Thursday, July 31, 2014

All in the telling

One of the things my kids are going to have to learn to deal with as best they can is the fact that while I may be one of the top two best connections they will have with their own past, and the earliest days of their lives when permanent memories lacked the capacity to be formed, my own memory is notoriously unreliable. There's a relatively consistent reason for this, which fits right into my entire mental orientation towards storytelling. Some things fit that pattern, and some things don't. If it fits, I stand a much better chance of remembering it than if I don't.

That's pretty straightforward, and it's been true for as long as I can remember. Lucky for me, the vast majority of my public school teachers took the narrative approach to instruction, making things into a story whether it was the sequence of events that led to the Articles of Confederation or how to pronounce words with silent E's. That along with my voracious appetite for reading made school pretty easy on me. The things I struggled with were the really abstract concepts that called for rote memorization with little to no anthropomorphic metaphoric content; to this day, despite taking a year of AP Biology, I don't quite understand how the Krebs Cycle works.

But there's a slightly more insidious side to this whole arrangement, above and beyond the binary yes/no of remembering things. Sometimes I simply won't have any recollection of facts or events, but other times I will be convinced that I do remember them, although my memories are demonstrably false. And the fault usually comes down to the elements of a good story. If things happened one way, but it would have been a better tale if they happened another way, my brain will convince itself that events unfolded in the more narratively satisfying fashion. This trips me up. All. The. Time.

Like, seriously, I've gotten into fights with friends over the stupidest things, like who delivered a particularly devastating zinger at the perfect moment. I start out with a rock solid conviction that I'm the witty one, the hero of the anecdote, and then the whole thing comes into serious doubt as my friend insists I'm misremembering.

All of which to say, as I'm sure I've said before, take everything I say with a grain of salt. I'm not a malicious pathological liar, I just love a good story and my powers of recall fall victim to that with alarming frequency. I kind of caught myself in mid-process of overwriting my own memories the other day, as I was thinking about the bino and how he is presently poised on the cusp of vocalizing actual words. One of my duties as a parent, as widely acknowledged, is to remember for posterity the bino's real-and-true first word. Inevitably I am going to tell people that his first word was "go". It's funny, because for a lot of toddlers their first word is "no" motivated primarily by how often they hear it, but our bino has an advanced case of Third Child Syndrome, a combination of severe slackening of the rules my wife and I once vigilantly upheld for his bigger brother and sister, and a tendency to have things done for him or to him without explanation, all because at this point we're too damn exhausted to raise him any other way. He doesn't find himself being told "no" a whole lot. But he hears "let's go" a lot, not even necessarily directed at him but flowing from his parents to his siblings, as we try to appeal to their rational self-sufficiency and motivate them towards the goal of the moment. The bino also hears the little guy and little girl saying "let's go" to one another, usually in the form of "let's go to one of our bedrooms and close the door so the baby won't bother us and mess up our game." The bino so desperately wants to be one of the big kids, to participate in their activities, just to be able to keep up with them as they run. He wants to go, go, go. And thus if you pick him up these days, he's highly likely to point in the direction he wants to be carried and give the command: "GO!"

Great story, right? Not entirely accurate, though. The truth is the bino's been saying "mama" for a while, which is another extremely common first word. He also has his own way of saying "milk" when he wants some, which comes out sounding like "muhLUH-muhLUH" but is nevertheless recognizable as his distinct reference to the beverage. But those are kind of boring and don't elevate his overarching storyline as the youngest child. And if I hadn't written them down here, soon enough they'd be lost to the mists of legend. Sorry kids, I'm an unrepentant unreliable narrator. If you really want to know how things were back in the beginning, go ask your mother.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #4!!! (Rise of the Planet of the Apes/Sunshine)

It's the end of the world again (and again) as another pair of movies get their turn to fill out the double bill of Summer Movies on a Train: 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2007's Sunshine.

There are a couple of different reasons why a person might want to make a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which overlap pretty closely with reasons why a person might want to watch such a movie. Set aside all the considerations of mining the nostalgia value and built in fanbase of a beloved old property via the ubiquitous reboot, along with the economic appeal of launching a new franchise to flog to death (for now, at least, though we will come back to franchise-launching later). Purely in terms of the creation or consumption of a story, here are the Big Draws:

1. To examine weighty ideas via allegory, from the safe distance of separation between our real world and the imaginary near-future or alternate world of the story's setting

2. The Promise of the Premise

And in all honesty, this applies to just about every science fiction story, movie, novel, whathaveyou that's out there. For Rise of the Planet of the Apes in particular, there are numerous thought-provoking concepts that could be explored given the subject matter: scientific and corporate ethics, responsibility to society versus responsibility to family, animal rights, the list goes on and on. These points could, theoretically, be raised but never settled, resolved definitively or ambiguously, form the basis of a preachy parable or a sobering cautionary tale - a lot of it comes down to execution. But it's a valid reason to justify the existence of the movie, to those who created it and those who paid good money to see it.

The Promise of the Premise is a term screenwriters and film critics tend to bandy about which I've latched onto, and it refers to some visceral aspect of the high concept of the piece which could, again theoretically, make sitting through the entire film worthwhile. If a movie were about an antagonistic alien fleet on its way to Earth to conquer or destroy humanity, and the race on earth to build our own space fleet to defend ourselves, the Promise of the Premise is that at some point there will be mind-blowing scenes of Earth spaceships and alien spaceships whizzing around in outer space blowing each other up with laser cannons. It is of course possible to construct a story that subverts its own premise, but the caveat for writers is that such a subversion essentially constitutes a broken promise so it had better be done right or not at all.

Clearly for Rise of the Planet of the Apes the Promise of the Premise is that the chimps will band together, escape their confines, and start down the path of overthrowing human society, with a certain amount of physical violence. It is, I would argue, equally valid to go into Planet of the Apes excited to see a barehanded but pissed-off gorilla take down a police helicopter because that is an inherently awesome spectacle, regardless of what points are made before and after that sequence about who really deserves to inherit the earth and whatnot.

Indeed, notwithstanding that a lot of it was given away by the various trailers and commercials for the movie, the big payoff scene where a small army of chimps, orangutans and gorillas do battle with a bunch of cops (and one evil pharmaceutical exec) on the Golden Gate Bridge is a pretty successful piece of action film-making. Premise = fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the symphony of ideas that Rise attempts to orchestrate is a bit of a cacophonous mess. Concepts aren't so much left intentionally ambiguous as abruptly abandoned or outright doubled back on and contradicted as per the dictates of the plot, such as it is. There's a scientist character (James Franco) who is gung ho about testing his new wonder drug (actually a neuro-retrovirus, I think) on human beings because of one successful trial on a chimp. The reason for this is because he's desperate to cure his father's Alzheimer's. His hubris, of course, will lead to his project being shut down, which backs him into the corner of adopting a baby chimp that inherited the wonder drug's effects in utero. By raising and teaching the wonder-chimp, Caesar, the scientist inadvertently creates the future leader of the ape uprising. But meanwhile he continues to do research and cures his father's Alzheimer's, which gives his former bosses the idea to re-open the project. But of course the cure is only temporary, and after the father dies, suddenly Franco is adamantly against the project and any testing on chimps or humans, which is not very inconsistent. Accurate, perhaps, as far as human nature goes, but it makes for a fairly unsatisfying story when the main (human) character is primarily defined by his selfishness, and doesn't have much of an arc to speak of: selfish in Act I, selfish in Act III, just selfish towards different ends depending on whether the movie needs him to be maneuvering Caesar into place as primate revolutionary, or needs him to be opposing The Man as embodied by greedy corporate bigwigs and sadistic animal control employees. Yes, seriously.

The little bit of character development Franco gets is at the very end of the movie, when instead of demanding that Caesar come home with him to be his weird intelligent pet locked up for his own safety, Franco allows Caesar to stay in the Redwoods with the other escaped intelligence-boosted apes, where the chimp can be free. I guess? It kind of falls apart the second you start to think about it: this massive troop of clearly aggressive apes has just run pellmell through the streets of San Francisco, killing several police officers before escaping across the bridge and into the Redwoods. Despite being the biggest threat to public safety northern California has seen in, maybe, EVER, the only person who follows the apes across the bridge is Franco. And then he wishes them well and takes off, as if everyone else is just going to let them be. Super-strong, hyper-intelligent wild animals hanging out in a national park? Sure, we're cool with that. The movie ends with all the apes climbing up the sequoia trees as triumphant music swells, and then they look out across the bay at the city. All the cues are there for a feelgood ending, the misfit outcasts having finally found a place of their own, a sanctuary in this crazy world ...

Which gets us back to franchise-launching. There's a subplot in Rise about how the retrovirus boosts ape intelligence but is fatal to humans. It infects one of Franco's scientist colleagues, who passes it along to Franco's jerk neighbor when he comes looking for Franco. Jerk Neighbor happens to be an airline pilot, and the movie really ends with the jokey coda implying that Jerk Nieghbor still goes to work despite sneezing blood due to picking up the virus, and he's going to be a vector for the plague that will wipe out most of humanity and allow the apes to not just co-exist but take over. Of course, one of the prompts for me watching Rise was the fact that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out this summer, and I felt like it was time to start catching up, and Dawn does in fact pick up well into the plague years with humanity barely hanging on. So really, it's little wonder that Rise is kind of a hodge-podge that doesn't necessarily hang together that well; it's really just a teaser setting the stage for future installments that will push further and further away from reality. It remains to be seen (for me, at least) if it was worth it.

