Friday, November 30, 2012

Quiet 'tude

It's fairly dead around the office today, which is probably attributable to the approaching end of the year. People are either traveling to get taskers done, or burning their vacation hours that won't roll over to give themselves long weekends. I'm in my cube, and will be pretty much all the time from here on out until New Year's, but I'm not complaining about the relatively sedate Friday easing its way toward the weekend.

I am, however, at a loss for material to post about today. It's been a bit of a long week, and I'm cartoony droop-eyed tired, with seemingly nothing much interesting ready to pop out of my mouth.

But I haven't put up so much on the blog in one month, or for so many days in a row, in a long time, so I'm granting myself the right to cap off November by basically blowing today off. I do have a Saturday Grab Bag and Sunday's Week in Queen installment all lined up, though, so don't despair. Until tomorrow!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beak and claw

A couple of weeks ago my wife took the kids to the library and the little guy went all-in on nonfiction books about animals: one was all about piranhas, one was about the feeding habits of various animals (including the octopus and the sperm whale), and one was yet another Big Book of Why (with chapters broken out by biome, including “The Ocean”). So my son has been doing quite the impression of a budding marine biologist, regaling anyone who will listen with factoids about the coloration of different piranha species and how polar bears are able to sneak up on seals and whatnot, and when he’s not holding forth directly for the edification of the rest of the family, he’s drawing pictures of giant squids or crawling on his belly across the hardwood floors pretending to be a swimming shark or something like that. It hasn’t quite reached the point of exhausting our energy or patience yet, probably in large part due to my complete understanding of getting obsessed with an area of interest.

A funny side effect of his ever-expanding intellectual curiosity, though, is the little guy’s attempt to navigate the tricky terrain between fact and fantasy. He is exposed to plenty of both, of course, and always had been, and it’s bound to raise some confusion. He knows that sometimes books are about things that are make-believe, and sometimes they are about things that are real. There is a character on Mickey’s Club House who is a giant, but that’s only pretend. On the other hand, giant squids actually exist. The distinction seems arbitrary at best! (And, honestly, given the choice between a larger-than-normal person who lives in the clouds, and an equally enormous creature with no bones, crazy-long tentacles, massive eyes and a sharp beak who lives at the bottom of the ocean, which one would you believe in?)

And then, on the other hand, there’s the fact that you can’t really survey zoology without getting into the food chain and the circle of life. And the little guy is just starting to make the connection between one living thing eating another in the wild (as the octopus preys upon the crab) and us eating meat in our home. He’s asked us if the chicken we serve for dinner used to be alive on a farm somewhere. And we told him it certainly was, and it didn’t seem to traumatize him too much; I think he identifies more with the carnivorous predators already (for a variety of reasons).

His sister identifies with them, as well, as it turns out. She’s well into the animal noises phase of her speech acquisition, and she has all the basic ones (woof, meow, moo, baa, neigh, quack, oink) down pretty well. Maybe this goes without saying, but I’m not referring to actually pronouncing an onomatopoeic word spelled, e.g., q-u-a-c-k, but to faithfully mimicking the sounds, and her throaty glottal pig-snort is especially impressive. But the most adorable animal noise in her repertoire, if I do say so myself, is her wolf howl. (We have a lot of picture books with wolves in them for some reason.) And much of the adorability is simply the great gusto with which she delivers it. Point to a picture of a cow or a dog and she will make the right noise willingly enough, but try to get her to do it over and over again and she quickly loses interest. On the other hand, point to a wolf and she will throw her head back and ululate like the moon is crazy high and bright, and she’ll keep at it for a good long while (especially if anyone joins in with her, which is pretty much impossible to resist).

The internet is THE BEST

It’s so very tempting to read into all of the above and imagine it to be highly illuminating. My son is the intellectual one, my daughter is the emotional one; my son can only play at being an animal if he’s portraying traits with accuracy; my daughter likes to howl for the sheer joy of it; &c. It’s tempting because it creates the illusion that parenting them can be relatively easy, as long as I remember which box each of them is in and what rules go with which box. “You I will raise like so, while you I will raise like thus and such.” But it’s all bogus. For one thing, any major differences between the two of them are vastly more likely to be due to their respective developmental stages than deeply ingrained personality traits. But more importantly, even if I were reading them right and the little guy tends more towards technical precision and the little girl tends more toward wild abandon, they’d still be more similar than different, and the little guy would still have emotional moments and the little girl would still have cerebral moments and expecting otherwise would just be unforgivable all around.

It’s yet another reason why I’m looking forward to having another child. I imagine I’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of seeing the kids in binary terms when there’s three of them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Beware the Cyclops (2001: A Space Odyssey)

I liked Dr. Strangelove. I liked The Shining. But finally, after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think I get why Stanley Kubrick is regarded as such a mad genius auteur. Which, you may note, is not the same thing as saying that I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey, or that I loved or hated it. I just finished it this morning, so I’m still processing it, but at the moment I feel like the movie might fall far, far outside of any place where my relative ardor or antipathy matters.

But, for whatever it’s worth, I did enjoy the experience. My relatively recent obsession with catching up on the canonized classics (which either date from before my time or which I missed and subsequently never caught up on) stems at least in part from a desire to get firsthand exposure to the primary sources of collective pop culture. I’m vaguely aware of a lot of things because of their influence on other things I’m much more familiar with. 2001: A Space Odyssey was probably one of the largest looming works on the list, and I’m not only happy to have filled in the gap for its own sake, but happy to have spent the time and energy to do so. The retroactive ability to connect certain dots now, for instance from Kubrick to George Lucas a decade later, is a bonus.

Speaking of Star Wars, the influence of 2001 is obvious, but I do think it’s funny that there are commonly repeated anecdotes about Lucas’s directorial nuance (or lack thereof) and how the vast majority of the instructions he gave to his actors were repetitions of the instructions “faster” and “more intense”. Whereas 2001 could not possibly embody more the polar opposite of those characteristics. Kubrick’s epic is glacially slow and deliberately oblique.

And normally, as you’ve no doubt surmised, I’m not a huge fan of the slow and the oblique. In fact, during the Dawn of Man segment of 2001 I found myself wondering if the whole two-and-a-half hour movie might not have benefited from some severely tighter editing. That same argument could be made throughout the subsequent segments as well, but I found myself caring less and less as the movie went on. I just became more and more fascinated by the artifact that Kubrick was so meticulously creating, and if he wanted to take his time revealing it to me, or even insist that I focus on certain aspects of it well beyond the natural inclinations of my addled attention span, so be it. I’m not sure that I would ever want to sit down and watch the whole film again; it’s definitely not the kind of movie that would suck me in on a Saturday afternoon if I were flipping around on cable and came in on the middle of it. (Which, incidentally, is one of my personal criteria for greatest personal favorite flicks, so I’m still a little surprised that 2001 polls so well as one of people’s favorite films of all time, but to each their own, I suppose.) But the fact that Kubrick constructs an entirely non-existent world and captures it on film in such realistic detail, eschewing most of the grammar of narrative storytelling in the process, putting something on-screen that is somehow both fantasy and verisimilitude, is really impressive. It’s a visionary achievement, and indisputably it is high art, full stop.

It’s tempting to good-naturedly mock the film for being dated at this point, purporting to show “the future” (most of it set 30+ years after the era in which it was made, which of course is over a decade ago for us now) and getting it almost entirely backwards or wrong: we still don’t have moon bases or commercial space flight or interplanetary hibernation-sleep missions, but we do have smartphones, which make the notion of using a pay videophone booth to call someone’s landline and missing them because they were out seem quaint. But I really, unironically loved the retro-futurism of the fashions and furnishings on the space station, and when you combine those with the psychedelic starfield visual effects in the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite segment, I think there’s some serious merit in nominating 2001, amongst all of its other well-deserved superlatives, as the most 60’s movie of all time (defining “the 60’s” in the usual manner as the cultural zeitgeist in the U.S. and U.K. between about 1964 and 1972, it goes without saying).

And I cannot possibly comment on the legacy of 2001 without coming around at last to HAL, who embodies basically all the things I’ve been talking about here. The 1960’s grappling with technology in the Space Age (and the incipient Computer Age), the unreal (or as-yet-unrealized) object that Kubrick had to invent out of nothing, the mannered and precise approach to communication, all of it. I was especially intrigued by the way that HAL manages to maintain screen presence, even without dialogue, and the weird pareidolia effect that turns an unwavering red diode and an oblong plate into a kind of recognizable yet alien face for the character. That alone would be worth the price of admission. And of course, HAL is the single element of the movie most people would bring up if you asked them to start free-associating off 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” and so on.

(Semi-random tangent: one of our college friends was recently posting tons and tons of old photos to Facebook, and my wife was checking them out. One set revolved around my 21st birthday, which several of my friends were good enough to organize and document for posterity. They took me around campus to various locations where, over the previous three years, I had engaged in memorable bouts of alcohol-fueled hijinks. Each location had been set up in advance with a sign on the ground, where a human body had been traced chalk-outline style (but in magic marker) and then filled in with quotes and reminisces about the misadventure being commemorated. Also each marker-outline had little spirals and stars around its head, in the cartoon visual shorthand connoting inebriation. The spirals and stars got progressively bigger and more numerous on each drawing, until the final one which bore the huge announcement: “MY GOD IT’S FULL OF STARS” Which is from 2001, right? I knew that back in 1995, before I had seen the movie, because everyone knows that. Except, surprise, the line isn’t in the movie. It’s in the novel, and it’s in the sequel 2010, effectively retconning it into the earlier story, but it’s not in the actual film. And now you know!)

