Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Buckle wild

A while ago, I was talking to one of my friends who happens to be single and childless and I indulged in a little bit of venting, expressing my a realization which had left me somewhat aghast, specifically that a great deal of my quotidian activity revolved around poop. Between walking the dogs, cleaning the cats’ litter boxes, and the fact that at the time I had only two kids and both the little guy and little girl were in diapers, I had constant never-ending encounters with excrement every single day. Of course that could apply to a lot of people, and it’s not really all that bad and certainly constitutes at least part of the price of admission if you choose to have pets and/or kids. There’s nothing to be done about it except to buck up and deal with it, and possibly call very vocal attention to it sometimes in order to revel in how ridiculous it is. It’s really only tedious when you dwell on it, and clearly I excel at resisting the temptation to overthink upon things.

I was thinking about this recently because, in the year-plus or however long it’s been since that first conversation, I’ve only gotten more and more accustomed to that being the way of things. The little guy is long-since potty trained, but the baby has taken his place in the diaper-wearing demographic of our household population. I think we have more cats now than we did back then, as well. I barely think about it any more (though I do need to remind myself to scoop the litter boxes tonight) but there is a new object of fascination for me which seems to dominate many a waking moment, one way or another. Don’t worry, this is significantly less gross.

Yes, the modern plastic buckle, also known as the side release. Let me count the ways in which it repeatedly presents itself:

- The car seats. Any time I take one or more of the kids anywhere, they have to be buckled into their car seats (and then unbuckled again when we arrive). The little guy and little girl have both gotten to the point where they want to be allowed to buckle themselves in, with varying degrees of success.
- Have I taken one or more of the kids shopping? Then they have to be buckled into the shopping cart, too.
- Forget the car, are we staying closer to home, maybe playing outside and riding bikes? Then the kids need to wear their helmets, and they are much farther away from mastering buckling something under their chins than across their chests or waists.
- The little guy wants to ride his bike but the little girl just wants to be pushed around in the stroller? That of course has buckles as well. And did I mention that when the little girl turned two earlier this month we bought her a baby doll stroller? COMPLETE WITH BUCKLES.
- The stroller gift came along a few weeks after the new baby came home from the hospital, and during that time we often had the infant carrier part of his car seat in the living room, as well as a baby swing and vibrating baby seat and so on. Both of the older kids, but especially the little girl, spent a lot of time playing with those items and trying to buckle dolls and stuffed animals into them. And then calling me in to help when they couldn’t make the buckles work. And then calling me in again five second slater when it was time to get the toy back out of the belts. I eventually had to draw the line and stop helping them play with those items. But my wife and I do use them for their intended purpose (the baby) and do plenty of buckling and unbuckling there.
- And last (and least), the pets get in on the action too, as our smaller dog has a full harness that we attach his leash to for walks. The smallest thing about that dog is his brain, and if we just clipped a leash to his collar, he would pull and strain at it hard enough to choke himself, hence the need for an apparatus that runs across his chest and puts the anchor point for the leash between his shoulders.

It’s perhaps worth noting that this whole buckle-mania thing is yet another example of the two halves of my life, commuting and working on one side, domesticity on the other. I wear my seatbelt when I drive to the parking garage at the train station, but there are no buckles to be found on the train nor anywhere in my office. It’s only when I’m at home, interacting with my children (and the dogs) that it seems like every time I turn around I’m clicking together or squeeze-releasing something for someone, trying not to pinch any skin or pull any hair while I’m at it. So no, I’m not literally dealing with hooks and catches and center guide rods and side holes around the clock; sometimes I’m in work mode, and sometimes I’m asleep. But obviously I don’t really think of work as my life, any more than I think of unconsciousness that way. I need money and I need rest and I do what I need to do to get them. The rest of the time is what I’m actually living for, and that’s where everything important is. Maybe that’s why I’m forever strapping things down safe and sound there.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Locate the exit

Not much news on the work front this week, with one possible exception as follows: I might have to leave the government contract-site office some time on Wednesday to go around the corner to my employer’s corporate office and talk to some co-workers on a completely different contract about whether or not the basic structure of the web application whose maintenance is my primary responsibility would be suitable for a project they are undertaking. I suppose it’s probably a bad sign when I look at that as an opportunity to maybe wedge open a bit of an escape hatch for myself; if things go sour around here the next time an option year renewal is due (September-ish) then maybe I can jump over to the other contract and keep the exact same salary and benefits (hooray) and commute (ok, that’s a mixed bag) and just re-build a new version of the software I’ve been working with for the past three, four years. But we shall see! Again, even this initial off-site meeting is still a maybe, as it’s possible that the other team only wants to talk to someone about the business logic that the application models, and not the nuts and bolts techie guts of the app itself, in which case my presence is in no way needed.

Anyway, with little to report on from the Big Gray I will keep this post relatively short, as well. The baby’s overnight sleeping got a little better this weekend, but still was not great. My wife and I took great pains to get a lot done on Saturday and Sunday in terms of housework and yardwork, and by and large we were successful, but ended up exhausted. Today is clearly a “show up, sit at my desk and survive” kind of day so all I really want to do is check in to that effect. Subjects of more interest (or at least more over-thinking) resume tomorrow.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bossed in translation

Our newborn has hit a rough patch on the sleeping through the night front, in the sense that on Wednesday night he did very little consistent sleeping, at least very little consistent, peaceful, quiet sleeping. He squirms and grunts a lot (which he may be doing half-awake or in his sleep, who knows) and sometimes he’ll start and stop on his own and sometimes he escalates to crying and needs to be soothed, but either way since he sleeps right beside our bed he was basically disturbing my wife’s sleep hourly all night until she woke me up a little before 4 a.m. and the baby and I relocated to the den so she could get a full REM cycle or maybe two in relative silence. Which meant neither of us was at our best for Thursday, but between the two of us we just about added up to a responsible adult capable of caring for two or three kids, so I played hooky from work (hence no post yesterday) to stay home and help carry the load. (Standard disclaimer: nights are much harder on my wife than on me, and whenever I use the first person collective because there are some number of impacts on both of us, you should still assume more of those are falling on her.) Last night was better, but not great, and today there’s a pediatrician’s visit in store to see if this is something we just need to ride out or if there’s a deeper problem causing the apparent discomfort.

So that’s how that’s been going.

But I did want to report a bit on the baby’s big brother and big sister, and their semi-parallel advances in communication. The little guy of course has very little if any trouble expressing himself these days, with the possible exception of some of the more abstract, if not ineffable, details of his interior life. (When he is reluctant to do something he often claims he’s “shy” which I don’t think is exactly right, though neither he nor I can readily identify the nameless anxiety actually at work there.) He is so generally adept at explaining things to us, in fact, that he has now taken it upon himself to helpfully speak on his sister’s behalf, since she is still working with a much smaller vocabulary and looser grasp of syntax. And that is cute and sweet of him and sometimes profoundly aggravating. My son, his mother and I have all lived with the little girl for exactly the same amount of time, and I’d say we all know her pretty well. And she may not have perfect pronunciation or even words for every idea just yet, but between gestures and tone and a smattering of recognizable English, she rarely has serious trouble making her needs and wants known. What ends up happening, again and again and again, at least once a day, is some variant on this:

- I’ll be trying to get the little girl to eat her vegetables at dinner.
- She will turn away from the single green bean on the fork I’m holding out to her, make a “blech” noise, and say “No muh!”
- I will ignore her and keep trying to cajole her into trying a bite.
- Her brother will very loudly announce, “She doesn’t want it! She’s saying ‘no more’!”

And it’s like, dude, I KNOW. What she’s saying is beside the point of whatever I’m trying to accomplish; I understand what she’s saying but am choosing not to respond to it. And I know the little guy is only try to help, and he doesn’t grasp all the nuances of the situation, but I still have this instinctual hackles-raising reaction to someone, anyone (kith and kin included) who presumes even to imply that they understand my child better than I do myself. The logic, in my son’s mind, runs “You should give my sister whatever she wants; you’re not currently giving her what she wants; ergo, you must not understand what she’s telling you she wants; but I have a very special bond with her and I speak her language; therefore, I must tell you exactly what she wants to clear up this whole misunderstanding.” And obviously that logic is flawed right at the outset, but it feels rock-solid to him. Again: adorable, touching, and frequently annoying as hell.

Make no mistake, though: the little girl is trying mightily to acquire all the language skills she needs to fit into our household (which, lest we forget, is well in excess of what a normal sane person needs to get by in the world). She has gotten very good at stringing together nonsense syllables into a cadence that sounds, rhythmically at least, a lot like adult speech. And she will occasionally throw a real word or two into the baba-baba flow, so you do kind of have to pay attention to get the gist. I don’t mind paying attention, not just because she’s my daughter and I love her but because I love that stage of learning to talk, I find it fascinating and hilarious. Although this time around I found it a little bit humbling, too.