Sunshine, on the other hand, is an intentionally standalone movie, which is somewhat refreshing in this day and age of serial adaptations ad nauseum. (It's seven years old, and maybe couldn't even get made today, but regardless.) Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Sunshine doesn't get bogged down in pseudo-scientific jargon trying to explain the elements that put the "fiction" in its sci-fi. It's honestly a fairly ridiculous set-up: our sun is dying, and seven astronaut-scientists (solarnauts?) are on a dangerous mission to fix it. Right off the bat it's bad astronomy, because rather than the sun slowly expanding and roasting planet Earth to a cinder, as experts anticipate will happen in a billion years or so long after we're dead and gone, the sun in Sunshine is just running down, getting cooler and threatening to leave Earth a frozen wasteland, and it's all happening in the near future when human society is basically the same as we know it now. Crazy talk.

All is forgiven, though, because the whole movie is just one big metaphor (stop me if you've heard this one before) for life. A unfolding suicide mission to re-ignite the sun might seem like a depressing way to spend an hour and a half, but it simply exaggerates the fundamental questions of the human experience: if we now we're going to die some day (and deep down, we do, or we should) then what can we do to make the time that we're given meaningful? And every single plot twist and piece of dialogue in Sunshine finds different ways to comment on, or attempt to partially answer, that question. The movie slowly ratchets up the tension and the threats until it winds up in completely insane territory, with the last surviving physicist fighting against a monster (SPOILER: an astronaut from an earlier doomed mission who has absorbed so much solar radiation he is insane and emits his own distortion fields) to buy enough time to detonate The Payload, which contains every last scrap of fissile material Earth had in order to create a "miniature Big Bang" inside the sun, assuming the calculations of scientists back home are correct, which can't be guaranteed because the relativistic effects of the sun's gravity throw everything into doubt. But by the time the movie reaches that point of no return, it's already made it very clear that this is a struggle we all face: mortality, uncertainty, the temptation to succumb to nihilism, and so on. And ultimately it conveys a message of hope.

Plus, it's particularly freaking gorgeous. I'm starting to think Danny Boyle may be criminally underrated as a director. Between Sunshine and Trainspotting, he's been able to use his own stylized approach to cinematic imagery to convince me, however briefly, that I know how it feels to shoot (or go through withdrawal from) heroin, and to fly into the surface of a star. That's no small feat in my book.

So, what have we learned? Selfishness is bad, a life worth living is going to entail a certain amount of sacrifice for the greater good. And gorillas will always be awesome.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Backstory bait and switch

I’m looking forward to the biannual beach vacation, which is now less than three weeks away, for a variety of reasons, and one such aspect is the opportunity to return once again to the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove, which I have mentioned before is a sci-fi alternate military history series which I reserve exclusively for beach reading. A couple years ago, around the time I read the second book in the four-volume saga, I joked that it would be quite the horserace for me between finishing Worldwar, given my self-imposed beach-only rule, and finishing George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (aka the game of Thrones books) which I’d make time to read at the drop of a hardcover but is entirely dependent on Martin actually finishing writing the final few volumes. Now here we are, mere days away from beach week, with my copy of Worldwar volume three sitting on a shelf waiting to be toted shoreward, and we’re definitely done having babies so who knows, we might swing back from every-other-year at the beach to once a summer, which means I could very well finish reading all of Worldwar by the end of August 2015. Whereas at this moment, Martin has not released any more of Song of Ice and Fire than he had last time I brought this all up. Plus, rumors have begun to fly and multiply since Game of Thrones the tv series has become a runaway monster hit, everything from Martin sharing the big climactic ending of his overarching story with the showrunners, so that they can finish the necessary future episodes even if Martin never finishes the books, to Martin hinting that well, maybe, the way the story’s evolving in his head, it won’t be seven books after all, and it could be eight, or more! So it’s no longer even money; finishing Turtledove first is definitely the odds-on favorite.

Of course it’s technically inaccurate to say that Martin has written nothing whatsoever related to Song of Ice and Fire in the past two years. I recently got hold of and started reading Rogues, which is an anthology of short stories written by various big names in modern genre fiction, all revolving around the common theme of main characters that fit into the trickster/thief archetype. One of the big selling points for the collection (both in terms of obvious marketing strategy and for me personally) is the fact that George R.R. Martin is both an editor of the book and a contributor to its contents, supplying the final story, one which relates directly to Song of Ice and Fire. Right now, I have read all five of the novels Martin has put out, and I’m up to speed on the first three out of four seasons of the tv series, as I wait for the release date for season four on Blu-ray to be announced (already pre-ordered, of course) and remain on the lookout for whispers about a potential publication date for book six. A short story isn’t much, but it’s a nice little bonus when the pickings for feeding the addiction are otherwise slim to none.

Except, and forgive the malodorous whiff of entitlement here, but it’s not a great story. It’s not even really a story at all, I would argue. What Martin has done in Rogues is provided a bit of backstory to his magnum opus, explaining certain sequences of events that factor into the historical backdrop of his imaginary world of Westeros. He does this in the form of an excerpt from a scholarly tome on the Targaryens, the dynastic rulers who were overthrown fifteen or twenty years before Game of Thrones properly begins. The excerpt covers events from generations before the downfall of the Targaryens. And it does so in exactly the dry, objective, unemotional and uneditorialized fashion you would expect from a scholarly tome. There’s a hint of a framing device in the sense that the excerpt is written by a Maester of the Citadel, and that organization continues to play a part in Song of Ice and Fire as it unfolds. But by and large it is a recitation of facts, with acknowledgments throughout that some of the facts are in dispute because they could only be known to individuals who witnessed things behind closed doors which could never be verified.

The story has no point of view, and no emotional arc. In theory it belongs in a book called Rogues because it is about the schism that developed between a king and his brother the prince, with said younger brother becoming a bit of a wastrel over time because he was neither the head of state nor directly in the line of succession. But there’s not enough narrative meat in the exercise to bear comparisons to other great roguish characters like Robin Hood or Han Solo. I understand, in the grand scheme of things, how Martin needs to save most if not all of the good stuff for the main Song of Ice and Fire novels that are his livelihood. And part of the appeal of the saga is that it constantly has the freedom to recast past events in a new light, because it all takes place in a world where literacy is low and hearsay runs rampant, and the most sacred truths held up as historical fact are always subject to reinterpretation. To provide a first-hand account of events hundreds of years before the main story would be too definitive, too restrictive for the remainder of the epic. Fair enough, I suppose, but Martin has also shown a talent for telling stories from the perspective of the lowborn commoners, who travel along their own arcs even as the great and powerful play out their dramatics over their heads. A story like that, about the time of old dragon kings, I think I would have rather enjoyed. But a pseudo-official document which reads more like a summary of plot points than a tale worth telling? That’s a letdown.

So far I’ve only read four of the stories in the book: Martin’s, one by Joe Abercrombie that’s a hilarious Rube Goldberg device of a story about a maguffin being stolen and re-stolen over the course of a single night, one by Gillian Flynn about a con woman who works as a modern-day fortune teller, and one by Patrick Rothfuss about the fae character Bast from his Kingkiller Chronicles series (another trilogy I’m caught up on and impatiently awaiting the publication of the final installment). The Rothfuss story did not disappoint at all, which is good because that was the other half of the reason I bought the whole anthology, and the Abercrombie and Flynn made me want to read more by each of them (Flynn’s Gone Girl was already on my list for this year, and now I’m looking forward to it all the more). I skipped to the end to get to Rothfuss and Martin, and although there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll go back and read all the other stories from the middle of the book eventually, it’s still a little odd to go 1-for-2 on the big draws.

And then there’s the conundrum of Dangerous Women, which is another anthology edited and contributed to by Martin, released back in December of last year. In this case, what Martin brings to the book is a much longer piece, a novella that also happens to be set well before the events of Game of Thrones and its sequels. That sounds like a better bet for entertainment value than what I just got out of Rogues from Martin, but I’m proverbially twice-shy. Of course, yet again, it’s a collection and there would be other stories by other authors to make it worthwhile even if Martin whiffed again: a Harry Dresden story by Jim Butcher (yet another series I’m perpetually in the middle of, since it’s about fifteen novels and numerous short stories along and counting); an Outlander story by Diana Gabaldon (I seriously have no idea what this is, except that it keeps showing up in my Facebook feed because apparently a lot of my friends are huge fans and totally geeked about the fact that it’s being adapted as, I think, a Starz tv series); Lev Grossman (who I keep meaning to get into); more Abercrombie; &c. &c. Oh, who am I kidding, of course I’ll end up acquiring this one, too. I’m not made of stone, people. In fact sometimes I might as well be made of woodpulp.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tipple time

Finally, the weekend is almost upon us, which is cause for celebration. Perhaps the finest fermented caper liqueur of Isla Verde?

My wife and I are both fans of The Simpsons as a concept, though we rarely make time to watch the show much anymore. But we did semi-recently find ourselves with idle weekend evening time, and ran across a rerun which probably would have struck both of us as pretty good (especially amidst the relative decline of the series over time). A storyline about art snobbery and art forgery, with special guest voice Max von Sydow, hits a lot of buttons between the two of us. But the whole Strupo tangent just slayed us. If someone produced this, even as an empty bottle prop, I would without question have to obtain it for my home bar.

Enjoy your own weekend as you see fit, but remember: please drink ...






... responsibly.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #3!!! (Machete Kills/Monsters)

For this week's double-feature we jump forward from the era of my birth to the (approximate) present day, with 2013's Machete Kills and 2010's Monsters. Technically neither of them is a Summer Movie, since both were released in October, but they both have the feel of classic dog-days drive-ins to them, grindhouse and creature features and whatnot. Go ahead and Google "summer blockbuster is dead" for further evidence as to whether or not release date means all that much anymore. (Spoiler: it doesn't. Also, spoilers ahead!)

