Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Don’t be coy (The Eagle)

The Master List (of the 1001 Movies Blog Club fame) has gotten its hooks into me so deeply that sometimes I watch entries from it just for the heck of it. Not because they are current assignments for the Club itself, or because they are past assignments I’m trying to catch up on, or because they are movies which, even without the Master List, I have some inherent desire to see (or at least be conversant with). Sometimes I just grab one at random and give it a shot, because if I’m really serious about slaying The List in my lifetime I need to chip away at it every chance I get.

Although, to be honest, the selection is rarely completely random. In fact, if it’s not a flick I’ve consciously targeted for consumption, for Club assignment or personal enrichment purposes or whathaveyou, then it’s probably a movie which happens to be available to stream for free on my Kindle, and furthermore preferably an older silent movie that I can watch with one eye and the soundtrack turned down low while I’m at home, ostensibly keeping the other eye and the rest of my ears on the kids while my wife is at work. Or something like that. (Pretty much just that.)

Which brings us to The Eagle, a classic from 1925 directed by Clarence Brown and starring Rudolph Valentino. I expected the exchange of 75 minutes of my multi-tasking time would be worth one more checkmark against The List, but I ended up more than pleasantly surprised. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but parts of it are absolutely amazing.

I can’t understand how no one has managed to remake this film so far, especially considering that it’s, at least in part, a superhero movie. Or more precisely a combination Robin Hood/revenge movie, set in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. It is in fact based on an Alexander Pushkin novel, so the source material is clearly in the public domain. It’s also, it probably goes without saying, right in my wheelhouse, the derring-do of masked men and all that.

Granted, it’s hard to improve on Valentino. I swear I alternated between idly wondering how many different makeup techniques they used on Valentino, as opposed to everyone else in the cast, to make him pop off the screen in comparison, and then simply being stunned like Mugato at the end of Zoolander thinking things like “MY GOD LOOK AT THOSE CHEEKBONES.” It’s not hard to understand how Valentino emerged as the romantic idol of millions.

But he wasn’t just dreamy, he could act. And not only could he act, he could be funny. The Eagle is actually equal parts blood oath melodrama and outright comedy, with multi-layered gags that still work today. Valentino’s character, Dubrovsky, falls in love at first sight with Mascha, the daughter of the main antagonist, Kyrilla. He sees her again later when, in his masked Black Eagle guise, he stops his Merry Men-esque followers from robbing her. Mascha hates the Black Eagle because of his campaign of harassment against her father, but she takes note of the Black eagle’s signet ring. Later still, Dubrovsky infiltrates Kyrilla’s home by posing as a French tutor for Mascha. When they are introduced, Mascha immediately recognizes the signet ring on his hand. Dubrovsky’s expression when he realizes his mistake is pretty amusing. He immediately concocts an elaborate story about how he, too, was abducted by the Black Eagle and got away by explaining how he was expected at Kyrilla’s, and the Black Eagle gave him a ring to pass on to Mascha as a token of esteem, and the sheer audacity of that cover story is funny, too. Then Dubrovsky has to hand over the ring, but can’t get it off his own finger, and has to struggle with it for a good minute, including sticking his finger in his mouth, and Valentino totally sells the physical comedy of trying hard to dislodge the ring, while also trying not to look like he’s exerting any undue effort. Finally he hands it over, and of course after all that effort Mascha throws the ring back in his face, spurning the Black Eagle. As usual, by explaining the joke I’ve gone a far way toward ruining it, but trust me, it’s impressive how the whole encounter plays out and escalates.

In effect the whole narrative is rooted in comedy. Dubrovsky becomes the Black Eagle, avenging outlaw, after the death of his father, but he’s an outlaw first, a deserter from the Russian army. Partly he abandons his post because his father is dying, but also partly to escape the unwanted attentions of the czarina. So the inciting incident is really a Catherine-the-Great-and-her-legendary-appetites joke, which plays out almost like modern cringe comedy in early scenes between Valentino and Louise Dresser. Almost every character gets their moment as a punchline, from Mascha’s elderly nursemaid who carries a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Caesar and urges the toy dog “Sic ‘em!” when the Black Eagle’s men attack (our auxiliary dog at home is, of course, a CKCS, and I am predisposed to regard them as ludicrous little clown animals), to Kyrilla himself, who boasts over dinner about his own bravery, having faced down cannon fire in military campaigns himself, only to hilariously freak out when a bottle of champagne pops behind him.