A few nights ago the little girl was in particularly high spirits right before bedtime, when it was just me and her hanging out in her room. And she started “talking” to me a mile a minute, punctuating every other sentence with a clear and unmistakable “OK?” At the time, I was simply amused and since I determined that she was going over the things we were going to do before she went to bed, like which books we were going to read and how we were going to arrange ourselves (sometimes she likes to sit on my lap but sometimes she likes to stand in front of me with the book turned around for her, &c.) I more or less followed her as she went on and on and on. But later, when I had time to reflect on it, something occurred to me: she wasn’t just mimicking grown-up conversation, she was mimicking the way her mother and I talk to her older brother. Because the little guy is very smart for a four year old but has a four year old’s attention span at best. And his mother and I pride ourselves on also being smart, to the point where we secretly believe that we could solve just about any problem in the known universe if people would just listen to us. So we are always working from a sincere faith in our own ability to get the little guy on our side. If we have to correct his behavior, we know in our hearts that we don’t have to settle for punishing him in hopes that it will deter him in the future, but rather we can make him understand why we expect him to follow certain rules. But, again, we know he is smart enough to come up with some counterarguments of his own, which theoretically we should eb able to dismantle, and we also know he is going to get bored of the conversation quickly so we have a very small window of opportunity to impress things on him. Therefore, we say a lot and we say it fast, making our point, pre-emptively shooting down his objections, and spitting it all out before he drifts away on us.

In other words, we tend to rattle off tirades like this: “You are never, ever allowed to wrap something around someone’s neck! It can really hurt them very badly! OK? Don’t do it, not even a little, not even as part of a game! OK? I don’t care if you are playing cowboy round-up or anything, I don’t care if you’re being gentle, just don’t do it! Not allowed! OK?” All in about fifteen seconds, or however long it finally takes the little guy to acknowledge the message is being received and say “O.K.” So of course, the little girl has heard examples of that a-plenty, and she can imitate them perfectly as “Jibba jabba jibba jibba OK? Jibba jibba jabba jabba jibba jabba OK? Jabba jibba jabba OK?

It does give one pause, which hopefully is time enough to consider maybe slowing down a bit and not expecting to constantly dazzle my own pre-school offspring with rhetorical brilliance every time a teachable moment comes along (i.e. all the damn time).

P.S. Report back from the pediatrician: normal newborn stuff, carry on. The words “glycerin suppository” were bandied about. So there’s that.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Five Starting Points of My Childhood Collections

Once again, rather than commenting on anything new and exciting in the geeky pop culture spheres, I am casting my bloggity gaze backwards upon my own wasted youth for this Wednesday post. I’m pretty sure I was born to be an obsessive collector, and along with that comes a certain amount of appreciation for the mechanics of collection building and all the various permutations in development in both my own hoards and other people’s. Every collection has to start somewhere; sometimes a person might inherit someone else’s existing collection and choose to continue adding to it, and sometimes a person might become an inadvertent collector (like the kid who gets a music box from a distant relative one year as a birthday present, and the distant relative takes it upon herself to turn that into a tradition and buy the kid a music box every year, and the kid quickly amasses a small collection of music boxes which makes other people think that’s something she’s into, prompting them to buy her even more, &c.) but in a lot of cases there’s a personal threshold moment, a discovery of a single item that leads to ever-greater interest in acquiring more similar items and ultimately a quest to augment that trove of items as much as possible. At least that’s how it often worked for me, multiple times over.

Of course I am dimly aware that there’s an element in all this of the desire being deliberately externally enforced (“Buy all our playsets and toys!”) but at the same time I’m pretty sure I have some kind of innate predisposition to respond strongly to those outside influences. So, read this as an unwitting testament to unbridled capitalism’s willingness to exploit children (particularly good old Gen X before we knew any better) or read it as a self-indulgent geek out with no axe-grinding agenda, either way.

1. Comic books = DC Comics Presents #46. Right off the bat I am starting with a cheat of sorts, because I’m not 100% sure this was legitimately the first comic book I ever owned. (The list gets more definitive as it goes along, though.) And, honestly, as a very young kid I didn’t really collect comics; it wasn’t until middle school that I had a dedicated place in my room set aside for comics I had already read, and my full-blown convention-going, bagging-and-boarding curating of a massive personal library of comics didn’t hit its stride until I was in 10th grade or so. Still, my interest in comic books seems to go back as far as my conscious memories do, and the jump from reading other people’s (like my uncle’s) to owning my own had to start somewhere. I’m arbitrarily declaring that it began here:

In a comic that is 110% bonkers, which makes it a worthy spiritual founder of my lifelong devotion to a goofy artform. In fact, the more that I think about it, the more I believe that this story featuring a team-up between Superman and the Global Guardians in order to prevent an international cabal of evil sorcerers from resurrecting a powerful (also evil) ancient wizard truly deserves its own post, so let’s leave it at that until such time as I can return to it with greater focus.

I will add this, however: like many comics I owned when I was 7 or 8 or 9 years old, this one was eventually lost. Much, much later (like, sometime in the past three years) I bought a replacement copy from an online reseller, out of purest sentiment. Because I am in all ways a sucker for completism!

2. Star Wars action figures = Chewbacca. Once more, I wouldn’t want to have to swear to this one in a court of law. I couldn’t have been more than four years old the first time I saw the original Star Wars movie, and not much older when my parents started buying me the toys. I seem to recall having a lot of them all at once (including R2D2 and C3PO and Luke and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader and some of the weird obscure ones like a Tusken Raider and the Hammerhead alien from the Cantina) so its hard to distinguish a true starting point, yet there’s this gut-level insistence in me that Chewie really was the first among the firsts, so let’s go with that.

Star Wars of course arguably single-handedly launched the very notion of being a collector of entire sprawling lines of toys. On the one hand, I benefited from having a Little Bro who was getting old enough by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out to also collect the action figures (and vehicles, by that point) which meant that our household pool of the toys was that much deeper. On the other hand, collecting Star Wars was my first object lesson in where my parents would draw the line in buying outrageously expensive toys. The action figures were small and cheap and unobjectionable, and some of the creatures and vehicles and playsets were on the right side of reasonable, as well. I had a Landspeeder before too long, and after Empire Little Bro got a Snowspeeder and we both got tauntauns, and one of us got a Hoth playset and the other got a Dagobah playset. But the really big ticket stuff like the Death Star playset or the Millennium Falcon or the AT-AT? Much too over-the-top. Of course I had friends (even cousins) whose parents did buy them those massive, high-priced toys, but I figured out pretty early on that those were unlikely to ever show up under my Christmas tree, alas.

3. Masters of the Universe = Stratos. So sometime in the lull between Empire and Return of the Jedi came He-Man and his friends (whom I have discussed at some length before, so apologies for repeating myself somewhat). This is also right about the time that my memories start to get a little sharper, and I remember that my MOTU collection and my Little Bro’s both started the same Christmas. I also remember that we each got three action figures that morning. By that point in having two little boys, my parents had figured a few things out, and not least was that in the newly toyetic decade we were living in, getting a child one action figure is all but pointless, because at least one good guy and one bad guy are necessary components for satisfying playtime. My parents could have, therefore, just gotten me and Little Bro a He-Man each and a different bad guy each, but they opted to toss in a second good guy for each of us. And Stratos was my second good guy.

Despite the simultaneous arrival of He-Man, Mer-Man and Stratos in my playroom, I’m considering Stratos the most important one if only because he’s so little-known, except by me, and that makes him a little more mine. My brother’s second good guy, Man-at-Arms, would soon be a prominent part of the He-Man cartoon, but Stratos was more or less forgotten. I always thought he was cool, though. He’s the one who can fly, and who doesn’t dream of being able to take wing and disappear into the sky? He’s a ludicrous example of the MOTU’s fever-dream blend of sword-and-sorcery barbarians and future-tech, in that he has wings AND a jet pack, but who are we kidding here, I have rarely been put off by excess. The last time I pondered deeply on the old MOTU toys I wondered idly why I stopped collecting ardently after the first wave of toys; maybe it was because to me, Stratos was too hard to top.

4. G.I.Joe = Rock ‘n Roll. I’m going to go out on a speculative limb here and say that the combined forces of Star Wars toys and MOTU toys remade the world of children’s playthings to such an extent that any toy which came along after was automatically viewed as the potential beginning of a new collection. And that was always kind of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, whenever you need an unruly child to straighten up and behave, and you’re not above bribery, and the unruly child happens to collect a vast if not limitless series of toys which are individually cheap, then you have a ready made behavior-modifying currency at your disposal. (And we all know I am as big a believer in this from the parenting side now as I was from the beneficiary tyke side back in the day, if not more so.) But on the other hand, the individually cheap elements can add up quickly, and they take up space, and it’s very easy to cross the line into a child feeling that they have to have every last toy in the series, which can be a drag.