Machete Kills is of course the sequel to Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which was a flick I watched as part of last year's SMOAT, an experience which made my end-of-year superlatives list and which had me very eager for the continuation. Unfortunately, I must admit that Machete Kills was somewhat disappointing as a follow-up. In and of itself, on its own (dubious) merits, I probably would have liked it a bit more. But it definitely suffers in comparison to the original.

Machete is a fairly ridiculous movie, and Machete Kills is an egregiously ridiculous movie. Both feature copious amounts of bloodletting but somehow Machete manages to maintain a tenuous connection to reality, which makes the enhanced hyperviolence pop in spite of how unreal (or surreal) it all is. Machete Kills abandons anything remotely associated with realism, leaving behind the grit of cop-on-a-vengeance-trip thrillers referenced in the first movie and jumping headfirst into borrowing tropes at will from super-spy and science fiction traditions. Master-of-disguise characters literally portrayed by multiple actors (and an actress), clone characters, psychic characters, and futuristic technology galore all piling up on-screen to create an utter fantasy world where the violence feels somehow less visceral, more Looney Tunes. Lest I be accused of being a cranky scold, I will say I get it - Rodriguez is having fun, making a big-budget movie as if he were a kid playing make-believe in the backyard, doing Star Wars pastiche simply because it's a blast. And there's an arguably humorous meta-joke inherent in taking the scowling no-guff-taking character of Machete and putting him through the paces of a story that gets more and more impossible and insane as it goes along. I grok all of that, I really do. But, again, Machete kept itself under control and its intermittent bursts of madness were exhilarating. Machete Kills is like watching a ten-year-old totally spaz out: amusing here and there, but very wearying after a while.

If there is ever a third Machete movie, will I spare a couple of commuting hours to see it? Most def. "Not as good as the original" isn't the same as "bad", and my obsessive completism makes me more tolerant than most of diminishing returns. Besides, with my expectations appropriately adjusted, I might enjoy Machete Kills Again ... In Space that much more.

I will say this about one stellar turn in Machete Kills: the stunt casting of Charlie Sheen (aka Carlos Estevez) as President Rathcock pays off big time. I'm about as sick as anyone at this point of Sheen's antics and attitude towards fame, his industry, and the world he considers himself so exalted above. BUT. In the initial scene in which Machete meets the President, Charlie kills it. And "it" is a dead-on perfect impression of his father, Martin Sheen, specifically as he embodied President Jed Bartlett on the West Wing. The Sorkinesque cadence, the world-weary gravel in his elder statesman throat, everything, so on-point I wanted to stand up and applaud. I never would have guessed there would be a big overlap between Machete franchise fans and a network political drama that was in its heyday over a decade ago, but I learn something new every day. If Rodriguez just went for the homage because, like everything else in the flick, it simply amused him to do so, then this is one example of the tendency I can totally get behind.

Moving on ... Monsters was recommended to me by an old college buddy of mine, whom I saw in New York a couple months ago, meeting up for beers after my wife and I caught the Hedwig show. We talked a little bit about this summer's Godzilla reboot, which my friend found disappointing, mainly because he had expected so much more out of Gareth Edwards based on Monsters. I admitted that while Monsters looked/sounded interesting, I hadn't seen it yet. My friend urged me to catch up with it soon, and so I did.

And I agree that Monsters is a charming, fascinating movie, one that straddles the line between sci-fi special effects and human drama, coming down far more frequently on the latter side (as you might expect from a no-budget indie film). The titular extraterrestrials are extremely interesting, visually, but Edwards wisely shows very little of them early on, doling out more and more clear shots until the biggest reveals in the final moments of the film. Mostly the aliens are simply part of the backdrop, shading around the edges of a story about what regular people do when their backs are against the wall, and how they come to realize what is most important to them.

The story is set mostly in Mexico, which is not an accident at all, and the movie aims to raise a certain awareness in the audience about issues associated with immigration, the policies enacted to control it and the real fallout and consequences of those programs. Anyone hoping for a straightforward us-against-the-xenotypes shoot-em-up is bound to come away disappointed. In fact, I'd posit that the strangely beautiful ending sequence is intended to challenge the very desire to see such stories play out at all. So it's an impressively sharp-looking movie for being shot on a wing and a prayer, and thought-provoking to boot, which is no small feat. Clearly, though, those virtues are the exact opposite of what big-studio producers would want to wring out of a brand spanking new Godzilla flick, so it's little surprise that very little of Edwards' special, deft touches made it into the most recent would be King of the Monster Movies. I'm honestly not sure how my friend could have expected it to be otherwise.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Next week, more 21st-century sci-fi!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't want to be a richer man (The Magnificent Ambersons)

It's 1001 Movies Blog Club time! And yet again, it’s all my fault, as it was my turn to pick and I reached way back for Orson Welles’ 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Never let it be said that Welles was not a gifted filmmaker. It’s almost a shame that many people no doubt think of either “War of the Worlds” or “Rosebud” when they hear his name, and not much more. But the man really knew how to make the most of the possibilities inherent in the motion picture artform, which is all the more impressive considering that he entered the field in its earliest era, with very few others illuminating the way ahead for him. There are technical elements of The Magnificent Ambersons which are extremely striking: long, unbroken tracking shots, mood-evoking lighting that ranges from bright outdoor sunlight on a city street in the morning to the shadows of a kitchen late at night. And there are also more subtle elements which lend a novelistic feeling to the film, such as the fades to and from scenes of the townspeople of Indianapolis talking about the Ambersons, breaking up the chapters of the movie and creating the feeling of depth and background that a novel usually provides. The Magnificent Ambersons could fairly be held up as an example to be followed, or at the very least referenced, for adapting prose to the screen.

And yet … the story itself which Welles took the time to adapt was, I must admit, not my cup of tea. Tales of the declining fortunes of once prosperous aristocratic families do little if anything for me. I find it hard to summon up much sympathy, empathy, or anything else positive for characters who grew up privileged due to what was handed down to them, and suddenly find that either the world is changing around them in ways which do not enrich them, or that they have become impoverished by either their own active incompetence or passive indifference. I also find it hard to become emotionally invested in love stories in which two characters pine for one another and yet are kept forever apart due to artificial constructs such as societal expectations and the like. The Magnificent Ambersons is a double-barreled shot of both of those types of stories, and in its own way, it seems self-aware of it. Arguably the narrative spine consists of the origins, rise, and completely telegraphed comeuppance of George Amberson Minafer, and George is highly unlikable, not because Welles (or Tarkington, for that matter) tried and failed to make him the hero, but because that’s the point of his character, to represent and embody the worst traits of entitlement and arrogance. Watching and waiting for his comeuppance is like sitting through a largely incident-free revenge movie wrapped in turn-of-the-previous-century manners. As I say, not my cup of tea.

And (as Neil Gaiman once said of the ill-advised revisions to Shakespeare which flourished in the late 18th C.) the idiots have given it a happy ending. George contributes to and causes most if not all of his own ruin, but is ultimately forgiven and loved. His family fortune is gone, but it belonged to another world which, by the end of the elegiac film, is gone as well. And that may be the most fascinating aspect of The Magnificent Ambersons, from my point of view: a novel written in 1918 about the 1890’s and 1900’s had a certain amount of perspective through which to view the era of the setting, and a movie based on the novel filmed in 1941 added its own perspective, and watching that movie in 2014 layers on even more perspective still. It makes the movie as a historical artifact an intriguing multi-faceted time capsule, however a mixed bag the movie as a pure work of art might be.

Monday, July 21, 2014


As of late last week, one of the major things I'm dealing with at work is the fact that one of the servers utilized by one of our applications has been taken offline. I wasn't consulted whenever the server was under consideration for decommissioning, nor was I properly informed when it actually happened. I just tried to use the application one day and realized it wasn't behaving exactly as it should, and I started poking around and troubleshooting, and eventually got to the point where I had exhausted all of my own (limited by design) options and had to call the helpdesk. Usually these calls result in someone rebooting the troublesome server, which takes care of things. Surely I could reboot the server myself, if that's all it takes? Yes, except that I'm expressly forbidden from doing that, and I have neither the physical nor virtual access to even attempt to circumvent that protocol in any case. This is life as a contractor fulfilling a vaguely technical role that piggy-backs on the DoD's existing technical infrastructure: many responsibilities, no authorization.

This time, instead of being notified that the server had been rebooted, I was informed that the server was gone, which was a bit of a shock. And thus I have entered a protracted round of exchanging information with a helpdesk representative who is authorized to track down the old server and migrate the data from it that I need to some new server, and then re-establish the proper connections my application would need with the new server, &c. &c. and again it's all stuff I could do and get done quickly by giving it my full and undivided attention, but that's not the way it works.

The extra layer of frustration for me in this scenario is that the helpdesk person has a lot of questions which I feel all boil down to the person saying to me "tell me how to do my job". I've been working this contract for just about five years now, so I learned the ropes of the applications long ago. But apparently the helpdesk has much higher turnover, so the people I learned the ropes from are long gone and now new people have taken their place, new people with no idea how my applications were set up or why they were set up that way. I've already had at least one conversation that started to stumble down that path and I had to politely yet emphatically remind the person I was talking to that I am forbidden to do anything or even know too much about how the servers are configured, and if I was told five years ago I would be using servers X, Y, and 37, and at the time I said "thanks very much" because everything worked as needed at that point, it's not exactly fair to demand that I explain the why's and wherefore's of how part of my application ended up on server 37. I wasn't told and I didn't ask. I understand if it's part of the reason why I'm in the non-functioning predicament I'm in now, but it's not as though I specifically requested that arrangement. You may have a very valid point, helpdesk person, that your predecessor never should have set things up that way, but said point validity in no way implicates me. I don't care how or why it got set up badly/lazily the first time, and I trust you to set it up better this time (not that i have any choice but to trust you) but instead of dwelling on the past let's go ahead and put things right going forward so I can get back to using my applications as normal, all right?

