Thursday, November 28, 2013

All are welcome at my table

I exchanged a couple of e-mails late last week with a friend I only know online (via fanfic circles) who hails from England. He literally closed one of his messages with this:
[A]ll my best to you and yours, and have a good holiday season (you Americans have got that turkeys and pilgrims thing going on sometime soon, right...?)
We do indeed.

But while Thanksgiving might be decidedly New World in its origins, it really should be the kind of occasion that brings all sorts together. I know that my wife once prepared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her English friends while she was living in London, and it was a big hit. No need for cultural barriers when gathered around the bounty of gravies-and-starchy-gravy-vehicles!

Left to right: a mutant from the fictional Eastern European country of Transia, a synthezoid of debatable personhood and nationality, an American heiress with Dutch roots, an first-generation American born of Irish immigrants, and Atlantean royalty. (Also two randoms who are totally not important enough to recognize on sight.)

As always, I am thankful for my family and friends, near and far. And I am thankful for comics, which are often nutty but also often sweet, like pecan pie.

Also I am thankful for pecan pie.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The world needs more Myrnas (The Thin Man)

The guy who runs the 1001 Movies Blog Club portal is Canadian, which of course means his Thanksgiving was over a month ago, but I for one find it particularly rich that tomorrow, America's national holiday of glorious gluttonous overindulgence, the film assignment before the group is entitled "The Thin Man".

Of course, The Thin Man isn't really a Thanksgiving movie, but it is for a good stretch a Christmas movie. (Thanksgiving and Christmas get conflated in all sorts of ways, about which I will probably post more at the end of the week.) And it is also a murder mystery, with the movie dividing itself almost perfectly in two: in the prologue a young couple announces their intention to be married "right after Christmas", soon we meet Nick Charles and his wife Nora as she returns from a shopping excursion and spills wrapped Christmas presents across a nightclub floor, then we attend a Christmas party thrown by the Charleses, followed by a Christmas Eve altercation between Nick and a lowlife named Morelli, and the subsequent police investigation intruding on Nick and Nora's idle Christmas morning. As Nick, the former detective, is fully drawn into the case of the killing of Julia Wolf, the movie pivots away from the yuletide trappings, and becomes more focused on the police, the suspects, and ultimately the solution to the mystery.

I enjoy a good mystery now and then but I'm not fanatical about the genre. I'm interested in how mysteries are constructed, and in general I find puzzles and riddles entertaining, which usually becomes the major draw for me when I'm reading or watching a mystery. I try to figure out the solution along with the protagonist, which is no doubt a holdover from the many Encyclopedia Brown books I devoured as a kid. But not all mysteries provide enough information to the audience for them to solve the crime; some have the protagonist crack the case and explain it to the audience in the end, and sometimes the mystery solves itself via a convenient confession or some other lucky break for the gumshoe.

Spoiler warning, I suppose, by way of a slight Wikipedia digression. You may look up either the movie version of The Thin Man or the entry for the Dashiel Hammett novel on which it's based, and Wikipedia will not spoil the solution to the central mystery. This is a story that came out about 80 years ago. It is older than the Wizard of Oz (It was all a dream!). I will be far less circumspect than Wikipedia, in part because of the old news nature of the information, but just as much because I don't think the solution to the mystery is either (a) terribly ingenious or (b) the point of the movie. But, be that as it may, proceed forewarned.

The lawyer did it. Nick gathers all of the suspects and other interested parties, including the police lieutenant handling the case, for a formal dinner party, and extemporizes about the crimes and how the prime suspect thus far was actually the first one killed and has been framed in absentia for all the others. All Nick is doing is speculating wildly about how the murders are connected and what the motives must be, until finally his relentless questioning of someone he believes is not the killer (but also whom he believes knows the killer's identity) causes the real killer, the first victim's lawyer, to panic and reveal himself in an ill-fated attempt to shoot his way out of the dinner party. In an upper-floor hotel room. Filled with police officers. Nick states repeatedly that the plot to kill Clyde Wynant, steal his fortune little by little while keeping up the ruse that Wynant was alive, and subsequently eliminate potential witnesses and position Wynant as the murderer, was very clever, but the lawyer's final, doomed escape plan does not paint him as a true criminal genius.

I know, at the least, that the resourceful detective tricking the guilty party into giving himself away is a venerable old trope of the mystery genre, and I will give The Thin Man credit for the fact that at one point Nora asks Nick how he can know all the things he is asserting, and he admits out the corner of his mouth that he doesn't really know any of it for certain, but it's the only version of events that makes sense. Really, it's the interplay between Nick and Nora that not only unifies both halves of the film, holiday merry-making on one side and mounting dead bodies and double-crosses on the other, but also makes The Thin Man so memorable and so beloved by many. If a mystery fan were to encounter The Thin Man looking for a classic whodunnit, I imagine they'd be somewhat underwhelmed. But if a fan of classic Golden Age Hollywood banter came looking for a hangout movie, one that makes the viewer wish they could step into the screen and enjoy cocktails and conversation with the main characters, The Thin Man would hit the mark. Its secret weapon is the easy charm of both William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora, and the way the two of them combine as something greater than the sum of their parts. Together they walk a fine line, engaged in a constant running battle of sharp-tongued wits something like a fencing match. Mr. and Mrs. Charles are clearly in love, not in a sickeningly sappy way but also not in an aggressively antagonistic way. It's simply a delight to be allowed into their world for a little while.

Plus, the film ends with Nick leaning suggestively into Nora's berth on a sleeper train, a pan up to their dog Asta covering his eyes with a paw, and then a cutaway to an exterior shot of the train racing away in the night to the strains of "California Here We Come", and that is just about the most magnificent Hays Code euphemism pile-up I can possibly imagine.

Monday, November 25, 2013


So the answer to the question was “sooner than expected”! My wife and I devoted much of the past weekend to night weaning the baby. The time had come, and it seemed like a fairly optimal moment. We had no real family plans for the entire weekend, barring my wife’s scheduled shift at the vet clinic on Saturday morning. So Friday night I sent her off to the basement at bedtime and I responded to the baby’s middle-of-the-night awakenings, comforting him with arm-cradling and rocking and singing (anything other than food, basically). So I got less sleep than usual, and spent much of the morning while my wife was at work moving slowly and making sure none of the three kids maimed themselves or each other. Saturday night we did the same thing, and last night we did it one more time. All three nights went about the same way, with a minor disturbance around 11 p.m. and then a semi-major to really-major freakout around 2:30 a.m., but the fact remains that we strung together three consecutive nights where the baby did not eat between 9 or 10 at night and 5 or 6 in the morning. Hopefully we can keep building on that.

I’m not fishing for sympathy, but stating a fact: I’m a teensy bit out of it today as a result of soloing through the weekend’s overnight baby ministrations. We had a two-hour all hands meeting at work this morning, where fortunately coffee was served; otherwise I might have drifted off during the overview of business functions I have no stake in whatsoever. The PowerPoint slide entitled Agenda was up as people were filing in to the conference room, and indicated the first half-hour of the all hands’ allotted running time was “social” which I assumed was a nice way of saying “enjoy your bagels and coffee”. I spent five minutes eating and drinking and the rest of the time staring down at the table, happily zoning out and conserving energy. But when the boss of all bosses brought the meeting to order, she said that she hoped we all had a chance to socialize and talk to people we don’t normally have the opportunity to exchange more than hallway greetings to.

Am I a bad person for being completely disinterested in this? I don’t socialize with people at work; I barely speak to them about anything non-work-related, and I never feel like more’s the pity. This is a perfectly acceptable, even desirable state of affairs as far as I’m concerned. It’s not that I think the people I work with are cretins (certain annoying individuals notwithstanding) unworthy of my superior time . And it’s not (entirely) due to my recent realization that I need to cut ties and move on to a new gig some time in the next few months. I just don’t conflate the socio-emotional and professional levels of my self-actualization pyramid.

Or maybe I’m just irritable from lack of sleep. Either way, no chit-chat for me. If that knocks me down a bit from being a model contractor, so it goes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (2) - Crazy cool

Growing up, my Little Bro and I often got the same, or very similar, presents from our parents at Christmas (a phenomenon I’ve discussed previously as it relates to Masters of the Universe) and in fact my Little Bro and I and our cousin (who was two years younger than me, a year older than Little Bro) were often dealt with in much the same way by our grandmother and aunts and uncles. One year (it must have been Christmas 1981) the three of us each received a book from our aunt and uncle (but really, mainly from our uncle, the younger brother of my father/my cousin’s mother - this guy’s influence will pop up again and again in the next couple posts, so let’s call him Shep), and those books as it happened were about the very same Marvel characters featured in the posters in my toy room. My cousin got a book about the Hulk, my Little Bro got the Fantastic Four, and I got Spider-Man.

Obviously, at some point over the years, our copies of these books got destroyed or lost as children’s things do. I recently looked them up online to refresh my memory about the details (and, not gonna lie, to see what they were going for on Amazon and eBay because I kinda want to have them all on my dork shelves again) and I was amused to see someone panning one of the books because it was “written in a very condescending way”. Of course it was; they were written for kids, distributed by an outfit literally called Children’s Press. Nowadays you need an affluent adult’s disposable income to keep up with comics at the specialty shops in all their deluxe collector-courting iterations, but back in 1981 comics were still something you could buy with spare change and they were aimed at kids, conceptually and promotionally. So these books, while not officially produced by Marvel, were certainly sanctioned by Marvel and part of an overall strategy to strengthen the loyalty of existing readers and possibly reel in new ones, but in either case “reader” here means “kid with milk money to burn”.