HAL has countless descendants in sci-fi of the ship’s-computer-with-disembodied-voice lineage, and rightly so. I suspect that HAL stands out all the more brightly because he is so straightforward in every respect, while the rest of the movie embraces ambiguity. HAL speaks plainly and literally, and he’s seemingly the only force in the movie capable of taking action that brings about direct results for clear reasons. (The major exception, of course, being Dave taking HAL offline in self-defense.) But at the same time, it’s something of a shame that HAL winds up as the major cultural takeaway from 2001. Understandable, since everything else in the movie, and particularly the ending, is so elusive. HAL is easy, and quotable; the mysteries of existence are trickier still.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unreliable (The Lifespan of a Fact)

Some of the things that I like, I like because they carry strong sentimental associations from my youth (either the carefree and innocent early portion or the misspent but hella-fun latter span). Some, I like because they appeal to my interests (and the greater the number of interests reflected, the stronger the allure, in a cumulative, sometimes geometric, progression). Some, I like because they are simply inherently bizarre and make the world a more magical place, despite/because of having no connection whatsoever to any of my memories or pre-existing curiosities (unless you count a general fascination with the broadest strokes of totally gonzo weirdness).

And sometimes I like something because in some fundamental way the thing in question is just another instance of me out there in the world. And, fits of self-loathing notwithstanding, I do like myself, so it’s always a bit of a gas to come across some external and independent object – like a book – that encapsulates me. Not a book that contains what I would create if I were to have the time, energy and discipline to write one myself, but a book that contains what I would be if I were somehow reincarnated as a collection of pages between covers.

So, The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. The bad news is that once I’ve basically crowned a book with the egomaniacal praise of being a Rosetta Stone for my own brain, there’s not much else I can say about it. In the same vein, I suppose, if I were to put together some kind of required reading/viewing list for this blog, identifying the texts that illuminate what it’s all based on and what it’s all about, The Lifespan of a Fact would probably be on the top of that list. It’s fairly light on the pop culture references, although it does dwell quite a bit on the Las Vegas Strip, which is one of my favorite epicenters of sensory overload in the world. On the other hand, the more immediate subject matter is depressing (I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say at least that much as fair warning).

More importantly, it’s a meditation (and not always a tranquil one) on writing and storytelling, and the stories behind stories; on creative acts that allow us to process the events in our lives, and the blurry line between facts and truth, emotional honesty and documentation. And it manages to be all of those things in less than a hundred pages (let’s hear it for quick reads!) which utilize a compelling typographical structure (Yes, I am an enormous nerd/former layout copy editor, I know) to guide the reader simultaneously through both a magazine essay and an escalating argument between the essay’s author and the magazine’s fact-checker, with the argument literally wrapped around the essay on each page and color-coded to differentiate between agreement and dispute.

It’s good stuff, and it’s very very me stuff. I can’t require anyone to check it out, but I can recommend it, for whatever that’s worth. Of course, you may never read this blog, or really any piece of first-person writing, the same way again. But that’s not actually a bad thing at all.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Reverse psyched

When I was a lad, big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas were basically the easiest times of the year to coast through. First and foremost, school was closed, and since my parents were of the general mindset that doing well in school was my only real responsibility, not having to go to school meant I had nothing at all hanging over my head in the way of obligations (barring some kind of over-the-break long-term project, but I was a procrastinator, so same difference). There were compulsory family gatherings, to be sure, but I was very lucky in that I got along with all of my cousins and there was nary a terrifying grandparent nor awkward aunt or uncle to be found at any point. And, again, my portion of the work being shouldered was zero; all I had to do was wake up, get myself dressed, and pack whatever I might need for a day trip or at most an overnighter, including a big fat book. My father would drive to whichever household was hosting, and I would just sit in the back seat and read until we got there, answer smalltalk questions about school while other people cooked, eat what was served, and then read some more on the ride home again (unless it was too late and too dark).

Needless to say I always looked forward to these times of year a great deal.

But it all changed, as all things do. At some point everyone goes from the role of a child within a family to autonomous adult; or in my case, before I was fully autonomous the family split apart to the point where I was no longer precisely within it. When my mom and dad got divorced, it fell upon me as the one child with a driver’s license to shuttle myself and my brothers back and forth between separate celebrations with each parent, as well as the extended family. So when I graduated college and moved away, I already had a couple years experience climbing behind the wheel of the car instead of into the backseat on holidays, and of course it has stayed that way ever since.

What I’ve found is that I now have to get myself good and psyched up about the holidays in order to tackle and (hopefully) successfully accomplish the necessary to-do’s, whether they involve hosting (cleaning the house, shopping for food and drink, preparing and serving same) or being hosted (packing, driving, herding along the little ones). I still like the holidays, don’t get me wrong, and they’re worth every ounce of effort. But they’re no longer undiluted downtime; they’re a different flavor of work, as I do the pulling rather than simply being pulled along by whoever is in charge. The good news is that the sea-change happened so long ago that the psyching up happens more or less on its own in an unobtrusive subconscious kind of way.

But I also found myself a bit out of sorts today, because all of that psyching up for Thanksgiving was happening and I never, ever got to the “and done” part of the process. Sometimes the finish line is making it all the way back home again; other times it’s simply arriving at a designated point on time, after which I don’t care how or when I manage to retrace my steps. But the staggered (and staggering) illnesses of the kids this time meant that we didn’t actually go anywhere as all plans were systematically negated. In fact, for both my wife and myself there were stretches, days at a time, over the long weekend where we didn’t leave the house at all. As I explained yesterday, it was not exactly the Thanksgiving we expected, but furthermore it was not the culmination of events that my patriarchal self-concept expected, either, and being back at the office feels decidedly strange, even moreso than any Monday after a four-day weekend typically would. Fortunately, it’s incredibly quiet around here today and I have the rest of a full week to get on top of things mentally, so it could be worse. Still strange, though.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Week in Queen (4)

Given the fact that I’ve gone on the record before about how my parents were early adopters of premium cable television, and tended to leave me and my Little Bro to our own devices more often than not, it seems like it would be an uphill struggle to convince anyone that I had a particularly sheltered childhood. And yet I’m pretty sure I did, maybe not in the never-saw-naked-boobs, never-heard-a-dirty-word, never-smelled-weed-in-my-dad’s-workshop sense, but possibly in a deeper sense. Just because I was exposed to these things doesn’t mean that I understood them. At all. I was effectively sheltered by my own naïveté. I could visualize a naked woman but wasn’t at all sure what to do with one of them. I wouldn’t have a name to put to that acrid aroma in the garage for at least a decade. And I laughed at dirty jokes because it was expected, not because they made any sense with the definitions of various blue terms nebulous at best in my mind.

Which is kind of a roundabout way of admitting that when I first became aware of the music I’m chronicling in this feature, I had no clue that Freddie Mercury was gay, despite the fact that the name of the band was slang for that sexual orientation. In my own retro-speculation, if you had asked me back then what the first thing I thought of when I heard the word “Queen” was, I’d probably say the chess piece. And then I could have nerdily rattled off a dozen more meanings and associations without ever getting close to homosexuality, because I had zero knowledge of that connotation. I may have been allowed to watch movies and listen to music at my own discretion, but outside of pop culture my life was extremely mainstream and as heteronormative as could be: two parents, father worked in an office, mom stayed home, lived in a detached house on a cul de sac, &c. So maybe I was kind of externally sheltered after all, and pop culture was a relatively tiny window out the side of the box, but what I saw out there either reinforced what I already knew or was flatly incomprehensible because I lacked a point of reference.

Our parents took us to church every Sunday, too, and sent us to Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Since I didn’t go to Catholic school, CCD was mandatory in order to hit all those big childhood sacramental milestones (confession, communion, confirmation) but after being confirmed at the end of seventh grade, eighth grade CCD was considered optional enough that my Sunday School peer group went from two separate classes of fifteen or so to a single class of four (unhappy to be there) thirteen-year-olds. I don’t remember much from that year of CCD, except that the teacher’s approach seemed to be to prepare us all for living in the world as Catholic adults by telling us how horrible and sinful secular society was. I do remember spending a couple of weeks going over some handouts which were lists of rock and pop acts and explanations of why they were all immoral and depraved and what hidden anti-Christian messages they were spreading. The Rolling Stones got a shout-out for Sympathy for the Devil as well as Goat Soup (the goat being an obvious diabolic symbol). The Doobie Brothers were indicted for promoting drug use. And both AC/DC and Queen were mentioned for their glorification of sexual deviance and perversity (because “AC/DC” is slang for bisexual just like “Queen” is for gay). And weirdly enough I remember thinking (aside from the fact that my dad was a huge Stones fan and had introduced me to the Doobie Brothers as well) that I never got a swingin-both-ways vibe from AC/DC … but the Queen thing clicked at that point as making perfect sense.

