Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Best choice, worst feeling

Our oldest cat had been in declining health, a decline which became markedly steeper over the past few days. Because my wife is a veterinarian, we do have a few (theoretical) built-in advantages as pet owners. My wife has the clinical evaluation skills to ascertain when an animal has reached minimal levels of quality of life, and once that determination has been made, she also has direct access to the facilities to make that end-of-life transition possible.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that my wife can diagnose exactly how bad the kidney failure has gotten just by smelling a cat’s breath, and it’s quite another to come to grips with reaching the end of the road for a beloved pet. I led off this post talking about “our cat” and I honestly do, at this point, feel that the cat was jointly ours, but in reality she was always very much my wife’s cat. My wife and I tease each other about being sole custodians of various pets depending on how much they have aggravated or enraged us recently (“Your dog peed on the carpet again.” “Your cat woke me up attacking my toes in the middle of the night.”) although we co-adopted four out of five of them. My wife’s cat, on the other hand, predates me. She was living in my wife’s apartment the very first time I paid a call on her in the early water-testings that would ultimately culminate in us taking the plunge together. It’s a fairly risible cliche, the single gal with a pet cat and the new boyfriend and the power struggles and pecking orders that have to be negotiated, but I lived through that hoary old script and can vouch firsthand for exactly how many grains of truth are in it. (A lot or grains, I vouch.)

So my wife and her cat had been through a lot together, more even than my wife and I have been through together, and my wife loved that beautiful old Torbie very much. It’s a paradox that making the decision that’s best for an animal’s welfare, measured in terms of the avoidance of needless suffering, often means making the decision that hurts your heart the most. Sometimes it takes a lot of love to let go. So this morning my wife went in to work early so that she could say goodbye to her beloved pet. It wasn’t easy, it simply needed to be done, and we’re all a little sadder for it.

Well, I say “we all” (because apparently I’m feeling expansive and inclusive this morning) but I’m not sure if it really applies to the children. People will say that one of the reasons why it’s good to have pets is because it gives you an opening to confront and deal with issues of mortality with your kids. We’ve had to put cats to sleep before, but they were temporary pets at best, who came to us with built-in problems they never quite got over. This was the first time a long-standing member of the family was terminal, and we broached it delicately but straightforwardly with the little guy and the little girl (the baby obviously having no clue what’s going on). The little guy said he understood that the Torbie was leaving that morning with mommy and never coming back, but also, oh so tactfully and truthfully, said he wasn’t sad about it. (He’s much more of a dog person, to be fair.) The little girl also said she understood that it was time to say goodbye forever to the cat, but she’s right on the bubble between understanding abstract concepts and being really, really good at parroting things back at us, so who knows.

So my wife held the cat on her lap on the couch and had the kids come over and say goodbye, and they complied. And, standing nearby, I added, “We’ll miss you,” and as expected my daughter mimicked that sentiment verbatim. My son, on the other hand, looked at me very doubtfully, silently conveying the obvious question: “Am I supposed to say that even though I won’t miss her?” Still, not one to pass up a teachable moment, I tried to pivot from grief to empathy by prompting the little guy to tell his mother “You’ll miss her, and I’m sorry you’re sad.” So at least there was that.

Anyway, it’s a gloomy day in our little fiefdom today, which matches the gray weather outside pretty perfectly. Tomorrow is a whole new month, and hopefully things will brighten in all senses as it comes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I could have sworn that television had this thing called “May Sweeps” but apparently that doesn’t apply to sitcoms, or at least most of the sitcoms that my wife and I choose to make the time to follow. Here we are in the waning days of April and not only has HIMYM been gone for about a month, but Community and Parks & Rec have both already aired their respective season finales (in both cases, episodes which could also have served well as series finales, although Parks & Rec is returning in the fall and Community probably will be back at some point, too). I don’t believe I’ve ever made it a secret how some of the most inspired (and/or maniacally desperate) strategies we’ve ever devised and employed to consistently get all our kids to go to bed peaceably and on time have been motivated by a desire to be present for the opening minutes of weeknight sitcoms that happen to broadcast at 8 p.m. We’ve gotten into a pretty good groove about that lately, to be honest, after enduring some particularly wearisome passive resistance techniques our daughter dug in her heels on, but of course now that the gears of the bedtime machine are spinning smoothly, there’s markedly less reason to race to get in front of the flatscreen in the den by a set hour.

The main exception, for another two or three weeks anyway, is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. By which I mean that’s the scripted show that comes on at 8 that I, at least, remain invested in. As far as sitcoms with a few more episodes to burn, my wife is still a pretty big booster of The Goldbergs, which went on April hiatus but is back tonight, though since that show doesn’t air until 9 it’s never been a problem to catch it in full. So.

Of course there’s plenty of sports on tv right about now, what with hockey playoffs (the Penguins wrapped up their first series last night, which was a bit nerve-wracking as their 4-0 lead dwindled throughout the third period to 4-3, but ultimately made my wife pretty happy) and regular season baseball (which has yet to inspire any noteworthy smacktalk between my wife and me, but do stay tuned). Also something about post-season basketball, I think? The NBA is still pretty much a non-entity in my household, I must confess (now watch all of our kids somehow turn into huge hoops fans to the utter bewilderment of their parents).

And, as I alluded to a while back, we have re-introduced Buffy the Vampire Slayer into the rotation. It took a fair amount of collaborative detective work for my wife and I to remember where exactly in season three we had left off, but ultimately I think we zeroed in on the right episode. Here’s the amazing thing, from my perspective: we sat down and popped in the appropriate dvd and cued up the appropriate episode (“Beauty and the Beasts”) and enjoyed it thoroughly. That happened to be the last episode on that particular disc, so to proceed directly to the next episode involved getting up and changing dvds and all kinds of non-enabled-by-remote exertion, all to re-watch an installment of a series we’ve both previously consumed the entirety of. And yet, as the credits rolled my wife and I looked at each other and there was no hesitation whatsoever between us that we were, in fact, going to change dvds and watch the next episode. The show is like 16 years old and deeply familiar and nonetheless retains that potato chippy can’t-watch-just-one quality, still. I mean granted, we’re talking specifically about season three here, which is arguably the high-water mark for the whole run, but I find it impressive.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Back in (non-busy) business

I’m pretty sure (although I’m the first to admit my memory isn’t good for much these days) that this is the first Monday I’ve come in to the office all month. For the past few weeks, or more accurately weekends, it’s been one thing after another that has made it feel like we are going to fall helplessly, hopelessly behind in maintain a baseline level of sanity in the household unless I extend the intervening days off by an extra 24 hours. We must have turned the corner, though, because we got our usual workload done this past Saturday and on Sunday I painted the front living room. And today, I find myself once again encubicled.

The first of the three Mondays I bailed from work on was one which I set up with my bosses well in advance. I offered no explanation, just informed my government and contracting managers that I needed a personal day. It had been a while since I had given myself a random day off and I didn’t feel the need to belabor the point. For the second one, though, I explained both why I was taking off and retroactively why I had taken off (in both cases, it was because of doctors appointments for the kids with the pediatrician and/or various specialists - again, they’re all fine, a lot of these were routine follow-ups) and even went so far as to apologize for scheduling things for consecutive Mondays (though I pleaded, mostly truthfully, that the doctors weren’t giving us much choice). By the time the need for a third Monday in a row off became apparent, I decided I needed to take a new tack, and rather than schedule it in advance I simply went the (bogus) sick day route. And nobody really batted an eye. I was keenly aware of the fact that I had been avoiding going to work on Mondays for the duration of April, but I don’t think either of my managers really noticed.

And today, my contracting manager is on leave and my government supervisor has been in and out, and nobody has given me a single assignment to work on all day. I have a few odds and ends, some long-term low-priority projects that could nominally keep me busy, but nothing urgent and/or important. It’s probably for the best that I punched in today, for my own sake, before three-day weekends became an even harder habit to break, but that’s about the best justification for getting out of bed this morning I can come up with right now.

