Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bringing home the bacon

The regular NFL season finished up this past weekend, and with it the Pick'em Pool 2014. Out of 16 games played in Week 17, I guessed 8 of the outcomes correctly, and that pretty much sums the whole season up. I was excited to snag my lone weekly win of the year, and then of course immediately after that I completely faceplanted and only got 5 games right the following week. Everything balances out. After my personal high and personal low, over the last six weeks of the season my weekly totals were perfectly clustered right around the breakeven: 7,7,9,8,9,8. And my final position in the overall standings nudged up and down but ended up exactly where it was when I last reported on it, tenth place. I finished a couple points behind my grandmother, tied with one of my cousins, one point ahead of my dad, and incrementally higher than my Very Little Bro and assorted other cousins and uncles. Not terrible, not amazing, and so it goes.

The much more significant news to report is that over the tail-end of the season, my wife was able to claw her way up from fifth place to first! Yes, my wife won the overall pool for the entire season, earning a kitty equivalent to winning two and a half weeks. She never did quite manage to eke out one of those singular victories, but she was remarkably consistent down the stretch (7,9,10,11,9,9 in the final six weeks) whereas everyone else in contention for the overall prize suffered the same kinds of soaring-then-choking setbacks I did. Sunday was a strange and exciting day as my wife went into it one point behind the overall leader, then proceeded to outscore her rival 9 to 5. The gent who ended up in third place had been the leader as of a few weeks ago, and actually outscored my wife 10 to 9 in the final week, but he had cratered the week before with an abysmal 4. It was odd to find ourselves biting our nails over the outcome of the Green Bay and Detroit game as the Sunday afternoon games wound down in the evening, but it seemed like things could still go either way at that point. Fortunately, they went the right way in the end, and I am incredibly proud of the love of my life for setting herself up to be in that glorious position out in front at the finish line.

So we each got a big win, mine a momentary flash of brilliance (and a ton of luck), hers the result of dependable quality performances week in and week out. All in all I'd say we make a pretty good team.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry and bright

A little warmth in the cold, a little light in the darkness. Wishing the whole world more of the things we all need.

(Also taking a few days off; see you all intermittently next week and hopefully regularly in the new year.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


I think I've mentioned before that the elevators in the Big Gray office building have little computer monitors in them that rotate through weather, traffic reports, sports scores, news headlines, and ads. This morning as I was riding up there was a headline about the internet outage in North Korea being resolved. A woman was riding with me, and when she read that she kind of chuckled and said, "They're back." I chuckled as well (mainly because, despite both my line of work and my love of future-oriented science-fiction, I still find it weirdly unsettling how much the world is coming to resemble a cyberspace potboiler that would have been the stuff of pure fantasy when I was a kid). My fellow rider then said, "Well, we didn't do that." It's always hard to parse the intent of strangers, especially in the limited context of an elevator ride, so I wasn't sure if she was being deadly earnest or archly ironic. I answered her the only way that I could, with the limited amount of truth available to me: "I know I didn't do it."

Which kind of gets right to the crux of the matter, because I have been thinking a lot lately, specifically in the context of this whole Sony hacking debacle, about the different ways in which individual people choose to recognize or identify with groups. I was being facetious, of course, when I interpreted that woman's "we" in "we didn't do that" as "you and I, the two of us in this elevator". But I haven't a clue what she honestly meant by "we". Did she mean "the U.S. government" (which we are both employees of, given the location of our workplace exchange)? Did she mean "AMERICA", the geopolitical country, or "AMERICA" the society (both of which we presumably belong to)? Or did she mean "the normal people who aren't part of the bizarre hypergrid community of hackers"?

It was a fleeting bit of morning smalltalk, and it really doesn't matter. But again, it speaks to some bigger issues that do (or did, things change pretty fast) seem to be getting some traction in the groupthink. I saw a lot of people posting on Facebook about Sony's decision not to release The Interview at all, and there were a lot of variations on the same lamentation, "Oh, what does this say about us, that we would allow this to happen?" And all I could keep thinking was, what do you mean "us"? Which "we"? Some people were positively swooning for the divan over the implications for our national character, for the principles of freedom which the U.S. of A. is supposed to stand for. RIP, blatant political satire, you had a good run. Go gently into that good night, First Amendment. &c.

OK, whoa. It might be a good idea to step back and think for a moment about the fact that we're fretting over Sony's decision as if Sony were a person, and an exemplary representative of other people as well. The former is debatable, and the latter definitely gets a big fat negatory from me. Just for the sake of the current discussion, I will set aside the arguments against the personhood of corporations. Let's grant that Sony is, in the way of corporations, a person, and can make decisions, and be held accountable for them. If corporations are people, they are the worst possible kind of people. They are terrible citizens. They are amoral, utterly and intrinsically devoted to one and only one pursuit: making money. When a corporation makes a decision, the impact on the bottom line is the alpha and omega of considerations. Period! To expect a corporation to make a stand for free speech, or courage in the face of adversity, or anything particularly abstract and lofty, is absurd. It just doesn't work like that.

Of course that's a bit of an oversimplification, and reality is slightly more complicated. Even more complicated is the fact that we (most Americans) don't necessarily think of looking out for the bottom line, or various other tenets of capitalism, as inherently bad. To the extent that I, on some level, want to make as much money as possible, I can also sympathize with a corporation wanting the same thing. But I want other things, as well, and sometimes have to weigh them all out and make compromises or draw lines in the sand or whatever. And that's where a corporation stops behaving like a thinking, feeling human being. I want to make more money, but if someone said "Kill this puppy and I'll give you fifty thousand dollars" I would balk, because I don't want to kill puppies. Whereas a corporation might or might not balk, depending on what the analysts said about how many puppies they could get away with killing and how much business they might lose if word got out about the puppy killings.

So. Sony considered what to do with The Interview, in light of threats being made and public reaction and multiplex chains' responses, and despite the fact that some independent theaters were still willing to screen the film, and VOD was an option that would seem to defuse the potential for reprisals of mass violence, they pulled the plug entirely (for now, though rumors persist that delayed distribution may still happen). If you try to figure out how they justified it philosophically, after everything we've all learned about appeasement and terrorism and so on, you are just barking up the wrong tree. They made the decision based on money. With the standard theatrical release not coming together 100%, they calculated they could make more money by cashing in the insurance on the film rather than cobbling together a non-traditional release. because the insurance only covers total loss, not partial. In that light, it makes perfect sense. The fact that to some it looked like cowardice? Irrelevant. The fact that, if the threats were credible and an attack on a Sony employee's home might have resulted in one or more human deaths, but such a tragedy was arguably averted? Irrelevant.

Why should we conflate this in any way with our national character? (Especially since Sony is a Japanese corporation.) We seem to be stuck with the notion of corporations as people. It means that corporations can donate money to political candidates as protected speech, which makes conservatives happy. It means that individuals can sue corporations for liability and damages, which makes liberals happy. (I'm reasonably sure this is the reason why Mitt Romney sounded so glibly smug in his infamous "Corporations are people, my friend!" soundbite - both sides have their reasons to want this to be the case, and Mitt is savvy enough to know it.) But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that legal personhood is the same as having a soul, which is a prerequisite for having ideals and beliefs worth standing up for.

And we also shouldn't think that any problems that corporations can't solve are therefore insolvable. Maybe the risk/reward analysis for corporations about incurring the wrath of shadowy foreign hackers has changed, maybe only until the storm blows over, maybe for good. If all corporate accountants determine that from now on it makes no sense to strike a multimillion dollar deal for a provocative film of political satire, because odds are it will lose more money than it makes, then so it goes. But when did we decide that only corporations get to make movies, and if corporations turn against a certain kind of movie then that kind of movie will go extinct? I am well and truly astonished that this sentiment has actually been expressed more than once recently. Whatever Sony (or any corporation) does comments meaningfully on America? That's a stretch. Whatever any corporation does comments meaningfully on the future of art? Are you kidding me?

Because of economies of scale, corporations make certain things easy that would otherwise be very hard. But it's dangerous in the extreme to become so lazy and reliant on this that we can't imagine life without those corporation-profiting conveniences. It really only takes one dedicated individual with a dream to create art, no matter how dangerously provocative that art may be. If it's independently made, it might not be as slick and gleaming as a corporate product, it might not have access to the same distribution channels, and it might not reach or appeal to as many people, but it will still exist. And it will matter, not to box-office receipt bean-counters, but to the person who made it and to anyone it genuinely speaks to. I think that creating things and utilizing all aspects of self-expression are fundamental parts of human nature, and that's never going to change. It's neither here nor there whether the same can be said of corporations.