Of course at that point I think I still only half got it. Once the idea was spelled out for me, I could see how Queen’s reputation for campiness and Freddie Mercury’s butch, mustachioed appearance were right in line with my young teenage apperception of the gay lifestyle. It would still be another few years before I really got the gist of the sexual politics in a lot of Queen songs. I mentioned last week that I think most Queen songs have a certain technical precision of musicality that borders on perfect; in addition, I’d posit it’s that skill in execution which allows Queen to get away with certain excesses. The camp, of course, because camp done badly is just pathetic. But also the emotional content of the songs, a lot of which are about anger or frustration or despair in pretty bleak terms. The best Queen songs (e.g. “Under Pressure” and “Somebody to Love”) absolutely seethe with dark menace on some level. And if anger and frustration and despair don’t get to the heart of what it felt like to be a born romantic who happened to be gay in the late 70’s and early 80’s, they must at least be within shouting distance. Once I started empathizing with those sentiments, Queen went from being one of my guilty pleasures to … well, something I could apparently write a limitless number of weekly 1000-word essays about.

Monday: Queen-free, although my wife and I both noticed that Jon Gruden dropped a Queen reference during the MNF broadcast. We noticed the oddness of it in particular, as he said "What's that song I like? 'We Will Rock You'?" Like he was the only person who likes Queen's jock-jammiest tune. Gruden is CRAZY.

Tuesday, 12:05 pm: "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions" on Big 100 FM, heard through the monitor while the little girl was napping. And followed immediately by "Under Pressure" because it was Twofer Tuesday, thus definitively answering the question as to whether or not the "Rock You/Champions" combo counts as a single track or meets the twofer obligation in and of itself. Apparently yes to the former, no to the latter.

Wednesday: Queen-free.

Thursday: Also Queen-free. "Feast or famine" seems appropriate for this week, at least.

Friday, 12:30 pm: "Somebody to Love" on Big 100 FM during naptime.

Saturday, 2:45 pm: "Bohemian Rhapsody" on 102.7 Jack FM on my way to the grocery store.

Sunday: Queen-free.

Wampanoag's Revenge

The long weekend is drawing to a close, and it has in fact been a long weekend, as the bulk of our observations of Thanksgiving revolved (perhaps historically appropriately enough) around germs trying to kill us. I don't think I identified the malady earlier, but the little girl's fever was brought on by a nasty case of strep throat, which was diagnosed on Wednesday, at which point she started a course of antibiotics. According to the pediatrician, she would no longer be contagious within about 24 - 48 hours of starting the antibiotics, so between Thursday and Friday evening. That put the kibosh on driving down to my inlaws' on Thanksgiving Day, but we figured we could reschedule, my wife's mother could delay cooking the great big bird for another day or so, and we could have a belated Thanksgiving dinner together on Friday (possibly) or Saturday (more likely).

So on Friday the little girl had a bit of a fever and had not really slept well the night before, and thus we resolved to stay put and do our holiday traveling/celebrating on Saturday. We all made it through the day on Friday relatively uneventfully and went to bed, woke up Saturday morning and started in on a quick breakfast before hitting the road.

Right after Saturday breakfast, before we started cracking the whips on getting dressed and so forth, the little guy crawled into my lap on the couch and told me he didn't feel good. And we had a fairly drawn out conversation about how his sister had been getting a lot of attention the past few days because she was sick, and I would understand if he felt jealous and wanted some attention to, but it was important to tell the truth and know the difference between feeling sad and feeling sick. He insisted he really did feel sick. And displaying the flair for showmanship that my children evince all the time, he got up off my lap, walked to the dead center of the living room rug, put his hands on his knees, and proceeded to hork up all the bananas and milk he had just consumed for breakfast.

Even before I could process what had just happened and get up to fetch a bucket and some paper towels, my wife very definitively announced, "Well, we're not going anywhere today." And not that it does anything but break my heart to see my kids laid low by illness, but I admit there is something reassuring in a parental decision being a circumstantial no-brainer. My wife and I tend to agonize over decisions that could go either way, and parse every aspect of how far along the "on the mend" curve each child is situated as we try to predict whether or not taking them somewhere (or more often and to the point, getting them back home again late at night) is worth the potential aggravation. But there was no discussion necessary this time; Thanksgiving was officially cancelled.

The weekend wasn't a total loss, I hasten to add. We had a pretty magnificent little family feast on Thursday night consisting of stuffed shells and ribeye steaks and homemade creamed spinach (two-thirds of which was whipped up by my wife; I trust you all to identify which segment was my contribution). Friday night was pretty typical fare, too, but then on Saturday my wife roasted a whole chicken to go along with the crock pot dressing and homemade macaroni and cheese she had been preparing in advance of visiting her parents, and which now fell to us to put to good use.

The little guy rallied almost right away (after enjoying the invalid's benefit of having the entire den couch to himself all morning while he watched about a half dozen episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse) and the little girl finally slept through the night last night, for the first time in a week or so, and it therefore seems (knock holy hell out of wood) that we've run the gauntlet once again and things are getting back to normal, just in time for my wife to go do some vet work at the animal shelter today, and me to return to the Big gray tomorrow.

And it's still only November.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Scenes from a sick day

This past Tuesday, when I bailed on work in order to keep the little girl out of daycare, one of my parental tasks was to take a mid-morning axillary temperature reading to see if she was still running as high a fever as she had had the night before. I accomplished this fairly easily, giving thanks all the while that (in this regard at least) she’s a lot more cooperative/less squirmy than her brother was at the same age. That temp-taking yielded a nice low number (though it would spike again later that night) and I turned her loose to play, while I sat on the couch to finish the book I would have otherwise polished off on my morning commute.

I use my monthly train pass as a bookmark, because I’m inherently more likely to remember whatever book I’m currently reading than to remember the ticket in and of itself, so it was sticking out of the book as I read. At one point the little girl wandered over to me and grabbed the ticket and ran off with it. She seemed to be enjoying herself so I didn’t make a fuss; I figured it couldn’t be too hard to track it down later.

The little girl soon moved on to playing with some of her dolls and stuffed animals. Usually her go-to pretend activity is to lay the toy down on the floor, drape a blanket (or towel or other blankety stand-in) over the toy, and pat its back while making “shh-shh-shh” noises. Sometimes she’ll gather up the doll and blanket in her arms and walk around, patting its back and shh-shh-shh-ing. She did all this on Tuesday, of course, but into the mix she added taking the dolls’ temperatures. Perfectly understandable, since the thermometer looks a bit like a toy anyway with its rubber duckie shaped handle, not to mention how quick on the uptake the little girl is. It was truly adorable.

When I finished my book I took a quick look around the living room and dining room and kitchen to see if I could spot my purloined train pass, but I could not. I still didn’t think it could have gotten very far.

A bit later it was time for the little girl to have a nap, and I had planned all along to really do a focused sweep for the train pass once she was safely ensconced in her crib. And so I did, getting down on my hands and knees to crawl around at her approximate eye-level, looking through our pile of shoes in the foyer and peering under the dishwasher and fridge and poking through the top layer of the garbage can’s contents and digging around in the various toyboxes in the living room, all to no avail. I was beginning to do the math on buying a one-week ticket for the last week of the month versus taking my chances hoping the VRE conductors would recognize me and not ask to see my ticket at all, and I didn’t like the way that equation was balancing. Finally in desperation I checked my work bag, which was sitting on one of the dining room chairs, and lo and behold, that was exactly where the little girl had safely tucked my train ticket. Whew.

She woke up after two hours, which was reasonable enough (though after her semi-sleepless night I was somewhat optimistic she might sleep for three or four hours), and a couple of hours later we went to collect her brother from daycare. Once we were all home I wanted to take his temperature to see if he might be coming down with whatever she had, but I could not find the thermometer. I checked every sleeve of every article of clothing worn by every doll and teddy bear, but no luck. So I moved on to making dinner and then to the little girl’s bedtime rituals. Fortunately, we have two digital thermometers, so I used the other one to discover she was feverish again, and medicated her accordingly, and got her ready for bed.

On Wednesday I returned to the office, and as is my customary post-arrival routine I set my work bag on my desk and rooted through it to dig out the charger for my cell phone and the access card for my GFE and whatnot. Under my day planner and my sunglasses, I also happened to find a digital thermometer with a rubber duckie handle.

Twice may only be a coincidence as opposed to a map-worthy pattern, but I certainly know the first place I’m going to look the next time I can’t find something and the last place I saw it was in my daughter’s tiny plundering hands.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

I AM THE NIGHT.

I am not sure what to make of a day where dinner is at 2 in the afternoon.

Oh, well. Happy Turkey Day anyway, Pilgrim Batman!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Expressionism disappointment (The Night of the Hunter)

It’s 1001 Movies Blog Club time again! And once again we’ve cycled around to a movie chosen by me for the club as a whole to watch, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, the sole film directed by the legendary actor Charles Laughton.