I know I should count my blessings for having a flexible job, with bosses who are cool with (or oblivious to) my comings and goings, and enough paid time off saved up to use at will, and I am glad for it all, really. I could have a better job situation, but it could be a lot worse in many ways. Still, if I’m going to get back into the swing of blogging during the week, it just wouldn’t feel like a proper Monday without me belly-aching about the absurdity of my current gig, right?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Staying in touch

Everybody is fine, at least by defining "fine" as a wide range of conditions between "terrible" and "amazing". In brief:

- The baby was diagnosed on Tuesday with his first-ever ear infection. He dodged the bullet for quite a while, aided immeasurably by having an at-home sitter rather than being exposed to the biohazard incubator that is the daycare center, but give the dubious otological genetic legacy my wife and I have apparently founded, it really was inevitable. The good news is he likes the antibiotics just fine and doesn't engage in any physically violent protests when we make the twice-daily ministrations. He's going to be all right. He's also basically an official toddler now, stomping around on two feet at will, although he still crawls a fair amount (and also walks on his knees sometimes, though I can't imagine that lasting too much longer).
- The little girl is in good health and has proven to be exactly as stubborn and willful at three years old as she was at almost-three (and every other stage of her life). My wife and I were kind of hoping that, post-birthday, we could use some well-deployed you're-a-big-girl-now's to bring her around to our way of thinking on a few of our quotidian power struggles, but ... not so much. That's just life with a pre-schooler (and an Aries, at that) and I know that, but still, ask me in person how my daughter is these days and I will likely respond with a bit of a drawn out sigh, "She's fiiiine."
- The little guy, also hale and hearty, just went back to school this Tuesday after a week and a day of official Spring Break. We're in the final two months of the school year now, and our expectations are pretty low. The transition to a real, fulltime classroom was difficult for the little guy, in ways that caught us all of guard, and getting off on the wrong foot by having his initial teacher reassigned a few weeks into the year and shunting him into a different established set of kids, most of whom are older than him anyway at ages when small chronological gaps can contain huge developmental differences ... the long and the short of it is that we basically wrote kindergarten off, and now we're running out the clock. First grade will be a clean slate, and better in many ways, because it just has to be. Meanwhile, I anticipate that the little guy will throw himself into full-throated enjoyment of his first ever summer vacation in equal and opposite proportion to his ambivalence about Grade Zero. So that at least will be fun.
- And just to bring things full-circle, my wife is hanging in there despite the most severe seasonal allergies I've ever seen her have to endure. Today she expressed suspicion that, in addition to the pollen-induced respiratory freakout she's been saddled with 24/7 for the past two weeks, she might also have a touch of the same ear infection the baby is harboring. I deemed that suspicion valid and worth investigating, so hopefully she'll be able to get in to see a doctor sooner than later.

Me? I am also fine. My allergies are present and accounted for, as usual, but I've been living with them so long I hardly notice unless directly questioned about them. The job landscape has not changed in any direction along any axis; if it does, I will announce it immediately. I feel like the month between the baby's first birthday celebration in mid-March and the little girl's third in mid-April was a bit of a gauntlet, and it may have left me feeling a touch burnt out. Not in an awful ashes-in-my-mouht kind of way, just in an exhausted please-don't-expect-much-effort fashion. I haven't had the mental energy to gather up the portable dvd player and its peripherals in the morning, ergo no movies watched lately. I read a mildly interesting non-fiction book about the persistence of modern conspiracy theories (from the protocols of the Elders of Zion to birthers and 9/11 truthers) and a Batman compilation, but there were numerous days lately where the only things I did on the train were surf the web on my smartphone and take catnaps. I've established previously that little to no pop culture consumption = little to no subject matter for blog posts, and that remains true enough.

And although I have a weird reflexive self-directed-eyerolling reaction to the following, I'll go ahead and put it out there: I've been writing a lot lately, just not here on the blog. There was a time, in the murky primordial epochs of this weblog, when I told myself (truthfully) that I was starting the project not only as an outlet for talking about the things that only I want to talk about, but as an outlet for the act of writing itself, something which I have always claimed is fairly important to me but which I have not always faithfully practiced. At the very least, I told myself, the blog would be good for discipline, a way to force myself to write every day, to keep the creative muscles from atrophying. And then there was a time, somewhere in the mid-to-well-established phase, when I realized that all of the effort I was expending on the blog was almost certainly diverting energy from other potential projects. All well and good to embark on a practice regimen, but what's the point of constant practice of a skill that never gets put to its intended use? I chose to avoid that rhetorical question for as long as possible. But lately it's been impossible to ignore.

I mentioned a couple months ago that I had written a story for How the West Was Weird volume 3, and in fact last night I was e-mailed a galley copy of the book for proofreading. Hopefully pretty soon the cover art for the anthology will be finalized and I'll be allowed to display and promote it. But since turning in that tale I've found myself itching to crank out more and more fiction. Coincidentally, early last month friend o' the blog Harvey Jerkwater approached me with a proposition in which we'd both write some original, marketable fiction and keep each other honest about actually finishing on a set timetable instead of letting it slide into a nebulous maybe-someday state of unbeing. I agreed, and I've been working on that project pretty steadily ever since, but during the brainstorming days of said project I found myself coming up with more ideas than I expected, for a multitude of stories, and I figured rather than let them go to waste I might start fleshing them out as well.

A nifty non-problem to have, obviously, but there are only so many hours in the day, and whereas my days used to consist of showing up for work, doing the relatively few things that were asked of me there, and spending a lot of the rest of my cubicle-bound day blogging, now I find myself coming to work, staying on top of my tasks, and spending a lot of the rest of my time writing or revising some crazy sci-fi or fantasy story or another. It's been gratifying, there's no denying that, but it has pushed the blogging right off the to-do list. And it's not as though I have thousands of followers, or throngs of worried readers posting comments on my last post inquiring after my whereabouts and/or well-being, but I still manage to feel a little guilty for neglecting the blog all the same. Hence this explanation, which I hasten to point out does not include any "but things should get back to normal soon!" bromides. Maybe this is the new normal, maybe I'll only post a couple times a week or a few times a month, for as long as I can keep riding the momentum for fiction-writing that I've been accumulating of late. As I've said towards the end of many a post, more times than I can count, only time will tell!

Seriously, though, if nothing else whenever if ever I manage to get any of this new crop of stories published anywhere, of course I'll crow about here. So there's that!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Hardly knew ya

A quick timeline recap:

Late September, 2012 - I lament the fact that a Mediterranean cuisine joint featuring falafels and such has been under construction for a seeming eternity.

Late November, 2012 - The Black Lime Cafe opens for business. Better late than never!

Early September 2013 - I finally make my first visit to the Black Lime and deem its food not undelicious. I will return there a couple more times in the following months.

March 2014 - Black Lime presumably goes out of business per the eviction notice plastered to its front door.

I just noticed the eviction paperwork the other day, myself. Earlier this week I spent my lunch half-hour on the phone with my mom, pacing the sidewalk in front of my office building to get a clear cell signal, and wandered past Black Lime. I made sure to check the date on the papers to see how long it had been since the place had shut down. Obviously I never got in the habit of going there for lunch frequently - although, to be fair, for much of 2014 I’ve been trying to save money and watch what I eat and not go anywhere for lunch all that often.

On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer that the location failed (or so I assume, not knowing any of the particulars of what happened or why; maybe they had it coming somehow) as it makes the casual dining options around here a little less varied. But as I also said in some of the posts I linked to above, I became fascinated with the place before it ever opened mainly based on college-era nostalgia, which turned out to be something that the offerings at Black Lime barely resembled.

And on the other hand, if I really want to try to spin a silver lining out of it, I suppose it’s a good sign of the general climate of economic recovery that a restaurant flaming out spectacularly, not just closing gracefully but actually getting evicted, just kind of strikes me as an unfortunate isolated incident and not a terrible harbinger signifying that the whole house of cards is about to come tumbling down. So there’s that.

As I recently acknowledged, there’s something almost irresistible about closure, and since I had previously tracked the little falafel joint hereabouts, I figured it was only fair to note its passing as well. Farewell, little loved eating place, and flights of chickpea-winged angels sing thee to thy rest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What a wookiee

When in doubt, or when the blog seems in danger of going dormant, just babble randomly about Star Wars, I always say.

The other evening, while my wife was experimenting with the possibility of giving the little girl and the baby a shared bath (an experiment not to be repeated, since the baby is an unrepentant hair-puller and we really frown on horseplay, rough or otherwise, in the tub), I was hanging out with the little guy and we got to talking about names. He was outlining for me his working theory that if he were to meet someone from a non-English speaking culture he would not be able to understand that person's name due to the language barrier. And I was trying to explain to him that names more or less transcend specific languages. You don't have to grasp the meaning of a name in order to use it to refer to someone (especially if you believe, Butch Coolidge-style, that names have no special meaning beyond the person they identify anyway) and you don't have to be fluent in a language to pronounce one name from it. I was trying to think of extreme examples of this that the little guy would already be familiar with from stories, like Japanese names of fictional characters, but the only one I could think of was Shu Todoroki from Cars 2, and of course "Shu" sounds so much like the English word "shoe" that it doesn't really nail the point.

And then I brought up Chewbacca.

Who is certainly from a non-English speaking culture, and has a name with no apparent meaningful transliteration, and yet I have bandied that name about on so many occasions in my lifetime it strikes me as almost ordinary. My son, though, had only one response to this invocation: "Who's Chewbacca?"

It's not exactly that I forget sometimes that the little guy has never seen Star Wars; that's just not the kind of thing that would slip my mind. I look forward to someday sharing the movies with my kids, and I talk to other parents with similar fandom for Lucas's films about when and how to introduce little ones to them basically every chance I get. I still keep hoping on some level, I suppose, that some other kid at school will be a massive Clone Wars cartoon fan and talk it up to my little guy, and he'll come home and start asking questions about it, and I'll be able to very smoothly enlighten him to the fact that I know all about Obi-Wan Kenobi's mad lightsaber skillz, in a way that supplies something he's looking for rather than cramming down his throat what I'm into. That day may never come, and certainly hasn't yet, and apparently not even a rudimentary familiarity with these iconic characters has registered with him yet. Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, even Spider-Man, these are dudes the little guy can hold up his end of a conversation about. Chewbacca? Nothing but blank stares.

