Monday, March 31, 2014

Long week looming

One of the (many) things I allowed myself to be giddily optimistic about back in January when I was trying to set up a time to interview for a potential new job was the fact that if I got offered the position sometime in February and gave my notice such that I departed my current gig in March, I would have successfully snuck out before my yearly turn came up in the rotation to work the security detail for the office. But that rosy scenario failed to come together, and here I am on the first day of a five-day stint of staying later than usual to make sure things aren’t left in too compromised a state overnight.

It’s really not that bad of a deal, spreading the nightly security duties around to everyone in the agency; in fact given that we have 60-something employees my turn comes up a little less frequently than once a year - behold, the last time I was grousing about this was back at the beginning of February last year. Wow, just look how things have changed. Last go-round I was bemoaning the fact that I might miss the laughably-delayed season premiere of Community’s bizarro fourth season. Since then not only has Community not been cancelled, but it’s gotten Dan Harmon back and there’s been ho-hum discussion as season five now draws to a close that season six is, if not a sure thing, at least more likely than not. (And the episode I’m worried about missing this week if schedules go ka-blooey is not the season premiere but a late entry, albeit the animated GIJoe homage which is right in my wheelhouse.)

Also (and immeasurably more importantly, I hasten to add) last time I had security detail my wife was pregnant and we had two kids; now we have three, and my wife is working fewer days per week but longer hours per day, which means that on Wednesday and Thursday the sitter is going to have to stay later than usual waiting for me to get home an hour and a half after my usual arrival time, which will still have me beating my wife home, and at which point I will charge with no transitional downtime into getting the kids fed (unless the sitter volunteers for that overtime extra credit) and bathed and pajamaed and tucked in an all that. And that's not at all an attempt to discount the fact that on the other three nights of this week, my wife will be home alone with no backup during the dinner-prepping-and-serving part of the evening, which given our brood's temperaments (individually and collectively) can be among the most harrowing moments from start to finish of any given day.

So it’s going to be a bit of a week, and if the blog sporadically pops in and out of regular updating, now you know the reason why. (Mental exhaustion, probably. Murdered by my wife, less likely but non-zero possibility.)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Random e-necdote

Yesterday I got an e-mail from someone at my alma mater. I get a lot of e-mails from various people at my alma mater, and I tend to either delete them unread or skim them, then delete them. I do not consider this to be a terribly big deal. Most of the e-mails fall into the same broad categories: newsletters about what the local alumni chapter has going on this weekend (or this month or whathaveyou), informational updates from the current college president, and of course fundraising appeals. In other words, nothing which impacts me very much.

Perhaps I should clarify my general attitude towards my alma mater. I neither bleed green and gold nor do I wish a pox or cataclysmic geological event upon the place. I had a good time there, made a lot of good friends who are still a part of my life today (including, most obviously, my wife), and reckon I got my money's worth and then some out of the degree I earned. It's a part of the personal history that makes me who I am, but it recedes a little more into the background of the story every year. I don't feel the need to be an active part of the college's own ongoing story. I don't have any great compulsion to socialize with strangers who happen to be fellow alums, because I barely have time as it is to catch up with the alums I consider true lifelong friends. I don't lie awake at night worrying about the financial solvency of the college; I don't really lie awake worrying about my own finances, either, but it's not as though I make so much money that I could have a campus building renamed after me. And did I mention I have three small children who need to be clothed and fed and who keep my fairly busy and exhausted and are the primary reason I haven't indulged in the full-on homecoming experience all that much lately? Bottom line, I'm not going to donate directly to the school and I'm not going to the alumni association charity auction, not this year or next year, and we'll have to see about after that. But none of that reflects particular ill will, and it is honestly nice to be kept in the loop, or at least to have the option to ignore the loop.

Right, so, yesterday. This particular e-mail was targeted at people who not only went to to my college but completed an honors thesis en route to graduation, as I did (I've mentioned it in passing here and there, maybe one of these days I'll tell the whole story of how I managed that feat despite my indisputably wretched work ethic). And the way the e-mail was targeted was via a mailing list. I do not remember signing up for this mailing list, and despite my abiding mistrust of my own memory I think I really never did sign up for it. It's possible that at some point in my college career, maybe even during the application process (although I am old and electronic mail was a nascent technology way back then), that I ticked some box and signed something agreeing that the college could hold/collect my contact information and communicate with me forever. That doesn't strike me as too much of a stretch, honestly. Anyway, the head of the honors program is starting a new program designed to help students acquire funding for the research they need to do to complete their thesis projects, and he's hitting up everyone who ever wrote an honors thesis for donations. Makes perfect sense, I skimmed it and immediately knew I wouldn't be sending any money, and I moved on with my day.

And then the fun began.

Six minutes after the e-mail appeal hit my inbox, I got another e-mail with the same subject line, which of course was a reply from one of the recipients. A brief yet positive reply, in fact, pledging support and offering a few bromides about what an invaluable experience the thesis-writing process was. But however innocuous it was, pretty clearly it was intended to be a message directly to the dean. So my immediate thought was that it was slightly embarrassing for the response-writer to have accidentally copied everyone on the message, but that is one of the known risks of mailing lists. At least it happened right away, and everyone else could learn from the example and be careful about their own replies.

Or not.

I forget sometimes that due to my line of work and my years of professional experience, not to mention my personal proclivities and fascinations with modern media, my understanding of various internet technologies might just run a little deeper than the average person's, even the average nerd-among-nerds who went to my alma mater and wrote an honors thesis! And sure enough, four minutes later another person chimed in with their own rah-rah one-liner. Not that this bothered me, per se; I found it amusing, the same way I used to find it amusing how the fare card machines in the DC Metro stations could utterly flummox tourists. But I could also imagine it bothering someone of a different temperament quite a lot.

So of course, after about a fifteen minute lull, someone sent a "please UNSUBSCRIBE me" message ... to the entire list. Now, again, this might just be me, but I find this utterly hilarious, because my usual response to blatant and presumably non-self-aware hypocrisy is to laugh. If you write a snippy, three word message with keyword(s) in deeply aggrieved ALL-CAPS then clearly you think getting spammed with unwanted e-mails is one of the worst indignities of life. And yet, you just spammed everyone with your message. Bravo. But it gets better! Another message came in from another recipient, this time saying the idea sounded good but she was unable to make a monetary contribution (sister, I hear ya). That was followed by not one but two messages from the same would-be unsubscriber who had sounded off before: one read in its entirety "How do I unsubscribe from this list????" (yes, four question marks to make her point) and the other "where is the UNSUBSCRIBE link??".

Please enjoy this image of dancing Spam.

Two minutes after the third message begging to be unsubscribed, another recipient chimed in, and I swear I am not making this up: "Normally I curse reply-all, but this time it has brought me a connection to my former roomie." It then went on to address the first person who had replied in a tone of warm bonhomie. I admit I was agog at this breach of netiquette, and I'm still not sure if saying you hate reply-all and then replying-all with a message that is clearly not for all is better or worse than using reply-all to try to unsubscribe. Whatever the case, the online reunion of roommates was followed by two quick responses: one which addressed the dean specifically and asked if there was anything he could do about inboxes being flooded with reply-all messages, and another which only said "Yes please do not reply all." presumably intended, in fact, for all. And that was the end of the thread. (So far!)

I was sorry (in an admittedly mean-spirited way) to see the unspooling drama come to a halt before the unsubscribe-supplicant really blew her top in a spectacular meltdown. But the whole brief interlude was such a perfect storm that I barely know where to begin picking it apart, beyond the commentary I've already provided. First, a technical point: the mailing list of honors thesis alums was constructed in such a way that while the initial message appeared to come from the dean, it really came from the list itself, and the list was the default reply-to address. So people were not mindlessly hitting reply-all (although that is a real thing that people everywhere need to break the habit of, please) but simply hitting reply. Even the "hey, old roomie!" message was probably intended to be a reply, but the writer wasn't paying attention to what got populated in the to: field. Again, because of list configurations, not only the initial message but all subsequent messages had their default reply-to address set to the mailing list alias that fed into everyone's individual addresses.

So really the biggest violator of netiquette in this whole episode was the dean who set up the mailing list. Mailing lists are great for actual discussions where everyone needs to see and potentially respond to every other message. But for one-way, outbound communication they are problematic, especially when people haven't opted into them and aren't necessarily familiar with their delivery mechanisms. (Oddly enough, this isn't a case of my fellow alums not being up on the latest techno-wizardry, but rather that mailing lists are kind of an antiquated way of using the internet; it's like expecting people to be more than passably familiar with ham radio conventions.) I now suspect that the dean did, in fact, call the computer science department and ask them to at least temporarily deactivate the mailing list, which strikes me as more likely than all of the hundreds of the people on the list seeing the final "Yes please do not reply all." message and immediately abiding by it without exception.

Incidentally, you may have lost count during my re-telling, but the grand total number of messages I received in the honors thread was 10. That was the extent of the "flood" of e-mails prompting at least one person to throat-clearingly insist that the dean do something. Ten messages, the original announcement and nine replies, over the course of approximately forty minutes. This is the size and scope of things people lose their minds about these days, apparently.

