Thursday, March 14, 2013

Because, because, because

Recently – I think it was this past weekend – I turned to my wife and said “When did she start that?” “She” in this case referred of course to our daughter, and “that” referred to … well let’s come back to that in a moment, for now allowing that it was something which I felt certain I must have overlooked in its previous, gradual development and emergence. And as always, in cases like that, I trust my attentive and perceptive better half to enlighten me as to how long I’ve been oblivious. So it was somewhat startling when my wife answered, “Today, I think, I just noticed it, too.”

The behavior in question is the little girl’s discovery of and now-frequent deployment of “Why?” This … seems a bit ahead of schedule (T-minus about four more weeks until she officially turns two years old) but then again a lot of her development seems ahead of schedule, as she furiously plays catch-up with her big brother, so that’s not news. It should be noted that the little guy, for his part, has more or less abandoned the utility of “why?” at this stage in the game. When his mother or I tell him to stop doing something or that he has to do something else, he no longer inquires after our reasonings as a delaying tactic or in the hopes of catching us out without sufficient justification; he simply launches immediately into explaining/arguing what he’s doing or wants to do contrary to our own agenda. That’s the disciplinary side of the coin; on the pure reason side, nowadays when a question like “why is the sky blue?” might conceivably come up, he’s more likely to already know the answer and hold forth on it voluminously (or “know” the answer, in the sense of making something up based loosely on his grasp of the subject matter). Point being, the little girl hasn’t exactly had “why?” modeled for her round-the-clock lately.

Yet here we are, with our daughter having arrived at one of the more exasperating (yet necessary, I know) stages of person-making … right as we are about to welcome another person-in-progress into our home. Timing! Part of me wants to protest that we really weren’t given much control over orchestrating this confluence of life events, but then another part of me might object that’s a bit of a cop out, given a few things we’ve could have paid more rigorous attention to (but didn’t) which have led us to this point. And then yet another part of me could very well point out that control is an illusion and que sera sera and once you get around to quoting Doris Day it’s probably best to put on the mental brakes a bit.

Anyway, I’m not sure if I’ve expressed it lately, but there was a time when my wife and I worried a bit that the little girl might get generally steamrolled by her older brother, but that time is long gone. She is not merely playing catch-up with a fury, she is winning at it, and the two of them are quite a pair of foils for one another. I catch myself calling my daughter “Stinker” often, always affectionately but nonetheless acknowledging that she very much seems to enjoy finding out exactly how much mischief she can get away with. “Why?” is only the latest example of her exploding vocabulary, and – among her immediate family, at least – she is not the least bit shy about expressing her wants. Her requests usually end in “Peesh?” which is nice and polite, but just as usually the penultimate word in the sentence will be “Now?” (“Moolk now peesh?” “Up now peesh?”) just so that everyone knows she doesn’t expect to be kept waiting while her milk-sipping, transport-by-carrying whims are catered to. I strongly suspect she will grow up to be the type of person who is enthusiastically good-natured but all the same does not suffer fools gladly.

And call me crazy, but I still prefer the prospect of smoothing the rough edges off children who are a little too loud, too opinionated, too hasty or even too manic, as opposed to struggling to ignite a spark within those who aren’t assertive or engaged enough. Lucky me, it looks like I’m getting my wish. Before too long we’ll see if it’s 3-for-3.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Yoiks and awaaaay! (The Adventures of Robin Hood)

Time once again for the 1001 Movies Blog Club, and furthermore time once again for me to act as the movie chooser! Aimed in the approximate direction of the 1920’s and 30’s, and already having spent plenty of time in February on the former decade, I went to the Technicolor end of the latter and selected The Adventures of Robin Hood. I put The Adventures of Robin Hood in the same category as Metropolis, essentially a proto-geek touchstone which I had somehow managed to get this far in life (and geekery) without ever seeing. But whereas Metropolis lays the foundation for sci-fi, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a cornerstone of everything from Dungeons & Dragons to superhero comics. Coincidentally enough, the very week that I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood, there happened to be an article I read online about superhero archers and the debt they owe to the legendary laughing outlaw, and there’s not a ton I can add to that myself. But before I leave the comics realm altogether, I’ll point out that The Adventures of Robin Hood is an Errol Flynn vehicle, and Errol Flynn is the kind of larger-than-life figure who gets namechecked as the favorite actor of superheroes pretty regularly. Case in point, the X-Men’s resident swashbuckling blue elf, Nightcrawler:

And yet I had never seen any Errol Flynn movies before. Clearly, all artistic merits aside, this was a must-see for me.