So I opened the browser on my phone and did an image search for Chewbacca and showed the little guy who I was talking about. I explained that he was an alien from some movies that I really liked. And the little guy asked me, with no small amount of skepticism, if they were movies for kids. His tone suggested that he knew what aliens were (see: Buzz Lightyear's associates) and could comprehend a children's movie about aliens, but at the same time this Chewbacca fellow I was avowing to be a fan of looked fearsome enough that maybe it wasn't on his level after all.

The thing is, Star Wars is for kids, 100%. For all that GenXers are now middle-aged, and full of woe because Jar Jar Binks was such ill-conceived pandering to five-year-olds, and convinced that the true legacy of the saga should be how fully realized the expanded universe has become and how awesomely badass various bounty hunters and smugglers and Sith Lords are, from the very first appearance of "Long ago in a galaxy far, far away" Star Wars has been conceived and created as children's entertainment. It's a fairy tale with lasers and spaceships and robots. It's just as well that Disney took ownership of it, because Lucas always thought of it as basically based on the Disney template, right down to his predictions as to how much box office it would make. (Turned out he lowballed it by that accounting, but still, he expected it to sell the same number of tickets to the same audience as an animated Alice in Wonderland or Robin Hood.)

So I told the little guy it was for kids, while also allowing that it was kind of intense, like How to Train Your Dragon intense. And I told him we had the movies in the house; previously he had asked me if there were any kids' movies in the house that he hadn't seen and didn't know about, which struck me as odd seeing as how he loves watching the same things over and over again, but still, it's cool, he's allowed to change and seek out new things and so on. And that's about as far as the conversation went, before it was time for his bath and the rest of his bedtime preparations. Another step closer to the premiere of Episode IV: A New Hope as one of the little guy's Saturday Night Movie Night Movies? Perhaps, perhaps.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dispatches from limbo

This past Friday was one of my co-workers' last day on the job. The co-worker in question was none other than Ms. Nonsense, believe it or not. She managed to get herself an actual government civilian position in a completely different sphere, which should make her pretty happy, I reckon. From what I was able to piece together over the course of working near her, she used to work for the State Department, and while I'm not certain under what circumstances she left, she must have later taken a job with a small contracting firm during the recession when pickings were slim. Her firm was a sub-contractor to mine, and she absolutely hated the anti-empowered nature of that subordinate position, so to be back in a mainstream position directly employed by the government, and out of DoD and back to State to boot, must be gratifying to her.

Of course I know all these details of her life because she never made any effort to hide her dislike for her low place in the pecking order around here, or really any effort at all to keep any of her thoughts to herself rather than giving them voice to no one in particular and yet loudly enough for everyone in the nearby pods of the cubefarm to hear. She drove me a little bit crazy with her high-volume (in both quantity and decibels) cluelessness and solipsism, and I won't miss her. But of course I will keep that to myself, at least in terms of office chitchat (obviously here I am broadcasting it to all of you, but that's a bit apples and oranges, or so I hope). Ironically enough, on her second-to-last day Ms. Nonsense at one point gave a loud sigh and said, "Won't miss that," in response to yet another of our co-workers, one pod over. This other co-worker is an older woman, clearly well past retirement age, and also just as clearly still fully mentally capable of performing her job duties and performing them well. But she has a genuinely unpleasant grating old-lady voice, and she does have a tendency to forget to modulate her volume appropriately when she's on the phone at her desk. So, yes, I get it, it's annoying to hear this woman speak (or, gods forbid, laugh), but the rest of us have the decency to keep that annoyance to ourselves. Making snide comments about it would pretty much cede the high ground immediately, high ground which could only have been claimed in the first place by Ms. Nonsense if she never conducted her own business at annoyingly loud levels, which I can assure you is far from the case. So, whatever, she leaves as she served, a bit of an unthinking passive-aggressive hypocrite. Every office has at least one!

I admit it's a little bit dispiriting, though, to say farewell to Ms. Nonsense, if only for the implication that I am saying farewell because I am remaining right here. In the process of applying for, and psyching myself up for the interview for, a potential new position, I made many mental inventories of reasons why I should be leaving, the truly unappealing aspects of my current gig which would theoretically outweigh the positive aspects of it. You had better believe that there were days when Ms. Nonsense rose pretty high on the list of things I desperately needed to get away from. I never expected to rid myself of the source of irritation by waiting until she showed herself the door, and yet here we are. And it's not as though suddenly, with her departure, this gig is a lot more tolerable to the point where I don't even want a new one. I suppose it comes down to envy, pure and simple. She got herself a new job, something I've been trying to do for a while with no success.

Or should I say, almost no success? I was just about to give up on the potential new gig altogether, since I never heard a word back from the company after my interview, when I got an e-mail from my buddy who already works there saying I should give him a call. It came to light via that conversation that my interview had gone better than I had feared and they actually were interested in bringing me aboard, just not for the actual position I had applied and interviewed for. They liked me and thought I'd be a good fit on the team, but since I'm trying not only to change places of employment but career paths, they felt my relative lack of experience meant I would be better suited starting out in a slightly lower/lesser/some-other-not-so-perjorative-word job title. To which I said, fair enough! This also entailed a slight pay cut, but my wife and I crunched the numbers and reckoned it could probably work, and would be worth it for the longterm upside of the entire arrangement, so I e-mailed the hiring manager and said I had heard from our mutual friend that the door was still open, and I was still interested in speaking with her about it. Unfortunately, that was almost two weeks ago and once again I find myself waiting for some kind of word of response. But the point is the lead is not entirely dead yet! So only time will tell how it will all shake out.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Offed the bloom

Today was the first day this year that I left the house and headed for work without putting on a jacket. I'm happy to report that I transferred all of my essentials from my jacket to my pants pockets and my work satchel before I hit the road, so it's entirely possible that I have left that unfortunate annual tendency of running the "visitor badge" gauntlet every spring behind me. But I'm even happier that the deadly icy grip of this winter seems to have loosed for good. I'm sure there will still be more unseasonably chilly days ahead, but a warm-enough morning with a high-70's afternoon predicted is encouraging.

(For me, at least. I have observed an unsettling phenomenon in some of my co-workers and fellow commuters, whose small talk about the weather is now laced with dread, as if they're all shellshocked, not only by the winter we just survived but by the last few years. I swear I heard someone saying that they hoped - while sounding pretty pessimistic all the same - that this sudden turn towards warm weather didn't signal that we were in for another scorching hot summer. O, traitorous thermometer! It's as if these people expect a normal year to have a cold January with some light snow, a brisk February, room-temperature March through June, some scattered bright, hot days in July and August, room-temp September and October, a nip in the air in November and maybe a flurry in December. How they came by this expectation is anybody's guess; certainly not from actually living around here and paying attention for the past twenty years or so.)

So I walked outdoors on the sidewalk from the train station to my office, and noticed how many of the trees planted along the street were blossoming. Bad news for my allergies, but I do enjoy the visuals. And it also reminded me of something from many years ago which seems like good fodder for today's Random AnecdoteTM.

I roomed with the same guy for sophomore through senior years of college; we met on our freshman hall, but the Office of Residence Life had randomly assigned us to other roommates in suites across the hall from each other. Neither of us got along terribly well with those roommates, as it happened. It was a classic grass-is-greener scenario: I thought my roommate was spoiled, entitled and thoughtless, and that he had basically taken over our entire living space because he had never had to share a room with anyone in his life; my friend's roommate seemed like a nice enough, considerate enough guy by contrast. My friend actually agreed with me that my roommate was spoiled, entitled and thoughtless, he was simply convinced that his roommate was way worse to live with, for different reasons.

It started out with very minor tics that cumulatively drove my friend up the wall, but things took a great leap forward (or backward, in terms of roommate-relations) when my friend's roommate started dating a girl in our class. And even I had to admit that they were a fairly nauseating couple, with a tendency towards giggly babytalk and overt PDA with one another no matter who else was around. It was pretty rough. I don't remember exactly when the romance began, but my best guess is that it was right at the beginning of our second freshman semester, because they were still in the throes of making puppy-eyes at one another when spring sprung around campus. And one day they went for a hand-holding stroll, and came home (ha, I mean "home", to my friend and his roommates dorm room, of course) with a couple of branches of blossoms they had snagged along the way, which they proceeded to put in a cup of water on top of the roommate's bookcase.

I should explain that my friend was a bit of a homebody, so if he wasn't in class or at one of the dining halls, he was in his room. He had brought a ton of creature comforts from home, so he might just as easily be listening to his stereo or playing Wolfenstein on his computer as studying or drawing for fun to unwind or whatever, the point was he was predisposed to be lounging around in pajamas and slippers as often as possible. His roommate, on the other hand, was less on the extreme end of homebodiness to begin with, and was on the tennis team, as well as (I think) an intramural volleyball team, and he had the aforementioned girlfriend, so he was almost never home. This worked out well as far as I was concerned because I could escape my own inhospitable dormitory quarters by hanging out in my friend's room, and instead of being the unwelcome third wheel I was just filling the void of the busy absentee roommate.