But there’s more to Kyrilla than bluster, too. He is a consummate villain, not merely responsible for the financial ruin of Dubrovsky’s family, but a master of putting himself at the top of the heap, supported by those who believe it’s better to be with him than against him, and making life miserable for everyone else. He basically qualifies as a supervillain, in the Bond sense if not the Batman sense, because he keeps a fierce bear chained up in his wine cellar, and one of his favorite gags is to send a hanger-on who fails to impress him as sufficiently sycophantic down to pick out another bottle, whereupon the poor doomed soul meets a gruesome ursine fate. What really distinguishes The Eagle is that, where any other movie would of course be building up to an ironic third-act comeuppance in Kyrilla being mauled by his own bear, in this film the bear doesn’t make it out of the second reel. Kyrilla tries the gag on Dubrovsky, once he senses his daughter is taking too much of a shine to her tutor, but Dubrovsky keeps his cool and does not provoke the animal. Then the plan backfires when Mascha follows Dubrovsky to the wine cellar, and is herself attacked by the bear. Dubrovsky saves her life by pulling a concealed pistol from his vest and shooting the bear in the back. (My wife the veterinarian assures me this would, at best, annoy the bear rather than kill it but, you know, Hollywood.)

In fact, not only is there no ironic resolution to Kyrilla’s reign of terror, there’s almost no resolution at all. Dubrovsky reveals himself as the Black Eagle to save one of his own captured followers, Mascha reveals that she’s also in love with him, and the three of them escape from Kyrilla’s estate, after which the villain is never heard from again. The movie makes clear that Mascha was the apple of her father’s eye and surely he would be heartbroken to have lost her, but as revenge scenarios go, it’s not quite as visceral as losing his fortune or his life would have been. Nonetheless, the rest of the movie details Dubrovsky’s recapture by the Russian army, his death sentence, his last request marriage to Mascha, and his execution by firing squad. The last turns out to be a sham, however, a face-saving maneuver which allows the czarina to feel her honor has been satisfied, while at the same time she pardons Dubrovsky and sends him with Mascha to live happily ever after in France.

It’s all strangely anticlimactic, so much so that it sent me to the Wikipedia entry for the source novel to see just how condensed the movie version was. Unfortunately whoever wrote that particular article decided that encyclopedias should avoid spoilers, and only refers cryptically to “tragic results”, which I think means that Dubrovsky actually fails and dies in his quest for vengeance (ahh, Russian literature), since that would explain both the lack of fitting punishment for movie-Kyrilla and the general made-up-on-the-spot hokeyness of the movie’s contrived happy ending.

Oh, but up until then it was so good, so charming, so entertaining, so much so that it basically overcame the biggest flaw, which was not so much in the original movie itself but its modern presentation. Lest I sound like too big a shill for my Amazon Prime membership, I have to say that while I appreciate the opportunity to see The Eagle for nothing, I took exception with the music that had been used to score the version in the streaming library. Clearly it was not composed with the movie in mind, since it consisted of long instrumental compositions which started and swelled and stopped according to their own internal logic, rarely synching up with the visuals and sometimes working against them diametrically. It just felt cheap and lazy, which was unfortunate. I probably shouldn’t blame Amazon for it, it probably is more deservingly laid at the feet of whichever distribution company got the rights to reissue the The Eagle and slapped a few cheesy backing tracks on it before licensing it to Amazon, but whoever is at fault, they should be ashamed. Valentino’s legacy deserves a little more respect.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The end is nigh

I am supposed to fill out my electronic time card every day, and I am supposed to track time against specific contract numbers, which of course change over time. Technically I support two different contract efforts for my employer at the same agency, and there's a different system ID not just for each separate effort but for each option year of each respective contract, and so those have rolled over at the end of each fiscal year (September 30).