The deal with the books was this: they were a combination of primer text on the featured character and a selection of reprints from that character’s comic book adventures. It probably goes without saying that my Little Bro and cousin thought the books were cool, but skipped over the boring wordy pages, read the comics, and let them hit the floor on their way to do something else, whereas I read my Spider-Man book cover-to-cover, then moved on to their Fantastic Four and Hulk books and read them cover-to-cover as well. Each book started with the origin story for the character, so that was the first time I ever read Fantastic Four #1, Incredible Hulk #1, or Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spider-Man’s debut). And then each book would talk about the development of the character, their supporting cast, their rogues gallery, &c. Then another reprint of a random, representative issue. All three origin stories were originally published in the early 60’s, so the second story would be from the late 60’s or early 70’s to show how the grand overarching narrative had advanced (Peter Parker going to college, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman having a baby). A bit more text, and then a recent reprint that was at that point only a year or two old, followed by a few pages of speculation about the future of the characters.

Two big takeaways here: one, for someone with my particular proclivities, this was the most genius way imaginable to get my attention and open my eyes to what differentiated comic books from all the rest of superhero-saturated pop culture. It really didn’t matter in what order you watched installments of the animated Super-Friends or live-action Batman (two-part cliffhangers notwithstanding) because they were episodic by design, spinning the wheels of the status quo. But comic books (I was able to deduce from the Secret Story of Marvel’s World Famous Wall Crawler) weren’t like that at all. The stories all had a beginning, which was before my time but now at least I had copies to which to refer. And they might not have endings per se, but they did have change and developments which could be followed, actions with consequences, and a far-reaching plot that made the most sense if you consumed it in order. This was a kind of brainspace-consuming storytelling that I had been hungering for.

(I would of course learn, many years later, that comic books spun their wheels and maintained the status quo just as much as tv shows, if not moreso, and for all the same reasons. But in the early years of Marvel Comics they did embrace shaking up the status quo from time to time as a more sophisticated storytelling device, and by the ‘80’s they had settled into maintenance mode BUT they had gotten really, really good at creating the appearance of change and ever-advancing stories, however false. So I was seduced by the illusion. I was, again, just a kid.)

The other important factor is that Spider-Man was probably the ideal character to gain a deeper appreciation of. He was simultaneously the flagship character of Marvel Comics and their quirkiest creation, as the book I devoured over Christmas was happy to inform me. He was (at the outset) a teenager in a storytelling milieu dominated by adult heroes with kid sidekicks. He modeled himself after an animal that people instinctively are creeped out by, yet he’s the good guy. He was a skinny nerd beset by insurmountable personal problems, who actually found fighting for his life against mad scientists with living robotic arms to be a pleasant diversion from his worries and troubles. Spider-Man had problems (feared by Aunt May, mistrusted by the police, hated by J. Jonah Jameson, sometimes beaten up by the super-villains he opposed) and Peter Parker also had problems (money, girls, homework, bullies) all of which, a la Storytelling 101, made him an incredibly sympathetic character.

And yet ... to a seven-year-old nerd, it seemed like Peter Parker had pretty good life. He had super-powers, but that was only the beginning. He had outgrown the glasses and dorky sweater vests, gone off to college, dated some girls, and in practically every aspect of life really matured and thrived. And that was just the comics’ version. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends hit the airwaves right around the same time I was given my text primer on Spider-Man, and although I was still very young I somehow recognized that the lifestyle of Peter Parker, Angelica Jones and Bobby Drake on that show was the idealized version of young adulthood that I was already looking forward to. Two good-looking dudes and a smoking hot (pun intended) chick, who all hang out together exchanging witty banter, lounging in an awesome loft that could transform into a secret headquarters whenever they needed to race into action to save the city; what kid in his right mind wouldn’t want to grow up to be that version of Spider-Man? The important thing was not that Peter Parker had started out as a dweeby wallflower I could identify with, but that he had grown up into a cool dude I could aspire to be.

As I said, Spider-Man was Marvel’s flagship character, so becoming a Spider-Man fan and becoming a Marvel fan went more or less hand-in-hand. I didn’t yet know anything about the inherent differences in philosophy and approach that Marvel and DC Comics represented, I just broke hard for one and never looked back. And my devotion would get significantly stronger as time went by, because basically that was the way the game was rigged. But more on that later.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Some Kind of Saturday Grab Bag Monster

I spent a good chunk of time at work this week generating an inordinate amount of paperwork. (Yes, this means I basically gave in on this request.) I consoled myself by noting that there was a side-benefit to all of it. Assuming that I resume my active job search after the holidays, and assuming that I do manage to find a better gig and must depart this particular position, and further assuming that I remain magnanimous enough to tie up loose ends as best I can and provide as much guidance to my successor as possible, all of this documentation will actually be a pretty good way for someone to get up to speed on the projects I've handled.

Of course what that should really say above is "my successor, if any". Because there's never been any plan in place at all (that I'm aware of, at least) as to what would happen if I suddenly disappeared. That's an incredibly bad sign for those who will ultimately have to muddle on without me, but arguably yet another strong sign that this is not a place I want to hang about all that much longer.


I was talking yesterday about absence of Thanksgiving to-dos at my previous job; the flip side of that, arguably, could be the presence of Thanksgiving at the little guy's school, which was pre-celebrated this past Thursday. Not this coming Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, but a full week before Thanksgiving. I'm not sure if this was so that the children wouldn't overdose on tryptophan or just because Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday so if school is closed on Thanksgiving it's best to pick a different Thursday. (If it's the latter, that is the kind of overthought scheduling I can certainly get behind.)

Anyway, all it really was was the school cafeteria offering sliced turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy for lunch on Thursday. The little guy's been in school for almost three months now but he's always brought a full lunchbox. He was the one who came to me and my wife to ask if he could buy the "special lunch" for school Thanksgiving, and we said sure. (And then almost packed him a lunch on Thursday morning anyway, until remembering at the last minute.) The little guy got a kick out of it and said he wants to order school lunch again, "maybe in December some time." Very moderate of him. We'll see if it impresses him as much when they go back to the old stand-bys, although admittedly it's been literally decades since I've sampled school cafeteria fare, so who knows.

Also my wife has made some ominous pronouncements that the little guy had better like her Thanksgiving dinner as much as the cafeteria lunch, if not moreso. She has of course made these to me, not to him. So after next week I will report on how that all goes down!


I am still dedicated to watching every broadcast episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so even if during a given week I don’t dedicate an entire Wednesday Bonus post to the show, you can rest reasonably assured that probably only means I thought the latest episode was fine, if lacking anything spectacular enough to yank 1500 words of reaction out of me. Still, there is a little tidbit I’ve been dying to work in reference to, and I haven’t managed it yet, so into the grab bag it goes:

Maurissa Tancharoen is one of the showrunners for S.H.I.E.L.D.; she is also Joss Whedon’s sister-in-law, married to his brother Jed (who is also involved with the show). She has a pretty interesting resume but I will always know her first and best as being part of the cast, as well as one of the writers, for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I love that silly piece of fluff so much that I actually bought it on DVD, which provided me with not just the complete web series but also some worthwhile bonus features including “Commentary: The Musical!” Maurissa gets a song all to herself in “Commentary”, a plaintive number entitled “Nobody's Asian in the Movies” which lyrically laments the dearth of non-stereotypical Asian characters portrayed by Asian actors across all forms of entertainment. (Maurissa is Thai, fwiw)

It’s a funnier song than that description probably makes it sound, and it runs through my head every single time Melinda May is on-screen during an episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. Melinda is a cipher character so far, the all-business total badass chick who also happens to be portrayed by Ming-Na Wen, who is Asian. So immediately, at the outset of the season, I thought, “a ha, that must be Maurissa’s pet character in this project.” Because of course every writer has pet characters. Then as the season progressed and May remained a blank, black-leather badass, I found myself thinking “That’s it? That’s what Maurissa chose to do with her Asian character in a high-profile mainstream action show, make her non-stereotypical by making her one-dimensional? Although you could say that a character being inscrutable is kind of stereotypically Asian. Oh wait, now May is doing tai chi …”

I’ve said it before, there have to be a lot of allowances made for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be a show controlled by unimaginative corporate monoliths where maybe once in a while a glimmer of subversive personality might sneak through. I’m holding out hope that this is the case with a lot of the elements on the show, but especially with Melinda May. I refuse to believe that Maurissa doesn’t have some kind of long-term plan for the character, slow-rolling it though she may be. But only time (and/or DVD box sets with deleted scenes and other bonus features) may tell.


