Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hard to grow up (Spirited Away)

Once again it is 1001 Movies Blog Club time! Today’s subject of consideration is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. As it happens, I had been meaning to get around to watching this film for a while, since it’s a point of intersection between the Master List and my own personal interests. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fairy tales (what with the omnipresence of Frozen plus some writing opportunities I’ve been looking into) so Spirited Away was very much a thematic compliment to all that.

Fairy tales make for a great entry point for comparing different cultures, because they tend to encompass both universal humanist qualities as well as specific distinctive elements. Spirited Away starts with a mother, father and daughter driving to their new home in a new town, which has the ten-year-old little girl Chihiro understandably out of sorts. Right away it’s a scenario to which almost everyone can relate, the childhood fears of leaving behind the familiar and starting a new phase of life, compounded and complicated by parents’ seeming indifference or half-hearted assurances that it won’t be so bad. Then the family finds a strange tunnel gate at the end of a road the father mistakenly assumes is a shortcut, and walk through it to enter an abandoned amusement park, with the father explaining that in the boom years of the 80’s many such parks were built but in the ensuing Lost Decade they were all left to rot, which speaks to a very specific span of recent Japanese history. By the time it becomes apparent that the amusement park is actually an enchanted realm within the spirit world, with various mythical creatures running a bathhouse for powerful spirits under the auspices of a powerful witch, Spirited Away had plunged unapologetically into the deep end of Japanese folklore (or pseudo-folklore, mixing traditional myths with Miyazaki’s own inventions) but, again, fairy tales are fairy tales no matter what details they are dressed up in, trolls or shikigami, elves or yōkai, talking frogs or … ok I guess Spirited Away has talking frogs, too.

Also, Spirited Away has radish spirits, which, I mean, WHAT THE WHAT.

Chihiro’s journey in Spirited Away is primarily an internal one, since the nature of her dilemma is that she (along with her parents, transformed into pigs) is trapped in the witch Yubaba’s domain by a contract of servitude, and her quest is to win back her family’s freedom. For all the supernatural wonders and weirdness that she encounters, the point of her story is nonetheless as simple as it is important: children are basically, at heart, decent human beings, even if their day-to-day behavior sometimes makes them seem spoiled or selfish or otherwise less than ideal. When the chips are down, children can do what needs to be done, for themselves and for others. They respond to kindness with kindness, and to love with love. I know this is a subject so near and dear to my heart that I’ve become something of a broken record about it, but that’s just where my life is at this point, with my oldest in kindergarten and my youngest just hitting the earliest independence-oriented phase: I see two sides to everything that’s child-oriented, once from my perspective as a parent ultimately responsible for these little lives and their potential, and again from the perspective of the kids themselves as little self-actualizing works-in-progress. Fairy tales are instructive to children in that they communicate virtues and values, and also inform children that sometimes life is unfair, cruelty abounds from individuals to institutions to the fates themselves, and it all must be borne with bravery and perseverance. What I’m gradually realizing as I crest the halfway point of my own life is how fairy tales are instructive to adults, to parents in particular: the world will be hard on your children at times, through no fault of their own, but your children can take it. They tougher and stronger than you realize. They contain greatness, and they can be heroes in their own stories, if you let them.

It probably goes without saying that Miyazaki is regarded as an absolute master and his animated features are lush and gorgeous in every way, Spirited Away being no exception. It’s a sumptuous visual feast, with its fantasy characters rendered in a combination of cartoonish simplicity and strangeness that defies biology and physics, all of which suits the fairy tale sensibility perfectly and somehow seamlessly melds into the backgrounds’ meticulous detail and depth. I should mention that I watched the English dub version which was adapted by Disney, and after having watched many, many anime movies in which the dialogue seems like a poorly planned afterthought (unnaturally fast speech patterns out of sync with the character’s mouths and body language) I was impressed by how much care and thought was put into re-writing the speaking parts to be harmonious to the movie overall.

My only complaint about the film came down to the pacing, which I found a little too soporific. Obviously I get that the whole story has a deliberately dreamlike quality to it, and I would readily concede that it may be a culture-clash thing, with my western sensibilities not quite capable of enjoying the more leisurely, meandering narrative. Or maybe I am just a cretin. Some people can go to an art museum and wander through it enjoying the works on display until the museum closes for the night and they have to be chased out; me, I get bored a lot faster than that, whatever my initial level of appreciation. As awe-inspiring as Miyazaki’s filmmaking is, I can’t just stare at it for hours while it spins its wheels.

Nonetheless, that’s a minor ding against the movie. Given the dearth of fairy tale stories out there with female protagonists who aren’t princesses and aren’t trying to find their true love, it’s an unqualified good thing that Spirited Away exists at all. The fact that it contains pure magic, for children and for adults, makes it even better.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Decoration and remembrance

It always strikes me as a little odd to utter the phrase "Happy Memorial Day". Make no mistake, I'm a huge grill enthusiast and look forward to warm weather every year, and the late May long weekend and attendant cookouts kicking off unofficial summer are a tradition I'm entirely in favor of. But the reason for the season, as it were, is inseparable from things like war and sacrifice which I can't really reconcile with "happy".

So I wish everyone a safe Memorial Day and a restful one, which hopefully gives us the breathing room to take a moment for gratitude toward those who gave all for the rest of us.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Indebted to Disney

I'm not entirely sure if we would have made it all the way to Connecticut last Friday, given the unanticipated and unavoidable delays and mini-disasters, if not for the steady stream of Disney entertainment keeping the little guy and little girl pacified. Oh, sure, they mixed it up a little with some DVD compilations of Olivia and Busytown Mysteries, but Frozen and Cars 2 remain the heavy hitters (along with the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, which somehow still delights them.) I know it's very hip to adopt a scornful attitude towards the Big D for making huge profits off selling to little kids exactly what they're predisposed to want, but all I can say is: thank you, Disney, for giving my kids exactly what they want. You are very welcome to my money in exchange for it.


Of course while we were at my dad's the discussion inevitably came up about all of us going to Walt Disney World at some point in ... I guess the relatively near future? We kind of reset the clock on that plan when the little bino was born last year, but he's within a year, two years tops, of being able to actually get something out of the experience, so we really need to start planning. (And saving, lest we become deeply indebted to Disney in a much more literal fiduciary sense.)


Anyway, speaking of Frozen, one night this week we were getting the kids ready for bed and showing them some videos on the iPad, including songs from Frozen. The little girl had selected "Love is an Open Door" and both she and her older brother were into it, but at the point where the duet reaches a passage of Anna and Hans alternating individual words, the little guy began to quibble with it. He observed that for the phrase "you and I were just meant to be", Anna sings "you" and Hans sings "and I" which means they're both talking about Hans, which doesn't make any sense. I just kind of chuckled and said that was technically true but, you know, music sometimes doesn't adhere to the strictest grammatical rule-following, so you just have to kind of ignore those lapses. (Insert "let it go" joke here.) Then I left to go start running the little guy's bath.

Then a minute later I cam running back into the bedroom and said, "Oh! But! Maybe they did that on purpose! It really does cut right to the heart of how oblivious Anna is and how self-serving Hans is! Right? Right?"

I may be overthinking things, as is my wont. (I may also be as obsessed as my kids with Frozen, if not moreso.) But man, I think Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez write some killer showtunes.