All kidding about nervous breakdowns aside, though, I do have to wonder about Ms. UNSUBSCRIBE, and how much she actually gets how e-mail works(????). I wonder if she knows there are tools in any e-mail program, even web mail, which allow you to block senders, or shunt them immediately into the Spam folder. I also wonder if she knows you don't have to read every e-mail that hits your inbox (I sure don't!), you don't have to spare a fraction of a second to delete every message in real time (wait 'til the end of the day and do a mass purge) and you don't have to check your inbox every time you get a desk top alert or a chirp of your phone letting you know there's a new message waiting. I mean, yeah, I get it, if your phone dings and you fish it out of your purse or your pocket and unlock it and open your e-mail app and it's just another accidental reply-all, that's annoying. Doubly so if you are legitimately waiting for an important e-mail that could come at any second. But it's still a choice to succumb to that kind of Pavlovian conditioning in how you respond to your phone.

When I fetch snail-mail from the box at my curb, I sort through it as I walk down the driveway so the junk can go straight into the recycling bin next to my garage. When telemarketers call on behalf of charities I don't care to support or polls I don't care to participate in, I hang up on them. And when I get e-mail that's not vital to my existence, I barely notice the extra electrons on my screen. I read it or I don't, I delete it then or maybe later when I'm in the mood, it's just a virtual non-event. I thought we had left behind all the hoary jokes about how you could lose an entire day's work productivity to sorting through spam right around the time we got over the Y2K hump, but apparently not. But I still will never understand the people who think they are entitled to a 100% annoyance-free life, and bemoan the fact that it has yet to be delivered.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Just numbers

I've been making offhand references all this week about the baby's birthday party, which was indeed an event that happened and was by and large pleasant and without incident. I straight up admitted to a couple of my buddies that the party was really a celebration of my wife and I surviving one whole year of having three kids who were all five-and-under, which is why the entire thrust of the get-together was to have over our own adult friends and family for pizza and beer. There happened to be kids there because our friends happen to have kids, so it all worked out. There was also cake decorated with chocolate frogs, which was a big hit, particularly with the guest of honor himself, who snorfled up at least two of the chocolate frogs in the time it took us to sing him "Happy Birthday." He had no idea, on the other hand, what to do about the burning candle atop the cake, but fortunately his big sister and even bigger brother were there to lend a lungful or two. I should probably point out, too, that the bigger kids were very good and gracious about not being the centers of attention at the party, and managed to be genuinely helpful during the obligatory present-unwrapping, as opposed to insanely jealous in full hostile takeover mode.

So the baby is one year old and has been properly, officially feted as such. But of course 1 is just a number, and he's still the same, in most meaningful senses, as he was a couple of weeks ago. I feel like I'm changing a bit, though, which may be due to subconscious awareness of this new phase of his life, or may be pure coincidence. Either way, a switch has certainly been thrown in my brain, and I find myself using The Scolding Tone with the baby nowadays, whereas previously I would have considered that a waste of time and energy. Used to be that if he were getting into something he shouldn't I would just wordlessly pick him up and redirect him, like he were some kind of mindless wind-up toy.

Awwwww ... oh, I mean, AHHHHHHH!!!!!.

But of late I have actually been breaking out the big booming "NO." ... just before going over and picking him up and redirecting him. Still, clearly, in my mind I have determined he is now old enough to at least start laying the ground work of listening to his parents/elders as to what is and is not acceptable behavior. This may also have something to do with the fact that he is getting bigger and stronger every day, and is finding new and interesting ways to give us heart attacks every day, e.g. figuring out how to pop the "baby-proofed" outlet covers right out of the sockets. You had best believe that once he demonstrated that skill, he started hearing "NO." whenever he got within arm's reach of a wall outlet. And to his credit, while I've known many a babe (my older two included, in their day) who burst into uncontrollable sobbing the first time they hear a negatory word, or really anything in a tone of voice other than cooing adoration, our baby does not fall into that category. He is nothing if not mellow, and while saying "NO." does stop him in his tracks, it also prompts him to look at the speaker with a certain relaxed yet expectant attitude, as if to say, "Is there a problem here?" I have not yet fallen into the trap of actually attempting to explain my reasoning to a one year old. But that exasperated day is probably not too far off.

Speaking of exasperation, the other day the little girl took it into her head to destroy a piece of arts-n-crafts that the little guy had painstakingly assembled. This was not an entirely capricious act, I believe there was a retaliatory component at play, but deserved turnabout or not, the little guy was horrified. But what he said to me was, "When is her birthday?" And I told him it was a few weeks away (true) and he nodded sadly and said, "OK. And when she turns three, she'll act better, right?" Which of course broke my heart a little. I have been telling the little guy to go easy on his sister and not expect too much of her, because she's only two. And he's toed that line admirably. But apparently he's also been nursing an expectation that when she turns three a magic switch will be thrown in her head and she'll be much easier to deal with, and it kills me to have to disabuse him of that notion. But we all have to live with each other through all the difficult phases and ages, so we might as well all be on the same page.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

For the luvva Melvil Dewey

I just finished reading Alternate Histories of the World by Matthew Buchholz which, as books go, makes for a pretty good Tumblr. I know I really shouldn't judge books based on how they fail to compare with my expectations (though that obviously hasn't stopped me in the past) but I find myself in that very position once again. In this case, I can at least blame the title of the book, which I would argue is somewhat misleading. To me, personally, the phrase "alternate histories" is positively fraught with geeky potential, given that I assume certain narrative associations with the concept of history, in the sense of an unfolding sequence of events where certain elements give rise to others, or at least make way for them, at every macro- and micro-level. The actual, factual history of human civilization is fascinating enough, and once you start playing around with counterfactual fantasies that make some effort to resemble the logical flow of true history, that really pushes my happy buttons. In the past I've gotten more than my money's worth of enjoyment from books of scholarly essays considering the implications of altered yet plausible historical scenarios, from Cleopatra living into wise and revered old age to the Japanese discovering the New World. Given what I had heard about Alternate Histories of the World before I read it, I expected something along the same lines but more awesome, as it would incorporate various sci-fi and fantasy tropes into the course of human events.

Except that's not what the book is about. It's not a tapestry of carefully considered, fully fleshed-out examinations of hypotheticals such as "if robots had been invented in the 1700's, X, Y and Z would have happened and today the world would look like this." Instead it's a collection of one off gags all with the same format, a la "if robots had been invented in the 1700's, there would have been one at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and that famous painting would look like this!" The premise of the joke is then matched with some Photoshopped graphics illustrating the premise. That's it. It's a 200 page book, and each set-up and graphic punchline takes up a pair of pages, so about 100 gags in all. As I said, it's a decent enough high concept for a Tumblr to be browsed for chuckles. (Although even at 100 gags, there's a fair amount of repetition, with bits about Martians/UFOs, zombie outbreaks, and giant tentacled sea monsters inhabiting various urban rivers or harbors popping up with slightly-less-funny-each-iteration regularity.) Call me a literary snob, but I expect a little more substance from a published dead-tree book than I do from my online amusements and distractions.

Still (and probably because I'm a snob who would hate to ever be accused of wasting my time), I think there's some interesting observations to draw from Alternate Histories of the World. One is simply the acknowledgment that this is the world that we live in now, wherein traditional publishers are ever-mindful and ever-fearful of their dwindling market shares in the online age, and they'll ink deal after deal to turn ephemeral web content into physical volumes, without necessarily beefing up the content in any corresponding way (and lest it seem I'm picking on book publishers, see also: tv and movie studios following exactly the same model). This is reality, so let the buyer beware and all that.

Another peculiarity to note about Alternate Histories of the World is the cut-off point it uses for "history", which is the early 1960's. There is an overt metajoke in the text alluding to the fact that the world used to be a wilder place, with kaiju freely roaming the globe and interstellar visitors performing fly-bys every so often, but those weird outliers have all gone extinct or otherwise departed for their own inscrutable reasons, leaving the modern world a somewhat lesser place. Of course this is partly a practical consideration due to it being easier, relatively speaking, to Photoshop b-movie stills into older black-and-white pictures, or create hand-drawn monsters in the same style as centuries-old lithographs. But it's also indicative of a weird type of nostalgia endemic to Generation X, where we manage to yearn not for our own childhoods but for the time before we were even alive. For my cohort, it's not that things were simpler when we were younger and have gotten worse since, it's that things were always royally screwed up since we were born and we can only imagine the halcyon days of much earlier eras.

But I think there's another aspect of Gen Xer's collective unconscious that's worth examining here, too, which is the ascendance of nerd culture in general. (Which, funny enough, is a topic of conversation that came up between my father-in-law and I at the baby's first birthday party on Saturday, since it was a high-density gathering of my geeky buddies and they were well and truly in full effect.) For a long time the really hardcore genre-tastic stuff was completely walled off from the more mainstream entertainments. Not in a restrictive way, in terms of access; it was just as easy to buy a ticket to go see From Here to Eternity or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. But they wouldn't be mentioned in the same breath by anyone, and it was just assumed they spoke to two different audiences. (And if you preferred the latter to the former, certain assumptions could be made about your intellect and refinement, too.) Clearly we're way past that now. And works like Alternate Histories of the World are something like a corrective to the bad old days; where there used to be separation, now there's retroactive integration. It used to be acceptable to dismiss someone familiar with Mexican luchadore folk hero El Santo as a basement-dwelling troll with too much time on his hands for obscure trivia? Here's a photo of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and El Santo at Yalta, the opposite of an obscure moment in modern times. If you don't know who El Santo is, maybe there's something wrong with you.

