responsible creative types get very little share of it. The person who has gotten the richest off the Harry Potter phenomenon is clearly J.K. Rowling, and that’s as it should be. The persons who have gotten richest off Superman are emphatically not (the estates of) Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two guys who dreamed the character up and wrote and drew his earliest adventures. To a large extent that’s the difference between how things got done in the 1930’s and how they’re done now; back then, Joe and Jerry and lots of other young guys like them did work for hire at miniscule payrates, which all seemed appropriate because they were cranking out literally disposable entertainment for kids, and getting paid to do so at all seemed like a swell deal. Comics became a bigger and bigger (and more bankable) concern, but the ink on the contracts was long-since dried by then. And no corporate entity has ever said “We should really compensate these guys who breathed life into these creations beyond what we’re legally obligated to them for.” So basically when one buys a ticket for the Avengers one is giving money to the theater-owner, Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios, and Marvel Comics, but not to the families of creators who worked on the source comics for the past fifty or so years, most notably Jack Kirby, the artist and co-plotter all the way back to issue number one. It’s all legal, it’s all very much “just the way it is”, but I admit it gives me pause.

(Some people have been suggesting that anyone who goes to see the movie might also make a donation to The Hero Initiative, which is a charity dedicated to helping ease the financial burdens of comic book industry vets. I can hardly argue with that formulation, and I gave. Not saying you must, as well, but there you go.)

So Marilyn Monroe has been on my mind recently, which might seem odd given how my pop culture universe has been about 78% cowboy westerns lately and that genre was not one in which Ms. Monroe operated. But there’s a larger rumination on Americana in general that’s been my brain-backdrop recently, and surely Marilyn Monroe deserves to be included in that just as much as the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood archetypes. I’ll talk more about her performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes tomorrow, but the connection here has to do with her iconic stature being reinforced by her untimely death. She may very well have been damaged goods before she ever made it to Hollywood, but getting there clearly didn’t help very much. It’s difficult to consider her at all without grappling with ideas of female exploitation – and frankly, it’s difficult these days to consume almost any pop culture at all without that kind of grappling. I’ve never claimed to be anything much above ape-like in terms of susceptibility to the allure of titillation, whether it’s the risible tween-friendly kind in evidence in Smallville’s shameless pandering or the (arguably) more artful but still prurient pay-cable nudity in Game of Thrones. But the older I get (or maybe more importantly, the more birthdays my very own daughter celebrates) the more I feel like the line between harmless and harmful exploitation is shifting on me.

And finally we come to the death of a football star, and the chilling realization that there seems to be a growing trend not just of former NFLers taking their own lives but of them choosing specifically to shoot themselves fatally in the chest so that their brains can be autopsied for ongoing investigation into repeated injuries and brain damage and so on. Which makes pulling the trigger out to be the mere culmination of a long, slow suicide that begins when a player is drafted. It makes professional football significantly less entertaining. (Behold my gift for understatement.) I know a lot of people summarily blow this whole topic off with an argument along the lines of “Those guys make millions and millions of dollars playing pro ball and thus get no sympathy from me” but that has really never held much sway in my mind. If we had voluntary gladiatorial bouts in this day and age, where people were willing to literally fight to the death on pay-per-view in exchange for millions of dollars for their families, would it be morally acceptable to be a paying member of the audience for same? Assuming the answer to that is “no”, how many shades away is the NFL’s body count now? Plus considering that, more and more as I get older, I’ve come to believe the leading research that posits human brain development (especially judgment re: self-preservation) isn’t fully complete until age 25 or so, and most football players go pro right around age 22 … to what extent is my enjoyment of a Sunday’s worth of gridiron contests unfairly exploitative? How much, exactly, should I hate myself for feeding the machinery?

I hadn’t even been vocalizing a lot of this stuff, but my wife (unsurprisingly) was right there with me, at least on the NFL question. She posed the question in equation terms: Seau’s death makes her feel pretty strongly that she could never let our son play football, because it wouldn’t be worth the risk to his health and well-being. On the other side, she’s always loved following professional football, rooting for the Steelers and generally appreciating the game enough to tune in for Sunday Night or Monday Night Football regardless of who’s playing. Can those two contradictory stances be reconciled? Is it fair to say “no child of mine” but complacently allow other people’s children to risk themselves for a technically non-essential diversion? My wife tried posing that question on Facebook but it seemed to get misinterpreted with a fair number of people not even addressing the question of whether or not to abandon the NFL but actually arguing the case that youth football isn’t that dangerous and the little guy should be allowed to suit up for Pop Warner or high school varsity or whatever if he so desires.