Here are some nice things I can say about The Night of the Hunter (as filtered through some of my major preoccupations):

There seems to be a direct line between Robert Mitchum’s evil-personified character the preacher Harry Powell and Lilian Gish’s virtue-personified character Rachel Cooper and the parallel archetypes from Stephen King’s The Stand, Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail. Like, a really bold unbroken line. I haven’t found any online corroboration of this theory of mine (most references to The Night of the Hunter’s influences stay within the realm of cinema) but if I were the kind of person who edited Wikipedia, I might try to slip it in. Mitchum and Gish really turn in the standout performances in the movie, too.

I can’t argue with the historical significance of the film. It’s a very personal vision that was entirely at odds with what was fashionable in filmmaking at the time, it adapts a popular novel which in turn was based on a true story, and in addition to the involvement of Laughton and Mitchum and Gish you also get performances by Shelley Winters and Peter Graves, all worthy of curated preservation.

This movie would have made an amazing graphic novel. I think a lot of the shot compositions would work even better as tableau images, and it could have been even more stylized given the simple freedom to do more on paper than can be realistically filmed in the physical world. And the dialogue just might flow better as words on a page rather than coming out of the mouths of human beings …

OK, I’m verging away from compliments and into criticism here, so I may as well abandon the pretense. I didn’t particularly like this movie, and that was all the more emphatically disappointing because I had such high hopes. Not only is it on the 1001 list, but it’s also entered in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, and when the Criterion DVD came out a couple years ago, one of my go-to pop culture outlets gave it a gushingly good review. I’d been meaning to see it ever since.

It created a very interesting juxtaposition, watching this movie within days of watching Cloverfield, for a couple of reasons. One is the notion of artifice. Cloverfield invokes the fantasy of a giant rampaging monstrosity and an abandoned New York City, and relies on a well-meaning but kind of dim character doggedly capturing the entire adventure on a camcorder. But somehow it works and it all hangs together, creating this insistent hyper-reality. Maybe I’m just more forgiving of genre stories to begin with; in for a penny in for a pound and if I’m willing to accept a colossal amphibious mutant as the big bad guy, I can roll with the rest of it. The Night of the Hunter is supposed to be more realistic, in terms of its subject matter, at least. The only monster in sight is a hypocritically Bible-quoting misogynist murderer. But, to me, the whole enterprise just has a thudding artificiality to it. There are outdoor scenes clearly shot on soundstages, and intercut with close-ups of live animals which only call undue attention to the fakery. The dialogue, as I alluded to above, is so stilted, and the characters often behave in ways that defy common sense and logic.

Mitchum’s performance here is widely praised and probably the most famous element of the movie, and I found it to be one of the more enjoyable aspects of the viewing experience, but I also thought it was pretty hit or miss. It has a reputation for being chilling and disturbing, and it is that … sometimes. But at other times it’s very hammy, which I think is supposed to indicate to the audience that Harry Powell is a charlatan putting on false piety. The problem is that almost nobody else in the movie sees through this, which beggars belief.

There are some indelible images throughout, too, but to my great frustration they kept getting undercut. When Powell’s shadow falls through the bedroom window and obliterates young John Harper’s own silhouette, it’s an impeccably executed moment. But then John looks out the upstairs window and sees Powell standing on the ground in front of the streetlamp, which only reminds the viewer that for Powell’s shadow to have been cast through the window as it was, he’d have to be 12 feet tall or the streetlamp would have to stand only two feet off the ground, neither of which is true. Or later, after Powell has murdered John’s mother Willa, there is a gorgeous tracking shot through the water, showing the bound corpse of the woman submerged in a roadster, her hair undulating in the current along with the reeds growing up from the riverbed. Then a fish hook catches on the frame of the car, and the next shot is of old Uncle Birdie fishing in a boat above. And then we get an overhead shot looking down at the skiff on the river, to see what Birdie sees: Willa and her car underwater. Perfectly visible under crystal clear water that is supposed to be the Ohio River but is obviously a stage-dressed tank.

The word “lyrical” seems to be applied to The Night of the Hunter with regularity, along with “dreamlike” and I get that that’s the intent throughout the movie, I just think it falls short, technically. For me, emotional abstractions and dreams are not places where you can see the seams of construction. There’s a difference between presenting something new which does not resemble anything recognizable in the real world, and presenting something artificially assembled with visible component parts. I’m not sure I’m doing a fantastic job explaining where the line is separating acceptable and unacceptable departures between a film world and believability, but some things work and some things don’t and a lot of The Night of the Hunter just didn’t, for me.

Another notion to compare and contrast with Cloverfield is fear. The Night of the Hunter has a reputation as being one of the scariest movies of all time, and some people even go so far as to call it a horror-thriller. Are you kidding me (he said with flat affect, denying the need for a question mark). At best, I would say it is a movie which inspires great discomfort. And maybe I’m in a uniquely disadvantaged position to judge, having just come off a binge of horror flicks, but here we are. There is a very, very effective sequence where John and his sister Pearl are fleeing from Powell, and both the stakes and the tension are high and everything works thrillingly. My heart wasn’t pounding quite the way it did watching Cloverfield, but I was fully emotionally invested (also, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about Everything Is Different Now and my low threshold for abiding the thought of children in peril, but yes, that). Weirdly, though, that sequence comes about two-thirds of the way through the movie, which had me wondering where the story would go from there. The answer turns out to be a lot of meandering, introductions of new characters, a highly unsatisfactory ending to the exploits of Harry Powell, and a fair amount of speechifying about the resilience of children.

Ultimately, The Night of the Hunter is a sleepy movie about a creepy guy who is really more of a buffoon than anything, until it’s not really about him anymore. It has some memorable expressionist-inspired imagery, and some forgettable imagery. It has some impressive displays of on-screen charisma, and some painfully wooden frame-occupiers. And I haven’t even touched on the whole undercurrent of sexual dysfunction and the story’s bizarre indecisiveness as to whether Powell is a psychopath who thinks he’s on a holy mission to kill impure (read: all) women, or just a greedy thug looking to get his hands on the thousands of dollars another felon stole and hid. Or maybe I just did. At any rate, it’s good but not great, interesting and significant but not essential. So say I, in my minority and contrarian opinion!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Burnination

Last night the little girl was only sleeping fitfully while her mother and I were still up and about; she would cry a little, then settle back down for a while on her own, then cry a little, settle, and so on. By the time we did retire to the bedroom, my wife decided it was worth getting the little girl out of her crib to take her temperature and see if she was legitimately under the weather. She was, and then some, with a fever up over 102, although the thermometer reading and her minorly interrupted sleep were really the only symptoms.

Of course that means a 24 hour prohibition from going to daycare, and once again timing is everything as Thanksgiving's expanse across Thursday and Friday meant that Tuesday was going to be the only day either of the kids would be headed to daycare. And Tuesday also happens to be my wife's last day of instruction with her students before their last exam of the module, so it was immediately apparent that I would be the one staying home for the sick day. I turned my alarm off straightaway.

And it was a good thing I did, because after getting some infant fever-reducer and spending some time lazing in mommy and daddy's bed, the little girl was returned to her crib but still had a very difficult time falling asleep, now accompanied by even more crying. And once we finally got her down for the count, it was only a very short span until the little guy woke up and decided he'd rather sleep in mommy and daddy's bed, right around 3 in the morning. (It should be noted that these were completely independent developments, not a case of the sick toddler's crying waking up her older brother and creating a new set of complications. Just one of those nights.) Between tossing and turning, twitching and thrashing, and a fair amount of coughing, the little guy kept both my wife and me awake for a while until I carried him back to his own bed. I fully expected a weapons-grade tantrum, and in hopes of neutralizing it I offered to lay down with him in his bed for a little while, and miraculously, that worked. A short while later I took my leave and crawled back into my side of my own bed, and caught another couple hours of sleep. But, again, if the alarm had gone off, it would have been minutes, not hours, so that was a plus.

So my wife bravely soldiered off to work this morning and I got the little guy off to daycare and returned home with his still-pajama'd sister, and we've been having a nice low-key day. The unexpected downtime also has the benefit of giving me time to work on some financial paperwork for the short sale of my old townhouse, which is something we are definitely doing! We met with our realtor last night, the tenants are moving out on the last day of this month, and things are moving along. The short sale is a net positive in that it's going to make our household budgetary situation a lot more manageable once that mortgage payment goes away, but it's not exactly the ideal way of getting there. Of course, waiting patiently for the housing market to not only recover but resume its formerly inflated price structure isn't ideal for us either, which is how we got here to begin with. Time to just let ideal go its merry, elusive way and move on, I suppose.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Short week, high expectations

Here’s as brief a summary as I can manage of what’s up with the demands of my job right now: as always I am responsible for a few custom-built internal systems that facilitate people doing the business our agency is responsible for. They use other systems to carry out this business as well, one of which is transitioning from the unclassified network to the classified network. In response, one system I am responsible for has to follow suit, and by default I am responsible for making this happen.

I can’t make it happen on my own, of course; that would be far too simple. So I have to submit the request to other people who could move a system from unclassified to classified status/environment, and I have to make enough noise to guarantee that said request is not ignored or forgotten, and when said request is completed I have to test everything out and make sure they did it right, &c. &c. If anybody gets stuck with those kind of once-removed responsibilities, it makes perfect sense that it would be me, so I’m not complaining about that. Part of me wishes I could roll up my sleeves, wade into the tangled wires of the server racks myself, and make everything happen that needs to happen, but another part of me suspects that the whole enterprise is too complicated for anyone to have that level of access and authority, so that basically amounts to wishing for some impossibility of non-existence.