So, humanity is going to be all right. America is going to be all right. Corporations are going to be all right, for the definition of "all right" that applies to quasi-person legal entities. Sony may or may not be all right, but unless you're a shareholder, don't read too much into that. And don't make the mistake of thinking we are our businesses, or we are our economy, or we are our government. In some specific and limited senses, we are, but in the really important ways, we are ourselves. Know the difference! If we take responsibility for ourselves, and speak for our principles in our own voices, everything is going to be all right.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Decembrion Invictus (part 2)

Without further delay, let us pick up where this post left off, and continue a fond look back at my arbitrarily selected and utterly subjective Top Ten Points of Pop Culture for 2014.

6. Best imaginary Masterpiece Classic spin-off my wife and I co-invented: Anna Bates, Edwardian Detective! I mentioned about halfway through the year that my wife had given up on Downton Abbey. I never really expounded on how or why that happened, so let me do so now. We actually got all of the way through series 3, assuming you count the Christmas special as a separate entity. Once again, we were subjected to spoilers about major plot developments, and my wife learned that Matthew dies in the Christmas special. At that point Matthew had become one of her favorite characters, and she was crushed to learn how he had been written out of the show. So we watched the final regular episode of the series, the one with the village cricket match that ends with Lord Grantham and Tom and Matthew all smiles and manly shoulder slapping in slo-mo, and when the credits rolled my wife announced, "OK, that's it, that's how the story ends. And they were all happy forever, yay!" To this day it is a losing battle to try to convince her otherwise.

But, before we reached that impasse, we had great fun with the Downton subplot about Anna trying to prove her husband's innocence and have him released from prison, which was one of those melodramatically soap-tastic throughlines that started out interesting and then became kind of laughable and then became amazing in its relentlessness, and by the time Mister Bates was in fact exonerated and set free we had decided that an entire series about this little feisty housemaid solving mysteries in 1920's London would be the best show ever. If someone can put me in touch with Joanne Froggatt's people, that would be great.

7. Best (only) live performance: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As I mentioned in part 1, I got out to the movie theater a lot this year, relatively speaking. And I am grateful for that, because I am still a big fan of the whole big screen experience. I also enjoy live performances, be they music concerts or theatrical shows or whathaveyou, and so now that I seem to have my annual movie excursions up to a satisfying level, it's time to start lamenting how rarely I get to see live shows any more. Oh woe is me!

Right, I am (mostly) kidding. Obviously I recognize that expecting to get any traction on this point is pretty unlikely. And frankly, it's also unlikely that, even if I had seen more live shows in the past twelve months, that any of them possibly could have measured up to the Hedwig revival that I was lucky enough to take in on Broadway. I've said it before, but I can't say it enough: if you have the opportunity to go to the Belasco while the show continues its run, go, and at the very least if you've never even seen John Cameron Mitchell's film version of the show, rent it and watch it immediately.

All that said, I would like to note for the record that my enthusiasm for live musical theater extends in a straight and unbroken line toward whatever date in the future the inevitable Broadway version of Frozen opens up. I am so pre-geeked for that it is beyond ridiculous.

8. Best number-related accomplishment: 250. As in, sometime during March of this year, I officially checked off the 250th movie from the master list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. (It was David Cronenberg's Videodrome.) You might recall I drew attention to the fact that I had hit 200 on the Master List back when I saw Being John Malkovich, about a year and a half ago. What was true then is true now: I tend to mix in a lot of movies of personal interest to me with the canonized selections, so my progress through the Master List is slow. At this rate, I won't finish the remaining 751 (plus all the miscellaneous new additions for each intervening year since 2003) for about, what, 23 years? Everyone needs hobbies (or pastimes, as the case may be).

9. Most surprising source of reading recommendations: a work seminar. My father has fallen into the habit in the past few years of marveling aloud at my Amazon wishlist. To his credit, he tends to generously get me several things from said list every birthday and Christmas, which I appreciate, but somehow I always seem to end up having the same conversation with him, wherein he calls me on or close to my birthday and tells me that gifts are on the way, possibly in separate shipments (I am aware of the perils and pitfalls of e-commerce but apparently my father finds this to merit comment every time), and then he tells me how much he enjoyed just perusing the whole list, and wondering how in the world I even manage to hear about all of these obscurities in order to wish for them in the first place.

It's really not that big a mystery. I'm on GoodReads, I have friends on GoodReads, I follow book reviews on various pop culture websites, and when I encounter a review or recommendation of something that sounds remotely interesting, I head over to Amazon and add it to my list, which costs me very little time and effort. It has worked out well so far.

Every one in a while there's a new twist on the old process, though, as was the case this fall when I attended a forum on cybersecurity hosted at the Pentagon. It looks like I never blogged about it, and even though it was just a month and a half ago, I'm not sure if that oversight was due to not being entirely sure how kosher it would be for me to yammer on about current DoD information technology approaches and challenges, and thus erring on the side of silent caution, or if it was simply due to my usual laziness and poor time management with the blog in general. In any case, this particular tidbit doesn't really violate the former concern. One of the speakers took a bit of a non-standard tack and simply spent his allotted presentation time talking about various books that he has read and loved which have the most direct bearing (in his opinion) on modern cybersecurity problems and solutions.

I should back up for a second and admit that while I am always open to learning new things and consider adding to my personal knowledge base in a way that might improve my ability to discharge my professional duties to be part and parcel of the gig, I really asked my managers if I could go to the forum because I thought it would break up the monotony of the work week by getting me out of the cubicle farm for a day, even if the change-as-good-as-a-rest mainly involved zoning out during interminable PowerPoint presentations. So I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging this book-evangelist was. Still, all the charismatic enthusiasm in the world is only going to go so far in convincing me to attempt to wade through a brick of a textbook about authentication protocols, no matter how vital it is to our network integrity. But, as it happened, most of the speaker's recommendations were actually books with more of a narrative hook, journalistic explorations of big moments in internet history, because he's a big believer in approaching cybersecurity via an insider's understanding of how hackers think and operate. Some of his recommended readings were honest-to-Gibson fictional novels, because they got the mindset right.

Clearly it was a given that shortly after the forum I tracked down some used copies of four of the books the speaker had recommended, and they are now part of my increasingly eccentric to-read pile. It remains to be seen whether or not they will make me measurably better at my job, but that's really a secondary consideration at best.

10. Biggest must-get-to-in-2015: Birdman. I know, I know, I said I would have less superhero movies in this back half installment, but that's not the same as saying no superhero movies, now , is it? And Birdman barely qualifies as a superhero movie, anyway. Or does it? Well obviously I don't know because I haven't seen it yet. But when it started showing up in the entertainment news before it was released, the premise alone was enough to get my attention. Any semi-satirical take on an actor who was once heavily associated with a superhero role trying to move on and create serious art later in his career would have piqued my interest, but the fact that they actually cast Michael "Batman '89" Keaton as that actor? Sold! But it was a small release, and despite speaking directly to my personal fascinations it was a bit of an oddity, so I suspected it might be one of those things I caught up with way, way down the road. Then the end-of-year awards started piling up, with an astonishing number of them accruing to Birdman. That jumped the flick right up my queue (in theory, at least, since it's not even out on dvd yet) and when I do get my chance to see it, I will report my reactions here.

So, all in all, an entertaining year has been had once again. And next year, I hope the trend continues. Who knows, we might get a new Song of Ice and Fire novel, or the conclusion of the Kingkiller Chronicle. We'll definitely get a new Avengers movie in the summer, and a new Star Wars movie by Christmas. I'd say the odds are good that things will be headed in the right direction.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Decembrion Invictus (part 1)

And lo, there came a time when there were only seven more work days remaining in all the year, and two of those were likely to be foreshortened by the generosity of the timekeepers, and thus the looking back upon the year entire must needs be done, anon.

Yes, with praise and libations for the god of top ten lists, it's time for me to shout out to a nice round number's worth of stuff that occupied my attention one way or another this year. As always in no particular order, here are (the first half of) my own personal Top Ten Points of Pop Culture for 2014.