For years now there's been commentary on the mash-up culture we inhabit, and I'll grant you that engineering a seamless audio blend of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" is less of an artistic accomplishment than the treacliest Taylor Swift original. But I think that this specific strand of mash-ups, of the common knowledge of the everyman with the uncommon areas of expertise of the geeks, is probably going to be with us for a while, and at least it has a reason for being. (Geeks have chips on their shoulders. They just do.) Obviously I, for one, embrace the trend fully, even if I'm not running out to buy Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or catch a screening of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact my only quibble with it is that it makes organizing my personal library a little bit more mentally challenging. Where exactly do I shelve a book like Alternate Histories of the World, or for that matter, like William Shakespeare's Star Wars? It seems too reductive to classify them simply as fiction, or even parody. But clearly they're not exactly non-fiction, either. Although I could make an argument for Shakespeare's Star Wars: Star wars is a real thing, an undeniable cultural phenomenon that's been with us for almost forty years. And Shakespeare's style and structure are real things, too, extensively studied, analyzed and documented. A myth is fiction, but a book about myths is anthropology; what do you call a book that recasts a fairy tale space opera according to the formal rules of the greatest English writer (other than absolute havoc unleashed upon the Dewey decimal system)?

That's what it comes down to, from my point of view: geeks are now empowered to hold up the things they love and insist that others recognize that those things are real. Even the imaginary superheroes and impossible monsters, all of them have reached critical conceptual mass that can't be dispelled or dismissed as "just pretend" or "kid stuff". These fantasies exist on their own terms and can't be denied. If you do deny them, you risk having them shoved down your throat by geeks who refuse to creep back to the genre ghetto.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

(Pre-) April (snow) showers

It is in fact snowing as I type this, not just snowing somewhere in the world above the Arctic Circle but snowing right outside the windows of my cubefarm, and it feels like the first time in a long time that a serious winter(-in-the-spring) storm has come through and yet both the government offices and the school systems have gone ahead and opened on their regular schedule. I might be disappointed that it’s a snowy day without being an actual stay-at-home snow day if not for the aforementioned fact that we’ve really had more than our fair share of those over the past three months. And supposedly this is the last gasp of winter, by this time next week the daily highs will be in the upper 60’s or lower 70’s, so it only makes sense that it’s a touch too warm for the snow to stick and shut down the region like it did back in the colder season (you know, eight days ago).

The cognitive dissonance is only enhanced by the fact that this past Saturday the weather was conveniently gorgeous for the baby’s first birthday party. My wife and I had planned the party to be hostable under our roof in case of inclement atmospheric conditions, but as it went we were able to make full use of the back deck, let the older kids play in the front yard, and generally enjoy a milder clime. Sunday was a bit chillier, but nevertheless the day was put to good use for undertaking a project that had been put off for too long: I rented a pickup truck and carted a ton of stuff away to the dump. When we moved to the house we now live in, the previous owners left some firewood under the back deck, which we never used. We burn fires all the time during the winter, but the wood under the deck hadn’t been sheltered well enough to avoid being soaked by the elements over who knows how much time, so we went about procuring our own logs every year. Then a couple of years ago we had a tree fall into our back yard and knock down the split-rail fence; homeowner’s insurance paid for the new replacement fence but the city was supposed to clear away the debris from the damaged fence. I think? Possibly the matter was in some dispute, possibly it was just a matter of not wanting to wait around while the city ever-so-slowly worked its way through the unbelievable number of recovery jobs that were backlogged after that derecho. Either way, I ended up dragging all the fence rails and posts under the deck, to at least get them out of sight. Then this winter we had one of our regularly scheduled pest control inspections and we were advised that all the loose wood, logs and fence parts needed to be cleared out before our entire deck, yard and house became overrun with carpenter ants.

The trick of course was to find a free weekend day when my wife could keep the kids away from the dirty work I would need to engage in, and for said weekend day to come when it was not too freezing cold and the ground was not too covered with snow and ice, yet also before it got too warm and any Camponotus americanus already nesting would have woken up to wreak their havoc. So it was clearly a stroke of good fortune that this past Sunday more or less met all of those requirements, and it was a weight off my shoulders to cross that particular task off the to-do list.

Granted, spending all that time going back and forth and back and forth from the piles of rotting wood at the rear of the house to the truck in the driveway gave me perhaps a little too much time to contemplate all of the other things that need doing around the house, the deck repairs and staining and fence re-staining and weeding and seeding, and that’s just in the little C-shape I repeatedly traced as I transferred junk. I could come up with just as many outstanding items from the opposite side of the house, or inside the house, or probably in some other abstract life-dimension if I really put my mind to it. The work never ends, which is not exactly earth-shattering news but is something I’m acutely aware of, however incongruous obsessing over spring cleaning while it’s snowing like mad out there may seem.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Last week (I think it was last week? Time blurs, and various holidays and snow days and sick days don't exactly help keep it all straight, so it may well have been the week before) I got my final notification of post-annual review salary modification and also had to finalize my personal goal-setting for the next annual review (which will commence around November 2014 and last approximately four months, as usual).

The salary adjustment news was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I got the maximum raise I was entitled to, given corporate parameters. The bad news is those parameters included the salary cap for my current position and title. So monetarily, it's always nice to get a little bump in the old takehome pay, however much it may be. And on the level of immediate validation, it's nice to know my boss values my contributions enough to give me as much of a raise as he's permitted to, with the implication that he would give me more if he could. But taking in the big picture, it's fairly symbolic of what a dead-end my current gig has become: I've been doing the same thing for so long with no real career progression that they have basically announced to me that they can't pay me any more to keep doing it than what they're currently paying me. There may or may not be ways around this (it's possible that from time to time they'll make COLA modifications to the caps for all the positions, which means I'd be entitled to nudge my salary up to the cap again; or maybe my position within the company will change, though let me come back to that below) but technicalities and exceptions aside, as I say, it is representative of the less-than-optimal status quo.

The goal-setting was, not gonna lie, kind of a joke. I put off doing it and put off doing it as long as I could, reasoning that if I actually got a new job then I might be transitioning out before the current year's goals were due, and certainly long gone before that next annual review cycle kicked in. Of course, no new job offer has materialized and he goal-setting deadline came and went. Funny enough, though, my procrastination ended up serving me well. My boss e-mailed everyone to say that some of us had completed the goal-setting and some of us had not (I was utterly unsurprised that I was not alone in blowing that deadline) but it didn't really matter because even the people who had already done it needed to redo it, based on some guidance that had been passed down from way up on high in the corporate executive echelons indicating everyone needed to incorporate certain vision-statement objectives as part of their own personal goals blah blah blah blah blah. Point being, the timing of my boss's e-mail telling everyone to hurry up and do (or redo) their goal-setting was such that I had progressed from feeling optimistic about my February interview for a new job to a relative certainty that having heard nothing in a month-plus probably meant that it wasn't going to come through. As of today I still haven't gotten a peep of a response or follow-up in any way, shape or form, and every day just kind of drives the nail in further. Ah well, I gave it a shot.

I dutifully recorded my goals for the coming year but, much like my self-evaluation for the annual review late last year, I didn't exactly labor over it with attentive care. And of course, five minutes after I submitted the online form, my boss approved them and they are now officially in place. Thus once again I am reminded that all of our corporate procedures and policies are just an elaborate kabuki dance, formalized theater (of the absurd) to create some illusory substance for the roles of HR and middle managers and whatnot. I know at the end of the day the only thing my boss and I need to worry about is keeping the government client happy so that our overlords get paid and we in turn get paid. Everything else is set-dressing.

But, to be fair, the essence of my "job search" since last fall is kind of absurd, too, in that I put all my eggs in one basket which in retrospect may have been a longshot, since I was simultaneously trying to redirect onto a different personal career path and jump ship to a completely new environment. I have yet to really seriously look at what else might be out there aside from this one opportunity that my buddy hipped me to. Clearly I need to start doing that if I want to avoid going through the whole review-and-goal-setting rigamarole again. (And I do.)

And yet ... and yet ... to finally get back to that whole changing-positions-within-the-company notion, I should acknowledge that when my boss delivered the news about my relatively modest raise, he also indicated that he more or less knew that my position on the current contract doesn't always provide me with enough real work to keep my fully engaged, and he went beyond that to assure me that he does keep an eye on the internal job postings for our company keeping in mind my skillset, and my recent upgrade to Top Secret clearance, and so forth. He admitted that he'd selfishly like to keep me on his contract at least through the end of this year, as we'll be recompeting to get a brand new commitment from the government as the last of the option years on the current agreement expires. Ethical dodginess of making it seem that I am part of the team fulfilling the new contract during negotiations and then cutting me loose before the ink is dry notwithstanding, I'd at least be willing to entertain the thought of going somewhere else within my organization, since there would be a lot of appeal in a best-of-both-worlds scenario: I'd have the continuity of service, no interruption in getting paid or lag time from getting into the payroll systems at a new gig, all my banked vacation time carrying forward, &c. &c.