This week I got the bright idea of trying to brainstorm a music mix to incorporate into the kids’ nightly bath/bedtime routine. As I mentioned on Thursday, it can be a challenge transitioning into that part of the evening every day, particularly on days when my wife is working and I’m running the show solo. I figured cranking up some tunes at 6:30 could serve multiple purposes:

- As a cue for the kids to respond to. When the music starts, it’s a clear line of demarcation between “not bathtime” and “bathtime”.
- As an incentive, something to make the whole ritual a little more entertaining, ideally for the kids, but if nothing else, then for me.
- As a timing signal for me. If I know approximately how long each song is, then I know based on where we are in the playlist whether it’s time to pull the plug in the bathtub, or stop dickering over which pajamas the kids are going to wear, and so on. (Without having to look at a clock, since there isn’t one in the bathroom.)

Along the lines of that last point, I am the kind of obsessive person who would in fact memorize the order of a playlist and know its song lengths within a few seconds, but to simplify things I realized I could pick songs according to theme, and have a few songs that evoke water which last as long as the little girl’s bath is supposed to last, and then songs that evoke getting ready for or going to bed. So then it’s not “this is the fifth song, time to towel off” but rather “this is the towel-off song”.

By now obviously I’m absurdly overthinking this, and I’m trying to decide how I would fill out such a playlist. Do I go with outright kiddie songs, like Ernie singing “Rubber Duckie”, or innocuous songs ostensibly for adults, like Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash”? And how many grown-up songs are there about going to bed that aren’t implicitly (or explicitly) about the other thing we do in bed besides sleep?

Well, there’s always Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”, I suppose. Which, ha ha, yes, tucking my kids in for the night to the sounds of last century’s preeminent thrash metal sellouts sure seems like stellar parenting. But when the little guy was very little, no more than three (if that), guess what one of the very first songs he really responded to on the radio was? So it doesn’t seem so bizarre to me to think of the two going together, at that. If this ever goes any farther than a thought experiment, I’ll let everyone know.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Win some, lose some

I don't know right now how much blogging I'm going to get done next week. I'm working Monday through Wednesday, so I should at least have those days covered. And who knows, since I'll be in my cubicle but there will be fewer and fewer of my co-workers surrounding me as the days tick by, maybe I'll be able to work ahead and get some posts queued up in advance. But maybe not, and I'm certainly not about to guarantee it. So while I have a chance, on this pre-Turkey Day Random Anecdote Friday, I wanted to share some goofy stories about overindulgence in food. In particular, eating contests.

Well, except "contests" may not be exactly the right word. "Challenges" might be better. Perhaps I'll just go ahead and let the recountings speak for themselves.

I've been working the same job ever since I started this blog, but I believe I've mentioned at least once or twice that the gig before this one was starkly different. I work for a gigantic, well-established government contracting firm now, and handle projects for Department of Defense agencies. I'm not as young as I used to be, and yet I'm very much one of the younger people in the office no matter how you break it down. My previous gig was working for a tech start-up company that brought together large corporations and philanthropic organizations online. I started there in my late 20's and I was one of the older people there. The office atmosphere, as you can imagine, was slightly different.

I don't recall that start-up office ever doing anything for Thanksgiving, which probably comes down to numerous reasons. We did have an annual Christmas party, and wearing costumes to work on Halloween was, if not encouraged, at least indulged, so we didn't really need another festivity in between those. Plus, there was a somewhat strange, decidedly juvenile kind of boys-vs-girls inclination in the office. At one point all of the programmers who developed new releases of our online portal were young dudes, and all of the client managers who interfaced with the companies using our portal were young ladies, and if anything like a Thanksgiving potluck were going to be organized for the office, the girls assumed (rightly) they would end up doing most of the work, which is admittedly unfair in terms of division of labor between genders AND between departments. So I don't have any old stories from the start-up trenches about Thanksgiving face-stuffing specifically.

But as a bunch of guys in their 20's with hearty appetites and regular paychecks, the tech department went out for lunch a lot. One of our most frequent destinations was Chipotle, back when it was kind of new and novel and not incidentally very cheap. I still love Chipotle even as their prices have steadily crept up, but back in the early 00's there were really very few places where you could eat so much for so little cash. There are certainly reasonable people who would consider half a Chipotle burrito to be a good-sized dinner portion, yet there we were, five or six guys having a whole burrito each for lunch once or twice a week. I forget who first came up with the idea, in just sort of a wondering out loud kind of way, if any of us could eat two whole burritos in one lunch sitting. Some of us thought we could, and others of us were skeptical that anyone could. One of my co-workers was a borderline compulsive gambler, and he came up with a proposal: for anyone who wanted to take him up on it, he would buy them two burritos, and if the person could successfully eat them both down to the last bean, kernel of corn or grain of rice, then he would absorb the cost. If the person failed to finish both, they would have to pay him back the money for both. So really he gained nothing either way, and could only lose money on the deal or break even. But he rationalized that it would be worth the money for entertainment value alone.

Three of us (yes, myself included) took him up on it. Two of us were successful; ironically, our very tall and very stout IT support guy was the one who failed to make much more than a dent in his second burrito. I got a free lunch out of it, and was pretty much in a food coma daze for the remainder of the working day. This was back when I was carpooling with my buddy Clutch, and I may have asked him to drive home that night. It's a bit of a blur.

The abject shame of our IT guy pushed him at a later date to suggest a hot dog eating contest, a la the Nathan's Fourth of July spectacle (of which we were all fans), as his own shot at redemption. There weren't any super-cheap hot dog vendors within range of our office building, so we decided to put that contest together in the office. Somehow we convinced management that it would be fun for the whole staff to watch. (We did not specify whether or not my compulsive gambler colleague would be taking sidebets on over/unders.) Nobody wanted to go completely crazy with unlimited hot dogs, so we modified the ground rules slightly. Again the re were three contestants, and there were 36 hot dogs and buns purchased and prepared in the kitchenette, 12 per competitor. We (yes, again, me included) would have 15 minutes to eat as many as we could. There was genuine curiosity as to who would eat them all, if any of us, and if more than one of us shoved down all 12, who would do it fastest. The IT guy claimed this was undoubtedly going to be his moment to shine, something about burritos being too hard to eat. My fellow co-worker who had triumphed alongside me in the burrito challenge went along as a good sport but managed expectations by saying he hated hot dogs. And then it was on.

12 hot dogs doesn't sound like very many compared to the 40 or 50 or 60-something the winners at Coney Island usually shovel into their gullets. But none of the three of us were able to get a dozen down. I had honestly believed I had a good shot (I freaking love hot dogs) but If I recall correctly I hit the wall somewhere around the ninth or tenth. I did manage to eat more than either of my two colleagues, so technically I won, but it was a bit of a letdown and once again I was given plenty of cause over the course of the ensuing afternoon to question whether victory was worth the price.

That was all about ten years ago, which kind of blows my mind, but feels right on a gut level, pun absolutely intended. These days I cannot put it away like I used to, and I pay for it far more severely if I even come close. People say youth is wasted on the young, but I did plenty of crazy-stupid-but-fun things while I was able-bodied enough to get away with it, and I don't consider that a waste.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Time's (almost) up

My wife and I are on the brink of night-weaning the baby, which is a sizable chunk of the overall sleep-training of the baby. First you take a baby who expects to be fed multiple times throughout the night and teach him that it’s no longer going to happen. The baby gets used to that, but still wakes up intermittently and expects to be comforted back to sleep. So then you teach him to get by on less and less external comforting, and he learns to comfort himself. And you end up with a baby who sleeps through the night. You might think that weaning, as an overall component of nursing, would fall under my wife’s domain, but actually it’s mine; my wife makes herself scarce, temporarily relocating to sleep on another floor of the house, and that way she’s not even tempted to give in and feed the baby when he comes half-awake at 1 a.m. and doesn’t know what else to do with himself. I get to accompany him through that, which still doesn’t come close to making up for the months and months of sleep-deprived nights my wife has endured, so I’m certainly not complaining.

Sleepy yet?
How bout NOW?

Much like with the other two kids, we didn’t really have a set plan for when the baby would sleep through the night. Every time, we’ve been as patient and understanding as human nature allows, willing to ride things out for as long as we could, hoping against hope that maybe the baby would surprise us by developing a reliable sleep schedule in his/her/his own holistic way. No such luck. There may have been a sliver of possibility that it might have happened that way with our youngest, but he has two older siblings who wear us out as well, in completely different ways of course but the end results are cumulative. My wife recently came down with some kind of bug which fortunately never fully manifested as anything too debilitating, but nevertheless made her acutely aware of how sleep deprived and generally run down she is, and has been for a while. That does not bode well for November, with the whole long plague-prone winter ahead of us. (Yes, we’ve all had our flu shots at this point, but still.) So, time to pull the trigger, and time to mandate a little more structure in the youngest one’s biorhythms. Not tonight, but pretty soon.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A trick of the light (La Grande Illusion)

Released over 75 years ago, and already covered by the 1001 Movies Blog Club back in early October, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion comes up for review today, better late than never, I suppose. I may just have to take that theme and run with it …

Filtering the experience of watching this movie through all my other personal pop culture experiences (as I am wont to do), I could make a fairly strong case for this being a watershed moment in my own attempts at cinematic self-improvement. I’ve talked before about the vast interlinking of entertainment and how getting to know the bedrock canon is, if nothing else, helpful in allowing you to process and understand when newer works reference older ones. But of course, I’m late to the game, both in terms of when I was born and in terms of how long it took me to move beyond paying attention exclusively to the shiny and/or new. And as a result I do a lot of things backwards. Still, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in spotting the connections no matter which direction you’re going, and at this point I’ve (finally!) gotten enough classic film history under my belt to appreciate how influential La Grande Illusion is. It’s not the first Renoir film I’ve seen, since I watched La Règle du jeu this summer, and it’s not my first film featuring Erich von Stroheim, because that was Sunset Boulevard. Max von Mayerling is very different from Major von Rauffenstein, in both the sense that they are separate characters in separate fictional stories and the circumstances that define them in each, but they have a lot in common, and if you look at it just right you can see the one evolving (or perhaps devolving) from the other, which is fundamentally marvelous (as if I needed another reason to lavish praise on Sunset Boulevard).