Another kind of cartoon that gets a lot of play at bedtime in my house is Donald Duck shorts. I tell myself that it's constructive parenting because Donald Duck is such a classic lesson in how all-consuming, irrational anger is ultimately self-defeating and self-destructive, but I also know that the lesson is going right over my kids' heads, as they just think Donald is hilarious. Those cartoons from the 40's and 50's have also filled their heads with various anachronisms, but far and away my favorite is the sadly fallen-out-of-favor expletive, "Phooey!" The little girl in particular has really latched onto that one, as apparently it just fully resonates with her as an expression of frustration. If there is anything on God's green earth cuter than a three year old stomping off and shouting, "Oh, phooey!" I have no idea what it is.


Finally, did everyone see the new early trailer for Big Hero 6 this week? (Here it is.) We are living in a world where Walt Disney Pictures is making an animated feature film out of one of the weirder Marvel Comics concepts of the late '90's. Truly this is a geeky golden age. I feel like I keep saying variations on this, but I can't help it, because they keep pushing further and further into obscurities I thought would be lost to the quarter-bins of history forever.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Back to the back of beyond

Going up to my dad’s this past weekend got me thinking about when my family moved from New Jersey to Connecticut between my high school graduation and my first semester of college. My dad no longer lives in the same town that we relocated to that summer, because over the course of the ensuing year he and my mom decided they were going to get divorced, and so twelve months later Mom was back in the town in NJ we had just left and Dad was bouncing around from place to place in CT (with a brief detour to England). But all of those CT residences of Dad’s, including where he is now, were all basically within the same relatively small geographical area immediately north of New York City. And really, to me, it’s all the same.

Not coincidentally, the town where Dad lives now is the same town where his brother and sister and their families have lived for significantly longer; they had all been living there for a while that summer we moved. In fact, the day that we pulled up stakes we drove from NJ to our new house, but only stayed there for a few minutes. (I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever saw the place; my parents had found it, visited it, and bought it over a series of weekend day trips when I was doing high school stuff back in NJ.) Rather than be underfoot as the movers unloaded the truck, we proceeded over to my aunt and uncle’s house. The stopover at our new house probably could have been skipped, but by doing it that way I got to learn the direct route from where we would be living to my aunt and uncle’s house, as opposed to taking the highway straight from NJ to my aunt and uncle’s house, which wouldn’t be the most direct approach once we were living closer.

And I expected I would be making that trip pretty often, and I turned out to be right about that. The aunt and uncle in question, my godparents, are the parents of my cousin who’s closest to me in age; he’s actually right between me and Little Bro, and the three of us always got along well, so much so that many a Christmas get-together ended with all of us trying to wheedle our parents into not splitting up the trio so soon. Can Cuz come back home with us? Or can Little Bro and I stay here at our aunt and uncle’s house a little longer, and you can come back for us in a few days? (They did actually give in to us once or twice, at that.) So moving to a town something like 20 minutes away from my cousin, now that I was old enough to have a driver’s license, was kind of a dream come true. We hung out a lot that summer.

On moving day, my dad drove the family minivan with my mom riding shotgun and Very Little Bro (age 4) riding in his car seat in the back. I drove the family’s other car, a little hatchback, with Little Bro riding shotgun with me, and we followed Dad because he knew where he was going. I really only remember two things distinctly about that trip. One is that at one point my dad rolled down his window and beckoned for me to pull up next to him, as we were traveling at speed on the multi-lane highway. I complied and when we were even he screamed at me “STAY ON MY TAIL!” Apparently I had been allowing a little too much distance between our bumpers and he was afraid that someone would cut me off, get between us, I’d lose sight of Dad and be hopelessly lost in southeast New York state where a wrong turn could easily take you into the bad parts of NYC.

The other thing I remember is that while we were driving from our new house to my cousin’s house it felt like we were in a completely different world. We were relocating all of about a two hour drive but we were coming from a fairly densely packed part of New Jersey, where the townships are stacked up contiguously and the only way to build something new is to tear down something old. That was where we grew up and that was all we really knew. The very concept of a town ending and the road passing through untamed woods on unincorporated land was utterly foreign. And yes we had visited our relatives many times but that was always with Dad driving and not much sightseeing in the surrounding area, just on and off the highway (and I was reading the entire trip anyway, as a rule). Following the backroads to our aunt and uncle’s house, it just felt incredibly rural, at least to me and Little Bro and our embarrassingly sheltered and limited perspective. The most we knew about rural communities came largely from watching the Dukes of Hazzard as little kids, so as we followed Dad on that last leg of the trip we were cracking jokes about being in the sticks for sure now, using horribly ill-informed redneck accents.

(And of course in retrospect I know a lot of this was defensiveness on our parts, as we had been uprooted from the place we had lived for eight years, the majority of our young lives, and now we were the outsiders in a new place and so we immediately cast ourselves as the civilized ones exiled to the boonies, because even if that wasn’t technically true that was how it felt.)

We drove at one point past a roadside shop that had a sign reading “Herb’s Electronics” and for no real reason I yelled out “Hooowee, Herb’s Electronics! If you didn’t get it at Herb’s, it probably ain’t stolen!” And Little Bro completely lost it, laughing like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

(Again, I fully realize that was no doubt mostly nervous laughter, Little Bro has always been a little high-strung and inclined to keep it to himself, and cathartically displacing things is how he stays sane.)

Anyway, it all seems like a very long time ago now, which I suppose it was. Since then I’ve seen more parts of the country (and the world) and recognized that the vast and sprawling suburbs of New York City are pretty dang homogeneous, whatever color the license plates on the cars may be. And of course I married a girl from the South, who definitely does not draw distinctions between yankees from New Jersey and yankees from Connecticut. And to this day she teases me when we’re driving somewhere and I ask her what town we’re in, expecting there to be an actual answer because when one town ends the next immediately begins and therefore you’re always in one.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Proving the negative

Have I used that title for a post before? As concepts go, it’s one I refer to a lot, and rarely because I feel like bringing it up out of left field with no relevance to situations at hand. It has any number of everyday uses. For instance:

The little guy has been in something of an argumentative mood for a while now; I can’t quite pinpoint when it started, but I know it’s been going on long enough for me to about have lost patience with it altogether. He’s basically taken it upon himself to challenge everything that comes out of my mouth, or my wife’s, particularly when it pertains to him being asked to do something that he doesn’t want to do. And on the one hand, I do credit him for taking what is a relatively mature and cogent approach, namely rather than simply refusing to do what he’s told he offers alternative suggestions. That’s some pretty advanced negotiating tactics, right? He also, cleverly, couches his own disobedience inside of questions. I say it’s time to go upstairs for the night, and he says “Why can’t I stay down here just for a few more minutes?” which flips things and puts the onus on me to prove why his proposal is not feasible. And of course usually his proposal is perfectly feasible, it’s just not what I want him to do, but I often get suckered into arguing the merits because I don’t like the thought of myself as a because-I-said-so kind of parent. It’s a burden.