We (the most affected parties within my agency and I) have known this clearance-upgrade moment of reckoning was coming for a long time now, probably since the middle of the summer, which negates somewhat my ability to complain that this task is being unceremoniously dumped on me out of nowhere. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of government contracting, it’s that sometimes things spoken of in the future tense never really come to pass, so spending too much time today trying to prepare for tomorrow is often a waste of time and energy. And on top of that, the original estimates were that my system would have to migrate by the end of the year; this has suddenly become my most urgent, double-plus-critical responsibility because the admins of the system transitioning ahead of mine decided, seemingly out of the blue about two weeks ago, to stop all support of the unclassified side effective immediately. So my deadline jumped from year-end-if-it-actually-happens-which-we’ll-see to A.S.A.P. Which is always fun.

So I can’t really complain about the timing, or the nature of the bureaucracy and all its apparatus, or the work itself. I guess maybe I’m not actually complaining? Just explaining, I guess, especially since I’ve been on a bit of a roll with the blog content (occasional belated-and-backdated post notwithstanding) but I feel like it could all come to a crashing halt if I get pulled into an all-day meeting (or more than one) about how excruciating the catch-up process in jumping classification-levels is going to be. If that does happen, at least now you’ll know some of the backstory in advance and my abrupt silence won’t come as such a surprise.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Week in Queen (3)

Personally, I think Queen has an impressively deep discography, especially considering it was a grand total of 18 years between their debut album and Freddie Mercury’s death; there are bands with over two or three or four decades worth of recording existence under their belts who have fewer solid tracks to show for it. I would hazard a guess that Queen has at least twelve songs that pretty much everyone who had standard Western levels of pop culture exposure in the 80’s would recognize. (“Killer Queen”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “You’re My Best Friend”, “Somebody to Love”, “We Are the Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, “Bicycle Race”, “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Under Pressure”, and “I Want It All”) As is often the case with the free-floating constant overstimulation of our world of radio and tv and movies and whatnot, I’ll also grant that most non-obsessive people might not know all of those songs by heart or even by name, or realize that they are Queen songs. I’m just saying if you played any one of those songs, a person would be more likely than not to nod along in a way that indicates it triggers some memory or other.

Of course, as is distressingly often the case, just because Queen has achieved near-ubiquity on throwback radio (and sports venues and car commercials &c.) doesn’t mean that the full scope of their oeuvre is well-represented these days. “Bohemian Rhapsody” will live forever, and so will “We Will Rock You”/”We Are the Champions” but I concede that if you flip the question around and just ask people to name songs by Queen off the top of their head, rather than jarring their memory by playing selected samples, drawing a blank after the first three or four monster hits would be perfectly understandable. Depending on how long this experiment of mine goes on, I’ll be curious to see not just how many days in a given span of time include me hearing Queen somewhere, but how the numbers break out for each song. So stayed tuned for that thrilling bit of datacrunching.

Speaking of numbers, in case you were curious, here are my personal Top Five Favorite Queen Songs. (To the shock of exactly no one I’m sure, it starts off with deeper cuts outside the dozen canonical singles I rattled off above, ‘cause that’s how I roll, but it comes around to the universally acclaimed again eventually.)

5. "Stone Cold Crazy" This song got a boost in my awareness when Metallica covered it in the early 90's, during the most full-throated phase of my interest in all things Hetfield and Ulrich. But the original is pretty badass in and of itself.

4. "Princes of the Universe" The de facto themesong of the movie Highlander, as well as numerous RPG-inspired soundtracks assembled by my geek friends and I over the years. If superheroes had a national anthem, this would be it.

3. "Don’t Stop Me Now" Without a doubt my favorite comic setpiece in the movie Shaun of the Dead is the one where the camera tracks in a circle around the threesome beating the hell out of a zombie in the Winchester, not merely set to this song but with each blow perfectly synchronized to the song. Musically, this song is impeccable, but isn't that kind of the point of most Queen songs? So it's the Shaun of the Dead bit that pushes it up so high.

2. "Under Pressure" Queen and the Thin White Duke? Brilliant. Like many Queen tunes, it's all about the build-up to the triumphant climax. This one does it better than almost any other, except ...

1. "Somebody to Love" I am so into this song that whenever I hear it I throw myself unreservedly into the attempt to sing along with it at the top of my lungs, even though that is essentially impossible. Overlapping call-and-response between Freddie and a full choir with non-repeating phrasings and rhythms, yeah, good luck with that trainwreck. Nonetheless if I ever learn to play the piano I will eventually turn my attentions to this song and figuring out a way to arrange it for solo performance. I will!

To the Queendown!

Monday, 6:00 am: "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" on Big 100 FM as I left for work. Due to the Veteran's Day holiday I had to drive all the way out to the Metro, which gave me some extra radio-listening time, but I just wanted to note that even if I had been on my usual schedule, the song would have fallen within my shorter drivetime.

Monday, 7:45 pm: "Another One Bites the Dust" on Big 100 FM during the little girl's settling-down-to-sleep musical interlude. Once again this was second-hand via the baby monitor, and also accompanied by a long meaningful look from my wife, also within earshot. She is on-board with my continuing field research.

Tuesday, 5:35 pm: "Bohemian Rhapsody" on 102.7 Jack FM while driving the kids home from daycare.

Wednesday, 3:55 pm: "Somebody to Love" on 102.7 Jack FM as soon as I got in the car to drive home from the Metro station, and boy did I need it. Dentist's appointment followed by hellish 66/Metro commute in the morning, and another Orange Line ride back out a few hours later? Oy.

Thursday, 9:50 am: "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the streaming music service in the minimart connected to the lobby of my building, when I went down to get a mid-morning Coke.

Friday: Queen-free.

Saturday, 12:35 pm: "Another One Bites the Dust" on Big 100 FM as I was getting the little girl settled for her midday room. So I was actually in the room with the radio, not listening through the monitor.

Sunday: Queen-free (despite a good 30 to 45 minutes listening to the 70's on 7 on Sirius XM around dinner time).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Grab Bag Fun 'n' Games

This past Wednesday I had a few friends over for geeky game night, which I hadn't done in forever. It was a lot of fun, as they taught me a new card game called Gloom, which is full of morbid humor as the object is to kill off an entire family of Gorey/Addams-style characters but only after amassing negative points for various misfortunes befalling them. (Morbid humor was kind of one of my themes for the week this past week, since I was also reading John Hodgman's That Is All on the commute, and that book is all about the End Times. All in all a nice palate cleanser after Spooktober(vember)fest.)

Fortunately for me and my wife, most of our friends fall into two categories: either they also have pets, or someone in their family is allergic to animals. So everybody who hadn't been to my house in months and months was delighted to see all of our cats and dogs again. This is always a double-edged phenomenon from my perspective, because the pets (the dogs in particular) go positively insane basking in the attention. It makes me feel downright neglectful as their owner, but I take some solace in that fact that at least the beasts are finally getting some interaction, and apparently haven't lost their capacity to appreciate human affection.

Of course the dogs can barely manage to do even that right, because as soon as one of them gets petted the other one starts whimpering and whining out of jealousy, and if anyone should shift their attention from one to the other the whimpering and whining in protest for the cease-petting is even worse. Luckily my friends are both indulgent and ambidextrous (at fur-stroking, at least).

+++

As my friends were leaving, I diverted my buddy Clutch through the kitchen to show him something the little guy had brought home from school. The Montessori class had done an entire monthlong unit on architecture and cities, and each child had picked a kind of building to design and incorporate in their model city. This was one of those big deals that included notifying the parents and scheduling an after-work ribbon-cutting ceremony for the unveiling of the entire model city, which my wife and I duly planned on attending (I ended up going but my wife was unavoidably detained at work, alas.)

At any rate, I was somewhat excited to see the results of the kids' work, at least partially because of my own geeky interest in creating buildings and other types of terrain for use in tabletop wargaming. I'm always interested in picking up new techniques and exposing myself to potential inspiration.

But the joke was on me because the model city of Popperville ended up being a collection of cardboard boxes, each painted one solid color with tempera paint. And really, what else did I rightfully expect? The Montessori class is three and four year olds. The teacher, to her credit, walked the kids through all kinds of lessons over the course of the month, teaching them about blueprints and having kids draw their own, then moving on to the actual buildings, etc. I'm sure it was very educational. Nonetheless I couldn't resist telling the little guy that he could make his building, which was a white cuboid that he informed me was a house, look even more house-like if he drew on other details like windows and doors. And the little guy agreed that sounded pretty cool, and did so.

I showed the enhanced House v 2.0 to Clutch, who is also a tabletop wargamer, and he immediately pointed out that the door and window had been drawn on upside down. Meaning when the box was oriented with the door touching the ground and the window above it, the open end of the box was facing up, which means the building has no roof for little gaming figures to stand on top of. I had noticed that too, and in fact that was why I had wanted to show it to him in the first place. So that worked out.