1. Best moviegoing format I tried for the first time: IMAX 3D. I went to the movie theater seven times this year (and, knock on wood, should make an eighth trip tomorrow night) and as usual it was always justified in my mind by the sheer spectacle of the movie in question. So there were the sword and sandal epics I saw with my wife (Pompeii and Hercules), the comic book blockbusters I saw with my buddies (Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy), and some cute little cartoon I took my two older kids to (Frozen). The format of each movie was generally dictated by the people I went to the theater with. My wife gets a bit motion sick so 3D is actively unpleasant for her, and I didn't think either of my kids would be able to keep the glasses on for two hours. For the superhero flicks, it was usually more a question of coordinating schedules, and if the 3D showtime worked better, great, and if not, no worries.

So one of my buddies and I went to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 in IMAX 3D because of exactly those kind of scheduling concerns, and it was the first time either of us had ever seen any movie in that format. To be fair, that was pretty much the only new format I tried this year, so it was basically a lock going in to be the best, and I did enjoy the immersive experience. But really I just wanted to acknowledge how my buddy and I were cracking up even before the movie started, during the in-house promo hype for IMAX 3D itself, which to our ears sounded pretty much like: "PREPARE YOURSELF ... TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN ... AND YOUR SPINE INVERTED ... SO IT COMES OUT YOUR BUTT LIKE A PARTY NOISEMAKER!!!" We did not find the format quite so life-altering as they had promised. But it was fine.

2. Best delayed payoff for a joke: Eleven months between Parks and Recreation season 6 episode 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy. Way back when the sixth season of Parks and Recreation got underway, in September of 2013, I was looking forward to a Marvel movie that would come out the following year with a weirdly near-delirious anticipation. After building a cinematic universe out of several films which only seemed to keep getting better and better, featuring major, recognizable characters that had been utilized in media other than comics since back when the Baby Boomers were watching Saturday morning cartoons, the studio had announced a movie based on an obscure property set in the decidedly ungrounded realm of outer space. And I wasn't sure if the movie would end up being another bonafide hit or a little-loved oddity that proved you can't win 'em all, but I was excited they were willing to try and let the chips fall where they may. The fact that Marvel cast Chris Pratt as the lead hero Star-Lord only enticed me further, since I dug him a lot on Parks and Rec.

At any rate, by the time season 6 started, principal photography on Guardians of the Galaxy was already underway. Pratt was in the season opener, but at that point he had gotten pretty buff to play Star-Lord. He still wore the same doofy, unconstructed outfits as Andy, but even that couldn't hide his weight loss. And Parks and Rec lampshaded that simply by opening a scene with Andy in mid-conversation with Ben Wyatt, who was clarifying a point with some skepticism. "So you just stopped drinking beer?" he asked, and Andy admitted yeah, that was all he did, and he lost like 50 pounds. After a beat of silence he observed, "I was probably drinking way too much beer."

Knowing what little I knew about Guardians of the galaxy at that time, I loved this meta-joke. And then the next summer I actually got to see Guardians of the Galaxy, which was pretty much my favorite movie of the year, in and of itself. But the payoff of finally seeing what had been hidden under Andy's shirt made me laugh all over again, I admit.

3. Most likely candidate for future induction into the Christopher Lee Memorial Geek Icon Hall of Fame: Man, this one is really almost too close to call. But I suppose I should explain what I'm on about. A while back I blogged about my admiration for Christopher Lee, because he has fully inhabited and essentially become the real-world embodiment of so many hugely beloved fictional characters. He more or less is Saruman from Lord of the Rings. He's also Scaramanga from James Bond and Count Dooku from Star Wars and Dracula from the Hammer horror films. The man's a giant, partly because he's so talented and has such presence, and partly because his career has been so long.

Nowadays, though, they are cranking out adaptations of geek properties, and occasionally inventing new series of the same, so rapidly that lots of different actors seem to pop up again and again in potentially iconic roles. One f these days I'm going to get around to cataloging the performers who come closest to mirroring Christopher Lee's "man, that guy is everywhere" accomplishments.

It seems to help if your name is Chris! Chris Pratt had a phenomenal year in 2014, not only as Star-Lord but as the voice of Emmett from The LEGO Movie (I may have alluded to that flick in passing here or there). Both of those movies are going to get sequels, further cementing Pratt's association with the characters. I hear he's going to be in Jurassic World, too, and for that matter some people are lobbying for him to star in a reboot of Indiana Jones. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. 2014 was pretty good to Chris Evans, too, since he got to turn in his third (or fourth, if you count the Thor 2 cameo in addition to Captain America and The Avengers, either way it's far from last) performance as Steve Rogers. Plus he led the revolt in Snowpiercer, a movie which might not sell a lot of action figures but I think stands a good chance of becoming a geek cult classic. I also got around to watching Danny Boyle's Sunshine this year, and Evans was really good in that, too; this may have inflated his presence in my mind when thinking back over 2014. And then of course there's Kit (real name Christopher, of course) Harrington, a.k.a. You Know Nuthin Jon Snow. He may not have set the world on fire with Pompeii (rimshot) (too soon?) but he also did the voice of Eret the dragon trapper in How to Train Your Dragon 2. (Once I pointed this out, Eret immediately became my wife's favorite character in the franchise.)

If your name is not Chris, it should be something badass like Scarlett. Scarlett Johansson was in a lot of good stuff this year, too, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier with a much-needed deepening of the Black Widow character, not to mention Luc Besson's Lucy (which I didn't see, because it looked fairly dumb, but a lot of people argued convincingly that that's really beside the point, so it may well wind up in the queue), and Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (which I did see, and I guess I never blogged about; it's almost a conceptual opposite to Snowpiercer, a masterpiece of haunting minimalism rather than bombastic maximalism).

The point, belatedly, is that I felt like I spent a lot of time watching movies and tv shows this year with a lot of the same faces (or voices) popping up again and again, but I'm not complaining.

4. Biggest letdown: Horror of Dracula. OK, so I was singing Christopher Lee's praises as an iconic Dracula before I had ever, personally, technically, seen Horror of Dracula. But I was resolved to correct that oversight, and this year's Halloween countdown seemed like the perfect place to do so! I Netflixed the movie, I watched it on the train, and ... I was largely underwhelmed. Lee is an effective Count Dracula, don't get me wrong; Peter Cushing is pretty fantastic as Van Helsing, too, for that matter. But they can't elevate the movie overall.

For one thing, Hammer Films have a somewhat outsized reputation for being garishly lurid spectacles, and I found Horror of Dracula to be about as square as you'd expect a vampire movie from 1958 to be. I do understand that Horror of Dracula was one of the very first Hammer Horror productions, and the reputation for boundary-pushing gruesomeness and titillation came about as a cumulative effect; they had to start somewhere, and go crazier and crazier from there. But still.

The other problem I had with Horror of Dracula was that it made some significant changes to the underlying source material, all of which were either strangely arbitrary or fundamentally altered the ideas of Dracula to the movie's detriment. I ended up not blogging about Horror of Dracula in October at all, because it took me longer to process my disappointment than if I had loved it immediately. Maybe next year I'll delve a little deeper into just how misguided an adaptation I found it to be.

5. Best comic series I finally got around to reading: Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I'm pretty sure the last time I mentioned the series Saga it was to passingly note that I had never read it, but my dad was into it, and one of these days I was going to have to borrow it from him. This spring I did, and it more than lived up to its reputation as imaginative and perfectly executed and unlike anything else out there. It's not exactly science-fiction, not exactly fantasy, not exactly romance, not exactly political intrigue, not exactly anything, and yet all of those things at once and a few other genres we don't have words for in English. I read other comics for the first time this year (Neil Gaiman's old Black Orchid mini-series, and the first volume of seminal Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell) but Saga is the one I was most kicking myself for after dragging my feet about hopping on.

Ahem. With all due respect to ghosts who cannot kick themselves and do not, per se, have feet.

OK, so next week I will cover the back half of 2014 In Review, which amazingly should manage to get into some topics that have nothing to do with comic book movie franchises!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Three free pints and a bottle of Glögg

I wasn't expecting to post anything today, because I knew I would only have a few hours in my cubicle (aka prime blogging time) before the office holiday party, the one I think of as the "real" one because it takes place outside of the office and involves about three dozen co-workers, which is the right amount - more than the people I see weekly in departmental staff meetings, but less than the entire staff of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, most of whom I never interact with in the course of a given year.

The party was fine, nothing especially out of the ordinary for this sort of thing, except that for some reason the organizers decided to keep to a set agenda and move it along fairly briskly. So the whole thing was over and done with by 2:15 p.m., despite the fact that invitations had advertised it as wrapping up around 3. I usually take off at 3:30 to catch my train, so I was fully prepared to call it a day and depart generally homeward from the party, but when I heard most of my colleagues saying they were heading back to the office, I deduced that was the prudent thing to do (I am trying to do my bit to help us secure a contract win, after all).