OK, that example was maybe a bit dodgy. Here’s another go at it: we’re continuing to count down the days left in the school year, me, my son and my wife, all of us. It’s been a rough journey through kindergarten, giving us new opportunities to be proud of the little guy for how creative and funny and insightful he is, but also informing us that what public schools (apparently) really value are discipline and the ability to stay on task with repetitive drills. Which are not exactly the little guy’s strong suit. The fundamental question, then, is why he lacks discipline and zones out when the assignment is to write out the letters of the alphabet for the umpteenth time and ends up never getting the work done and has to sit out recess time to keep plugging desultorily away at it (true story which just about broke me and my wife’s hearts). Is he lazy? Is he ADHD? Is he just immature because he is literally only five and a half years old? His teacher had a very hard to parse attitude about this for most of the year, a strange combination of “I want to bring this to your attention so we can nip it in the bud” and “I don’t want to over-stress the kid so let’s wait and see how it goes”. So … be aware, but do nothing? Eventually we got tired of doing nothing and we’re now trying to get the school to do something, and they’ve agreed to some preliminary testing, which may well wind up being more or less a series of ruling things out (aka proving negatives). I have no scientific expertise or observational basis for it, but I suspect the truth is a combination of minor factors rather than one major culprit. So they’ll test the little guy for delayed development of fine motor control, and he will be at the low end of average. They’ll test for dysgraphia, and it won’t be a slam dunk, and they’ll test for ADHD, and that won’t be it, either. It will just be some nebulous cluster that everyone involved (parents, teachers, the little guy himself) have to figure out as they go along.

Or it might all go away as suddenly as if someone threw a switch, in a couple of years. That’s not wishful thinking, it’s a phenomena that happens often enough for me to have run across multiple references to it (or have them relayed to me by my wife). But of course, that’s a dangerous hope to hold on to if it ends up going the other way, because it would be very hard for someone to prove to me that it’s never going to happen.

Anyway … the little girl, fully embracing her appropriate three-year-old-ness, is also a bit (read: A LOT) on the ornery side these days, although she has also taken a recent interest in an almost zen-like conception of nothingness. She returned from washing her hands before dinner the other day and proceeded to inform me and my wife that “There is no stove in the bathroom.” She is absolutely correct on that, of course. Why it occurred to her that such a definitive statement on the absence of stoves between the vanity and the toilet was required, we have no clue, but she was adamant.

As for the baby, he has recently mastered shaking his head (really most of the upper half of his body) to express negative interest in something. That mastery, combined with getting the hang of pointing and really walking and climbing with great speed and skill, should pretty much preclude me calling him the baby anymore. I can only barely justify it by pointing out he will (likely) always be the baby of the family, in birth-order sense at least. Perhaps I should simply start calling him the bino (Baby In Name Only). The intent would be to rhyme not with albino (we’re still hoping that, despite their blue eyes and blond hair, the kids will have my capacity for tanning and not my wife’s easily burned alabaster complexion) but with bambino, which at least means “child” and not “baby”.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“It’s all about the direction of the aggression” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

So my wife and I went to new York City and saw the Broadway (or “Broadway-adjacent”) revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris, which we had been looking forward to for months and months, and it seems absurd to not at least comment on the experience but at the same time I honestly feel that the show is more or less review-proof. It’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon, I think, and I have already established my bona fides as someone who unequivocally loves it. It’s hard to say what I love more, the story or the music, although that is probably testament to the fact that the songs and the narrative are so tightly intertwined it’s basically impossible to evaluate them separately. And they’re both amazing.

Going to the Belasco and seeing the show live is kind of like going to an intimate venue to see a great band play their greatest hits. The current incarnation of the Angry Inch absolutely kills it, musically. (There’s also a new arrangement for the revival of “Sugar Daddy”, which was always the weak link for me because I don’t especially care for country/western; now it’s more blues/punk and all the better for it.) Since I had only ever seen the movie version previously, I had wondered how the stage show would cover all the same material; turns out a lot of the elements from the movie represented by various actors in flashbacks end up rolled into Hedwig’s monologues on stage, so really it’s like going to an intimate venue to see a great band play their greatest hits for an episode of Storytellers, with the world’s greatest transsexual diva pulling out all the stops between songs, inhabiting various personae to illustrate the histories and mysteries of the lyrics and whatnot. Again, either that sounds like absolute torture, or totally rad, and I doubt I could move you from one to the other. Fortunately, the entire crowd in the theater was pro-Hedwig from the outset, which was a cool vibe to be immersed in.

The show has been updated slightly to include a few more topical references and a couple of jokes that either hail back to the original production and didn’t make the cut into the movie, or else are recent additions. As a pathological completist, I now very much wish I had a time machine so that I could go back to 1998 and see the original staging for comparative purposes. But that is pretty unlikely to happen. On the other hand, I did have the benefit of meeting up with some friends who live in NYC after the show, one of whom had seen Hedwig a few weeks earlier. I asked if one part of the banter had been improvised on the spot; my friend burst my bubble by informing me they had done the exact same exchange at his show. Nevertheless, for both of us it really drove home how professional the cast is, to be able to pull off the same gag night after night and make it look spontaneous every time.

Speaking of gags, there was a moment in the show where Hedwig spits some soda at an unsuspecting audience member, causing the rest of the crowd to go nuts. Hedwig shrugs and says (I am possibly paraphrasing a little here), “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll moment. More of a heavy metal moment, I suppose. Would you like to see a punk rock moment?” The crowd cheers, Hedwig takes a huge sip of soda, and then allows the soda to spill down her chin, neck and chest. “You see, it’s all about the direction of the aggression,” she explains. So in light of that, I could put a positive spin on the trauma of the baby throwing up on himself in the car the day before: he was just trying to get into the Hedwig spirit!

But yeah, the show rocked and I unreservedly, giddily recommend it. And I never watch awards shows and rarely comment on them, barring the occasional thinkpiece on the deeper meaning of the Academy Award Best Picture race, but fair warning come early June this year: if Lena Hall doesn’t win a Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical, for her role as Yitzhak, I will be ranting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Road war stories


We had a solid strategy (or so we thought) when we set out on our roadtrip this past Friday: we had waited out the morning rush hour, and we were going to take an alternate route we hoped was sufficiently off the beaten path, still involving interstate highways (mostly I-81) but avoiding the tolls and congestion of I-95. The alternate route was a bit out of the way, not exactly a straight line, but we still deemed it worth a try. Even when the traffic started to slow down a bit, and we saw signs indicating that all cars were being detoured, we still reasoned that it was far preferable to follow said detour and eventually get back to our planned route rather than turn around and resign ourselves to another slog up 95.

Unfortunately, the detour was a bit of a disaster, in the sense that a three-lane highway was being diverted onto a one-lane backroad, and even at non-rush hour volume it slowed all progress to a stop-crawl-stop pace. What should have been the first hour or so of a six hour drive took over three hours. An inauspicious beginning, indeed.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, part of our strategy hinged on not only waiting uot morning rush hour but waiting until reasonably close to the baby’s usual midday naptime, figuring that once we got on the highway he would be lulled to sleep and hopefully stay that way for a good two or three hours. The bigger kids could watch a couple movies, the baby would snooze, and we would cover at least half the distance we needed to in relative peace and harmony. Sure enough, the baby did fall asleep as predicted, but that was before we hit the massive slowdown. Without the humming and rocking of traveling at speed, the baby woke up after only about an hour, and then was doubly cranky from the combination of a truncated nap and being bored out of his gourd and strapped into a carseat when all he wants to do these days is toddle around exploring the world. So the baby threw a horrible tantrum and was screaming and gasping for breath and screaming some more until the stress caused him to literally toss his cookies (and other various snacks we had tried to mollify him with). So right about the time we were poised to start making good time on the other side of the hellacious snarl of traffic, we pulled over at a KFC to clean up the baby and his car seat as best we could and grab some late lunch.

Things were better after that, meaning relatively uneventful even if we were hopelessly off-schedule. We stopped again for gas, then detoured around a major city because it was nearing the evening rush. (Again, the original plan would have had all the driving concluded in the window between rush hours, but that got pretty well scuttled.) And we stopped for dinner some time after that, before making the final push.