Every time I go through an upgrade or migration or generalized system failure like this, I tell myself that I'm going to first survive it, then turn all the questions around on the helpdesk tech after the fact, particularly the ones they raised which I wasn't able to answer due to my own enforced ignorance, and I'm going to document everything so that the next time it happens it will be that much easier to turn the entire knowledge base over to whomever is manning the helpdesk at that point somewhere down the road. I tell myself this, and yet I never quite manage to follow through on it. Well, maybe this time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Another oldie but goodie

Looking back, probably the most important thing I ever learned in high school was that whenever someone asks "Do you have the time?" you should always reply with a knowing smile and a question of your own: "Do you have the energy?"

Unfortunately, today I have neither the time nor the energy for any kind of blog post of substance. But there's always next week. See you then.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Unspilled milk

Last night, the little guy got himself some milk. The mere thought of such a quotidian act barely seems to clear the bar for any kind of remark, unless said remarking is going to go on at great length. (Which, I mean, of course it is.)

On the nights when my wife works and I feed the kids dinner, what often happens is that I plop the bino in the highchair and lock in the tray, and I cajole his big sister and brother to come and sit at the table, and I start doling out the food. The bigger kids get their dinner all at once, while the bino has to have it rationed, or else he finds the full portions too overwhelming and starts picking them up and throwing them at the dogs. (To be fair, the dogs don’t mind this at all, but it strikes me and my wife as excessive.) Sometimes the bigger kids want seconds, and sometimes they want to take their courtesy bites of what was prepared and then switch to yogurt, so there’s a fair amount of running back and forth between the stove/counters and the dining table. Which means I don’t usually bother sitting down, especially since there’s no other adult to have a conversation with or otherwise model proper table manners. I stand at the island (or peninsula, as we call it, since it’s anchored to one wall) and eat my own dinner upright, watching the kids and dishing up food or providing replacement utensils as needed. Or fetching drinks.

So in and of itself, the little guy getting up and getting his own drink instead of asking me for it was at least a little bit noteworthy. But also consider all of the steps involved, as if you had to program a robot to perform the same task:

- open the fridge - get out the gallon jug of milk without dropping it - set the milk on the counter beside the fridge, which is at about eye-level for a five-year-old - get a cup and set it on the counter as well - open the milk and set aside the cap - pour milk into the cup without spilling - return the milk jug to the counter - twist the milk cap closed, without jostling the cup of milk - return the milk jug to the fridge - return to the table with the cup of milk

I can enumerate all of these steps not because (or not only because) my day job is computer programming and I tend to think that way by default, but because that is often the way my wife and I have to approach getting the little guy to do just about anything. He is easily distracted and a bit on the scattered side, and we have learned through long, hard trial and error over the years that saying something like “go upstairs and get dressed” rarely works out. Too many opportunities for his thoughts to be diverted, or for him to forget what he was in the middle of doing and what’s supposed to come next. If we stay close, and say out loud each and every action he’s supposed to take, he can stay on task, but if not … we may end up hearing later about an amazing adventure that a dragon, an astronaut and wonder Woman went on, but we will be hearing it from a child who is naked except for one sock.

And on the one hand we’ve come to accept this quirkiness of the little guy’s, while on the other hand we are working with him on it because in certain arenas (school, mostly) it’s simply not going to work out well for him if he wanders off constantly and never finishes anything on his own. So I have to admit it was extremely gratifying to see him complete a 10-step task without incident. He even avoided the pitfall I myself am prone to succumb to to this day, which is filling the cup entirely too full in step 6. He did everything the right way and in the right order, and it’s a minor, minor thing but still fairly encouraging. Reason to smile, at the very least.

It’s certainly not the watershed moment after which everything will change, I know that. He’s still inherently resistant to giving things full and necessary attention, unless it’s something he really wants for himself. (He must have been jonesing something fierce for milk.) Some time, I don’t know, a couple-few months ago I started encouraging, and then insisting on, him washing himself in the tub. And now, it’s still something where I have to verbally walk him through it, so it’s hardly saving me any time (it probably takes longer this way) but it just seems age-apprpriate for him, and so. But just the other night, he looked at me with profound (manufactured) sadness and said, “My life was better when you used to wash me.” Which got him in response a slightly (but only slightly) more sympathetic version of “too bad, suck it up”. So, he has a way to go towards proper autonomy, and I will actually consider it a significant victory for both of us when and if he gets there, and if he never ever 100% does, I will not be utterly shocked. Some people always need a little smidge of extra looking after. Hopefully they have other virtues that outweigh this fact.

The funny thing is that the little girl seems to be racing for autonomy with much less, if any, prompting. (Which is in itself delightfully recursive.) She can wash herself in the tub just fine, and only needed to be offered the opportunity to demonstrate such ability, rather than a steady campaign of gently escalating insistence. I worry a great deal of the time about her as the only girl sibling and the middle child and every other tough luck circumstance she’s been dealt, but every now and then I think it might all work out for the best, because she’ll be the kind of person who rises to the challenge and overcomes the adversity rather than allowing herself to be held back by it. And more power to her.

Of course every coin has two sides, and in the case of my daughter that means that her determination and independent spirit apply to everything, not just the things that make my and my wife’s lives easier. All well and good if we want her to do something on her own which she also wants to do on her own, but if we butt heads, dang that girl has some battle-tested horns.

So as always our own children gives us plenty of potent reminders that we should be careful what we wish for. If we have to micromanage them, at least we always know what they’re doing. If we have to rein them in from remaking the entire world (or at least large sections of our house) in their own image, at least we can sometimes channel that energy in productive directions. It’s a mixed bag, and every day is an adventure. Plus some day my wife and I will be old, and we will no doubt both butt heads with our kids and need them to help us get through the simple things they take for granted. So what goes around comes around, at that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #2!!! (Westworld/Death Race 2000)

More and more lately, I have been thinking that if I were ever to try to write some kind of popcult-inflected memoir about what was on the airwaves and in the multiplexes when I was a kid and how it influenced me personally along with wide swaths of my generation, the title of said work would probably be "On the Brink of Dystopia". The trope of the terrible yet plausible future of human society felt like it was everywhere when I was growing up. When I heard firehouse sirens, I thought about incoming nuclear warheads. When I saw helicopters in the sky, I thought about fascist police states. I'm well aware now that dystopian fiction has been around since long before I was born and persists as a (highly lucrative, see Divergent, Hunger Games, etc.) sub-genre to this day, but I feel like there was a big peak for the notion in the 70's and 80's. Then again, maybe everything evergreen always seems to hit its highest highs during any given individual's formative years, thanks to the subjectivity of personal memory.

In any case, the double-feature at hand this week would slot in nicely in the memoir I proposed above: 1973's Westworld and 1975's Death Race 2000. It is by no means coincidence that the flicks happen to bracket the year of my birth. As I was coming into the world, there was no shortage of differing views on what that world would look like once I was a young adult.

Westworld is the latest entry in the long line of entertainments that I've taken the time to actually, belatedly experience firsthand after spending most of my life at least being aware of what they signify, what the elemental iconography they contribute is, and so on. Everyone knows that Westworld is about tourists to a futuristic theme park populated by lifelike robots, who end up terrorized by a mechanized gunslinger, played by Yul Brynner, whose programming goes rogue. I can confidently say now that if that is all you know about Westworld, you're good. There's more to it, of course, but not necessarily anything worth the investment of time to gain insight into.

I have been evolving a scale for gauging the quality of a movie based on its inherent compulsive watchability, which is greatly facilitated by my habit of watching movies on a portable dvd player as I commute to and fro on the VRE (which puts the T in SMOAT, after all). I can only watch about 50 minutes at a time, which is generally enough time to watch an entire feature-length film in a single day, the first half in the morning and the second half in the afternoon. Because I'm forced to take an eight or nine hour intermission at the midpoint of the movie, I'm able to evaluate how eager I am to keep going and/or return to the movie as soon as possible. For a middle-of-the-road movie, I'll get on the homebound train and settle into my seat and maybe check a few internet destinations on my phone while the signal is good before firing up the dvd player. The better the movie, the quicker I'll switch on the player, which for some movies means I actually resume watching on the train platform and semi-awkwardly climb into the vestibule and make my way down the aisle with one eye on my fellow commuters I'm trying not to bump and one eye on the screen. The worse the movie, the less of a hurry, and sometimes half the commute home goes by before I flip to movie mode. Westworld proved to be in the "no particular hurry" category.

The movie is, for the most part, incredibly slow, verging on boring. On the one hand, that's a symptom of a certain commitment to verisimilitude. In order to facilitate the suspension of disbelief, the behind-the-scenes goings on for Westworld (and Medievalworld, and Romanworld, which we'll get back to) are shown in numerous scenes, scenes which remind me of being at work: lots of dorky engineers sitting around in windowless, soulless rooms going through the repetitive tasks of their respective job duties. To a certain extent it does make Westworld seem like a real place and not just magical sci-fi, but it's all so mundane.