But those tree blossoms altered the balance in a surprisingly big way. My friend hated the way that they smelled, and while his roommate was frequently out and about the blossoms and their offensive bouquet were always there, round the clock. I have a pretty stunted sense of smell, and my friend admitted to being somewhat oversensitive to odors, so I just had to kind of take his word for it on that. He put up with the blossoms for a few days (for some definition of "put up with" that involved bitching to me about it a lot) and then decided they had to go. But rather than talk to his roommate about it, he just started pouring small amounts of glass cleaner and other chemicals in the cup, hoping to poison the blossoms to the point where they would wither and die and his roommate would throw them away. I remember it taking a lot longer than he expected, which was its own source of maddening frustration, but it did eventually work, and the roommate was never any the wiser.

I think that story (such as it is) leapt to mind in part because I watched Parks & Rec last night, which included a storyline about Ben being mad at his parents for something they had done and then in the end realizing he was really just dissatisfied about something missing from his own life. That whole misplaced anger, "why don't you tell me what's really bothering you?" trope is such a staple of tv shows, especially sitcoms, that I tend to think of it as a bit of pop psychology that's so refined and oversimplified that it only happens in sitcoms, and not in the real world where people are more complicated. And yet, I can look at the story about my friend and his roommate and it begins to appear as if it's totally made up to follow that sitcom model, even though I was there and saw it happen. I was saving this for my clincher, and here we are: my friend insisted that the blossoms in his room smelled like dead fish. I never called him on that, but come on. If the reproductive organs of a flowering tree were not symbolic enough of the sex which the roommate and his girlfriend were having, at a time when my friend was definitively not getting any, then complaining about the smell of dead fish has to qualify as putting a sour grapes (and, granted, unsettlingly misogynist) bow on it. I really don't think that my friend was freaking out about having the cozy sanctuary of his half of the dorm room invaded by unpleasant fragrances, or even lashing out at the roommate-girlfriend couple for their self-absorbed canoodling, per se. I think he was genuinely just pissed about his own lack of girlie action/satisfaction, and had to vent it somehow. Sometimes truth is equally as sublime as fiction.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Decorative abstractions

My daughter's third birthday is this coming Saturday, which is convenient as it allows us to commemorate her arrival into the world in all ways at once, with our familial proclamations that this is her special day and a party with friends and family (at her age, her friends are the similarly-aged children of friends of the family, but close enough) and whatever she wants for dinner, on a singular date rather than spread out across the week. It should be fun and we are all looking forward to it.

In fact, it's entirely possible that no one is more excited about it than the little guy, and that includes the incipient birthday girl herself. On the one hand, I'm proud of my son for having a positive attitude about what must be a tough stretch of the year for him, the mid-March to mid-April stretch bookended by his younger siblings' birthdays, with his own still about half a year away. On the other hand, I suspect it's not entirely selfless of him to be excited about parties and cake and presents, since he more or less gets to partake in all of them even if he's not the one specifically being celebrated. I will credit him for not trying to blatantly make it all about himself, but it usually plays out something like this: he'll announce out of nowhere "I'm so excited for my sister's birthday!" And then he'll turn to her and say, "Are you excited about your birthday?" She'll agree that she is, although honestly she's at the age where anything not in the immediate here and now, even a big special event that's only three or four days away, is hard for her to wrap her head around; she's more likely to be excited that I let her watch an episode of Doc or Mickey before dinner than about what we have planned for the weekend. But having duly checked in with the rightful person whose opinion matters, the little guy will then swing right back into, "Well, I'm excited!" And so he is, and of course I'd rather have him opportunistically enthusiastic than sullen and jealous, or worse.

My wife and I asked the little girl what kind of cake she wanted at her party and she was able to wrap her head around that with great specificity: "Pink and purple cake, with pink and purple icing, and pink and purple frogs." (See, one of my wife's co-workers made us a batch of little frogs, molded white chocolate dyed green, and we decorated the baby's first birthday cake with them, and they were a big hit, so much so that apparently now that is just What We Do for birthday cakes in our family, and the little girl expects hers to be appropriately color-coded.) And when further pressed as to what kinds of presents she would like for her birthday, the answer was in the very same vein: "Pink and purple girl stuff."

As this blog has attested on numerous occasions, my wife and I are really not hung up on traditional gender roles in our parenting. We've never tried to steer the little guy away from dolls or the little girl away from trucks, and we've also never tried to steer the little guy toward dolls or the little girl toward trucks, either. We get them stuff that looks like fun, or that they show interest in, be it walking through the store or choosing what to play with at daycare or the pediatrician's waiting room or whathaveyou. We've bought a fair amount of gender-neutral playthings but that's pure pragmatism; not a statement of (anti?)indoctrination, just simply trying to get the most bang for our buck by amassing toys that sons and daughter will enjoy equally. And yet if some of the grandparents decide that the little guy's Christmas present should be a singing plastic primary-colored workbench and the little girl's should be a singing pastel vanity mirror ... ehh, we let it slide, rather than make a huge fuss about it. (The little girl honestly was never that enamored with the vanity, but the baby? He freaking loved that thing for a while.)

But the safely hippy-dippy follow-your-bliss home space aside, our kids still have to live in the real world, and at some point in the progress from Montessori to kindergarten the little guy latched on to the idea that certain colors were "boy colors" and others were "girl colors", and guess which ones get the feminine association? So he brought those ideas home and communicated them to his sister, and she's internalized them ... to a point. I've noticed that she doesn't completely avoid the boy colors, but she does embrace the girl colors (as evidenced by her birthday requests). And I truly believe that she's actually done in this in a kind of self-defense. It's not that she thinks she, as a girl, is only supposed to like two colors. It's that she's noticed, shrewdly, that her brother avoids two particular colors. She's smaller, weaker and slower than the little guy, so if there's a toy they both want to play with and he's not in an overly generous mood at that moment, the odds are overwhelmingly in his favor in the physical struggle over who gets the prize. But there is no struggle over pink and purple objects; those are hers by default. Apparently she is cool with this, or at least that's what I take away from her seemingly generic request for "pink and purple girl stuff" for her birthday: she kind of doesn't care what we get her, so long as what she gets is hers. Really anything her big brother wouldn't even think of coveting will do.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Super cool (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Ever since 2010 I have been keeping track of my pop culture consumption by various metrics, mainly because of this weird dread I have of looking around one day and saying to myself, “Huh, I honestly can’t remember the last time I read an entire novel/bought a new album/looked at a comic book/&c.” That probably seems like an unreasonable and unlikely concern, given the frequency with which I post about all of those things, but there was a specific realization that cemented it in my mind as worth doing, back in January of ‘11, when I noted that in the previous calendar year I hadn’t gone to a movie theater at all, not even once. And I’m the kind of person who loves going to the movies, rude fellow audience members and overinflated prices and inflexible showtimes and all. So since then I’ve gotten better about it, and set a goal to go to the multiplex (or, you know, I’d be fine with a small independent cinema, I just don’t know of any reasonably accessible ones) three times per year. I’ve actually managed to surpass that goal and catch four or five flicks on the big screen every year. This year I’m particularly pleased with myself because it’s only mid-April and I’ve already hit the minimum of three, after taking my wife to Pompeii for Valentine’s Day and the kids to Frozen, and now having caught Captain America: The Winter Soldier with one of my buddies last week.

In fact, I had a strange experience at the Winter Soldier showing which I dimly recalled from way, way back when I was a teenager. As I fully expected for the opening night of a big blockbuster, there were a ton of previews ahead of the feature. What shocked me was that I had basically seen all of them already. Partly that has to do with the ubiquity of trailers online these days, and given the amount of screentime I log browsing through comicbook-centric sites, of course I’ve seen the trailers for Spider-Man 2 and X-Men Days of Future Past already. I also happened to have seen the trailer for Lucy (the Scarlett Johanssen as accidental chemically enhanced psychic ninja riff) on a broad pop culture website. But the other half of the raft of trailers, Godzilla and Guardians of the Galaxy and Maleficent, were all ones I had seen in front of other movies in February and March. As I said, that hasn’t happened since high school or college, when I would go to the movies so often that seeing the same trailers over and over was pretty commonplace. In any case, the point is I’m grateful for the current capacity for self-indulgence my life allows at the moment, and if you hear me saying that I never have any time to do anything I am a big fat liar.

Oh, so how was the movie itself? It was good! Really, really good. I’ve heard some reviewers call it the best Marvel movie since The Avengers, and I can buy that (mainly because that only puts it up against Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, the former of which I liked but thought was far from perfect, whereas the latter I haven’t managed to catch up with yet). I’ve heard other reviewers call it better than The Avengers, and I don’t think I would go that far, but that just means I thought Avengers was amazing and Cap 2 was slightly less amazing, though definitely in the ballpark.