It’s generally acknowledged as a given that the techniques for digging a tunnel out of a POW camp in The Great Escape were lifted from La Grande Illusion, and that the scene in Casablanca (which the Blog Club hasn’t covered yet, but I’ve seen repeatedly, oh just you wait) where Laszlo leads a stirring, spontaneous rendition of La Marseilles much to the Germans’ consternation is an homage to a similar scene in Renoir’s film. And I get all of that! (I also get that the third act of La Grande Illusion, with the French soldier Maréchal falling in love with the German widow Elsa, is ur-text for pretty much every modern romance-with-wartime-backdrop, ever.) I don’t know that I’d go so far as to classify my filmic knowledge as master-level just yet, but I do feel like I’ve graduated from beginner to somewhere in the intermediate-to-advanced range, where if you throw a dart at a big old board of Famous Movie Stuff, the odds are better than 50/50 I’ll have firsthand knowledge of whatever it hits.

As to the work of art itself, it is indeed a keeper. Its strengths lie more in its story and its performances, and the larger ideas enmeshed in both, than in any particularly stylized techniques of film-making. There are a few stand-out moments in that last category, of course; I particularly liked the long take in which one of the POWs rehearsing for a show emerges dressed as a woman, and all the ambient background noise drops away to silence and the camera slowly pans around to show how the attention of every soldier is on the cross-dresser, to create a really powerful moment out of the contrast. But, again, all of that is in service to major themes like the examination of what war does to young men, for example depriving them of female companionship of any kind for so long that a smooth-faced junior officer in drag is enough to stun them into gape-mouthed gargoyles.

For most of the running time of La Grande Illusion, there’s no clear indication as to what, exactly, this big, definitive eponymous mirage is supposed to be. Eventually, it’s referenced directly in the dialogue as the erroneous belief that any war could be the war to end all wars, or really that any war changes anything. But up to that point, there are numerous candidates for grandest illusion; in point of fact, right before the dialogue in question the same two French characters are trying to make it from Germany to Switzerland and one wonders how they can tell where the border is, while the other points out that dividing lines between countries only exist on paper maps, another illusion. Earlier, the film might have been speaking about illusory separation between the aristocracy and the working class, or about the veneer of civility between officers of enemy armies, or about the blurry distinction between the prisoners in a camp and the soldiers who have been assigned to guard them, neither of whom are truly free to do as they please, or about how a battle can be considered a victory for any cause when it claims so many lives on both sides. It all but begs the question if anything in life is anything but self-deluding lies we tell ourselves to feel better.

I don’t really think that Renoir believed that everything in life is a sham. La Grande Illusion is a deeply humanist film which manages to skirt the paradoxical issues (which I love to harp on, I know, I know) of how to make an anti-war film by essentially avoiding depiction of the battlefields altogether. No one is ever shown leading a charge or defending a position, as all the action takes place amongst those who have been sidelined or left behind. The most direct acknowledgment of military action comes in the form of news arriving in the prison camp that the French have retaken Fort Douaumont, followed a scene or so later by newer news that the Germans have taken the position back again. It’s a pointed observation, made at an ironic narrative remove, on the futility of hostilities. But on the other hand, the human contacts and connections demonstrated throughout the film in every setting are never judged as futile. Nor are they illusions; they may be the only truly real things in this world.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pop blues

Over this past weekend I went out to see a band play at a local(ish) brewpub. A few of my buddies are in the band, and a few more members of that circle of acquaintances were going to be in the audience, so it was very much a win-win opportunity to socialize with people I don't see often enough, support my performing friends, and sample some new beer. The beer, as it happened, was underwhelming; so it goes, not every glass can be my new favorite. The time spent with my friends was quality, and unified by some weirdly melancholy running threads.

To provide a modicum of context, this circle of friends consists almost entirely of the gang I used to play RPGs with on Wednesday nights on the regular. In other words, they are all geeks, and even more specifically, they are geeks a lot like me. We are all around the same age, and almost all of us are married, and almost all of us have kids, stable jobs, mortgages, &c. We consume a ton of pop culture, individually and collectively, and then we talk about it a lot as well, because pop culture is our common point of reference, and we really don’t have a lot of other high excitement to focus on. I mean, sure, we ask each other about respective children and jobs and other smalltalk stuff, but eventually we slide down the gravity well into the mass of movies and comics and whatnot that we’re all into.

Lately, though, I find myself pondering what exactly the point of it all is (if indeed there is a point at all). Presumably being entertained is preferable to being bored, and also easier than working at something like self-improvement or changing the world. We fill the time, as pleasantly as we can. And, more often than not in the case of my little coterie, we overfill it, really packing in as much as possible and sometimes more.

One of the mutual friends in the audience at the show was the wife of the bass player (this is the couple I lived with back at the beginning of the great Return to Virginia I mentioned yesterday). She and I follow each other’s accounts on GoodReads, and I took the opportunity of seeing her in person to razz her about her recent review posts. She has been making it known that:

- She challenged herself to read 75 books in 2013
- She has some ground to make up in these last couple months to hit her goal
- She normally reads non-fiction (mostly history of European royalty) but knows she can read fiction faster
- She has decided to let other people, including her nine-year-old daughter, pick books for her to read from the library, which is a half-step up from closing her eyes, spinning around, and grabbing a book at random
- Quite a lot of the books she’s been reading and reviewing lately are not her cup of tea for sure, and arguably not good at all on an empirical level, but see bullets above as to how she has ended up reading them

I asked her what the point was of reading book after book that she wasn’t getting much out of, only to hit some arbitrary tally by December 31st. Sadly, she did not have a compelling (read: any) answer for me. It was just something she had decided to do and she was stubbornly going to do it. I don’t mean that her lack of insight on the matter was sad in the sense that now I, lamentably, have no choice but to regard her as a frigging moron. On the contrary, I choose not to see myself as a frigging moron, and I can certainly relate to totally irrational completist tendencies like hers, so transitively I’m cool with it. But I was hoping she could maybe help me understand myself better, and alas, no.

During the second set the band, which tends to play mainly covers of bluesy rock songs, did a slightly laidback acoustic take on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” which as you can imagine elicited a great deal of enthusiastic singing along from the aging Gen Xer’s who constituted the bulk of the crowd. Particularly thunderous were the “Whooaa-OOHHHH!”s preceding each chorus of the song’s title. Apparently this got the attention of the bass player’s daughter, who must have been wondering how seemingly every single person in the brewpub knew this obscure song. And after the show, one of our other mutual friends, who had been sitting with the bass player’s wife and daughter, pointedly asked the bass player how it was that his daughter was almost a decade on this planet and yet was completely unfamiliar with “Livin’ on a Prayer”. The bass player’s answer was simple, honest and telling: “I don’t like Bon Jovi.”

I have been friends with the bassist for longer than almost anyone else in that circle, and I will be the first to tell you that he is a bit of a music snob. Again, I can be a bit of snob about various pop culture scenes as well. But I embrace the idea of crowd pleasers, and in general I tend to find my buttons pushed by them just the same as anyone else. Every once in a while I have a sincerely contrary reaction to something the rest of the world loves, but I don’t see it as an either/or, where I can love Bon Jovi or I can love … obviously this is where I name some eclectic band that is not widely loved but is cool to love, but of course the reason why I was building towards dismissing the “but not both” formulation is at least partly because everything is subject to accusations of not actually being cool, selling out, and on and on. So, yeah, almost everything is crap but then again almost everything has at least some merit to it. And nothing should dictate a person’s favorites other than what speaks directly to them, but if the only thing you have any passing familiarity with is the insular bubble of your own favorites, I think you might be missing out. And then throw in kids on top of that, and questions of what responsibility we have to expose them to wide and varied influences and schools of thought, and it gets pretty heavy.

I know I sound like a broken record (and please pardon that semi-intentional pun) but obviously this only matters in any sense if you have no other real pressing problems in your life, but lucky me, I don’t, so I fixate on this. It’s a little intimidating to think of myself as a tastemaker and curator for my own children, and to try to walk the line between showing them around the canon of “what everybody likes” and then highlighting, without pushing, “what Dad likes”. So it’s a little jarring to see a friend, whom I genuinely like, just kind of shrug off the whole question of pop cultural literacy and acknowledge that anything before his daughter’s time (which is essentially everything ever) that he personally doesn’t care for, she’s on her own to track down somewhere, or somehow ex nihilo make herself aware of.