+++

Another amusing bit about the whole Popperville setup, real quick. The children each picked a type of building, and some of them picked similar if not identical concepts, and then of course all of the buildings were identical featureless boxes painted in an assortment of colors. And distinctions between, say, a house and a store were made via accessories culled from the assorted toys in the classroom play areas. So little mom or dad figurines in front of the houses, and a dress-up shoe on top of the shoe store, &c. There were also printed signs identifying which student had worked on which building and what kind of building it was.

I noticed that Popperville seemed to consist mainly of houses, toy stores, and candy stores. Which of course made me chuckle and think about pre-kindergarteners' tenuous grasp of retail economics. But then I thought about it some more and realized that I have lived plenty of places (present address most def included) where there has been more than one toy store within the zip code, and if not multiple candy stores at least a few ice cream parlors and dessert-focused bakeries. So, out of the mouths of babes and all that after all.

+++

Hey you know what else is fun? Making sport of my oblivious co-worker, Ms. Nonsense!

Nothing too egregious this week, but probably the most groan-worthy moment came on Thursday, when the office held a pizza lunch fundraiser for the upcoming holiday party. I bought my ticket in advance, foolishly assuming that they would end up getting the pizzas from one of the many local restaurants which offer approximations of "a decent slice". Oh, when will I learn. The fundraiser pizza was Domino's, which, despite all of their recent ad campaigns about completely reinventing themselves, is still terrible! But I sucked it up for the cause and ate the pizzesque lunch rather than demanding my money back. (I am not entirely sure they would have refunded it in any case.)

Right, so, Ms. Nonsense also attended the pizza lunch and afterwards I heard her, as she returned to her cubicle, asking a gentleman who sits right across from her why he hadn't partaken. And he very straightforwardly told her that he didn't care for Domino's. Ms. Nonsense seemed legitimately surprised by this admission. I more or less thought that it was common knowledge that Domino's is the worst, but apparently someone not liking Domino's was not the kind of thing which would have occurred to my colleague. And she then proceeded to defend Domino's (which she insisted on calling "Domino Pizza") with, I swear to the ends of the Italian food pantheon, her primary argument being that she liked it just fine. And just to add insult, she elaborated on how she had had the supreme, and it had meat and veggies.

OK, just to recap, guy she works across from self-identifies as at least enough of a pizza snob (represent!) to look down on "Domino Pizza" and not only does this blow her tiny mind but she also assumes he might not know what is meant by the arcane toppings terminology "supreme". Can't make this stuff up, guys.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Scrounger, 1996 - present

This week in my office there were some arduous all-day meetings (which fortunately had nothing to do with me), the most visible evidence of which were the cast-off foodstuffs. Apparently the meeting organizers went way overboard, buying huge bulk-store tubs of donut holes and mini-muffins and chocolate chip cookies and whatnot, only to see very few of those baked goods actually eaten by the meeting participants. So they eventually showed up in the cubicle farm for everyone to help themselves to. Which of course I did. And this, furthermore, really is just the beginning of the grazing free-for-all which unfailingly coincides with the holiday season as manifested within the Big Gray. I find myself powerless to resist, and can only console myself with the thought that it only lasts for a month. (Five weeks. Six, tops.)

I may very well have locked in my permanent behavior patterns back when I first entered the white-collar working world as a recent grad. Less than six months after I departed from my college, English degree in hand, I was splitting the rent on a townhouse with some friends and working as a temp (see earlier re: B.A. in English). The townhouse was a nice enough place to lay my head (also more often than not a rip-roaring place to avoid laying my head down in favor of more debaucherous shenanigans) and temping paid the bills, but only just. My roommates and I would also split the grocery bill, which seemed like a good idea on paper but often resulted in going shopping once a month or so, right before we were about to throw a party, and buying a few staple food items in addition to the festive munchies and beer, and said staples were always depleted way more quickly than they were restocked. So that meant eating out a lot when the bank account balance was high, or not eating much at all when it was low.

Or the third option – eating for free, on the company tab! Indeed, it has not been so long that I can’t remember when free food at work was not just a treat but an important part of my (wildly im)balanced diet. And not much caused me greater anguish than ducking out of the office for an early lunch consisting of whatever could be had at Taco Bell for under $4, only to come back to my desk and get word a little later that there were leftover sandwiches from a board meeting available if anyone wanted them. $4 wasted! Unless the sandwiches in question were pinwheels, because I never quite managed to overcome my aversion to extra-soggy lunchmeat-and-cheese wraps.

But other than that, I’d be generally inclined to double-up on lunch all the same, on the principle that there probably wasn’t going to be much at home for dinner, either. Whenever I read anything about nutrition and human evolution and how we’re all basically hardwired to eat as much as we can at any given moment in anticipation of the famine and deprivation that would be right around the corner in the state of nature, it feels pretty resonant. It’s nice to have matured in my career and my lifestyle habits such that I can afford to stock a fridge and pantry and manage to do so the vast majority of the time, but man, those late 90’s scrounging days. Crazy times.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Woway. WOWAY!

The title of this post is my attempt to replicate my daughter’s newly burgeoning sense of independence and bossiness. She has recently learned how to tell people (usually her big brother, but pretty often her mother or myself) to “go away” and if you do not do so immediately she will repeat herself, forcefully, until you comply.

It’s ridiculously cute, of course, because she’s a year and a half old and yet fully expects to be heeded. And it’s also, I admit, on some level reassuring. We are not raising some shrinking violet here. The little girl has backbone, and that can only be a good thing. The other day she came home from daycare with a garish bitemark on one arm. At this point, the second time through having a toddler in daycare, my wife and I did not freak out (these things happen) and the full extent of our dwelling on the topic consisted of my wife asking “Well did she punch the kid who bit her?” and me shrugging “I don’t know. I assume so,” and my wife agreeing, and then we finished unloading the dishwasher. Not that I condone violence (retaliatory or otherwise) but with nineteen-to-twenty-four-month-olds it doesn’t exactly qualify as violence; it’s just a pre-verbal, overly physical way of dealing with the world at large. Something to be outgrown (we hope).

I feel like the little girl is underserved in these blog posts sometimes, because her brother speaks in complete sentences and has his own interests and perspectives which he expresses in them, while she still hews pretty close to your indistinguishable textbook toddler behavior. (OK and now I have to share that the other day I was tickling the little guy and, in his efforts to get me to stop, he resorted to yelling “I’m not laughing! I’m not laughing!” despite the fact that he totally was laughing his head off. I relented, since I’m not out to traumatize the poor kid, but afterwards I was thinking about it and realized he wasn’t just being contrary, as is his default mode some days, but he was trying to make a fairly sophisticated distinction which was slightly beyond his ability to articulate. He was trying to differentiate between the involuntary laughter that the tickling produced and his conscious desire not to be tickled, even as he was betrayed by his own reflexes. That’s kind of cool.)

But I do sense that the little girl is on the cusp, of talking (obviously) and also expressing more and more her own personality, her own ideas about things, and so forth. I’m trying to be mindful of that, to pay attention and not miss it, especially with Baby 3 on deck and potential diverting my awareness to her detriment. To a certain extent that’s simply unavoidable, but I really want to make a conscious effort not to shortchange the middle child.

Then again, maybe I worry too much (gasp, NO) and I won’t actually be able to shortchange the little girl because she will not allow it to happen. She has a determination and focus which is borderline alarming in such a small child, and when she knows what she wants she goes after it with gusto. On a recent weekend late in the morning I was still hanging out in my pajamas, as was the little guy, when the little girl started picking out her own clothes because, consarn it, she wasn’t going to just lounge the whole day away. She then proceeded to put her pants on backwards but, come on, you gotta admire the way she takes the initiative.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Found Footage FTW (Cloverfield)

It was pure coincidence that my Spooktober(vember)fest slate of horror films wound up as a perfectly split quartet: two traditionally shot/constructed narratives and two using the “found footage” aesthetic. Just to recap the scoreboard up to this point, Red State was disappointing, Paranormal Activity was impressive, and Candyman was gloriously delirious but couldn’t overcome its inherent flaws. Finally, we come to Cloverfield, and it helps settle things pretty decisively. The traditional horror flicks were meh, and the found footage pieces were awesome.

I loved Cloverfield. LOVED it. I seem to vaguely recall some backlash against the movie at the time, like people thought the kaiju-style monster destroying NYC looked too fake and thus the movie went downhill, from good when the monster was only glimpsed to bad when the monster started dominating shots. I completely disagree! The increased visibility of the monster tracked well with the narrative; the creature looked unreal, which is different from fake; and if anyone felt the monster’s screentime negatively impacted the suspension of disbelief element … all I can say is that those people are picking a weird thing to hone in on amidst all of the other egregious violations of S-o-D.

There is in fact very little in Cloverfield that doesn’t violate suspension of disbelief. Just to contrast it with the other found footage film I’ve already mentioned, one of the things I really appreciated about Paranormal Activity was that the actors playing Micah and Katie looked very normal and unglamorous, which obviously enhanced the verisimilitude. As opposed to Cloverfield, which has a cast full of improbably beautiful people (well, three beautiful women and two OK-looking dudes and also Mike Vogel who is kind of absurdly dreamy) including Lizzy Caplan, Actual Famous Person. The plot (Spoilers! Better late than never!) also kind of glides over the fact that the entire population of Manhattan gets evacuated in about six hours, and the final few minutes all take place after a helicopter crash which probably should have killed every passenger yet somehow did not. Not to mention the entire found-footage premise hinges on one character, Hud, never losing and almost never putting down or turning off the camcorder despite running for his life for six solid hours. The whole movie is wall-to-wall crazy-go-nuts, and to truly enjoy it you have to surrender any and all expectations that it’s going to present a sequence of events that make you go “Hmm, yeah, I can see how that could really happen.” And frankly, if you buy every other logistical unlikelihood in the film but reject the crazy rampaging critter at the center, I don’t even know how to approach getting you to re-evaluate your take.