What’s interesting to me is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has demonstrated a very keen insight into its own source material. These are not movies that are slightly embarrassed to be based on stupid comicbooks, and feel the need to tweak and modify things quasi-arbitrarily to make them more palatable to grown-ups. The changes rendered in the characters or the plot points are not intended to make things more mature or edgy, they’re just the changes necessary to survive the transition from one medium to another, and in order to tell the best possible stories. The first Captain America movie was based loosely on the WWII-era comics, plus some of the early-60’s reframing of Cap (including explanations of why he disappeared at the end of the war). Winter Soldier is based on a storyline from the comics that was published in the mid-00’s. So the movies skipped over a lot of the main character’s published history, and I don’t fault them for that at all, because they surveyed the entire body of work and decided to start with the origin story and then move on to a story that was maximally resonant with the themes developed in the first installment. Neither beholden to continuity nor disdainful of it, they just cherry-picked in the best possible way. And, presumably, whenever Cap 3 comes out it will bring together the best threads of other Captain America comics, and the (by that point) extremely deep Cinematic history, and put a satisfying conclusion on the story arc. Because, at that stage in the game, after a trilogy of Cap movies and Avengers movies, Chris Evans will be very much done with playing Steve Rogers and it will be time to either move the focus to other characters or to reboot the franchise (clearly, after my experience with Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man, I’ve more than made my peace with the speed of that particular cycle), and I’m pretty sure they know that and will provide the most graceful exit possible.

But as impressive as the scope and ambition of the overall multi-phase Marvel Cinematic Universe is, each movie still has to be able to stand on its own, and Winter Soldier very much does. It has fantastic action sequences, and it has fantastic character moments. It’s not just a story about good guys and bad guys and stuff blowing up that happens to have Captain America in it, it’s a story about what it means to be Captain America (and, by proxy, what it means to be America), a question which does not have a simple answer. So the movie contains multitudes, as well it should. There’s consideration of ideas from different angles, a lot of them stemming from the fact that Steve Rogers fought in WWII and then was frozen for sixty-some years and is now a man out of time. The movie gets laughs out of that inherently funny fish-out-of-water scenario, and it gets pathos out of it as well, but mostly it positions Captain America as someone who questions the ways in which the world he awoke to has gone through radical changes, contrasted with everyone else who lived through those gradual shifts over time and passively accepted them. It sounds cheesy, but it gives Captain America a reason to fight, for something he believes in and something that matters. It is good stuff.

And I know, I know, I have promised that I would shut up about it already (but sometimes I am a big fat liar!) and yet I can’t help but see Winter Soldier as a very direct rebuttal to Man of Steel. Both Captain America and Superman catch a lot of flack for being corny, outmoded concepts (they both had their comic book debuts within three years of each other) who are so noble and pure that they wind up coming across as boring and unrelatable. Patriotism and altruism (which both characters are paragons of, just in slightly different proportions) can only be regarded by modern audiences with skepticism and irony, or so goes the conventional wisdom, and so goes the apparent thinking behind Man of Steel. (Finally going to get into some SPOILERS for Winter Soldier here, I reckon.) Both Man of Steel and Winter Soldier climax in crazy battle sequences with human casualties and massive amounts of collateral damage. But in Winter Soldier, the casualties are all agents and operatives of SHIELD (and HYDRA) and while the costs may be high and lamentable, they all knew the risks they were taking when they signed on. In Man of Steel, there’s an appalling number of innocent bystanders amidst the carnage. Winter Soldier’s big setpiece of destruction takes place at the spy headquarters in the middle of a river, so even as buildings are smashed and huge airships collide and explode and fall from the sky, they’re doing so in a basically uninhabited space. Again, contrast with Man of Steel where most of downtown Metropolis gets razed. And of course, Man of Steel ends with Superman facing a choice, to kill Zod or not, and he chooses to kill him. By the movie’s own internal logic, Zod has killed people and will continue killing people, so Superman (I cannot tell you how much I want to put scare quotes around his name, because the movie gets the character so fundamentally wrong it practically becomes a knockoff “Superman”. But anyway.) does a justifiable thing by acting as executioner. By the end of Winter Soldier, the eponymous assassin has killed and will (probably) kill again, and Captain America has a chance to finish him off, or at least let him die, and instead Cap risks his own life to try against desperate odds to save his enemy. And he succeeds, but that’s almost beside the point, which is that he made the right decision and he gave it his all, because that is what heroes do. (Take note, Goyer and Snyder! Also, your movie was hot garbage.)

Winter Soldier begins with Captain America suspecting that he now lives in a morally compromised world, and has a somewhat downer ending which essentially proves that the world is even more amoral and sinister than he ever realized. And yet it still feels triumphant, because Cap has been tested by fire and proven that he isn’t going to bend or break; he’s still one of the good guys and still willing to fight the good fight. If you think that sentiment is stupid, and is the reason why comicbooks are only for little kids, then you probably shouldn’t be spending your money on superhero movies (and you absolutely shouldn’t be in the business of making superhero movies). Me, I eat that stuff up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Last Theorem (HIMYM finale, part 2)

Well, that was kind of crazy, the overwhelmingly negative reaction to last week’s saga-concluding episode of How I Met Your Mother. As I mentioned in my post last week, I’ve become a little gunshy about reacting to others’ reactions too much, out of fear of being trolled, and compounding that general wariness was the fact that last Tuesday was April Fools’ Day, which meant it was at least theoretically possible that people were composing screeds about how the series finale retroactively ruined the entire nine-season run as something of a performance-art-level prank. And I did find at least one online post which was ostensibly about HIMYM and yet was also self-evidently a April Fools’ joke, but apparently most of the rest of the clamor and furor was legit. And now that I’ve had a week to digest it, I just have a couple of my own observations to add before attempting to move on for good.

There was one comment in the discussion forum accompanying an article which struck me, and I should have copied it down for later, but I didn’t, so now I’ll have to paraphrase and ask you to indulge and trust me that I’ve captured the nuances. The poster was one of the legion who hated the finale, and the poster’s specific complaint was that the writer’s established that Ted does NOT end up with Robin at the end of the pilot, and then the finale reversed that assertion, which was an egregious betrayal. The poster was obviously pretty het up about it, all kinds of disgusted and righteously indignant. And there’s two takeaways for me, reading a comment like that. One, just poor comprehension skills on numerous levels. The zinger at the end of the pilot is that Robin is “Aunt” Robin and therefore not the mother, and that very much held true throughout the series. The identity of Ted’s kids’ biological mother is the question the series teased out, and that is parallel to yet distinct from the whole Ted-Robin storyline. Plus given the way the finale unfolds, with Ted concluding the story for his kids and then running to Robin after the epiphany his daughter has guided him to, it’s all more or less fair play because when Ted started telling the story his romance with Robin was ancient history and he had no conscious intention to resume it, Robin was only “Aunt” Robin and nothing more. To claim that the finale somehow contradicts the pilot is to seriously misread one or the other of those alpha/omega episodes.

But takeaway number two has to do specifically with the poster’s word choice in objecting to the fact that Ted “ends up” with Robin. I saw a ton of people using that particular construction, that Ted and Robin “end up together”. And I saw almost as many people make some variation on the joke that the title of the series all along should have been “How I Met Your Step-Mother”. And I swear, I’m not just trying to be obtusely contrary for the sake of generating a blog post, I really was taken aback by this widespread interpretation which was at odds with my own. Everybody thinks that Ted and Robin get married to each other? In the name of all 200+ episodes preceding the final images, why???

I mentioned in my post last week that I am a HIMYM defender, and to a certain extent that’s bound up with being a Ted defender. Of course he has certain very douchey qualities that make him a good figure of comedy, easy to mock, but he’s an idealist and a romantic and loves to tell incredibly long digression-filled stories. Clearly he’s a bit of a kindred spirit to me. And for that matter, given the way that 99% of the series plays out, his romantic experiences are very analogous to my own. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to get married, have kids, and all that. However, when I was young I tended to believe that opposites attract, and that the sparks generated by conflicting personalities were the energy source that kept romances burning bright. And then I got over that foolishness, and realized I would be much happier being romantically involved with someone who was more similar to me than fundamentally different. My wife and I like to joke that we are basically the same person, and we’ve been making that joke since long before HIMYM revealed that Ted and Tracy both collect weapons from Renaissance Faires and read Pablo Neruda and enjoy numismatism and puns &c. &c. So I was rooting for Ted as he was going for all the wrong girls, that he would eventually find the dream girl who was just like him.

There is no ex-girlfriend of Ted’s who got as much screentime and as long an in-story span examining the ups and downs of the relationship as Robin. And it was made very clear, early and often, that Ted and Robin get along great, are fantastic friends, and are deeply attracted to each other, and yet fundamentally don’t work as a romantic couple because they have deep differences in temperament and values and life goals and so on. Ted getting over Robin took forever because it was tantamount to Ted getting over the idea that long-term romance should be a triumph over and in spite of huge dissimilarities, and realizing he’d be better off building a life with someone he didn’t have to fight or compromise with in order to do so. The show convinced me that Ted and Robin love each other, and make each other happy. The show also convinced me that Ted and Tracy were soulmates, meant to be together, and it was a personal tragedy when Tracy died young. Robin was a love of Ted’s, but Tracy was the love of his life. I don’t buy the conclusion that Tracy came along wanting the same things as Ted at the right time for them to have two kids together, which Ted always wanted, only to conveniently shuffle off and get out of the way so that Ted could have it all, kids, a house in the burbs, and the real love of his life, Robin.