And of course that leg proved arduous in its own way, as I found myself driving (a) in the dark (b) in the pouring rain (c) on roads I had never been on before (d) which were under construction and therefore reduced to a single extra-narrow lane with a Jersey barrier to the left and orange traffic barrels to the right (e) with cars and sometimes 18-wheelers tailgating me. It left me a bit tense, and when we finally got to the hotel I would have liked nothing better than to collapse, except I had to hump in the suitcases from the car, through the rain, as well as the pack and play we had brought as a backup, and thank goodness, because the hotel which listed “cribs” as an amenity on the website apparently only had one, and that one turned out to have a broken wheel.

None of the above, I readily admit, is anyone’s fault. Can’t help the rain, or the fact that budget-minded hotels in relative backwaters like Middletown, NY don’t have five-star service. Even the inciting event that caused the domino effect of chaos, an accident ahead of us on the road, was just that, an accident, caused by bad weather and tragically resulting in at least one fatality, which is too sad to be properly irritating. (My wife and I, once she accessed some news about the traffic jam on her phone, were both actually quite thankful that it could have been worse, since there was a fuel tanker involved in the crash but it never ruptured.) Just one of those things (or convergence of things) you take your chances on when you head out on the highway. And we all survived and made it where we were going in one piece, so there’s that.


Just to be clear, the whole reason we were off on a roadtrip was because my wife bought me tickets to Hedwig and the Angry Inch for Christmas. So we left on Friday morning, to arrive at a hotel close to my dad’s place in Connecticut Friday night. Then we were able to get up Saturday morning and reach my dad’s in a reasonably short jaunt, unload the kids and spend a little time with my dad, stepmom and sister, brief them on all the kids’ needs/wants/customary routines, and then proceed, just my wife and I, to New York City, where we could check into another hotel and then go see the show and then catch up with some college friends who live in the city, and spend the night, and get up and get back to my dad’s on Sunday morning and pack up the kids and get the whole family home by Sunday night.

That was the plan and everything from Saturday morning forward went off more or less without a hitch, which is still a big deal to me because of the part that involved me driving into Manhattan, which despite my ever-advancing age and lifelong love of at least three of the five boroughs was something I had never done before. In fact, I often incorporated that factoid into any explanation I gave on the subject of my feelings towards NYC: fantastic place to visit, hang out, see and do amazing things, but I would never want to have to live there, or drive there. And really, there’s no need when the public transit options are so diverse, accommodating and reliable. I’ve ridden school buses and coach buses into the city, been driven by my dad many times, rode shotgun with a friend, taken Amtrak trains, taken PATH trains, but never gotten behind the wheel with a destination on the island in mind. Until now.

It was surprisingly not that bad. Or maybe, honestly, not that surprising. All I had to do was follow my dad’s suggested directions, and as I indicated he’s no stranger to the driver’s perspective on the city himself. My wife had booked the hotel, all as part of the gift package, and she had specifically chosen someplace both close to the theatre and easily accessible. All we had to do was get on the Henry Hudson Parkway and, after it became 12th Avenue, turn onto 42nd Street and go about two blocks to the hotel, which had its own parking garage. (Parking our hybrid SUV in that cramped little concrete puzzle box was its own challenge, but at least it didn’t involve multi-point turns with midtown traffic screaming by inches from the bumper.) If you count 12th Avenue as more of the boundary of Manhattan than interior, I really only drove “in” the city for a total of 1000, maybe 1500 ft (each way). But still, that was far more than I ever had before, and I admit to being excessively pleased with myself for it.


The return trip was much better. We had planned all along to come home by way of I-95, if only because we had less margin of error in terms of getting home at a decent hour Sunday in order to get everyone to bed and then me to work and the little guy to school on Monday morning. Fortunately, I-95 was moving about as optimally as it can, as was every other road between my dad’s place and mine. We only stopped once, halfway home, for gas and snacks, since we had lunch at dad’s right before we left and had dinner once we got home. The baby fell asleep shortly after leaving and mercifully snoozed for three whole hours, so just about everything went according to plan. Also, my wife did all of the driving on Sunday, which was a nice break for me. I appreciate her more than words can possibly say.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Too on the nose

This morning was supposed to be a return to regularly scheduled programming for my entire family unit. We got back from our epic (in many senses of the word) road trip around 7:30 p.m. Sunday night and my wife and I got the kids to eat at least some of the Happy Meals we picked up in town between the highway and our house, then bathed them all and tucked them all in, sequentially, and then pretty much collapsed ourselves.

I remember saying out loud, "OH, I gotta turn on the alarm clock" but somehow I still managed to oversleep this morning, with no memory whatsoever of the alarm going off. And when I did wake up, I found the alarm completely turned off, not idling through snooze cycles after being slapped by a mostly-still-asleep me or anything like that. Weird. Still, I forced myself into high gear to go through the motions of getting ready, and I was put together enough to leave the house at about my usual time at that.

Only to find that my car wouldn't start. We took my wife's car on the roadtrip because it's the one big enough to seat all five of us. My car sat at home in the garage all weekend, with the headlights and dome lights off and the doors shut &c. so I have no idea why the battery died in our absence, yet so it did. I called roadside assistance and they came out eventually, although by the time they arrived I had also called a cab to take me to the train station, since I knew the engine would need to run for a while after getting jumped, longer than it would take me to drive to the station, anyway. Roadside guy left, cab showed up, I kissed my wife goodbye and she told me she'd turn off the car engine after the appropriate interval, and I finally embarked on my commute. Got to work about an hour late (not that anybody here really noticed, of course).

So, yeah, my ride decided to metaphorically emulate my general mindset this morning: hey, you don't feel like waking up and going to work this morning? Me neither! Very meta. Annoying, but meta. So I've kind of been a step behind in catching up today, hence this relatively trivial placeholder of a Monday post. More about logging serious miles with the kids and our actual adventures in NYC later this week, though, assuming the brain fog eventually lifts.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tiny terrors (Jeux Interdits)

1001 Movies Blog Club time! This week’s selection was the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, René Clément's Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games).

The movie sets itself up at the outset as the story of a cherubic little girl, an older boy, and a world turned upside-down by war. I braced myself for Grave of the Fireflies redux (or, given that GotF came our 36 years later, pre-dux?), except this time with actual human child actors instead of awkwardly overdubbed anime. But it turns out that Clément had something else in mind, fortunately.

Despite being set during the Battle of France in WWII, Jeux Interdits is neither a war film nor an anti-war film, not really. It’s a meditation on the “innocence” (scare quotes very much intended) of childhood, and the war provides a specific pretext for a young city girl to be orphaned in the bloody chaos of Parisians fleeing the city in advance of German bombers, and subsequently adopted by a country family when she wanders their way. The same air raid wreaking havoc on the evacuations sets off another chain of events, by which a horse and cart are set loose, running wild across the country family’s small farm, which leads to the oldest son suffering a fatal wound when he tries to grab the horse and is viciously kicked for his trouble. All of this assembles the necessary narrative elements for children to be confronted with death and grapple with it in their own way, and it could have been accomplished in different ways not involving a war at all. Perhaps this was deliberate on Clément's part (or on the part of François Boyer, who wrote the original novel on which the film was based), taking the opportunity to point out in passing that war is a mindless beast, a frightened horse dragging a broken cart which kills wantonly and pointlessly, before moving on to the real business at hand.