Perhaps it’s for the best that we’re putting artistic merits aside, really, because The Adventures of Robin Hood turns out to be one of those movies it’s all too easy to damn with faint praise, like the ever-popular “very good … for what it is.” And what it is, in this case, is a live-action storybook, a faithful rendering of classic folklore in bright, broad, crowd-pleasing strokes. If you were looking for a subversive interpretation, keep looking elsewhere. If you expected nuanced characterization, you will be disappointed. Plot twists? Nothing that couldn’t be predicted at the outset, and nothing that isn’t thoroughly explained via stilted dialogue. The Adventures of Robin Hood is as straightforward and earnest as they come, with one-dimensional heroes and villains, though at least the villains each get differentiated single attributes (Prince John is power-hungry, Guy of Gisbourne is cruel, the Sheriff of Nottingham is cowardly, the Bishop of the Black Canons is conniving, &c.) while the heroes are all equally noble and brave. The closest any character comes to having an emotional arc is Maid Marian, as she goes from disliking Robin Hood to falling in love with him.

So this is not a movie designed to make one think, either by challenging the audience to reconsider prior perspectives or by forcing a figuring out of things left unsaid. Nor is it a movie intended to provoke profound feelings, except perhaps the feeling of “yippee!” All in all it’s an artificial piece through and through; the sets look like sets, and the costumes look like costumes, and the actors act like actors. But it is, as I led with, a good example of all those things. What the sets lack in authenticity they make up for in establishing the storybook scenes (though I grant that, as an American raised on American movies and tv, I tend to be fine with California forests standing in for any environment, including Sherwood Forest; a proper Englishman would have every right to disagree with me there). However historically inaccurate the costumes may be, they’re so strikingly designed that they became the pop cultural visual shorthand for Merry Olde England forever after. And the acting, such as it is, is really secondary to the swordfights and stunts; my particular favorite sequence was Robin’s escape from his own execution, starting with leaping onto a horse’s back with hands bound behind his back and ending with cutting the rope connecting the portcullis to the winch, and riding the rope up the castle wall as the gate came down, cutting off the pursuers from Robin’s fleeing comrades.

And honestly, if there’s one must-see reason to watch this film, it’s Robin Hood himself, Errol Flynn (aka Charisma Personified). I hadn’t been avoiding his filmography for any particular reason, but now that I’ve finally started catching up, I definitely feel like I understand better how Flynn fits into the pantheon. Man, that cat is smooth. Immersed in all the ridiculous trappings of an outsized pseudo-historical melodrama, Flynn is effortlessly charming throughout. Don’t get me wrong, this cast is kind of a murderer’s row: Claude Rains as Prince John, Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne, Olivia de Havilland as Marian, I mean, come on. But Flynn steals the show, and rightly so, of course.

As much as we need art that pushes us outside our comfort zones and expands our horizons and begs us to reflect and examine and empathize and aspire, I contend that we also need alongside it art that is pure entertainment, too shallow to conceal anything, that even a child can understand the morality of and that increases the momentary pleasure of any person capable of feeling joy. The Adventures of Robin Hood is undiluted “yippee!” and that gets my stamp of approval.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stories about storytellers revisited

I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep blogging about Community on Tuesdays, specifically consistently commenting on the previous episode which aired five days earlier, but I have to say I do kind of like the way that it’s been working out, where I can watch the show and process it and digest the commentary from other online sources like the AV Club or Slate and then (hopefully) say something that hasn’t already been said. That’s especially true after watching last week’s episode, “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” aka the “Jeff meets his father” episode.