So if I’m rejecting that then what did the end of the finale mean? I will offer my own take on it, but I’ll come at it from a few different angles. For starters, it’s amazing that the show ends with a wordless gesture, and people assume they know exactly what happens next. Yes, the blue french horn is one of the most potent and meaning-fraught symbols the show ever came up with, and a final callback to it is exactly the kind of move a series finale should incorporate. But I disagree that it’s a straight line from “remember this?” to “and they lived happily ever after.” As a culture, we are all very trained to make that leap. Stories end with a marriage, either a literal wedding ceremony or a symbolic kiss that legitimizes a romantic pairing, but either way the continued existence of the characters is implied to be one of wedded bliss. Couples that are together by the happy ending stay together, and the one true acceptable form of togetherness is state-sanctioned matrimony. If Ted’s kids say they love Robin and are OK with their dad going after her, and Ted shows up on Robin’s doorstep with the ultimate symbol of their early romance, the logic follows that wedding bells will ring for Ted and Robin soon enough.

This despite the fact that Robin and Ted have been together and broken up before, not due to wacky misunderstandings or other sitcom contrivance, but because of real, honest reckonings of their shortcomings as a couple. Not that Robin ever particularly wanted marriage or kids, and when she convinced herself that she maybe did and gave the former a try with Barney, of course it flamed out spectacularly. And Robin is still presumably working and traveling a ton. Doesn’t matter, right? Somehow Mr. and the Second Mrs. Mosby will work it all out, won’t they?

HIMYM was a primetime sitcom on a major American network, but it was a surprisingly subversive show, too. It dedicated nine seasons to subverting our expectations of how romantic comedies work. It dedicated the final season, specifically, to subverting how a season of tv is supposed to work, confining almost everything in twenty-two episodes to one weekend, and then in the finale it managed to cover fifteen or so years (or at least the parts that hadn’t already been flash-forwarded to) in the lives of its cast. Why, after all of that, would anyone expect the beyond-the-last-scene implication to be the cliche “and they lived happily ever after” for Ted and Robin?

Hold that thought. In addition to cramming in a lot (arguably way too much) of the future-history that would elapse between the final episode and the timeframe of Ted telling his kids the story, another subversive thing that the series finale did was to undermine the idea of celebrating a series finale, or of celebrating endings. Again and again, the series finale returned to one central idea: “Let me tell you about endings; THEY SUCK.” It seems like a throwaway bit in the middle of the last episode, but I found the image of Lily in tears (and a Moby Dick costume) in the middle of the emptied out apartment to be both striking and meaningful. The series is ending, they are breaking down the sets, and that’s not an occasion for happiness. It’s quietly devastating. So is Robin and Barney’s divorce. So is Tracy’s death. Endings, definitely not to be filed under “happy”. And yet, at the same time, not endings. With the exception of poor Tracy, life goes on, post-divorce, post-widowerhood. Another we-as-a-culture generalization: we are obsessed with closure. We want our stories to comfort us with notions that life can reach satisfying points of resolution, after which everything is very tidy and manageable. We want the ends of stories to give us everything we need to know that all these characters we care about are taken care of in the least controversial possible ways.

I don’t think the writers of HIMYM are anti-happiness, but they might be anti-oversimplified-ideas-of-happiness. And I think they’re also anti-traditional-conservative-limited-definitions-of-acceptable-happiness. Think of all the non-traditional couples and lifestyles on display throughout HIMYM’s run. Marshall and Lily are the most heteronormative pair for the duration, and yet they still go through breaking up and getting back together, the man putting his career on hold or possibly in jeopardy for the sake of his wife’s, and Marshall’s widowed mom and Lily’s divorced dad getting involved with each other. Barney tries marriage, gets divorced, has a child out of wedlock and apparently becomes a loving, involved father. Barney’s gay brother gets married and adopts a couple of kids. Barney’s mom gets together again with Barney’s brother’s dad, long after raising her two sons as a never-married single mom. Cindy (Tracy’s former roommate) comes out as lesbian, gets married and also adopts. Ted’s parents get divorced when he’s in his 20’s; his mom gets remarried and his dad enjoys bachelorhood. And on and on and on, with no lifestyles coming in for particularly harsh judgment. There’s even a gag in one episode about how Robin is well aware of the fact that her co-host Sandy Rivers has a weird fetishized possibly polyamorous relationship that’s only sort of on the down low, and it’s not as potentially embarrassing as the fact that he wears a toupee. You could argue that this is all liberal Hollywood posturing, hewing to the industry agenda of constantly promoting that it’s cool to smoke pot, it’s cool to be gay, we’re all so cool here, blah blah blah. But I think it’s more sincere than that, and that the whole long HIMYM story is about a guy who is comically hung up the idea of getting married to the perfect girl and having kids with her as if that’s the one true Platonic ideal of adulthood, when it fact, it’s not so.

The finale underlined that with Ted and Tracy’s story, though again the finale tried to do so much it’s understandable if the point got lost. But Ted and Tracy manage to be very happy together for years without actually getting married. They get busy with having those much-desired, much-loved kids, and they only formalize their legal bond after seven years or so of shacking up. And nobody judges them for this. And by the same token, Robin enjoys her single life, her apartment in the city, her career, her five dogs, and nobody judges her for that, either. There’s no implication that marriage and a family is something missing from Robin’s life, or that Ted needs to rush in and save her from loneliness and despair.

So for close to a decade, HIMYM demonstrated that there are many, many more ways than one to be happy, and as it drew to a close it deliberately rejected pat endings. Most people assumed the series would end with Marshall and Lily stable and reveling in happily-ever-after, Barney and Robin married and continuing on to happily-ever-after, and Ted and Tracy finally having met and about to embark on happily-ever-after. But only one of those elements survived. You could say that they swapped in Barney as a single dad happily-ever-after loving his daughter, and Ted and Robin finally getting married to live happily-ever-after, but that’s not really of a piece with everything that came before about the unexpected complications of life and the vagaries of fate.

In essence what I’m arguing is that the ending of HIMYM doesn’t mean anything definitive. It’s safe to say that Ted and Robin both still have feelings for each other, and that Ted stumbled into securing permission from his kids to move on from grieving the love of his life and act on those feelings. But how exactly he’s going to act on those feelings, and how long it will all last, is not something that could be summed up as simply as “Ted ends up with Robin”. It’s not fair, because if they’re going to stop making new episodes of the show and stop chronicling the lives of these characters, it seems that they owe us simple summaries that put all matters of speculation to rest. A lot of stories follow that principle of agreement with their audience. But not HIMYM, where the guiding philosophy has always been that it’s a false wisdom to try to reach an endpoint after which everything will take care of itself. Life has to be lived in the moment every day, taking what comes.

(And ultimately, that’s how the writers and showrunners trolled half their audience, by holding out from the start of the pilot the idea that this whole story Ted was telling his kids had a point and an ending that would all make sense, and then slowly but surely demonstrating how that couldn’t possibly be so.)

Personally, I like to think that when Ted shows Robin the blue french horn to convey “remember this?” he’s not saying “remember when we were young and in love?” and he’s not saying “remember when we used to think we’d get married?” He’s saying “remember when we used to have like crazy hot sex all the time?” Ted and Robin as a long-term domestic/romantic pairing has been ruled out. They’re still friends, she’s already a part of his life and his kids’ life. The only thing missing is the sex. Which kind of makes the whole series make even more sense, if you think about it. Why did Ted’s story, told to his children, focus so much on sex? He wasn’t trying to slowly test the waters of Penny and Luke accepting that he could be in love with someone other than their mother; he was testing how much they could tolerate thinking of him as a man with certain physical needs. He and Robin are still attracted to each other, but out of decorum when she comes over for dinner she ultimately leaves after dessert to head back to her Manhattan apartment. Now Ted’s kids have basically said it’s OK if Aunt Robin spends the night at their house, or if their dad wants to go sleep over at her place. They get it, it’s cool. Hey, it’s the year 2030, teenagers don’t have to be all judgy about their parents getting involved in friends-with-benefits scenarios.