Actually, my prudence in this case may be questionable, since I had three beers over the three hours at the party, and while I ate plenty of food and used to consider a pace of a drink per hour more than judicious enough to remain relatively sober, I can't deny that I'm feeling a slight fuzziness at the moment. (Thank goodness Blogger has spellcheck or this post would be a mess.) We were all given two tickets for drinks at the bar, but some people naturally didn't use theirs and someone pressed theirs on me, and frankly I consider it a moral victory that I only had three beers and not four.

(Please remember that I take the VRE home from work every day, and I figured when I started my third beer that I'd have the rest of the party, about 45 minutes chilling on the station platform, and nearly an hour ride on the train to metabolize everything. And I still will, if you swap "in the office" for "on the platform". All will be well.)

Anyhoo, no trivia contests this year but there were multiple rounds of bingo and (after informing the people at my table that it seemed like I was betting some long odds because I've been going to our holiday parties for at least five or six years now and I've never, ever won a round of bingo) I did win a bottle of Glögg and a box of cookies. I feel compelled to mention this because a couple of years ago, in a post about the office holiday party, I mentioned that someone got a bottle of gluhwein in the white elephant exchange, and that post always gets tons of hits on Google. So I might as well corner the page-tracking market on Glögg, as well. (Also, umlauts!)

Speaking of the white elephant, and also that old gluhwein post, by far the funniest moment this year once again revolved around scented candles which, I repeat, is really just about one of the worst gifts you could throw into the mix of a funny cutthroat gift swap kind of deal, by sheer dint of how utterly boring they are. Yet someone sure enough put a four-candle pack in the pile, and of course it was opened by a middle-aged guy whose depth of interest in scented candles could only be measured in angstroms (or ångströms). Nonetheless, the peanut gallery demanded that he read aloud the names of the respective candle scents, in order to allow future players to make informed decisions about possibly stealing said gift. (I don't think anyone ended up stealing it.) The scents were as follows: "Fluffy Towels ... Pink Sands ... Island Breeze ... and ... another Fluffy Towels." OK, maybe it's the beer talking, or maybe you had to be there to hear the exact tone of completely deflated underwhelmitude, but that last "another Fluffy Towels" really made me laugh.

It gets funnier every time you say it!

But now all my work parties are done for another holiday season. People have already started leaving for vacation, so tomorrow should be quiet, and next Monday through Wednesday will be like living in a dorm between finals and graduation. Hopefully I'll be able to generate a fair amount of blog content to close out the year on a high note.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Running on rails (Snowpiercer)

At this point, I'm pretty sure I would make time to watch any movie either directed by Bong Joon-ho or starring Sang Kang-ho (they often overlap) so long as the premise sounded remotely interesting. Considering that my experience of those films will usually feature a Korean soundtrack and English subtitles, and how dialogue is often my favorite part of any given flick, you can imagine how skilled that filmmaker/performer pair must be. You can also imagine how Snowpiercer, Bong's first major motion picture in English (mostly, Sang's and Go Ah-sung's dialogue excepted), was a must-see for me.

Of course actually getting around to it took me a while, as these things often do. Which means I had heard a lot about Snowpiercer online before viewing it myself. One of the recurring notes about the film was that people found it unpredictable, and surprising, and were under its spell until the very end, needing the movie to reveal itself to them at every turn because they were never able to guess what would happen next (implicit in which is the observational criticism of most modern Hollywood offerings being rote, formulaic and contemptibly comfortable). And now that I have seen the film, I can confirm that it is unlike almost anything else in the mainstream, and I do mean that in a very positive way, although I think a slightly deeper examination of why the movie feels so unfamiliar may be merited.

The funny thing is, it would seem on a superficial level that Snowpiercer would be entirely predictable. It's a dystopian fable about an uprising in an advanced yet flawed society, which is fairly well-worn narrative territory. And furthermore, the structure of the story is literally constrained by its setting. For those of you who might not know even the premise of the movie, here's the condensed version: the story takes place about 18 years after a man-made disaster (an ironic attempt at combating global warming) has rendered Earth an uninhabitable frozen wasteland. The entire surviving human race is confined to a train that runs in a circuit around the globe, a self-contained self-sustaining system where the privileged few live near the front of the train with various amenities and the wretched unwashed masses live in the back of the train. A band of rear-car revolutionaries decide to take over the engine of the train to break the haves-and-have-nots cycle, and therefore they have to fight their way through every car to get from one end of the train to the other. So it's a heroic quest from point A to point B, and it is by definition a completely linear progression. I have to question the truthfulness of anyone who claims that they never guessed the movie would end with Curtis (Chris Evans) ultimately reaching the engine. Yes, the how of the quest matters, as do the details of what happens when the hero gets where he was going, but surely at least that much structure was a given. Or so it seems to me. There's a joke amongst geeks who play a lot of roleplaying games, that some Game Masters are willing to let the players take the stories literally anywhere in their fictional worlds, and other Game Masters throw up insurmountable obstacles in the way of any deviation from the specific plotline they had in mind all along. The latter style is known as running the story on rails because the only possible movement is forward, not lateral. Snowpiercer, and the circumstances in which its protagonists find themselves, qualifies: no way off the train, and nowhere to go but towards the engine.

One of the great things about this built-in structure of the story is that it allows Bong to play with lots of different sci-fi tropes within the same movie. There are fantastic shots out the windows of the train (once the action reaches cars that have windows) showing the iced-over world, beached battleships and collapsed skyscrapers and various post-apocalyptic eye candy. Within the train, every car and compartment has its own personality. The movie starts at the rear and revels in the imagery of a trash heap society, everyone wearing layers of patchwork rags, with living quarters that look like the burrows of scrap-metal hoarding rodents. The action then progresses through pure industrial nightmare settings, a neon-lit cyberpunk/neo-Tokyo inspired aquarium and sushi stand, a parody of brightly colored schoolrooms and black and white educational films, steampunk-inflected luxury suites, a trashy decadent non-stop dance party, and finally the clean, white retrofuturist idyll of the engine itself. It doesn't feel terribly jarring to go from one segmented setting to the next to the next because the train, as plot point and metaphor, keeps everything logically compartmentalized.

That's the beauty of Bong's approach to filmmaking, which I also noticed way back when I saw The Host: he really has no hang-ups about consistency. He swaps visual styles and narrative tones as he sees fit, and the result is something akin to a virtuosic concerto performance, now loud, then soft, now fast, then slow, with themes coming and going and returning. It's visual music. The upside to such an attitude is that you can, quite easily, surprise people, because nothing is off-limits. The downside, if you want to call it that, is that you can veer back and forth so many times that if someone starts to try to take everything in as a whole, it becomes clear that there is no sum of the parts.

Here beginneth the SPOILERS. Very early on, the audience learns that the underclass at the back of the train are fed "protein bars" which, as foodstuffs go, barely qualify as better than nothing. In the beginning part of the quest, the insurgents discover the machine that makes the protein bars, and Curtis looks through a window of the machine to see a huge roiling mass of live insects (mostly cockroaches) being ground up and liquefied before gelling together and being sliced into individual bars. Curtis is disgusted and urges the one companion who looked with him not to tell the others what they have been eating. Then, towards the end of the adventure, Curtis tells a story to his lone remaining companion about the early days of the train, when the people in the rear were starving and resorted to cannibalism, including eating children, even babies. Curtis admits he was a baby-eater. Why in the world would a man like that be horrified by the thought of eating bugs? That is one example of many plot holes in the overall story. Overall, the car-by-car snippets of Snowpiercer society the audience sees do not in any way add up to a viable, workable society, despite the villains' constant talk about everything being in perfect balance and all things in their pre-ordained place.