Two elements of the film struck me in particular, the first being how modern in spirit the depiction of the children was. Paulette, who is five, and Michel, ten, are truly the main characters of the movie, and they’re not treated as moppets. They have inner lives, mostly defined by pain and confusion and frustration (hence, as I alluded to above, not exactly as innocent as most people’s default assumptions about the idylls of childhood may be). Death is arguably the hardest facet of reality for anyone to grapple with, even as an adult with a reasonably full lifetime of experience and wisdom to draw on. For children, it’s almost impossible, especially when the adults around them are too all-consumed by petty feuds with the neighbors to offer any guidance. Paulette doesn’t have any innate belief that her slain parents (or the dead puppy she carries into the country as a proxy totem of her loss) are at peace or in a better place, and no one steps up to enlighten (or delude) her. She’s forced to create her own philosophy built on leaps of child-logic, trying to assemble an animal cemetery around her puppy’s grave because the more dead things there are in the ground, the less lonely the puppy will be. And the graves have to be marked by crosses, not because Paulette really understands what they mean, but because she thinks they’re pretty.

Paulette’s attempts to surmount and define at least the concept of death are by turns amusingly adorable and fairly horrifying, noble and selfish, but the upshot is that they are happening in a vacuum. Children are capable of feeling grief, but not necessarily managing it well (or at all), not without the intervention of a responsible adult. Sadly for Paulette, there are no responsible adults to be found, only a smitten little boy all too willing to enable her macabre whims.

The other point of fascination for me in Jeux Interdits is in its portrayal of Catholicism, again mostly from a child’s perspective. It seems reasonable enough to posit that knowledge of our own mortality is one of the key factors in recognizing the spiritual dimensions to our lives, and that religion is a coping mechanism for death. In a time of loss, the Church should be a place of refuge and aid in making sense of the senseless. But of course it’s not so simple. early on in the movie the local priest asks Paulette if she knows how to pray, she says no, and the priest assures her that Michel can teach her because he knows his catechism very well. What this turns out to mean is that Michel has dutifully memorized the standard sacramental prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and he can perform rote recitations of them on command. But the words have very little meaning to him; he spits them out like a speedrun through the state capitals, sometimes (hilariously) accidentally mashing up two separate prayers, because he’s resentful that he can’t just sit and eat dinner. I do feel it’s important to note that the priest is actually a very sympathetic character, not some corrupt or hypocritical indictment of the clergy. But at the same time, the institutional stance of the Church toward children seems to at least be poked at somewhat, as the movie shows how children can be indoctrinated in superficial ways without really internalizing any particular spiritual enlightenment.

All in all it’s a thought-provoking movie, not about the avoidable tragedy of war but rather the unavoidable sadness in recognizing that nothing, not even childhood, is simple.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Other people's weirds

As promised, here are the links for grabbing electronic copies of How the West Was Weird v.3:



If you happen to enjoy stories of cowboys or monsters, or even better mash-ups of those two, then it's hard to beat the entertainment value you would presumably derive from the e-book. And for less than five bucks! (he shilled baldfacedly)

I have yet to read through the entirety of the newly released anthology myself; despite having access to the early galleys, I figured there was a chance some of my fellow authors might make significant corrections to their stories, so I opted to wait for the final published versions for my initial reading experience. Still, I wanted to do something more than just promote the book with marketplace hyperlinks on the occasion of its release, so I decided to reach back to the previous volume in the series. Oddly enough, I never wrote anything close to a proper review of v.2 back when it came out, probably because of the sheer scope of the book, twenty stories encompassing a surprising amount of diversity within the microgenre niche of weird western. A more manageable endeavor would be to focus on one tale (or two or three) out of the whole bunch. Clearly my favorite story in volume 2 is my own, but if I had to pick a first-among-my-peers, the honor would go to ...

"They Call Him Pat" by Ian Taylor.

And it was tough narrowing that down. I flipped through the book again to refresh my memories of all my fellow contributors' stories, and a fairly strong top three solidified in my mind. "Mr. Brass and the Devil's Teeth" by Josh Reynolds is a very good yarn, my main quibble with it being that it feels a trifle overstuffed. Mr. Brass is a steampunk robot who happens to be employed as a Pinkerton. That in and of itself seems like a solid hook for a weird west story (a genre which, by its very nature, lends itself to being conceptually overstuffed since it involves both period pieces set over a century in the past and chock full of cowboy tropes plus whatever added speculative element(s) qualifies as the weird part) but then the Devil's Teeth in question turn out to be magic bullets which cause the men they strike to turn into werewolves, and then on top of that Reynolds throws in Frank and Jesse James and their gang, too. In further defense of Reynolds's approach, he has written something like 10 different "Mr. Brass" stories over the years for various publications, so I can at least understand feeling the need to raise the stakes with every outing, and if that means piling on the monsters as well as the historical legends, so be it.

Another standout in volume 2 is "Storms of Blood and Snow" by Derrick Ferguson. It's a blend of western and fantasy chronicling an adventure of Sebastian Red, gunslinger swordsman and fighter of supernatural evils. Sebastian Red is another recurring character, within the How the West Was Weird series, at least, and he bears more than a little resemblance to Roland Deschain from Stephen King's Dark Tower cycle (a similarity which Ferguson swears is coincidental, as he's never read the Dark Tower, and for what it's worth, I believe him) so of course it's right up my alley. And despite being a short story, Ferguson manages to give the whole tale a feeling of epic depth, like it's a glimpse into an incredibly detailed organic world. It probably is, at that.

But Taylor's story is my favorite of them all, partly because it's really a very simple story about Pat, a lone alien (in the classic hairless, big-head, big-black-eyes, technologically-advanced-civilization mold) who tries to make a go of it as a homesteader out west. And there's very little if any time spent dwelling on how Pat got to Earth or what the scientific principles underpinning his amazing devices may be. The narration of the story has a kind of bemused tone throughout, as if the disembodied voice telling the story is trying to convey that yes, Pat doesn't look like or act like anybody else in the valley, but that's beside the point so please stop gawking at his gray skin and pay attention to what happened next. And what ends up happening is very much in the mold of a dark fairy tale, or a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, and I am absolutely a sucker for those kind of stories. So Taylor rises to the top of the heap for me.

Who will have the distinction of writing my favorite story in volume 3? It could be Derrick Ferguson, or it could be Ian Taylor, both of whom have once again contributed to the anthology this time around. Or it could be someone else! I will probably start reading the new book this evening, and once I've finished and had time to properly judge, I will post the results. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Nobody goes to college for six years, right?

The only thing I’m going to say about work today is that on Friday there came a point in the afternoon where I got some distressing (and completely unrelated to work) news and I said to myself, “Well, that’s it, I’m outta here.” Granted, this was about two minutes before the usual time I would wrap up and shut things down at the end of the work week normally anyway, but still, it felt more emphatic coming on the heels of the bummer announcement.

That announcement, of course, was the word from NBC that they had cancelled Community.

Or, if cancellation is something that happens to shows mid-season and leads to speculation about the ultimate fate of as-yet-unaired episodes, then NBC failed to renew Community for what would have been its long-prophesied sixth season, and this was officially confirmed not as something which NBC overlooked or forgot to do or was in extensive negotiations over, but basically a done deal. No more Community. (For some values of “no more”, though see below.)