So this morning I logged in to the company intranet to record my (projected) hours for today and noticed that my contract lines are an alarming shade of purple, which I assume is intended to serve as a reminder indicator for me that I really can't charge any time against those numbers after today, when they will expire. I say "assume" because I haven't really gotten official word from my contracting boss or anything. I know that our six-month bridge contract has been approved at some critical level of authority and I know that official finalization is in the works, but I haven't heard what new numbers I should be adding to my time card app. Nor have I gotten a new Work Authorization Form, a sheet of paper indicating that I'm allowed to work here for a certain duration of time, which I'm legally supposed to have posted somewhere visible in my cubicle.

I'm sure, or at least reasonably confident, that all these things will get sorted out in short order. But I also think it's indicative of the kind of not-quite-sure-where-things-are-at kind of fall we're in for around here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag of First World Problems

Gonna mix up the grab bag approach a little bit this week for some good old-fashioned venting. As of a week ago, starting slightly prior, the following were the top three annoyances in my day-to-day existence:

- internet connectivity at work that was spotty at best
- a dead cable box in the master bedroom at home
- and a dead and decomposing raccoon in our garbage can

OK how about I elaborate on those working from the bottom up, shall I?


So the backstory begins with the little guy's birthday party, which was the first weekend of September. It was a lot of fun and there was much running all around and through and in and out of the house, and none of that really fazed me or my wife or anybody else, unless you start getting down to the four-legged perspective, because it must have seriously spooked our shy cat, who vanished at some point and hasn't been seen since. It would have been all too easy, and clearly highly desirable, for her to bolt through a screen door after a child flung it open at any point in the afternoon.

She has run away before, and she did not come back willingly on her own. She was gone for weeks (months?) last time and ultimately we set out a trap for her, literally a steel cage with a pressure plate and a spring-loaded door. It seemed like a desperation move, but it worked. So this time we went straight to that page of the playbook and set the trap near the edge of the deck, relatively far from the house and close to the undergrowth that has taken over the back of our property. Of course the trap is now older and well-used and perhaps not as reliable as it once was, capable of springing of a bird lands on it or something. Or, hypothetically if a fox or raccoon were to be lured in by the aroma of wet cat food. The problem with raccoons is that their natural woodland camouflage also makes them blend in with our very weathered wooden deck. So one day the trap was closed, and looking out the window at it we thought it had just gone off on its own and I made a mental note to reset it but the days have a way of getting away from me ... and then on closer look, a day or two later, I realized there was an unmoving animal inside. Accidental and unfortunate, and it happened so fast that we have to assume the animal was sick or something (hence wandering out of the undergrowth and onto our deck) which contributed to its demise. But still. This discovery came on a Saturday morning when we were expecting guests, and I grabbed the trap, shoved the whole thing in a trash bag, and put the bag in our garbage can out by the garage, where it had to wait until Tuesday night to go to the curb and Wednesday morning to be taken away. It was gross for a few days there. But it's gone now. Unfortunately we still are missing a cat, but hopefully (thanks to a new trap borrowed from a friend of my wife's) that part of the story will have a happy ending soon enough.


No upstairs cable. No idea why the box suddenly gave up the ghost, but it did, and threw off our nightly routine. (Please see the title of this post; I know this is not any kind of heart-rending tragedy.) For that matter, it threw off a few mornings where we would normally let the kids watch some cartoon on demand in our room while we got other stuff done upstairs and could keep half an eye on them.

Much more bright side to this particular story though, because it was about time for us to renew (read: upgrade) our cable package anyway, and so a whole mess of brand new shiny equipment was shipped to us, rather than a piecemeal replacement. I was all set to swap out the master bedroom cable box first since that would restore the most normalcy, until I realized that there's a very specific order in which everything had to be set up and initialized, and of course the master bedroom cable box, technically secondary to the one with the big tv in the den, was last on the list. But I did finally get everything set up and we are now enjoying the benefits. The biggest one is that we had never figured out how to sync the old cable box remote to the upstairs tv, and were constantly juggling two different remotes to do different things, which is especially irksome when you've just snorgled yourself awake and just want to turn the tv off and roll over and go back to sleep, but can only find the remote that lets you change channels.

We've also now got that whole "start watching in one room, finish in another" feature which I can't seriously see us ever using, and we've finally joined the 21st century and gotten a DVR-capable system. If the blog dies off altogether sometime this winter, just assume we've gotten completely subsumed by our backlog of recorded shows.


