Monday, September 30, 2013


OK, so I finally have a little room to breathe at work. I still have a ton to do! But what remains is not quite as time-sensitive as what I plowed through over the last couple weeks, so I can pace myself and go back and forth between that remainder and, just to pick a for-instance totally at random, writing little casual musings on what the hell I’m doing with my life.

I ended up hitting my killer deadline by taking a page from the playbook of Jim Kirk: if you can’t beat the game, change the rules. I started with a massive pile of data that had been entered into spreadsheets over the course of almost two months, all of which needed to be captured in the database which was out of commission between networks for awhile but is now back online. Some of the data was simple and clean, and some was messy, and obviously the messy data was slowing me down. Fortunately, I realized that the reports that were going to be looked at come the end of the year (today) don’t touch on that messy data at all. So I just set all of that aside and focused on getting the data that actually shows up on the reports into the system. There was a little more to it than that, as I had to keep accurate track of everything I was doing so that I could eventually tie everything back together again, since the messy data does need to be entered for long-term archive purposes. But I kept everything from plunging into absolute chaos, at least. (For now.)

Really, I have no one to blame for how difficult the task in total was, and the messiness of the messy data, other than myself. Ultimately I’m the person who told all of my colleagues, “Use this spreadsheet to log your work while the system is offline, and then when its back online I’ll take back the spreadsheet and sync everything up.” And I am of course the person who designed the spreadsheet, but sap that I am I prioritized making the spreadsheet easy for my colleagues to use, as opposed to easy to reverse-engineer back into the database. If I had made certain columns in the spreadsheet more restrictive (and a bigger pain-in-the-arse to populate) then I’d be able to automate the uploads now, and they’d probably already be done. But I didn’t, through a butt-biting combination of lack of forethought and wanting to be seen by my colleagues as an accommodating, easygoing dude.

That self-inflicted wound was really just a capper, though. The fact that I was planning on the system being unavailable for two, maybe three weeks, and therefore willing to volunteer myself to massage three weeks’ worth of data into something the restored database could swallow, but then the total data was at least triple that projected amount? That was more or less out of my hands. As was the fact that the entire absurd network-transfer project took almost an entire year when it should have taken a month or so, tops. Plus, the boss-of-bosses was just installed a few months ago, and is only now really getting up to speed, which of course means this round of reporting is going to be the first she really pays careful, knowledgeable attention to, and this is her first end-of-fiscal-year in her new position as well … it’s a colossal pile-up, really. I should, sensibly, be thankful that the transfer project was finished when it was and that I even had the opportunity to drown in data synchronization for a couple of weeks so that the reports could be delivered at the end-of-fiscal-year. Otherwise my colleagues and I might all have very well found ourselves trying to explain to the bossN+1 that the entire system was still offline as of September 30 and there was no way to report on anything for the foreseeable future. That would have been a markedly more bitter flavor of suck.

And have I mentioned yet that half the office is wailing over the impending government shutdown that looks unavoidably likely to happen tomorrow? Some are scrambling frantically to get things done today since they won’t be able to tomorrow, and others are blowing everything off because as of tomorrow there’ll be no point because everything will be hosed. If I had shirked the data reconciliation for the reports, there would of course be no shutdown and the reports would be expected first thing tomorrow morning. They should be ready to go as of tomorrow, but no one will be around to ask after them. Typical.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag With Jughandles

Every day this week I was working wire-to-wire to get a database caught up sufficiently to run some fiscal year-end reports. Hence the dearth of posts. But also every day this week I had intentions of going home, feeding the kids and settling them down for bed, spending some time with my wife, and then maybe staying up a little bit later than usual and using the home computer to knock together a bit of blog content. Obviously those intentions went nowhere! It's amazing these days the extent to which my brain just seems to shut down around 10 pm, leaving me no choice other than to get in bed.

Still, I did snag a few stolen moments this week to assemble the following hodge-podge. Enjoy.


So last weekend the family and I were in New Jersey for the wedding of an old friend, which took place in Parsippany, essentially my old stomping grounds (or close enough).

My wife at one point, as we were sitting in the car in the bend of a jughandle waiting to make a U-turn, asked if she should give me a few fist pumps, to make the moment that much more Jersey-flavored. She then amended the suggestion to include putting on a Bon Jovi and/or Bruce Springsteen song, and I added that we would need all of the above plus a final destination of a tanning salon (we were, in fact, on our way to Target to buy an emergency replacement portable DVD player for the trip back home). You can imagine the hilarity that ensued when we discovered that the shopping center where the Target was located did in fact contain a salon named "Sizzle Tans". I mean, come on.

My wife likes to disparage New Jersey (the way that I like to disparage her dreams of moving to Canada) but I did catch her at one point sighing "I love this place." Granted, she was referring specifically and exclusively to the Empire Diner where we had lunch on Saturday and brunch on Sunday, but I allowed myself to pretend she was talking about my home state.

(Seriously, though, that diner was fantastic. The breakfast offerings included both an Italian Omelette AND a Pizza Omelette (among many others) which is really just a hyper-gustatory way of saying God Bless America in my book.)


From the Vanity Plates Archives (Wishful Thinking Wing): And as we were leaving Parsippany on Sunday I saw a man and woman sharing a ride on a motorcycle, with their radio playing loud enough to be heard over the engine. Not loud enough to identify the exact tunes, but we were sitting at a stoplight beside them long enough for me to catch the end of something that sounded like Johnny Cash and the beginning of something that sounded like Motley Crue. Then as the light turned green adn they got ahead of us, I saw their license plate: 2BEK1.

Now, as I've elaborated on in the past, I know custom tags are much more expensive up in NY/NJ than they are down here in VA, which is why they're known where I grew up as "vanity" tags to begin with. So I'm well aware that chances are high-to-absolute that those numbers and letters are just randomly assigned by the DMV. But, oh, you guys, how great would it be if that hog-throttling, leather-wearing, Cash-n-Crue-blasting dude (who was obviously romantically paired up) had been referencing his real favorite song, 2 Become 1?

I bow to no one in my love for the Spice Girls (in their appropriate 90's-nostalgia context - I'm certainly not clamoring for a defeating-the-disposable-point reunion or anything) but I still would love to live in a world where middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts could outdo me in their appreciation for pre-fab distaff pop.


Also last weekend was Week 3 of the NFL season and the Pick'em Pool. Week 1 I went 4-and-12, which while not the worst record in the pool was undeniably atrocious. Week 2 I went 7-and-9, which is a marked improvement yet still worse odds than one would expect from flipping a coin to determine each pick. For Week 3, I made all my picks on Wednesday due to the Thursday night game, although what that amounted to was picking all the home teams (due to my ultimately erroneous belief that the Eagles could handle the Chiefs in Philly) with the intention of going back later and making more thoughtful determinations in advance of the first kickoff on Sunday. But of course, what with the travel and the wedding and the fact that the Embassy Suites did not provide free WiFi (seriously) I never got around to changing my picks at all. And I went 10-and-6 on the week! The weekly winner went 11-and-5, so I am seriously rethinking my overthinking approach to the pool going forward.

For those of you who have followed the saga of the Pick'em Pool from year to year, my grandmother is in fact in again this season, and in fact she was one of the people who got 11 right this past week. She also got 11 right last week. In both cases she was too far off on the MNF total points tie-breaker to be the weekly winner. I just realized that Grandma always enters "40" for the MNF total, no matter who's playing. I'll have to ask her if there's some reason for that. Anyway, Grandma's in second place by one point overall for the season. She is still awesome.