I remember going to visit my grandmother (my mom’s mom) when I was a kid, for a week every summer, during which time me and Little Bro were essentially guaranteed that we would get some new toys, despite the fact that neither of us had summer birthdays, but did always get birthday and Christmas presents from grandma as well. She was a sweet but sedentary old lady and we were expected to amuse ourselves, away from all our friends, while she basically watched tv all day, thus blocking that potential source of entertainment. So (I assume she reasoned) the least she could do was buy us a few new toys to amuse ourselves with. And it was an easy no-brainer, really, because we were primed to be happy to be adding to our collections. I also remember that on one of those visits Little Bro and I were taken to the toy store by our uncle, as well, and told we could each pick one thing, and I grabbed something that looked interesting and my uncle asked if I had any of those toys already. I have zero recollection of what toy line it was, but I didn’t have any and I answered truthfully to that effect, which I actually thought would make my uncle more inclined to get me the toy, because I had actually been starting to hear variants of “don’t you have enough of those yet?” back home. But my uncle actually said, “oh no, I’m not going to be the one to start a new collection for you” which makes a ton of sense in retrospect, but man, the cruel whims of adults when you’re a kid and feel like you just can’t win, amirite?

Anyway, before the “no new collections” rule went into effect, Little Bro and I got our first G.I. Joes at grandma’s house on a summer visit. Unlike Christmas, this was not a windfall of a half-dozen characters all at once. I got one and only one 3.75” soldier to start, and that was the machine-gunner codenamed Rock n’ Roll.

Little Bro got Grunt, as I recall, who is quite possibly the most boring of the Joes. Things got more interesting from there. Again, we never got the absurdly huge toys like the Joe Headquarters or the Aircraft Carrier, but we assembled pretty sizable forces. A few years in, I decided the ideal way to continue pursuing both my collection and my brother’s was for each of us to collect one side of the eternal conflict. So we traded some toys and from then on he got G.I. Joes exclusively while I only collected the villainous Cobra army, and when we played together we would stage massive battles with me controlling all the bad guys and him all the good. No doubt this foreshadowed me eventually getting into RPGs and being very accepting of game-master duties, since players generally control heroes and game-masters control the enemies. BUT! Rock ‘n Roll and his totally non-regulation blond beard have always had a soft spot in my heart.

5. Transformers = Ironhide. Transformers was the last major toy line I got into as a kid before I hit adolescence and started reorienting my interests. My zeal for them faded quickly, relative to the longevity of the line, but when they first hit big in the U.S. I was fairly insane about them. So much so that I pestered my father to buy me one that summer just cuz I reeeeaaaaally wanted one. Little Bro was right there with me, and I think we wore dear old dad down via brute-force whining. So we went to Toys R Us and my brother picked out Jazz and I settled on Ironhide.

Who is basically the Stratos of the Autobot set. He’s not Optimus Prime, and he’s not Bumblebee, and he’s not any of the others who gained notoriety from the syndicated cartoon, the Marvel comics, the 21st century movies, or anything else. He’s a weird-looking toy, for sure, but I think that’s what initially drew me to him. Instead of just transforming from a van into a robot, he breaks apart and the lower chassis and windshield transform into a (blocky stick-figure) robot while the cargo area transforms into a futuristic mobile missile-launcher on snowmobile treads that the robot can ride on. Actually it occurs to me in this very moment that by the time I was ten or so, having spent years collecting action figures and their vehicles (and having recently albeit belatedly learned to ride a two-wheel bike) I was intensely fascinated by vehicles (see also the A-Team van, the General Lee, KITT, etc.) which of course was the whole high-concept hook of Transformers (Little boys love robots! Little boys love cars! These are both in one!) but they kind of missed the opportunity to give these robots their own vehicles, BUT Ironhide was the exception to the rule. So of course I dug him a lot. (Technically, Ratchet the ambulance was the co-exception, a repaint of the exact same build. But Ratchet was never part of my Transformers collection.)

Well, I feel pretty good now having spread the nostalgia-worship around a bit to some of the franchises I deemed too grandiose to fit into my previous dream team post. Tune in next time when I move on to documenting which works seeded my CD, DVD and trashy genre paperback collections! (Note: I may not get around to that stuff for a while. If ever. But you never know!)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Not fade away

I have been spending the past couple of weeks catching up on various things that fell by the wayside during the four weeks or so before that when the baby's arrival became the gravity well around which my entire life was orbiting. A lot of those things (as is often the case in my life) are fairly trivial and slight, but it did occur to me that the last time I mentioned anything about my mother was some time in the end of February, when she was still in the hospital. Granted, the major thrust of that very mention was to point out that I was not going to provide daily updates on (what at the time seemed like) the long, slow recovery process, so I've stuck to that intention pretty well.

Also, it would have been altogether fair for any curious reader to assume that no news is good news, and that if my mom had taken a turn for the worse I would have said something post-worthy about it. In fact, my mom got better a lot faster than I or anyone else expected. Despite the fact that around the time I was acknowledging she was on my mind but I didn't deem it particularly productive to dwell on it blog-wise, she was on a ventilator and heavily sedated, shortly after that she was weaned off the meds and the vent, and from there it was a short hop to being discharged from ICU. Some combination of her doctors and her insurance decided that she would be better off going home from the ICU and having a nurse come to her condo regularly, rather than moving her from ICU to a rehab hospital, and so it went. Her initial admission into the hospital was the last weekend in February; I don't remember exactly when she went home but I remember talking to her on the phone shortly after her discharge, assuring her that she had not missed the birth of her third grandchild. And he ended up coming into the world less than three weeks into March, so while that may not be specific enough to do math, it at least sets up a rough window. I honestly at the time interpreted my mother's health scare as a debilitating point-of-no-return, with normalcy an impossibly long way off. But it turned out she was only in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and then back home as if nothing had happened (with a few exceptions).

Of course, my mother and I have never been the best at communicating with each other because of all the hang-ups of the parent-child relationship, and the gradual role reversal as I become more and more the one who has his life in some semblance of togetherness while she/my step-dad are less and less able to take care of themselves is not exactly a smooth transition. My mother has always been the type to insist that she's completely fine even if that's not the case (the day she went into the hospital she assumed it was only overnight for precautionary monitoring and she forbade my step-dad from calling any of her kids and worrying us needlessly). I can push a little bit in pointing out that she now has permanent prescriptions and might want to make some lifestyle adjustments as well, but I have no way of knowing if she actually will adopt any changes or even if she has fully internalized that what I'm saying is right. I can call her, and ask how she's doing, and she'll say that she's fine, but I don't necessarily believe her and I don't have any other way of getting an answer to that question. (My step-dad, unfortunately, tends to be shoulder-to-shoulder with her as a united front. It's nice for them, but annoying when they're both in denial.)

Still. Leaving aside the subjective stuff, I can only rely on the objective facts, and the fact is that she was released from the hospital and settled back in at home and hasn't had the need for an ambulance ride since. I can at least be thankful for that, and for the fact that all the getting-better happened so fast and so in the middle of a bunch of other stuff that I haven't even remarked on it until now. But I hate to leave loose ends, and since I introduced the subject of the Health Crisis in New Mexico I figured it was only fair to offer some closure, such as it is, as well.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Self-directed study

So right about the time that I was beginning to transition from the recent paternity leave back to the world of defense contracting, I learned that the major project for which I am currently responsible had hit a bit of a snag. In order to have permission to do the things I need to do to complete the project, I needed to be compliant with certain regulations. Or, I needed to obtain a temporary waiver so I could start on the tasks immediately and also work on being certified for compliance. I had been informed of all this in such a manner that it made obtaining the waiver seem like a foregone conclusion. The snag surfaced when my request for a waiver was denied.

Although my government boss is now arguing with the decision-making entity on my behalf, which means the matter of the waiver is not necessarily entirely settled, I consider it to be in my own best interest to assume that no reversal will be forthcoming. So I went ahead and ordered the study guide for the certification I need, and I plan on taking the exam just as soon as I finish making my way through the materials.

Problem is, it is all (as my wife eloquently summed it up) deadly dull. The book is a comprehensive and thus unavoidably dense 600 pages, and covers subjects ranging from fairly simple and common sense (especially for me since I have been working in this field for years and years) to mind-bogglingly esoteric (the specific, non-intuitive and non-illuminating names of pieces of legislation which have some bearing on regulations in the sphere). I am trudging my way through the study guide just as fast as I can without severely hurting my head, but that turns out to be not very fast at all.

This is somewhat annoying because it is not as though I am applying for a new position where I will be called upon to make use of this knowledge every day. I am attempting to obtain career-enhancing levels of official skillset validation just so that I may be given access to the resources I need to complete a single project, and that’s just because the DoD operating procedures say that anyone doing any amount of this kind of work must be so validated. I already have Secret clearance, that’s been true since the time I jumped onto this contract, but that’s not good enough. I’ve been working on this contract for over three years, but that is not sufficient to make an exception for me, either. I understand that rules are rules, and I don’t mean to sound excessively whiny and entitled (a little whiny and entitled, all right, but not excessively) but it would be nice if I could just go about my business unhindered thanks to a modicum of trust.