And finally, the ridiculous proxy server errors at work. Which is the thing I feel the worst about feeling irked about, because of course the real impact of not being able to surf the web was an inability to distract and/or amuse myself while I was at work waiting for someone to give me something to do. Our internal websites were loading just fine, and also working just fine, meaning there was nothing for me to troubleshoot or otherwise direct my attention to (with the exception of Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, when I had a legit task and made the most of it). There really is no defensible reason why I would need to be able to access public sites on the Web to do my job, so I had no cover for contacting the IT help desk and letting them know they needed to fix the proxy server asap. All I could do was wait, and wait, and spend about as much time checking (and re-checking) to see if the problem had fixed itself as I would normally spend reading articles that grab my attention. I'm not proud of any of this, and ordinarily I'd be likely to forget it ever happened and never mention it on the blog. But given that everything was happening at once, and I was going from the office's interwebs difficulties to home where half the cable was out and there was a miasma of death hanging over the bottom of the driveway ... it was a memorable few days there, or at least memorable enough to vent about here.

But it's in the past now! So on to better things.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Last Exit in the Bronx

It is beyond cliche to document the extent to which talking about sports takes the place of any and all other meaningful interactions between fathers and sons, but nevertheless: I hadn't talked to my Dad in a while, a month or maybe two. Not out of any kind of rancor or point-scoring-via-silence, it's just the way things tend to go between us. I had at least tried to call him around the little guy's birthday, to thank him for the gifts he had sent, but I only got voicemail. At any rate, last night my cell phone rang and it was Dad, asking me if I was watching the game. I was in fact watching the Giants beginning to extend their lead over Washington's unfortunately-named football club, and told my father as much, but he meant was I watching the Yankees game. Clearly he already suspected I might not have been, because he was specifically calling to make sure I had it on right at that moment, late in the bottom of the seventh inning when Derek Jeter was coming to the plate for what would probably be his last at bat ever in Yankee Stadium. A little sliver of history, and my old man just wanted to make sure I didn't miss it. And that was that, I thanked him for the heads up and we both hung up to watch, and it ended up being a kind of weird play where a broken-bat infield dribbler could have been a double play and should have at least gotten the runner heading into second, but the Orioles' shortstop made an extremely rare miscue and threw the ball away, so everyone was safe and two runs scored. Woot.

Dad called back not long after that and then we chatted at length, and about various topics other than New York's pro teams. But I feel compelled to acknowledge that the nudge that got us both back on the phone was the captain of the Yankees closing out his career.

Except of course the O's battled back and tied things up and Jeter had one more at-bat in the bottom of the ninth, which ended up being a game-winning RBI single to right field, and that made for an even nicer capstone to Jeter's career in pinstripes. It's a little bit funny because, ultimately, that was a pretty meaningless game last night. The O's had eliminated the Yanks from their looooooongshot wildcard hopes by beating them in a day game on Rosh Hashanah, so technically this could have been going through the motions of the tail-end of a season already decided. But the NY dugout went crazy and mobbed Jeter after Richardson crossed home plate, and the whole crowd of 48,000 went crazy too, and it felt like the right reaction. It's also funny (I keep using that word for lack of a better one, it's really a couple dozen different things and only maybe half of them are expressible in words in English) that there seems to be near-universal interweb agreement that that was the proper triumphant note for Jeter to go out on. Hell, I even saw that Stephen King, diehard Red Sox fan, was on the Late Show recently and had nothing but nice things to say about Jeter. People will always hate the Yankees and everything the Evil Empire stands for, but #2 seems to be the exception, and it's gratifying to be able to be happy about something without being inundated with online snark and bile from half the world, for once.

For what it's worth, one of my favorite moments of the night was Jeter's post-game interview on the field where he was the most visibly emotional he's ever been in his career, and he thanked the fans (of course) but he also tipped his hat to the O's as AL East champs and wished them luck in the post-season. Heck yeah, bandwagon time!