After the set, yet another of my friends in the band was talking to two folks in the audience whom I had never met. I was standing nearby, talking to my buddy Clutch, and at one point my friend got my attention by saying something along the lines of “Oh, he’s pretty good at coming up with names of movies.” They proceeded to describe a film in halting, comically minimal terms (you know, it’s the one, about the brothers, and they’re Irish, and they’re assassins …?) and eventually I made the leap to guess that they were talking about Boondock Saints, which was greeted with a raucous round of slapping of foreheads and self-berating agreement that that was in fact it.

I am nothing if not prideful and I was not only patting myself on the back for supplying the title that was eluding them all, and not only for being able to do so despite never having seen the flick in question myself and knowing it only by reputation, but for apparently having elevated myself in my friends’ estimation where I am the go-to guy for things like that. In my self-image, I am not a cinephile, am in fact far short of whatever that may mean, but I do watch a lot of movies, and I read a lot of reviews and news bits for movies I’m not necessarily making any effort to see, but want to at least familiarize myself with. Of course, never a moment of pride without agonizing hours of second-guessing: I am very into movies, and have even been making efforts of late (e.g. the 1001 Movies Blog Club) to broaden my appreciation and my historic fundamentals, and … for what? What’s the point, what does it all mean? That I will have a rep amongst my buddies for settling bar bets when they can’t even properly articulate enough specific search terms to use Google? It’s been a few years since Patton Oswalt’s thinkpiece on weak otaku, but I was really feeling it the other night. So I’ve seen more movies than most of my friends, and am passably conversant in another order of magnitude more, with a ton of trivia rattling around in my head. Big deal.

Maybe this is just another reminder of how I don’t really party (do the kids today still use “party” as a verb?) like I used to. Two beers and I get overly maudlin and soporific. Absence of other problems, blah blah blah, but regret is a genuine difficulty of the human condition and one that’s difficult to repair and thus better off avoided. What I struggle with now is mindfulness, staying aware of what I’m doing today and what it’s going to signify down the road when I can’t go back and change it. What I devote segments of my multi-tasked time to, what I can offer to my friends, what I’m bestowing on my children, I want to get those things right. Not in the sense that there’s only one right answer, because I don’t believe that for a moment, but in the sense of not getting it hopelessly wrong, at least.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pause and reflect

So apparently interviews do not always mean what I have come to understand that they mean from my own personal experience.

Let me back up a bit. Way, way, way back when I entered the full-time salaried working world, it was a very smooth transition. I had been temping in a fairly small office which had one director, two middle managers and an office manager and between the four of them they decided it would be a good idea to hire me away from the temp agency and make me a regular employee. I accepted the offer and worked there a couple years.

Then when I felt it was time to move on I started looking in the classifieds and saw a job listing at a company where I knew a college friend of mine happened to work (though not in the department that was hiring). He put in a good word for me with the person in charge of filling the position, and I submitted my resume, and then I went in for an interview and was offered the job. It was a fairly menial entry-level administrative assistant job - with all due respect to people whose calling is in the admin field and would bristle at me calling it “menial”. Perhaps I can offset the underlying arrogance of that descriptor by pointing out that I was barely qualified for the position with my starry-eyed B.A. in English and a couple of years of this-side-of-unemployment admin experience under my belt. At any rate, the point is that almost anyone could do the job, and I qualified as “almost anyone” plus I had a personal in-house recommendation working in my favor, so I believed that being called in for an interview meant I was very close to being hired, so long as I made a good impression in person. Which, presumably, I did.

I managed to work my way into different job titles (both sideways and upwards) at that second job, and who knows how long I might have stayed there if the company hadn’t basically driven itself into the ground, putting all of its eggs in the basket of one project which was cancelled when the tech bubble burst just after Y2K. Instead of continuing to climb the ranks I was laid off (along with everyone else) and spent several months idly unemployed while the dust settled from the economic implosion.

Then I got myself a job teaching software classes which was frighteningly equivalent to working in fast food, in terms of pay, hours, mental exertion and respect I was accorded. I lasted there about a year. Despite what an utterly crap job it was, they didn’t so much interview people as audition them, to see if they could actually teach to and engage a room full of adult students (or, I guess, if they got stage fright, had a speech impediment, or some other disqualifier).

I ran into another college friend of mine at a party, after I had been teaching about a year, and he and I got to talking about work and he nonchalantly steered the conversation toward more or less offering me a job, since he needed to hire a programmer and knew I had (eventually) worked in that capacity at the job I was laid off from. I told him I would send him my resume, and he told me he would look it over and then maybe we could schedule an interview, but I definitely had the impression that the job was mine for the taking. So much so that I quit my teaching job and made arrangements to move (I had been living with my mom in NJ while I was teaching, but I was visiting friends in VA when I went to the party where the job-oriented conversation happened; the same friends I was crashing with for that visit were the ones I ended up renting a bedroom from for the better part of a year) . And sure enough, I set up an interview with my friend, met with him and a few of his colleagues, and was offered the job on the spot by the end of the interview. The point of the interview again seemed to be to give me enough rope to hang myself with and all I had to do was make sure I avoided low-hanging branches. My friend’s colleagues were also given their one and only chance to voice any concerns or objections, so that there could be no accusations later on that my friend just gave the job to someone he knew for unprofessional, nepotistic reasons. (Does it still count as nepotism if it’s the old boy system of fraternity brothers? I’m assuming it does.)

So I worked there for five years and then yet another college friend of mine reached out to me because her sister was trying to fill a vacancy on her government contract and I had the requisite skillset. I sent the sister my resume and she asked if we could get together and talk, and that interview consisted mainly of her trying to sell me on the job, describing the duties and not so much trying to determine if I was qualified to execute them but asking if I’d be interested in doing so. The potential new gig was a significant bump up in pay so I was in fact interested. I got a formal offer letter via e-mail not long after that, and I made the move, to the job that is (give or take some contract-jumping) the job I have today.

In other words, whenever I’ve been on the hunt for a new job, and sometime when I haven’t even been hunting at all, I’ve managed to find prospective employers where I knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, and that carried me pretty far. I’ve produced resumes on demand and sat across a table from someone answering hypotheticals intended to illuminate my professional temperament, but in general I’ve done so when there is a case of great need to plug a warm body into an org chart and I’ve managed to position myself as a particularly compelling drone with a pulse. All of which is a (typically) wordy preamble for acknowledging that, in recent weeks when I’ve been talking about having irons in the fire and potentially gearing up to make some career-altering changes, there has been nothing like a done deal in place, not even remotely. And yet, I’ve been at the same point in the current process where, in Processes of Job Searches Past, it was all down to formalities. I have a friend now who works somewhere I want to work. My friend set up an informal lunch with one of the higher-ups at the company and himself, where I explained who I was and what I was looking for and the higher-up advised me to submit my resume because there was a good chance I would be a good fit for their current needs. Said needs are many, varied and urgent, as the company has recently gone through some big changes at the top and the effects are shaking their way down rapidly. I did in fact submit my resume. My friend also hand-delivered my resume to one of his colleagues who might very well be looking for someone like me. It took a couple weeks of e-mail tag, but I finally set up a time for a phone interview and spoke for about half an hour with this person … at the end of which she informed me that she was sorry she didn’t have any positions open right now.

But, she was quick to add, she believed another colleague of hers did have more positions which aligned with my current goals, and she promised to pass my resume along. Once she did that, she sent me the contact info for this new potential hirer, and I pinged her once, heard nothing back, waited a respectable interval, pinged her again … and got a response saying that she didn’t have any positions open right now, but might after the holidays.

At least I was spared the nervous anticipation of a phone interview the second time.

Looping back to the idea with which I led off this post (if you can remember back that far), my experience has always been that once you get to the point where busy people are arranging their schedule to block out a segment of the day to talk to you, they are gearing up to hire you. If they didn’t like what they saw in your resume, they simply would toss it. If they liked what they saw, and were inclined to bring you onboard, the interview would be a chance to ascertain your intangibles, make sure you wouldn’t be an annoying nightmare to work with on a personal level, &c. In theory, it might also be a case of having multiple qualified applicants for a position, and using the interviews to decide among them, but honestly I don’t think that has ever been a situation I’ve found myself in.

But I’ve also never found myself in the position of going through interviews for openings which are not, in fact, open. Nor have I had a friend tell me “My company is ramping up new projects and staffing up like crazy, you should get in on that” only to have the actual people in charge of hiring indicate a very different version of the future outlook. Until now.