It was the Thanksgiving-in-March episode, just like we got the Halloween-in-February episode a few weeks ago. And after a little bit of early-season shuffling, it’s the re-synching of the broadcast order with the production order, episode five of the season. I bring that up because I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in the reactions to this episode. Most people (including me) agreed that it was a satisfying resolution to Jeff’s daddy issues, with the right amount of emotional sincerity counterbalanced by all the different shades of humor the show plays around with. Plus, as the kind of geek who keeps track of production-vs-broadcast order and things like that, I knew back over the summer that James Brolin was cast as Jeff’s dad, so that reveal was drained of some of its impact for me BUT I had not heard that Adam DeVine had been cast as Jeff’s half-brother and seeing one of the Workaholics goofballs show up on Community was nothing short of delightful.

But all of that’s neither here nor there. It seems that most critics and hardcore fans spent the first three or four episodes of this season of Community lamenting the fact that the show was never going to be exactly what it was before and also trying to figure out whether or not it could even come close. All of this hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing was of course brought on by the departure of Dan Harmon, the show’s creator and original showrunner, but as I said, it seemed to run its course by the end of week four or so of this delayed (and possibly truncated) season. And then along comes the fifth episode, which seems to be very directly commenting on that turbulence, right at the moment when everyone else has decided they’re done talking and thinking about it. Which is kind of weird.

Alternatively, it could very well be that my reading of “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” is, to use a technical criticism term, completely whackadoodle, and that’s why no one else is commenting on what I’m seeing on the screen. But as I’m always eager to point out, this is my blog, so I might as well give voice to my own crazy theories. So the idea is that Jeff is basically a stand-in for the tv show itself, and William Winger is Dan Harmon, who abandoned his own show. Immediately this is a problematic interpretation if you believe that Harmon was forced out of Community by the studio and network honchos, and I’m aware that the facts do support that belief, but at the same time Harmon was notoriously difficult to work with, his public feuding with Chevy Chase certainly didn’t help, and to a certain extent you could accuse Harmon of having squandered every opportunity he had to suck it up and figure out a way to play the game as it needed to be played. Instead he took pride in being difficult, and left his bosses little choice. Maybe you respect his artistic integrity and self-respect. I’m less of a fan of people who absolutely refuse to compromise, but that’s me. At the end of the day (or at the end of Season Three), Dan Harmon gave life to Community and walked away from it, and Community is in the process of figuring out how to deal with that.

And it’s been something of a painful transition. And if Community were anthropomorphized, it might feel a lot of self-doubt and self-loathing and other symptoms of being “broken”. And if Dan Harmon ever shrugged his shoulders and said that him leaving the show was the best thing that ever happened to it, Community might be justified replying “With all due respect, by which I mean ‘none’, go to hell.” (Furthermore if Dan Harmon ever creates another show, it will suffer from its own issues of compromised self-worth as it is inevitably compared to its predecessor. Seriously, you guys, I cannot say enough about DeVine’s Willy Jr. in this episode.)

So Jeff/Community acknowledges that it’s not as solid and stable as it might have been if dad/Harmon had stuck around, but he/it is moving on as best he/it can. That, my friends, is a damn fine statement of purpose. It just took a month or so to get around to making it, by which point most of the audience had gone back to seeing the episodes as chronicles of the misadventures of a bunch of characters we’ve come to care about, or at least think of as boon hang-out companions, instead of seeing the episodes as samples of Community-the-tv-show to be mechanically analyzed. I can’t turn that off, though, so I’m in both camps. It will be interesting (to me) to see if Community goes back to these themes as the season progresses, or if the new showrunners just had to get one final kiss-off in and plan to never speak of it again.

(By the by, the B-plot? I love a good Shawshank reference or twelve, but the strangest part was Pierce’s escape attempt turning into deliberate clowning. “It’s my Showtime at the Apollo!” was a great line, but it all happened offscreen – deliberate pricking of Chase’s ego, or working around the fact that they wrote the scene to be on-screen and Chase refused to do it? Or budget constraints which meant they couldn’t build an entire Shirley’s living room set, or afford the liability insurance for having a sixty-nine year old man do pratfalls? I kind of want to believe the latter, if only because it makes it that much funnier when Abed ends the episode thinking in voiceover about Christmas and riffing “I hope we do Die Hard!”, probably the highest-budget Christmas movie ever.)

Monday, March 11, 2013


Still here! Though not for very much longer, as we are rapidly approaching the tipping point where allowing nature to take its course actually becomes less advisable, and when that moment arrives my wife will submit to the necessary ministrations which bring the baby forth and that will be that. And there is still technically enough time for it to go either way, so I’m not predicting anything too specific. I just know that while I started this week riding early, readying myself for work and commuting on in, it is surpassingly unlikely that I will finish the week the same way.