You will not however that I am not talking much about either the New York Football Giants of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose campaigns thus far could most charitably be described as O SWEET VENGEFUL GOD ALMIGHTY HOW HAVE WE DISPLEASED THEE AND INCURRED THY WRATH?!?!?


Anyway, I made time this week to catch the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere, and of course I have some thoughts about that, as well as some old stuff I've now been neglecting for weeks. Next week is looking like it will be a bit of return to normal operations around here (potential government shutdown notwithstanding; I'm a contractor so I get to keep showing up at the office every day, wheeee) so who knows, I may very well do some multi-post days to try to clear the decks. At the very least I promise more than I managed this week!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Still under it

Man, I was obsessed with the Salem Witch trials when I was a kid.

I have gotten the approach to my present workload down to a system where I should be able to get everything done and juuuuuuuust sneak in under the wire of my end-of-fiscal-year deadline. But it remains a ridiculously heavy load, so this is gonna be another sporadic (if not silent) week around the ol' blog.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Service interruption

Zorak and Moltar DO apologize.

Do not adjust your modems, people. The blog has not suffered from an electromagnetic pulse memory wipe, nor are the servers infested with a scourge of copper weevils. I am simply chipping away at a task with a deadline, which is consuming 100% of my workdays, leaving no time at all for idle blogging.

Which is a shame, because there's a ton of things I want to talk about! I finished reading an excellent novel last weekend, and I've seen a couple of very good movies recently, and people have been commenting on various recent posts in ways which makes me very much want to respond at length. Not to mention the 2013 edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is out on the streets, and that could spur a couple of discussions right there.

I will catch up as soon as I can, but I'm not gonna lie, the next couple of weeks are gonna be tough. Stand by. We are working to restore the regular blogging schedule as soon as possible.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Stupid busy

I thought I was in good shape regarding my big (stupid, annoying) project at work because things have at least progressed to the point where all of my user-colleagues can in fact use the new version of the system, and the only work left to do involves backfilling the data that was generated offline during the transition period. That falls on me, and it's eye-wateringly tedious, but I can slog through it.

Then today I found out that the boss-of-all-bosses is expecting a report on our metrics by the end of the quarter/year, which is in two weeks. And all the offline data needs to be in the system by then, so that analytics can be generated.

I was thinking the backfilling would take me four, maybe six weeks. I now need to accelerate that timeline quite a bit.

So yeah, that's what I was grappling with today. More interesting subject matter tomorrow (hopefully, time permitting, blah blah blah).

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag and the Glad Rags

The most important news item requiring follow-up and thus necessitating a SGB post is as follows: this past Monday I got an e-mail from the friend I had taken to chemo the week before, in which she thanked me effusively, not so much for the gesture of tagging along but for the fact that her entire course of treatments for the week had far fewer side-effects than usual. She attributed this to me, joked that I should come with her every time from here on out, and referred to me as her "good luck charm". This of course made the little anima-worshipping pagan inside me do a little triumphant dance. So ... magical thinking FTW, I guess? Hell if I know anything about how anything works in this world anymore. But no sense arguing when good things happen.


The other thing I suppose I could follow up on is the comic con from last weekend, which was fun, mainly (as always) for the people-watching and especially for watching the cosplayers. There were, as always, plenty of chicks dressed like Wonder Woman or Supergirl and plenty of dudes dressed like Spider-Man or Batman. I saw a father and two sons, all dressed as the Incredible Hulk, and the array of them in staggered heights just made me think, "Hulks. Hulks all the way down."

Comic cons have become more all-encompassing geek cons these days, which I'm fine with, but one result is that the most prevalent costumes were from a live action sci-fi show (that would be Doctor Who) or from a cartoon (that would be Adventure Time). Seriously, those Finns and Fionas were freaking everywhere.

I tend to be more amused by the more obscure comics character homages, though, and there was no shortage of those either. I caught a glimpse of a guy dressed as an old 80's bad guy from the Spider-Man comics named Sin Eater. A couple of girls were dressed as interesting variants on Transformers, where they had the heads of robots (Jazz and Shockwave, respectively) but then were wearing old-fashioned dresses with color schemes corresponding to the robot's chassis. And I saw a woman dressed as Alana from Saga.

That's her on the left. Saga is a comic that not only you have never heard of but I haven't gotten into, however my dad has thanks to one of my brothers gifting him with the first issue, and I've hear nothing but good things about it. The woman I saw had the hair, the wings, the clothes, and even a baby doll. I happened to pass her in one of the aisles on the con floor, and I gave her a respectful little knowing nod which I hoped conveyed my respect for the deep pull.

Strangely enough I only saw one Princess Leia in Jabba's Slave garb, which used to be a get-up you couldn't swing a dead womprat without hitting half a dozen of. Since it was so played out, I'm not lamenting its passing at all. But I did also think it was strange that I saw exactly zero people in Game of Thrones cosplay. If Slave Leia's day has come and gone, you'd think Daenerys in khaleesi animal skins would be a natural replacement. Maybe that's just me.

Also, my friends and I went to a screening of Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie, and it was ... disappointing, on many levels. I think Kevin Smith has destroyed the better judgment centers of his brain with weed. But maybe that's a post for another day.


BASEBALL UPDATE: This past week, the Orioles and Yankees played each other, mercifully for the last time this season. One evening I was worried the game would get rained out and they'd have to play one last-miute make-up game, but it was just a delay. Some nights the O's won, and some nights the Yanks won, but on no nights was there anything approaching smacktalk coming from either side of the marital union under our roof. In fact, by the last night my wife was asking in all seriousness, "Can we just not watch the game and pretend it isn't happening?" I commiserated with her and even went a bit further in explaining how grim the entire end-of-season state of the standings happened to be (as of a few days ago, at any rate):

The Red Sox are in first place with a commanding lead - that alone is borderline intolerable. Meanwhile the Rays, Orioles and Yankees are all in the mix for the wildcard, with Tampa Bay at the moment in the second wildcard slot and New York and Baltimore within a game or two (along with a couple other non-AL East teams). While the O's and Yankees were beating each other up, essentially treading water in the standings as they traded wins and losses, the Red Sox and Rays were playing each other. Logic would dictate that since the Red Sox are all but uncatchable it would be in both my wife's and my own best interest to root for Boston to sweep Tampa Bay, so that both of our teams could gain some ground in the wildcard race. Except I can't stomach cheering on Boston under any circumstances, it brings to mind words like "unconscionable" and "anathema" and other such high-end synonyms for "I'm a big baby sore loser". I would much rather hope and wish for an epic Sox collapse than be pragmatic about it.

Of course I should, as I've alluded to earlier this season, be grateful that the post-season is even a slim possibility for the boys from the Bronx this year, and just shut up and count my blessings. But what fun would that be?


And speaking of sports, and follow-ups, I had a pitiful Week 1 in the football pick'em pool. After getting the Denver win right, I went 3-and-12. Yowch. I told y'all it wouldn't last!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Profane (and profane accessories)

The little guy has already had homework in his first week of kindergarten, have I mentioned? Nothing more onerous than a simple worksheet, and not every single night, but I fully expect that it will mount in frequency and intensity as the year progresses. Of course this has my wife and I thinking about the best way to establish the homework habit, and how it would be nice to have a proper desk as the designated place for the completion of school assignments and whatnot. Not that we really have a good spot to put a desk at this point. Maybe we should buy a new house. (Ha ha j/k except not entirely /k, a subject for another time perhaps.)