I’m oddly mellow on this, believe it or not. Season five was pretty good, which means it was among the best of what the current tv landscape had to offer, but it was also the kind of pretty good which gets that designation relative to its own prior mind-blowing greatness. I more or less had to use the gif above under the circumstances, but of course Donald Glover wasn’t part of the show anymore, which did take away one of the more reliable bright spots through most of Community’s run. The show was on the downward slide, even as it was recovering from the stumbling overall strangeness of season four, because there were really only two places Community could go: back to the things that had originally endeared it to me, which would be comfortable and pleasant but no longer surprising, or into all-new territory, which might have stretched the whole premise (and its many meta-premises) into some weird unrecognizable shape. Season five was actually pulling some from column A and some from column B, but that’s not ideal either. So maybe it’s best to say the show ended where it should have. (OK, technically, it should have ended at the end of season 3, but then season 4 got it into syndication-lite numbers under new showrunners, and then season 5 at least allowed it to go out the way it came in, on Dan Harmon’s watch.)

I know that fairly recently I had expressed mild confidence that Community would be back in the upcoming tv season, because it was at least a known quantity and dependable for its small but steady viewership. So you might think I’d be more crushed given that my hopes were raised, and yet here we are. I still would have watched season 6, even as it continued its inevitable degradation through repetition and/or experimentation, don’t get me wrong, and I would have been happy to do it. But I got a lot of enjoyment out of the show over the past five years, and I’m all right with letting go. Now I won’t have the pressure to get the kids all tucked into bed by 7:55 on Thursday nights anymore, at least. Plus I can just keep an eye out for the “Complete Series” Blu-ray set at some point; I was planning on eventually getting every season on disc anyway, although the half-order seasons toward the end, still retail-priced the same as the longer earlier seasons, threw me quite a bit. Presumably the “E Pluribus Anus Collector’s Edition” will flatten out the price disparities in a package deal. I can even still look forward to new-to-me Community, in the form of the stray minutes here and there, and in some (very few) cases entire episodes, that I missed the first time around when my darling children were less than 100% cooperative about bedtime. So there’s that.

Oh, right, the see-below: so one of the first things my wife said to me when I broke the news to her (which, I will note, demonstrated a very telling element in our marital dynamic, as we both consider ourselves big fans of the show but my wife immediately took on the role of offering comfort to me as the bereaved, assuming the loss of the show would hit me harder, because I’m such an overgeeked kind of big fan) was “Hey, maybe someone else will pick the show up?” And I admitted the thought had occurred to me as well. We’ve seen, in the past few years, sitcoms change networks, hopping from one of the big four to another, or one of the big four to a basic cable network, or even as with Arrested Development recently from a network to Netflix. It certainly could happen. I tend to think, given the large ensemble cast and the fact that many of them (heck, just about all of them) have other things going on, that it’s more likely they might get together for one last closure-tastic movie than even an abbreviated season’s worth of episodes. But I wouldn’t say no to either/both/whatever third option, either. So, que sera sera, but for now, farewell to Greendale. It was good while it lasted (and maybe it will be good again some day).

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Through the Windshield

Just a couple of quickies today, both pertaining to sights seen while driving around:


From the Vanity Plates Archive: Last Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, which I took the kids to, and I may post a bit more about that at some point. But I wanted to be sure to mention that when we were driving back I saw a white van with the custom tags VANCHEZ. I mean, if your last name were Sanchez (as I assume the driver's was/is), and you happen to own a van, I should hope that you would refer to your ride as The Vanchez. Always. Going ahead and upgrading to the vanity plates is truly above and beyond, but I respect that, too.


Today I took the kids to a birthday party, at the home of very good friends of the family. We have been going over to their house for parties and dinners and random visits literally for years. But today, in the process of turning my car around to get out of their neighborhood, I went down a street I had never noticed before.

I should mention that these friends live in a recently constructed development which fully optimized its land usage. (Read: the houses are all right on top of each other.) Some of the roads in the development are really just glorified pipestem driveways and as such, for all I know, are not legally entitled to be called streets per se. So they are "alleys" instead - but they still get cutesy names just like all the other lanes and courts, usually named after flowers or breeds of duck or whathaveyou. So the name of this particular narrow dead end? Stalwart Alley.



Well played, street-namer. Well played.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


I just got the official word that the cover art for How the West Was Weird v.3 is clear for public unveiling. Far be it for me to let the sagebrush grow under my feet:

The e-book version of the anthology officially goes on sale on Monday, and I will post links to places you can pick it up then (spoiler: one of them is Amazon). (UPDATE: The other is Smashwords)

Unfortunately there's been a slight delay in the process of assembling the physical book, so the dead-tree version won't be hitting the streets until July. But hey, I personally guarantee it will be worth the wait!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Patchwork by design (Batman Incorporated)

Recently I got around to reading the first compilation of Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated, a comic series that started like three or four years ago. It's pretty fantastic, just overflowing with little treats for someone like me who's already deeply in the bag for Morrison's comics as it is. Morrison does great character work, and that's impressive considering how many layers those characters are buried under:

1 - The stories are sprawling pulp adventures with fisticuffs, chases and explosions aplenty underpinning mysteries, conspiracies and general weirdness

2 - Specifically they're set in one of if not THE densest superhero universe in comics, where doing anything remotely noteworthy entails transcending seventy-five years of escalating world-building insanity

3 - And the core idea of this particular title is that Bruce Wayne has decided to underwrite the crimefighting efforts of other vigilantes around the world who more or less follow the Batman-template (non-powered humans who use intellect, gadgets and martial arts to fight for justice). So all of the characterization has to be distinct and cut through the clamor of 1 and 2 above while at the same time reinforcing that these are all variations on a theme

So that's,as I say, impressive.

One of the things I've started to notice about Morrison, especially his mainstream superhero work, is the way that he achieves point 2 above, or at least one of the strategies he employs. He simultaneously cuts through and works with the huge amount of historical baggage that the fictional DC Universe is saddled with by following one simple principle: he never stops to explain anything.

It's an incredibly liberating way to approach superheroes. Comics have a well-deserved bad rap for being one of the main offenders of indulging in reams of ham-handed exposition for every story. It's because of the horns of the essential dilemma: they don't want to alienate new readers, but they don't want to fail to appeal to the old readers, so they build on prior history to continue to pander to the continuity-obsessed and pile on the explanatory footnotes-as-dialogue so the newbies can keep up. It's ramshackle story construction at best.

Morrison just plows ahead with nary a backwards glance. I consider myself a smart guy and my knowledge base on comics goes pretty deep, and yet there are moments reading any Morrison comic where I feel a little lost. And partly that's because Morrison's knowledge of old obscurities goes even deeper than mine, and he draws on everything from single stories published before my time (like the late 50's/early 60's) to alternate versions that aren't really canon to begin with (although they become so through the alchemy of Morrison's writing) to brand new creations which are presented as fully integrated in the tapestry with their own implied histories (which only truly exist in Morrison's mind). Every one of those elements is handled the same way, with the same air of nonchalant expectation of recognition. And it doesn't diminish the story at all. Because, let's be honest here, the basic outlines of superhero comics are always the same, it's good guys versus bad guys morality plays. A reader, new or old, may or may not recognize a new character as part of a long-standing legacy, may or may not intuit the complexities of the characters relationships within the cast, but either those things aren't really intrinsic to the story at hand and therefore don't ultimately matter, or they are intrinsic and ultimately will come to light organically. Bottom line, glossing over or omitting completely the detailed backstory doesn't hurt, as long as you can tell the good guys from the bad guys, which is rarely all that hard.