So, of course , this is the very interval in which the process gears of my singular major project at work begin to clunk forward. One of the frustrating aspects of this project is that by raising a lot of internal issues and calling attention to both our current resources and our future needs, my team and I have made others aware of various uncrossed t’s and dotless i’s which we had essentially been avoiding because we were grandfathered in a minor eternity (in IT terms, about five years) ago. So it turns out that in order for me to continue acting as webmaster, I have to be certified according to certain DoD standards. This was obviously just brought to my attention last week, and now I am scrambling to achieve said certification so that I do not inadvertently become the lone obstacle to completing the project. But the chances of moving that effort all the way across the finish line before I head out on family leave are zero-adjacent. It will have to wait until I get back, whenever that might be.

Still, I should be able to make some demonstrable inroads on the effort with the time I have remaining, and every little bit helps. And I also just found out that while I’m gone they’re going to FINALLY, configure my cubicle with access to both our networks, which means that when I resume this network transfer project there will be 100% less physically shuttling myself back and forth to separate workstations to access the respective networks. That’s assuming that they actually follow through with the plan as it was recently communicated to me. I know all too well that if I make hard and fast plans predicated on everything being a done deal when I get back, that’s all but a guarantee that the configuration will get set back or sidetracked somehow. Really I should just be grateful if upon my return I find everything where I left it and can pick up and go from there.

Friday, March 8, 2013


When I was in fourth grade, I read the Chronicles of Narnia. I borrowed them from my teacher, who had all seven books in a paperback box set. Each volume was pretty compact, maybe slightly larger than a smartphone, possibly not even as heavy. Reading C.S. Lewis wasn’t a school assignment, but I wasn’t the only kid in the class who ended up going through the whole series, so it felt like a collective experience; the fact that we were all passing around the same physical books no doubt contributed to that, too. I had been an avid reader before that, but I reckon that Narnia was one of those gateway experiences that led to several of my ongoing addictions, from fantasy trilogies to book collecting. I still have, and presumably always will have, a vast soft spot for Aslan and his subjects.

Last week after I weighed in once again on Stephen King’s Dark Tower, my wife mentioned off-handedly that she might like to check out that magnum opus for herself someday. That would actually make a nice trifecta for me, if you recall the three different series of fantasy novels I resolved to re-read last year: I convinced my wife to read the Kingkiller Chronicles, and now she is anticipating the third and final volume as avidly as I am; I also got my wife hooked on the HBO version of Game of Thrones, and she started reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels they are based on, as well. So to ensnare her in the saga of Roland of Gilead’s ka-tet would round things out prettily.

The snag, though, is one crucial difference between my wife and myself, namely that I love the solid heft of a hardcover book, even a thousand-page doorstop, whereas she finds them intolerably uncomfortable to hold and read. Hence the multiple copies of Kingkiller books in our house, hardbound for me and paperback for her. I could put The Gunslinger in my wife’s hands tonight (or in a short while, as historically the periods where our newborn children have been learning to nurse has always proven to be a good time for my wife to sit quietly and catch up on reading) but it would be my deluxe edition hardcover copy, and that won’t do. Once again, of course, I could just go get second-hand back-up copies. Clearly this is far from an insoluble problem.

But it did get me thinking, about fourth grade, and about how I was the perfect age around then to fall under the spell of Narnia, as were numerous other members of my nine-year-old cohort. And of course our teacher knew that, and it was no accident that she had the box set of the Chronicles in the classroom to begin with. But how many of us would have carried those books home and back again and again if they had taken up the same volume and added the same weight to our backpacks as our math textbooks, instead of slim enough to fit in the seat pockets of our jeans? How many of us would have cracked them open at all with our little pre-adolescent hands?

I don’t often weigh in on the whole e-books versus dead trees debate, because I’m learning to embrace both sides. I admit that I am foolishly enamored of every tactile pleasure of an old-fashioned manuscript, and I take great pleasure in amassing and displaying them. At the same time the numerous benefits and advantages of my Kindle have pretty thoroughly won me over, and I really see no reason not to continue enjoying both for as long as I can, going back and forth between them at will. The only possible control I can have over whether either form persists is continuing to support them both.