When my family moved in the middle of my fourth grade year, we moved from a split level ranch in New York to a nearly identical split level ranch in New Jersey. The main difference was we upgraded to a finished walk-out basement, and the ostensible fourth bedroom down there (which eventually became my actual-factual bedroom a few years later when my Very little Bro was born) took on toy room duties, leaving three bedrooms upstairs. So for the first time in our lives, my Little Bro and I had separate rooms and not long after we moved in we got identical desks, since we each had plenty of room to spread out beyond bureau and bed.

I wouldn’t say that my parents were excessively parsimonious, but they weren’t excessively extravagant, either. I knew we were comfortably middle class and I felt that way the vast majority of the time, as all of my needs and the majority of my idle wants were usually satisfied. But I do think my parents adopted a certain attitude of “good enough” where certain things were concerned. Children’s furniture, for example. The desks my brother and I got were a little on the cheap side, albeit perfectly functional and up to the task of holding up notebooks while being leaned on by elbows and whatnot. The chairs, on the other hand, were exceptionally cheap.

To be fair, I have always been rough on chairs (and sofas, couches &c.) because I am supremely physically lazy. I don’t so much lower myself onto furniture as drop onto it, letting all my weight fall as gravity dictates. I flump. And that can take a toll on any piece of furniture, especially the seat of a chair which is really nothing more than a sheet of medium-density fiberboard wrapped in canvas and slotted into the leg frames. As I learned to my own consternation one night when I sat down in the chair and tucked my hands under the sides of the seat and scooted my legs in under the desk with a bit of bouncing up and down - bouncing which was sufficient to dislodge the put-upon seat from the frame on one side, thereby crushing my fingers between chairparts with the force of all my personal acceleration.

I didn’t break anything but it hurt like a … well, like any expletive you can think of, which would probably be contained in the larger set of swear words which exploded from my mouth as I stood up and shook my wounded hand furiously and stomped around my room in a lurching pain dance for a while.

So of course a few moments later, my dad called my name in the tone he reserved for urgent disciplinary summons.

I reported to him with my hand still throbbing convinced that I was about to get in a world of trouble. I was a teenager, I should mention, maybe just barely, but there was really no casual swearing in my house and although there had been zero prior soaping of mouths to drive the point home, I knew the words I had been screaming were highly verboten. My dad, to his credit, knew right away that I had hurt myself and asked if I was OK. Then I think he asked if I felt better having cursed so much, and I really wasn’t sure how to answer (it honestly did make me feel better to bellow four-letter words, and still does to this day for that matter, but I wasn’t entirely sure that response would meet my father’s approval) so I just shrugged. And then he asked me if I knew what all those words meant.

After shrugging off the previous question I knew I had to answer the follow-up, because if I said no then I might have to suffer the intensely mortifying experience of my father explaining to me what they meant, which … no. Just no. So I answered with a shaky “yeah” and hoped the awkward subtext of “please please please believe me and leave it at that and let’s never speak of this again” came through. I guess it did, because after a final insistence on my dad’s part that if I ever did hear a word, even a bad word, and I didn’t know what it meant and wanted to ask someone, I could ask him, he let it go. So my filthy tirade was our little secret (we were the only two home at the time, I’m pretty sure) and that was that.

In hindsight, I think that was one of my dad’s half-hearted attempts to possibly begin a parent-child dialogue about S-E-X, which ultimately never quite came together. And I go back and forth between feeling sorry for him because I can’t imagine that whole aspect of being a parent is ever easy for anyone, let alone my father (or the version of himself that he was back then, which coincidentally is about the age I am now), and at the same time feeling a little let down that what rearing I did get in that department was not terribly much. That probably doesn’t make much sense, that I can look back and kind of wish that my father had done more of the type of talking that would have made my skin crawl at the time (and for all I know, would have done about the same for him) but at the very least gives me something to think about as I’m going to need to start navigating those same waters in the next five to seven years. Fuck a duck.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Excess energy

The little guy continues enjoying kindergarten; six or seven days in and it seems like there’s still new things happening every day, mostly in the form of … what did we call the equivalent of electives in elementary school? Specials? I think that was the terminology in my school, at least. Anyway, they rotate, so one day the class has gym and another they have music, another they have art and yet another they go to the library. All of which appeal to the little guy in one way or another, and he even commented the other night that he’s learning as much about school (where the different special rooms are and whatnot) as he’s learning in school, which is fairly perceptive.

The major downside, so far, is that while he’s bringing his A-game to kindergarten every day, doing so requires suppressing certain of his natural (read: primal and wildly animalistic) instincts, and thus when he gets home at the end of the day he unleashes them in a fury. After eight hours or so of staying in his seat and being quiet and respectful and interacting with his peers, all those rule-abiding pro-social things, between getting off the bus and bedtime he goes bananas: bossing his sister around, denying/defying basically everything that comes out of his mother’s mouth or my own, bouncing off the walls and furniture, and so on. Literally, he spins in circles as fast as he can and makes loud booster rocket noises with his mouth, with an intensity that seems to indicate that he would explode if he held the physical motion and noise inside a moment longer. Our parental strategy, at this point, is basically to suck it up (and vent about it via blog or Facebook) and look forward to things settling down a bit more. Hopefully that will pan out!


The little girl is experiencing her own version of a mixed bag, as well. My wife and I are in agreement that having the house to herself during the majority of weekday waking hours (baby brother notwithstanding) suits the little sassypants just fine, and she probably needed to be left to her own devices a little more often. But then, see above re: how the dynamic changes as soon as the newly enrolled pupil caroms through the front door. It’s a tricky balancing act for the parents, too. On the one hand we want to reinforce to the little guy that we are excited for him and proud of him as he continues navigating the brave new world of public school, but when we express that by focusing all attention on him (be it my wife when he gets off the bu or myself when I arrive home from work later) and asking how his day was, what they did, what he learned, do not doubt for a second that his sister does not take note of the fact that she might as well not exist for the span of the interrogations. So she demands to be picked up and carried, or she sulks, or any number of other (perfectly understandable!) responses, which require some rebalancing. So we pay attention to her, and then the little guy goes shooting off somewhere to test the limits of his restored freedom. And so on.

But really, the little girl is doing pretty well on balance. Last night as I was giving her a bath she was holding up some of the toys (the tugboat captain, the seahorse, the fish-that-is-also-a-brush) and asking me to soap them up the same as her. Although, actually, she was giving the toys different voices and making them ask to be washed. “Hey I need some soap!” they each told me, the fish and seahorse in high-pitched squeaks and the captain in a salty growl. That’s the first time I’ve noticed her doing that with any toys, which is kind of amazing given the popularity in our house of the Toy Story movies (championed by her older brother, of course, but inevitably spilling over into her awareness quite a bit) and I guess that’s just another milestone she’s hit, where it makes sense to her to engage in the kind of imaginary play where inanimate objects gain the ability to talk. Fun stuff.

The baby has had a cold for about a week and a half now which gave him a fever for maybe a day or two and mostly has just made him cough himself awake pretty regularly. That has been a bit of a drag, but he’s been otherwise in good spirits and slept through the night last night so we really have minimal reason to complain.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ends of the World (Apocalypse Now/Planet of the Apes)

One of the things I wanted to cover during SUMMER SCHOOL (real school is in session but technically we’re still in the last gasps of ante-equinox, baby!) was a gigantic gap in my personal 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die running tally: Apocalypse Now. In my mind that film was easily in the top 10 of movies I had never seen but really, really should. Thus it fell under the “general make-up work” heading for SUMMER SCHOOL, not to mention the fact that the steamy August weather would sync up well with the sweltering jungles of Vietnam (as portrayed by the sweltering jungles of the Philippines).