It's practically April now, and the contract is up at the end of September, so that's really not terribly long to take a wait-and-see attitude. On the other hand, there's no reason I can't socialize my resume out there a bit more and see if some amazing no-brainer of an opportunity falls into my lap. We shall see what exactly I can motivate myself to do over the next few months. I don't know what that will be yet, I just know it better be something.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag of Wordplay

The little guy is juuuuuust about to the point where he can comprehend jokes that depend upon dual meanings, homophones, and other forms of wordplay. E.g., my wife recently did a little preliminary spring cleaning and found a pair of pajamas that a relative had bought the little guy a while ago, at which time they were way too big for him. Now, however, they fit pretty well, and they are hilariously modeled to look like old fashioned long johns, complete with a buttoned flap in the posterior section, which has a cartoon picture of a black bear and the words "BEAR BOTTOM" printed on it. The little guy decided he wanted to wear those pajamas for a few nights, and this of course led to a certain amount of discussion about why (always why) they printed what they did on the flap. Little does he know the lifetime of putting up with puns and double entendres he has ahead of him, growing up in this extended family.


Case in point! When things were starting to go wobbly in Ukraine a week and a half ago, I happened to be home with the kids for a sick day, which afforded me the opportunity to take part in an extended e-mail conversation that devolved into a punning contest between me and my buddy Clutch inspired by the crisis. It started as an invitation for people to come over to his house and play the card game Nuclear War in honor of the turmoil which, in case that wasn't a tasteless enough joke, someone followed up with some scatological humor, which prompted a complaint from Clutch, which I responded to with "Oh, Crimea a river". Terrible, I know, but Clutch returned serve and I volleyed back again and it was pretty much downhill from there.

This went on for quite a while, during which the observation was made that all of these keywords in our e-mail traffic were no doubt causing server crawlers to put us all on watchlists, because of course spies have no sense of humor. I then mused thusly: "If someone goes to the head of the CIA and asks Simferopol, I bet at least some of the agents would respond that they find this amusing."

Despite the torturous set-up, that pretty much locked up a victory for me in the pun-off. But it didn't really sit well with me because of course that sentence should be in the subjunctive! "If someone were to go ... and ask" would be more correct, but it had to be "asks" to blend smoothly into "Simferopol", so I bit the bullet and mangled the grammar. But I'm not proud of it.


Speaking of being a stickler for grammar and word usage, can I say one more thing about Frozen? Last bit for a while, I swear! OK, in one of the online thinkpieces I read about the movie, someone referred to a first act plot development as "Hans and Anna's shotgun wedding plans." And all I could think was, dude, that is not what that means. It's not, "Wow, those two got married really fast, like as fast as buckshot flies out the barrel of a shotgun!" It's "Those two got married really fast because the boy knocked up the girl and the girl's father marched the two of them down the aisle with the boy at gunpoint so the baby wouldn't be born out of wedlock." The threat of violent murder may no longer be a socially acceptable parenting tool, but at the very least I thought "shotgun wedding" still referred to an unplanned pregnancy necessitating a much-abridged courtship and dash to the altar, and not simply love-at-first-sight recklessness. For all Frozen's modernity and subversiveness, I assure any of you who haven't seen it that Anna does not get teen-pregnant at the coronation ball.


OK, back to wordplay. This week I read William Shakespeare's Star Wars, which is a very silly book that takes the plot of Episode IV: A New Hope and re-tells it in the format of a five-act play in a style fairly reminiscent of The Bard's. It is of course right up my alley, although I would certainly understand anyone who would react by finding the high concept amusing enough as a concept but not really care to wade through 160 pages of pseudo-Elizabethan dialogue. Still, if you happen to run across a copy you should at least flip through it for the woodcut illustrations alone:

I mean, come on.

There's some decent verbal humor throughout, though picking my favorite instance is tough. It comes down to, on the one hand, something which isn't even part of the text of the play but a bit of promotion on the inner flap of the dust jacket: MAY THE VERSE BE WITH YOU. I would wear that on a t-shirt. On the other hand, there's this line: "This situation here doth give me pause." It's an iambic pentameter rendering of my favorite recurring line from the trilogies, "I've got a bad feeling about this." And I may very well have to start working it into conversation, because there's no denying that I am totally that guy who would.

Friday, March 21, 2014

See what's become of me

In a couple of months, it will have been 18 years since I graduated from college. Tonight, I'm getting together with a bunch of college friends for dinner, because one member of our campus cohort who moved to Massachusetts and then California and most recently Indiana is back in Virginia for a visit this weekend. One thing that certainly helps the group to stay relatively cohesive and gather on short notice is that the rest of us have put down roots in various relatively nearby D.C. suburbs. Another is that what strikes me as a disproportionate number of us married fellow alums, and reinforced the common bonds rather than drifting off into other orbits. But I know that this is a pretty rare thing, for people who all met a couple decades ago to stay in contact and socialize like it's no big deal. And I am pretty grateful for it.

These are the people who knew me when I was still a pretty raw work in progress, who were instrumental in me picking up a cigarette habit, who dutifully made sure I got home when I got kicked out of bars (after a stumbling sidetrip to Denny's or Dunkin' Donuts, usually), and who drove me to the ER when my exuberance led to injury. I would have done the same for them, of course, and I suppose in some ways I did; make what you will of the fact that when I was the one causing trouble, the memories were burned into my brain, whereas when I was part of the indulgent clean-up crew for someone else, I tended to move on from it unencumbered. I suppose a fair number of people might be tempted to put those youthful indiscretions far behind them and not hold onto to people who remind them of those days, but I am not among that number. As I've already alluded to, it's not as though I need to shield my wife from these crazy stories about the wild times before I met her, because they started after I met her and she was there for them, too.

Is it my memories gathering dust, or is it just me?.

Still, of course people do change, and it is kind of funny to try to reconcile the past and the present. There's something like six or seven couples meeting up at the restaurant tonight, and one of those couples just announced that they are expecting their first child in September; the rest of us all have had, and are bringing, children of our own. So we've gone from irresponsible kids ourselves to (nominally) responsible parents. We used to meet up at 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights to start an evening of carousing and carrying on; tonight our dinner reservation is at 5:45, and I can't imagine my wife and I keeping our brood there for much more than two hours for fear or risking too much disruption to the bedtime routines. And that doesn't really make us outliers, as the whole rest of the gang has basically the same concerns and considerations to deal with. It's all extremely normal and age-appropriate now, just like all the stupid stories from when we were 21 were relatively normal and age-appropriate then. But I can't help but feel a touch of astonishment that it's all the same people on both sides of that divide, that those different lifestyles are all part of the same continuous lifespans, with a lengthy (and ever-lengthening) stretch of years in between.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The third thing (Frozen, continued)

Sometimes when I make a passing comment about how a certain tangent is best left for another post, it's just a figure of speech. But when I invoked that scenario in regards to Disney's Frozen the other week, I totally meant it. So here's where I dig deeper into the avalanche of emotions the flick set off in me. Which is not to say that this is completely separate from any consideration of my children (today is Thursday, after all) but rather that rather than trying to guess how they are perceiving the movie as its ostensible target audience, I'm now trying to sort through how I perceive the movie, as a parent.

It's a well-worn trope that Disney heroes and heroines have to be at least partial orphans, and Frozen checks that box as well, although it puts a slightly different twist on it. There are no wicked step-mothers or step-fathers here, nor corrupt guardians, nor material deprivation. For a time Elsa and Anna are raised by their parents in what seems to be a fairly happy home, then the parents die, and then Elsa and Anna just basically carry on. They still get to live in a castle with servants, and Elsa is still in line to receive her rightful coronation as queen when she reaches the proper age. The fate of the king and queen is sad, but not life-wrecking. The subversion is that all the life-wrecking happens while the parents are still alive, and is in fact perpetrated by the parents themselves.

Parents give their children two things, as the old saying goes: roots and wings. Really we should extend that list to three things, and to the aforementioned I'd add "crippling insecurities". And (my perpetual risk of projecting too much notwithstanding) I'd say Frozen agrees with me on that. The most generous interpretation you could possibly give to the thought process of the king and queen would be something along these lines: their first concern was to make sure Elsa did no harm, so they isolated her, and eventually they would have helped her learn how to control her powers so that she could live a normal life without risking harm, but they died before they could get to that part of the plan, so Elsa was permanently isolated. And as I say, that's the best case scenario. Worst case, they always intended to imprison her forever, in which case their untimely deaths was really one of the best outcomes Elsa could have hoped for.