My point is, the logical improbabilities in the plot are just as irrelevant as the fact that Rob’s camcorder, as wielded by Hud, has Hollywood-worthy sound and image quality. Nothing in the movie is realistic, and the whole thing is in fact a fantasy which just happens to employ found-footage as a structural template. Accept that, and you can bask in the many awesome positives Cloverfield has going for it:

1. Hud. Quite possibly the Sensational Character Find of 2008. Most found-footage horror movies tend to justify the camera continuing to roll because the character responsible for it is extremely stubborn, or arrogant, or some combination. Hud is just sweet and funny and a little bit dumb. He spends the vast majority of the movie behind the lens, always out of sight (with a couple of perfectly-deployed exceptions) and often offering stream-of-consciousness commentary, and is a perfect audience surrogate while still developing an indelible identity of his own.

2. Marlena. The aforementioned Lizzy Caplan kills it as the archetypal sarcastic tough girl, and quite possibly her greatest moment comes and goes in a fraction of a second, when Hud is talking about how freaked out he is and how much more freaked out he could be, and everyone else tells him to shut up already, and Marlena just looks at the camera and smiles a little, trying not to laugh, not wanting to encourage Hud either but at least recognizing the value of a little gallows humor. It also seems to hint that maybe Hud’s fawning romantic interest in Marlena won’t end up being entirely one-way. (Except of course they both die, because it’s a horror movie. Oh well.)

3. The flashback structure. How can you possibly have anything other than linear narrative structure in a found-footage movie without cheating the premise? By having the premise involve Rob’s well-meaning slacker brother borrowing Rob’s own videocamera to record testimonials at Rob’s going away party, without realizing that the tape loaded in the camera already had something recorded on it, which is being taped over. Every time someone actually does turn off the camera, there’s the potential for some of the original recording (all of which has to do with the romance between Rob and Beth) to peek through the latter one. Yes, camcorders don’t necessarily work like that with the tape advancing while you’re not recording, and yes it’s beyond unlikely that the two recordings would sync up in the gaps with such illuminating precision. Everything in the movie is carefully constructed (seriously, were you not paying attention above when I was going on and on about suspension of disbelief?) for maximum effect. But I give full credit for the cleverness of the construction and the storytelling opportunities it provides. Maybe I’m easily impressed, I’ve copped to that before, but there you go.

4. The action. It has been a long time since a movie literally made my heart pound, but there were multiple times in Cloverfield where my physiological reactions were pretty extreme. Again, I just think it’s impressive as hell the way they shot the movie, so that it can fool your brain into thinking that you really are watching someone run away from monsters while holding a camcorder up to their eye, while at the same time keeping the shots just stable and in-focus enough that it doesn’t disorient or induce seasickness or whathaveyou. I know, in my rational brain, that it’s 100% manipulation of image and sound and pushing primitive buttons in my brain, but knowing that did not stop it from working in the slightest.

There’s one more itemized bit of awesome I’ll get to below, but before I do I wanted to address something broader about the horror genre. I wrote last month about how I believed that adolescent geeks were drawn to horror movies as tests of manhood and proof of prowess and so forth. I still stand by that, but I realized later that I should have acknowledged that explanation only applies to certain kinds of adolescent geeks: those who, like me and my middle-school friends, may not have been popular but at least had a workable circle of friends and social skills for interacting with them and so on. Those kinds of geeks have certain basic self-actualization needs already met and can reach upwards to others as I described. But there is also a certain kind of adolescent geek who doesn’t have any friends (and we could debate almost endlessly the chicken/egg nature of that, whether their peers reject them because they lack social skills or they lack social skills because they’ve been peremptorily rejected) and becomes anti-social and is drawn to horror movies because they root for the serial killer and enjoy seeing the quarterback and the head cheerleader get decapitated. And for them, watching a horror movie isn’t a feat of internal fortitude, it’s just a twisted pleasure.

I bring this up not only to defend myself against changes of being completely naïve (though that’s part of it) but continue praising Cloverfield and specifically why it worked for me. I don’t root for the monsters in horror movies, I root for the potential survivors (who are more often than not likely victims). So of course when the intensity of a particular setpiece puts the main characters in peril, my pulse quickens exponentially. I’m invested. And I think it’s very much to Cloverfield’s credit that it starts with a very slow build to introduce the characters, all of whom are essentially likable in one way or another. It’s a little bit brilliant to combine good-looking folks out of central casting with a well-written script that defines everyone’s best qualities early and often and shoot it in a faux-found-footage style that makes everyone seem very accessible, as if you’re right there at the party with them, and THEN drop them into a total nightmare as the city gets annihilated. It’s entirely possible this is why reactions to the movie were so mixed, because some people expected a standard horror movie, and all the misanthropic baggage that goes along with it, and instead they got something that insists you care about the people about to be terrified and dispatched. But I was into it.

Plus, that first-person helicopter crash? I (like many people) have nightmares about falling, and that sequence was like something pulled shrieking out of my own head.

5. The ending. Not only is Cloverfield not inherently misanthropic, it’s actually a love story about Rob and Beth, and a life-affirming one at that, despite some tragic appearances. The major imperative of the plot is that Beth is trapped in her collapsing apartment building as soon as the monster attacks, and Rob spends the movie trying to get to her and then get her safely out of the city. He does get to her, he does get a triumphant kiss with her at the chopper evac site, and then the aforementioned crash and pure abject terror just before the entire city is carpetbombed by the military, presumably killing them both. When the bombs fall, the camcorder stops taping, which conveniently happens about a minute before the end of the tape.

So the last minute is footage of Rob and Beth at the end of a Coney Island excursion, saying goodbye to the camera. And when Rob asks Beth for some parting words, she sighs contentedly and says, “I had a good day.” The Poignant End! Perhaps you are inclined to think that two people who never really got a chance to be together in love and died young (and in extreme pain and terror) are the stuff of straight-up tragedy alone. But I see it differently. We all have to die someday. Preferably in our sleep when we’re ninety-something, but you can’t live your life thinking about (or trying with all your might to control) how you’re going to die. If anything, you should spend your life trying to have good days. And if you can look back on even one day and declare it wholly and satisfyingly good, you’ve done all right. It’s not exactly cheating death, but it’s what I hold on to.

My wife is not into horror movies at all and I’ve never tried to inflict them on her, but after I saw Cloverfield I had to at least tell her about it, not just that I really loved it and was thrilled by it, but most of the stuff I’ve posted here. I figured it was the least I could do so as not to leave her wondering why I was so overcome with the need to declare repeatedly that I loved her and she had given me so many good days that if I got caught between an airstrike and a murderous goliath salamander I would have no regrets. I’m exceedingly lucky that she was able to see that as sweet and not deranged (or, at least, as a weighted-in-the-right-direction combination of both).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Beyond the grave (The Night Eternal/Heroes in Hell)

Over the weekend my wife confessed to me that she was starting to get pretty excited about Christmas; this was not a brazen proclamation by any stretch, particularly in light of the fact that I had made a precedent-setting declaration of exactly the same mindset a little earlier. So here we are, ready and waiting for the Yule-Crush to come at us, which can mean only one thing: time for me to finish up the Spooktober(vember)fest posts, already, and clear the way to deck the halls! (Note: being super-stoked for Christmas actually means many things, but I’m isolating one for segue purposes.)

Tomorrow I’ll reflect on the final film in my mini monster movie marathon, and today I’ll report on the pair of books that snuck in under the thematic wire in the past month. First up, The Night Eternal by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The best thing I can say about The Night Eternal is that it is the final installment of a trilogy, and does not cheat its own finality in order to set up a surprise fourth volume or secondary trilogy or anything like that. Thus, I can happily cross off one of the many series on my ongoing list. Other than that, I found the finale somewhat underwhelming.

The whole saga, which I believe is referred to as The Strain Trilogy after the title of the opening novel, might in fact be misnamed. It all starts out pretty promisingly as a seemingly rational scientific exploration of what a vampire plague might look like, and appropriately enough its main protagonists include doctors who work for the CDC and a New York exterminator familiar with bottom-feeder behaviors and countermeasures. It’s an original take on vampires that drills down through the mythology to some nuts and bolts biomechanics, the most noteworthy of which is probably the idea that a human who is turned into a vampire is actually infected with a parasitic organism which causes them to grow new organs, like the stinger located in the throat, which can shoot out of a vampire’s mouth and attach with two barbs to a victim’s neck and then siphon blood directly. (Kind of a neat way to explain the traditional pair of puncture wounds on a victim’s neck, while making the blood-drinking more efficient. Also creepy as hell.) And there are other touches, too, blood-borne pathogens and distinct chemical properties of silver making it inimical to the parasites, and so on. For a modern vampire yarn, pitting epidemiology against a nightmare with organic origins, it’s strong stuff.