But in a sense, this doesn't really matter. The Curtis who wants to throw up at the thought of eating roach jelly (seriously, where did all those roaches even come from? I get the classic sci-fi trope about roaches being able to survive any apocalypse, but what do the roaches even eat? Are they being farmed on the train to feed the underclass? Why not use those farming resources on some less repugnant food production? &c.) and the Curtis haunted by remorse over eating human infants might as well be two separate characters, because we see them in two separate cars of the train, and thus they could be in two different stories from two different movies. Bong takes an idea, runs with it, and then changes cars, and every passage is effectively a soft reboot of the genre rules of the story, if not the story itself. And as I said, whether or not we are left with a beautiful clockwork narrative to admire in total is irrelevant. Bong just gives us two hours of pure movie magic, of dynamic shot compositions and evocative lighting and otherworldly scenery and action choreography and character work, in a sequence of different combinations each chosen for their own respective individual merits, not for how they hang together from end-to-end. Snowpiercer nominally has a throughline, because that's what most modern movie audiences (especially American ones) more or less expect. But the throughline isn't the point, and was never supposed to be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cyber Tuesday Grab Bag

I’m co-opting the grab bag format for today’s post because there are several minor items floating around in my brain which at least loosely adhere to the theme of online antics. Let’s leave the meatspace behind for a quick tour of my browser’s usual haunts, shall we?


My Facebook feed is kind of blowing up today, because of yet another short story anthology which contains a story of mine. This one has upwards of 40 contributors and is the first release of a fledgling publisher, so the success of the launch has a lot riding on it. So why am I being so vague about it? Well, because what I really want to do is what I usually do with books I’m trying to self-promote, which is to at the very least link to Amazon as I suggest that people think about maybe plunking down the dosh for a copy (or a pre-order). And at the moment, the book is not on Amazon. The moment it is, I will have a salesman’s special of a post ready to go! But for now, I’m biding my time to position my blog announcement for maximum efficiency.

Nonetheless, everyone else is promoting the heck out of the book. It has an ISBN, it’s release date has been slated, it’s on GoodReads, and people are organizing GoodReads launch events and exchanging Twitter handles so they can try to get the book trending on the day it becomes available, and so on. So far the extent of my participation in this frenzy has been to Like everyone else’s shares and links and posts and whatnot. And even limiting myself to that little involvement made for a fairly packed morning.


I was slightly surprised to realize, in the course of all the above, that between the forthcoming book and the final volume of How the West Was Weird, I now have multiple credits officially recognized on GoodReads, so there’s an official Author’s Page with my name on it. So another fun thing I got to do today was contact GoodReads to begin the process of proving that I am in fact that author person, which would give me access to editing my own page. We’ll see how long that takes to sort out.


Getting back to other Facebook news, I saw a post this morning that simply said “A list of people you need to unfriend right now” with a link attached/obscured. I continue to stay the course in my experimental sampling of other people’s hot button topics, whether I fervently agree with them or vehemently disagree. So I was curious as to what was behind the link. I assumed it would be a listicle about various celebrities whom people might have ostensibly friended in the tens or hundreds of thousands, said celebrities all having committed some terrible transgression. Which wedge issue would it be? Are they anti-vaxxers? Do they support amnesty for illegal immigrants? Did they make glib jokes about killing cops, or about how people killed by cops got what they deserved?

The link turns out to simply take you to your own Facebook account and a list of those people on your friends list, if any, who have officially Facebook-Liked the band Nickelback. This, I admit, made me literally LOL. Apparently about 2.5% of my friends have terrible taste in rock music. I’m not likely to unfriend anyone over it, we all have our little embarrassments, whether or not we choose to make them publicly searchable via social media.


In other web-enabled areas of interest, the NFL pick’em pool which exists solely in cyberspace is now racing towards its conclusion, and my wife is currently in a tie for second place with a comfortable five points between her and the next nearest participant; first place is only one point up on her and her fellow runner-up at the moment. I am extremely proud of her and of course rooting for her down the stretch. (I have faded back to a two-way tie for 16th, due mostly to a four-way tie for 12th and a three-way tie for 9th, one point and two points more than my total, respectively. Also that three-way tie for 9th is my dad, my cousin, and my grandma.)

Of course the virtual contest is supported by the actual NFL IRL, an area where once again my wife is enjoying a more positive-outcome-oriented season than I am. The Steelers have guaranteed themselves a winning record and hold a perfectly reasonable shot at the playoffs, as a wildcard team if not the outright AFC North champ. The Giants, on the other hand, have to win out the last two games to finish an unimpressive 7 and 9. 5 and 9, where they sit at the moment, is nothing whatsoever to be proud of. Yes, there are other professional franchises who might be envying such limited success from their own 2 and 12 perspectives, but still. My team is bound for mediocrity at best, and it would be unseemly to gloat over any team that happens to be even worse.

Except … oh man how gratified was I that New York came back to beat Washington this past Sunday? If Washington had won, both teams would be 4 and 10, which is dreadful. But now the Washington Racial Slurs are a pathetic 3 and 11, very likely to finish alone in the basement of the (admittedly underwhelming) NFC East, for the sixth time in seven seasons. It could not happen to a more deserving pig-headed owner and assemblage of fair-weather fans.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Absence and antithesis

The subject at hand today: parties. Holiday parties. Work holiday parties, and perhaps now you can sort of glimpse the outlines of where this is going and how the subject of the post is ultimately going to relate to the content.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against holiday parties thrown by employers for employees per se. I have a lot of fond memories of various work parties, both gigs of my own and my wife’s (and a few sundry friends who dragged me along to theirs just for giggles, back when I was a twenty-something and could be reliably counted on to raise the overall fun quotient while taking an open bar as a direct, personal challenge). Heck, I learned how to play craps at one casino-themed work holiday party way back during the dot-com boom of the turn of the millennium, and that was a blast.

Of course what really stands out from that particular evening is a memory of one of the young programmers (the demographic breakdown for that company was something like 70% under-30 programmers and designers, 20% middle-aged support staff, and 10% C-suite graybeards) getting totally hammered and walking up to the Chief Technology Officer and confronting him, in the midst of the revelry, with the rumor that said executive had been selling off his stock options, which could certainly be construed as a lack of faith in the company’s long-term prospects. In the course of demanding that the executive answer for himself and explain why all the young programmers shouldn’t similarly lose faith, the inebriatee slurred, semi-rhetorically, “What’s my motivation?!?!” Which of course became the stuff of legend and an instant classic all at once, and for years afterwards, in a variety of non sequitor contexts, “What’s my motivation?!?!” became a frequently voiced callback amongst my friends and I.

Anyway, great party! One of many! But nowadays I work for the government as a contractor, not at a Clinton-era tech startup, and things are different. We had a party in the office today and it provided a philosophically fascinating opportunity to contemplate the nature of parties, in their Platonic ideal and variances from same, and the ultimate question of how much party you can take out of a party before it ceases to be a party altogether.

Our office space is simply not designed for big social gatherings. (Funny enough, it is designed for office work.) The conference rooms were given over entirely to the food buffets, which meant once people loaded up a paper plate with the various pot luck offerings they could either stand around in the aisles between cubicle pods, or sit in any unused cubicles. That applies mainly to the people who work for our directorate at various other office locations, and who descended upon our office for the party. For those of us who work here in the hosting office, we had the option of sitting at our own desks throughout. Which is basically what I did. There really was nothing else to the “party” except the food, and so I simply took it as a free lunch. (Except that it cose me $15 to partake.)

In the “party”’s defense, there was a Marine Corps brass ensemble invited to play Christmas songs, and that they did, but again there’s really no good space for something like that in our suite, especially with all the conference rooms stocked with sandwich trays and crock pots and whatnot. So the ensemble was way off in the boonies of the office, down the one corridor that leads only to currently unused offices, and thus would not impede foot traffic towards the food. There was also the festive element of alcoholic beverages (my $15 included two drink vouchers for beer or wine) but I personally was unable to partake in that aspect of the merriment.

And this is where we transition from the absence of a party, or a vaguely party-shaped hole in time and space, and into the outright antithesis of a party, which was my commute yesterday. Over the course of this year I have had a couple of fender benders, one involving a stationary object (shopping cart corral) and both entirely my fault, and the time had finally come for me to take my car to the shop and allow them to repair the damage. I showed up as soon as the shop opened this morning, did the requisite paperwork, and then waited for the rental car place to open a half hour later. Then I did more paperwork, and finally got on the road. By then there were no more eastbound VRE trains, so I had to brave rush hour on the highway in all its inhuman horror (firstworldproblems). Just as well that the holiday party was scheduled for the afternoon, because the whole day would have been a loss for me anyway, showing up two hours later than usual and then trying to calculate what time I would need to leave to avoid the HOV restrictions and nightmarish traffic. Thus, as noted above, since I was driving and not rail-riding, I abstained from libations. The trip home, as it turned out, was not as horrible as it could have been, but it was no party, I tell ya.