And I get that kneejerk reaction, I do. A wise man once told me that baseball may be our pastime, but football is our national sacrament; that’s why the Super Bowl gets played on Sunday. Saying you don’t follow the NFL because you’re just not a sports person is unusual, but forgivable; saying you don’t like pro football because the reckless physicality ruins young men’s brains forever makes you sound like an insufferably smug scold who nobody likes. So the choice seems to come down to hypocrisy versus party-poopery, which is never a fun set of options. I suppose a third option is to try, to whatever extent you can, to continue enjoying the things you enjoy while honestly (and quietly) working to change the things about them you have a problem with. Maybe fixing what’s already all around us is just as important as adding to it with brand new contributions. Maybe that can ease the guilt somewhat.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fault not the machinery

Old security arrangement at my office: no access to the suite without holding a magnetized card up to a plate on the wall which would detect the … magna-code(?) … and unlock the door.

New security arrangement: no access to the suite without swiping the magnetized stripe of a DoD identification badge through an electronic reader, which unlocks the door. Said readers are somewhat sensitive and finicky, and it is entirely possible to swipe a totally valid badge through the reader and still get the red light signal of “access denied” because the badge was not swiped at the right velocity or somesuch.

This morning: I swiped my badge through the reader and got no light signal at all. No green for “door unlocked”, no red for “access denied”, nothing. I swiped again, nothing. I started wondering if maybe the door lock had not yet been switched over from nighttime mode, when it requires both a spin dial combination and a keypad combination as well as a swiped badge. Then I looked at the way I was holding my badge and realized I had been running blank plastic through the reader instead of the magnetized stripe. I flipped the badge around and let myself in.

What I’m saying is I’ve been a little tired and distracted lately.

I still have a heavier workload than normal this week, but there are numerous bright sides. First and foremost quite possibly being the fact that my first thought when my badge swipings were going for naught was not Well, they’ve finally caught on to the fact that I don’t do much around here and they’ve laid me off. Additionally, I believe I can see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of working my way through to the end of the long to-do list lobbed at me last week. The changes and enhancements being requested have not ballooned uncontrollably into an impossibly never-ending and self-perpetuating scroll of demands, which is good. And although I was already thinking about where I had left off on Friday and would need to pick things up today as I fumbled the dumb side of my badge through the reader, those thoughts were not of the frantic variety (which I’ve had my share of in the past) that arise when I’ve left for the weekend having failed to meet a deadline because I hit a wall and still, even after brooding for 72 hours, don’t know how to get over. It’s just steady work, a little disruptive to the blogging schedule, maybe, but I really shouldn’t be complaining about that.

As previously mentioned, I definitely will not be at work tomorrow since the little girl is having her tubes inserted, thus (we fervently hope) ending the interminable ear infection and antibiotics misery-go-round. I may or may not check in here, but at the very latest regular programming will resume Wednesday with another 1001 Film Blog Club entry. Until next post, then!

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Great Disturbance in the Empire

Obviously I did not have the cognitive capacity to blog yesterday because my head a’sploded upon learning that a stupid, random batting practice injury had ended Mariano Rivera’s season and quite possibly his career. I’ve been bracing myself for the Yankees losing the Sandman for a couple of years now (dude’s not getting any younger) and wondering whether it would be better to have him retire with dignity at the top of his game, leaving us to ruefully ponder throughout the very next season if he had departed too soon, or if watching him grind out a final season which was clearly on the wrong side of one-too-many would somehow make it easier to let go. I admit I had not envisioned the “ruptured ACL while shagging ground balls” scenario, and thus was unprepared for it. Oh, Mo, you were magnificent, and probably for far longer than we had any right to expect. You will be missed.

OK, in all seriousness, my paying gig has actually been a bit ridiculously busy this week (at least relative to how my job usually reckons with workload, i.e. not at all) plus every time I tried to turn my thoughts toward child-related issues yesterday the major point to contend with was that the little girl has in fact been scheduled for a tympanostomy this coming Tuesday, which I recognize myself being way less freaked out about the second time around but is still something which needs to be kind of head-down bulldozed through until the moment when my daughter comes out from under anesthesia and the surgical nurse says everything’s going to be just fine, so let’s touch base on that front again next Thursday, shall we?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Objective validation

I tend to read a lot of reviews, although I often get the feeling that I do it differently than most everybody else. In theory, reviews exist primarily to help people decide where and when to spend their precious money and time. If a book or movie or album or whatever sounds good based on the review, the reader of said review is more likely to pick up a copy or shell out for a ticket &c. If the review is negative, and the reader identifies enough with the reviewer to suppose they too would not enjoy the work for the same reasons, then the person may reconsider going to all the trouble of checking it out for themselves. And I suspect that pretty frequently there are cases where a person is bound and determined to, for instance, go to the movies on Friday night and it just becomes a question of which movie to go see, with the respective reviews serving as a guide.

On the other hand, I very rarely go to the movies, and when I do it’s because there’s a very specific movie coming out which I would go watch no matter what kind of reviews it was getting (see: Green Lantern). And therefore I often don’t concern myself with the reviews of something I’m intending to check out, because it won’t make much difference anyway, at least not in terms of the go-see-it-or-don’t binary. It might make a difference as to how I perceive the movie, comparing my own thought processes with whatever I’ve internalized from the review, and that’s yet another reason to avoid the review in the first place. (Plus, it practically goes without saying, there’s the whole desire to see things as spoiler-free as possible in this day and age.) So no reviews, beforehand at any rate; I have been known to track down reviews after I see a movie and I’ve formed my own opinions about it, just to see how they align (or don’t) with others.

So all these reviews I’m reading are by and large for things I will never have time to see or read or listen to. They’re not for evaluation, but for information and entertainment. I like feeling like I at least know the basics of what’s out there in the multiplexes and bookstores and on the radio, and I enjoy a well-written reaction piece because that’s just the way my brain works. And it is something of a guilty pleasure to read the really catty takedowns, too. I love review sites that give letter grades in addition to 500-word write-ups, because I go straight for the D’s and F’s in search of some amusing examinations of how and why creative works fail.

Of course, all of the rules above are bound to have exceptions, and the one I’ve been slowly working my way towards concerns the newest installment of Stephen King’s Dark Tower (which, by the by, I got my copy of from Amazon on Monday). I ran across a review of The Wind Through the Keyhole at the beginning of the week and I went ahead and read it, simply because at this point I think I’m so immersed in my own Dark Tower quest (re-reading all seven original novels plus reading the latest and eighth-est) that the whole enterprise has acquired its own kind of gravity that just draws things in. As it turns out, I’m glad that I checked out the review, for a couple of reasons.

One is that the review was generally positive and, obsessive gravitational pull notwithstanding, that’s kind of a relief. The Dark Tower is the biggest of the three series in my re-visiting attempts for this year and I would hate to think I’m putting all that effort into something with continuously diminishing returns. The reviewer also acknowledged that The Dark Tower kind of loses its way a bit towards the end, never really derailing completely but never quite coming together as satisfyingly as one might hope. So it was certainly possible that Keyhole could have been yet another piece of evidence suggesting King should have quit while he was ahead. But apparently not, as the newest addition to the saga is a return to the more workable elements of the whole crazy cosmology.

The other benefit is that the review pinpointed exactly when I should plan on reading the new book. I already knew that Keyhole took place somewhere in the middle of The Dark Tower (without getting too much into specifics, the very nature of the story makes it exceedingly difficult to make much out of a prequel to the first book or a sequel to the seventh) but I wasn’t sure exactly how it was positioned. For all I knew, it could have fleshed out something that happened between any two of the seven previously-published volumes, or between two chapters in one of them. But now I know that it slots in between books four and five, which is good timing since I’m a couple of days away from finishing book three on the re-read. I might have been tempted to go straight from The Wastelands to The Wind Through the Keyhole if only to try to figure out if I had already gotten past the point of the journey the new book covers. Or, I might have convinced myself that I should read volumes one through seven contiguously, and then and only then move on to the most recent addition. But now I’m pretty sure Keyhole is intended to go in the middle (and if I’m wrong, it’s not like the endings of things can be spoiled for me, since I’ve already read the rest of the series once) so I can focus on finishing the third book, getting my hands on the fourth book, and reading that before cracking open the new stuff.

Just as well, really, because as I reminded myself this morning when I flipped to the last page of book three just to get a page count for how much I have left, I was reminded that book three literally ends in mid-scene with an unapologetic cliffhanger that resolves at the outset of book four. I remember the passage of about five years between the first time I read book three and book four finally coming out and making its way into my hands. I’m deeply thankful I don’t have to go through that part all over again.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Trifecta (The Good, the Bad, the Weird)

It seems to me that one of two polar-opposite possibilities must be true. Either I have been sufficiently stressed out lately, and therefore desperately in need of escapist entertainment, that everything which recently has given me even a momentary respite has been subjectively bestowed with a radiant aura of pure and undiluted awesome. Or, I have been in a borderline maniacally good mood lately, and therefore more exquisitely receptive to escapist entertainment than usual, and so on with the aura of awesome and whatnot. On the third hand, I suppose there’s also the theory that I’ve just had a string of good luck lately and have been consuming nothing but top-shelf quality goods. For whatever reason, that last one strikes me as the least likely.

Nevertheless! I find myself once again bereft of snark, denied any gripe-worty targets. To recap: I started re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower a few weeks ago, and found it even better than I remembered (possibly because it starts strong and then goes downhill, but let’s save that for further reflection tomorrow). Then, while pausing between volumes of that series, I watched Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad & the Ugly as a thematic companion piece, and was blown away by it. Then, apropos of nothing except that it was out there, I went to see The Cabin in the Woods in the theater and pretty much went insane over that as well. (I seem to have broken off the urge to blog about it constantly for now, although I still have more to say, but for better or worse The Avengers comes out this coming weekend, so that will give me a new Whedonian object of obsession soon enough. There may have to be a Whedon Week this year after all.)

After Cabin, I turned back to my Netflix queue and watch The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a self-evident companion’s companion to the classic 60’s spaghetti western, this time filtered through Korean cinema of the late 00’s. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record (or at the very least like a relentless shill for the movie industry in general), I have to say that The Good, the Bad, the Weird is AMAZING. It’s not exactly a remake of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly but it’s unmistakably based on its predecessor, a combination of loving homage and riff in a slightly different direction. It’s still the story of three bandit types, a bounty hunter, a hired killer, and an opportunist (I suspect the latter was changed from “ugly” to “weird” because he’s significantly more sympathetic in the Korean take), and how all three of them come to be on the trail of buried treasure. And it’s still full of both archetypal western and mytho-historical tropes, although I admit I’m entirely ignorant of 1930’s Manchuria so I’m not the best judge of where the history ends and mythology begins. But beyond those parallels, The Good, the Bad, the Weird goes its own way playing out (and ultimately resolving) the premise.

I’ve copped to this before, and I’ll cop to it again: I’m a sucker for filmmaking that is modern and stylish. Leone’s spaghetti westerns have an undeniable grandeur about them but there’s a lot to enjoy in a movie from 2008 that can make full use of all the technological developments of the past few decades. After a brief prologue in which the Bad accepts his latest job, the movie starts off with a bang as the Bad is trying to hijack a train, which just happens to be in the process of being robbed by the Weird, who has the Good hot on his heels trying to collect the price on his head. The entire train sequence is absurdly over the top, with the action of gunplay and movement through the cars of the train perfectly complimented by the camerawork – the angle and clarity of every shot, the speed of the editing, etc. As is my wont, I started watching the film on the commute one day and had to stop at the end of one leg and start again the next. I found myself watching the full train sequence twice because I didn’t want to skip past it, and on second viewing I was pretty well convinced that the movie had peaked early and nothing else could possibly top that. Imagine then the exhilaration of not one but two more action sequences, a shootout in the Ghost Market in the middle and a chase scene involving horses, motorcycles, Army jeeps and numerous artillery explosions near the end, which come insanely close to outdoing the train sequence themselves.

Another thing I’m a sucker for is the outrĂ© and exotic. I’ve seen plenty of cop movies set in New York or L.A., and no doubt will see many more, so I enjoy a different backdrop now and then, and East Asian deserts are pretty far afield. I kept idly wondering if The Good, the Bad, the Weird was really supposed to be a historical western or if it was set in some post-apocalyptic future, because everything was a strange blend of the alien and the familiar-but-out-of-context. The Good dresses like an American cowboy, the Bad dresses like Eurotrash, and the Weird dresses in a crazy hodgepodge which at one point includes an antique diving helmet used as improvised armor in the Ghost Market shootout, and yeah, pretty much right there the movie had me won over completely. The soldiers look like modern soldiers, but the roving bandits look like thrift-store hipsters, and at least one of the Bad’s posse looks like a long-haired barbarian draped in furs and wielding a war hammer. None of which is a complaint, of course, as it all makes the movie that much more visually arresting. If half of that represents what Manchuria was like in the 30’s, I may have been born at the wrong time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also commend The Good, the Bad, the Weird for its score, which is another element that is indebted in no small part to its cinematic forerunner (specifically Ennio Morricone) but also stands on its own. The music blends both eastern and western influences and produces something which has already taken up residence in my brain as the quintessential soundtrack to Asian Cowboy stories if ever there was one.

Years back, I watched The Host, which had come to my attention as Korean cinema’s answer to the monster movie, and I was glad to have watched it but felt like it didn’t quite resonate with me fully or match my expectations completely. The Good, the Bad, the Weird basically got on my queue as another swing, this time with an answer to the western, and this time the experiment was an unqualified success, exactly what I had been looking for and a fair amount of stuff that went above and beyond that. When I finish my current cowboy-mania, I can easily foresee tracking down more of Kim Ji-woon’s filmography.