The irony is not lost on me that the certification I am cramming for is based on network security, and one of the fundamental principles that the study materials return to again and again is, simply put, never trust anyone.

So nowadays my commutes back and forth on the VRE are not occupied with pleasure reading or must-see movies, but with studying for my certification exam, primarily because there’s no guarantee that at the end of any given day when I’ve finished getting the kids to bed I’ll have the focus and willpower left over for parsing bone-dry text about cryptographic industry standards. Which in turn means on top of the mental toll taken by doing the work of exam prep, I have very little in the way of pop entertainments to review or reflect on here at the blog. Hence last week’s more retro-oriented Wednesday, and it’s a fair bet that there will be more along those lines in the weeks to come. Hopefully the whole certification angle will be straightened out one way or another in the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime if I seem a bit dazed, you can understand why.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Week in Review

I’d like to offer belated apologies for the unevenness of Monday’s post, which no doubt owed at least something to how burnt out I was on the topic at that point as well as the consecutive nights of staying up late followed by getting up early. But even more than for the readability (or appalling lack thereof) of what made it on to the blog, I’d ask forgiveness for completely neglecting to include certain expressions of gratitude associated with the whole ordeal. I’m grateful to my in-laws, who stepped up during crunchtime on Sunday; not only did they bring dinner to the birthday party, but they pitched in with bathing and bedding-down the two older children while my wife tended to the newborn, freeing me up to get down to the final pre-release push much earlier than I otherwise would have. I’m also grateful to my wife for her understanding and support as I bailed on various child rearing and housekeeping tasks (not to mention marital quality time) in the name of staying on deadline for the freelance project all along. On the flipside, I’m at least somewhat grateful that the project subsumed the weekend in such a way that we did not spend a lot of time gnashing our teeth over the Orioles/Yankees series, and in fact on Sunday night my wife watched much of the game upstairs while I had the Gameday app running in the background on the computer downstairs. (Obligatory BASEBALL MONTH reference!) And in a small but meaningful way, I’m glad my wife and I have an accountant who does our taxes, which had been finished back in early March, and that filing my household return by Monday the 15th was not part of the weekend pile-up.

Mostly, of course, I’m grateful that the whole thing is done. But you probably gathered that from the original rambling.

+++

I had gotten pretty lazy about bringing a lunch in to work in the weeks leading up to paternity leave, and through my first forays back into the Big Gray, but this past week, my first full 40 hours since something like the last week of February, I managed to remember to stockpile early in order to have something to eat at hand every day. (And now I have a headstart for next week because on Wednesday there was an office pizza luncheon.)

Anyway, on Tuesday I went down to the suite's kitchen to nuke some soup for lunch. There are three microwaves in the kitchen, and when I arrived two of them were already in use, and they continued to hum as I warmed up my bowl in the third. It occurred to me at some point, standing and waiting in front of my microwave, that I was in a virtual nexus of radiation which might not be entirely safe, especially considering that the models that end up in office kitchens tend to be older cast-offs. No ill-effects so far, but I will continue to monitor the situation.

+++

So I said I had nothing left to say about Community, barring a huge crossover between the show and my personal bailiwicks. But then Parks and Rec on Thursday had Patton Oswalt talking about Star Wars VII? COME ON.

Funny enough, not only had I heard in advance about Patton's guest spot on Parks, but my brother-in-law made sure to e-mail myself and my wife on the off chance that neither of us had been aware of it (and also on the off chance that we would ever miss a Thursday night NBC sitcom block), because he knew it was the kind of thing we would want to be right up on top of. Which was sweet of him. However, the link he sent us was to the extended outtakes of the filibuster scene, and my wife and I opted not to launch the video. Call us old-fashioned, but we both preferred to watch the episode of Parks and Rec in question first, and then check out the special feature, as it were, after the fact. So we saved the video for Friday night. (For the record? Worth it.)

+++

Another laying-the-geek-on-pretty-thick idea I had regarding blog aliases for my children revolved around an old Marvel comics series I was pretty into as a kid, The New Mutants. The hook for this series was that the New Mutants were the junior X-Men, and the main characters were in fact children (adolescents, sure, not toddlers and babies, but from the parenting perspective the differences between those two stages are minimal). As I said, I was a fan when I was a young adolescent myself, and it was brought to mind thanks to the baby's recent weigh-in at ten pounds, which is one of the standard sizes for a cannonball. Thus I've been calling the baby "little cannonball", and Cannonball, as it happens, is the codename of one of the New Mutants.


(He's the blond flying one.)

The other four original New Mutants were Sunspot, Karma, Mirage and Wolfsbane. Sunspot was the only other boy, so presumably that would be the little guy's handle. (And once again, considering his affinity for astronomy, fairly appropriate.) Karma would be a decently apt handle for my daughter (considering that is surely what she will visit upon me as the years go by) if it weren't basically a stripper name. And Mirage and Wolfsbane are great codenames for the illusionist and the lycanthrope in the comics, but neither is an intuitive gimme for the little girl (she's more or less moved past the wolf-howl phase, sadly). Ah well, the search goes on!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Exchanging names

As a combination follow-up to the end of yesterday’s post and obligatory random anecdote for Friday, I present the following Tale From the Old College Watering Hole:

So there were (and I suppose still are) three or four bars within walking distance of my alma mater’s campus, two of which I frequented heavily enough that I could tell the difference between a slow night, a moderate night, a busy night and a night when maybe heading back to the dorms with a 12-pack of Natty Ice for a round of Drinking Uno might be the best possible call.

But there were some nights when, for various reasons, my friends and I would try to make the best of it at the bars despite the overcrowded conditions. I went to a smallish school, but these bars were also very small, so it didn’t take much for them to be packed wall-to-wall with bodies. Such circumstances are not entirely prohibitive for hanging out and drinking, but they do present a challenge whenever someone needs to move through the place, say to visit the restrooms.

The two factors that tended to bring out the biggest crowds were time and temperature; the closer it was to the end of a semester, the more people were inclined to go out rather than stay in and study, and the warmer the weather, the same tendency prevailed. One warm late spring night I found myself out amongst the thronging masses, and at a certain juncture I needed to avail myself of the building’s plumbing fixtures, as did a female friend of mine. Of course we were encamped on the outdoor patio, which meant we had to enter the building through a side door and proceed along a straight shot to the bathrooms, although said shooting ran the entire length of the bar. We shuffle-stepped our way through the body-clogged interior, basically trading places with one person at a time, until we reached the bottleneck in front of the cash register at the end of the counter. At that point we were two-thirds of the way to our destination but there was nothing we could do except stand in place, waiting for a transaction to complete and a paying customer to move one way or the other so that everyone else could continue shifting the tight-packed formation.

I had been gallantly leading the way through the crowd and allowing my friend to follow in my wake, and when we hit the standstill point I found myself face-to-face with a girl I had never met before; she had been trying to get by in the opposite direction but we were both equally halted. The evening had been proceeding long enough at that point that I was fortified with liquid courage enough to at least introduce myself to the young lady, if only to ease the awkwardness of being trapped in violation of one another’s personal space. She smiled back and said hello, and I asked her what her name was, and she replied “Desiree.” To which I literally threw my head back and laughed and said, “No it is not!” Because apparently I also had liquid confidence enough in my own opinions to be pretty sure that no one in the real world was actually named Desiree. It’s a lovely name, but totally fake, a stage name at best. And I can’t say I blamed the girl, giving a fake name to the drunken weirdo the crowd had slammed into her path. But at the same time I wanted her to give me some credit for seeing through her obvious ruse, and ...

... honestly I have no idea what my endgame plan was at that point, but luckily a couple of things happened all at once. My female friend intervened and assured “Desiree” that I was drunk and harmless, and the human sliding tiles rearranged themselves enough for us to go one way and her to go the other. And I never saw her again.

The connection to yesterday is simply that if I were to go with the PD-variations for my children’s blogonyms, then I might very well institute one for my wife as well, and I would be inclined to go with something like Patience Desiree for her. Patience should be self-explanatory (she is married to me, after all), whereas Desiree is, as I say, a lovely name, a little bit exotic with the component of inherent allure right there plain as day. Not that I think of my wife in any way at all as fake, of course. Though sometimes I do think of her as too good to be true.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Three Meta Pigs

This past weekend the little girl had her annual wellness check-up, which was really one of the more pleasant child-doctor interactions I’ve been involved with lo these past few years. The division of labor for that particular Saturday mandated that my wife would stay home with the newborn, while I took the little guy and the little girl to the pediatrician’s office for her appointment, to be followed by a shopping trip to Costco to get supplies for the birthday party the following day. The check-up itself, as I indicated, the little girl just sailed right through. No shots required this time (woot) and everything looked/sounded/felt good. She’s growing like a weed (as her mother and I were already well aware) and may actually end up taller than her parents and/or her big brother (though thankfully dealing with that particular twist in their sibling rivalry is a long ways off). All good news, once the doctor finally had a chance to deliver it. But, due to extenuating circumstances, the doctor was detained after the nurse had brought the three of us back to the exam room, so we had a lot of time to kill.