The scenes in Westworld themselves aren't that much more interesting. There's a glimmer of an idea about exaggerating modern angst and projecting it into a future where amusements like Westworld would be possible. Richard Benjamin plays Peter Martin as a sensitive new-age guy who is still hurting over a recent divorce, while James Brolin plays his best friend John Blane as a happy, laid-back bechelor. On the plane trip to Westworld Peter is full of questions that give away how excited he is to experience the place for the first time, while John is too cool for school, having been there before. After they arrive, they switch attitudes somewhat, with peter having a hard time getting into the spirit and John becoming more enthusiastic.

But Peter seems to have it right, because what exactly is the point of Westworld? That was the question I kept returning to in my mind as I slogged through the movie. It's basically a sanitized, Disney-fied version of the Old West, where the clothing is vaguely period-accurate but also immaculately clean, and where everyone is given a "real" six-shooter but those irons have advanced computer sensors which prevent them from being fired at human targets. That's where the robots come in: if you want to get into a shootout in Westworld, you can only shoot at the lifelike machines. (Similarly, if you want to have sex with a lady of the evening, she'll be a robot too, which is presumed by the movie to be "fun" even though I thought it would be creepy as anything. But this never gets explored.) Yul Brynner's gunslinger picks a fight with Peter, and peter shoots the robot "dead". But overnight the technicians repair the robot and he is back among the "living" the next day, whereupon he goes after ... John, for some reason, giving Peter the opportunity to come to John's rescue. Then Peter is arrested for "killing" the gunslinger, giving John the opportunity to break Peter out of prison. Later, the two buddies get into a prolonged, cartoonish barroom brawl with some other robots, with real punches thrown and real furniture broken, which leaves both peter and John unconscious on the saloon floor for the night.

Perhaps you begin to see the fundamental disconnect in the core concept here. Westworld is billed in the story world as an "authentic" experience, but everything about it is fake and resets in the morning. It's a lot like LARPing, or playing a virtual reality video game, though, for all the consequences. Until the consequences start becoming all too real, as when the gunslinger returns yet again and shoots John dead, then proceeds to hunt Peter down. Due to some defect, which even the technicians don't understand because their own robots were created with computer-assisted design and no human being "really" understands how they work, the gunslinger is able to override its programming prohibitions against killing humans. OK, except why in the world did the gunslinger ever have a real gun and real bullets??? Why not give everyone, guests and robots alike, perfect replica light guns or something else essentially harmless?

Again, there's a glimmer of an idea buried in here somewhere. Take the barroom brawl: is a good barroom brawl fun to watch, in a western? Absolutely it is. Would it be fun to take part in one, one in which you were actually getting physically assaulted with minimal regard to your physical safety, one in which you ended up cold knocked out? With all due respect to Chuck Palahniuk, I think not! Is it more fun to have a fake shootout with a robot that can't hurt you, knowing the robot is still nevertheless inexplicably packing actual heat? Again, I think not, but then again I don't have a death wish or strong self-destructive desires. If the movie had gotten into the psychology a little more deeply, of why exactly people would want to escape from polite society and enter a manufactured world of violence and lawlessness, I think the movie could have offered a lot more. But we never really see the world outside the resorts, the way that people who can't afford thousand-dollar-a-day vacations live. Instead it's just a bunch of privileged nonsense, and not even enough nonsense to be confined to a single theme park. Romanworld and Medievalworld seem to exist solely to pad out the running time, to show other nerfed historical reenactments and the people playing around in them, before the robots go all murderous on everyone.

Ultimately the story lost me when the gunslinger at one point has Peter dead to rights, almost at point blank range, and misses his shot. So Peter is able to run away again and stumble onto a scientist who delivers some extremely convenient info about robot weaknesses, which gives Peter a fighting chance to take down the gunslinger. The climax of the movie plays out like a bad slasher flick, where Peter runs, the gunslinger pursues, Peter fights back, the gunslinger proves unstoppable, over and over and over until the gunslinger's ultimate destruction, which of course turns out to be the penultimate destruction just before one last jump scare reappearance just before the real, ultimate destruction. It all takes the fundamental question "what if an unstoppable machine designed to be a harmless antagonist suddenly became an actual antagonist" and answers it in the dullest way possible: "well you'd have to outrun it for a while and keep throwing acid at it or setting it on fire until you finally broke it enough that you stopped it." The end.

For a movie with such a reputation of being cool, and presenting Yul Brynner as such a badass, it's fairly disappointing to actually sit down and watch Westworld trying so hard to be serious and meaningful only to wind up dreary and meaningless. If you want to see Yul as an awesome cowboy, watch The Magnificent Seven.

Death Race 2000 has multiple elements in common with Westworld in addition to its near-future setting. Both lean heavily on violence for its own sake, and examine the potential entertainment value of such violence. As a result, both have a lot of the same special effects of the era, including fake blood that looks nothing like blood, but rather has the color and consistency of primary red tempera paint. Both make unapologetic use of character archetypes to leave more room for advancing the plot, trusting the audience to bring with them everything they need to know about a "brooding divorcee" or a "stoic man of mystery". Having said all that, the two movies could not be more different, nor could my separate viewing experiences. After watching the first 65% or so of Death Race 2000 on the way to work one morning, I actually took my half-hour lunch in the park across the street so I could watch the rest of it as soon as possible. Granted, there was another factor at play as well, namely that Death Race 2000 is a gratuitous shockfest and I didn't want to offend the sensibilities of whomever I ended up seated next to on the way home. But it was not what I would call a slog.

The premise of Death Race 2000 is gloriously simple: once a year the United States holds a cross-country automobile race, with the champion earning a certain amount of wealth and celebrity, and the people of the U.S. appeased in their bloodlust for another year. The race consists of five drivers, each with a navigator/mechanic, and the winner of the race is determined by points, with some assigned for finishing the race first (or at all, as the drivers are essentially encouraged to take one another out en route) and some assigned for running down and killing pedestrians. Complicating matters in the race in the year 2000 is the fact that a growing resistance to the reign of Mr. President has developed, and they have infiltrated the race with one of their own, a pretty blonde girl named Annie, as the navigator/mechanic for the most popular driver and favorite to win, Frankenstein.

If that sounds stupid, I assure you it is supposed to. This is a movie that glories in its own stupidity, presenting itself as nothing less than live-action Looney Tunes with the "adult" sensibilities of a stunted adolescent. The very beginning of the movie shows a stadium full of screaming fans, as the drivers are introduced one by one. First is Calamity Jane, driving a car decorated to look like a bull, complete with longhorns suitable for stabbing the unwary. (All of the cars are small open-top sportsters like Fiat Spiders and VW Karmann-Ghias, all of which I simply thought of as "modified Mach V from Speed Racer" models, because again, this is all very cartoon-like.) Next is Matilda the Hun, bedecked in Nazi regalia (Time Ghost Alert: Death Race 2000 was made closer to WWII than to today), and I smiled a bit at the wordplay. Next up is Nero the Hero in his lion-shaped car, and holy crap it's the guy who plays the evil dojo master in The Karate Kid! He's followed by Chicago gangster Joe Viterbo and HOLY CRAP IT'S SYLVESTER STALLONE!!! His car is black with a knife blade in the middle of the grille and machine guns in place of headlights. Finally, Frankenstein arrives in his monster car, a Vette which Wikipedia says is supposed to be styled like an alligator, although the teeth and scales look more creature feature than nature documentary.

And after the intros they're off, and the orgy of vehicular mayhem commences, totally and intentionally and unapologetically over the top. This is a Roger Corman-produced film, after all. Unlike Westworld, which got bogged down in minutiae and ponderousness, Death Race 2000 goes from punchline to punchline with pitch black humor. The question of when and how Frankenstein's new co-pilot is going to betray him in fulfilling her mission to assassinate the president is of course answered by having the two fall in love, and revealing that Frankenstein is as much a victim of the system as anyone, with his own plan to assassinate the President. Frankenstein and Annie win (read: are the lone survivors of) the race, kill the President, Frankenstein is elected new President and restores liberty, he and Annie get married, and everyone lives happily ever after. That last sentence plays out over about the last three to five minutes of the movie. Everything before that coda is non-stop sex and violence and burning rubber.

And yet, for all its juvenile presentation, Death Race manages to come across as smarter than Westworld, too. It's a scathing satire of government and sports and social issues, and how the media covers those things while serving or being outright controlled by them. The movie has a point of view, which is a fairly cynical estimation of the human condition as a mindless mob howling for ever-escalating spectacle, but a point of view nonetheless. And as hilariously breathless as the coda is, it at least acknowledges that not all hope for civilization is lost, that change is possible and we can be ruled by our better natures. Westworld, by contrast, is a bone-dry examination of a high concept that challenges few assumptions: out-of-control technology is dangerous, no kidding. Death Race 2000 doesn't just get its hands dirty, it wallows around in filth, but at least its provocations land a few good shots against worthy targets.

Once again I seem to have written far more about what I didn't like about a mediocre movie than what I did like about a highly entertaining one. It's easier to be a critic than a fan, I suppose, though I keep trying to balance the two.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A brief baseball check-in

So we have reached the All-Star Break, and the Orioles of Baltimore are sitting on a respectable lead atop the American League East. If the season were to end today and head into the playoffs, the Yankees wouldn't even be close to the wild card. In point of fact, both wild card teams would come out of the AL West, and one of those two, the Angels, have a significantly better record than the O's, never mind the Yanks, while the other, Seattle, is barely a game, game and a half behind Baltimore's record. The A's, with the best record in baseball, are just ridiculous this year.