You may or may not have heard some mutterings and squawkings around teh interwebs about how Frozen is all about promoting the "gay agenda". (There really aren't enough scare-quotes in the world for that stupid phrase, but for brevity's sake, I'm referring directly to the hysterical reactionary outcry.) The one article on the subject I took the time to read was a reaction-to-the-reactions, and claimed that the original freakers-out offered little or no evidence to support their claims, as if it clearly went without saying that the film's intent was totally transparent. So cue the rampant speculation: is it because neither of the female leads is married by the end of the movie, thus undermining heteronormative values? Is it because one girl saves the other with love, which gender aside is very literally and specifically sisterly love, which is a thing that totally exists independent of sexuality? Theories abound, but here's mine: when the king and queen decide to take drastic measures for Elsa's own good, their edict is: get in the closet, and stay there. I mean, sure, the closet in this case is a well-appointed boudoir in a royal palace, so it's not the same level of child abuse as locking a kid in a dark enclosed space with the old coats and the broom, but that's beside the point.

There's also a very telling moment early on when the Troll King asks Elsa's parents about her powers, and whether she was "born with them, or cursed". Elsa's father admits she was born that way, so if there's any commentary embedded in there it's not so much to paint the king of Arendelle as an anti-gay bigot as a way of trolling (seewhatIdidthere) any anti-gay bigots in the audience with the (admittedly false) choice of seeing gayness as either something innate or some kind of punishment, taking away the "well people just choose to be that way and could just as easily choose not to be that way" option. But in any case, the fact remains that Elsa cannot help who she is, and her parents react by commanding her to deny who she is, locking her away until she can totally negate herself. And this, as they say, does not end well.

I went to visit my dad and my step-mom and my sister back in January, and they had all seen Frozen at that point. My sister (she's 15) was obsessed with the movie, of course, and specifically she was fixated on the micro-genre of videos people were posting to YouTube around that time featuring small children singing along with karaoke versions of "Let It Go." I was amused enough by both toddlers doing their best to out-belt Idina Menzel and my sister's fascination with same, despite lacking a frame of reference, and my dad felt compelled to try to give me at least a little context. He said, in effect, that "Let It Go" really was the theme song for all teenage girls, everywhere. And that assessment from him keeps coming back to me now that I've seen the movie for myself, because ... oh, man. Growing up with my father was no picnic, I've copped to that before. He has gotten better, or at least mellowed in his old age, and I do think that raising a daughter after bringing up three sons has widened and softened his perspective on certain things. But to claim that "Let It Go" is an adolescent girl anthem, full stop, and implicate that it's therefore his own daughter's theme song, that is just the saddest thing I can think of. I get that he was trying to show that he gets it, somehow, about "girl stuff", like "emotions". But I think he was off the mark, or at least I very much hope so.

It's a great song, don't get me wrong. It's a showstopper. My wife says that it gives her chills, and she hasn't even seen the movie (yet). But the lyrics are a running indictment of Elsa's parents and how they actively screwed up her life and made her miserable and that is what she needs to let go of. Right? I mean, am I crazy here, or are Elsa's parents just the worst? I'm not claiming to be the world's foremost expert on child-rearing, but I'm pretty sure that growing up is supposed to be a process of learning who you are and how you fit into the world, what your strengths are and how best to use them and what your weaknesses are and how to compensate for them; parenting is simply assisting with that process, creating a safe space in which it's possible at a minimum, making it easier or closer to painless wherever you can as a bonus. All of that learning and knowing falls under the heading of acceptance, the opposite of which is rejection. I watched Frozen and I saw parents rejecting their child and brainwashing her into rejecting herself, denying her love and giving her nothing but fear which she internalized until she snapped. I had an interesting conversation with the little guy after the movie about whether or not Elsa was the "bad guy" of the story, and I was pleased that he didn't think she was, as he had basically picked up on the fact that she was scared of hurting people and made a series of bad choices out of good intentions. I did not follow this up with any more questions about who the villain (or villains) of the piece might be, if not Elsa, although of course in my mind it's pretty clearly her mother and father. Truly they are Disney's greatest monsters!

OK, fine, that's going a bit histrionic. Still, it was heartbreaking on some level to process Elsa's side of the story, requisite happy ending notwithstanding. Elsa gets damaged, and then she gets fixed, but as I have taken great pains to point out, her parents are the cause of the damage and not around to see the repair. Honestly, my oversimplified distillation of parenting above elides over a crucial point, which is minimizing the inadvertent harm done along the way. And of course that's the hardest part. It's so easy to look at a child and see what doesn't quite work about them and yield to the impulse to overcorrect. To a child that seems hypersensitive, we tell them to toughen up. To a child that seems hyperactive, we tell them to calm down. To a child that seems hypercurious, we tell them to mind their manners. That's the job, as defined by the social contract. I'm not saying that kids should run rampant and give vent to their ids every waking moment of the day. The tricky part is separating things out in terms of the child's sense of acceptable behavior and the child's sense of self. "What you just did was wrong" is a fine thing for a parent to teach their child; "You are a bad kid" is a lesson that's treacherously easy for a child to take away from that teaching. Shaping and molding, good; completely changing, or causing to question the validity of their identity, bad. Easy to say, but hard to live up to. At least I assume that's the reason why dwelling on Elsa's origin story makes me cringe so very much.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Buffy versus baseball

My wife and I were talking the other day, and the subject of the Great Buffy the Vampire Slayer Re-Watch (Plus Intercalation of Watching Angel For the First Time) Project came up. This is not exactly a tremendous surprise, given the reverence of Whedonia in general in our house, but the noteworthy aspect was that my wife was the one who brought it up, essentially out of nowhere, since I hadn't made mention of it in quite a long time. The basic dynamic of our relationship, and its triangulation against pop culture, is that I come up with these grandiose schemes for jointly consuming a certain amount (read: a frigging ton) of something in a certain way, but I refrain as best I can from attaching certain dates or timetables to said consumption. It's in my nature to want to make those attachments, because to me it's a fun and exciting challenge to stick to a target or race against a deadline. But I understand and accept that it's not that way for everyone, and my wife finds that approach a bit wearying, turning what should be the relaxing escape of entertainment into a grinding slog of dutiful benchmark-meeting. So I say "We should do this" and she says "Yeah, we should" and then I let her tell me when she's good and ready.

Which apparently she just about is, as she very astutely observed that the timing of certain external factors can and maybe should play a part. One of those circumstances is the imminent finale of How I Met Your Mother. For years now we have had a standing appointment with HIMYM on Monday evenings, which has become so ingrained in our routine that we've perfected the art of getting all three kids tucked snugly into their beds on schedule mainly so that we can be on the couch by 8 p.m. (which conveniently enough is just as critical for Community on Thursdays as it is for HIMYM on Mondays) Clearly there is going to be a void to fill after the last new episode of HIMYM airs, and what better way to fill it than with hundreds of episodes of Buffy and Angel, doled out one or two a week for as long as it takes?

(I feel obligated to point out the Venn overlap of HIMYM and BTVS in the person of Alyson Hannigan. Considering the fact that, as is implicit in the Re-Watch part of this project, my wife and I have already seen every single episode of Buffy and actually got as far as mid-Season 3 in the second go, and also considering that not only are we faithful watchers of new episodes of HIMYM but that we are fairly likely to settle on syndicated re-runs of HIMYM when nothing else is on (every couple has to have a default show that they're both perfectly happy to put on as background noise, right? For the longest time for me and my wife that show was Scrubs, but somewhere along the way our allegiance shifted to HIMYM), you could make the argument, and I suspect the data would actually bear this out, that there is not a single actor or actress, living or dead, who has been on our collective/respective home television screens throughout the duration of our romantic relationship anywhere close to as often as Alyson Hannigan. With all due respect, I wouldn't say she's the main draw of either Buffy or HIMYM, as it were, yet there she is, a constant fixture.)

The other circumstance to be taken into consideration is that baseball season is almost upon us. You might think that this means there are yin and yang forces at play here; my wife and I can both enjoy Buffy/Angel and one another's company by dedicating some weekly time to that project, which may very well offset the antagonism of our Hannigan-esque eternal Yankees-Orioles rivalry for the next six months or so. (The Yankees home opener this year sees them playing host to the O's. At this point its like they're blatantly trying to incite domestic discord for me.) Be that as it may, my wife was mainly responding to our by-now familiar pattern of just kind of defaulting to watching baseball more evenings than not throughout the spring and summer. They do play almost every day, and Baltimore's games are broadcast regularly, with us tuning in just as regularly, to the point where we unerringly know which two of the five or so in-house announcers is calling the game as soon as we hear their voices. Granted, part of the appeal of baseball is the unhurried pace, of each game and of the entire 162-contest season, but both my wife and I would willingly admit that there are plenty of meaningless games on the schedule, which we nevertheless subject ourselves to out of force of habit. So having a viable alternative at the ready, in the form of our Buffy and Angel box sets and the goal of steady progress through the, can only be a good thing.

I will provide further updates on that progress as it unfolds, unless it all comes to a screeching halt because of a blown ninth-inning lead during some non-Monday game that causes a television screen to get kicked in or the like.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

One (more) and done

Today is the baby's first birthday, and concurrently, the end of an era. The party will be this coming weekend, and that's it for me and my wife: no more highchair-situated introductions to the delights of cake, at least not within our immediate nuclear family. My Little Bro's wife is due with their first in July, and doubtless there will be many younger cousins to our children yet to come on both sides of the family. But we really are leaving behind a particular phase of our lives, the initial formation of our little clan. We won't be hosting any more birthday parties for a child turning one, at the very least not one of our own. From here on out the ages will tick upward over the years but the number of offspring living under our roof should stay fairly constant for a while.