However, I was very nearly derailed in this effort at a cookout hosted by my buddy Clutch. Another of our friends happened to be in town, the very same guy who worked on Species 2 and whom I consider to be the closest thing to a hardcore cinephile amongst my cohort of friends. He and I were conversing and I confessed to him that I was on a bit of a classic movie kick, tracking down and taking time to watch movies that would no doubt be on his I-can’t-believe-you’ve-never-seen-that list. He asked me for an example and the first one that leapt to mind was Apocalypse Now. To which my friend replied, with a theatrical roll of his eyes, “You do NOT need to see Apocalypse Now! Skip it. It’s not that good. Well, parts of it are, but parts of it really drag. So overrated”

Not exactly inspirational cheerleading, and it kind of stuck in my craw for a while afterwards and led to a lengthy delay on my part in actually loading up the DVD. But I did eventually get around to it, and I’m happy to report that I did not find myself wishing I had listened to my friend.

It’s a rather long movie, of course, not to mention split across two discs (at least the version I got from Netflix was) so I took it in stages, and oddly enough I did so mostly at home as opposed to on the train. At one point I was watching it while my wife was at work, and when she got home and it was still up on the tv screen she (impressively) recognized it right away. She asked me how I was liking it and my first response was to laugh, because Apocalypse Now is not exactly a movie which strives to be likable. It’s calculated to provoke a myriad of emotional responses, but simple pleasure is not one of them. I finally answered that I was appreciating the artistry of it, and my wife understood where I was coming from there.

(One more Random AnecdoteTM: one time in college I got Francis Ford Coppola confused with Frank Capra, which my roommate thought was absolutely hilarious. “It’s A Wonderful Apocalypse Now!” he howled, which even I have to admit is a movie I would pay good money to see. Anyway.)

I’m very taken by the Coppola quote from his Cannes press conference where he claimed, “"My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam." I can’t deny that assertion (even if I was only six months old when the war ended, and I’m evaluating everything in second-hand hindisght), and I think that’s the key to understanding everything that Apocalypse Now does right, or to come at it from the opposite direction, to understanding how everything that might be perceived as a flaw is actually a strength. If the movie seems to drag on interminably, isn’t that also true of the Vietnam War? If it seems ultimately pointless or senseless, isn’t that also true of the Vietnam War? Or any war, really? I’ve questioned in the past the truism that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, and Apocalypse Now only seems to bolster my argument that it absolutely is possible to create one. The film is a disturbing, sometimes surreal nightmare, compelling in its unblinking regard of awfulness, and nothing about it makes war look awesome.

Not even Dennis Hopper!

Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie, but you can perhaps appreciate how the ideas can inadvertently bleed into one another. They really shouldn’t, though, because Coppola is absolutely in command of the artform and Apocalypse Now is a legit masterpiece. The message that war is a special kind of insanity, a vicious manifestation of human cruelty where good and evil become nothing but different degrees of atrocity, is reinforced at every level from the plot and the acting down to the technical, almost invisible details. Two examples:

- The soundtrack. Around the time I was supposed to switch from the Act One disc to Act Two, I browsed around through the special features (because I was holding a sleeping infant in my arms and didn’t want to get up off the couch right at that second) and ended up reading an article about how the soundtrack came together. Right at the end of Act One I had taken notice of certain music cues, and that had intrigued me enough to prompt the extra reading, which enlightened me as to just how much thought and effort went into the scoring of the movie. I paid a lot more attention to it in Act Two and was pretty blown away, both by how exquisitely rendered the soundscape was and by the fact that I hadn’t really been consciously aware of it in Act One. The soundtrack does its work within the film brilliantly and without drawing undue attention to itself.

- Dissolves. The transition from one scene to another rarely merits paying any attention to, right? (Unless you are watching on of the Star Wars movies by Coppola’s friend George Lucas, and playing the associated drinking game by the rules my buddies and I observe, which include drinking every time there’s a patented Lucas Wipe across the screen.) But in Apocalypse Now I couldn’t help but notice the profusion of extremely slow dissolves, which (like everything else in the movie) plays into the composition of a fever dream feeling for the entire narrative. One scene fades away and another rises up, they briefly disorientingly overlap, and the narrative becomes unmoored in time and place; is it a few minutes later? Hours? Days? Are we still on the same river? It’s a simple, subtle technique but it is undeniably the right one.

So, to sum up: not a feel-good movie, nor one I’m eager to re-watch any time soon, and I admit that I do find it odd that a good number of people would say that Apocalypse Now is one of their favorite movies (“favorite” is an inherently difficult word to unpack, I find, but that’s a subject for an entirely separate blog post). But it’s a glorious achievement, an awe-inspiring example of the art of filmmaking, and rightfully enshrined in the canon.

Now moving from the metaphorical destruction of human civilization to the literal, I also recently watched Planet of the Apes for the first time ever. Is that flick also on the 1001 Movies list? It certainly is. Is it also valid SUMMER SCHOOL viewing? I would argue yes again, as a one-time sci-fi blockbuster. Did Planet of the Apes come with positive or negative reviews from my cinephile buddy attached? Not explicitly, although I’ve always known that he’s a huge fan of the series (and of all things monkey-related, really) to the point where for a good long while there he had a webmail account with “Dr. Zaius” somewhere in the handle.

They are both redheads.

You would think I was holding a grudge against my pal, though I swear that’s not the case, but nonetheless here’s my verdict: Planet of the Apes is just not very good. I wanted to like it! But I found it kind of a chore to watch. I suspect it made the Must-See list mostly because of the ending, one of the most iconic pieces of post-apocalyptic (and anti-nuclear war) sci-fi imagery in cinema, not to mention one of the biggest surprise twist endings of all time, so much so that “It was Earth all along!” has become common shorthand for just such a swerve. (And no, I am not going to apologize for failing to forewarn a spoiler about the ending to a 45-year-old movie.) And I have no argument with either of those assessments; the derelict Statue of Liberty on the beach is an amazing composition, and the twist ending is solid (albeit a little hard to judge since the surprise factor no longer exists). But there are certain touchstones of pop culture, like the ending to Planet of the Apes, where simply knowing the gist of them is roughly equivalent to having first-hand knowledge of the entire work. If you grok the setup and payoff of Planet of the Apes, you can pretty safely skip it. You aren’t going to gain a whole lot of nuanced insight for sitting through the entire movie.

Here are my major beefs with Planet of the Apes:

- Gigantic plot holes, of the “things don’t actually work that way” variety. I know it’s only sci-fi allegory, but there comes a point where suspension of disbelief is so strained that everything falls apart. The astronauts’ mission makes very little sense. If its purpose was to expand human knowledge via exploration, it seems pointless to send them so far away at such near-light speeds that their first reports won’t come back to earth for thousands of years, if at all. If its purpose was colonization and re-population, as Taylor alludes to when he says Stewart was supposed to be their “new Eve”, just think for a minute about how three men plus one woman is one of the worst human breeding arrangements imaginable. Either way, they were throwing the astronauts blindly at a planet that might or might not support human life, and might or might not have its own indigenous intelligent life, which might be hostile to Earthlings showing up uninvited. And the astronauts clearly have no plan whatsoever when all this turns out to be the case. Except it all happens to be the case on Earth, after the spaceship makes a U-turn after 1000 Earth-years with no explanation ever offered as to why. The Apes have evolved to sentience in a mere 2000 years, which is not how evolution works unless we’re being extremely generous about “radiation effects” from the long-ago nuclear war. I’ll turn a blind eye to the Apes speaking perfect English (with British accents!) because that’s a common enough sci-fi trope … but man, it’s hard to ignore it when Taylor’s ability to speak, while the surviving human savages are mute (which - wha-huh?) is such a major plot point. I know another reason why Planet of the Apes stands out in the historical record is because, at the time, the prosthetic make-up for the simians was amazing, but it hasn’t aged well. The eyes of the apes are expressive enough, but mouths don’t move with the dialogue, the muzzles look stiff and rubbery, and again the ability to speak as a sign of intelligence is something the movie itself keeps drawing attention to! There’s plenty of other things to quibble with, though. How about plate tectonics and erosion? Again, I can grant that a nuclear exchange would alter the landscape considerably, but given the Statue of Liberty’s proximity, the Forbidden Zone must be somewhere near the east coast of the former U.S., and yet it looks like Utah (because that’s where they shot it) and I can’t figure out how nuclear war plus 2000 of geological activity would form huge valleys like that in New Jersey or Connecticut.