So, not the first time, I may have been jumping the gun a bit. The job I was angling for is so attractive on various levels that I am perfectly willing to wait and see if they do have more openings after the holidays. At the very least, it’s easy to adopt that stance because my current gig doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and it’s not as though very many companies do a lot of hiring during the holidays anyway. Thus this will probably be the last job search post on the ol’ blog for the next couple of months. I will put my head down and hang in there at my current gig, despite now being acutely forefront-of-consciousness aware of the myriad shortcomings thereof. I will attend the office Christmas parties, and enjoy my weeklong paid vacation between Christmas and New Years. And then come January either the sparkly new job I had been eying will become less mirage-like and more attainable, or else I will circulate my resume far and wide in search of something else. For now, though, I’ll have to give Mondays back over to griping about my irksome cubicle-mates and the like.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (1) - Where It All Began

I can’t remember not being able to read. I could (maybe should) couch that within an admission about how I can’t remember plenty of things about my life before I was seven years old or so, as my Little Bro is forever reminding me by bringing up his own vivid childhood recollections which sound familiar to me (even though I was ostensibly there, too) in a blurry way at best. But I did teach myself to read at a fairly early age. There were books everywhere in my house growing up. My mom, for a very brief while, was an elementary school teacher, and she brought home primers full of exactly the sort of simple, illustrated stories that teach everything from decoding to comprehension to poetry appreciation. My dad was a voracious reader (he commuted on the train and consumed many a genre paperback on those rides, oh how the cycles repeat themselves) and an English major who had kept lots of the texts he acquired on his way to that degree. So the bait was there, and I took it, and it became something of an all-consuming compulsion that persists to this day.

Clearly at some point somebody bought me my first comic book, but I don’t associate it with any particular event or anything, so I can’t pin it down to any year or grade of school or whathaveyou. Nor do I remember exactly which comic book it was. At the time, it was simply yet another piece of reading material amongst all the other books and magazines in our house, yet another plaything amongst the Star Wars action figures and Lego bricks and Tonka trucks, and maybe most tellingly of all, yet another piece of super-hero ephemera amongst the rest of the pop-culture landscape. Assuming for the sake of argument that I was five years old when the very first comic book I could call my own wound up in my hands, that would have been some time in late 1979 or early 1980 (and the odds of it being any more than a year on either side of that window is practically nil). The Batman tv series starring Adam West was a relic of the swinging 60’s by then, but still a mainstay of my afternoon viewings of syndicated re-runs, along with the Hanna-Barbera Fantastic Four cartoons from 1967 and Super-Friends cartoons from 1973, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series from 1975, and occasionally the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series from 1977. (Not to mention the 1972 Battle of the Planets cartoons which had been westernized in ‘78 - not Big Two American comic book properties, but undeniably superheroes and, it goes without saying, the origins of my obsession with the Five Man Band.) Plus the Incredible Hulk series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno was airing in primetime, and Superman the Motion Picture had come out a year or so before (though I didn’t see it in the theater; I probably caught it on HBO by ‘80 or ‘81, though).

I’d love to be able to tell the archetypal story about how my very first comic book completely blew my mind like a bolt from the blue, opening up previously undreamt of worlds of imagination-fueled possibilities, but it just didn’t happen like that. As the run-on list above demonstrates, superheroes were so much a part of my awareness that I probably watched Underdog cartoons over breakfast at my grandma’s house and understood he was a pastiche of Superman before I ever laid eyes on an actual Superman comic book (or knew the word “pastiche” for that matter). When comic books entered the picture, they were just another medium for the stories, one among many. It would take slow and steady exposure over years and years for me to get into the rhythms of 1980’s comic book storytelling, which is ostensibly far more responsible for winning me over as a fan than the ideas embodied by the characters themselves readily available in tv/cartoon/movie/coloring book formats.

I have these nebulous images in my mind of the house we lived in when I was five, and some scattered comics. I remember one year we got a little orange pup tent and set it up in the backyard, and I remember laying inside it on a warm summer day and re-reading and re-reading an issue of DC Comics Presents starring Superman where he teamed up with numerous other heroes because he was fighting a cabal of evil magic-users and magic is one of Superman’s only weaknesses (this is the same comic to which I referred to in my seeds of childhood collections post). I remember an issue of Fantastic Four where they were guests on board a ship full of big hairy green aliens. I remember the opening splash page of an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man where the contortionist thief known as the Cobra was pinned in the red spotlight of the Spider-Signal. I remember an issue of The Mighty Thor where he hung out for a while with some mystical human-animal hybrids (which I might have long since written off as misremembered, too deeply weird to have actually been published, if not for the glorious advent of teh interwebs which allowed me to track down the characters in question, the Menagerie of Rimthusar!) I remember an issue of All-Star Squadron, but only the cover, as it featured various heroes and villains fighting on the arms of the Statue of Liberty and all I could think was that it would make an excellent Colorforms set, because I just wanted to reposition all the characters in different battle combinations.

So, left to my own devices, I watched cartoons about DC characters, and cartoons about Marvel characters, watched live-action shows of both, and read comics about both. But at some point the balance tipped in favor of Marvel over DC, such that within about five years I was pretty hopelessly on the hook for Marvel. But once again, weirdly enough, it had very little to do with the comics themselves, at least at first. Or maybe that’s not so weird. One of the interesting things about Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (which you may recall is the inspiration for this series of posts) is the way that he illuminates the business side of Marvel, which realized early on (and thus long before, from my childhood perspective) that publishing monthly issues was a pursuit with razor-thin margins, whereas licensing the likenesses of characters was a pure profit stream. By the time I was a kid, this was standard practice by both DC and Marvel, but I think you could argue that Marvel was better (or more shameless) at it. Then again, maybe it was due to total coincidence (and the unthinking whims of my parents and other gift-buying relatives) that more Marvel-branded merchandise ended up in my life than DC.

But some biggies stand out, including three posters that were giveaways from Coca-Cola which I guess my mom must have gotten at the grocery store. When I was five we lived in a three-bedroom split-level ranch, and my Little Bro and I shared the two non-master bedrooms. One we slept in and kept our clothes in, the other was full of our toys. And in all of my memories of that toy room, the only decorations on the walls are these three 22 inch by 28 inch posters, each dedicated to a re-telling of the origin story of a different Marvel superhero (or team): Spider-man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. They watched over us each time we staged the Battle of Hoth on Kenner playsets, each time we dumped every single toy out of the wooden toybox so one of us could climb in and act out Dracula rising from his coffin. Clearly that had an effect on which covers I was drawn to on the spinner rack at the Cumberland Farms when my mom stopped off for milk and bread.

There were some other, even more influential Marvel-oriented products just around the bend, too, and I’ll come to them next post.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Runaway Saturday Grab Bag

I keep a somewhat non-standard daily schedule during the week. I get up around 5 a.m. to get showered and dressed and grab a cup of coffee before heading to catch the VRE. Door-to-door, between driving to the train station, parking, waiting on the platform, riding the rails, and walking from the station a few blocks to my office building, the commuting takes about an hour and a half. I get to my desk around 7:30 a.m. and work my eight hours and head out around 3:30 p.m., which puts me back at my own house around 5 p.m. This workday routine is the way it is for a couple of reasons: I live fairly far away from my job, and I don't want my kids to be babysat or daycared for 12 hours a day. Those represent conscious, deliberate decisions on my part. I chose to live somewhere far enough out that we could have as much house as we do and not go broke, just as I chose to work as far in as I do for mainly monetary reasons. And I want to engage with my children as much as possible, and chose to arrange as early a quitting time at my gig as possible. I bear sole responsibility for this state of affairs, and I can't be too bitter about it.

And yet. Almost every day as I'm walking back to the train station around 3:30, I see people out for a jog, or a bike ride, or a brisk walk with their dogs. I feel like I'm bending over backwards to be finished with work by 3:30 just so I can begin my longish homeward commute and get to my kids a couple of hours before their bedtime. Sometimes I really want to know who these people are who have painstakingly arranged their own schedules just so that they can get in some cardio in the middle of the afternoon. And other times I don't want to know anything about them other than whether or not I could get away with punching them in the face.


Parks & Rec was back this week after a weird hiatus from the Thursday schedule, and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the double dose of episodes, even if one of them was the out-of-season Halloween installment. But the cause of legitimate bouncing-on-the-couch joy was, of course, an actual promo for Community, with a for-real return date of January 2nd and everything. NBC's been known to renege on things like that before, but still, I remain stupidly optimistic about the Re-Harmon-ing of my favorite show.


Also, I recently ordered the commemorative character figurines from the Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas episode, which I've been coveting basically since 2010. They were initially pretty expensive, but all I had to do was wait three years and then they were on clearance at like 90% off (read: were approximately fairly priced considering they are cheap PVC novelties).

I thought I would have to break out the "90% off" in my own defense when my wife found the package and opened it herself, but she was super-geeked. If nothing else it gives us motivation to start hauling out the Christmas decorations as soon as the Thanksgiving dessert plates are cleared, so that we can find a place to display Robot Britta and Drummer Boy Troy.


Also-also, have I griped here yet about the fact that the box set of Community Season 4 is exactly the same retail price as Seasons 2 and 3, even though those two were regular 22-episode seasons and 4 was a truncated 13-episode season? That is an extremely bogus form of rubbing salt in an old wound, you guys.


Wow, I really was not expecting this to end up being mostly about Community but it kind of got away from me there a bit. These things happen.

Friday, November 15, 2013

That’s my brand (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story)

Back in August I got around to reading the big geek-baiting tome of late 2012, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. At the time, I mentioned that I had read it and promised that I would have more to say about it at a later date. And then time passed, and passed some more, until it got to the point where I couldn’t remember if I had ever said anything at all here on the blog about having read Howe’s book. But I dug around and found the above-linked post, and was surprised at the extent to which I had apparently already documented much of what I liked about the book, even as I indefinitely put off expounding further on my personal, subjective take on Marvel Comics.