Of course we thought as much was true a shade under two years ago, when the little girl turned one. We had just about wrapped our heads around the idea of infant-free existence when it became manifestly apparent that our third child was on the way. But to be fair, back then we were simply playing the odds and assuming that what seemed unlikely was in fact not going to happen; since then appropriate countermeasures have been taken such that I know with reasonable certainty that I won't be eating these words in a couple more years. And that is all to the good.

Another thing my wife and I managed to accomplish yesterday with our bonus day off from work was doing a little online shopping for the baby's birthday presents. They won't arrive for a couple more days, but that means they'll at least be here in time for the party (and it's not as if the baby himself has the faintest idea about today's annual significance just yet). My wife and I worry about each of our kids in different ways and for different reasons. With the little guy, we worry that we expect too much of him simply because we selfishly want him on our side helping out with the younger ones, not lining up with them as yet another bottomless pit of neediness (though he is that sometimes, and in moments of lucidity we know he can't help it at all). With the little girl, we worry that she'll suffer mightily form Middle Child Syndrome, not enjoying the trailblazing privileges of the oldest child and also not receiving the fawning last-hurrah attentions of the youngest. And with the baby, we worry that he'll be the victim of our exhaustion more often than not, that we'll shortcut things and shortchange him because we've already seen it all twice with the older kids. And to a certain extent, that's not something that is easy to consciously overcome. Because we do, in fact, have a metric ton of clothes that his big brother wore and outgrew four years ago or less, and it would be foolish to wantonly ignore that and buy an entire new wardrobe for the baby. And we also do, in fact, have approximately four billion toys in our house, scattered here and there, at least some of which are age-appropriate for twelve-month-olds. Yes, the baby is turning into his own little person, and yes he seems to have a genuine predilection for pushing around cars and trucks, but funny enough the little guy loved cars and trucks as a toddler, too, and expanding the fleet of toy vehicles is exceedingly difficult to justify.

So we didn't order any brand new fire engines per se but we did get a couple of playthings out of sheer commitment to the principle that the baby should have some things that are not hand-me-downs but his-and-his-alones. Although, I confess, one of the things we ordered was the ol' stacking rainbow of plastic rings, because (1) that is a certified classic and (2) yes, we used to have one and unsurprisingly the rings have been lost over the years (and who knows what ever befell the spindle). I can only hope that the baby appreciates the gesture.

So on Saturday afternoon we will gather with some friends and family and have some pizza and beer and birthday cake and good times. I should try to remember to make a wager with my wife as to who will be the first person to say "Ah, you buy a little kid a fancy toy and all they want to do is play with the box!" and how long it will take them to say it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Clover it

Happy Day of the Feast of Patrick ...

... or as I like to think of it, Five Months And Counting Until My Family Goes On Our First Beach Week Vacation In A Couple Of Years. You know, whichever. Celebrate as you see fit!

So it turns out that the subject of this post has many layers. I personally am in fact "over it" as far as St. Paddy's goes, because I had my fun back in the day but at this point I am too old for that shillelagh. However, much to my surprise I am really over another aspect of the holiday: the kiddie-version of it. I suppose technically I am preemptively over it, since my kids are all too young to really be clued in on the whole thing, with the apparent exception of the little guy.

Perhaps I should back up and come at this again from a different angle. Throughout most of my life I would have said that St. Patrick's Day was a day for city parades, Irish pride, corned beef and cabbage (I love corned beef; I loathe cabbage) and irresponsibly outsized inebriation (optional). There doesn't seem to be much in there for children, which never ever struck me as a problem! Kids get their birthdays, and Christmas, and Halloween, and Easter and Valentine's Day and summer vacations, and (our first-world) life in general is pretty sweet for them. I've never laid awake at night staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out how to incorporate more childish wonder and joy into Arbor Day or whathaveyou. However, thanks to the hivemind of Facebook, my wife has become aware (and in turn made me aware) of the growing trend of parents staying up late on the night of March 16th to dye the water in the toilets green or make tiny spritely footprints in piles of spilled flour or any number of other little pranks so that when the kids wake up on the 17th they'll know that leprechauns visited their house.

The historical record will show that I have no problem going to great lengths to convince my kids that our Elf on the Shelf is indeed magically nocturnal and flying around the house every night in December. And the little guy is just about old enough to start losing baby teeth soon, and I will similarly be happy to perpetuate the myth of the Tooth Fairy. But the leprechaun pranks have always hit me as a bit much, and wholly unnecessary. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when the little guy started asking rather a lot of pointed questions about leprechauns coming to our house, starting last week. Apparently they were talking about it at school, and I think even his kindergarten teacher was in on giving the lowdown on these (COMPLETELY MADE-UP!) "traditions". I will admit I took an unseemly amount of pride in the answer I gave when the little guy asked if a leprechaun was going to come into our house and make messes the night before St. Patrick's Day: "Oh, no, I doubt it. I think the leprechauns would peek in our windows and see the huge messes that you and your sister and your baby brother make every day and say to themselves, 'This house? We can skip - they're all set for messes!' Don't you think?"

So no, no little folk traipsed through our kitchen or made any mischief around the house. Whatever the celtic equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch may be, my wife and I are content to be branded as such.

And then of course there's the fact that back about five winters ago or so we had those massive snowstorms which were christened Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse, and Snowver (Snover?) It. Lo and behold if it didn't snow on St. Patrick's Day this year, occasioning yet another snow day for me and the little guy, presumably the final one for the season. I am more than ready to be done with winter as a general concept, but I can't deny that I've enjoyed the frequent respites from work. In fact, it occurred to me that our weekend was extended yesterday, and last week I was home on Wednesday for the little guy's sick day, and I'm pretty sure the week before that involved another snow day. Basically for almost the past month the only reason my wife and I have been able to stay nominally on top of our housework and such is because I've only been working four days a week, and taking advantage of that extra day to catch up on laundry or vacuuming or whatnot. We're going to have to have a dedicated spring cleaning weekend (or three) sooner than later, and get organized, and then try to hold it together. So wish us some four-leaf clover strewn luck.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sometimes the gears slip

Late the other night (around 2:30 a.m., so Tuesday night by TV Guide reckoning, as opposed to Wednesday morning if you want to get all technical about it) the little guy woke up suddenly in some distress, not feeling well. He proceeded to not feel well onto portions of our master bathroom doorframe and ultimately the master commode, after which he felt better, enough at least to return to his own bed and sleep through the remainder of the night. It might have been some bug or another, or might simply have been something he ate, but either way he recovered quickly and was more or less his usual self by the time the following day properly began. But of course, as always, the rules governing such situations take precedence, and so the little guy was quarantined to home for Wednesday. We cancelled the babysitter (which was already going to be the backup babysitter for entirely unrelated reasons), since she happens to be several months pregnant and we didn't want to needlessly expose her to our potentially contagious child. And I stayed home with the three children while my wife went to work.

The little guy had no relapses and all in all it was a perfectly pleasant unexpected day off. At various points it seemed within the realm of possibility, at least, that I might blog a little ... but obviously I never quite got it together enough to do so. Once again the "if I don't go to work, it probably doesn't happen" rule was in effect.

So yesterday everything went back to normal and I returned to the office, but we had a three-hour all hands meeting that took up most of my morning, leaving me only the afternoon to catch up on what I had missed Wednesday, and so although I did go to work, once again I didn't blog, as should be self-evident.

So it's been one of those weeks. Clearly there weren't that many topics I was burning up to sound off about, anyway. Hopefully next week will hit the sweet spot of being eventful enough for me to have things to talk about, but uneventful enough to afford me the spare time to do so in bloggety form.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My special little snowflakes (Frozen)

Monday morning I clearly got up on the wrong side of the productive-member-of-the-working-class bed, but I also greeted the new day with popcorn stuck in my teeth and Disney songs stuck in my head. I had taken the little guy and little girl to a Sunday afternoon matinee of Frozen, which was … quite an experience. (Slight spoilers ahead, eventually, which I call attention to mostly for my wife’s sake, since we will no doubt buy the movie on DVD for the little girl’s birthday and my wife will get a chance to watch it soon enough.)

I’m not going to say anything snarky against the movie, which I was rather charmed by. I’ve already admitted the not-so-secret shame of my deep and abiding affection for musicals, so it should come as no surprise that I’m an easy mark for a classic Disneyfied fairy tale full of showstoppers. (Side observation: I always roll my eyes at people who are dismissive of musicals because they can’t get past the superficial fact that In Real Life people don’t just break into spontaneous song in mid-conversation. By and large these are the same people who have no problem whatsoever with non-musical mainstream movies where people take turns speaking in complete, witty, hyper-articulate sentences, which is also something which never happens In Real Life. I do not understand why people quibble over the degree of verisimilitude in cinematic fantasies. Anyway.) I’ll get back to the movie itself momentarily, but the elliptical pause in describing the trip to the multiplex has everything to do with being there with my two small children.