I know, I know, I’m a joyless scold. I think my personal record shows that I can tolerate a certain amount of disregard for scientific accuracy and non-ironclad logic. But way too much is still way too much.

- It’s pretty boring! The nominal action sequences are neither choreographed nor shot very well, and they are both few and far between and repetitive. Taylor and his colleagues wind up caught in the hunt with the mute humans, and the apes capture them. Taylor tries to escape, and gets captured. He tries to escape again, and gets captured again. He finally escapes, and the gorillas show up and shoot at them. Taylor gets them to back off, then they come back and shoot at him some more. In between all that excitement are lots of scenes of apes sitting around talking. I know, budget constraints, allegorical ideas, blah blah blah. It’s just not a very fun movie, especially as noted camp classics go. Its dearth of thrilling set-pieces honestly surprised me. They used to sell Planet of the Apes action figures, but how many kids like playing Mego Mexican Standoff?

- Taylor is a terrible protagonist. There is a certain historical amusement in watching NRA activist Charlton Heston demand that the man-sized chimpanzees give him a damn rifle. (Note: in reality there’s nothing funny about the NRA.) And overall, Heston’s performance and sheer presence as Taylor is certainly magnetic, even during the stretches where he can’t speak. But he’s also a stupid jerk. I kind of sort of get the idea of making Taylor a cynic, to underline the themes of how venal a creature man is, but Taylor goes beyond cynical. His harassment of Landon in particular, and his general tendency at the beginning of the film to constantly harp on how everything they ever knew back on Earth is now dust in the thousand-year-old wind just comes across as bullying. And it undermines the ending, too: why the hell is he so upset that the maniacs blew it all up? He left Earth to find something better out there than man, assuming the human race was headed for self-destruction. And he was right, but for some reason physical proof of this shatters him?

During his tribunal, Taylor offers to prove that he’s not just a trained animal, that he can reason. So Honorious begins asking him questions concerning specific details of their sacred scrolls, and Taylor just kind of sputters that he doesn’t know the answers because he’s a newcomer to their civilization. Honorious claims to have proven his point. Honestly, how hard would it have been for Taylor to point out that Honorious was asking the wrong kinds of questions, that memorizing dogma has nothing to do with the ability to reason? Again, I know, not the story they were trying to tell, but it does not exactly endear Taylor to me that Honorious uses the worst kind of rhetorical garbage arguments and Taylor is unable to defend himself from them. And the sad part is, this is arguably the most compelling aspect of the movie: the critique of organized religion, of the suppression of scientific inquiry and the state-sanctioned conflation of religious belief with carved-in-stone facts that all intelligent beings simply intuit and understand as true. It’s a great area for exploration (and totally relevant today amongst the climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers and creationists!) but Taylor is hardly up to the task of representing open-minded reason.

For all his swaggering truth-telling, Taylor is not terribly enlightened. Yes, it’s a facet of the movie dating back to 1968 and not aging particularly well, but it’s hard to deny that Taylor is a chauvinist pig. From his attitude toward poor, doomed Stewart to his claiming of Nova as his own property, to the fact that when he parts ways with the chimps he informs Zira “I’d like to kiss you goodbye” as if she should be grateful that he would bestow such a favor on her - gah. Partly my distaste is subjective and personal, but partly I bring it up because it’s another example of the movie undermining itself. The Apes’ society is backwards in many negative ways, but at least they have something like gender equality.

In addition to the (admittedly tenuous) end-times connection between Apocalypse Now and post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes, and their underlying condemnation of war (admittedly an easy target), the other common factor here for me is that both movies left me questioning how a good number of people could say either flick is one of their personal favorites. In the case of Apocalypse Now, it’s because the experience is so harrowing and intense, whereas in the case of Planet of the Apes, it’s because aside from a classic ending it’s just thoroughly underwhelming. But, to each his own!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Grand Unified Theory of Community

Well, since I have been putting this off since early May and it is inarguably back-to-school time now, I might as well weigh in on the last season finale of my favorite tv show, Community. Which amazingly enough was not the series finale! In fact, not only was Community improbably renewed for a fifth season after its fourth (a very middling half-order of 13 episodes as a mid-season replacement) but original showrunner Dan Harmon was brought back as well, and I am deep enough in the weeds of behind-the-scenes trade articles to know that that is something which basically never happens. Harmon coming back is (probably) a good thing for the show, just as Chevy Chase leaving is also (almost certainly) for the best, but then over the summer news broke that Donald Glover would only be appearing in five episodes of the upcoming season in order to focus on other aspects of his career, and that's a drag. Plus, once more, the debut date of Community S5 remains TBD, again most likely a mid-season replacement unless some other new show explodes horrifically on the launchpad or something. Only time will tell how much more, if any, actual Community we get.

But, again, a lot of that was unknown back in the spring when I watched the S4 finale, in which the interim (as it turned out) showrunners attempted to put something of a button not just on their extension of the storylines and their development of the characters, but on the series as a whole, just in case. And honestly, at the time I thought they made some risky choices that paid off admirably well. I've had all summer to meditate on it, and I'm finding that my initial reaction still holds.

Just to refresh everyone's memories (or, you know, clue you in if you are kind enough to be reading this post despite not being a follower of Community yourself) the season finale was about Jeff's graduation (in theory he was graduating a semester earlier than everyone else, which would have been timely if the show had premiered in September and the thirteenth episode had been a mid-season cliffhanger of sorts, but of course it ended up airing confusingly in May look just don't get me started) but it complicated that particular plot milestone by combining two of the most beloved recurring motifs in the series: paintball and the darkest timeline. Evil versions of the main characters crossed over from their alternate Earth to Greendale and used dimension-warping paintball pellets to forcibly banish their counterparts and take over their lives to cause mayhem, until Abed completed a round-trip to the darkest timeline and back, supplied his friends with their own dimension-guns, and via climactic shootout the good guys sent all the bad guys back where they belong.

Except it was all a dream! Of course it was, because mirror universes and timeline-teleporting paintball guns are the stuff of pure geek fantasy.

At its best and its worst moments, Community has firmly planted itself in trope territories which skew towards the geeky. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Video Games. Cheesy sci-fi movies and even cheesier long-running British sci-fi serials. Horror flicks. The list goes on. And yet, by and large the show has always been grounded as well, choosing to focus on the ways in which we geeks in the real world appreciate and relate to these escapist genres. The study group sat around the table and played D&D, as opposed to getting sucked into a fantasy world via mystical portal hidden in a carnival ride. They went to an Inspector Spacetime convention, rather than being abducted as temporary companions to an immortal adventurer. Sure there was the occasional surreal blurring of the lines between reality and unreality (a zombie-themed episode that may have hinged on secret military experiments here, a more-advanced-than-anything-in-our-world prototype VR interface for Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne there), but by and large Community avoided crossing the line into outright make-believe. And that has always been the right call.