But the playoffs don't start any time soon, and we are actually only halfway through the season. Well, a little more than halfway through. Eighty-one games make up half a regular season, and as of today every club has played somewhere between ninety-one and ninety-seven games. Apparently there's been an unusually high number of weather-related postponements. So it's a downhill race from here, seventy-one or sixty-something contests remaining to see who will stay at the top of the heap, who will rally for a last-minute surge, and who will collapse down the stretch.

My wife, as is her custom, refuses to get excited about the Orioles' post-season chances. If the topic comes up, she very quickly asserts that the O's will choke in late August, because that's what they always do. As always, it's hard to sort through the complex and dynamic layers of superstition at play here. Is she really managing her own expectations, shielding herself from disappointment and heartbreak by expecting the worst? Is she trying to appease the gods of baseball by not exhibiting New York-esque (or even Bostonian) hubris which would be swiftly and summarily punished? Bracing herself, or playing a reverse-psychology bluffing game with Fate?

And by bringing all of this up, calling it out and naming it, am I undoing whatever voodoo she is doing, jinxing her team by proxy? Does that even work? If it did work, am I the kind of person who would do such a thing deliberately?

I guess we'll have to wait and see come end of August. If my strangled body washes up on some barrier island, I probably had it coming.

Monday, July 14, 2014


The contract I work on is nearing its endpoint; the original agreement between the DoD and my employer was for one year of work and five follow-on option years, and we are currently in the midst of the fifth and final option year, the end of which is the last day of September (since we are on the federal fiscal year calendar). As you might imagine, this does not mean that the task at hand is nearly complete and we have a deadline to finish everything up. The government simply doesn't outsource things in perpetuity, and at intervals they force the incumbent contractors to re-compete for the privilege of continuing draining the bottomless well of work. In theory, it's possible for another contractor to come along and make a better offer which would result in the government switching from our services to our competitors' when our contract is up.

That's in theory. In practice, the better deal would have to be insanely advantageous to the bottom line, because the outgoing contractor would take so much familiarity and institutional knowledge with them, and the incoming team would be playing catch-up on a steep learning curve from day one. Although often that plays out as not so disruptive because the outgoing contractors are suddenly in danger of being laid off because they're not on a viable assignment, and the incoming team may very well recruit (poach) from the losing side, in order to retain that aforementioned wealth of intangibles, or as much of it as possible.

Back in 2009, just a few months before I started this here blog, I was already working for my current employer but on a different contract. It was a newer and shorter contract for a newly stood-up agency, and we went through a re-compete, and I felt pretty self-assured because of the logic I laid out above. Why would they ditch us when we had just gone through the process of learning the ropes, why would they throw that away and start over? I wasn't overly cocky, I did everything that was asked of me to help with the re-compete effort, but I didn't lose any sleep over it. And then we lost the re-compete, and I was benched, and I was not poached by the contractor that ended up winning the new contract. But luckily I was contacted by someone who had one opening on their contract, and that's where I've been ever since, up to and including today.

So I have seen firsthand that incumbency is not invulnerability. But, on the other hand, the situations are kind of apples and oranges. On my previous contract, we were more or less making things up as we went along, very much in keeping with how the brand spanking new agency was conducting itself. It's possible that we doubled down on things in our re-compete proposal that were actually very different from where the decision-makers had determined they wanted to go in the future, and the groundwork we had laid worked against us in the eyes of people who wanted fresh ideas and course corrections. Whereas in my current gig, it's a much more well-established (dinosaur) agency, and this is not even our first re-compete. It's my first, since I jumped on about five years ago, but it's the second or quite possibly the third for the team as a whole. I think I heard someone say we've been in place supporting these endeavors for 16 years, which is crazy but at least the kind of crazy that may work to my benefit.

At any rate, my contracting manager called a meeting this morning for the whole team to talk about what's going on with the contract, since everyone (who's paying attention) is understandably a little bit anxious to have the unresolved be resolved, one way or the other (hopefully one and not the other). And of course the first thing that our manager had to explain was that the governmental powers that be up and down the process chain are all a little behind and off-schedule, which means there's very little to report because they haven't even officially begun the re-compete process, despite the nearness of our contract's expiration date. We have been getting as ready as we can to submit our proposal in hopes of being awarded a new multi-year contract, but can only get so far without a specific set of guidelines provided by the government detailing what (if any) changes may be expected between what we have been doing and what will be required going forward. In order to take in multiple proposals, evaluate them all, and award the new contract for a seamless transition as the old contract ends, the government would probably need to already be in the take-in phase, and as I just said, they haven't even finalized the parameters that contractors should be proposing to follow and meet. So odds are there will be no new contract awarded when the old one runs out.

This is cause for a certain amount of consternation, but not outright alarm. It does not mean that work in this agency would grind to a halt as we all go home without pay (and possibly without jobs altogether) while the government figures out belatedly whom to hire on to restart the process. Once it becomes undeniably clear that the deadline would be blown, the government would negotiate a short-term (six months?) extension with my employer and life would go on as normal without a hitch. Again, it's always possible that the negotiations could implode and then we the grunts in the trenches (metaphorically speaking, all due respect to the actual soldiers whom or work supports)) really would be left in the lurch. But that's incredibly unlikely.

There's a certain logic in rooting for the government to blow the ever-shifting deadlines and be forced to grant my employer a temporary extension, because it seems natural to assume that we bolster our own chances of winning the re-compete by being gracious and accommodating about picking up the slack in a no-drama, no-fuss kind of way. Unfortunately, here in the real world, it doesn't work like that. We could get an extension and later be told "Thanks for sticking around a few extra months while we got our act together and decided we want to give the gig to your competitor. Also please document everything you've ever done so we can give it to the new guys and get them up to speed quickly." That is just the nature of the beast in this business. But, again, there's virtually nothing I, or any of my colleagues, can do about that, beyond showing up every day to execute our duties and not give the government any special reason to want us gone. Of course, this did not stop certain people at the team meeting from asking a lot of "what if" questions as if they just had to keep pushing and then my manager would bust out the crystal ball and give them definitive answers about what's going to happen down the road. But so it goes.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Love and birthdays

The love of my life is one day older today than she was yesterday, just like everyone else in this big crazy world, but she also happens to be commemorating exactly 39 years of refining the pure, undiluted awesome she was born with. We will celebrate this weekend with copious amounts of pie, both pizza and pastry varieties, because one of the extremely few-and-far-between instances of disagreement between us comes down to the great Pie versus Cake debate. But of course, for her birthday, I will happily let her have her way.

I am torn between my natural and constant desire to expound at length on the virtues of my wife especially on her big day, and the fact that I am unbearably tense and distracted at the moment because I got a text last night from Little Bro saying he and his wife were at the hospital, and she was going to be induced into labor with the expectation that the baby, their first child and my and my wife's first niece, would be born "some time" today. I have not yet gotten an update so I am basically climbing the walls with nervous anticipation.

One of the most penetrating death-laser glares I ever received from my wife was when I was recounting to some friends the story of the bambino's delivery, although really it was the story of how we settled on his name at long last the very day he arrived, and so in narrating everything from sunup to sundown that day I elided over the pains of birth for my wife with a handwaving "and then labor was, y'know, fine ..." I deserved the death-laser, I admit! But I bring up that random anecdote-of-telling-an-anecdote mostly to remind myself that most labors, however long and arduous, are in fact fine in the end. We always ask how mother and baby are doing immediately after, but there's good statistical reasoning behind assuming that it will be a pro forma question and answer. I need reminding of that at the moment. It was hard, all three times my wife and I went to the maternity ward, to banish worry about all the unlikely but frightening possible scenarios. It's proving almost equally as hard when it's my Little Bro navigating the same territory.

So, too preoccupied to blog much more today! Updates to follow, though, I'm sure.

UPDATE #1 - I just saw that my sister-in-law posted a happy birthday message on my wife's Facebook wall about an hour ago (it's 1:40 p.m. EDT) and included a happy-faced addendum about "working on" having niece and aunt share a birthday. On the one hand, good to know nothing went awry overnight. On the other hand, if my sister-in-law is still breezily social-media'ing, that baby is probably not coming any time soon.

UPDATE #2 - My wife and niece weren't meant to share a birthday after all, it seems. The wee one arrived at 3:30 a.m. this morning (Saturday). Pro forma or not, I'm happy to report mom and newborn are doing well.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How bout we trade, and you all do the dishes, and I'll go to bed early?

Recently the bambino has been extremely reluctant to go to sleep at his designated bedtime, so my wife hit upon the idea of putting him in his crib a little later, which would hopefully align better with his circadian rhythms and also make allowance for the fact that the sun is still pretty darn high in the sky at the official bino-nighty-night hour. OK, that may seem like a bit of an obvious approach, so really what I mean is that my wife's approach was innovative because rather than pushing all the kids' bedtimes farther and farther back, she envisioned giving the little guy and little girl earlier baths to buy some time for the bino, then letting the big kids play while baby brother got ready for bed, then by the time the bino was down for the night and we turned our attention back to the other two, they'd be most of the way ready for bed anyway and everything would end up at the same end point (or reasonably close enough).

(One of the slight hitches in this plan revolves around the fact that the bino and the little girl still share a bedroom. In an ideal world, the bino gets ready for bed and goes to sleep shortly after hitting the crib mattress, and then the little girl gets ready for bed next, and by the time she's ready to go to sleep we can slip her into the darkened bedroom without waking up her little brother. By pushing his bedtime back but leaving hers at the same time, the likelihood is that he'll still be awake when she's going down, so we really have no choice but to let her lie down and fall asleep in our bed in the master, and then carry her to her own bed, asleep, later in the night. But so it goes.)