Well, almost no reason, but the factor I seem to have overlooked is the social aspect of books and the ability to put them in someone else’s hands and say here, read this. An oversized leatherbound folio of The Hobbit would be a lovely thing, but what would I do if one of my children seemed to be primed to read that story for themselves, right around say third or fourth grade? Do I need to greatly expand my dual-format approach to the home library I’ve appointed myself the keeper of? Or do I need to back off from my hardcover fetish in recognition of the fact that it’s awfully selfish on balance? Or am I once again overthinking something relatively unimportant? (no wait that can’t be right) If it’s the latter, I suppose I’m just selfishly indulging in the freedom to overthink ridiculously minor things just before the new baby comes and all of my voluntary thought processes shut down in survival mode.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Oh, Baby? No.

The winter storm (“Saturn”? More like “Zat All You Got?-Urn” amirite) has come and gone but had zero impact on bringing forth the newest addition to the family. He continues to squirm around actively and happily in mama’s belly, and she continues to enjoy uncomplicatedly good overall health (discomfort-to-the-point-of-insomnia notwithstanding) but those constants remain truly, some might say stubbornly, unchanged. This despite the fact that, around the time the calendar flipped from February to March, my wife asked our son which day he thought his little brother would be born, and the little guy (every inch the four-year-old sage) pointed to March 6th. Ah well.

Despite the protestations that a snow day would end up being a terrible day for my wife to go into labor, more things than not ended up aligning in our favor. On Tuesday night we called the in-laws, who are standing by to come stay with the kids when the time to deliver the baby arrives, and asked if they might consider trekking up to our house that very night so as to already be in place on Wednesday if circumstances demanded it. My wife and I were willing to contend with a slow-and-steady drive to the hospital on unplowed highways which might stretch out a normally 20-minute trip to an hour or so, but the thought of compounding that with waiting on the grandparents, normally 90 minutes away, for three-four-who-knows hours was a bit much. So my wife’s father obliged us, spent the night Tuesday, was there Wednesday all day as we shoveled the driveway and managed the kids’ cabin fever and continued chipping away at our never-ending baby-readiness list. My wife assisted with the snow shoveling, figuring that a little physical labor might nudge her body in the baby-expelling direction; I supported the attempt in theory while wondering whether the neighbors would think I was incompetently clueless for needing my nine-months pregnant wife to help me shovel, or just some kind of monstrous and merciless brute. In any case, right about the time when the little guy and little girl needed to begin making their way towards bed, my wife started feeling some contractions and it appeared that the timing could not be better. The kids would be tucked in and none the wiser if my wife and I left, her father was still there to mind the house, all the snow on the streets had long since been plowed and melted by rain, but not yet had a chance to freeze. It might mean we would be in for a long, long night but at least we were starting out wide awake and alert for the bag-packing and driving, rather than stumbling out of bed from a dead sleep. So after a couple of hours, and a greenlight from the midwife over the phone, we headed out.

Unfortunately it turned out to be yet another false alarm in the form of hours of closely spaced, moderately intense contractions that suddenly stopped of their own accord. Except that last time, it happened in the middle of the night and we laid in bed talking about what to do and when to commit, right up to the point where the moment had passed. This time, when it became clear that the uterus was crying wolf, we were already at the hospital. We checked in anyway just for the chance to have a professional look my wife over and assess the situation, and the nurse could not have been more sympathetic and kind while also breaking it to us in no uncertain terms that there was no way the baby was coming any time soon. So we bought some ice cream bars from the vending machine in the lobby and headed home, a little crushed and crestfallen but still counting a few blessings: it least it hadn’t been snowing when we tried to drive to the hospital (or as we were reversing the trip, at that); at least we hadn’t had to call anyone to drop everything and come over to be with the kids, &c.