But as the end of season 4 was approaching, I experienced no small amount of trepidation that the boundaries would finally and irrevocably be erased. The darkest timeline resurgent! Dean Spreck unrolling schematics for some kind of giant spider weapon! The latter element went nowhere as it turned out (for now, though for all we know City College will once again become the Big Bad in season 5) and the former turned out to be entirely in Jeff's head. Reaction to the season 4 finale has been polarized, and plenty of people hated that it boiled down to an extended reverie that meant nothing, but I had no problem with that. Partly that was because, although I love pure science-fiction (especially dealing with alternate realities!), as I mentioned above I don't think Community would be well-served by switching genres and would actually be an unmoored mess if it wholeheartedly embraced sci-fi. But I also felt that the imaginary aspect of the season finale provided a lot more than pure fan service.

Because here's what I think Community is really about: inner lives versus outer. When we first met the study group all the way back in the pilot, they all had something in common beyond the fact that they were enrolled at Greendale and taking Intro to Spanish. They were all grappling with the fact that their interior mental states did not line up or mesh well with the exterior faces they presented to the world. Everybody goes through this, usually in late adolescence and/or early young adulthood. That goes some way to explain why Troy and Annie are the two most likable members of the study group, because their struggle to reconcile inner and outer personae is normal and age-appropriate. It's increasingly more pathetic for Britta, Jeff, Shirley and Pierce; the older each of those characters is, the more they really should have figured all of this stuff out already. (And then arguably the most heroic character on the show is Dean Pelton, in his own way, because he wears his internal life on the outside, literally. He is committed to the bit. If he feels on the inside like a housewife from a 1950's sitcom, then nothing is going to stop him from dressing up as Dean-na Reed.)

Abed is the wildcard (or as Britta's psychological scantron forms revealed, the only sane one), because he has very little if any inner-v-outer conflict of his own. He's not at community college because he screwed up his path to a real university with drugs (Annie) or a sports injury (Troy), he's not a drifter looking for direction (Britta) or a middle-aged housewife looking for reinvention (Shirley) or a disgraced lawyer looking for redemption (Jeff). He just wants to pursue a career as a filmmaker and Greendale is a perfectly logical place for him to do so. And the running joke with Abed is that he has no filters, and what's going on inside his head at any given moment is very likely exactly what's coming out of his mouth. Sometimes that takes the form of innocently inappropriate remarks, and sometimes it takes the form of hyper-specific pop culture references, but he never agonizes over how he's being perceived or what other people think of him, or even if other people understand what he's saying. He thinks, he speaks, he acts, he moves on unaffected.

Jeff is kind of a wildcard, too, in that he spends a lot of time, especially early in the series, not so much grappling with the inner-v-outer conflict as reinforcing his own denial about it. Jeff doesn't think he needs to change as a person, he only grudgingly admits that he needs to change his academic credentials to be technically compliant with the rules of practicing law. Jeff is the polar opposite of Abed, because he cares very much what other people think of him (and in the most cliche of ways, wanting everyone to think of him as "cool") and because he never reveals what he thinks. Maybe not even to himself! Jeff doesn't just deny his true self expression, he more or less denies that his true self exists. So Jeff and Abed are like two sides of a coin: with Abed, what you see is all there is, and with Jeff, he is very invested in convincing the world that what you see is all there is.

The show in the pilot was geared to be about Jeff, and his evolution as a human being, and Abed was really the first member of the eventual study group Jeff befriended, so you could argue that the show was about whether or not Jeff could learn to be more like Abed: accepting of himself and others with minimal judgment, and basically at peace. I think that went from being the main thread to being one among many in the overall tapestry of the show, but they returned to it at the end of season four, and they answered the question in the affirmative. The important thing about the Darkest Timeline Paintball Battle is not whether it really happened or was all a dream, it's that it was a very Abed kind of dream, but Jeff was having it.

I know this is one of my pet themes that I hammer on constantly, and maybe I'm projecting a wee bit, but for a long long time it was profoundly uncool to be deeply into any kind of genre that had fantastical elements. Super hero comics and science fiction movies and fantasy novels and so on, those were for kids, or they were stupid, or both. They have nothing to do with the real world, they can't help you get a job or get a girl, ergo they are pointless and only losers who will never be financially or romantically successful spend time on them. That attitude sometimes extended as far as being dismissive of any kind of fiction at all, even those rooted in realism, because they have no measurable impact on life. Cool kids follow sports teams, not made-up stories. The occasional exception might be made for a blockbuster movie with plenty of explosions and hot chicks (yes I'm coming at this from my male POV, sorry) but by and large, imagination is for suckers.

The downside of being so focused on the here and now is that it leads to being superficial and emotionally unengaged. Whereas the downside to being too focused on flights of fancy is, oddly enough, also being unengaged with your fellow human beings because you live inside your own head. Still, if Community comes down on one side or the other, it's that it is better to be a dreamer who needs the occasional reality check than to be immune to wonder because you're cold and dead inside. Having an active imagination and enjoying fictional stories, including those which could never really happen, indicates at the very least an awareness of the separation between our interior lives and the outside world, which for as hard as we might try to bridge it is really a necessary gap. Abed could stand to be more like Jeff, and Jeff could stand to be more like Abed, but it's preferable to err on the side of Abed.

Which is exactly what Jeff does in the Darkest Timeline Paintball Battle finale. He admits that he has doubts and fears, that he's not as cocky and carefree as the image he projects, which is important for his evolution as a character in the most general sense, sure. But he works his way through that self-admission via an extended sci-fi reverie which is inspired by various things Abed has riffed on over the years (and in which Abed is the more active protagonist!), and so the means are actually more important than the ends, more relevant to the specific philosophy of the show, and that's pretty cool. It's far from a perfect episode of television, or even a top-five episode of the entire series, but as concluding statements go it's not bad at all.

And as it turns out, it's not the last we'll hear from Community for all time, which I am unmitigatedly happy about. It will be interesting to see where the show goes from here, if it gets even weirder without Jeff constantly muttering "this is weird" under his breath. Until October 19th, then, whenever that may be!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Feels like overtime

I talked to quite a few different people this past weekend who wanted to know how kindergarten was going for the little guy, and I gave all of them some variation on the same answer: so far, so good, and we would see how he fared in the first full five-day week as opposed to the Wednesday thru Friday stretch which eased him in last week.

It only occurred to me this morning that I, too, had a short week last week and was staring down the barrel of a full 40 hours this week. Not for the first time in my life, of course, but for the first time in several weeks, and I do get spoiled pretty easily. I responded to this in the most sensible manner possible: by putting in for a day of personal leave for next Friday. Technically this will allow me to spend much of that day packing and loading the car and the rest (after picking up the little guy straight from school) driving up to New Jersey, where my wife and I will be attending a wedding the following day. But it also means that I can grit my teeth and get through the current week at the Big Gray knowing that I get a bit of a reprieve next week, which is a nice and one might even say necessary psychological boost.

I’m still reasonably busy at work, doing tedious stuff but at least consistently able to get access to and make progress on said stuff. The conclusion of the major project I’ve been bitching about for almost a year now is dizzyingly close at hand. Honestly, at this point every aspect of the project which is quote-unquote mission critical has been delivered, and my users are up and running, performing their job duties while I continue to backfill some optional-but-nice(-and-sooner-or-later-somebody’s-going-to-need-it-and-come-looking-for-it) areas. Kind of a drag that when I finally put a bow on everything and mark the whole file CLOSED, nobody but me will really notice, but so it goes.