All in all, between Jeter's walk-off and the Giants' romp in Landover, it wasn't the worst night to be up from 2 til 4 in the morning watching SportsCenter highlights because the bino couldn't stop coughing and would not sleep. Double ear infection, as it turns out. And now all the important sports stuff is done for the weekend so my wife and I can maybe try to catch up on sleep once the antibiotics start kicking in. Good times.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Just smile and take it

Last week, the little guy had School Picture Day, which was a ritual he sadly missed out on last year in kindergarten, since he had the misfortune of timing one of his (exceedingly rare these days) absences from school due to illness on the day in question. This year went off without a hitch, though, which means that for the little guy it was almost exactly like every other day. My wife made no attempt to dress him up or influence his sartorial choices in any way; she and I discussed how each of us could recall favorite elementary school portraits in which we were wearing goofy t-shirts, and there will be plenty of time for fancy-pants sittings when he's in high school or whatever.

Not sure when we're going to get the proofs, or actually if we are going to get proofs, since we had to pre-select (and of course pre-pay for) a set package of pictures, so maybe the whole envelope of glossies will just show up of its own accord in a few weeks. Picture day's biggest impact was clearly upon my wife and myself as we spent a chunk of the evening before going over the various options and upgrades and trying to figure out how to get ripped off the least.

All of the packages seem to come standard with at least two dozen wallet-sized prints, which seems excessive at best. I'm sure there are still a few grandmas, great-aunts, or great-grandmas who have the kinds of picture frames that hold those 2x3 photos, and are happy to swap them out every year (or generation) but nobody has two dozen of those in their family. In the year 2014 we are steadily moving toward smartphones replacing wallets in the sense of centralizing electronic monetary transactions but I'd say we're well past the point where smartphones have completely replaced wallets as photo storage sites. In the course of our reminiscing my wife and I also both remembered swapping wallet photos with our friends in school, but again that was more with the senior portraits and such. I doubt first graders are doing much of that, though I will dutifully report back if I learn otherwise.

So bad enough that in order to get a few nice-sized suitable-for-framing prints we have to incur the cost of 24 useless micro-photos, but then the photography company breaks out every possible aspect of developing the pictures and makes them optional, meaning to get them you have to pay more. This includes things which, call me imperiously entitled, I would have considered somewhat standard, like retouching. And normally I wouldn't care about retouching all that much, except that as of last Friday the little guy had quite a few bright red scabs around his eyes and nose. Ah well, if the photography company doesn't even out his complexion through digital airbrush magic, at least we'll always remember first grade as "the year one of the little guy's little friends jumped off the top of the playground slide and landed on the little guy's face".

The final punchline was the indication on the order form that the photography company offers discounts for parents with multiple children sitting for pictures. Not for two children, oh no, both of a pair of sibs get charged full price for everything. But if you happen to have three or more children, then there's a slight savings on the third kid's pics. My wife and I did the math and realized that by the time the bino is in kindergarten, the little guy will have moved up to the middle school, and we'll never have all three kids going in for picture day at the same school anyway.

As it stands, presumably there will also be a picture day at some point at the daycare center where the little girl and the bino currently get two days a week of socialization, but considering the big annoyance this week is that those two are expected to bring their own water bottle and supply their own water every day AND bring the water bottle home again every night (for ... reasons? because the center doesn't want to take responsibility for washing and storing the bottles, and can't just buy a crate of tiny disposable dixie cups at the warehouse store?) I kinda don't want to think about the pains that said picture day will bring. All in due time, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll get extremely hungry (Tampopo)

It’s 1001 Movies Blog Club time, once again! And it would be particularly apt, I feel, to take an opportunity at the outset here to really address the upside of belonging to the Club and engaging in a project like working through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. At a minimum, allowing the master list from the book and/or the weekly selections of the Club to dictate which new-to-me movies I watch keeps me from getting into too much of a rut, chasing after new releases and/or geeky cult-classics to the exclusion of all else. And sometimes, that amounts to little more than the cinephilic equivalent of eating my broccoli, where getting out of the rut had better be a worthwhile end in and of itself because the films from outside my comfort zone are ones with virtues which I can appreciate abstractly, but which don’t really do anything for me on a gut level.

And then again, sometimes I find myself watching a movie I’ve never heard of, a movie that I never would have stumbled into watching on my own, and not only is it fairly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and clearly an appreciation-enriching experience, but it’s exhilarating to watch and I find myself grateful for the chance to be so entertained. Case in point: Juzo Itami’s Tampopo.