So apologies if any of you (understandably) interpreted the unplanned two-day hiatus on posts around here as a clear sign that the baby had in fact made an appearance and thrown everything into disarray. To be honest at this point I can’t even remember why I didn’t blog on Tuesday, since I came in to work for a full day and everything; I suppose I had the impending weather uncertainties and complications weighing on my mind, wondering how much snow we would get, when it would start, whether my office would be closed on Wednesday, and if so when I would be told, or if the snow would start after I had showed up at the office and we would be sent home early, which does someone tied to a fixed train schedule (like me) very little good. Yesterday was off-model and slipped by fast. Today things are more or less back to normal, or what passes for it these days. And tomorrow, who knows?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Arrivals, departures, delays

I am entrenched in the cubicle farm once again today, which comes as something of a mild surprise. This past weekend was plans-free by design, and my wife and I were as mentally prepared as we could be to pop in to the maternity ward, but the need never arose. We did manage to get a few more significant items crossed off the to-do list, though. My wife singlehandedly brought order out of the chaos heaped behind our daughter’s closet door, which is both good in its own right for the little girl’s sake and yielded up a fair amount of newborn clothes which can now be laundered and set aside for Baby #3. I assembled the spare changing table, now installed in the master bedroom for those middle-of-the-night changings so as not to intrude on the little girl’s bedroom while she’s sleeping. And we tidied up the rest of the house and did major grocery shopping, as we do most weekends, as if the coming week were a normal predictable one like any other.

A few weeks ago I was e-mailing with a friend of mine who lives in California and I informed him that here in the mid-Atlantic region we were having quite a mild winter and amidst all the other things I might worry about as far as going about my routines with a nine-months pregnant wife on speed-dial, and bracing myself for being awoken in the middle of the night by the legendary freight-train momentum onset and rapid progress of labor for the third child, at least I didn’t have to worry about racing to the hospital in a blizzard. Which of course means that the first significant snow accumulation of the winter around here is being forecast for Wednesday, just as my wife will be rounding the thirty-eight-and-half week mark, and everything has the potential for major disarray. More likelihood than mere potential, really, since they say that major changes in barometric pressure can bring on the birthing. So that’s what I get for invoking the bright side.

But since I’m here now, I’m doing what I can to ease my own temporary transition out, summarizing all of my current projects and e-mailing my notes to my boss and the person most likely to cover for me. The last time I went on family leave, the whole agency moved offices on me, which was odd; nothing so drastic is in the works this time, but I do still have a major, open-ended task which relies on numerous other people getting their acts together and pushing forward. There has been precious little progress on it lately, but clearly if I do end up driving my laboring wife down the highway in a snowstorm, there will simultaneously be a breakthrough on my task just as I become unavailable for weeks. (But it will be waiting for me when I get back. And last week my fellow contractors and I were required to perform the segment of our annual review cycle wherein we set goals for the coming year, and you had best believe that I made dragging this project across the finish line one of my goals so that I will get full credit for it whenever it finally goes down.)

The only other thing that could prove strange and noteworthy is the fact that a couple of my co-workers have been talking an awful lot lately about leaving. They’re both older women, and they’ve both been here much longer than me, but one of them has serious health problems which apparently are starting to take such a toll that her doctor is essentially mandating an early retirement, while the other is (understandably) kind of sick of the way contractors fill the rented mule roles in government agencies. That latter co-worker has a husband who unfortunately suffered some health problems of his own which stand a good chance of winning him a malpractice settlement of some kind, and she makes no secret of talking about how quickly she would give her notice when/if that windfall should happen. So it’s at least within the realm of possibility that I could take a few weeks off to be with my wife, our kids and our newborn, and return to the office to find some empty cubes on either side of me. Still, there’s nothing for it but to ride out the storm (hopefully only metaphorically).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Bumper-to-Bumper

I feel compelled to link to this article in the Columbia Journalism Review. It is about the sequestration, which I know everyone is sick of hearing about, but it's also about Green Lantern! And even that codename-dropping in itself might not have been enough to merit a link, but the author of the article refers to Green Lanterns and power rings, plural, which indicates to me more than a baseline familiarity with the concept. So this is like me acknowledging some sort of comics geek secret handshake, or something, I guess. In any case, it's a good article (even if the point being made via Green Lantern analogy hinges on the fact that the amount of willpower the president exerts has nothing to do with what he can create or cause to happen externally, which illustrates the inherent absurdity of the Green Lantern's sci-fi gibberish. Ah well.)