Two more free lunches to go this week, one a simple pizza-on-the-boss get together, the other the mid-sized gathering of officemates at a local sports pub. At least I’m saving a bit of money on groceries right before the final Christmas splurge.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In case you were wondering

So, one week from today the bino will be exactly 21 months old. His language acquisition continues apace; just yesterday he apparently learned and definitely began putting to good use the word "wheel" (he's firmly in the obsessed-with-trucks phase by now). He also persists in demonstrating that he understands most of what everyone else around him is saying, e.g. the other evening when I told his older siblings I needed to go into the den and check on the fire, and the bino immediately started going "wheee-ooo-wheee-ooo" in his best fire engine siren interpretation.

His big sister, as it happens, is exactly 3 and 2/3 as of tomorrow. She is whipsmart and opinionated but also fairly shy, so her natural tendency to speak out in complete sentences that demonstrate a capability for logical abstract thinking still feels like a recent development, as her confidence in her own voice has gradually caught up with her interior thoughts. The upshot of this is that she and her big brother can now engage in long conversations which involve actual give and take and the exchange of ideas, and not just the little guy in dominating monologue and the little girl parroting every third thing he says (when he lets her get a word in edgewise). So there's a newly emergent dynamic, because like any set of siblings sometimes they agree and sometimes they pugnaciously do not, but they are making progress in figuring out how to navigate those particular waters without too much crying and screaming. I mean, sure, there's some crying and screaming. But not too much.

The little guy is 6-and-change, a first grader, and by my reckoning is in a very tricky transitional area of childhood. These days (at least for my UMC cohort with the helicopter parents and the ultra-competitive overscheduled kids and whatnot) high school might as well be college, middle school might as well be high school, and fourth grade might as well be middle school, and it's hard to wrap my head around the fact that fourth grade is less than three years away. I'm expecting any day now for my oldest child to cross a boundary between being a "little kid" and just a regular "kid". Arguably, one of the signposts for that threshold would be whether or not he still believes in Santa Claus.

Self-deprecating jokes about helicoptering aside, I try to take a hands-off approach, at least somewhat, to when and how my children deal with the gradual diminishment of innocence. Santa is a case in point. I do not have a plan per se for making sure that my children believe in Santa for as long as humanly possible, nor do I have a deadline in mind by which they need to have gotten over said belief. It will happen when it happens. If a kid on the school bus gives away the game tomorrow, I'll be a little bummed but life will go on. If the little guy is still writing letters to the North Pole at age eleven, I won't really have a problem with it. I admit the stakes here are pretty low, for me to be patting myself on the back for being supremely chill about it, but there it is.

Still, the truly bedeviling considerations arise not from when exactly the little guy stops believing, but when the little girl does, or the bino. As I mentioned, my two older children carry on their own dialogue pretty freely, and the bino hears and understands more often than not. All well and good to say, "Well, he had a good run, but first/second/____ grade is probably about the right time to realize how it really works," but if that in turn spills over onto the younger ones, that seems to be a shame. If I worry over anything, it's whether or not I should take the little guy aside and say "I'm going to tell you something because you're the oldest, and you can't tell your sister or brother." Is it worth it to shield the other two, if that means being the one to personally disillusion the eldest?

But it's looking like I won't necessarily have to worry about that this year, at least. A few nights ago the kids were all sitting at the dinner table waiting for me to fix their plates, and the little guy opened a conversation with his sister with a question: "Did you know there are some people who think Santa isn't real?" He said this with the same scoffing bemusement that I would employ to convey my discovery of a real live person who thinks the moon landing was faked by the reptilian shapeshifters who secretly run the One World Government. The little girl, for her part, didn't really know what to make of anyone not believing in Santa, and had no follow-up questions along the lines of why they might doubt his existence, just a determined "Of course he's real!" Duh.

So that's how it is in our house this Christmas. And I'd be a great big coal-deserving liar if I said it didn't make me distinctly happy deep in my heart.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dragons and pegasi

If you promise not to give away the surprise, I'll tell you a couple of things that my kids are getting for Christmas: How to Train Your Dragon 2 on dvd, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on dvd.

The family just watched HTTYD2 for the first time this past Saturday night, and we all enjoyed it. The turning point at which (SPOILERS) the alpha dragon hypnotizes Toothless and forces him to turn on Hiccup was fairly traumatic, eliciting actual uncontrollable crying from the single-digit demographic of the audience (yet another reminded why it's often better to wait for home releases rather than take these particular younguns to the movie theater) but by the time the happy ending was reached it seemed universally agreed that the flick merited inclusion in the ever-expanding children's wing of our movie library.

My Little Pony is a slightly different case, since by and large its inroads into our home has been entirely via three-minute clips on YouTube that are in pretty heavy rotation in the bedtime unwinding rituals. My wife will be the first to admit that breaking down and purchasing a four-disc set of full episodes is as much an act of necessity to satisfy her own curiosity about the elaborate backstories and continuity of Equestria as a concession to any of our children's demands for on-demand entertainment.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that while this probably sounds a lot like we are enforcing retrograde gender roles with the adventures of a boy viking for our son and the saga of super-femme ponies for our daughter (and in point of fact the HTTYD2 dvd under the Christmas tree will no doubt have the little guy's name on the gift tag, and MLP will have the little girl's), in truth both kids like both franchises almost equally. The little girl likes Astrid and her dragon Stormfly, and the little guy doesn't necessarily have a favorite pony (his sister does: Rainbow Dash, obvs.) but he enjoys noodling around with the concepts of their world, e.g. figuring out what kind of cutie marks he and his sister would have to represent their special talents, or trying to stump me and his mother by asking us whether Princess Celestia is a winged unicorn or more of a horned pegasus. (We are still working on that one. Leaning toward "winged unicorn", though.)

It occurs to me that at some point down the road the bino will develop his own taste in shows and movies and request his own dvd's (or whatever video data storage format we're on to by then) for Christmas, and all else remaining constant we will have surpassed the number of dvd players in the house with the number of potential audiences with different agendas competing for different screens. I can only hope that by then, circa the dawning of the magical year 2017 or so, that everyone has their own WiFi-enabled Cloud-connected wearable holographic VR immersion projectors. Or something.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Happy Havoc-days

So as this year draws to a close (or gets gradually nearer to doing so, at least; we must be oddly ahead of schedule in our household holiday preparations this year because I can't shake the feeling that Christmas Day is, like, this Friday) I wanted to take a moment to address a few disparate things that really do tie together. By way of picking a single entry point (and not burying the lede), I'll start off with an announcement: the publication this week of the crazy-go-nuts PulpWork Christmas Special 2014!

Inordinately devoted readers of the blog may recognize PulpWork Press as the publishers who brought the world the series of How the West Was Weird anthologies, volumes 2 and 3 of which contain, among other fantastic works, a story apiece written by me. And, much as that close association makes me an admitteedly biased fan of PulpWork anyway, such that I'd happily shill for their annual extravaganza of Christmas-themed adventure yarns, I am pleased and proud to admit that yet another one of my story efforts is part of the Christmas Special 2014 collection, as well. Pick one up as the perfect stocking stuffer for the weird loved ones in your life, you know, the ones who would dig the idea of Santa Claus as a seasonal demon-hunter and know what the heck a wendigo is.

So, to recap, How the West Was Weird v.3 was published this summer (approximately; the e-book edition was available in May and the paperback in August) and right about the time that it was going through layout finalization I resolved to get a bit more serious about my own fiction writing. I get a certain thrill out of seeing my own name in print and I've enjoyed the ride with the HTWWW series enough to seek to replicate it as much as possible in the future. One avenue that seemed like a no-brainer was the PulpWork Christmas Special, since I already had an in with the editor and many of the other authors. So it's gratifying to see that come to fruition this week, too. But it doesn't completely scratch the itch.

Thus I've done a lot of writing in the past, say, eight months. A lot of bearing down on ideas, not just rolling them around idly in the back of my head when I'm bored but actually engaging with them, eyes on screen and fingers on keyboard, until they're written out in their entirety. Some of them I've gone back and polished up and made into something vaguely audience-worthy, and I've submitted those stories to other potential publishers. I've gotten some curt and dismissive rejections, and some encouraging close-but-fell-just-short rejections, and one acceptance which should be officially available and linkable right before Christmas (to which of course I will devote yet another post when everything comes together). The additional anthology credit is cool, and the nice thing about all the rejections is that I can take another pass at those stories and try again submitting them somewhere else. Fortunately I'm not trying to make a living at this (at the moment), so it's fairly non-stressful, more like amusing myself trying to make a tricky basketball shot at the hoop in my driveway, sometimes frustrating and very occasionally satisfying. It costs me nothing but time.