And then the second volume raises the stakes by having the vampire plague spread so quickly that the survivors of humanity have no real way of turning back the tide. And more significantly, the vampires are largely feral if not mindless killing machines, except for The Master, who has evil plans beyond wantonly feasting on the living. Through some insane turns of events, The Master makes alliances with opportunistic humans that end with governments destroyed form the inside out and a nuclear war started amid the death throes of human civilization. The resulting nuclear winter blocks out the sun, which makes Earth more hospitable for vampires round the clock, and also creates such power-vacuum chaos that The Master can impose his will on the remnants of humanity, most of whom meekly submit to life as food source, kept in camps like livestock, knowing they will eventually be slaughtered for their blood but at least given three meals a day and a roof over the heads until then. Grim!

So the end of the trilogy focuses, as it must, on the last few human resistance fighters. The world’s a mess and the vampires are in charge, but there’s still hope that the scorched earth and dark skies can all be coaxed back to the way they were, if the vampires can be eliminated. And luckily, if The Master can be killed – and he can be killed, if the plot of earth he originally crawled out of can be cauterized somehow – then all of the vampires across the globe, all of whom descend from him, will sympathetically drop dead as well. And that … doesn’t really make any biological sense at all. This, really, was my disappointment with the third novel: it abandons any and all pretense of thought-experiment centered on how vampires could survive and thrive as parasitic organisms within our ecosystem, and dives into the waiting arms of fantasy mysticism. I hasten to reaffirm that I have nothing against fantasy and mysticism in my entertainments. But it does feel a bit like bait and switch to go from hematophagic worms and parasitoid anatomical modifications over to inventing a third archangel visiting Sodom and Gomorrah, murdering a fellow angel, being sundered alive by God and then those ragged pieces of seraphic corpse giving rise to vampires.

I’m also perpetually leery of any story that uses a nuclear blast (even a teensy-weensy contained one) as the solution which allows the good guys to triumph. I guess I just grew up indoctrinated to think that nukes are really, really bad and that we don’t know exactly how bad the fallout (in all senses) would be if one were detonated in a bad guy’s lair. So even without the bait and switch, a story about how all the vampires will magically die if The Master is killed, and how The Master will magically become vulnerable if the good guys can set off a nuke atop his primordial resting place (which of course, no cliché unturned, ultimately has to be done by hand by one of our exhausted but still nobly self-sacrificing heroes), would feel like it ended with a pyrrhic victory. So it’s almost like del Toro and Hogan knew that kind of ending was problematic, so they reverse engineered the middle of the story to make it seem not that bad at all in retrospect, considering that whole nuclear-war-laying-waste-to-the-biosphere preceding it and all.

Given del Toro’s Hollywood connections, I’m positive the Strain trilogy will be filmed someday. And I might even check the first one out, but it will have to be pretty amazing to keep me coming back for what I know will be a fatally flawed unsatisfying ending.

Stay classy, Satan!

Moving on, from one spin on fallen angels to another, Heroes in Hell is an anthology of short stories and, thusly almost by default, is a bit of a mixed bag. As I mentioned when I brought it up on Saturday, it focuses on historical figures in the afterlife, and makes no bones about the fact that this afterlife is one of eternal pain and suffering, presided over by Satan himself. I mentioned that the various players on the infernal stage were vying for control of Hell, but more specifically they are all looking for a way out of Hell (which I suppose might be the only kind of power that matters in the context). It’s not exactly horror, despite the whole devils and demons and death angle. In fact, the tone varies wildly from story to story, some more comedic (Marilyn Monroe is Satan’s inept personal secretary! Napoleon and Wellington have to co-exist as neighbors!) and some more contemplative (Che Guevara ruminating on betrayal and revenge) and some approximating horror-infused urban fantasy (a Nazi and a pagan chieftain dodging skeletal liches while essentially doing a buddy-cop missing persons investigation). Needless to say, by the end of the collection no one has found this legendary escape. But that’s not the end of the story, necessarily, as Heroes in Hell kicks off a whole megastory spread out over a dozen or so books, some further anthologies and some full-length novels.

Do please note that no sooner do I cross the Strain trilogy off my open series list than the _____ in Hell series comes along to take its place. But I am a bit undecided as to whether or not the megastory will stay on the list. On the one hand it’s fascinating to see multiple authors doing their takes on the same source material and high concept; I’m easily impressed by ambitious undertakings, and maintaining coherence with this many contributors is pretty daunting (not that I have found any guarantees that said coherence does in fact prevail). On the other hand, Heroes in Hell didn’t really grab me and didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger. If there had been a last-act surprise that genuinely changed the dynamics of Hell, implying that subsequent volumes could have real stakes with fortunes rising and falling (thinking here of the game of Thrones model, obviously), that would be one thing. But the only recurring theme was that all of the dead were trapped in a cyclical punitive afterlife with no hope of escape, and I don’t really feel compelled to witness that theme beaten into the ground for four thousand pages. Completism is a hard obsession to ignore, though. And part of me thinks it might not be fair to prejudge the series until I’ve at least given one anthology and one full-length novel a shot. Conveniently, the first novel in the megastory, The Gates of Hell, is the second book in the series, so I can move forward one volume and also appease my own mental mandate for fairness. Maybe I will do that. Maybe not! If ever the question is definitively answered, it will of course get an airing hereabouts.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Thanks, Vets

Even though I have to work today, as opposed to Veterans’ Days Past when my contracting boss has gifted us all with a free day off (no clue why he didn’t go that route this year – Low on funds in the contract budget? Just trying to toughen us up?), I still appreciate all that our servicemen and –women have done for the country. U! S! A! U! S! A!

I don’t appreciate the WMATA at all, which is very much the same old story and unlikely to ever change in the future. Apparently they are doing major Orange Line work today, because in their estimation nobody worth worrying about has to work on Veterans’ Day, I guess. So I had to drive down 66 to the terminal station, ride three stops, get off, get on a bus, go three more stops, get off the bus, get back on the train, ride two more stops, get off and change lines, and then ride four more stops to Crystal City. I know I should be equally irritated at the VRE for having no service today, but I’m not. VRE is observing Veterans’ Day and giving their crews the day off, and I respect that. Metro is performing track maintenance on a holiday. Metro is the worst.

Anyway, it’s extremely quiet around here today with only the handful of contractors who are either hoarding or running low on paid time off and/or floating holidays. Last week was five full days which were surprisingly busy, although most of that increased activity consisted of me pulling reports to provide numbers for a problem which everyone is getting frantic about and I personally have no way of addressing. We’ll see how that continues throughout this month, but this week is for all intents and purposes a four-day since today doesn’t count and next week is only three days until Thanksgiving. I reckon I can keep things together for another couple weeks.

Parting observation: I knew the office would be minimally staffed today, which meant pretty relaxed in terms of the typical business dress code. I could have skipped shaving, just like I do most Casual Fridays … but I didn’t, because after not shaving since last Thursday, my jawline was getting unpleasantly itchy. I also could have worn blue jeans, which is usually verboten even on CasFri … but I didn’t, because all of my jeans are totally frayed ragged around the cuffs, and that feels a bit too unprofessional to me even for a working holiday. So here I am, answerable to no one but myself yet perfunctorily groomed and in khakis and a collared shirt. I must be getting old.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Week in Queen (2)

When I was very young I owned a concert t-shirt from Queen's Hot Space Tour '82. I would have been about seven years old that summer, so clearly I did not actually acquire the garment at a stadium venue. In fact, I believe my dad won it playing a ball-toss game when the carnival came through town, and subsequently gave it to me. At the time I just thought it was cool to have a black rock and roll t-shirt, especially one repping a band I knew primarily from the song "Another One Bites the Dust" (and, of course, the Flash Gordon soundtrack).

It's funny how memory works. In the moment I thought the shirt was totally wicked and I wore it until it literally disintegrated. In retrospect, remembering the scratchy way it used to feel against my skin, I realize it was doubtless a bootleg repro made of the cheapest imaginable materials. Ah, kids are dumb.

On to the task at hand!

Monday: Queen-free! But I did hear Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" on the way home from the train station, and that easily took up the airtime slots of two or three potential songs off A Night at the Opera ("Bohemian Rhapsody" excluded, of course.)

Tuesday, 5:05 pm: "Bohemian Rhapsody" on 102.7 Jack FM while driving from the train station to daycare.

Wednesday, 6:15 pm: "Bohemian Rhapsody" on Big 100 FM, literally as soon as I started the car after getting off the train.

Thursday: Also Queen-free. I heard "Land of 1000 Dances" on the Crystal City Underground muzak system, though. Not at all a case of airwave timesharing, since that system plays golden oldies pretty much exclusively, and Queen doesn't fall into that category. "Land of 1000 Dances" simply never fails to make me happy.

Friday, 4:50 pm: "Another One Bites the Dust" on 102.7 Jack FM, once again just as soon as I started the car after getting off the train.

Saturday, 1:35 pm: "Another One Bites the Dust" on Sirius XM Classic Rewind while doing a bit of housecleaning

Sunday: Queen-free.