The film, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, refers to itself as the first ramen western, intending to evoke comparisons with the old spaghetti westerns, but the joke has a lot of depth to it (much like the soup in a good bowl of noodles). Spaghetti westerns have nothing to do with spaghetti in their subject matter; they’re stories of cowboys in the American old west, which happened to be produced in Italy, where spaghetti is something of a national dish. Tampopo, on the other hand, has a few fleeting elements evocative of westerns, but dabbles in at least a dozen other genres as well. And, in addition to being the national-dish equivalent of spaghetti for Japan, ramen actually does constitute a major plot element for the film, or part of it, at any rate.

Ramen recurs as a motif throughout the movie, but the real subject matter is food and eating and drinking of all kinds. The film cleverly begins with a shot of a movie theater audience, and the entrance of a character whose name we never learn (even in IMDB he’s just “the man in the white suit”) but who is clearly some kind of gangster, along with his girlfriend and three enforcers. The couple takes two seats in the front row and the enforcers proceed to set up a table in front of them and spread out a gourmet meal. Before long the man in the white suit is standing up and breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us, and proceeds from there to threaten one of his fellow patrons in the theater for crinkling his bag of chips too loudly.

That scene connects to the next, in which two long-distance truckers are driving in the rain, one behind the steering wheel and one reading aloud from a novel about a young man learning the ultimate art of ramen appreciation from an old sensei. The connection is that the two truckers are in the movie the man in the white suit came to see. Scenes from the novel about the ramen-eating sensei are intercut as well, until the truckers stop at a roadside noodle restaurant, where the proprietor is a young widow who has a bullied son and is bullied herself by her regular customers. The elder of the two truckers, Goro, ends up in a lopsided fistfight with the regulars, and the widow, Tampopo, nurses him back to health. She feeds him, asks him his honest opinion of her ramen, and he explains to her everything wrong with it, which underscores the fact that her livelihood is not going well. She asks him to teach her to make ramen better, and he agrees, which leads to some great training montages which are both effective in advancing the plot and wonderful mini-parodies of similar scenes in martial arts movies.

The film jumps around in its perspective, at times abandoning Goro and Tampopo to drop in on old businessmen ordering lunch at a French restaurant, then floating elsewhere in the restaurant to observe young Japanese women hoping to land jobs that will allow them to travel to the west, and therefore taking etiquette classes that go to great pains to explain that the loud slurping of noodles common in Japan is considered very gauche elsewhere. I kept waiting to see how the businessmen obsessed with consomme and the anti-slurping etiquette instructor would connect back to Tampopo’s storyline, but it turns out they never do. They are simply amusing digressions. As the movie continues, the digressions pile up, some of them inherently comedic and others less so, but all of them about the ways that people relate to food. There’s an erotic sequence involving hotel room service, featuring the man in the white suit and his girlfriend, which to my mind works far better than the similar scene in 9 ½ Weeks. There’s also an entire tragedy that plays out in less than five minutes about a terminally ill mother who cooks one last humble but satisfying meal for her husband and children before dropping dead at the dinner table.

But the film returns again and again to Tampopo, as Goro assembles a dream team of collaborators for her: a hobo king who knows all there is to know about soup, a chauffeur with a natural talent for noodles, and even the leader of the surly old regulars, who turns out to be a contractor and who completely renovates the noodle shop. With all the right ingredients and Goro’s training in cooking and serving techniques as well as customer psychology, Tampopo is primed to triumph. And she does, but in a very anticlimactic way. Her shop has a grand reopening, the ramen is good, the new customers are happy, and Goro drives off into the sunset. There is no third-act showdown at high noon, no tense standoff over boiling pots or steaming bowls. There’s simply a sense that from here on out, things might be a little better and brighter for Tampopo and her son.

Which is probably a fitting end for what’s rightfully been called Itami’s paean to cuisine. Food is so basic and so universal and yet so all-encompassing of infinite variety that it really doesn’t need to be pivotal in a battle between white hats and black. It’s always possible to elevate cooking, in so many different ways, and when that happens it is its own reward. You could enjoy the meal of a lifetime one magical night, and savor the memory the rest of your days, but in the morning your body is going to need to be fed again, and again, and again. Life goes on. Tampopo, the film, captures that essence, through a wide-array of mostly-charming vignettes around one central tale, showing almost as many emotional flavors of existence as there are spices in a gourmet kitchen.