From the Vanity Plates Archives: Speaking of nerd shibboleths, and also politics (stay with me here), the other night I was walking the dogs and noticed a car parked on my cul-de-sac with a license plate that read "6X9 (Gadsden Flag snake) 42", and despite the fact that opting for a Don't Tread On Me license plate in the first place makes me deeply suspicious of a person's irrational Tea Party sympathies, I do enjoy a good Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy joke. Particularly one that references not simply the answer to life, the universe and everything, but the attempt to spontaneously generate the question. Guess we'll call that one a wash.

But then again a couple of days later I saw a car in town with multiple bumper stickers for Democrats, as well as the animal shelter charity my wife sometimes does work for, and a vanity tag that read "LIZLEMN". Strong.


We've made to exactly 38 weeks gestation and no sign of baby egress quite yet, which means I've got to make the most of this afternoon and assemble a changing table and a co-sleeper and then re-arrange the master bedroom as well as the little girl's bedroom. I'm not planning on blogging tomorrow, but I should be back on Monday unless the proceedings do indeed get underway between now and then. I'm sure you will all be electrified with anticipation until then!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Quest, prize, quest ...

So, the Academy Awards were last weekend, huh? I have always been a huge fan of the movies and obviously I’ve taken a recent interest in broadening my knowledge base of films, historically, across genres and cultures, &c. But I’ve never been a fan of the Oscars, never really invested in which picture wins which award, nor do I think I’ve ever sat down to watch the ceremony on tv all the way through. Like most people (I imagine) I put a certain amount of stock in the major categories, to the extent that if I were on the fence about whether or not to spare the time to watch a movie, and then it won Best Picture or the lead won Best Actor/Actress, it would nudge me in the direction of giving the movie a chance. So I’m not hating on the Academy Awards per se, but in case you were wondering how this blog managed to transform itself into a temple of cinephilia over the past year or so without me once weighing in on Oscar races, there you go.

I’m compelled to bring this up because there has been a certain amount of interwebs throat-clearing about Argo wining Best Picture this year and whether or not it was deserved, particularly in light of the fact that it purports to be a historical drama while egregiously distorting the historical record. Again, I see both sides of the arguments here but I’m not particularly committed to one view or the other. But I will say that I’m not at all surprised about Argo’s victory. I haven’t seen it for myself yet (though I want to) so I’m not basing my position on the merits of the film itself. It just speaks to something that I’ve only really come to understand and fully appreciate in the past couple of years: storytellers love stories about stories and storytellers. The people who vote on the Academy Awards are themselves storytellers, specifically movie-makers, and they are predisposed to heap accolades upon any movie which is itself about making movies and how awesome they are, up to and including “so awesome that they can be instrumental in rescuing American hostages from revolutionaries.” This is the same reason why The Artist won Best Picture in 2011, above and beyond how its creative expression stacked up against the other nominees; The Artist was a Hollywood story. If you are the kind of person who enjoys gambling on Oscar outcomes, I would strongly advise you to always pick the movie-about-movies for Best Picture in your pool.

(Tangent the First: I watched the first half of The Artist on the VRE this morning and plan to finish it on the way home tonight. Since it is about silent movies and the story begins in 1927, and it is on the 1001 Movies list, I had planned to incorporate it as a two-fer post-script to Roaring 20’s Month. At any rate, look for that review some time next week.)

(Tangent the Second: 2010 is an interesting year to try to make fit the case for my stories-about-stories theory. The King’s Speech won Best picture, and that is not a movie about movies. But it is a movie about a radio address, and that address was a form of expression that achieved an important result. In fact none of the Best Picture nominees from 2010 were movies about movies, although I would argue two more were stories about stories: Black Swan and Inception (which I’ve also seen, though never reviewed here, but if I had it would have been swoony). In Inception the storytelling medium is dreams, which is kind of abstract but there is a lot of focus on how the dreams are built and controlled. In Black Swan, the medium is ballet, more formalized but farther away on the technological spectrum from movies than radio is. It may be that when there are no movies about movies on the ballot, the safe bet is the movie about some other modern form of communication, particularly if it somehow ties in to history especially WWII. Discuss.)