In fact, if anything, the grand elision approach makes the story better. Or possibly it makes it seem better, via some minor trickery. It avoids the pitfalls of over-explanation for sure, so that's a win. It also creates certain illusions of depth which makes the material look as though it's elevated. Because as you read you have to engage with the text, hunting for clues that are resolutely not being spoon-fed to you. Sometimes the clues aren't there at all, which is why I call it a bit of a trick; anyone can seem profound by speaking in vague platitudes. I'd say in this regard as well Morrison uses the all-available-options technique. Sometimes he starts out with unidentified pieces on the board which earn their names and significance within the narrative, other times they never get explained at all, which means either it was an inside joke for owners of extremely arcane trivia or there was no explanation at all, merely an embellished piece of set dressing. But it's hard to know, turning page after page, so everything feels smartly sourced and overstuffed, and you feel like your brain is running to keep up with a mad genius. Still, even if it's all a long con, it falls into the same family as the great magic tricks, and I don't feel cheated by those. All I ask is to be entertained, and Morrison tends to come through on that score. Batman, Inc. is no exception.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Brown liquor

How the West Was Weird v. 3 should be available soon, with an electronic release this month and paperback release next month. I will post official dates and links and all whenever that’s all settled, but I wanted to reflect on something related to my story from the anthology. Rest assured, those of you eagerly awaiting the publication, that the details I’m going to give away herein don’t really qualify as spoilers.

As part of my protagonist’s backstory I included a flashback to her hitting rock bottom, which involved drinking alone in a saloon and ultimately getting thrown out. This being a tale of the old (albeit weird) west, I didn’t see any need to reinvent the wheel, and so I put a bottle of whiskey in front of the cowgirl as her rotgut of choice. It was one of those details that simply seemed to suggest itself as perfectly logical, and into the mix it went, after I did a modicum of research to namedrop a brand of whiskey that wouldn’t be anachronistic to the story.

I’ve been alluding to my upswing in creative productivity recently, and about a week ago I finished revising another story and submitted it for consideration for another small press anthology. (I should hear the yea or nay on that by the end of this month.) Once I had sent it off to the publisher, and there was no longer any point in fiddling with the details of it, I was able to consider the new story as a whole a little more rationally, and I noticed a couple of things:

1. It had a lot in common with the weird west story in terms of narrative structure, by which I mean both tales have a character on an adventure who suffers a darkest-before-the-dawn kind of setback, which gives the story a chance to pause and go back and fill in some of the character’s origins, and then ultimately return to the present action for the uplifting triumph. Adventure-setback-triumph is about as classic (read: basic) as it gets in terms of the hero’s journey, and so I hardly think it’s the worst thing in the world to repeat those beats in broad terms in more than one tale. It might very well be inevitable. Using the setback moment as a flashback opportunity is a bit less intrinsic to the formula, but obviously I find that it works out really well (and that was confirmed for me by some of the people I shared drafts of each story with) so I can accept that duplication as well.

2. But if one were to start really combing through the side-by-side comparison, one might notice that both flashbacks involve the respective protagonists hitting rock bottom and facing some kind of crisis of faith at a life crossroads. They also both involve drinking. Specifically, they both involve drinking whiskey.

It will no doubt sound like I protest too much if I swear up and down that this only occurred to me well after the fact, exactly as I’ve claimed, but it’s the truth. The only evidence I can offer is roundabout: if I had noticed, and it wasn’t too late to change the second story, I probably would have. But if the second story winds up disseminated out into the world as I submitted it, it will prove my point. Without a conscious plan, I’ve been betrayed by my own proclivities. When life gets rough, there’s nothing a generous pour of the lively water won’t cure, or at least dull the pain of. Actually, that would be one of the proto-proclivities of a much younger me, who was single and childless (much like the characters in my stories). Nowadays there’s frequently beer and wine on the shopping list but the hard stuff comes out only on special occasions. I’m pretty sure the last time I had a cocktail with whiskey in it was back in October at my cousin’s wedding, and as far as seriously getting down with an unmixed bourbon on the rocks, that has to go back to before the little guy was born. As usual, this all falls under the broad heading Life Is Change, And That’s OK.

Clearly, though, I forged a deep and possibly lifelong emotional bond with whiskey that has far outlasted the actual habit of consuming it regularly, and I like what it signifies and what it conveys enough to refer to it in fiction again and again. And again? At this point I feel like I might as well take the accidental coincidence of two and run with it, make it my thing, try to work a mention of whiskey into every tale I tell from here on out. I’m currently playing around with a couple of horror story ideas, one of which takes place at a Halloween party and another of which takes place at a nightclub, places where it would not be a stretch in the slightest to incorporate a shot or two of bourbon. I’m also working on a sci-fi pulp about space gladiators, which presents a bit more of a challenge. I suppose it depends which ones I finish and/or manage to find audiences for first (or at all), to see if the running joke continues on an unbroken streak.

Monday, May 5, 2014

My sinecure

I’ve resolved to stop ragging on my job, at least in general terms, both here on the blog and in my conversations and interactions with the real world. It’s boring, I’m underutilized and unchallenged, blah blah blah, I’ve said all those things many times over before and there’s really no need to keep restating them again and again. We all get it.

If I really hate the gig so much, I should get out there and find myself a new one, right? And yes, I did make some efforts in that direction centered on one specific job, a staggeringly drawn-out process which remains unresolved and open-ended to this day, but clearly that has taken so long it’s losing its value as anything that really counts toward actively seeking different, more fulfilling employment. Thus it is down to me to either shut up and stop complaining about what I’m obviously content enough about to hold on to, or double down on the hunt by looking past easy opportunities that fall into my lap via the recommendation of friend.

And I reckon I will do that, the doubling-down thing, although oddly enough that is one of my personal lines in the sand. I’ll connect to the cloud from work and write blog posts or whatnot, and I’ll do my fair share of online shopping on the clock, but I won’t sit at my present job and comb through the job listings on career sites. It may seem an utterly arbitrary distinction, but nevertheless in order to find some likely targets for my resume, I need to find the time at home to research what’s out there. (And May is shaping up to be a busy month from wire to wire, so if I make any progress any time soon it will be of the slow rolling start variety.)

In the mean time, I still reserve the right to talk negatively about my workplace when particularly significant, hilarious or enraging events transpire, above and beyond the everyday tedium. But the dull nature of the beast itself is more or less off-limits, if only becomes it seems churlish to keep harping on it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Excuses, excuses

One of my good buddies from college once said something which has stuck with me every since. I’m honestly not sure to what extent the kids nowadays are into it, but back in those mid-90’s days it was very fashionable (and fun!) to flaunt a certain anti-establishment ideology, and the phrase “Stick it to The Man!” was liable to trip off my tongue on a daily basis, possibly in non sequitur fashion. One time I uttered those words to my buddy and he adopted a theatrically taken-aback look and said, “I’m not going to stick it to The Man. I am The Man!” And his tacit implication was that I, my youthful attitudes and long-haired, footloose lifestyle notwithstanding, was also The Man.

And of course my buddy was dead right. Like him, I’m white, male, and straight, American and affluent (at the time of that initial exchange, I was living off my parents’ affluence, of course) and life is pretty cushy for me. If there were any kind of radical revolution, upending the Old Order, it would probably leave me worse off, not better. And I carry around the requisite amount of liberal guilt about this, and try to at least be mindful of it on a regular basis.