The kids had each brought some of their toys with them but eventually those got understandably boring. Fortunately there were a few books in the exam room, all new to us, so I leaned against the exam table with a child sitting on either side of me and read them a couple of Eric Carle tales and then The Three Pigs by David Wiesner. I was of course expecting a retelling of the familiar fairy tale, possibly with high-end illustrations to justify the dust-jacketed hardcover edition. But Wiesner had a bit more in mind than just that.

The story starts out with the usual beats, but when the Big Bad Wolf blows down the first pig’s house of straw, he blows the pig right out of the story. Soon all three porcine protagonists have escaped the confines of their original narrative, leaving behind a very confused wolf, and proceed to wander at will through other books. They befriend the fiddle-playing cat from “Hey Diddle-diddle” as well as a dragon from a medieval romance, and the whole group ends up back at the sober little pig’s brick house, with the dragon proving more than adequate at encouraging the Wolf to seek alternative sources of fresh pork.

It’s very cute stuff, and it’s executed quite well, particularly in the mix of art styles which has the main story look slightly old fashioned, the pigs inhabiting the blank space between stories in a semi-realistic style, the cow jumping over the moon in gentle cartoony strokes, and the knight and dragon in block black and white woodcut. It’s that kind of attention to detail that really tickles me in genre mash-ups. The little girl was sufficiently entertained by the pictures in the book, but the little guy was really fascinated by the mechanics of it, and asked a lot of questions about what, exactly, the pigs were doing. Questions I was only too happy to answer because, COME ON. Do not get me started about the unbounded nature of a fictional constructed reality unless you’re not planning on going anywhere for a while (which, as it happened, we weren’t, beholden as we were to the pediatrician’s schedule).

Obviously I kept it a bit lighter on the pomo jargon for the little guy, but I made no effort to hide my enthusiasm for the concept, and I believe he caught on to some of that. By the time we got home he was actually very excited about writing his own book which would be a kind-of sequel in which the three little pigs would leave their book and go visit ... the characters from Cars, naturally enough. So some things never change, but they can have their horizons broadened a bit.

Speaking of changes, he segued smoothly, and also speaking of three little fill-in-the-descriptors, I am still mulling over the best approach for referring to my children in these posts. Clearly I’m still using “little guy” and “little girl” and some variation on “baby/newborn” but that last one is not going to be viable for long. For a while I was considering giving them matching handles along the lines of “Professor Dwarfstar” (given the little guy’s abiding love for astronomy, and for pedantic explanations) and “Princess Daredevil” (given her affinity for pink and ploka dots and ruffles but also for going down slides headfirst and other such derring-do) and “Peewee Dynamite” (given that the baby is the smallest of the bunch) but ... I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I was mocking anyone (whom I may or may not be related to) who actually earns a living with a professorial career, and the whole girls-are-princesses thing is beyond cliche, and at last weigh-in our four-week-old was already a solid ten pounds, which means Peewee might end up being archly ironic. (Plus as apt as any of those monikers might be, the initials of this blog are PA, not PD, so that just feels like a wasted opportunity.) So I’m not announcing any immediate changes in nomenclature after all; consider me still hunched over the drawing board until further notice.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Childhood heroes

Because my current pop-culture consumption is still at sub-trickle levels, here's a bit of uber-geekiness based on an online column I read during my paternity leave. If you're not inclined to follow the link and wade through the ensuing genre/nostalgia wallowing, I will try to briefly sum up: the author of the column, Greg Hatcher, had seen a piece of art on Pol Rua's blog which consisted of the phrase "My childhood heroes could destroy your childhood heroes" wrapped around a group shot drawing of Godzilla, Lobo, Bigfoot (the monster truck), Marion Cobretti, the Savage Dragon, Hellboy, the Tick, The Road Warriors Animal and Hawk, Aeon Flux, Robocop, the Punisher, and Jason Voorhees. (If you don't know some of those names, assume they are violent comicbook anti-heroes and you have about a 75% chance of being correct.) Hatcher then went on to assemble his own "my childhood heroes" dream team, which consisted of Tarzan, Callisto (an alien from the Matt Mason toy line), Kato, Linc Hayes, James West, Space Ghost, Igoo (from the Herculoids), Superman and Batman.

I found the column that riffed on the artwork's idea more interesting than the artwork itself, not only because I tend to gravitate more towards wordiness, but also because Hatcher was specific as to which versions of fictional characters he was calling on (e.g. the Ron Ely Tarzan, the Adam West Batman, and the Superman from the comics of the 70's) and equally specific about the rules of assembling his roster. He limited himself to characters who occupied his brainspace when he was a kid, which he defined in a very narrow window from ages 5 to 12. It was alright if a character pre-existed his lifetime and he discovered that character as a kid, but not acceptable if the character were created after he turned 13. Also, Hatcher made a list of much more straightforwardly good guys, as opposed to the mix of heroes, anti-heroes and villains in the meme-inspiring drawing.

As we all know, I love a good mental exercise, especially one with highly arbitrary and restrictive parameters! And as it happens, Hatcher is a bit older than me, whereas I would peg Rua as a bit younger than me, so there's some fertile ground to stake out in between them. Thus I am borrowing this meme (mostly hatcher's take on it) for my own amusement, and present the results for yours.

First off, every dream team needs some muscle, so for (some of) that role I'm going to go with B.A. Baracus.

If I'm going to assemble a team of larger-than-life characters from approximately 1980 through 1987, I would be a fool to pass up the potential inclusion of Mr. T. B.A.'s great for pure intimidation, can back it up in a fight, and he's a jack-of-all-trades who's good with an acetylene torch, too.

It's also good to have a wildman on the team, providing back-up muscle along with some extra unpredictability. The strongman is handy to have around if a single opponent needs to be knocked out with one punch, or a falling boulder or closing door needs propping up while everyone else gets by safely. The wild warrior, on the other hand, can take on a room full of opponents; it won't be pretty, but he'll be laughing all the way. And I have two closely related candidates, both from the Flash Gordon mythos, although two different spins: Thun and Vultan.


My preferred Thun is from the Filmation cartoons of Flash Gordon, while the definitive Vultan can only be Brian Blessed's version from the 1980 live action movie. Thun is just rad-looking, wearing his naked savagery for all to see. Blessed's Vultan is a bit more controlled, but all the more dangerous for it. He knows how to toe the line of acceptable behavior depending on the situation, master of his own domain and just barely respectful enough in others' (which generally means waiting until their back is turned to make fun of them). When he finally crosses the line into open rebellion, all of his pent-up rage and all of his insider knowledge combine to wreak pure havoc. He's actually one of my favorite characters by any measure, full stop.

In addition to brawn, a team needs brains, and I would choose Professor Henry Jones, Jr. for that role.

A scholar who's not afraid to get his hands dirty, a skilled researcher and a gifted improviser, not to mention he knows how to throw (and take) a punch, he's a valuable resource. Needless to say, I am only interested in recruiting the 1930's/40's model of Indiana Jones, and not the 1950's model.

Brains need to be balanced by heart, and in these "lad's tales" whose conventions I am following, that usually means the token girl. But since there's no limitation on how many characters I can stack this team with, I'm going to pick three ladies, all of whom happen to be plucked from Saturday morning cartoons. First up is Diana the acrobat from the Dungeons & Dragons.

Much like everyone else on the team, she can hold her own in a fight, but her niche is "the one people would underestimate on sight, much to their eventual chagrin." Second is Princess Ariel from the Thundarr the Barbarian series.

An honest-to-apocalypse sorceress, meeting the team's magic-user requirement. And third, Firestar from Spider-man and His Amazing Friends.

She can fly, she can melt steel from a distance, and she's a hot redhead, not to mention the only bonafide superhero on my team. Represent!

A couple more specialists round things out. For stealth purposes, I'd draft Little Bear, a.k.a. the titular Indian in the Cupboard.

A resourceful Iroquois brave who is only a couple of inches tall would be the best scout or infiltrator a team could ask for, and not incidentally he allows me to check the box of including one character who actually comes from a novel I read when I was in elementary school instead of just movie and tv characters. I'd also pad out the roster with Pegasus, which could either be from the books of classical mythology I read as a kid or from the original Clash of the Titans.

A flying horse is a great asset (especially when your main muscle is afraid of airplanes) but I also appreciate having a highly intelligent animal on the team (see above re: "underestimated","eventual chagrin"). I've always felt like there was a cultural tendency to associate pegasi with girly-girls (and their sparkly pastel-colored Trapper Keepers) but suck it, haters! I'm taking Pegasus back!

Finally, there is really only one possible choice for leader of the team: Sergeant Conrad "Duke" Hauser.

He's a consummate soldier, and as I've mentioned before one of his defining characteristics is the loyalty and devotion he is able to inspire in his fellow fighters-of-the-good-fight. Must be because he's an NCO. In any case, that's the quality I'm looking for to head up this team, a guarantee that the disparate elements will work together for a common goal. And Duke can get pretty much anyone to follow him pretty much anywhere.