We tried the new plan on an evening when my wife was home, and it basically worked. So I tried it again last night, while my wife was at work, and the results were less encouraging. The number of parents turned out to be a hugely differentiating factor. With my wife nearby, I could give the bigger kids baths and she could distract the bino, but with her out of the house, the bino just ... wanted to be where I was. Some highlights included:

- Bino, fully dressed, trying to climb in the tub with his brother
- Bino whapping his sister on the head while she was in the tub

- Bino somehow grabbing a large full cup from the tub and dumping the water all over the bathroom floor
- Bino unspooling the roll of toilet paper (full disclosure: he does this all the time, no matter how many responsible adults are in the house)

And then eventually I got the bigger kids in pajamas and started getting the bino ready for bed, and I made it through his bath and through pj's and through stories and all the way to giving him a bottle of milk before the little girl started screaming bloody murder. So I had to tell the bino I would be right back while I went and checked to see how much blood had been spilt, which of course turned out to be none, it was just a disagreement about what kind of game she and her big brother were playing together. I asked them to keep it down so I could put their brother to sleep, but by the time I got back to the bino he was all freaked out that I had abruptly left and it took an excessive amount of time and effort to get him even slightly calmed down, and the transition to the crib did not go smoothly.

Still and all, by the time my wife got home, the baby was asleep (by a matter of mere minutes, after having screamed and fussed for a quarter of an hour), and the little girl was lying down peaceably in our bed, and the little guy was climbing into his own bed. Getting there was arduous, but that descriptor seems to apply to more and more situations these days, espcially involving anything along the lines of making the kids do what we want them to do as opposed to letting them follow their own wild rumpus impulses (rumpulses?) Tonight I will try again and see if I can apply any lessons learned to the proceedings. You best believe I will be keeping the rinsing cup on the highest soap-ledge in the shower.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #1!!! (The Searchers/The Hidden Fortress)

Summer is well underway and you know what that means: the return of SMOAT (Summer Movies on a Train), wherein I work my way through the blockbusters, exploitation flicks, and other cinematic brain candy that has been accumulating on my Netflix queue. When I looked at the movies I had tossed on the to-watch list I realized I had so many to choose from that I would barely make a dent if I limited myself to one movie per week. So, as is my wont, I started organizing the flicks as best I could into pairs, based on thematic similarities, general categories, release years (or at least release decades) &c., so I could watch them in back-to-back twosomes. If all goes according to plan I should be able to post a twofer review every week. So let the summer of double features begin!

My first installment actually came into its final form by accident. I decided that before I embarking on my annual catch-up on popcorn entertainment I would just cross off one more of the big canonical classics: John Ford's The Searchers. Not only is that movie on the 1001 Master List, it's on the Sight & Sound poll, and in the top ten of that elite ranking as well. Plus it's considered a masterpiece of the western genre, and given my recent far-ranging surveys of all things cowboy, from the archetypal to the unusual (my obsession with Stephen King's Gunslinger, and my enjoyment of this movie, and this one, and this one, not to mention my own contributions to How the West Was Weird, still available for Kindle!) I knew I'd have to get around to it sooner or later. So why not make that happen, and do my cinephile homework before blowing off the summer.

So I was watching The Searchers and (spoilers for a movie that came out in 1956 and really this is just part of the set-up everybody knows about who's even heard of the movie) get to the part where Ethan and Martin return to the Edwards homestead only to find the family's house and the outbuildings aflame, as the Comanche have already come and laid waste and gone. And the framing of the shot, and the streaming columns of black smoke, immediately triggered two words in my mind: STAR WARS.

Have you guys heard about the annotated Star Wars video that made the rounds on teh interwebs last month? I haven't gotten around to watching it myself, I confess (because I can't take two hours of streaming video on the train, mostly). But basically some guy took the entire running length of Star Wars and intercut it with clips from earlier movies which were heavy influences and inspirations for George Lucas. When I noticed the parallels between that moment in The Searchers and the scene in Star Wars where Luke gets back to the Lars moisture farm and finds it burning after the Stormtroopers have attacked, I wondered if the annotated Star Wars video included that particular homage. Which of course it did, and in fact when I went to check that one section of the video I discovered that the Searchers references actually start a scene or two earlier (The Searchers is cut into the Star Wars video at 43:44, if you're curious), where Obi-wan Kenobi's analysis of who attacked the jawas using what telltale methods and for what purpose is lifted from Ethan's almost identical recognition of a Comanche spear and deduction of where the Comanche will attack next.

OK, all well and good with the Star Wars connection, and unsurprising really since The Searchers has a reputation as one of the most widely influential films of all time. What was a little more surprising to me was the fact that The Searchers is a bit underwhelming if you go into it expecting a transcendent film. Parts of it are great, and parts of it are ... less so. One could go down just about every category of filmmaking and find one element in each category in The Searchers which was good, and another which fell short. John Wayne delivers an excellent performance as Ethan Edwards, as does Ward Bond as the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton. The rest of the acting in the movie is middling at best, stiff and stilted. (I wonder sometimes if we as a modern culture have a sense of people who lived a hundred or more years ago as being overly formal and unexpressive because we watch period pieces made by old Hollywood studios and mistake the wooden-faced acting as historical authenticity.) Some of the cinematography is breathtaking, particularly the exteriors, mostly due to the inherent grandeur of Monument Valley.

But those shots only serve to make the soundstage-bound setpieces look all the more fake and cheesy. A major component of the overarching plot is Martin's love life, but Martin is pretty much written as a clueless doofus, so the impulse to care what happens to him is minimized. There are parts of the movie which are genuinely, intentionally funny, and other parts which are unintentionally funny, and still more that are intended to be funny but fall flat. Case in point, when Martin accidentally marries a young Native American girl when he thinks he's merely trading goods with her father. As culturally insensitive as that may be, the fact that it is revealed to be a minor mishap resolved by the young bride being killed shortly thereafter, clearing the way once again for Martin's major romantic subplot, is fairly horrifying.

Probably the aspect of The Searchers which has aged the worst is the racism. White European actors in redface playing Native Americans are always going to be problematic, as is casting an entire ethnic group as the villains with no nuance and no shades of gray. Ostensibly the story is about how one man hates the Comanche so much that he devotes years of his life to hunting for the niece (asterisk, see below) that was kidnapped by them, without ever denying that he is out for bloody revenge on the Comanche for slaughtering his niece's family just as much as he is seeking her safe return. It all culminates in Ethan being forced to decide if he will kill his own niece for having inevitably gone native with the tribe, or if he will "forgive" her and take her home regardless. There's something of an interesting story to tell there about vengeance and victimization and the lines a man will cross, but notice there's no third possibility of letting little Debbie stay with the Comanche, or any consideration of the Comanche as anything other than evil and wrong for defending their ancestral home from expansionist settlers. Only the white girl's life matters, as the Comanche kill like wild animals and are slaughtered the same way.

So, again, as a time capsule of the unenlightened attitudes of a (mostly) bygone era, The Searchers is worth preserving. And if you can swallow all the tropes of the western, including Native Americans being given no respect or definition beyond serving as wild antagonists along the lines of, say, the Tusken Raiders of Tatooine, then it's not a bad western, at that. Certainly it's a pretty one, at times a funny one, and particularly in the climax an emotionally driven one. But I'm not entirely convinced it's a top echelon all-time history-of-all-movies world-beater.

(Asterisk: so I found out via some research that there's a theory that Debbie is actually Ethan's daughter, not his niece, as the product of an illicit affair between Ethan and his brother's wife. I admit I find this subtext fits pretty well with the text of the movie as it plays out, with certain clues reinforcing it and nothing really contradicting it or needing to be handwaved away. It does make the kill-or-forgive conundrum that much more visceral. And I'm impressed that a director would include something like that in a movie in the mid-50's and not explicitly nod at it in any way, demonstrating a certain subtlety and restraint I don't really give many filmmakers from that era credit for.)

My original plan was to start my double features by watching Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, which every geek worth his Cheetos-dust knows is a big precursor to Star Wars, and then move on to the volume 1 dvd of Cartoon Network's Clone Wars ongoing series as the back half. (That dvd has been gathering dust on my shelf since my sister very thoughtfully got it for me for Christmas years ago, and I simply have never found time to start watching it. As per usual, mostly I blame Smallville.) However, once I tumbled to the fact that The Searchers was a Star Wars influence as well, The Hidden Fortress became the back half of my Star Wars Forerunners double feature.

As I say, it's fairly common knowledge that a lot of Star Wars comes from Hidden Fortress: two hapless peasant servants who don't really belong on an epic adventure (R2D2 and C3PO in the former; Tahei and Matashichi in the latter), a princess who simultaneously needs to eb rescued and also kicks a lot of ass on her own (Leia Organa; Yuki Akizuki), and a warrior general traveling incognito (Ben Kenobi; Makabe Rokurōta). But before we go any further down that road, can I just point out one other amazing connection to my childhood I was previously unaware of? OK, so in some later line-ups of the Superfriends cartoon there was a character called Samurai, only he didn't look anything like a samurai. A samurai has the big bulky armor and the crazy helmet, and the Samurai hanging around the Hall of Justice dressed like this:

I didn't get that at all as a kid, or even as an adult, until I watched The Hidden Fortress, where Rokurōta (played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune) is referred to as a famous samurai and basically looks exactly like Samurai from Superfriends. Mifune's a little swarthier, and the film's in black and white, but nonetheless: same hair, same beard, same outfit. (No whirlwind powers, though, alas.)