So Argo won, and good for Ben Affleck, but really what it got me thinking about was Stephen King’s Dark Tower, which I know I was supposed to have comprehensively reflected on by now. Easier said than done, obviously, but the farther away I get from my second consecutive read-through of the whole Dark Tower cycle, the more I realize the category to which it belongs: stories about stories. (Spoilers follow! I mean it! I am going to give away the biggest possible secret of the books that can be given!)

I liked the whole Dark Tower saga, including its delayed-yet-rushed back half and especially its controversial ending, far more the second time than the first, and part of that had to do with knowing where it was all headed and appreciating the manner in which it got there, seeing how things which felt like annoying detours the first time were really meaningful steps forward, and so on. But even more than that, in the seven years or so that passed between one reading and the next, I picked up that key concept of storytellers loving stories about stories and storytellers, and that unlocked the whole series, or at least a whole new level of it. It’s not a string of books about a post-apocalyptic knight errant gunslinger and his adventures to save all reality from cosmic collapse. It’s a string of books about stories, about all the stories that ever were. The Dark Tower novels don’t just crib shamelessly from spaghetti westerns and The Wizard of Oz and the Arthurian legends and The Lord of the Rings and Fantastic Four comics and Harry Potter and The Stand (and many, many other works); they do that, in no uncertain terms, but they do it because they are inherently about those stories, about the power of every story to give shape to the universe by giving our lives meaning and sense.

The last reference point I mentioned up above was The Stand, significant because it’s another (very well-known and widely loved) work by Stephen King. The entire Dark Tower cycle is a colossal ego trip, of course it is, any 4000+ page work would have to be. And all the moreso because not only does King riff on his own previous works in large and small ways, right alongside riffs on unimpeachable classics, but he goes so far as to write himself into the saga as a reflexively crucial character; King finishing writing the Dark Tower (which in the real world took an agonizingly long time that King genuinely felt guilty about) is portrayed as an important component in keeping the structural underpinnings of an orderly universe intact. And either you buy into that level of hubris or you probably reject it pretty violently. For the sake of the other characters whom I loved fiercely before King shows up on the page with them, I bought it.

So the Dark Tower is King’s be-all-end-all final word on creative expression’s redemptive power, and specifically the author’s assertion that his own work is the most important work in the entire universe. Or at least (as well as at most) within the fictional universe he created, the personal universe. By the time the epic draws to a close, he has taken the argument to its zenith, just as Roland has climbed every black stone step to the top of the Dark Tower. And where is there to go from there? Back to the beginning.

And that of course is what infuriates about half the people who hung in there for the seven original books, that in the end Roland isn’t rewarded but punished, cursed to go all the way back to the start of his quest, caught in an inescapable loop. The last sentence of Book VII is literally the first sentence of Book I. It’s a neat vaguely po-mo trick, but it does feel like a trick, and a cruel one at that. Or so the argument goes, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that.

First of all, fairly overtly, it’s made clear in the brief span of the narrative between Roland going through the door at the end of his quest and his resumption of it in the mirror line “The man in black fled through the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” that this is not an exact duplicate pass through the same events. Roland has regained the Horn of Eld which he lost in his youth, a small but presumably critical difference which will have repercussions through this iteration of the quest. (I would love to have a book club of a half-dozen or so people brainstorm specific ways that might play out.) If the quest can change, even in small ways, from one turn to the next, then it’s not necessarily inescapable; the cycle can be broken, and a reader of an optimistic mindset can believe that one of these times, it will, and that Roland is not eternally damned.

Again, though, I think there’s another level to it as well. King can make all the definitive, self-aggrandizing statements he wants about the primal power of stories, but he’s doing it in his own modern lifetime using the medium of the novel. Novels may seem quaint and old-fashioned but they are technologically advanced compared to the folklore of oral tradition. When a novel is written, it more or less stays the same forever, every word captured in a certain order, preserved faithfully henceforth. As opposed to fairy tales and myths and ballads and so on, which can evolve organically in every re-telling, changing to reflect the times (or the teller). So I think it’s actually quite deft how King is able at the last moment to turn his meticulously curated novels into the equivalent of campfire stories, by declaring that (1) the story will be retold again and again and (2) it will vary a bit every time. Small wonder that the eighth volume, released last year, is almost entirely concerned with passed-down tales, bedtime stories and fairy tales from Roland’s world. The main question is, which run through the loop does the eighth volume properly belong to?