That pretty much hits most of the major highlights of my childhood, with a couple of notable exceptions: both Star Wars and the Masters of the Universe loomed extra-large in my preadolescent viewing habits and action figure hoarding, but I really tended to enjoy those properties as more than the sum of their parts; plucking out any individual character for this exercise, whether from Eternia or a galaxy far far away, wasn't entirely satisfying, certainly not enough to displace anyone who made the cut. A similar principle kept me away from Voltron, which in and of itself is basically a five man band that doesn't work except as a quintet, and I hate dropping entire teams into larger dream teams. I was also a big fan of the Herculoids and Space Ghost back in the day, but I didn't want to duplicate the earlier efforts if at all possible. And finally, the most glaring omission here is obviously Green Lantern, not included partly because my all-time favorite GL, Kyle, did not debut until I was about 19 years old, and partly because GL simply transcends these kind of crazy remix parlor games (or so I choose to maintain).

One final note (for anyone who looks to these posts for glimpses of insight into me beyond unflagging love of 80's garbage): when I looked back over the list I noticed that it was decidely low-tech, not a single robot or super-computer to be found. A time-traveling miniature man from the 18th century, sure, and an archaeologist born in the late 19th, no problem. Several beings from fantasy worlds, and a handful of more modern (though by now fairly dated) folks who don't rely on anything more advanced than a military-issue rifle or a GMC Vandura (or, ok, mutant powers). Is it possible that, during the downtime that I was mulling the team concept while also working on my freelance coding day and night, that I got a tiny bit burnt out on technology? A possibility worth pondering, at least.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The t-shirt economy

I suspect this will be the last time I blog about Community for a while, unless there’s an absolutely mindblowing late-season episode that also happens to be an homage to something extremely near and dear to my heart (but since they’ve already done Dungeons & Dragons, fan conventions, multiple horror movies and Abed as Batman, it’s hard to imagine what that would be). Community seems to have gotten through its period of post-Harmon adjustment and settled into its new rhythms, which honestly are a lot like the old rhythms: generally good, occasionally great. I may have found the occasions of greatness more frequent and more delightful in the first three seasons, but the disparity is small enough that it’s hard to tell if that’s due to a legit change in the show or just my own bias knowing as much as I do about the behind-the-scenes stuff. At any rate, me and Community are cool ... but for how much longer?

There are four episodes of Community left this season, and possibly forever. I’ve been trying to keep my ear to the ground for any announcements about a potential fifth season, but haven’t heard anything yet. Much as I want to be optimistic about it, almost everything (from the fact that the fourth season was only ordered at 13 episodes, to the departure of Chevy Chase, to the long slow slide of Community’s ratings from mediocre to borderline-dire) indicates the opposite of “And then the show was renewed for 24 more episodes in 2013 - 2014, and they were phenomenal!” So I’m kind of expecting the cancellation lamentations any day now.

And yet ... when my wife and I were watching Community last week ("Intro to Felt Surrogacy" which will no doubt be forever referred to simply as “The Puppet Episode”), we couldn’t help but notice the pop-up ad for the NBC store about halfway through, hawking these t-shirts:

Which just struck me as ... odd. Not that it’s a bad shirt design (though I prefer the 8-bit graphic inspired by “Digital Estate Planning”), just that it’s odd any Season 4 designs exist at all. I really don’t claim to know much of anything about the nuts-and-bolts of production and profit margins on merchandising, but if you had asked me how likely it was that a show would have just-in-time apparel tie-ins for a specific episode, I would have given an answer from my gut that it would depend on the show; for a successful and popular series, I could see that happening, but not for any show that’s struggling or on the way out. And the thing about Community is, it’s not just a niche show but it’s one that NBC has always given the impression of not caring for or caring about or supporting in any real way. One year it goes on hiatus, another year it has its premier delayed beyond all reason so that the fall holiday episodes for Halloween and Thanksgiving air in the late winter. Neglect verging on abuse. This is the show that has t-shirt synergy at the parent network’s online store?

Maybe it’s not that strange, if there’s a true dichotomy between the visionary creative types who try to make Community unique and entertaining, and the network bosses who only care about bottom-line profits. Maybe the beancounters at NBC have never gotten Community’s humor or its worldview, but they know there are some hipsters out there who do, and who are easily parted from their cash, and t-shirts are a cheap and easy way to wring every last dollar out of the sinking ship taking on water in the Thursday 8 p.m. timeslot. But even given that calculation, it just surprised me that the decision-makers remembered that Community was still on.

Obviously it makes me want to hope against all hope that every time a new Community t-shirt is produced it signals that the programming execs at NBC are actively engaged in trying to raise awareness of the show and are invested in building up its audience, if possible, or at least reinforcing the loyalty of the small/fierce existing fanbase, either of which would mean that Community might still be around next year. Just like every so often I get a notification from Amazon about seasons of Community on DVD (I bought Season 1 for my wife a while back) and they include Season 4, which is listed at the exact same retail price as the first three seasons, despite the aforementioned half-order on episodes this season ... there have been delusional moments where I’ve speculated that maybe season 4 would end up being 22 episodes, that NBC would make a late order for the back nine and air them over the summer or something because, honestly, what the hell else does NBC have going on right now? But as day after day goes by and April starts to recede and May approaches, even I have a hard time clinging to that particular dream.

I’ve given up on Community ever being exactly like it was before, but I haven’t given up on it altogether. I’d still rather have it on the air, and make time for it every week, than not. If selling tees makes that even remotely possible, I’m all for it. Alongside the DVD set, I’ve also bought Community coffee mugs, and my wife already bought me yet another Community t-shirt. I’m doing my part! To what end, if any, remains to be seen.

(UPDATE: I wrote the bulk of this yesterday, trying to get ahead on posts. Lo and behold, this morning on the train I read this Todd VanDerWerff thinkpiece which makes a credible argument that Community is actually pretty likely to get a fifth season, since it does have a fiercely loyal niche fanbase, and NBC in fact has little to nothing else working right now. TVDW has a certain amount of cred with me, and again, I really really want to believe this. To be continued!)

After the marathon

I have a complicated relationship with Boston. The sports rivalries (Yankees/Red Sox, Giants/Patriots) give me plenty of reason to rag on the city. But my Little Bro went to college there, and a lot of my good friends from college ended up doing post-grad work there, which gave me ample opportunities to visit and collect good memories of the place. Not that that stopped me from writing and selling a gaming supplement article a few years back in which I outlined the nature of violent, drug-dealing gangs of fantasy monsters operating out of a post-apocalyptic Boston.

My relationship with senseless real-world violence is much simpler, in that I hate it. And just as simply, my heart goes out to the victims and everyone affected yesterday.

P.S. Mad props (as always) to Patton Oswalt: Boston

Monday, April 15, 2013

Freelance-a-lot

Late last night I was sitting in front of the computer, alternating mouthfuls of Coca-Cola and purple frosting spooned out of the canister. It made sense at the time.

I mentioned, in the course of kicking the blog back to life, that over the past month or so I was doing some freelance work in an effort to fill in some of the income gap associated with paternity leave. And also, frankly, to give myself some intensive practice with nuts-and-bolts coding again, as that is something that is in short supply at my regular gig. (For that reason alone, you would think my current employer would be happy about me picking up some work on the side in an effort to keep my skills sharp. Alas, I think it would probably be frowned upon, so I’ve been keeping it to myself and thankful once again that these posts are usually light on the personally identifying info.) This past weekend was the culmination of a big chunk of that work, evocative of the old truism that the best thing about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer repeatedly is that it feels so good when you finally stop.

Writing new code for my old company’s main product was time-consuming, primarily because there were so many things they wanted tweaked or modified or enhanced (and secondarily because I had to re-orient myself to the inner workings of the thing after having been away for six years or so). But I budgeted my time (for once!) and chipped away at it day after day for weeks until every requirement had been met. The plan was for me to finish my side of things by last Monday, and my former colleagues to test all last week, so that the finalized changes could all be released to the client today. The testing then became time-consuming for entirely different reasons, because at that point there’s back and forth involved, with someone alerting me to a glitch and me looking into it and communicating back that it’s fixed and can be re-tested (or that what looked like a glitch was really user error) and so on. All of the communication was done via e-mail, and sometimes there would be a necessary delay as I had to wait until I got home from my day job before I could start testing anything. The testing got more intense as the week went along (and the deadline got closer) and I had a sizable to-do list by Friday, but I stayed up late Friday night dealing with everything.