At any rate, there are some major points I want to cover in the blog this week (don’t misunderstand, they will be trivial pop culture subjects as usual, and “major” refers to the number of words I will generate on the topics, not their inherent importance) so I will cap this post here and return to my legitimate work, in hopes of getting a bit ahead and freeing up that much more time for random obsessing-out-loud tomorrow.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag a Dee Doo Dah

I'm headed to the Baltimore Comic Convention today, because a buddy of mine decided to celebrate his own birthday with a group geek outing, and my birthday is not too far away so I'm withdrawing from the self-indulgence bank against that future date. My amazing wife is home by herself with the kids, and hopefully the brood will behave themselves until I can get home. I will report on any interesting revelations, experiences and observations from the event next week, but for now, just a couple of quickie notes!


So this is the first day off the little guy has had since three days in a row of seven-hour kindergarten shifts. (Eight hours if you count the bus rides.) He's the one I worry about the most, in terms of just going bananas with the freedom (or boredom) of an unstructured day. While the little guy enjoyed the first, second, and third days of school with approximately equal amounts of enthusiasm, I will note that he has already broached the subject of "Soooo ... how long do I have to go to school for, exactly?" I have consistently answered him with "Thirteen years!" in as chipper and nonchalant a tone as I can muster, and for the moment he accepts that (mostly, I suspect, because he really has little to no grasp of how long a year is, yet alone a decade-plus).


I am enjoying for the moment being on top of the football pick'em pool for the 2013 season! There has been exactly one game, played on Thursday night, and I picked the Broncos to cover the 8 and a half points they were favored by. (In case you missed it, Peyton threw seven TDs and the Broncos won by 22 points.) That pick put me in a seven-way heat for first, while the other twenty-some-odd people who thought the defending Super Bowl champs could win at Mile High (or at least beat the spread) are in their own tie for dead last. The way the displays for the pick'em pool website work, you always see your own name at the top of a similarly-ranked group whenever there's any kind of tie, so as I said, right now I am first-among-equals in position number one. And I am enjoying it because it most certainly will not last! But for one brief shining instant I can feel like a gifted prognosticator.


I have been seeing this picture:

around teh interwebs for months and months without having any idea what it was. Other than, you know, a demonic-looking Daniel Radcliffe. But since I was under the impression that the erstwhile Harry Potter was trying to move away from genre-ish fare and establish himself as a serious adult actor, I figured it must be a promo still from something highbrow and literary like, I don't know, a BBC production of The Screwtape Letters or something else not exactly my cup of tea.

But then the Toronto International Film Festival started this week and I read some articles about it and suddenly I was hipped to the fact that Radcliffe was cast as Ig in the film adaptation of Horns, which (a) is a novel written by Stephen King's son Joe; (b) is a novel I've read and enjoyed so much I recommend it to (read: push it insistently upon) others; and (c) is a movie I'd actually be interested in seeing. Yes, I might venture out to a first-run theater for a film featuring neither comic book superheroes nor hobbits! OK, it's a supernatural pitch-black horror/comedy, but still. Gotta start broadening those horizons somewhere.

Friday, September 6, 2013


It has not yet been an entire year, pretty close but not quite, since I mentioned my longing anticipation for the completion of the Mediterranean fast food place in the works on the same block as my office. The restaurant did eventually open, but I didn’t rush there right away for a couple of reasons. As indicated in the aforelinked post, I have a lot of nostalgic summer associations with falafels, so when Black Lime was finally open for business last fall/winter, I just wasn’t in the mood. And additionally, it’s always best to wait a few months before trying out a new restaurant, just to make sure they aren’t immediately shut down for rampant health code violations or anything like that.

So today I decided to treat myself, and it was pretty dang delicious. Of course, as nostalgia trips go, it went fairly wide of the mark. My fond memories of falafels involve late-night excursions to a tiny hole in the wall where you place your order with a single word and get a foil-wrapped cylinder shoved at you a minute later. The restaurant serving the lunch crowd here is designed in the modern custom-assembly style, wherein there are at least two choices for everything (kind of bread! spiciness of falafel! flavor of hummus!) and a borderline ridiculous multitude of toppings and dressings at the ready. I still find a great deal of charm in any kind of establishment that scowls at the very notion of hold-this, extra-that, but I have to admit that when the food is prepared while I wait to my exact specifications, it just tastes better. It might not have much (any) of its own personality, but in yet another sign that I am getting old, that is a tradeoff I am entirely willing to make.

(Tangential rant: when my wife and I watch real estate shows together, one of my chief gripes are the people who are shown a house they might potentially buy, which has the amount of space they say they need, features the amenities they indicate they would like, is in the neighborhood they say they want to live in, comes in under their budget, &c., and ultimately is rejected because “ugh, flat white walls and beige carpet in symmetrical rooms? This house has no character!” Seriously? That’s what you’re going to get hung up on? Come on, people.)

Anyway, for all my reduxes and references to old blog posts which in turn reference my misspent days gone by in a never-ending tail-chasing obsession with the past, I know you can’t go home again. Sometimes you can’t even go back to the falafel joint near your old home; I don’t remember the name of the stand my friends from work took me to, or even what street it was on. But your memories become the things that you’ve learned and you move on with that knowledge of your own likes and dislikes, and you encounter new things, sometimes similar, sometimes apples and oranges. I’m a-gonna keep on keepin on, and I’m reasonably certain I’m always going to be well fed while I’m doing it.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


The little guy’s first day of kindergarten, yesterday, was a success. He caught the bus in the morning, survived an entire day at school, and was met by the extra-large entourage of myself, his mother, his little sister, his baby brother, their sitter and her son when he got off the bus in the afternoon. Injury-free, still in possession of his glasses, lunchbox and backpack, and generally elated and already looking forward to day two.

The immediate family started off the day with a ceremonial blasting of “Gonna Fly Now”, aka the Rocky music (that’s not “Eye of the Tiger”). Primarily that was for my wife’s benefit, as she told me in the days leading up to the start of school that she could use the musical psyche-up to prepare herself for having to let the little guy soar out of the nest and into his elementary school days. But it served to get the little guy fired up as well, which was all to the good. And of course I played that song exactly five years earlier, first thing in the morning on the day we were scheduled to head to the hospital for his delivery, so it might as well be the little guy’s official birthday song, at that. I started to tell the little guy that the song we were listening to had been played the day he was born, and at that precise moment the emotional weight of how fast he’s growing up as signified by starting really-real school finally hit me full force and I could barely get the words out with dry eyes. Fortunately Bill Conti’s symphonic bombast covers up a lot of halting throat-clearing.

When the little guy got back home of course my wife and I interrogated him about everything he had done in school, and he dutifully reported on all of it. The best moment came near the end of the recap, as he explained to us that one of the last things they did in class was to draw pictures of what they were most looking forward to learning about that year. “I drew a picture of the Earth,” the little guy explained to us, “because …”

Let me interrupt myself, if I may, to outline what my wife and I were both thinking at that moment. (We compared notes later on.) I was thinking that his sentence was going to end with “... my favorite thing to learn about is astronomy.” Hence our home planet. My wife on the other hand believed he was about to say “... my favorite thing to learn about is science facts.” Hence the natural world. I went more specific, she went more general, but more or less we were both thinking along the same lines.

The little guy, however, was thinking much bigger picture than either of us. “... I just want to learn everything!” was how he concluded the thought. Which is totally brilliant, not just as goals go but also that he was able to take something as abstract as “everything” and give it a good pictographic representation; he wants to learn everything in the whole world, so he drew the world. And he said it in a tone of voice that seemed to imply, you know, why would anyone settle for any less than the sum of all human knowledge? Isn’t that what school is for?