Also, in the course of researching markets where my stories might find homes, I've come across a few open calls for stories on specific themes that have tickled my fancy, and I've reached out to those publishers (two separate ones on different occasions) with pitches for the anthologies, and gotten positive responses. So that accounts for another story that's currently in the editing process which should see the light of day some time in 2015, and one I'm still in the middle of writing which would also, hopefully, come out next year. That feels like a pretty good head start on making sure this is an ongoing thing, that I have as much work published in 2015 under my name as 2014, if not more.

So that's thread number one, hyping up the new collection, and thread number two, reporting on my increased fiction output and the continuing efforts to get as much of it in print as possible. And that also brings us to thread number three, which is the lackadaisical content upkeep around these blogparts of late. Presumably you can determine for yourself how all of these things are connected: original stories accumulating in my cloud storage account on the rise, regular posts on my blog in decline. I managed to keep things fairly balanced in the summer, and my outsized excitement for Halloween yielded a bumper of posts in October, but I've slacked off since then, blog-wise. Now you know a big reason why! I'm not saying that now that I've named the problem I can make it go away; there're only so many hours in a day, and I've done the best I can with them. And I will continue along those same lines, but if a week happens to go by with no new posts, it might be because I'm trying to push yet another story across the finish line, or I'm spending a lot of free time corresponding with an editor, or something like that.

Way, way back when I started this blog, one of motivators was the simple fact that I wasn't writing much of anything and felt the need to keep exercising those mental muscles regularly. It took a little longer than I expected, but I'm starting to see some itty-bitty hints of payoff. It's kind of like buying a treadmill because you hope to someday hike up Kilimanjaro; at some point you're going to have to get off the practice machine and actually get on the mountain. But that doesn't mean you throw away the treadmill, especially if it's still perfectly functional. It just means it might get a little dusty now and then.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Confer among the conifers

One of my few pieces of hard-earned parenting wisdom which I would share with first-timers without hesitation is this: if your pre-verbal child seems the slightest bit under the weather, and you have the kind of health insurance coverage where the out-of-pocket cost of a pediatrician's visit is minimal, then take the kid to the doctor. The doctor is the medical professional who may very well be able to tell you that your toddler, who runs around in good spirits all day but then wakes up in the middle of the night inconsolable and won't go back to sleep unless it's in mom and dad's bed with random flailing and kicking thrown in for good measure, actually has a mild touch of pneumonia. Which might not have been your own first guess.

Despite our little bino receiving just such a diagnosis a few days ago (and continuing to require extra TLC sleeping arrangements even after the antibiotics course had begun) we somehow managed to get pretty far in the Christmas readiness agenda this past weekend, obtaining and putting up and decorating the tree, stringing up the outside lights, and all that. This frees us up to devote mental space and energy to Christmas shopping, and also from my perspective helps to restore a bit of equilibrium, since I am no longer commuting back and forth from an undecorated home to a hyper-decorated office. It's nice to have the consistency and not feel seasonal whiplash twice a day.

So speaking of the office and calendars and consistency, I can report as of today that things remain consistently unchanged. No word as of yet on our contract renewal. Last week I was reminding myself that the decision wasn't supposed to be made until the 15th, but then I thought about it a little longer and actually went back and re-read some of my earlier posts (which, no kidding, is one of the reasons I blog, so that I can fact-check myself when my organic memory fails me) and lo and behold, the contract proposals were due on October 15 and decisions were supposed to be reached by November 15, which clearly has long since come and gone with nary a whisper of news. As I've said before, this isn't particularly shocking, the government ignores self-imposed deadlines all the time, but I am a little surprised that the 30 days post-proposal milestone went by unremarked. Specifically, I have numerous easily agitated co-workers who pepper our boss with questions all the time, looking for some new information (or reading of scattered tea leaves) to cling to for guidance about the scary, unknowable future. I would have thought that by now enough of the squeaky wheels would have pestered my boss sufficiently to prompt some kind of ad hoc conference room get-together, if only for my boss to officially say "they haven't made a decision, they haven't told me anything, and when they do I will share that with all of you" so that he could get a little peace.

Of course now that I've realized that we're overdue for that kind of team huddle, I'm expecting it any day now, and even moreso after an announcement was made over the weekend about the president declaring this year's Boxing Day a holiday for federal employees. This has an impact on my fellow contractors and me because we are no longer allowed to be in the office without government supervision. If all the civilian employees are out of the office on the 26th because of the federal holiday, then none of us are technically supposed to be here working, either. But since it's not a company holiday for us, that means either we're stuck using our own personal leave time, or our boss will have to somehow cover our leave out of overhead expenses, or something like that. Presumably the boss will let us know what the specific deal is with all that once he figures it out for himself, and maybe gives us a new contract update at the same time. Or maybe nothing on the new contract, and just tell us he's giving us all the long Christmas weekend free and clear, so just enjoy it and don't worry about whether or not we'll be in transitional mode handing things over to a new contracting firm in the new year. We shall see!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag of Everything That Fits

Well, the month of December certainly did not get off to a very content-heavy start in terms of the ol' blog, which is just the way it goes sometimes. Especially around the holidays, amirite folks? Let's go with that excuse, anyway.


It's kind of a bogus rationalization, though, I admit that. We've done very little in the way of preparing for Christmas around our house as of yet. I was fully prepared to put up the lights on the outside of the house some time over Thanksgiving weekend, but my wife decided that this year we would get new lights to change things up a bit, and those have yet to be acquired, thus the exterior doorframes and eaves remain unlit. We'll probably end up getting them this weekend, along with our tree, and then the decorations for inside the house can be brought out along with the ornaments, and we'll be festively decking the halls.

I did, for what it's worth, decorate my cubicle at work yesterday, which consisted of pulling out the little silver pipe cleaner Christmas tree that lives in one of my desk drawers and putting it up on top of my file cabinet, along with a nutcracker ornament that was a giveaway at an office holiday party last year. Every year I tell myself I'm going to do something with a bit more personality, like setting up a battle scene between little green ninjas and little red ninjas (by repainting little ninja toys from my various minigame collections that I no longer have time to organize gaming sessions for), but it has yet to come together. When and if it ever does, I will crow about it here, you can be sure.


We also haven't technically started running the long marathon of holiday open-houses, cookie swaps and other social engagements; that all commences tomorrow. Still something about the flipping of the calendar to December, and knowing how busy the month will become, kind of casts a certain weight over every single day. I have not suddenly stopped loving Christmas, at all, I hasten to add. It remains one of my favorite times of the year. But as those years go by I find more and more mental energy being expended on keeping up with everything, especially making sure (to whatever extent it's actually possibly to ensure) that it's a magical season for our kids full of memories they will cherish forever. Yeah, that sounds pretty ridiculously cheesy when I spell it out like that, but I can't deny it. I am a fairly cheesy softie (mmmmmm, soft cheese) anyway and I give myself extra license to indulge in that kind of thinking at Christmas.

In fact the lone concession we have made to the onset of Christmas season is that the Elf on the Shelf arrived promptly on December 1st. The only real parental Christmas responsibility I've had to bear this week is making sure to move the pixie-snitch around every night before I go to sleep, so that even if one of the kids surprises us by waking up at 4:55 a.m., the hide-and-seek game proceeds as expected. Five nights. I think I've forgotten twice already, but luckily managed both times to move the elf doll in the morning before anybody else arose to notice. I've also burned through all the good perches already, and have seriously considered creating a spreadsheet of locations so that I can brainstorm all at once and then not have to think on my feet about whether or not I'm repeating a spot from earlier in the month. Much as I love being a dad and I love Christmas, this strikes me as deeply weird, thus said spreadsheet remains purely theoretical. For now.


The most troubling realization I've had about the standard sorry-but-things-have-been-crazy-with-Christmas-blah-blah-blah handwaving is the fact that I reflexively project it onto my kids, as well. The little guy continues to have good and bad days at school, sometimes he does his work and even helps his classmates, and sometimes he's just distraction incarnate. He had a particularly rough day the other day, rough enough to get a note sent home from the teacher, and in my head I was arguing with the teacher that maybe she should go a little easy on the kid because, come on, it's Christmas and you've got to expect the normal kids to be a little hyper and the hyper kids to be yi-i-i-ikes. And then it hit me that it was still the middle of the first week of December so what I was really doing, in my little theater of the mind, was asking the poor woman to write off an entire month of the year. And I know that's not exactly fair. Yes, my kids have already watched the animated Grinch once and they've drawn up their Christmas wishlists (ok, fine, we have made multiple concessions to Christmastime) but just because those things make me feel like I can't handle basic continuity of operations, like throwing together a freaking blog post once or twice a week, due to the gravitational pull of Saturnalia, doesn't mean I should pass that particular attitude down to my little ones. So, I am resolved to try to get it together and keep it that way as long as possible. Wish me luck.