But I don’t know that for certain any more than other longtime fans of the show know that Ted and Robin end up an item again til death do them part. But I will dig in my heels that none of us can know absolutely what happens after the finale, and that that’s the show’s point, as well. Endings suck, even though endings aren’t really endings, and things constantly change and don’t always work out according to some age-old teleological model, and happiness comes in surprising forms, and that’s all OK.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Closing windows

Last weekend we had some old college friends over for brunch, including one buddy who travels internationally for work more weeks than not, mostly to the UK. So because Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened overseas before it opened in the US, and he happened to be in London when it opened, he had already seen it by the time we got together. He gave it a non-specific yet strongly positive review (my favorite kind) and mostly just wanted to talk about the logistical details of actually taking in the showing. He went to a midnight screening, the movie is over two hours long, and so he got back to his hotel well after 2 a.m. and had to catch a 5-something a.m. flight out of Heathrow mere hours later. My buddy related all of this info with a certain self-deprecating, chuckling ruefulness, and I was quick to reassure him that I understood where he was coming from, on both sides. It does seem like a fairly unwise thing to do, staying up until the wee hours for the sake of a popcorn flick, not only when you have an early start to the following day but when you are in your late thirties as opposed to some dumb kid. But on the other hand, as I elaborated to my friend, it is still possible, however barely, for us to get away with that kind of foolishness at this point, even though we can all see that the window for such hijinks is rapidly closing. So we might as well keep indulging, until such time as we're forced to stop.

Of course I had an ulterior motive in lending a justifying hand there, because I was planning on going to a late show on opening night for the movie in the States myself. Which was last night, and I did indeed stay up way too late, compounded by the fact that I consumed a large caffeinated soda to make sure I would be alert enough for the drive home and then, once I got home, was still a little too wired to immediately fall asleep. I'm not bringing this up to elicit any kind of sympathy for self-inflicted suffering; I deserve my dumb-uppance most especially because my patient and indulgent better half wound up impacted by my late night as well (she woke up in the middle of the night and instead of rolling over and immediately going back to sleep, she came almost fully alert due to the physical strangeness of my absence in the bed, and the had to contend with her own difficulties getting back to a restful state; if I'm fishing for kind thoughts, they should all be directed at my wife). But I did want to provide a modicum of context for the short and nearly content-free post today. The movie was really good, worth taking drastic measures for to see spoiler-free, and I will post a proper review of it at some point, but today I'm a bit too groggy.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Evil daystar

I don’t have anything against Daylight Saving Time, not really. I hear all the arguments about how silly and illogical it is, and I understand their underlying points, but at this point I’ve simply grown so accustomed to it that it would be far stranger, subjectively, to suddenly do away with it. It’s been going into effect every spring for my entire life, and I more or less take it for granted.

I did, at any rate, until I started having kids of my own. The main effect of DST on a childless urban professional adult would be those few occasions in the summer when an evening cookout goes on and on under pleasantly long-lasting natural light. It’s easy to forget that, when you were little, Daylight Saving Time meant there were days when your parents were calling you in from the cul-de-sac and telling you to get ready for bed even though darkness was still a ways off. Then one day you are trying to get your own one-year-old or three-year-old or five-year-old (or all of the freaking above) to get settled down for the night and the plainly visible sunny blue sky out their bedroom window is not exactly helping your case. Suddenly the longer and longer days are actually a source of not insignificant amounts of dread.

And of course, springing forward also tends to be a bit of a sucker punch for those of us who get up fairly early to head in to work, as right around the time when that time of morning goes from pitch middle-of-the-night black to a reasonable approximation of daybreak, you’re suddenly getting up one sidereal hour earlier and you are plunged back into pre-dawn dark. Frankly, it can be kind of confusing for little kids, too. Just this morning my wife and I both got up around the same time and made our way downstairs for breakfast, and the little guy woke up a few minutes later. The upper floor of the house was still disorientingly dark, and the little guy went to our room thinking it was the middle of the night and yet did not find either of his parents where he expected them, and all my wife and I could hear was a tremulous little voice in the upstairs hall saying, “Where is everybody?” And we couldn’t yell back “Down here!” because yelling might wake up the smaller children, so much commotion of movement ensued.

It is entirely possible I am scowling in the general direction of timekeeping contrivances because of a lack of sleep in general, this week. The baby hasn’t been sleeping particularly well, with at least one freakout per dead-of-night necessitating parental intervention. (I owe my wife about a million from back when the only intervention the baby wanted in the middle of the night was to be nursed, so this all rightly falls on me.) It’s not entirely clear why the baby has been freaking. A visit to the pediatrician yielded no diagnosis as he was pronounced adequately healthy. Part of it might be the neural restlessness associated with major developmental milestones (he took his first unassisted step earlier this week, which don’t get me wrong, is pretty awesome), and part of it might be simply that he senses the clockwork of the house has been off all week, with me working security detail and the evenings being accordingly compressed and hectic. Certainly the security detail has taken a mental toll on me. I actually had a stress dream/borderline nightmare one morning this week wherein I woke up (which, honestly, I thought that dreams beginning with people waking up to the mid-stream dream was something that only happened in movies and tv shows, and yet) at my desk at work, but the office was completely empty, because everyone had gone home for the night, which meant I had fallen asleep at work (bad) and I had failed to do my security rounds at the appointed time (slightly worse) and then as I raced around to do a belated security check it struck me that if it was very late I might have missed the last train home for the day (extremely the worst!) and the sitter and my kids must be losing their minds … and then I woke up, for real. And it was dark, but it was almost time to get up, anyway.

So, to sum up, I’m really looking forward to things getting back to a semi-semblance of normalcy next week. That may not actually happen, but I’m going to proceed as if it will.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where can I get me one o' them bourbon-replicating robots?!?!? (Forbidden Planet)

It's 1001 Movies Blog Club time again, and yet again the weekly choice was mine to make, and I claim full responsibility. It's yet another entry from my personal sub-list of movies which loom so large in the various spheres of geek-culture that it's kind of astonishing I've never seen them before: 1956's Forbidden Planet.

I’ve sounded this refrain before, but it keeps echoing again and again: there may be some debate about when exactly “the modern era” began but there’s no question it was well before my time, which means as I became aware of most things in my life I was invariably coming in somewhere in the middle of the story. As a result, much of my pop self-education has involved going back and forth between experiencing the present and researching the past, encountering things out of order and backwards on occasion, acquainting myself with antecedents and ur-texts long after I had absorbed the things they influenced and gave rise to. Sometimes that’s fascinating, and sometimes it’s fairly jarring, particularly because of the fact that not only was I born well into the modern era, but after post-modernism, as well. I’ve never known current pop-culture that wasn’t at least a little bit self-aware.

And yet if I were to try to encapsulate the essence of Forbidden Planet in a nutshell, that might very well be where I would start: “not even a little bit self-aware.” And that’s not a criticism, not a fault you can legitimately lay at the feet of the filmmakers. Forbidden Planet is a bit of sci-fi pioneering, and also very much a product of its time. So it’s earnest, and unapologetic in its overreach as it attempts to do a number of things that hadn’t really been done before. Somebody has to construct something before everyone else can pile on with their deconstruction.

The parts of Forbidden Planet which hold up the best are the elements of science fiction that tend to be the genre’s entire reason for being, the speculative half-mad ideas about possibilities and potential. The visual designs of the movie, from Robby the Robot to the landscape of Altair IV itself to the mind-boggling size and scope of the subterranean Krell complex, look somewhat dated, but not in an unintentionally hilarious, so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. The imagery was so instantly iconic that it was immediately copied and quickly became shorthand for the exotic nature of alien worlds and future centuries, until innovators began to come up with alternative approaches to differentiate themselves from that 50’s (and 60’s) sci-fi aesthetic that we now think of as retro-future. Also, the central mystery and threat of the main plot, based on out-of-control subconscious desires given physical manifestation by the godlike technowizardry of a vanished civilization, are delightfully weird in their own right, and in a way which has essentially defied facile duplication in other sci-fi stories.

But memorable, quality sci-fi needs to weave together two different threads, one consisting of things which don’t exist or haven’t been discovered, yet someday might, be they habitable exoplanets or miracle-working supercomputers, and the other consisting of things which do exist, human beings in all their complicated, struggling messiness (or some metaphorical approximation thereof). Unfortunately, those are the parts of Forbidden Planet which resonated the least with me, as I presume they would fail to resonate with any present-day audience. The sci-fi tropes and trappings of Forbidden Planet still come off as cool, but the characters populating its story mostly come off as embarrassing, shallow placeholders plugged into a mechanically driven plot. There is a certain delight in seeing a very young Leslie Nielsen portray United Planets captain J.J. Adams, but Adams is a square-jawed hero archetype blissfully free of any flaws or other humanizing characteristics. By the same token, Walter Pidgeon’s Doctor Morbius is the mustache-twirling villain of a 19th century melodrama with an upgraded, interplanetary wardrobe. The rest of the cast (with one exception which I’ll get to below) is an almost undifferentiated mass representing the crew of the C57-D. From the slightly more enlightened vantage point of 2014, it’s almost impossible not to notice that the crew is uniformly male and uniformly white, which is one of the main problems with sci-fi written in the past and set in the future (and which is also probably fodder enough for an entire separate post). There are a couple of nods toward characterization in giving certain crew members one personality trait each (Ostrow’s intellect, Farman’s wolfishness, Cook’s hayseed naivete) but those half-hearted efforts aren’t enough to breathe any real spirit into any of them.