But (and this is not a self-pitying complaint, merely an observation) sometimes it makes it hard for me to take myself seriously as a writer. Because I am an inheritor of every last one of the traditions of the white-washed patriarchal past, and as such I feel like my perspective is pretty disposable. The world needs new voices to share new experiences, or experiences that aren’t new at all but have never been properly understood because they didn’t conform to a very limited agenda-setting viewpoint. I confess that I don’t bring a lot to the table in that regard.

I mentioned last week that I’ve been writing a lot more lately (still true, didn’t jinx myself by blogging about it) and at the same time I’ve been poking around the paying markets for short fiction. I do this in cycles, every so often (once or twice a decade). Sometimes I’ll take note of an e-zine or an anthology publisher that I think might be worth submitting to, once I finish a story I’ve already got started. And sometimes it works in reverse, where I find some potential market that serves a very specific niche, and the carefully (or arbitrarily) delineated parameters of their guidelines inspires the spark of a story idea. Which is all well and good. But sometimes (or this time, any way, I really don’t remember encountering this much or at all in previous go-rounds) I’ve run across a publisher seeking to cater to under-served audiences and/or provide outlets to under-exposed writers. In other words, they’re looking for stories by and about women, or people of color, or the LGBTQ community, and so forth. And please do not get me wrong, I think that is fantastic. I still have enough long-haired radical in me that I want to live in a world with a lot less prejudice and fear and more openness and equality, and if a steampunk anthology written and edited entirely by queer black women is a small step in that direction, more power to them. I wish them all the luck in the world. But that’s really all I can do. That’s the (infinitesimally insignificant) downside to having hit the lottery when you were born, in terms of being granted the maximum number of opportunities for mainstream success and conformity: if you have a creative side, you’re not exactly going to be hailed for making outsider art.

In another conversation with another friend some other time (I think it was about ten years ago), said friend asked me point blank if I had been writing much lately; it so happened that I had not, and I truthfully admitted as much. My friend asked why not and I just kind of shrugged and smiled and said, “I’m too happy.” Which led to a whole longer discussion on the process of converting pain into art and how many creative expressions are really, on some level, a way for a person to process difficult emotions or put old ghosts to rest &c. And I am grateful, every day of my life, for the real blessings I’ve received, not so much the color of my skin or my gender or my income, but just that I don’t really have any personal tragedy on my scorecard. I know full well that being affluent and upper-middle class doesn’t automatically shield you from bad things the way it sets you up for good things. Rich white people get cancer or get into car accidents, suffer and perpetuate all kinds of abuse (of themselves and of others), basically are just as susceptible to the havoc of an entropic universe as anyone else. And yet I’ve dodged almost all of those bullets, more or less without really trying, not there’s really any way of actively trying, as I’m trying to convey, except maybe refusing to connect with other human beings in order to spare yourself the pain of them hurting you, inadvertently or otherwise; in any case, that’s not me, I’m not estranged from my family, I’ve built one of my own, and I bond with people at the drop of a hat. I’m just lucky, knock on every piece of fibrous structural plant tissue I see.

I suspect, on some level, that all of the above is part of the reason why I’m so drawn to speculative genre stories, scifi and fantasy and horror (oh my), especially from the creative side. Do I have anything to say about being human that hasn’t been said before, by people almost exactly like me, a thousand times over? Maybe not. Do I have any profound insight into the hard parts of life, the struggles, the losses, the fears and doubts and pain? Little to none. OK, then, how about ridiculous adrenaline-fueled yarns about space dwarves building rocket cannons to fend off an armada of cyborg snakemen? At least it’s somewhat original, and at least I feel as qualified to write it as anybody else.

Those are thin straws to grasp at, though, and I further suspect that when these creative cycles of mine run down to their lowest ebb, it’s largely due to the fact that the areas where I feel the most confident are also the areas I know are inherently silly and disconnected from reality, brain-candy escapism at best. I feel like I’m overcompensating for living a deeply boring life, and then I feel guilty for wanting to put myself in the shoes of someone fighting for their life because it must mean I’m dissatisfied or taking my own for granted. (I’m not, but that’s neither here nor there; I never promised a rational train of thought would be revealed.)

So then on top of those two big excuses not to write (not being disenfranchised enough, or not having suffered miseries enough) there’s the inescapable fact that writing is a solitary pursuit. Collaboration is fun and having good beta readers can be invaluable, but ultimately writing comes down to shutting out the world long enough to find the words and tell the story. Every minute spent in that kind of isolation is a minute that I’m not spending engaged with my real, actual life, and as I’ve been yammering on and on about, I have a pretty good life which I’m quite fond of. I don’t necessarily want to tell my kids to leave me alone on a weekend afternoon, or ask my wife if she minds if I disappear for a couple hours. I mean, I already do those things as it is, but usually in the form of taking care of various responsibilities, asking the kids to leave me alone long enough to mow the lawn, or disappearing on my wife because there’s a friend I haven’t hung out with in six months who could use a beer and a sympathetic ear. To ask for even more time, not for anything or anyone else other than my muse (UGH) seems unpardonable.

Anyway, that’s a bunch of stuff that’s been rattling around in my head this week. Again, not asking anyone to feel sorry for me, not saying I would choose to have things any other way, given how it all weighs out. Just sayin’.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

That pesky sleeping habit

For the past couple of nights, the baby has woken up wailing at about 3:30 a.m. Both times, simple soothing did not do the trick, and eventually we resorted to a dose of ibuprofen to hasten his return to a restful state which would allow us to lay him back in his crib. The reason this was eventual and not the immediate plan of first resort is because we have a general parenting philosophy of not over-medicating our kids, if we can help it. We were doling out the Tylenol and Motrin pretty regularly a week ago, around the time right before the baby got his professionally sanctioned ear infection diagnosis. So after several consecutive days of that we were trying to ease off a bit. Apparently the baby had a differing opinion.

He's also teething, getting his molars in (all at once, it seems, much like other dental eruption pile-ups we've endured with him; of all our kids, his teething has been the most grueling for everyone) and that of course is a bit of a chicken/egg situation in itself: does the ear infection make the teething hurt more, and/or vice versa? Did the teething, and attendant accumulation of bodily fluids, create the perfect pre-moistened environment for an ear infection to develop? &c. So clearly it's not the baby's fault if a sudden sharp pain wakes him up in the dead of night, or that he can't get himself back to sleep until it's abated. But man, not having anyone to blame to does not really make me or my wife any less grumpy about it.

I love my kids more than life itself, but they take it out of me, no lie. At three and five, the little girl and little guy present their own challenges. Thankfully, although there were times when it was all too easy to believe it would never be so, the bigger kids have become dependably through-the-night sleepers. And I know the baby will get there someday, too (someday when he's no longer by any measure a baby, presumably). But for right now the fact remains that the baby is reasonably mellow and sweet-tempered during the day, when his older siblings put his mother and me through the mental and emotional (and sometimes physical) wringer. After settling everyone down for the night, all my wife and I really want to do is go to bed ourselves. Sometimes we manage to both brush our teeth and get under the covers by 9 p.m. But then, some less-than-sufficient number of REM cycles in, the baby very disagreeably interrupts our attempts at sleep. Meanwhile both the little guy and the little girl (who shares a room with the baby!) manage to sleep through the vast majority of these outbursts, and wake up each morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to challenge us at every turn. I have no idea how the three of them managed to coordinate such a sophisticated assault on the parental authority, but it is damnably clever.

TL;DR: Kids are hard, and I'm too tired to be terribly clever or witty today. See you all tomorrow.