Speaking of Christmas wishlists, another phenomenon that grows more pronounced with each passing year is how difficult it is to get good gifts for other adults who ostensibly have everything they need and tend to go ahead and get themselves things they want. It's even gotten to the point where I feel myself becoming harder and harder to shop for. Don't get me wrong, I still maintain an insanely robust Amazon wishlist of my own, but it tends to be fairly same-y, just a mile-long list of books I would read and movies or tv series I would watch if I had unlimited free time. I'm perfectly happy to continue to receive those books and DVDs, but I concede it lacks a certain pleasing variety.

In all seriousness, though, I've identified what my two favorite material possessions are. Sometimes knowing that about a person can help you determine what other kinds of things they'd be into, but I don't know how well that would translate for me. In non-ranked order, the first item is my grill. As always, I plan to serve my family grilled meat for dinner at least once a week or so straight through the winter, come rain or snow or threat of ice tornadoes (actual tornadoes may void this pledge). My grill is kind of beat up and unimpressive, but I love it so much. I would be crushed if it suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. Of course it could be replaced, but I would miss it all the same.

The second item is a bookmark that the little guy made for me towards the end of kindergarten, for Fathers' Day. It is a laminated strip of paper cut into the shape of a necktie (as about 95% of arts and crafts projects with a Fathers' Day slant are) and laminated, although somewhere between safety scissors and plastic coating the little guy decorated it in stripes of alternating blue and green, because blue is his favorite color and green is mine. I guess that's justification enough for having a steady supply of books on hand; as long as I'm in the middle of reading something, I get to see that bookmark and smile every day.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank the Maker! (STAR WARS)

Happy Thanksgiving, and happy 1001 Movies Blog Club day! I suppose it was a statistical inevitability that eventually the Club would get around to Star Wars, entry number 642 on the Must-See Master List. The fact that said number coming up happens to coincide with our national feast of giving thanks strikes me as too delightful a coincidence to ignore.

Because, I mean, come on, what am I going to do, perform some kind of serious English major cinephile analysis on Star Wars? And even if I did, would I actually manage to add something to the conversation that hasn’t been said a few dozen times before? (Not if I’m writing this post at work while running out the clock on a snow-shortened day before Turkey Day, I’m not.) I am a huge Star Wars fan and a huge nerd, so I could go long on the history of the franchise, or the technical details of the making of the first movie, or the various other movies it homages or has been homaged by, or the spinoffs and tie-ins it generated both in terms of comics and novels with specific narratives and toys and such without. But as I said, I’m not particularly inclined to do that, perhaps partly because I already have many times. Here I am reflecting on a couple of movies Lucas was riffing on; here’s a mention in passing of a wonderfully odd reinterpretation I read; here’s another admission that my long interest in practical special effects hearkens back to watching and re-watching the Making of Star Wars. The list, I’m sure, goes on.

Instead, I’ll just take a seasonally appropriate moment to express my gratitude to Star Wars. I’ve had a lifelong, tumultuous relationship with all things related to the Empire and the Rebellion, up to just about verging on consigning the entire Expanded Universe to the junk drawer of Stuff I’ve Fallen Out Of Love With. But I’ve never been able to let it go, not completely, and while the extent to which I would qualify as a full Star Wars apologist waxes and wanes day-to-day, I do still consider myself a huge fan, present tense and without shame. And a lot of the ebb and flow of my ambivalence arises from stuff like the prequels, and the legacy, and the remastered re-issues, none of which really has anything to do with the singular movie Star Wars, box office champ of 1977. It’s hard sometimes, in general and for me specifically, to separate the movie which would later be referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope from the entire mass of its own gravitational continuity, but that’s the task I’m setting for myself here. Thus, a few reasons why I’m grateful for Star Wars in and of itself:

I’m grateful for the simplicity of its story. At heart it’s a fairy tale, a chivalrous romance about a good knight rescuing a princess from an evil knight. It’s set in space, with droids and hyperdrives and moon-sized battlestations, but it’s still one of the oldest stories in the book. That’s worth being thankful for because it stands as a reminder that even as modern life gets more complicated and cynical and seemingly hostile to the trappings of childhood, something assembled from the most basic building blocks can still have something to say, and speak not just a to a select few but basically to everybody.

But I’m also grateful for its unapologetic weirdness. I know, from an evolutionary biological standpoint, that banthas on a desert planet make zero sense. For that matter, the Empire either flying in their own trained dewback lizards, or the stormtroopers just snagging wild indigenous ones, somehow makes even less sense logistically. And yet those are the little details that made Star Wars so magical for me from the very first time I saw it. You can tell all the stories you want that boil down to a new twist on old archetypes and monomyth, but they’ll feel pretty thin unless you flesh them out with slightly quirky backdrops and hangers-on. And man, does Star Wars do a lot of heavy lifting in that department.

I’m grateful for the possibilities that Star Wars opened up. The movie (and, yes, the franchise extensions, for good or ill) casts a long shadow, but that’s partly because it kicked down a door filled with blazing white-hot potential. For all the talk about how the new millennium has become the era of the geek ascendant, and how all the underground dorky genre stuff has finally gone mainstream, it’s really more a matter of culmination, and it started almost forty years ago. Star Wars is a crazy mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, and purely that. It is not a story about a guy from Earth who winds up dropped in the middle of an intergalactic civil war far, far away, nor does it have any other overt connection to the real world its audience lives in. And yet it was and is insanely popular anyway. Every crazy idea for a movie that might have encountered some resistance along the lines of “nobody will understand that” objections owes a debt to Star Wars.

So, along those lines, I’m grateful for the embarrassment of riches we have today, and all of the enjoyment I derive from my pop culture consumption, because of the straight line you can draw back to Star Wars. I don’t go the movie theater that often, as I’ve mentioned now and then, and when I do it’s usually because there’s a movie coming out which I think demands to be seen on the big screen because of its scope and spectacle, whether it’s Gravity or The Avengers. Star Wars might not be the first summer blockbuster, I’m perfectly fine with assigning that distinction to Jaws, but it is the first grand scale effects-driven genre blockbuster. Basically it’s the reason why there are at least a few movies every year which do justify the whole waiting in line for tickets and popcorn experience, which I enjoy. And I don’t mean to gloss over the genre part of those earlier qualifiers, either. Lucas could have, theoretically, made an epic movie with lots of dogfights and shootouts and a rescue mission and a capital-E Evil bad guy, and made it a World War II re-telling of the fairy tale. In which case we’d no doubt have still gotten Raiders of the Lost Ark (actually that’s kind of what I just described, or pretty close) and Die Hard and Con Air and various other movies I love, but we might not have gotten Ghostbusters and Independence Day and Serenity and Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe a few but almost surely not all of them.

Last but not least, I’m grateful for the common ground that Star Wars has helpfully provided for me and my friends, year in and year out, for as long as I can remember. One of the things that brings me a lot of joy in life (above and beyond what I hope are the obvious and go-without-saying candidates: my wife, my kids, my efforts to be a good person and make the world a better place) is engaging with other people about ideas, where there’s room for interpretation and multiple perspectives. Star Wars is the first thing I can remember being at the center of conversations like that, really nothing more than elementary school playground shouting about whether or not a lightsaber or a blaster really is better in a fight, but still. All of the most important people in my life, my parents, my siblings, my wife, my buddies, the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all had long conversations with me about Star Wars at some point or another. (For my kids, so far, it’s been pretty one-sided, just me telling them about how there’s this thing called Star Wars and we’ll watch it together someday and also it is awesome.) I don’t consider being into Star Wars a litmus test for whether or not I want a person around, but I confess it’s hard for me to imagine a person who was indifferent to it, or actively disdainful of it, being my kind of people.

So that’s my paean to the Skywalker Saga. By this time next year we’ll all be up to our eyeballs in hype for the imminent release of Episode VII, but hopefully I’ll be able to muster up similar amounts of thankfulness, come what may.