It started out well enough. Frozen’s been out in theaters now for, what, four months or something? When my son, my daughter and I arrived in the theater about 15 minutes before showtime, there were only two other people there, a couple of teenagers sitting all the way in the back row. So we claimed three seats in the very middle, although that in itself took some doing, as the moment we were in the presence of the giant silver screen both my kids were incapable of doing anything but standing and staring in wonder. But I herded them into proper chairs, and we shared some popcorn, and soon enough the previews started, and those were fun (although I’m pretty sure that neither Captain America: The Winter Soldier nor the live-action Maleficent movie are really targeted at 2-to-5 year olds. The How To Train Your Dragon 2 trailer was rad, though.) and then the Mickey Mouse “Get a Horse” short accompanying the feature was a treat, as well. And finally, the main attraction began.

I’ll start by saying that the little girl was great. She was silently mesmerized and just stuck her hand out and waved it when she wanted me to pass the popcorn. Give or take a scene featuring a terrifying snow giant, which made her turn sideways in the chair and curl up and close her eyes, she was a trooper. Her brother, on the other hand … still a bit over-sensitive to drama.

All kinds of drama, I should explain. It’s completely understandable for a small child to be frightened, even beyond all reason considering it’s all make-believe, by things that are supposed to be scary, wolves and witches and whatnot. What I think makes my little guy a special case is the fact that he gets disturbed, beyond the point of being reassured and talked down, by much more abstract things, like the ratcheting up of dramatic tension. The stakes of the story do not have to be as explicitly nightmarish as “avoid getting eaten by the dragon” with the fearsome dragon roaring around the screen, there simply have to be stakes and a hint that the outcome of the story is in doubt, and that is enough to send the little guy over the edge. (The go-to reference between me and my wife recalls a time when an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse put him in a panic, because gentle as that show is, it did set up a narrative where Mickey had a goal to accomplish and the mere suggestion he might not succeed had our boy gasping, “Is Mickey gonna make it back to the clubhouse in time???”)

And it goes even farther than that, I think, and here’s where it verges into “I really hope for his own sake he outgrows this” territory. The music in Frozen is wonderful, arguably formulaic but then again very, very polished and good at doing what it’s supposed to do. And one way you could characterize it is “emotionally manipulative” which I’m not even saying in a cynical and judgmental way. The problem is that my little guy is ultra-sensitive and easily overwhelmed and when the music starts to work on his emotions it freaks him right out. Even if it’s happy music, it’s just entirely too much. It may very well be that this will always be the case for my son, and he’ll have this kind of selectively anhedonic attitude toward music where he likes it all right as long as it isn’t too much, and if that’s the way it is so be it … but I admit that, from my self-centered perspective, that sounds like a life that’s missing something crucial. I should be more open-minded than that, but it’s hard.

So the little guy spent a lot of the movie with his ears covered, and either sitting on my lap or trying to walk out of the theater (although, thankfully, he lacked the gumption to actually do so without me getting up and coming with him; if he had bolted, I would have had to carry the little girl as I chased after him). There were parts he liked well enough, mostly involving Olaf the funny little snowman, but it was a battle of wills between us for most of the running time. We’ve talked many times about how children’s movies always have happy endings and even when he’s never seen a movie before (he vastly prefers movies he has seen before because he knows how they end, not a general rule of thumb that it will all be ok but specifics, the conundrum of course being how do you ever get into a new movie?) he can rest assured that it will all be all right, but putting that into practice is far easier said than done.

And then (here come the spoilers) we get almost all the way to the end and there’s that climactic moment where the sword is coming down on Elsa and Anna intervenes and simultaneously turns to solid ice and all I could think in that split-second was “Goddammit, Disney, I just spent the last like 88 minutes telling my kids everything was going to be OK and if this is the movie where you all decided to start giving the stories more downbeat endings hearkening back to their folklore origins, I swear …!!!” I was genuinely terrified that Anna was going to be shattered into a million pieces, not so much for my own sake and my emotional investment in these fictional characters (although, sure, there was a good quantity of that in play) but mostly because I could not even imagine how traumatizing that would be for my kids. And here I thought all I had to do was keep them away from Bambi.

Of course it’s the sword that shatters, not Anna, and of course she is restored in short order and the happy ending unfolds as it should (and my faith in Disney is similarly restored). But even with that deference to traditional storytelling, I’m still deeply impressed with how subversive Frozen really is. I can barely find the words to express how exultant it felt (probably an extreme compensation after the above-described terror) when Anna punched Hans in the face. And again, not only was that satisfying for me personally, but for me on behalf of my kids, specifically my daughter. This may seem twisted, but hear me out. I’m a peaceful person, I don’t particularly advocate violence as a solution to any kind of problem, but if my little girl were a bit older I might have very well leaned over to her and said “There, did you see that? If any boy ever treats you the way Hans treated Anna? PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE.” It might seem like a minor moment of comic relief in the grand scheme of the film, but it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Disney is finally getting what it means to have a proactive princess. Granted, I haven’t seen Tangled or The Princess and the Frog or even Brave, so I’m operating with a basis of comparison from a generation ago. Not too long ago I would have said that Belle was my favorite of the Disney princesses, because she has a mind and an inner life of her own. But in the end, it’s Beast who gives Gaston his comeuppance, fighting him, humiliating him and throwing him off the castle tower. Belle’s still pretty passive. Anna gets to break Hans’s sword and then clock him one. Go Anna.

Really I could keep going with a whole list of things that critique or at least call into question the typical gender roles in the fairy tales. I thought it was cool that they didn’t shoehorn in any romance subplot for Elsa and she ends the movie happy and back on the throne but without a marriage in sight. And how about how the act of true love that breaks the spell on Anna is one of sisterly devotion, not romantic fulfillment? I mean, granted, to a large extent the subtext of the movie came across to me as “Parents can do extraordinary damage to their children, but siblings can help them recover from it.” Maybe that’s just me projecting? Either way, probably a subject for another post.

Monday, March 10, 2014


By way of obligatory update, let me assure everyone that you haven’t missed any news about my potential career-changing plans. As of tomorrow it will have been three weeks since my big interview and I have not heard anything at all since I walked out the door. No “Thanks for your time, we’ll be in touch”, no “We have other candidates to speak to and expect to make a decision by such-and-such date/timeframe”, no “Can you come back for a second round of interviews, which we will be maddeningly evasive about scheduling just like last time?” And clearly no up or down “Congratulations, we want to offer you the position” or “Unfortunately, we don’t think you’re a good fit at present.” Just good old deafening silence.

And I find myself stuck between knowing that the proactive and proper thing to do would be to embark on the process of genuine job-hunting, not just following up on a recommendation from an insider but casting a wide net and seeing if anything catches. It’s not like there’s a lot of disincentive for that approach these days, not as though I’ll go broke buying fancy resume paper or postage stamps. I can e-mail out a resume or three every day until I run out of recruiting websites. The problem, as always, is one of motivation; why make the effort when it may just be that the place I’ve already interviewed is going to make me an offer, and the gears are turning slowly? Why use yet another personal leave day to interview at a third company, when I might need that day to go back to the organization I’ve been trying to make headway at since last fall?

So that’s the current state of play, or state of pause, as it were. Meanwhile, back in the real world and the job I actually have, last week’s exercise in corporate demoralization involved a skills assessment survey that my employer sent around to everyone. Or, rather, the home office sent it around to the managers, who had better things to do than forward it to their employees, and then the home office made it explicitly clear they really were expecting the survey to be disseminated and completed by the deadline, which was basically the next day. So my boss finally sent it around for immediate turnaround, and I complied willingly enough. Because it was easy, because I don’t have any of the skills they were asking about in the survey! I really have no idea what the point of the survey was. I know that my boss did not explain it or put it into any kind of context. I don’t know if he was given context or if the home office was similarly opaque yet adamant, and these things roll downhill. My best guess is that the upper echelon of strategists are trying to determine how they might expand the company’s reach and big on other kinds of contracts involving other tasks at other government agencies in the future, and step one of that kind of new direction would be assessing what they could theoretically staff in house as of today. Which, as far as it goes, fair enough, that’s their job.

It wasn’t so much reading through the whole survey and leaving every question blank that got me down. It was that once I e-mailed it back to my boss, I got called over to the desk of one of my colleagues in order to review it. (This colleague is an assistant project manager for the contract; I don’t usually think of him as a boss but clearly that is the capacity in which he was acting in this story.) So the unspoken subtext was basically accusing me of blowing off the survey and leaving all the questions blank because I didn’t read them or something, I guess? But he went through line by line and I stated for the record “No” to each and every skill inquiry, and there wasn’t anything I had missed or needed to change or whathaveyou. So after that, I was dismissed back to my busywork. (My other, everyday busywork.)