One last note about the ways in which foods - even simple ramen noodles - influence life on far more levels than mere sustenance: when my wife and I started dating, I was living a pretty prototypical bachelor’s existence in a small townhouse with a cramped galley kitchen. I worked late and ate out a lot and didn’t keep a ton of food on hand. But one weekend afternoon I found myself with this amazing girl in my house and the great desire to feed her. I had some instant ramen, asked her if she’d like some, and she gratefully accepted the offer. I started boiling the water and opening the ramen package and it suddenly occurred to me that I had better ask her how she preferred her ramen. If I were making it for myself, I would use just enough water to submerge the noodles, and then drain off most of the water and fix a bowl of damp noodles dredged in chicken-flavored MSG and hardly any broth. I was in fact in autopilot mode and ready to do just that, but I realized just in time that my way is neither the traditional preparation nor necessarily anyone else’s preference. As it turned out, my houseguest liked to make her ramen noodles the exact same way I did. There really was never any shortage of signs in those early dating days that my new girlfriend was bound to end up as my lawfully wedded wife, but the “how do you like your ramen” story is one that we often bring up to one another as a neat little encapsulation. When two palates like to eat from the same pot, that’s a good match.

A riddle

What has two thumbs, a birthday one week from today, and an admittedly unseemly amount of self-regard?


I feel fairly justified going into birthday mode at this point since the big celebration for this year has already gone down, at the ballgame organized by my beautiful and amazing wife, where everyone had a great time and I was given yet another unneeded but welcome reminder of how lucky I am, maritally speaking. Still, I'm trying not to milk the birthday thing too hard, redecorating the blog notwithstanding. The new banner up top is a reflection of aforementioned egomania (if you know me IRL, you'll get the joke; if not, don't even worry about it) but it is temporary, scheduled for the final countdown to turning 40 and due to come down again not long after the big day. The regular banner will likely return before too long, but not before November 1st or so. For most of October there will be yet another banner above the old blog. As far as what that will look like and what it all means, well, I suppose you'll just have to keep coming back and see for yourself.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

100 Books That Stayed With Most Of Us

So hey, how about that meme that was going around Facebook recently (a couple-few weeks ago) on the 10 books that have stayed with you? (Side question: is Tuesday here at the blog morphing from Wildcard Day to Social Media Day? Maybe!) You may or may not have seen that some researchers crunched the numbers and generated a Top-100 list from the aggregate data. If you are a regular reader round here, you may have a slightly better chance of being aware that I am fascinated with lists and checking off my own experiences against them. So, here's the list of 100 most-cited books, with the one's I've read bolded:

1 Harry Potter series, JK Rowling (named in 21.08 per cent of lists)
2 To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (14.48%)
3 The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien (13.86%)
4 The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (7.48%)
5 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (7.28%)
6 The Holy Bible (named in 7.21% of lists)
7 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (5.97%)
8 The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins (5.82%)
9 The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (5.7%)
10 The Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis (5.63%)
11 The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald (5.61%)
12 1984, George Orwell (5.37%)
13 Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (5.26%)
14 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (5.23%)
15 The Stand, Stephen King (5.11%)
16 Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (4.95%)

17 A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle (4.38%)
18 The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (4.27%)
19 The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis (4.05%)
20 The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (4.01%)
21 Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery (the percentages drop off pretty fast after the top 20)
22 The Giver, Lois Lowry
23 The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
24 Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
25 The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
26 Lord of the Flies, William Golding
27 The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
28 The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
29 Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
30 Hamlet, William Shakespeare
31 The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
32 Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
33 Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
34 Animal Farm, George Orwell
35 The Book of Mormon
36 The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank
37 Dune, Frank Herbert
38 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
39 The Autobiography of Malcolm X
40 Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
41 The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
42 The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
43 On the Road, Jack Kerouac
44 Lamb, Christopher Moore

45 Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
46 A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
47 Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
48 The Help, Kathryn Stockett
49 The Outsiders, SE Hinton
50 American Gods, Neil Gaiman
51 Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
52 Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
53 The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
54 Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
55 The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
56 Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
57 The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
58 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
59 A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
60 Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
61 Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
62 Night, Elie Wiesel
63 The Dark Tower Series, Stephen King
64 Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
65 The Color Purple, Alice Walker
66 A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
67 The Art of War, Sun Tzu
68 Catch 22, