Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Non-update

I got an e-mail from Amazon recently informing me about an update to my pre-order of Game of Thrones Season 2 on Blu-ray. I admit, I got a little excited because I hastily jumped to the conclusion that the set must now have a release date, and I could commence the anticipation of counting down to that specific day. Alas, no. Amazon had simply upgraded my pre-order to Release Date Delivery. So whenever Game of Thrones Season 2 does come out, the discs will be waiting on my front steps when I get home that very day. But I still have no clue when that day will be. If the past is any indicator, it will be right before Season 3 starts on HBO, sometime in the spring.

But at least the weird non-news news from Amazon gives me an excuse to use the above graphic. (And oh how I wish we could, especially since, amongst our actual adoptees, our backup dog has recently taken such a disposition toward peeing inside the house that we’ve recently started putting him in a doggie diaper. Which is hot pink. And makes him walk funny with his hind legs struggling to go in a different direction than his front legs.)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday Grab Bag, Now With More Addenda!

Another slow Monday to kick off what promises (I hope) to be another slow week at work. Other than the fact that we're about to flip the calendar to August (which means seeing my wife's scheduled workdays at her new instructor's gig has inspired me to wander around the house summarizing the month in a chant that goes "teach, teach, teach, BEACH!") there's nothing particularly profound to comment on from the clockpunching side of things.

So, since I also didn't quite manage to get my Saturday Grab Bag up this weekend, despite having started one ahead of time, I'll just go ahead and belatedly post it now. Enjoy these nuggets of workweek kickoff distraction!

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Another observation I wanted to make about Once Upon a Time in the West, along the lines of its slippery relationship with reality: it is set very much in a world that has certain intrinsic rules, and those kind of worlds only ever exist in works of fiction. Even Frank, every inch the archetypal villain, plays by the rules (which, in a weird meta-oriented way, makes Henry Fonda an even more perfect choice for the role). Frank has his chances to take what he wants by force, but he only kills when (a) he’s attacked first or (b) he can plausibly cast suspicion on someone else. There’s no good in-story reason for why Frank would behave this way, other than that being How Westerns Work. It’s a classic example of “this whole story could have been a lot shorter if …” and the movie it reminded me of the most was Casablanca, another story where some early overt violence and/or abuses of power by the antagonists could have shortened the protagonist’s stories considerably. But Casablanca is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I’m not going to hold similarities to it against any other flick.

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After I wrote my longish post last week about Wolves of the Calla, I logged into my GoodReads account to link my review of the book there to my post here. I had added the entire Dark Tower series, along with tons of other books, to my shelf of books I’d read when I first joined that site, complete with star ratings. I was somewhat surprised, going back to my own micro-review for the first time in years that back then, pre-re-read, I had only given Wolves two stars out of five. I bumped that up to three when I added the blog link. I also cross-filed the book under metafiction, because of course I did.

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Over the weekend, the little guy spent some time playing in his room and set up a little scene with various toys on the floor. The backdrop was his Fisher-Price farmhouse, with the fence segments from multiple farm sets all connected to form a large perimeter, with various animals lined up to look out over the split rails. These animal toys included several Fisher-Price horses and cows, a Lego elephant and Lego polar bear, and a massive Imaginext triceratops. I came into the little guy's room, looked at the scene, and said "Nice farm." My son rolled his eyes and corrected me: "It's a zoo." Which, you know, fair point.

Also, speaking of dinosaurs, I mentioned last week how the little girl runs around like crazy now, but I failed to work in a reference to the fact that the faster she goes, the more she tends to draw her hands and arms up very tight against her body. This has led to my wife describing the little girl's top speed as "T-rexing" because of the combo of her heavy-footed toddler gait and the foreshortening of her upper appendages. Which, again, fair point.

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Just in case I wasn't clear on Friday, I'm not an Olympics hater, myself. I think they're great, I certainly watched a fair amount of Olympics coverage over the weekend, and all of my irritation was reserved for and directed at people who hold sports in general in low regard and expect a pat on the head for overcoming their aversion two or three times a decade to make room in their hearts for the Olympiad.

That said, I do find it off-putting that there's no baseball and no softball in the Olympics this year. That is kind of weird, right?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer games

I’ve had more than my fill of articles written in the past week or two from the perspective of someone who is really excited that the Olympics are starting today. Not that they like sports enough to have a rooting interest in any particular team, or really get sports in general. But the Olympics are different! This, to me, is only slightly less annoying than the people who loudly declaim that they only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, and those people are more annoying primarily because they trot out their anti-sports stance every February instead of only every four years.

Well, nerts to all that. I like the Olympics, but I also like regular everyday sports. And so even though the opening ceremonies are today’s big news item, I want to talk about Major League Baseball.

98, 99 games into the regular season and the Yankees are playing .600 ball, which is nothing to sneeze at considering it represents the best record in the AL (and tied in the majors only by the NL-leading Washington nationals, which is bizarre in and of itself.) Of course, a team has to be playing at least .700 ball to have a chance at any of the record-breaking regular season winning percentages, and that’s pretty much out of reach at this point. With 64 games left the Yankees would have to go 54-and-10 to break .700, which even I will admit seems unlikely.

Obligatory random anecdote: I remember having a conversation with my uncle (my dad’s brother, and thus another native New Yorker and lifelong Yankees fan) back around Christmas of 1998, which was a couple of months after the Yankees won the World Series to cap off setting the modern record for best regular season record at 114-and-48. (That record has subsequently been broken, by the Mariners in 2001, by two wins.) My uncle was curious what the experience had been like for me, watching the Yankees set that record while living in a non-New York market. (Not only that, but practically a non-market, since the Nats were still the Expos back then.) I had to admit to him that it had only been on the periphery of my awareness for much of the season, because I didn’t have access to the New York press and the Yankees boosters therein (the late 20th century! I didn’t even have an internet hookup in my apartment!) and in the local coverage there wasn’t anyone terribly invested in rooting against the Yankees, either. I checked the box scores and the standings intermittently at best. My uncle was a little flabbergasted: how could I not have kept close tabs on the team than that? And my answer to him was that it just felt like I didn’t have to. I knew without looking in the paper that the Yankees were in first place basically every day, and that there was something approaching a three out of four chance that they had won the night before. And in that moment, I could tell by my uncle’s silence in response that he had never quite thought about it in those terms before.

So, to all the baseball fans who live and die by teams other than the Yankees, who contend that it’s not as much fun (or not the same kind of fun) to root for New York, I do have to make that slight concession. Sometimes there’s a grain of truth to that. When a team seems unstoppable, it no longer feels like they need you to stay awake and will them to come back in the bottom of the ninth. You can turn in early and know if they lose tonight, they’ll definitely get ‘em next time.

I say that not to gloat … well, maybe to gloat a little, since my wife has insisted that “IT’S ON!” with regards to our marital baseball rivalry but so far she’s been getting in most of the digs. And to be fair, the Orioles are totally still in it, hanging tough in second place in the AL East, within a game and a half of the wildcard berth (and even if the wildcard rules hadn’t changed this year, and there were only one slot per league instead of two, the O’s would be within two games of that). My wife claims that August is the traditional month that the O’d break her heart. I could have sworn that even at the beginning of this season she was saying that the O’s tend to get off to a promising start in April and then break her heart in May, so August seems like a significant improvement overall.

The Yankees and O’s are not playing each other this weekend – New York is hosting the last place (nope, pointing that out has not gotten old!) Red Sox and Baltimore is hosting the A’s. But the A’s are one of the teams currently occupying an AL wildcard slot, so the Orioles can increase their own chances to make the playoffs dramatically with a good series. Aaaand then it’s Yankees vs. Orioles Monday through Wednesday. If we can make it through the next week or so without someone smashing a tv remote, I think we’re doing pretty well all told.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On calendrical arbitrariness

This past weekend I took both of the kids to a birthday party; technically the invitation had been extended to the little guy, but with my wife working during the same timeframe, I was toting two for the price of one. The party was held at one of the local houses-of-bounces, which is one of the little guy’s all-time favorite places to play for any occasion (including “too rainy/hot/&c. to run around outside”) and thus was a guaranteed good time for him, but the little girl had some fun, too. She’s resiliently rough-and-tumble (though I suppose with a big brother like hers, that’s a given) and she enjoys things that are loud and fast (ibid) so being jostled around with other kids on top of a giant inflatable pad makes her laugh. I went into the open, younger-skewing bouncy house with her, and when I decided it was time to get out and take a breather, she squirmed and yowled to express her displeasure at the forced exit pretty clearly. Fortunately, she was mollified later by the availability of birthday cake.

While I was sitting with both munchkins during said obligatory (twist my arm) cake consumption, I got to thinking about the little girl’s own first birthday party a few months ago. I’ve been saying “She just turned one in April” whenever people ask me how old she is, but my wife has recently started adding “Fifteen months” to that statement, I guess partly because not everyone can do the mental calendar math instantaneously, but also because fifteen months is a pretty significant age marker for human offspring. Or my offspring, at any rate, as I seem to recall all of this applying to the little guy in approximately equal measure. At twelve months old, neither of my children could walk much on their own, but at fifteen months they were tearing around the house (or anywhere else my wife or I were brave enough to set them on their feet). They were literally speechless at their own parties, yet babbling animatedly twelve or so weeks on. Also, neither of my children was overly enthusiastic about their own first birthday cakes, as I remember. I don’t know if there was an opportunity for my son to sample it again three months later, but at the bounce house party my one-and-a-quarter daughter could not scarf down the devil’s food and white buttercream fast enough. There just generally seems to have been a certain quality of tentativeness that both my children evinced around their respective first birthdays, which had largely fallen by the wayside a season or so later.

It’s enough to make me wonder why we bother having first birthday parties for our children at all. OK, not really, I get the old-as-the-human-race concept of how significant every trip around the sun is. Life equals time on Earth and all that, and we measure time by certain standardized increments. So maybe what I’m saying is that we should add another celebration into the mix. Go ahead and acknowledge happy birthday number one, if for no other reason than to lay the groundwork for all the subsequent commemorations of the date the kid entered the world. Possibly consider ramping it down a notch though, to the immediate family and grandparents? I can’t tell you how many first birthday parties I’ve been to where the guest of honor is totally freaked out by the noise, the press of bodies, and the general overstimulation. Or, barring that, the one-year-old ignores their presents, or spits out their cake. But what a difference three months makes! If the big party with other kids and balloons and toys and cake was thrown right around the fifteen (or sixteen or eighteen) month mark, I think a better time would be had by all, including and especially the wee honoree. It would feel more significant, and the child would get to be involved as more of an active participant and less of a prop.

It’s too late for me to organize anything like that for my daughter, of course, but consider this an idea free for the taking offered to the rest of you who have yet to embark on the childrearing adventure. The Fifteen-Month Festivity! It’s totally going to be a thing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Swiped and re-swiped (Wolves of the Calla)

Here’s what you have to keep in mind with regard to Wolves of the Calla, Book V of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series: at the time it was originally published, it had been six years since the previous installment of the epic storyline. I had read the first three volumes more or less all at once, on loan from the library, the summer between high school and college. College kept me busy enough that I barely noticed the time flying by until the fourth volume came out, and I read that book while living in a townhouse with three other dudes, still very much feeling my own youth and its inherent inexhaustibility. But the next six years saw me move out of that group living arrangement and into my first real apartment, get married, get on my current career path, get set back by a bursting tech-bubble layoff, get divorced, move back in with my mom, regroup, and sort of start to put everything to rights again while steadily encroaching on my thirtieth birthday. The opportunity to return to the quest for the Dark Tower was one I took with great anticipation, but I wasn’t exactly the same person who had cracked open volume one a dozen years previously, either.

(Not that the world was really the same, either. In addition to the tech bubble’s demise, other things that had come and gone between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla included Y2K and 9/11. The world, as is so often repeated throughout the Dark Tower cycle, had moved on. And Stephen King wasn’t the same guy, either, but hold that thought for now.)

So I was excited, not just to hold the newest progression of the story in my hands but with the knowledge that, supposedly, King really was going to finish the whole series, and quite soon. What had started as some loosely connected, independently published short stories set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy western milieu had gradually morphed into a sequence of episodic novels which in theory would build to a climax, but for a long time no one (least of all Stephen King himself) was ever really quite sure if King would ever get around to tying up the whole thing. Considering the fact that King tends to write/release a couple of new books a year in addition to various other side projects, the fact that multiple years had always passed between Dark Tower volumes was never taken as a good sign. Maybe he lacked the inspiration for a fitting grand finale, maybe he had no idea how it was all supposed to end. Maybe he, like the world, had moved on. Sometimes that seemed an especially cruel trick to play on the readers, e.g. the fact that volume three ends on a life-or-death cliffhanger, or the fact that volume four only advances the master plot ever so slightly while devoting almost its entire length to flashbacks that flesh out Roland’s adolescence. But it seemed that all would be well when Wolves of the Calla was scheduled for release, because for the first time the release dates of the subsequent volumes, penultimate and ultimate for the series, were publicized as well. The entire epic was slated to wrap up in a little over a year, the last three books coming out at blinding rapid-fire speed relative to their predecessors.

But, again, in that moment in late 2003, the last two books were only a theoretical promise, and I had one book in hand to restore my faith in the Dark Tower. It very nearly failed to do so, mainly because it seemed like irrefutable evidence that King had lost interest in the series and was grinding it out just to get it finished and shut the superfans up. The book suffers from a dearth of imagination, which is lethal for a fantasy series.

I could probably come up with a dissertation’s worth of examples, but here are the big three (Spoi-diddly-oilers, obvs): plot-wise, Wolves of the Calla is almost beat for beat The Magnificent Seven (which I actually had seen and liked in high school, despite my general aversion for straight westerns); one of the major “new” characters who adds a twist to the proceedings is Father Callahan from King’s second-ever novel ‘Salem’s Lot; the bad guys are robots who dress like Doctor Doom and use hi-tech weapons of different types, including the lightsabers from Star Wars and golden snitches from Harry Potter.

Let me work my way backwards through those elements, starting with the borrower baddies. Remember, 2003, Deathly Hallows (the book) hadn’t even come out yet, so Harry Potter was still very much a going thing, and it seemed as if King were just kind of giving up trying to fight the new hotness, and just jumping on the bandwagon. Lightsabers had been around since 1977 and Doctor Doom since 1962, and I’m not sure if cribbing them was therefore better or worse than appropriating elements of quidditch. But Star Wars and the Fantastic Four are big soft spots in my overall geek fandom, so I couldn’t help but notice how glaringly weird it was to have them plunked down in the middle of Mid-World.

‘Salem’s Lot is not one of my favorite King novels; there’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but mathematically not all of them can be absolute faves. I think what rubbed me the wrong way about Father Callahan showing up in Calla Bryn Sturges was the fact that, in all the time it took for Wolves of the Calla to come out, King was at least poking the embers of the fire now and then by dropping references to the Dark Tower mythology in the other books he was publishing. Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, Desperation … they all contained little echoes and recycled bits which at least might serve to reassure the Constant Reader that King still thought about Roland and his ka-tet, even if he hadn’t quite figured out what to do with them next, at least not in any fashion that merited turning the spotlight on them for six or seven hundred pages. I know I nurtured the belief that whenever King was at a loss for a cosmic mystical element to plug a gap in one of his non-Dark Tower novels, he went back to that well because it ran so deep and was practically overflowing with ideas. So to see a King character from a 1975 novel enter the Dark Tower narrative threw that entire premise into question. If he was reduced to repeating himself, maybe the well had actually run dry.

The fact that the whole novel was an extended Magnificent Seven riff was maybe the least damning piece of evidence of creative bankruptcy. Lots of great works are homages to other earlier works (including, ahem, The Magnificent Seven itself revisiting Seven Samurai) and not only do I not have any personal aesthetic beef with that but I usually quite enjoy those kinds of exercises, because spotting the similarities, differences, inversions and so on is a fun game for me. The reason I found it frustrating in the case of Wolves of the Calla is because saving the village from the bandits is really little more than a side quest for Roland, Eddie, Susannah and Jake. It does nothing to advance the overall story and doesn’t get the heroes any closer to the series’ titular destination. Wizard and Glass kind of felt like the saga was spinning its wheels, King took six years away from the story, and then he came back and … spun the wheels some more. Pretty galling, at the time.

But, if nothing else, I am not merely a completist but a stubborn completist, and when volumes six and seven came out the following year I scooped them up and plowed through them. I was glad that I did, which I suppose should be self-evident in the fact that I snagged this year’s volume eight as soon as it became available, and voluntarily chose to re-read the entire series while I was at it. As it turns out, I enjoyed Wolves of the Calla significantly more the second time around, which I think is largely because I now see how it fits into the overall complete story, something I had no way of knowing back in 2003.

Towards the end of volume five there is a brief conversation between Eddie and Jake wherein they discuss the fact that the robot bandits look like Doctor Doom and carry Darth Vader’s weapon of choice. It gives voice to a suspicion, which plays out more in the subsequent books, that the bandits are agents of powerful forces who lack imagination and therefore borrow ideas from other, more fertile minds. It’s better than nothing, better than King trying to pass off specific copyrighted characters without comment as intrinsic parts of his fantasy admixture, along with cowboy archetypes and King Arthur and all the other elements of the previous volumes. There’s also a moment near the end where Father Callahan discovers a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot which makes him question the reality of his own existence, since he seems to be a character in a fictional novel. That starts to turn the whole series even more meta than it already was. With those closing moments in mind from the outset, I found the bandits and Father Callahan a lot easier to take.

And, as it turns out, the wheels aren’t spinning in place in Wolves of the Calla quite as much as it might seem at first glance. Story threads which are introduced in volume five (which have nothing to do with re-telling The Magnificent Seven) become hugely important in volumes six and seven. And certain themes become more and more prominent down the road, too. Villains who lack the capacity to invent and therefore steal and make real concepts like lightsabers and golden snitches aren’t just an interesting concept, they represent the major cosmic good-versus-evil dichotomy the whole epic revolves around. Creativity/creation = good, unimaginative thinking/mindless destruction = evil. And as far as the meta-story, Father Callahan taking the stage absolutely pales in comparison to the fact that King becomes a character in the series later on. Roland actually goes to Maine and interacts with Stephen King, author. His author. Compared to that, nothing in Wolves of the Calla is terribly hard to swallow.

One other significant thing happened between volumes four and five of The Dark Tower being published: King almost died. Apparently that was the impetus for him finally finishing the series, once he had recuperated enough to be back at something close to full strength. For years there had been jokes that maybe King would die before Roland ever got to the Tower, but they abruptly stopped being funny once they had come so close to coming true. Not only was King’s resolve to see the series through to completion strengthened, but it ended up being the inspiration for writing himself into the story (donning his fiction-suit, as Grant Morrison would say) which is more or less inextricable from the plot that resolves the whole grand saga. Maybe Wolves of the Calla is a little bit shaky, but considering the circumstances, I think some allowances have to be made for that. And now that I’m tripping along the Path of the Beam for the second time, I know I’m grateful that the fates allowed the whole story to be told, wobbly bits and all.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Legends of a dying breed (Once Upon a Time in the West)

I mentioned last week that recently I had not exactly been unswervingly faithful to my plan to limit my pop culture consumption to Westerns – Stephen King’s fantasy-cowboy Dark Tower as well as classic cinematic gems about frontier justice. And it’s true I’ve been mixing in other genres at will, for reasons ranging from logistical challenges to a hankering for different flavors in my diet. But I haven’t abandoned the plan altogether, and while I’m still casting around for a reasonably cheap-as-free method of getting my hands on the next Dark Tower volume, I did watch Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West over a few VRE rides late last week and yesterday.

There’s a few different ways I could come at the movie at this point: as a movie in and of itself, meriting an entry in the 1001 Films list; as a spaghetti western, which as I’ve mentioned before I’m only recently getting into as a sub-genre; and as an element of my own personal Dark Tower, Its Influences & Complimentary Works project, which probably promises to be the most fruitful. Along the first two approaches, things are fairly cut and dry. It is a great movie, whether you judge it against other westerns or other films in general. And it’s a spaghetti western, all right, interesting for coming along in Leone’s career after he swore he was done with cowboy movies, and for not featuring his muse Clint Eastwood, yet still managing to be exemplary.

Leone was interested in deconstructing the Western, but not radically reimagining it like King. So there isn’t anything really fantastical in Once Upon a Time in the West, not on the same level as the slow mutants and disembodied demons and sentient computers et al populating Roland Deschain’s Mid-World. But I still found it revealing that Leone entitled the film as he did, evoking a fairy-tale feel from the very outset. No ogres or witches in Once Upon a Time in the West, but it isn’t exactly something you’d hold up as a paragon of realism, either. It ends with a duel between two cowboys, one wearing (essentially) white and the other (unambiguously) black, a literal good-vs-evil conflict that at least feels of a piece with the struggles to find the Dark Tower and oppose the Crimson King. Everything in Once Upon a Time in the West is heightened to epic, archetypal levels, while at the same time retaining a certain grounded, gritty earthiness. It’s as if Leone walks right up to a line of suspension of disbelief, which King happily jumps across.

But, absent the outright supernatural, there was still one incredibly weird element of Once Upon a Time in the West: the overdubbing of Charles Bronson’s harmonica. Now, granted, movies are fake, even without gratuitous special effects: the characters are actors in costumes, the buildings are constructed sets. Spaghetti westerns in particular recreate American southwestern vistas in European locations. Dialogue gets re-recorded all the time, and Foley artists add the environmental noises as needed. (I may or may not have mentioned how jarring I found the utterly false-sounding gunshots and punches in Escape From New York, and that movie came along later in the evolution of the art than Once Upon a Time in the West.) And music is added in after the fact despite real life’s refusal (by and large) to have a soundtrack.

Here’s where things get exceptionally weird, though: Charles Bronson’s character (another classic nameless Leone protagonist, though he ends up being called Harmonica himself) carries a harmonica and occasionally plays a bar of just a few notes, always basically the same. But whenever he does, it doesn’t sound like a man playing a mouthorgan while sitting in a saloon; it sounds like (and in fact is) a studio recording of someone playing harmonica, with a fair amount of post-production audio engineering on top to make it sound especially haunting. And for the first half of the film or so, I couldn’t understand why they made that particular choice. I’m all for characters having their own leitmotifs in the score, and if that doleful harmonica draw had just kind of floated into the soundtrack during certain Bronson scenes, that would work for me. Or if Harmonica provided his own theme music, and it actually sounded like a cowboy having a little unenhanced blow on his instrument, that’s work too. But Bronson puts the instrument to his lips and there’s no question that he’s is supposed to be playing it in-narrative, but the sound doesn’t match up. And yet I didn’t hold this to be a flaw of the movie, in the end.

Because of course Bronson’s Harmonica turns out to be on a quest for revenge against Henry Fonda’s Frank, and when the backstory is finally revealed just before the climax, it turns out that a harmonica actually played a crucial role at a pivotal point, so really all of the preceding unreality of the harmonica sounds were a kind of musical symbolism, not realistic but mythic. And also a little bit crazy, but I tend not to find craziness terribly off-putting. Including the crazy off-the-rails tendencies of the latter installments of the Dark Tower (and tomorrow, I’ll swing back over to talking about those books specifically, too.)

And just to loop back around to qualities of a must-see film, I should mention that Fonda is fantastic as Frank, a worth-the-price-of-admission performance and then some. Once Upon a Time in the West is often known as “the western where Fonda plays against type as the villain” but that almost does the final product a disservice. Fonda makes the role memorable, not because it’s an interesting curiosity to constantly contrast his previous reputation with the nature of the character, but because he brings a cold-blooded death-dealing nightmare to irresistible life.

Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in the West is both an apt addition to the intense and other-worldly westerns I've been shoring up my Dark Tower experience with, and also another example of me spoiling myself on westerns in general by watching only the really, really good ones.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Don't believe a word I say

I mentioned last week that I was working on a project, the tasks for which included reaching out to various co-workers with whom I generally have minimal-to-zero contact. All of that actually went fine, and no one gave me any grief or blew me off; leading off with “the boss asked me to follow up on this” worked wonders in terms of getting people on board.

The project itself involved finalizing a list of documents our agency would theoretically share with other agencies, with my primary responsibility entailing building an online version of this list, but I had to reach out to others about the appropriateness of including certain documents, mostly along the lines of “This document seems really old. Do we have anything more recent, or do we go with the guidelines from the previous millennium?” (A dozen years into this century and that bit still hasn’t gotten old.) Truly thrilling stuff, determining if various governmental statements have or have not been updated or superseded at any point, and I was happy to leave those determinations in other folks’ hands.

One specific co-worker of mine was the go-to person for one particular document, which left me shaking my head after the fact. I can’t readily recall if I have mentioned this woman before, I think maybe I have? She started here after we moved from Rosslyn to Crystal City, and however competent she is in her professional role she’s just kind of clueless at every point beyond those duties. She’s not mean-spirited at all, but she manages to come across as rude sometimes simply due to her own solipsistic obliviousness. She’s the kind of person who assumes by default that if she hasn’t heard of something, it’s hyper-obscure and no one else will have heard of it either; otherwise, surely she would have been informed that she needed to know about it! That type.

Anyway, she also has a pretty limited sense of humor. She makes jokes, and she laughs at other people’s jokes, but often the jokes she makes are only funny to her and the jokes she laughs at have to be awfully broad, the kind of lame quips that when a person makes them everyone rolls their eyes, and if somebody actually finds them kneeslappingly funny it makes the joke retroactively excruciating. On the other hand she can make legitimately funny jokes excruciating as well, if her frame of reference can’t make sense of them and they have to be explained to her (and make no mistake she will insist upon an explanation).

So. I asked her, via e-mail, if a certain document from 1992 was still valid. She came over to my desk to tell me that yes, in fact, it was still valid because no revision had come along since then. Although of course she couldn’t imagine why no one had revised it in all that time. The very first thing that popped into my head, and which subsequently fell out of my mouth, was “Well, maybe it’s scheduled to be revised every twenty-one years.” Because, HA-HA, what a random arbitrary schedule that would be! Indeed, how droll the very thought! And yet, I swear, as soon as I said it my co-worker very earnestly responded, “Oh, do you think so? Why would they have it every twenty-one …” and I had to, for mercy’s sake, cut her off and say no, no, just kidding, just a joke.

I mean, truth can be stranger than both fiction and humor in the involuted world of government bureaucracy, but seriously? It’s enough to make me question the value of going through life with one eye always on the lookout for opportunities to yank people’s chains. Some rubes just take all the fun out of it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The myth of normalcy

I instinctively want to lead off this post by observing that things got a little off-track this week, schedule-wise, but seriously, when was the last time that an entire week went along like clockwork in our happy but reliably chaotic little home? The inciting incident this time round was a multi-component vaccine shot that the little girl received on Monday at her fifteen-month checkup. A good dose of infant-strength acetaminophen set her to rights for the night, but there were side-effects the following day which were close enough to sickness symptoms that daycare called my wife and politely requested that someone pick up our daughter early. My wife happened to be in my neck of the woods and on her way from her new job to her old one, so she sidetripped over to my office, I bailed on work early, we rode together to her clinic so she could clock in, and from there I proceeded to daycare and grabbed both kids and took them home. (In case it isn’t obviously clear, this was actually the most expedient way to do things since the next train I could possibly have taken home was yet hours away, the fatal flaw of the current commuting arrangement.) So that was Tuesday, and on Wednesday my wife only had to work in the afternoon/evening, while the little girl was not yet 24 hours’ cleared to return to daycare, so I got up early and Metro’d in to work, stayed for a little more than half a day, then headed home to tag in on child-minding while my wife headed in for her shift. Everything worked out timing-wise, more or less, but I can decisively confirm that the following remains true to this day: both the Orange Line and 66 West at any time of day are inhumanely dreadful.

Fortunately the little girl did in fact rally yesterday and was able to go back to daycare today with her brother (who was given the choice and opted to stay home yesterday as well), although today required another slight schedule shifting as my wife had to go in extra-early for the new job and thus I dropped the kids off and came in about an hour later than usual, and will stay an hour or so later as well. The kids will have a short day when my wife picks them up after her class, as it’s her day off at the clinic. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that tomorrow, and maybe even the majority of next week, will hew closer to what we think of as normal operating procedure.

And all for the sake of minimizing the risk of certain childhood diseases. I’m entirely pro-vaccination for everyone’s children (and yes, it is my business if your kid gets vaccinated or not, since my kid has to go out there in the same world as yours) but my geek-dad thought for the week was how you could make a sci-fi allegory out of the whole thing that would seem shockingly barbaric and insanely cruel. We deliberately expose the youngest members of the tribe to native pathogens, and our offspring must either fight off the pathogens or succumb to them. But in the end the young ones are made stronger for the experience, and the tribe is stronger as well. Except for the rare cases of bad reactions and undesirable consequences. If I were describing lizard-men who raise their hatchlings among venomous centipedes to toughen them up to be warriors, clearly they would be the villain species in my space opera. But when it’s all done by hypodermic-wielding doctors, it seems perfect reasonable.

I should also point out that, symptoms and side-effects and all, the little girl was in fine fettle all week. She runs around like crazy and wants to get into everything and is getting closer and closer to differentiating her babytalk sounds into recognizably wordlike sounds. She’s fun.

Her brother … is also fun, of course. This past weekend, during one of his sister’s naptimes, he watched Disney’s Jungle Book for the first time, with me and his mother right there on the couch to intervene if necessary should things get too scary. Yes, on the one hand, it’s Disney, and 1960’s Disney to boot, but on the other hand the little guy has gotten freaked out by the almost imperceptible frisson of dramatic tension in an episode of Mickey’s Clubhouse, so better safe than sorry. He made it through the Jungle Book like a champ, though, and has been subsequently obsessed with renaming all of his family members and pets after the characters. (I am apparently Baloo, which at first I thought must have something to do with my sloth bear belly, until the little guy informed me it was because I’m “so hairy” … there you are, then.)

The little guy has been challenging a lot lately, too, though. My wife and I prepared ourselves so rigorously for sibling rivalry and resentment just before the little girl was born, and we were pleasantly surprised by how little the reality of the situation resembled our worst fears. What I’ve subsequently learned, and would pass on to any parents expecting their second child, is that it can take a year or more for some of those things to start rearing up. I think the novelty of having a little sister/being a big brother, and of course the conscious efforts my wife and I made to fuss over the little guy and let him know he was still loved and still special, did a great deal to ameliorate any potential problems. But as the months and moths go by, every time the baby unavoidably gets special treatment it sinks into the little guy’s craw with a cumulative effect, the end result being that he engages in much more regressive behavior now than he did when the little girl was born.

One of his new favorite tricks is rejecting either/or questions, and I don’t quite know whether to be annoyed or impressed. (Probably a bit of both.) My wife and I figured out the perils and pitfalls of creating the illusion of control for him, as per all the parenting handbook suggestions, e.g. getting him dressed in the morning by saying “Do you want to wear the baseball shirt or the motorcycle shirt?” when we really don’t care what shirt he picks as long as he gets dressed so we can get out the door. But he’s on to us! And now when we pose a choice like that, he sighs piteously and insists “I can’t decide …” He doesn’t want us to decide for him, of course, but he strategically employs his indecision to bottleneck whatever we’re trying to hurry up and get done. Awful in its ingeniousness, really.

It’s hard to deal with, since it feels so very much like a step backwards, but it’s hard to get too mad at him, either. He’s almost four years old, but that’s still incredibly young to expect him to be rational, reasonable and well-behaved even part of the time, let alone most or all. I just have to keep telling myself that nothing really ever goes exactly as planned.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Anglophilistine (Withnail & I)

Withnail & I was a recent assignment in the 1001 Movies Blog Club; I only just caught up with it this week. (Barely tangential sidenote: I may have mentioned at some point in what now seems like the distant past that I was making a concerted effort to stay focused on re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, to the extent that I was selecting movies to watch between novels which somehow informed the overall aesthetic of that literary magnum opus, e.g. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. That plan started going wobbly about the time that I was called on to select an assignment, picked The Great Escape, and then felt obliged to watch it at the designated time with the rest of the Club. This despite the fact that, as I recall, there is an actual jailbreak in Dark Tower volume VI, which I haven’t quite gotten to yet. I finished volume V a week or two ago, and I should devote a post to that at some point, but suffice to say it’s “the one with the robots that non-coincidentally look like Doctor Doom” which means any time during or immediately after would have been a good time to watch Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which is emphatically NOT one of the films anyone must see before they die, but has been recommended to me by fellow comics fans as “not as bad as you might think” and thus has been in my queue for a while. Instead, after Dark Tower V, I read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and watched a minor British black comedy from the 80’s. Plans are hard.)

As usual, I enjoyed the assigned film; given that we’re working from a nominally curated list and that I tend to pick and choose based on my own tastes (occasionally making the effort to broaden my horizons but generally avoiding experimental and impenetrable stuff) and I just tend to like movies on the whole, that’s hardly surprising. What was surprising to me was that this was the first time since I jumped on the Club bandwagon that I found myself wondering why the movie at hand was considered a must-see. Again, not that I thought it was bad, per se. It’s a rambling hangout movie, it has a misanthropic edge without being overwhelmingly ugly, it has some funny quotable lines, and I understand it has quite the cult following, particularly in Britain. But there are lots of other movies that fall into some if not all of those categories, and nothing in Withnail & I struck me as superlative. Doubtless that says more about me than about the movie itself or even the notion of Films You Must See; I expect anything on a must-see list to be great in at least one dimension, whether it be a trailblazing pioneer, or a paragon of a certain school or form, or a milestone in the historical development of cinema, or just have a brilliant script or pyrotechnic acting or gorgeous cinematography or the like going for it. None of that applies to Withnail & I. It’s a good movie, and devoid of context I’d give it my standard blessing: perfectly good for what it is. But not must-see.

Not for me, anyway. Maybe (almost certainly) it’s more resonant for Britons of a certain age and/or disposition. For all my exposure through everything from my wife’s family to James Herriot to the Sex Pistols to Top Gear &c., I still … don’t really get it. Life on the dole is, to me, like life on another planet. To be a young, healthy, aspiring actor who is unemployed but nevertheless has enough money to rent a flat, own a car and fill it with gas, drink and do drugs near-constantly, and take an impromptu holiday in the countryside seems like a complaint-free existence to me, but given that Withnail and Marwood are almost wall-to-wall miserable, I must be missing something. (I found myself thinking throughout the viewing time of Workaholics, which has many similarities in terms of the substance-based self-abuse and pitch black humor of the relative have-nots, but Blake, Adam and Ders actually have jobs. Socialism, amirite?) I can also see the subplot involving Uncle Monty and his semi-repressed homosexuality, which is played for laughs but is also handled fairly sympathetically, giving the movie some additional meaningfulness in the LGBT audience, particularly given the prevailing winds of the decade in which Withnail & I arrived. Maybe that’s the simplest explanation of all, that cult movies really most properly belong to the cohort that discovered them first, back when there was little or nothing like them; you can watch them at the remove of a couple decades, but by then their impact will be significantly diluted. So it subjectively goes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Notwithstanding

My deep and abiding love for the New York Yankees notwithstanding ...

... that is one of the ugliest damn things I've ever seen in my life.

Damn.

(I suppose my deep and abiding hatred of SUVs in general factors into the overall aesthetic judgment I'm rendering, but still.)

(A couple weekends ago when we saw my grandmother, I spent some time talking with her about staying on Cape Cod for the summer, and how it meant she was surrounded by Red Sox fans, but that was all right because the Yankees are on top of the AL East and the Red Sox are hovering around the bottom of the standings. My grandma is awesome.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Five by five

Including today, I have twenty-five days of work to get through before I will begin nine consecutive days off, seven of which will be spent at the beach with my family. Is five weeks out too far off to start counting down to vacation? It better not be, because I may only be mentioning it now but, trust me, I’ve already been counting down for quite some time.

My government boss is actually on vacation this week, but left me with a moderately reasonable task to complete in her absence. The good news is that it’s fairly simple and straightforward yet would make for a good accomplishment to deliver by week’s end. The bad news is that it mostly involves delegating a bunch of tasks and putting the results together as they come back, and I can handle asking others to take a look at the tasks but I’m never entirely comfortable following up and increasing pressure on others to get things turned around, even if it’s all being done in the boss’s name, since I’m not the boss myself. We shall see how it all shakes out.

In the mean time, it occurs to me that it’s been a while since I caveated any of my work-related musings with “And I know I should feel lucky and grateful just to have a job.” Is that because I’ve truly internalized the feelings of gratitude and felicity, or a sign that the recession and bad economic times are actually fading into yesterday? I’m not sure, but one thing I do know is that the whole (no longer new) policy of no cell phones in the office is really working my nerves and making me extremely ungrateful and irritable. For one thing, we have yet to see a single classified computer terminal installed in our office suite, so all the heightened security restrictions are still pre-emptive and for largely hypothetical reasons, which is a drag. But the logistics are just so dang impractical. Today, my wife had a doctor’s appointment to have something looked at which was odd enough to be a minor cause of concern. Boom, cut to, she’s fine, it’s something but not something seriously worrisome. However, for a certain period this afternoon I was afraid to leave my desk because my desk phone was the only available means she had to contact me after her appointment to convey what the doctor said. If I had needed to leave the building altogether I could have taken my cell phone with me and turned it on once I was outside, AND left her a message to call me not at my desk but on the cell between the timestamp of the message and however long I thought I would be gone. Or maybe leave one message saying to call my cell and then, if I didn’t hear from her by the time I got back to the office, leave a second message saying ignore the first. I’m just saying it was easier when, all day, any time, she could just call my cell and get through to me, is all.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Library of Dreams

When I was in college I worked part-time in the music library, a very low-paying hourly gig which required very few hours per week, but kept me in beer and laundry money well enough. It was also an undemanding job, mostly checking things in and out (and even back in those primitive mid-90’s days, the barcode reader at the circulation desk meant that a trained monkey could have done it), re-shelving the returns, and maybe occasionally helping a fellow student find something or operating the listening equipment. But there were entire one-hour, even two-hour shifts where I never saw a sole and thus had no duties to fulfill; I was being paid just to be present, in case someone needed me, and if no one did, I still got paid. (Alert readers may detect certain similarities in that regard to my present place of employment.)

So in theory it was a great job to have because I could sit behind the circulation desk and catch up on my reading for other classes and whatnot, although I admit I probably spent more shifts playing Minesweeper than studying, and I further confess that there were a handful of early Saturday morning shifts where I laid my head on the desk and simply tried to ignore the queasy sensation of my body repairing the self-inflicted damage it had sustained on Friday night. In other words, aside from technically not being allowed to leave the desk while I was on the clock, it wasn’t much different from downtime back at my dorm room.

I had a co-worker, scheduled for the shift after mine one semester, who made a habit of showing up very early for her shift, like in the middle of mine. She would come into the library (which, as a specialty library within the music department building was really just one large room) and sit at one of the study tables and read, and then when my shift was over I would come out from behind the desk and she would move from her table to the desk, and I’d be off and she was on. I never quite got why she did that; if I were going to read for a period of time which widely overlapped a shift at the library, I still wouldn’t want to spend any more time in a silent, windowless room than absolutely necessary. If I didn’t want to interrupt my reading once I got really into it with the quick cross-campus walk from dorm to music building, I might walk over first and then sit on a bench outside until it was time to begin my shift. But, different strokes, I suppose. It’s rare that someone makes me look less compulsively bookish by comparison, but there you go.

One distinct memory I have of this girl was a day when she sat down and pulled out a few comic books to read. That at least piqued my curiosity enough to try to figure out what exact title she was reading, by squinting hard across the room at her. She noticed and correctly interpreted my expression and showed me the cover and said “It’s The Sandman, do you read it?” in a reverent tone that left no doubt as to her devotion to the series.

And the thing was, at that point in my life, not only did I not read The Sandman, I was totally, absolutely convinced it was not my cup of tea. What little I knew about it was that it was decidedly not a superhero comic, and in fact about as far away as you could get from Spider-Man and Green Lantern while still making use of little square pictures with words in them. And, as all weirdos have done since time immemorial, I immediately realized that I was a nerd and my co-worker was a nerd, but she was a lowlier nerd than I, because I read comics that were part of the major American tradition in the medium, while she read comics that were twee and artsy and lame.

All I can say in my defense is that I was 19 or 20 at the time.

The Sandman as an ongoing comics series ended not too long after that. Fortunately for me, only about 3 years later I was living with a roommate who owned reprint collections of every single issue, which was key because The Sandman was really the first major American comic to tell a complete but significantly long story. There had been series running for fifty or sixty years and hundreds and hundreds of issues, with eternal status quos and no real resolution; there had been mini-series that ran four or six or twelve issues of fast-burning glory. But The Sandman had a plan from the beginning and took 75 issues (the monthly output of a little over six years) to reveal in its entirety. I read my roommate’s copies and belatedly discovered that The Sandman was genius. (Note: this was probably the one and only positive side-effect of that particular roommate.)

The Boss IS back!

The deeper I got into The Sandman’s mind-blowing concoction of monomyth and metafiction, the more often I thought of my former co-worker (or that specific memory, since I didn’t know her as an actual person, and can’t even recall her name) and realized that I had in fact been lowlier than her, closed off to something I could not have been more wrong about. The thought has recurred to me now and then, when I’ve read other comics and novels and whatnot by The Sandman’s creator, Neil Gaiman. I should have been a diehard fan of his from the start, but I wasn’t, and lots of other people got to the party before I did. I like to think I’m a bit humbler now than I was 17 or 18 years ago, and that one particular bit of pop culture revelation is no small part of that.

I haven’t gone into too many hardcore geek-out posts since Whedon Week, but of course I’m still aware of the pop culture happenings of the moment, as always. So I was notified fairly early on today that, at the massive San Diego Comic Con going on right now, an announcement has been made that Gaiman is going to write a new Sandman prequel to be published inside the next year. That, of course, is news of no small delight to my geeky heart (and I imagine it will be regarded as very cool by my wife, as well, especially when I tell her that the artwork is going to be done by the same guy who illustrated Promethea, I mean, COME ON) but once again it’s also a moment to be thankful that I eventually got over myself and my prejudices about lame, artsy comics in the first place enough to notice new Sandman news at all.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rides of passage

So, this past weekend, we took a family roadtrip up to Connecticut. The major motivator for such an undertaking was to get our two kids in the same location as their sole surviving great-grandparent, my paternal grandmother. Technically this had been in the works since late last year, when I convinced myself that instead of buying my grandma a Christmas present I should put that same money toward flying the family down to visit her in Florida later in the winter. That iteration of the plan quickly went to pieces when I started actually researching the trip and determined that my $100 Christmas budget for grandma didn’t make much of a dent in the $1200 airfare from D.C. to the Sunshine State, plus once we got there we’d have to rent a car in which to install two carseats, and rent a hotel room, and so on. Get-together Mark II initially took shape as a plan to see the kids’ great-gram in the summer, when she comes north; driving down to Florida in the winter would be prohibitively time-consuming, but driving to Cape Cod in July? Much more manageable. More manageable on paper (or Google Maps electrons), at least, 15 to 17 hours on the road to get to Florida versus 9 hours and change on the road to Massachusetts. But 9 hours with a three year old and a one year old cooped up in the back seat still seemed like a few hours too many.

Enter Get-together Mark III! We’d roadtrip to Connecticut, to meet up with great-gram in the town where my father and stepmother and brother and sister (plus an aunt and uncle and respective families) reside, around the Fourth of July, which growing up was practically a high holy day in my extended family. As it turned out, though, my grandma was not planning on venturing from the Cape down to Connecticut for the Fourth (or at any other point other than coming from and going back to Florida) because she’s getting older and not fully comfortable with long solo drives, but the plan was salvaged by my father arranging for round-trip transport. One of my cousins, his wife and their son (one of the aforementioned local families) were heading up to the Cape to see great-gram the week of Independence Day anyway, so when they came back to Connecticut on Saturday they brought great-gram along, and my dad agreed to chauffeur his mother back to the Cape on Sunday. So Saturday turned into a bit of an event attended by me, my wife and our kids, my cousin and his wife and son, grandma, my dad, stepmom, brother and sister, plus my step-sister and her fiancĂ©. It was an all-day cookout pool party, very fun and laid back, and not only did my grandma get to meet her great-granddaughter for the very first time, but they got to swim and play in the pool together (assisted by a very cool float my wife found) and that seems to me like something pretty rare. I know my daughter won’t really remember anything from when she was fifteen months old, but it’ll be a nice story to go with the digital photos (or whatever we convert them to in the next couple decades).

In order to spend Saturday with the fam, we drove up Friday night and drove home Sunday morning, and those legs were pretty much as successful as one could hope them to be. We expected Friday to be easier, because we were leaving in the mid-afternoon and would be on the road well past the kids’ bedtimes, which meant we were counting on at least a couple hours of them being asleep in their carseats, and that much less time we’d have to keep them occupied. And that part actually worked out pretty much as we planned it. For the waking hours we had expected the little guy would watch a couple of Disney movies on the old portable DVD, and the little girl would … just be mellow, like usual? We brought toys for her, of course, but she has the requisite short attention span of a toddler. And poor little thing, she woke up from her nap Friday afternoon and pretty much went straight into her carseat for quite the extended drive, which she was not thrilled about. On the bright side, she never gets angry for very long, but there was a sizable stretch where she would fuss and cry for two minutes, then coo or be silent for two minutes, back and forth, over and over and over. Her brother, on the other hand, followed the plan to a T, and it wasn’t really his fault that the DVD player battery died after about three hours. Luckily, we were about due to stop for dinner then, and we were able to stock up on other non-electronic car activities at the rest area, but for a few minutes between the power-down and actually pulling into the Delaware House parking lot, there was a massive hue and cry from the backseat.

We tried to do better on the return trip in terms of pacing the deployment of the DVD player and so on, but got tripped up in a different way. We fueled up only a little in Connecticut because it’s a little bit ridiculous how much more expensive gasoline is there, and we hoped we could make it until late lunchtime and the Delaware House before needing to refuel, but we hit E in southern NJ and stopped on the Turnpike rather than push our luck. We were only planning to gas-n-go, and my wife jumped out of the car to take the little guy to the restroom while the little girl and I waited in line at the pumps; after filling the tank I pulled into a parking space and took the baby to catch up, by which time the little guy was pitching one of his more impossible fits, where it was hard to tell if he wanted to stay at that rest stop and eat lunch, or not, and nothing we offered him seemed to make him happy, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth only increased. We kept trying to tell him we were there for gas and there was better food at the Delaware House, and we’d get there very soon if he would just calm down and get back in the car, but he was having none of it. At one point he expressed his ineluctable rage at the whole situation by yelling “I DON’T LIKE THINGS THAT START WITH ‘D’!” Which I’m sure in his mind was about as strong a way to protest the idea of lunch at the Delaware House as he could summon. I am not completely proud to admit this, but I turned that assertion around on him immediately by asking “Not even ‘Daddy’?” And, to the little guy’s credit, that actually gave him pause, and he lowered his voice to a more moderate volume and said, “I like Daddy. But I don’t like places that start with ‘D’.” Perhaps it was due to my own highway-hypnosis and associated exhaustion, but I found that refinement of his viewpoint incredibly sweet.

We ended up just buying some snacks at the NJTP rest area (praise all benevolent deities that we live in a modern era where the humblest highway newsstands and sundry shops sell to-go containers of fresh fruit alongside the candy bars and chips) and barreling homeward on our full tank of gas, with no stop in Delaware, letting the kids eat in the backseat, and making it home in decent time to let the kids run around the house a while before dinner and bedtime. All in all, not a bad trip, considering the relatively small hardships of the journey and the worthiness of the destination. And it gave us plenty of insight into things to prepare for when we take a roadtrip to the Outer Banks next month, too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

National Awesomeness Appreciation Day

Today is the birthday of my beautiful bride!

Feel free to contact your local congressperson and express your support of declaring it a national holiday. Yeah, I know Fourth of July was just one week ago, but we might as well double up now since August is a holiday-free wasteland.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Teachy-keen

Today is the first day at a new job for my lovely wife, and it has been something of a seismic shift in our household. Much like an actual earthquake, the forces at work were acting over a long span of time, and then when things actually started shaking, it was very hard to stay ahead of the effects.

In general, my wife has become more and more disillusioned with the clinical practice of veterinary medicine, especially the inescapable realities of having to contend with management whose focus is more on the economic bottom line than the health and welfare of patients, or having to work around pet-owner clients with a similar but opposite focus (in other words, the boss wants my wife to bring in as much money as possible, and the client wants to pay as little money as possible, and my wife really just wants to increase the quality of life of dogs and cats). A corollary generally inescapable reality is that vet clinics are retail businesses, as pet owners tend to be people with disposal income (which is earned during regular business hours) and clinics expecting to make any kind of decent profit have to stay open late weeknights and/or on weekends, which means working as a clinic vet requires giving up a lot of things from social events to simple quality time with one’s family.

And in specific, the particular clinic which has been my wife’s place of employment for the past three and a half years has become a more and more difficult place to work, mostly stemming from a personal tragedy which befell the head vet a little over a year ago and which has caused extremely unpleasant fallout of varying sorts ever since. Apologies for the vagaries, but it is a long and depressing story and the only really germane point at the moment is that my wife had been questioning for a while how much longer she could work as a practicing clinical veterinarian, and really questioning how much longer she could stand all the shadows over her current workplace for a year, and the latter questions led her to accelerate a plan that had been coming together in response to the former questions.

My wife has always been school-oriented; she likes to joke that her parents groomed her from birth onward to be a college student, which was great for getting into and attending college but left her a bit adrift in terms of post-college plans, though luckily she had built up enough of a head of steam by then that things turned out more or less all right. But academic environments are ones in which she thrives, and she has found in herself as much capacity for and enjoyment of the teaching side as the learning side. Thus her gradually developing plan to transition from practicing veterinary medicine to teaching veterinary medicine, which would allow her to leverage her graduate-level education and stay in the industry with a somewhat different career focus, one that would be a lot less price-of-services-rendered-centric, and one which would also put her on a working schedule that did not include nights and weekends. In fact, with any luck, it would be a similar schedule to our own children’s schooldays, so that she could maximize the personal child-rearing and minimize the daycare, a big ol’ checkmark in the PRO column. So the plan included timing the transition around the same time both kids were in school five days a week anyway.

But then, the tragedy, the ongoing unpleasant repercussions, and coping with it all by constantly keeping one eye on the job listings. When suddenly a teaching job which did not require an impossible amount of prior teaching experience came to my wife’s attention, and she sent them her resume just to see what would happen, and there were e-mails exchanged and interviews set up and, well, here we are.

Make no mistake, it is a fantastic development. The opportunity is so golden it was impossible to even contemplate letting it pass by. In the long run (assuming things continue along present trajectories) it will be the fulfillment of the plan in the best possible way. But, as is always the case when the theoretical becomes real, there are some rough edges that don’t quite line up. The college where my wife will be helping to train future veterinary technicians is allowing her to get up to speed in the new position via a slow rolling start, partly because the entire vet tech program at the school is new. There aren’t enough students right now for her to have her own classes to teach every day, so the job is only two days a week. The pay is commensurate, which means by itself it would not be enough to cover the half of our household budget my wife usually covers. So rather than quitting the clinic job, she’s staying on, with somewhat reduced hours. Which has elicited no small amount of aggrieved negativity from her boss. And while my wife is working two jobs, the kids actually need more daycare (four days a week instead of three) rather than less. In a few months, when there’s every possibility my wife might be teaching full time and only doing clinic work on a relief, as-needed basis for extra money, the balance will be a lot better. And in a few years, when the kids are in school, the arrangement will be exceptionally good.

Right now I think it’s good, but exceptionally challenging. As I alluded to yesterday, this was a big part of why I went a couple weeks without blogging, as almost every evening was given over to grappling with the new job and new reality it brought with it. Long discussions of what we would do if my wife tried working both jobs for a few weeks and found it absolutely untenable (we agreed she would quit the clinic, making herself available for relief work if they still wanted her but getting away from the weekly schedule, and we’d tighten our belts and get through it as best we could until the college was able to give her more classes to teach). Long discussions of whether or not it was fair to put the kids in daycare more than they’ve usually been accustomed to (we decided it was, because they both love the place, the caretakers, etc.) and longer discussions of whether or not, fairness aside, my wife should feel self-excoriatingly guilty about putting the kids in daycare more often (she shouldn’t, I’m working on convincing her). Extensive analysis of everything that’s gone wrong at her present job – you know how when you have to suck it up and deal with something indefinitely, you tend not to want to think about it or talk about it much, but then when the end is in sight you finally start letting loose with all the things you’d been swallowing and stuffing deep down inside? That. And to top it all off, my wife needed to use the home computer just about every night to prepare for her first class, going over the pre-prepared materials and assembling her own additional notes and so forth. Not that I begrudged her that for a moment; the match-up of a step in the right direction toward her dream job and my random online ramblings is the epitome of a no-contest.

She made it through her first class this morning, and it went well, so that’s a good sign. But despite the fact that the new career phase is officially underway, much remains up in the air: how manageable will the commute be when summer ends and public schools are back in session? Will she be teaching full-time by then, or still splitting her attention between two part-time gigs? Will a new presidential regime next year outlaw all stripes of book-learnin’? Only time will tell!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hot and Cold

Note: for unspecified values of POPULAR and/or DEMAND.

The VRE train was exceedingly cold this morning, presumably because all of last week the temperatures kept getting up near or above 100 degrees and full-blast has become the default setting for the cars’ air conditioning. But today, rainy and high 70s during morning rush hour, that was a bit of overkill, and extra noticeable at that because the commute lasted longer than usual due to track maintenance slowing down the line speed. Not a fantastic way to kick off the week, but then again neither is coming into an office building that had its A/C turned off over the record-breaking heatwave-straddled weekend and is fairly muggy before the ventilation system has had a chance to work its magic Monday morning. Somehow, though, I will survive.

And I think (don’t want to make any untenable promises, but think) that the old blog will survive, too, at least a little bit longer. Kind of went AWOL there for a couple of weeks, which I could blame on various stances, circum- and happen- and the like. Partly it’s the technological incompatibility of the ever-evolving Blogger service and my more-antiquated-every-day GFE at work. That shouldn’t make a big difference, since the vast majority of time needed for blogging is the time it takes to write a post, and nothing’s stopping me from doing that in my downtime at the office like I used to, and the time required to post what I’ve written is miniscule, and that’s the only part of the process I no longer have access to from my cubicle. And yet, once again, I am a creature of habit and I had a good habit going with blogging from work every day, where the approaching end of said workday motivated me to get a post written and uploaded. Once those two things got uncoupled, everything fell apart. I knew even if I wrote at work I’d still have to post it from home, which meant maybe I could put off writing some (read: all) of the post until I got home as well, except of course that was highly improbable in terms of time management. And once I fell a day or two behind, recovering got harder and harder.

To say nothing of the above-invoked heatwave madness of recent weeks, or the not-invoked-before derecho that thankfully did not interrupt the flow of electricity at my house but did bring a massive tree down in our backyard (as well as bringing us some overnight guests who were blacked out at home and in desperate need of an air-conditioned place to crash). Also, in the past two weeks my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary (six years, woohoo!), daytripped down to my wife’s folks’ for Fourth of July, and weekend-roadtripped up to my dad’s for a partial family reunion including getting my 87 year old grandma to finally meet her fifteen month old great-granddaughter. Things have been busy.

And that’s not even getting into the revolutionary career developments my wife has been negotiating (in every sense of the word) which began before the blog went on hiatus and which I didn’t want to weigh in on until they were more settled, and furthermore wasn’t sure how much I should weigh in on since it’s really more her story than my story (but I do want to share the broad strokes and have already decided to devote tomorrow’s post to the subject, so stay tuned).

All to say – I’m back, didja miss me? And, of course, more to follow.