What occurred to me in the wake of all this was that at least some things have changed over the past few years, whether it’s the economy at large or just my perception of/attitude towards it. A while ago I know that every time I brought up something about work here on the blog, I would fall all over myself apologizing for complaining about my job because at least I had a job. And if we had gotten this skills survey back then, I probably would have fretted myself into an epic freak-out, half-convinced that they were going to move the company in a new direction and terminate anyone who didn’t have the surveyed skills needed for the plan forward, and I would soon be unemployed. Now I feel perfectly justified grousing at length about my dumb job, and reasonably confident that even if the back-and-forth I’ve had going the past several months ends up going nowhere, I can move on to the wide-net plan and should be able to find something satisfactory. And honestly, not to tempt fate or anything, but if the company reorganizes and I get laid off, I would practically welcome such a development. A month or two of severance pay would make it that much easier to pound the (virtual) pavement looking for a new gig, and everything would work out for the best.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Cartoon Edition

Hey, remember the Cheat Commandos? If not, that's understandable. There was a hot minute around 2003-2004 where was the website all the kids (or at least a surprisingly wide cross-section of my various circles of friends) were into, and the Cheat Commandos were a minor recurring feature on that site, a parody of GIJoe modeled on the HR character The Cheat. Again, if a lot of that previous sentence seems like gibberish, don't worry about it. The important takeaway is that there was this funny website which has since fallen into obscurity, and I was really into it at the time, so much so that I bought a lot of merch from the site. This included little figurines of the Cheat Commandos.

One of the jokes inherent in the Cheat Commandos premise was that in addition to being weird little creatures, they were all special ops soldiers with codenames like Firebert and Crackotage and Gunhaver. Another complementary joke was that one member of the team was not like the others: instead of cool military gear, he wore glasses and a necktie; instead of being a weapons specialist, he was a government contractor; and instead of a codename, he was simply called Reynold:

Now, I thought Reynold was a pretty funny joke character when I bought the figurine set, and that was when I was working in the private sector. When I took my current gig and became an honest-and-for-true government contractor myself, Reynold became my little mascot. I left the rest of the Cheat Commandos set up on a bookshelf at home, but I brought Reynold to work with me. He has been sitting in my cubicle, on my desk next to my monitor, for years.

I bring this up because earlier this week, someone noticed Reynold and asked me what it was. For the first time in all the the time I've been working here. When I say that by and large I come in and keep my head down and people leave me alone, you guys, I am not even kidding a little bit.


So there's a plan this weekend to take our two older kids to see Frozen on the big screen. It's available On Demand right now, which would be cheaper than a trip to the multiplex, and it's going to be released on Blu-ray in a week or two, which would be more permanent. But an excursion to the movie theater is just a fun treat in and of itself (including for the parent who ends up leading the outing - we still haven't decided which one that will be yet) and it gets the kids out of the way for valuable housecleaning-during-pause-in-messmaking time.

Last time I got together with my buddies (which I guess was the Super Bowl?) they were all talking about "Let It Go" parodies, which they appreciated largely because they had already seen the film. So of course I feel like I'm playing catch-up. I don't know if I've ever mentioned this explicitly, but several of my closest friends have only girls (two for one, three for another, an only child for yet another) and one had a girl first and just a year or so ago had a boy. So my buds have long had a very female-informed, princess-centric view into pop culture which I'm just starting to access as my little girl gets old enough to sit through feature films and have opinions about things in general. Anyway, I look forward to my belated initiation into that club, as it were.

As far as the movie itself, it's Disney, it won a couple Oscars, I'm sure it's going to be entertaining. If I'm the one who ends up catching it with the kids, and I have anything more insightful than that to offer, I'll be sure to post a follow-up.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Impure coincidence

Random Friday Trivia: at my last job, I worked at two completely different addresses, as the company was first located in an office building in Bethesda and then later moved to one in Glover Park. At my current job, I have also worked at two completely different addresses, as the agency was headquartered in Rosslyn when I came on to the contract, and later got BRAC'ed to Crystal City.

That's a minor coincidence, but here's one that's odder: the second office I worked in at my last job was within walking distance of a gentlemen's club. And because I was in my early 20's, and most of my co-workers were also heterosexual males in the same age cohort, we often made jokes about availing ourselves of its proximity. We never, ever followed through on these jokes, I hasten to add. But it was all but impossible for us not to acknowledge that we were aware of it.

The second office I've worked in at my current job is also within walking distance of a gentlemen's club. These establishments are not so commonplace around here that this is an unremarkable happenstance, if you ask me. It's kind of crazy. Of course, the major difference between the laidback, loosey-goosey, young and hungry startup environment and the buttoned-down, conservative DoD directorate corporate cultures is that at my present gig NO ONE talks about the nudie joint lunch specials, ironically or otherwise.

Or so I always assumed! This week we had a staff meeting, the first one in I couldn't tell you how long, and my government boss mentioned that one of the longtime members of the team was moving on to another opportunity and we would be having a farewell luncheon for her in the next week or two. My boss said that she had the venue for the luncheon picked out but the name of it was escaping her, Crystal City Something ...

The gentlemen's club in the neighborhood is called, innocuously enough, the Crystal City Restaurant. I know this, so of course it occurred to me to make a sly comment about it, but I also know my audience (as well as my proper place as a contractor) so I held my tongue. I rarely speak out of turn in staff meetings, anyway. But to my surprise, more than one of my older male colleagues started in on, "Whoa, are you thinking of the Crystal City Restaurant? I hear the prime rib is surprisingly good!" To my even greater surprise, my government boss reacted with a fairly good-natured mixture of amusement and horror and a definitive, "No!" indicating that she herself knew the CCR by reputation. Ultimately it was determined that the luncheon will be at the Crystal City Sports Pub, so at least that's settled.

I always assume that my fellow office drones at this particular workplace are even more bred-in-the-bone dronelike than your average wage-slave. Despite the fact that there is something pointedly awkward about witnessing some government employees needling my boss with essentially the same jokes that I had already thought of and deemed inappropriate, it's at least a little heartwarming to know that we're all human beings after all.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Garbage cans and toilets, mostly

We are rapidly approaching the breaking point for my (extremely lazy) approach to blogonymity for my family members, specifically the kids, as “the baby” is well into a phase of his life which at the very least borders on, and occasionally overlaps, his being more accurately designated “the toddler”. In many ways he is very much becoming a little guy in every significant sense, but of course we already have “the little guy” and I’m fairly certain I don’t want to go down the road of “the little guy and the little guy 2” or “the elder little guy and the younger little guy” or anything like that. It is entirely possible that the baby should in fact assume the “little guy” moniker and it is in fact my firstborn who needs a new generic callsign, but nothing particularly apt is leaping to mind.

Still, I will put off such designatory decisions for another day, I suppose. Too much of my mental energy is consumed these days by simply keeping up with the nearly ambulatory baby, who enjoys getting into pretty much everything. As the title of this post indicates, the list of things which fascinate him is headlined by trashcans and commodes, which I realize now (in our house, at least) are both opaque and white, and I’m sure that contributes to their allure, so blank yet so mysterious! Far more interesting than the seven billion different colorful and educational toys lying around the house, either scattered directly on the floors or piled into bins which are themselves on the floor and easily accessible for the baby. Other items which make for far more interesting playthings than actual playthings, as far as my son is concerned, include refrigerator magnets, clean laundry in a basket waiting to be folded (but not, I hasten to add, waiting to be pulled out and strewn all over the room, ahem), pet food bowls (including, perhaps especially, when the dogs are actively eating out of them, which is not exactly the safest time to make a wild grab at them), and his big brother’s eyeglasses.

I was going to say something to the effect that at least the baby seems to be past the point where the alarm-bell highest priority concern was choking hazards, until I remembered that he seems to have developed a gourmand’s taste for crayons (a wax tooth, if you will?). The very fact that I momentarily forgot is probably an indication of the inevitable slide toward compromise that is the inevitable byproduct of two working parents having three (or, I shudder to imagine, more) kids. We were very good about keeping the house choking hazard free when we only had one baby in the world to worry about. When he got a little sister, we were still hyper-vigilant about monitoring for choking hazards and keeping her away from them. By the time this baby was crawling, we had resigned ourselves to just doing the best we could, whatever form that might take on any given day. Exhaustion was a factor, as was the proliferation of said hazards, as the other kids got old enough to be allowed to play with toys with small removable pieces, and we didn’t want to deprive them of that, and there are trade-offs between keeping the choky-bits of toys sequestered in the little guy’s bedroom while the infant-friendly toys are all in the living room, because that means the baby playing in one room and the little guy on a different floor of the house, and sometimes there’s only one parent at home who sadly can’t be in two places at once, so OK fine, everybody just play in the living room and we’ll manage. I’m rambling, I know, but maybe my ungoverned train of thought gives some sense of how it’s possible to inadvertently end up concluding that hey, maybe this third child of ours will just not stuff random little things in his mouth, because it certainly would be a big help to us if that were the case.

Alas, the baby’s self-preservation instincts are no more finely developed than his siblings were at this age; if anything, he may be even more of a risk-taker. Another non-plaything which the baby (if he could speak) would passionately argue is, in fact, a plaything? His big brother’s nightlight, which is conveniently plugged in at nearly eye-level for a crawling babe. And not only is the baby strong enough to grasp the nightlight and pull it right out of the socket, but he has done so more than once and, upon completing that step, has become genuinely torn between two avenues of exploration: the light in his hand, or the outlet on the wall. My wife swears to me that she put the baby down for a second, turned around, and then had to catch up to him already in big brother’s room, already holding the nightlight, and literally(!) licking his fingertip before tentatively reaching toward the socket slots. She swooped in and picked him up before he could complete his experiment, of course. Never a dull moment!