But in that previous post I never really got around to what I considered to be the crux of Howe’s work: understanding Marvel Comics not only as art, and not only as commerce, but as an unstable and unpredictable hybrid of both. Conversationally, a reference to “Marvel comics” could simply indicate the finished products that the company sells, either a subset of the published comic books available for sale every month, tangible physical goods made of ink printed on paper, or it could refer to the self-contained fictional universe created within those comic book pages and inhabited by the colorful characters on the covers. But “Marvel Comics” refers to the publishing entity itself, a real-world business concern staffed by flesh and blood human beings. Howe’s book is a behind-the-scenes expose of the latter, but it’s impossible to tell that tell-all story without incorporating both senses of the former, something Howe recognizes and works with.

The end result, as I was trying to get across back in August, is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Most if not all officially Marvel-sanctioned texts operate under the assumption that all everyone from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti ever wanted to do was tell great fantasy-adventure stories. Every stage in the evolution of Marvel’s house style, from shared continuity to real-world settings and story inspirations to relatable emotional subplots to trend-hopping and media diversification, all of it was in service to the stories themselves and making them better and better (and not coincidentally giving the fans what they want). Howe’s book, by contrast, pokes a lot of holes in that (admittedly ridiculous) notion by constantly reinforcing the idea that what appeared to outsiders as a tight-knit family of friends united by a singular unsullied creative vision was in fact an ever-changing aggregation of artists trying to make a living working under the banner of a company trying to be profitable. Of course if what you’re selling is stories then it makes sense to tell the best stories possible, and at the same time (if possible) to give the fans what they want. But sometimes great stories simply don’t sell, or sometimes they do sell but executives feel that their existence makes it too difficult to sell other stories with potentially bigger bang for the buck. Or sometimes personal grudges trump everything, because the people creating the stories are only flawed human beings after all, and artistic types are notoriously temperamental. It’s fascinating to consider, as Marvel Comics: The Untold Story does, how all of these complex factors interweave and affect one another.

Howe has done eminently praiseworthy work in providing a perspective on those considerations, and I can’t possibly compete with that, since I have zero access to the first-hand accounts of what went down in Marvel Comics offices back in the day. But I can offer my own perspective as the ultimate goal of the process: the consumer (in all senses of the word), the avid reader of comic books who loved them (loves them still, after a fashion). I’m not so much interested in delivering a rebuttal or corrective to Howe’s work; I don’t feel in the slightest that that’s necessary. But I can add my own voice by indulging in a detailed stroll down Marvel-themed memory lane. If this seems wildly self-indulgent and/or self-important, you’ll hear no argument on that from me. There’s good reason why one of Marvel’s more insane character concepts, a sentient planet named Ego, has been a favorite of mine.

I said I was gonna, and now I really am gonna get into My Untold Story of Marvel Comics and What It All Means. Not, like, right now. This is all pre-amble, obviously. But starting on Sunday! I’m not doing much of anything with Sundays on the blog anyway, so I might as well give them over to this recurring series. It may last through the end of this year in weekly installments, or it may spill over into January. I have a general idea of the topics I want to cover, which as I indicated back in August are things which Howe didn’t touch on but which nevertheless fit well into his take on Marvel, and which I can speak to in great detail.

So, tomorrow is Grab Bag day, and then on Sunday we’ll head back to the distant shores of the ‘70’s and see where reminiscing about comics takes us

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Auxiliary languages

OK, so the other day I was reminding myself (read: indulging in a bit of mild and yet inherently ridiculous self-pity) about the time consuming physical labor of parenting three small children. And all self-deprecation notwithstanding, I stand by that. Cooking meals, changing diapers, giving baths, running laundry, at a minimum making sure that choking hazards are up off the floor, these things all take a certain amount of time and energy. And that certain amount is “the vast majority of everything not devoted to work/commuting and sleep.”

But if I can pile it on a bit more, I might add that there are mental tolls to be paid as well, and one example I’ve been thinking about lately is my ever-expanding capacity for alternate forms of communication. It would probably seem like an inordinate number of my brain cells are dedicated to auto-translating varied primitive quasi-systems of speech, if I weren’t the kind of person who exalts the rational ability to build bridges of understanding above most (if not all) other things.

So, starting with the baby, who employs the simplest means of communication by default. He’s vocalizing a lot these days, nothing beyond simple ba-ba stuff but he’s known to let loose with some impressively sustenato yelling when the mood strikes him, which is frequently. It’s a bit of a mixed bag going through a third babyhood from the parental side, where on the one hand I can at least draw on some lessons learned from the other two to immediately discern the difference between a wordless shout for the sake of hearing his own voice and a wordless cry for help. Or more granularly, the difference between a cry of genuine physical pain because he’s knocked his head on something and a cry of emotional alarm because it has just dawned on him that neither parent is in his line of sight. Both will get him picked up, eventually, one more quickly than the other. (The key approach to three or more children: triage and prioritize.) On the other hand, every child is different, and it’s a rookie mistake to assume that the coos and caws of one baby translate perfectly and mean the same thing as similar-sounding coos and caws from the next. Even with body language that can be the case; one kid might arch his back to indicate that he’s hungry, while another might do it because he feels bloated and feeding him would be about the worst way to address it.

The little girl is age-appropriately verbal, much moreso than she was even a few months ago (my wife and I share some head-shaking and chuckling of late when we recall how we used to worry that our daughter might not have a strong enough personality to stand up to our older son). But her verbosity is still essentially pidgin English, though it’s exceedingly rare that I have to ask her to clarify what she’s trying to say, or even get her to repeat something. Mostly this strikes me when we’re around people who don’t interact with her every day, when I’m forced to consider what the little girl sounds like to untrained ears (English-inflected gibberish, mostly).

The little guy, as you might expect, has a good command of the language and (thankfully) doesn’t suffer from any speech impediments or peculiarities of language acquisition. Still, speaking his language is a distinct skill which differs from standard adult communication, mainly in aspects of getting on his wavelength and understanding (1) the jargon of his particular interests and (2) the extremely porous membrane between his imaginative inner life and the outside world. Consider this scenario: the little guy holds forth on some topic in an intense and animated way, and you suspect that despite his self-assured (borderline pedagogical) delivery, he may be making it all up. So you ask him, “Is that real?” and he answers, “I’m pretending that it’s real.” If you can parse that answer, you can have fruitful communication with the little guy, and if not, you will probably just end up doing a lot of smiling and nodding.

So those are my polyglot credentials, and I haven’t even gotten to the pets! They are basically in the same category as the baby with their growls and yowls and such. Much to my own surprise (and my wife’s complicated emotional reaction, where she’s not sure whether to be delighted that I apparently care enough to have acquired the ability, or to feel guilty that it’s for her sake that I’ve allocated my own gray matter accordingly) I can without hesitation tell the difference between subtle alterations in a dog’s whining, and I’m pretty sure even devoid of context clues I could tell which one means “I’m afraid of thunder” and which one means “I’m afraid this crawling infant is uncomfortably encroaching on my personal space.” Similarly, I can peg the meaning of meowing between “I want fresh drinking water” and “I ate too much grass whilst walking about outside earlier and am now about to vomit all over the rug”.

If I’ve dedicated my life to anything, it’s been simply training to gain as deep an understanding as possible of the world around me, particularly the people populating that world. Sometimes the world around me is the house I live in, and it’s all I can do with my waking consciousness to learn and keep straight the local lingo.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

WEDNESDAY BONUS: The Agents, or the S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Hmmm, FIVE whole weeks without mentioning (and obsessing over) the continuing development of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Clearly it’s time to dive back in.

I’ve expressed before (most notably in some of my posts about Community) my pet theory that within the narrative confines of any fictional television show there exists a manifestation of the show itself, and that the writers can comment directly upon the way they perceive the show and the way it is perceived by others in the real world by writing specific dialogue spoken by the show-symbol character(s) or by depicting certain events befalling or reactions bouncing off of same. I am starting to think this could very much be applied to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’m having a hard time figuring out who represents the show.

Feel free to bring back Maria Hill for a few episodes any time, people.

On many shows, the standard bearer is obvious. Take Scrubs, for instance, where the show is basically about J.D. and J.D. is the show. Any time another character rolls their eyes about J.D.’s tendency to get lost in his own little mid-conversation reveries, it’s an implicit acknowledgement that the show is structured around frequent cutaway dream-gags, and just as J.D.’s behavior may occasionally annoy his friends and co-workers, this kind of storytelling may very well test the patience of certain segments of the audience. And in addition to the self-awareness, the show is always fundamentally in J.D.’s corner, and not particularly sympathetic to characters who are put off by his daydreaming; the audience may get an admission of guilt, but not really any redress.

So, back to S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a bit trickier in an ensemble cast to pick out who is the metanarrative stand-in for the show, and sometimes it might very well be a group of characters rather than just one. For a more complicated concept, this is almost certainly going to have to be the case. One thing that’s known for sure, though, is that in the past couple of episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D. there has been direct conflict between two groups: Coulson’s team and the overall S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Last week, Coulson defied protocol in giving Simmons enough time to cure herself of the alien zap-virus when he should have been dumping her as dead weight; this week, Ward and Fitz got drafted into a suicide mission (without being told about the suicide part) and basically everyone else on Coulson’s team broke ranks from S.H.I.E.L.D. to rescue their own.