Anyway, back to the film itself. There are several Kurosawa films on the 1001 Master List, but Hidden Fortress is not one of them. And it's not that hard to see why. It's long, it's meandering, it comes across like a children's adventure story or fairy tale (not coincidentally, much like Star Wars, at that). It's a perfectly serviceable movie, and entertaining; I'm honestly not sure if Kurosawa was capable of making a truly bad movie. It's just not mandatory viewing.

Parts of it arguably rise to the compulsory level, though. Specifically, there's a scene where Rokurōta challenges the enemy commander to a duel. The commander agrees and allows Rokurōta to choose a spear from among all of the assembled soldiers in the garrison. This leads to a long wordless sequence wherein Rokurōta walks around the inside of a circle of men, taking a spear, testing it, finding it wanting, giving it back, over and over. The tension for the duel slowly builds. Ultimately there's an overhead shot of the ring of soldiers and Rokurōta in the middle. He starts taking bigger test swings with the spear. Every time he does, the entire ring of soldiers reacts as one, and backs up a little more, expanding the battlefield. This scene is phenomenal. Watching it I felt not unlike this adolescent Onion op-ed author, discovering Bruce Lee for the first time.

So for aficionados of badassdom, Hidden Fortress merits a strong recommendation. much the same way aficionados of westerns owe it to themselves to take in The Searchers. Everything in the arts and pop culture builds on everything before it, and those two are both large pillars in the firmament. Star Wars barely scratches the surface of testaments to that.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Virtual time travel

So I've been on Facebook for about two months now and I'm just getting to the point where I'm tentatively reaching out to people I haven't really had any contact with at all in decades. I assume this is fairly typical for everybody these days: first I friended my family, and my close friends, and my internet acquaintances, and people I went to college with, and now I've worked my way back to people I went to high school with. Which is an entirely different ball of cyber-wax.

(I skipped the part where I would have friended my current work acquaintances, because I worry slightly that my laidback interwebs persona might be somewhat at odds with our corporate policies on social media, so best not to intermingle the two worlds too much. And the gig I had prior to this one was one in which my co-workers were people I went to college with, or close friends to this day.)

By the time I graduated from college, and certainly by about the point that I had been living and working in the real world for five years or so post-college, I no longer had any real relationship to speak of, passing or otherwise, with anyone from high school or earlier. I'd like to be able to say this wasn't a conscious choice, that it was just one of those sad facets of modern life where people drift apart and life inexorably takes some of us down different paths than others, but that would be letting myself off the hook way too easily. It was a conscious choice, or at least a semi-conscious one, or at the very least a series of somewhat conscious choices that were never intended to have the cumulative effect that they did, and yet. When I look back on it now with fifteen or twenty years of perspective, here's what I can see:

1. My family moved shortly after I graduated from high school, from Jersey to Connecticut. So I had to say goodbye to the town I had lived in since fourth grade, and I did make a very conscious goodbye tour that summer. There was much "let's keep in touch" sentiment exchanged between me and my friends, but I did a lot of mental processing of a sense of ending, as well.

2. Then I started college, and I really liked it, and I immediately made a lot of new friends and kind of threw myself wholeheartedly into that world. And on college breaks I wasn't going back to my old hometown, I was either going to the town my parents had moved to, where I had very little connection beyond family, or I was visiting my new college friends in their hometowns, mostly in northern Virginia (where I would end up hanging my hat before too long)

3. My high school girlfriend and I started seeing less and less eye-to-eye as I started hanging out with different people, being exposed to new ideas and exploring new interests in college. She spent a lot of time with my best friend.

4. About halfway through my freshman year of college my parents decided to get divorced, and it was a done deal by the following summer. Despite the fact that my parents' marriage was never perfect and domestic tranquility was never a bedrock foundation of my childhood, the divorce was still a pretty huge line of demarcation in my mind, in my life, between "growing up" and "grown up". My mom moved back to the old NJ hometown, but to a much smaller house, where I never quite felt entirely at home.

5. My Little Bro started dating one of my close female friends whom I had bonded with back in middle school and stayed tight with. I was completely on board with this, as they were pretty happy together (it seemed to me) and a good match, and obviously I loved them both.

6. My high school girlfriend and I eventually broke up, which erected another huge barrier in my mind between "everything that happened before" and "everything that happened after", putting high school and such on one side and my life as it was progressing on the other.

7. Complicating things was the fact that all that time spent together led to my ex-girlfriend and my best friend getting together. And moving in together. And getting married and having kids. Granted, I'm jumping ahead a bit now, those things took years. But not that many.

8. Also, eventually, Little Bro and my friend (who was now much more in the role of "sibling's significant other" than "hang out buddy" she had once been) broke up. It was pretty rough.

9. I graduated college and was soon faced with a choice between living with one or the other parent in NJ or CT and trying to find a real job, or moving into a four-way split townhouse in northern Virginia and getting any joe job to pay the bills and the bar tab. As we all know, the latter seemed like a no-brainer move to me.

10. About two years after graduation I got married, which had two huge effects on severing ties to the past. Up to that point I had actually been keeping in contact with my ex-girlfriend, but she was extremely weird about meeting my fiancee, said and did a lot of things that seemed to be gloating over the fact that she had dated me first, and that was not cool in my book. But more to the point, that was extremely not cool in my fiancee's eyes. Then again, very little of my past was cool in my fiancee's eyes. Basically she was extremely insecure and anyone who was going to stay in my life once we were married needed to be personally vetted by her. That was at least feasible in the case of other people in the northern Virginia sphere of my life, but highly impractical for old friends from my hometown. I was a doormat back then and I let her call the shots, to my own ultimate chagrin.

11. And then three years later I was divorced and back at my mom's, but the last thing I wanted to do was reach out to anyone I had known in high school because (as anyone who's ever gotten divorced will attest) it was hard not to feel like a failure and a deserving object of scorn. I spent a year, year and a half living with my mom, working a crap job, and living in fear that any time I would show my face in public I might run into someone who hadn't seen me since I was 17 and full of promise. I felt sick to my stomach at the hypothetical thought of having to answer "So what have you been up to?" because none of it was good.

11a. I did actually hear through the grapevine that around the same time I got divorced, so did another one of my good old high school buddies. And I should have at least been able to reach out to him in solidarity or something. But I didn't. I berate myself for it to this day, but I didn't. I have no particularly good excuse except that those were rock bottom days.

12. Finally I repaired some of the damage my doomed marriage had wreaked and patched things up with just about all my northern Virginia friends, and re-relocated back there by moving in with some friends. And got a much better job and my career back on track. And bought my own place, and got together with the real love of my life, and got married, bought a bigger house, three kids, a gaggle of pets, and here we are today. But again, for a stretch there from about 1992 to 2001, whenever I reached a decision point as far as whether I should hold on to my hometown childhood connections or let go, I doubled down on the present and distanced myself from the past.

The problem, of course, with life in a small suburb, where the graduating high school class is about 90-some people, is that everybody knows everybody and it's orders of magnitude easier to bow out altogether yourself rather than try to pick and choose whom to cut out and whom to keep. I've told stories hereabouts before about me and Scud and Boomer and Kingsley; Scud was my best friend who ended up married to my ex, and Kingsley was the one who got married and divorced in the same timeframe as me and whom I felt I let down terribly by not being there for him. Boomer and I never beefed or anything, we just drifted, partly due to the nature of life and partly because I torpedoed two sides of the foursquare knot holding us together. And I had other female friends besides the one who dated my Little Bro, but they were all friends with each other too, so they tended to take my friend's side in the break-up whereas I was never going to do anything but unconditionally support my brother. And so it goes, and the geographic distance only made it easier for me to draw the lines that I did. I had friends, I wasn't sitting around miserably bored and lonely and wondering where things had gone wrong. I just didn't have any friends from before I was 18.

And lately (read: since the advent of Facebook, mostly) it has occurred to me that I'm the anomaly. Although many if not most people tend to roll their eyes with self-deprecating mortification at the mention of high school, middle school, or any other segment of their pre-adult past, many if not most people also have at least some living connection to that time outside their immediate family. Coincidentally, a lot of the people I hang out with now I met during the college years even though they never went to college, so for a while I thought they had maintained a lot of the same high school social structures through the years because they never had the opportunity to replace them with college versions. But no, that's a gross over-simplification, they've made new friends as well, and other people who went to college, including those who were right there alongside me, at least have a handful of people they go way, way back with. That includes the people who loathed high school in general, and yet I liked high school! I didn't have too terrible or traumatic a time there! I just went through a really weird stretch there immediately after high school.

But say this for Facebook: it makes renewing contact after ridiculous intervals a little less awkward. I can't imagine calling anyone on the phone after not speaking to them since the early 90's. An e-mail I might be able to manage, but there's no universal directory for looking up e-mails of people you've fallen out of touch with. Plus I'd be tempted to write looooooooong missives attempting to cram in the past twenty years all at once, and then I would never hear back from anyone because tl;dr (and also, kind of creepy). But a friend request is easy to send, and easy to respond to, and then you're just plunked right into the update feed stream along with everyone else, and you have a starting point at least to proceed from.

So yeah, that's where I am. Mostly it has been pleasant enough, sometimes better than pleasant, sometimes disappointing in terms of people not accepting a request. (Looking at you here, Boomer. Not that you can hear me.) But the strangest part is just that there's this huge twenty-year bubble between me and all these people. I try to latch onto common ground again and I'm forced to rely on extremely out of date memories. It's like I time traveled from 1992 to today and I have the constant urge to ask people if they are still really into Gorilla Biscuits or Twin Peaks or whathaveyou. Although, to be fair, we are at the point in the cycle where 90's nostalgia is probably at or near its peak, so there are outside reinforcements as well. Still disorienting, though.