He is precious, and he is a handful. And now we have a whole school system with which the share the joys and challenges of keeping his manic little mind occupied. Good, good times.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

F&*k cancer

So today I took a friend to chemo. She has an aggressive case of breast cancer and has to spend hours at a stretch sitting in the hospital while bags of medicinal cocktails are pumped into her. Said mixtures include not just the cancer-fighting treatments but also anti-nausea meds and anti-inflammatories and all sorts of stuff, so having someone take her to her appointment serves two purposes for my friend: it gives her someone to talk to to pass the time a little more pleasantly, and it gives her someone to drive her home when she’s feeling a little bit loopy in the wake of all the substances doing their thing in her system. I’ve been friends with this woman since freshman year of college (twenty years, people) so when she was about to start her course of chemo and volunteers were needed, I had no problem signing myself up. It seemed like the very, very least I could do. I honestly wish I could do more.

(The panels above are from a mini-series entitled Squadron Supreme - feel free to click to supreme-size! It's one of my personal faves; it's been on my mind lately and I will have more to say about it at a later date. For now, the coincidental subject matter was enough to bring it up here.*)

I’ve written before, with what I admit was probably condescending levels of amusement, about my wife’s tendency for magical thinking, e.g. the avian spirit animals watching over our children. But as is often the case in this crazy mixed-up human condition, the things I make fun of in others are of course the things which I recognize and regard uncomfortably in myself. I am totally guilty of my own streak of magical thinking, and it is both wide and deep. I simultaneously acknowledge that we all live in a real, rational universe and yearn for there to exist a hidden world just beneath the surface, one in which basically all things are possible. These two attitudes can’t entirely coexist, and if absolutely pressed to break in favor of one or the other, I will do so (begrudgingly) in the direction of understandable scientific phenomena. But rarely am I under such duress, and in general magical thinking is a hard habit to shake.

When I found out about my friend’s cancer diagnosis I was glad to also hear that she was committed to following the doctor’s orders for a full-on, no-holds-barred treatment plan. (Momentary sidenote acknowledging that my friend is of course extremely lucky to be well-off enough that she has excellent insurance to pay for aforementioned treatment, not to mention an accommodating white collar job that allows her to remain employed while devoting a not insignificant amount of time to the treatment.) And I offered her any help she could possibly think to ask for, because that is a fundamental no-brainer when someone you care about is met by some kind of personal crisis. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I wouldn’t actually be able to do anything about the disease inside her per se; the doctors are the ones responsible for taking direct and literal aim at the tumors, and either their methods will work or they won’t, and my friend will beat this or … clearly I don’t really want to think about the other side of that.

And yet, when my work schedule and her chemo schedule finally aligned and I was able to lend my own efforts to the overall cause, I felt that it was somehow important to do so in its own right. Partly because I wanted to see for myself that my friend was fighting for her life, to give “she has cancer” some counterweight in my mental landscape along the lines of “she’s doing everything she can!” And, I admit, somewhere in the fuzzy overlap between imperfectly understood neuroscience and unadulterated fairy-dust-and-moonbeams, there’s a part of me that believes that wanting to get better is a crucial part of actually getting better, that our bodies heal from maladies when we have that elusive positive attitude radiating from our hearts. So I’m happy to say that I saw no signs of my friend despairing or giving up. It’s not easy, and she’s not happy about it (she’s particularly bitter about the fact that she’s always the youngest person in there getting treatments, as all the other chemo patients got cancer in their 50’s or 60’s or something). But she’s being brave, for what it’s worth. I don’t know that bravery in and of itself can slow the division of even a single malignant cell, but if it can, at least she’s not backing down.

And on yet another level, I admit that I just want to will my friend back to health. I want this not to be happening to her. And I don’t want to find myself years from now missing her and berating myself that I should have done more, and even as insanely illogical as that line of thinking would be , I know I’d be highly susceptible to it. If I had never taken her to a single chemo session and the chemo (gods forbid) ended up not working, I’d feel somehow responsible. Which makes zero sense unless you are actually living in a magical world full of anima that respond to emotional vibrations and intentions. But even though I’m all but positive that we are not inhabiting such a fantasyland, I feel utterly compelled to lend my own spiritual energies to the struggle.

I don’t know, I suppose magical thinking in concert with all appropriate measures based on observable science is harmless enough. Maybe there’s an arrogance to our elevation of Pure Reason, maybe there are supernatural mysteries we dismiss unfairly, and maybe it couldn’t hurt and in fact could only help to cover all the bases, just to be on the safe side. I really and truly hope that in a few more years my friend will be cancer-free and I can look back on this low-point interlude with nothing but relief that it came and went. And I’m sure that point I’ll still give the lion’s share of the credit for my friend’s survival to medical science and miracles of the purely technological variety. But there may also be some quiet appreciation for the invisible and unexplained that may or may not have played a part.

(* A little more background about the comic sampled above: the blond is a hero named Nuke, who has radioactive blast powers, while the graybeard is Tom Thumb, little person with super-genius intellect. Nuke is asking Tom to cure cancer because both of Nuke's parents are dying of it. And Nuke feels guilty because he himself is slightly radioactive and he's convinced he gave his parents cancer. At the very least I feel like I should acknowledge that I'm not suffering from that kind of magical thinking, like if I had been a more attentive human being my friend would never have been stricken. So that's something.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Islands in the (Time)stream

I feel like I do this all the time (so much so that my knee-jerk inclination is to preemptively apologize for it) but I have once again found myself struggling to latch onto a topic to blog about today, which involves thinking about what day it is (to give myself a theme to structure things around) and also thinking about what’s been going on in my life of late (to mine for raw material), which in turn leads to simply getting hung up on the trappings of weekdays and months and seasons and what it all is supposed to mean and what it all actually does mean and on and on and on, dwelling on the obvious.

Nevertheless, here we are. The calendar officially flipped over the weekend and it is now September. Technically it’s still summer until the equinox, but it no longer feels like summertime, what with kids going back to school and all. (Which would seem to close the door on SUMMER SCHOOL posts as well, but never let it be said that I don’t love running a good idea deep into the ground, so there may yet be one or two more of those straggling in.) I’ve always felt that the transition from August to September is the most jarring shift of the entire year, even during the loooooong stretch of time when I was no longer a student on any kind of academic calendar, and no one else in my household was either. But that stretch is on the veritable cusp of ending, as well! Tomorrow the little guy officially begins kindergarten, and we’ll be on the hook for at least one kid in public school from then until June of 2032 or so (presumably, unless the baby ends up skipping a grade or two, or institutionalized U.S. education as we know it completely ceases to exist, or something). Exciting times.

So yesterday was a holiday (and if the 1st of September doesn’t mark the unofficial end of summer, Labor Day almost certainly does) and tomorrow I’m taking the day off work to take care of some obligations in the morning (more on that tomorrow, maybe) and then hopefully be home to meet the little guy coming off the school bus in the afternoon. That leaves today as this strange, isolated bubble of Big Gray time between two momentous days off from work, and I’m trying harder than I usually do to be productive rather than coasting on the general post-holiday hangover vibe. Because otherwise, by the time I really knuckle down to serious work it will already be Thursday, and that’s just crazy-talk.

Thus another short post, virtually devoid of meaningful content! I’ll get back into the swing of things one of these days, honest I will. There’s always October just around the corner.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wouldn't say I'm missing it

It's Labor Day here in the U.S. of A. and I am dutifully gear-shifted from Working Hard to Hardly Working. The well-oiled machine that is this blog is accordingly on long-weekend pause.

See you all tomorrow.