Everything that had been identified to that point, that is, which really wasn’t technically everything. And once things spilled over into the weekend, they got significantly hairier. I knew what I was getting into with this project, and nothing happened that wasn’t totally typical for the development cycle, with the major exception that everything was so loosely structured. I assumed I would be hearing more from my former colleagues on Saturday, but I didn’t know when or how much, so when the first e-mails started buzzing my inbox around 4 in the afternoon, I wasn’t sure whether to jump on the issue raised immediately, or to wait until multiple messages arrived so that I could sit down for a concentrated, presumably more efficient session of work. I split the difference, answering e-mails immediately when the solution simply involved clarifying a misunderstanding, and holding off on actual troubleshooting and code revision until later, which ended up being a de facto necessity once it got to be time for the kids’ dinners and baths and bedtimes and whatnot. But eventually I was back at the computer and once again stayed up late to handle the work. The difference Saturday night, though, was that there was a lot of back-and-forth e-mailing accompanying all of my adjustments and modifications ... until at one point there wasn’t. I’d been dealing mainly with three of my former colleagues and there was an open issue which I couldn’t address without one of them in particular, and he was apparently not online. It was past midnight, and while no one had officially sent a “let’s call it a night” message, I decided to do just that.

Because, of course, on Saturday morning my wife and I had been passing the kids back and forth in various combinations and also running out on shopping errands in order to get ready for the little girl’s birthday party on Sunday. Plus there was the customary amount of laundry and housecleaning to be done over the weekend as well. So it was a long day on the heels of a long night, with the uncertain expectation of freelancing-related e-mails hanging over my head basically every waking moment. At least these days I have a smartphone that notifies me when I get a new e-mail, without which I would have been an anxious wreck (well, moreso). And Sunday proved more of the same, with the morning given over to continuing to get ready for our guests (fortunately in our family we tend to keep 2nd birthday parties small, so the headcount was limited to the local grandparents, uncle and aunt), the early part of the afternoon for wrapping the presents and icing the cake (which I had mixed and thrown in the oven the night before in between bug fixes), the latter part of the afternoon for the party and dinner, and then the bulk of the evening and beyond devoted to responding to the final round of e-mails as the immutable deadline loomed closer and closer. Hence the sugar and caffeine inhalation I copped to at the top of this post.

The good thing about last night’s efforts was that they did reach an unmistakable ending point, as opposed to Saturday’s ambiguous trailing off. I got a message that the testing was complete and that I should send over all of the notes and instructions for replicating the changes on the live site, which they would take care of internally. So I did all that and then went to bed, although I was unable to shake a certain amount of paranoia that I would miss a desperate emergency e-mail in the middle of the night, or that I would get an equally desperate request for help this morning when there was nothing I could do about it mid-commute. But it’s past noon now and I haven’t heard a thing, which either means the final deployment went smoothly or that it flamed out spectacularly and they just aborted the effort, restored a backup version of the site, and I will hear from them once they’ve determined how they can best limit their liability for paying my invoice.

But assuming it’s the former then that really should be the end of the project, barring any issues that didn’t crop up in testing but come to light with heavier customer-base usage. Of course, when my former colleagues reached out to me they had two projects in mind, one massive and deadline sensitive and the other much more modest and with less of an associated time crunch. I said yes to doing both, and so with the former finished I can move on to the theoretically easier project, and at least I’ll know how the endgame is likely to look this time around. And then after that, I honestly have no idea if my former colleagues have more work they would want done, or if after this experience they would want me to do it, or if I would take on the work if it were offered. Probably so, to the last part (assuming I could take a little break first) because that’s always the way these things go, grueling when you’re eyeball deep in them and then not seeming so bad after the fact when it’s time to decide whether or not to do it again.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Now We Are ...


When she was One, she had lots of fun.
When she was One-and-a-half, she always made me laugh.
When she was One-and-three-quarters, she got off some real rip-snorters.
Now she is Two, and she’s not nearly new,
But as sassy as anything (and still hilarious, too).

Apologies to A.A. Milne, obviously. But today is the little girl’s birthday! She will have a proper party over the weekend, but this is the date that will no doubt someday mark a national holiday.

This also gives me the opportunity to mention something random which I didn’t get around to yesterday. My wife and I have always found our offspring highly quotable (we’re predisposed to it in any case as the kind of people who quote tv shows and movies at each other), and frequently this is not just because of what our kids say but the way that they say it. I’ve posted before about how the little girl enjoys pretending it’s nap time for her stuffed animals, covering them with blankets and patting them as she murmurs “Ni-night.” A recent addition to the game was waking the animals back up by whipping off the blankets and shouting “Morning!” Except that “r” sound in the middle of the word is especially tricky, so it ends up coming out something more like “moowning!” which is totally irresistible to me and my wife. We greet each other with a high-pitched “moowning!” on the regular these days. Kids are a hoot, you guys.

(I know this whole month has been all-small-children(-and-baseball), all-the-time here on the blog. I will return to the geekier pop culture stuff before too long, probably, as life re-normalizes and I get back up to speed.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Other Two

Last week when I posted the abridged version of Life Recently (revised and expanded Three KidsTM edition) I put most of the focus on our newest addition and really only mentioned the elder siblings in passing. Of course this is an ongoing concern, for both myself and my wife, as we try to figure out how to balance all sides of the new reality and divide our attention equitably and responsibly among three children, all of whom are too little to take care of themselves in any meaningful way. The amount of attention I devote to things on my blog is in no way representative of (and certainly in no way a substitute for) the amount of attention I give things in real life. But in some ways it (the blog) can at the very least help reinforce whatever it is I’m attempting to accomplish (in real life).

So, my older son and my daughter. They are doing very well, circumstances being what they are. First and foremost, to view things through the new baby lenses that are regularly affixed to my field of vision, they are both completely crazy about their infant brother. While my wife and I were at the hospital with the newborn and the kids were at home with their grandparents, they all worked together to make a welcome home banner for our return. The handwriting was clearly my son’s, no doubt with an adult assist in the spelling department. I imagine a lot of children would have been content to scrawl the simple message “Welcome Home Mommy, Daddy and Baby” but the little guy, while including that very sentiment as well, actually led off with a declarative statement that has yet to be proven false in the ensuing weeks: “We Love The Baby.” Oh, indeed they do. I will come down on the side of avowing it’s not possible to love the baby too much, but if it were possible, then the little guy and little girl would be guilty of it. They want to hold and touch the baby. All. The. Time. It really doesn’t matter if the baby is sleeping, or crying, or nursing, the siblings want to have him cradled on their laps, baby head on toddler/big kid shoulder, toddler/big kid hands laced in front of swollen baby stomach. If they can’t hold him, they want at the very least to play with his toes or put their cheeks against the soft skin of his back. And it’s heart-bursting, in the best way, of course it is, but it poses inconvenient logistical challenges. The little guy cannot quite grasp that when we say “don’t touch the baby’s head” we really mean it as a constant, no-exceptions prohibition. And the little girl is prone to tantrums if she isn’t given open access to her little brother (screams of “MY baby!” have been echoing off the walls of late). I reckon the baby’s perceptions of the outside world are still a touch too muted for him to freak out at all the attention, because if he were sensitive to it he would pretty much be in a non-stop panic.

Still, all in all, I would rather deal with an overabundance of affectionate curiosity toward the baby than with ambivalence or hostility. I would understand the latter, and we’d work through it, but I’m just as glad to not contend with it in the first place. There’s still plenty of hazards to navigate in terms of regression, more on the little guy’s part than the little girl’s (so far), but again that’s more or less the expected price of admission. I have to hand it to my wife, who has been remarkably on top of the situation via some skillful newborn ventriloquism. Whenever the little guy is hovering close to my wife’s knees as the baby is hanging out in her lap, my wife adopts a silly voice and speaks for the newborn, engaging his older brother in pseudo-conversation which the little guy enjoys tremendously. Invariably these dialogues center around (a) things the bigger brother knows, which he can teach the little brother; (b) things the bigger brother can do, which the little brother can’t (and can’t wait to be able to do someday); and (c) just generally how the bigger brother is the little’s hero. I don’t have a control to measure against, but I firmly believe this is all to the good of helping stave off massive baby panic in the little guy.

And just to expand the scope beyond All Things Neonatal, I will say that the funniest thing I’ve noticed about my four-and-a-half-year-old lately is the fact that he appears to have internalized one of the major thrusts of our co-parenting, specifically the notion that everything we force him to do, and everything we forbid him from doing, comes down to caring about his safety and well-being. I know this has made an impression on him because nowadays when he jumps off the arm of the couch and causes something on the adjacent table to crash to the floor, he immediately yells “I’m OK!!!” Because of course that would be the primary thing we would be concerned about. (He’s right, that’s the galling thing. Totally remorseless about breaking the rules, but also right about what really matters.)