And then there’s Doctor Morbius’s nubile young daughter Altaira, and oh man if you thought the absence of minorities and women among the crew of the United Planets Cruiser was damning by implication, wait until you see how the movie handles the onscreen presence of its lone token female castmember. It’s not so much that the men all wear sensible clothes and she wears provocative minidresses (though it’s partly that) and it’s not so much that her character lacks agency or much of any reason to be involved in the story in the first place, except as a perfunctory love interest for Adams and to give a little more pathos to the tragic fate of her father (though it’s partly all that, too). The movie objectifies Anne Francis, there’s no denying that, but I found it even more disturbing how the male characters objectified Altaira, especially considering the narrative context.

Basically Adams, Ostrow and Farman conclude their first meeting with Doctor Morbius over lunch, move on to coffee, and then Altaira makes her appearance. She immediately becomes the center of attention, with all three crewmen basically jumping to their feet and leering at her openly. They are doing this in front of the girl’s father, but he makes no comment on it at all. The crewmen also know, at this point, that Altaira was born on Altair IV after the entire colony was wiped out, and she has never known anyone but her father and their servant robot. She is, effectively, a complete social retard. Pretty, though! So that makes her easy pickings to be charmed, which Farman immediately attempts - again, right in front of her dad. Farman gets nowhere with her despite repeated attempts, mostly because Altaira is so sheltered and guileless as to be utterly beyond the reach of innuendo. Eventually Adams rescues Altaira from Farman, but only because he wants her for himself, and only after he lectures her for dressing inappropriately around his cruiser-full of men who haven’t seen a female in however many years and months.

In other words, the romance subplot - able-bodied military men fighting over a young girl who literally cannot understand their social expectations and make her own informed decisions about them - is portrayed not as “bad” behavior nor even “regrettable but predictable” behavior, but simply “normal and understandable” behavior. Boys will be boys, the film seems to say with its matter-of-fact depiction and lack of narrative retribution. “What did you expect?” Adams literally says to her, somehow turning it all around to be Altaira’s fault. The fact that the writers apparently intended all this to be light-hearted fish-out-of-water culture-clash humor doesn’t make it any better, and might just make it that much worse.

Still, if you don’t go into Forbidden Planet looking for dating advice, you should be all right. As pure cinema, it deserves its place in the history books highlighting the accomplishments that moved the artform, and especially the sci-fi genre, forward to greater heights. And as a reflection of social attitudes, about women as infantilized support systems and minorities as non-entities, well, it pretty much belongs only in the history books, as well.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sit-coms and truth bombs (HIMYM finale, part 1)

So How I Met Your Mother has broadcast its final episodes and all that’s left to do now is overanalyze the bejeezus out of it. Which obviously entails dissecting exactly what happened at the end, so SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT to anyone who hasn’t caught up and/or reached the finish line yet.

Still with me? It’s actually fairly apt that I would lead off with a spoiler warning, because spoiler warnings in and of themselves are fairly emblematic of the information age we live in, bobbing along in a sea of professional critics and armchair commenters all enabled by the vast all-power of the internet. It consciously occurred to me, somewhere in the last fifteen minutes or so of the HIMYM finale, that it was a show that I cannot, in retrospect, imagine watching without the internet, and in some ways I can’t imagine even existing unto itself without the push and pull of online fandom (and, sure, haterdom). It certainly would have been a radically different viewing experience.

I’ve already copped to a prime example of this, when I explained how the significance of the flash-forwards in the episode “Vesuvius” were lost on me until I went online and read some comments about a working fan theory that the Mother dies before Ted starts telling his kids the story in the framing device, and in fact her absence in the future is in large part the justification for such prolonged remembrances of the past. Things got a little more complicated in the intervening weeks, because the whole question of whether or not the theory would prove correct got taken up in all corners of the blogosphere with any connection to television and/or pop culture. Because the show is a 200+ episode institution and was heading towards its grand climax, there were interviews with the cast in which they were pointedly asked about the Mother’s demise. There were opinion pieces which morphed into naked appeals to the showrunners to please, please get the ending right and make it a happily ever after for Ted. There were e-mails and blog comments exchanged between me and friends (mostly noted friend o’ the blog Harvey Jerkwater) rigorously examining the evidence and the precedents. I didn’t really write any more here for public consumption, but I read about it. A lot.

In an alternate universe with no interwebs, I would have been a bit oblivious in my reading of the fifth-to-last episode and then probably devastated by the revelation in the final montage. But here in reality, because of the extant communal e-consciousness, I went on a much wilder roller-coaster ride, being hipped to the probable ending and processing it and making peace with it and then somehow managing to find a lot of people earnestly promoting counter-theories, so many with such fervent dedication that I began to nurse a little hope that maybe it was going to be happily-ever-after after all, only to have that ultimately taken away by the canonical text as it unfolded in real time, which was still a little devastating but in a completely different way. For the record, I like the universe better with the interwebs (which really shouldn’t be in question at all, but there you go).

That’s a microcosmic example, but in practice HIMYM has always been a show enhanced by the constant online dialogue. It’s much like The X-Files or Lost, both in having a devoted and vocal fanbase (in near-constant battle with detractors) and in supporting its own world-building mythology and central mysteries. The crucial differences, though, are that (1) HIMYM was a comedy, not a drama, and therefore harder to get too serious about, and (2) I really, truly do believe that the showrunners knew all along how things were going to be resolved, whereas there are strong arguments to be made that shows like X-Files and Lost made things up as they went along (and infuriated a lot of people who expected more cohesive vision along the way).

Not to get too far off the path here, but allow me to take a moment to say that for a while now, and (I imagine) for the future, I’ve identified myself as a HIMYM defender. I keep bringing up this notion of fans vs. haters, and I am admittedly a fan. I’m glad I got into HIMYM and I had a rooting interest in it ending well, both for my own satisfaction with the entertainment itself and for purposes of not being undercut in my intentions to continue defending the show going forward. I am biased, both by liking the show and by wanting it to be something worth liking. Consider that my acknowledgment of the grain of salt with which you should take my pronouncements about how Carter and Bays were working with a solid plan that they stuck to their guns on. Consider the source. You can find a hundred examples on this blog illustrating how I go crazy for stories about stories and storytelling, and HIMYM had that in spades. So I can’t claim true objectivity, and I’m not really trying to.

Funny enough (he interrupted himself again), midway through the hourlong finale last night my wife brought up a question (which wound up being astonishingly prophetic, but I swear this is how it went down) about the whole idea of Robin drifting away from the group through the years from 2015 to 2024 or so. Because my wife, as well-versed in HIMYM-arcana as I am, recalled all the earlier episodes where Ted has pointed out how Robin is a wonderful “aunt” to the kids, as evidenced by the cute-as-pie crayon pictures of the kids and Aunt Robin at the zoo and somesuch. My wife couldn’t reconcile that with the image developing of Robin always being on foreign assignment as a cable news correspondent. I theorized off the top of my head that her travel schedule was grueling enough to make her marriage to Barney unworkable, but it wasn’t necessarily constant globetrotting. Doubtless she would come back to New York every few weeks or few months, and since she was no longer married, what would she do with that downtime? Visit Ted and his family, and do fun things on them with her copious disposable income. The logistics are almost besides the point, though. The real crux is that Ted is a romantic who sees the best in people, especially his friends, and puts the best spin on everything. Maybe his kids only see Aunt Robin four times a year, but that’s not going to stop Ted from proclaiming, and genuinely believing, that Robin is the best honorary aunt of all time. (Obviously there were other complicating factors in terms of Ted’s feelings, but we weren’t 100% aware of that at 8:30-something last night.) Point being,as Ted gives Robin the benefit of the doubt, I give HIMYM the benefit of the doubt, and so it goes.

And a lot of people never gave HIMYM the benefit of the doubt, and while there are plenty of legitimate criticisms you could level at the show the one that sticks in my craw will always be “Just tell us who the Mother is already!!!” And again, in this bold new digital frontier we are expanding every day, I have to take into account the fact that a lot of people’s primary hobby is trolling, and it’s almost impossible to tell who drops “Just tell us who the Mother is already!!!” onto a comment board because it distresses them greatly and who deploys it knowingly and sadistically to watch the nerd-fans lose their minds. But let’s take it at face value (because trolls, in and of themselves, suck and are easy to dismiss) and give the sentiment a final, exasperated sigh. People often lamented that HIMYM betrayed its own premise, by which they meant it betrayed its own title, as if that were the same thing. To me, it’s kind of like a person reading a novel and saying, “Wait a minute, this book is about war! And race and class issues! And how hard it is for a woman to be strong and independent without becoming, or being accused of becoming, a gold-digger or a harlot! All of those things are still with us today, why did they even call this book ‘Gone With the Wind’?!?!? Just tell me about the stuff that isn’t around anymore, already!” A title is not an implicit promise of what the work will be exclusively focused on, and even if it were, once more for the slow kids in the back, HIMYM was a comedy. Straying far afield from any supposed promises of its title is funny, because it subverts expectations.

I do of course have further thoughts about the ending of the series, the what and how and why of it all, but I will save that for another post. This one has already gotten too long for its own good, and I really need to go catch up on reading all the various online thinkpieces about the final episode. Tune in next Tuesday for part 2.