The whole season, spiraling as it does out of the pilot episode where Coulson recruits Skye, who is basically a terrorist in need of a redemption arc, has been about conflict between doing things by the book and thinking outside the box. This week in particular had a lot of characters saying “Trust the system”, where the system means the organization; Coulson said it himself, and he’s the one character who really straddles (and blurs) the lines between S.H.I.E.L.D. hierarchy and the gang of misfits riding around on The Bus. Of course, this piece of advice turns out to be inherently terrible; if everyone had in fact trusted the system then Ward and Fitz would be dead.

It occurs to me that there’s two different ways to interpret all of this according to my pet theory. One is to assume that S.H.I.E.L.D. the organization stands for S.H.I.E.L.D. the show. When the writers repeat “trust the system” they are asking the audience to trust in the show. It’s a new drama, it’s attempting something that’s never quite been done before in integrating with and expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it has an uphill battle to establish itself under those conditions. But the showrunners know things that we in the audience don’t; within the narrative it’s called “classified intel” and out here in the real world we call those “spoilers”. They know where things are going, and they are asking us to have some faith and go along for the ride.

OR … it’s Coulson’s team that stands in for the show. They are doing their best to always do the right thing (by the fans), but they are frequently hamstrung by regulations. Within this metaphor, S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually all of the corporate parent interests: ABC, Disney, Marvel, the long-range plans of the Cinematic Universe, &c. The spunky little show wants to be cool, maybe even follow its own agenda sometimes, but it’s really a tiny cog in a much bigger (sometimes coldly indifferent) machine. In that context, “trust the system” isn’t something the showrunners are requesting of the audience, it’s something the showrunners themselves are hearing from their own overlords, and they’re asking us to commiserate with them. They know as well as we do how bogus a platitude “trust the system” really is, and deliver it drenched in irony.

Which leaves the final question as this: will Coulson’s team ever break away from S.H.I.E.L.D. and get into their own adventures? Will the show itself ever be allowed to pursue its own storylines instead of constantly rehashing the same dull leftovers from the Marvel movies? For one of those questions to be answered “yes”, they would both have to be. And I really, really hope they are. Not only would it be a twist no one! saw! coming! (note: I’ve seen lots and lots of people online speculating about this possibility) but it really would be good for the show and give it room to grow. Here’s hoping.

Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps (Do the Right Thing)

I’ve been at this whole 1001 Movies Blog Club pursuit for a couple years now, and yet I still feel that same kneejerk reaction almost every time I review a movie that was widely released in the U.S. any time after I turned 12: how did I originally miss this flick, and how did it take me so long to get around to it? The answers never really change, revolving around never considering myself a true cinephile or behaving like one, and my viewing habits being constrained more to the fantasy/sci-fi/geeky end of the spectrum by dint of my predilections and there only being so many hours in a day. Formal education broadened my horizons with respect to literature, and made me more likely to pick up novels and non-fiction books that were outside my wheelhouse (and, somewhat synonymously, respectable) but movies steadfastly remained my pure escapist form of entertainment. Hence the massive amounts of catching up I have to do.

So, here we are, taking a look at Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing nearly 25 years after its theatrical release. I kind of, sort of, vaguely remember some of the cultural ripples that the movie caused back then, when I was a freshman in high school. Growing up in the Jersey suburbs orbiting the star of New York City, I was certainly immersed in the ongoing consideration of that city and its significance, so a movie about Bed-Stuy’s ethnic communities and how they related to one another was bound to garner some attention. The fact that the movie was written and directed by a young black man, which in and of itself was (and is today) a novelty, only fueled the public interest more, if not in actually paying for a ticket and seeing the movie, then in discussing what impact it would or should have.

Again, this is all kind of hazily distant for me to give a good firsthand account of, and it’s no doubt greatly distorted by my adult perspective and a good bit of intervening history (both personal and national), but I do remember it being somewhat shocking that anyone would make a movie which was directly, unapologetically focused on racial interaction (or more pointedly, racial divides) and which furthermore was not altogether positive and did not have a happy, status-quo-affirming ending. I’m speaking in generalities here, but I can’t possibly overstate how sheltered and relatively unpolitical I was at age 14. I knew racism was bad, and I didn’t think of myself as racist, and I assumed most people were like me, and I assumed America was on balance (if not entirely) a virtuous civilization. Any more nuanced understanding than that was pretty much beyond me. I got the gist of Do the Right Thing being controversial, somehow, but I probably couldn’t have articulated why, exactly.

I am (one would fervently hope) a little more aware of society’s shortcomings (and my own) these days, and I can understand a little better what Do the Right Thing represented. We were a full generation past the civil rights struggles and while the laws on the books had changed, the attitudes in people’s hearts were slower to evolve. Child of privilege that I am, I’m forever hesitant to attempt a claim at understanding the minority experience, even if I intend it as a sign of simple human solidarity. But I do imagine there must be an incredible amount of frustration, especially at a moment in time like 1989. Well-intentioned progressives wanted to keep patting themselves on the back for what had been accomplished already towards the goal of racial harmony, and continue working towards modest incremental gains. Conservatives, as always, felt that things had already changed too much and all for the worse. And along comes this 32-year-old firebrand using a major motion picture (distributed by Universal!) to express an overwhelming feeling of being sick of it all, that things hadn’t changed enough and weren’t necessarily getting any better any time soon. However much truth there was in that (and I suspect the answer is a lot) it was still horrifying to both sides of the white population, with bleeding hearts afraid that it was rocking the boat in a counterproductive way and reactionaries seeing confirmation that it’s always us versus them, they insist on perceiving themselves as victims, and they are now advocating violent riots.

It’s all more than a little sad, that people on all sides would lose their mind over a movie, particularly a movie which goes to great lengths to establish that its narrative takes place over the course of the hottest day of the year, which provides a great deal of cover for everything being exaggerated as everyone is tense and on edge, literally overheated in a physical way that spills over into rhetoric. Young, brash Spike Lee wanted to explore some of his own ideas about his hometown, his country, the world and times he lived in, and everyone freaked out. Because he was black? Because of what he was saying? Both? Other, more complicated factors? How far beyond all of those questions and their disturbing answers (or lack thereof) have we gotten over the course of yet another generation? Maybe not very far, which is also more than a little sad.

Going into viewing Do the Right Thing, I assumed that it’s inclusion as a Must-See was due mainly if not exclusively to all of the above. Black directors are too rare, films with mainly minority casts are too rare, films that deal explicitly with race in America are too rare, and thus a representative sampling of cinema should include those things whenever possible. I had previously seen Malcolm X and 25th Hour, so I knew that Spike Lee could deliver a great movie, at least when someone as rock-solid as Denzel Washington or Edward Norton was in the lead. Directing and starring in the movie himself I was less sure about, but by virtue of the fact that Do the Right Thing came early in Lee’s career and launched him into the stratosphere, I could buy into its canon-worthiness.

So what surprised me the most about the movie was how distinctive a stylist Lee proves to be behind the camera. There’s a consistent look to the shot composition throughout the film that gives Do the Right Thing a lot of unique personality. Three kinds of shots stood out to me: crazy canted angles (or, as I like to think of them, Batman angles); two characters talking to each other, both in profile, one on the far left side of the screen and one on the far right; and shots from the POV of one character while they are being addressed by another, so that the speaker is talking directly to the camera. And these aren’t just visual flourishes for their own sake, they each serve in their own way to underscore the themes that the script is trying to convey. Everyone has their own perspective, and even if someone else’s way of looking at things might seem skewed by several degrees to me, that doesn’t mean we aren’t both looking at the same thing. When two people are talking, you can take sides and give one more weight than the other, or you can try to put everything on a level playing field with some equanimity. And if you are the person talking, supposedly exchanging ideas with another human mind in conversation, are you really open to that exchange? Or are you performing a monologue?

Do the Right Thing is aptly named. Whether the title comes across as a gentle, sensible reminder or a scolding rebuke probably rests on the person reading or hearing it. It’s not a fun, feel-good movie; if anyone can relate to Mookie or Buggin’ Out or Radio Raheem (or pick a character, really) then they may find it a source of catharsis or validation, and if not, then they may feel alienated or even attacked, or else feel a certain guilt in recognizing their own shortcomings. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s not intended to be a definitive statement about anything, to be judged as a success or a failure based on what it proves or disproves on its own. It’s intended to be part of a discussion, one which our society isn’t particularly good at having and doesn’t necessarily want to have, but a necessary one all the same. When two mindsets meet, they can wall themselves off from one another, or they can engage and change, and the latter option is the only way that growth is possible. Promoting that vital idea in and of itself gives Do the Right Thing its deserved place in any kind of positive talk about cinema.

P.S. To My Fellow Blog Clubbers: I’m still not a big fan of Night of the Hunter, but I was entirely grateful to have that movie under my belt when encountering the scene in Do the Right Thing where Radio Raheem does an extended riff (yet another direct-to-camera monologue) homaging the story of the Right Hand of Love and the Left Hand of Hate. All of pop culture’s a chain, and everything’s connected.