The little girl, meanwhile, is a study in contradictions. Sometimes she is dainty, dare I say coquettish, taking nine bites to eat a single potato chip for instance. And sometimes she is a brute, with a hilariously growly way of shouting when she’s good and fired up. Not fired up with anger, just fired up with excitement. Like a Viking berserker, nothing personal, you understand. Then there’s the general contrariness, where she proves to simply be a fan of the mouthfeel (as my wife aptly put it) of the word “no”. I have amassed a few tidbits of advice for new parents from my own experiences in the past five years, and near the top of that list is this: do not ever get angry with a two-year-old for changing his/her mind on you. Consistency is not their strong suit, as they can barely remember what happened five seconds ago as it is. And, in the same vein, dealing with a two year old is the one cliche-busting circumstance in which it is not insane to attempt the same thing over and over again and expect different results. I know pretty well by now that if I suspect my daughter is thirsty and I offer her milk, and she says “No!” I can wait a couple of ticks and ask her again and the odds are in my favor that she will then say “Yes!” She just needed to get a little defiant willfulness out of her system, I suppose.

So I have not unexpectedly grown extra arms, nor have I figured out a way to magically add more hours to the day, but there is still something amazing about bringing a new baby into the world and into our family home. I am not any less enthralled and enchanted with my infant son for having been through two previous babyhoods, nor do I love my older son or my daughter any less for now having a third child to love alongside them. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really. Overwhelming, sometimes utterly draining, but ... someday I will have a fifteen-year-old, a thirteen-year-old and an eleven-year-old and I will laugh myself silly at how I used to fret about meeting the needs of three wee ones who were all in bed by 8.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Resumption of play

Despite the fact that this month is already nearly a third over, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I will still make at least some token attempt to keep the 2013 theme months going and celebrate BASEBALL MONTH in April. Right about now is really as good as it tends to get in my household, at the very outset of the season. Despite the fact that every game will add up and weigh the same in the standings in late September, April is far too early to get too invested in streaks or stumbles either way. The pennant race is underway but totally up for grabs, and it’s about as mathematically impossible as it gets for any team to be in serious trouble, let alone eliminated. The standings change rapidly, and every day (or night, as the case may be) is a potentially landscape-altering thrillride. One can scarcely stand the excitement.

And, of course, as of this writing the Orioles and the Yankees have yet to play each other in the regular season. They’ll remedy that this coming weekend, but for now there have been no AL East battle lines drawn under my roof. In point of fact, at the moment the O’s and Yankees have identical records, and the O’s are in the midst of a series against the Red Sox, so I am of course rooting hard for both squads. It can’t last, but it’s good while it does.

Not that my wife and I really have time to enjoy the national pastime at the moment, with a new baby who, I feel it bears repeating, is not one of our pre-existing children reverted back to infancy but is, yes, a brand new product of our union above, beyond and on top of the two who have been co-conspiratorially running us ragged for the past couple years. It is all still a work in progress, one which tends to find us looking semi-blearily at one another around 9 p.m. (maybe half an hour after we once again belatedly get the four-and-a-half year old to bed) and mumbling about how we should get ourselves to bed before too long. My wife does find baseball supremely relaxing to fall asleep to, so that’s a plus. But really investing ourselves emotionally and intellectually in nine consecutive innings is going to have to wait a while. Thank goodness for SportsCenter in the meanwhile.

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I recently found out about some work requirements which entail a certain amount of independent study on my part for a professional certification exam (more on that next week) which is no doubt going to cut into my pleasure-reading time. And that in turn puts my original plans to read and review sports essays or baseball-oriented novels this month in greater peril still. Nevertheless, I will give it a go. Who knows, the theme of July or August may very well end up being SUMMER SCHOOL, wherein I catch up on all the stuff I failed (to get around to) earlier in the year.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Like I never left

Well, hello.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the last few weeks went unblogged upon due to the arrival of our third child. And also due to the omnipresence of our first and second children. And yet also due to numerous other concerns ... but as usual I am getting ahead of myself.

So let’s go back to the beginning and review all the vital stats. Birth: induced after all, two days after the due date, reasonably uncomplicated (meaning not as easy as “the third one just kinda zwooops on out” as we had been led to believe, but not so arduous as to require any massive medical intervention once things got started), impressively handled by my wife, who was told by a professional midwife that she has a really high threshold for pain. Baby: healthy and whole, ten fingers and ten toes, nice and big (I won the over/under bet with my wife, who thought he would end up being smaller than his big sister; the baby tipped the scale three ounces heavier) and of course completely lovely. Hospital staff: terrific in every way at every stage (with some amusing anecdotes that may very well make their way into future posts when things around here get back to semi-normal). Hospital stay: a little less than 48 hours. Well, the first hospital stay, anyway ...

There was a certain amount of hope that by the third reproductive round we would have the whole thing down cold on every level, from the capabilities the newborn was biologically imbued with to the range of knowledge and willpower we as parents would be required to bring to bear. I suppose to a large extent those hopes were realized, but of course we tend to focus on the tiny things that go off-script rather than the vast majority that fall in line. And thus we come to one of peripheral reasons why I haven’t fired up the post editor in a while, because all I wanted was to make an announcement that the baby was born and everyone was doing great, but I also wanted to wait for that to be true. And the extent to which it hasn’t been true, again, has been minor: some persistent jaundice, which put us on the merry-go-round of a Monday birth, Wednesday discharge from the hospital, Thursday pediatrician’s appointment, Saturday morning re-check, Saturday night admission (just mom and baby) into a different hospital for an overnight U/V treatment, Sunday re-discharge. Then more subsequent doctor visits and re-re-checks, but the latest word a couple days ago was that the jaundice level was fully down into the normal range. It had been going down and going down all along, no permanent damage was ever really risked, and sooner than later it will be completely gone and forgotten. But it’s bothersome, and it makes baby sleepy, which doesn’t help at all with the whole learning-to-nurse thing.

And learning-to-nurse has been its own factor in the absence of blogging, because we’ve been pursuing some aggressive strategies in getting over the learning curve, partly for its own sake and partly because nursing well is good for working jaundice out of the system. And I’m not blithely using “we” here in the sense of “my wife has been nursing the baby but this is my blog, ergo, we”. Although my body, much to my wife’s chagrin, continues to refuse to lactate, the full regimen for power-nursing the baby is a two-person job (or was, especially in the early going, although my wife has been taking over more and more as it thankfully gets easier and easier). So there has not exactly been a lot of downtime associated with my leave over the past few weeks.

Plus, what downtime has been afforded to me has been almost entirely consumed by freelancing. I was approached by an old colleague from my last gig (which I left back in June of 2007) with a proposal to do some development on the system I used to work on there. I agreed pretty readily, figuring that since a good chunk of my paternity leave would be unpaid time off, it couldn’t hurt to have a separate income stream, especially since I could work on stuff from home while I was on said leave. All of which turns out to be true, but I had no idea how massive and time-consuming the development effort would wind up being. The massiveness means that I should get a pretty decent paycheck out of the experience, but it has essentially required a couple of hours of devoted concentration every single day to manage what would have been a 40 hour work week or a little more if I weren’t doing it in tiny bursts on my own clock. So not only have I not had the luxury of time in which to blog at home, but I haven’t had the luxury of time in which to do anything I would normally blog about. No Netflix turnarounds, no Smallville mini-marathons, no comics catch-ups. Mostly I’ve been wrangling the bigger kids while my wife tends to the infant’s needs, with occasional switch-ups for sanity’s sake. And on those rare occasions where the little guy is either at daycare or having designated quiet time in his room, and the little girl is napping, and mom and the new baby are also napping, all at once, then that’s when I log on to the computer and do my freelance work.

In the spirit of full disclosure I should say that I am getting more sleep than I probably did in the last two paternity leaves. Maybe this baby is naturally a better sleeper, maybe my wife and I have learned a thing or two over the years, but it’s a marked contrast. In years past I would take a shift from 11 pm to 1 am or so sitting on the couch with the newborn, watching Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network or Ninja Warrior on G4, keeping the babe quiet and settled with rocking and body warmth while my wife got a precious REM cycle or two. This time, we all go to bed at the same time and it more or less works. (Notwithstanding the guilt I feel as my wife lets me sleep through the middle-of-the-night feedings, even acknowledging that she has told me point blank not to feel guilty because we’ve divided up the workload and I have to deal with the other two more(?) physically demanding children throughout the daylight hours and I should just get my overnight sleep already.) Even my wife has noticed, and just mentioned to me this morning, that last time we brought a newborn home she and I spent many a pleasant afternoon together watching ESPN documentaries or old Buffy episodes together, but those moments have been thin on the ground this time.

I recently started transitioning back to my real job, too. Last Friday I came in late and left early in what amounted to a midday half-day. I did the same thing this Tuesday and am doing it today (and am now blogging from the office as is my wont). The first couple of four-hour days were occupied with typical resumption-of-duties stuff and didn’t offer much idle time for blogging, but by now I’m more or less where I was before I took off. Next week I’m planning on working two or three eight-hour days, and the week after that if all goes well I should be back to the grind full-time. I’ll probably continue updating the blog intermittently between now and then and by the end of the month my regular schedule should be back in effect.

For now, the fam is doing all right. Busy, exhausted, a bit overwhelmed, fully aware (at the grown-up level at least) that we brought this on ourselves, hanging in there and figuring out how things are supposed to look and work now. It’s an ongoing, open-ended process.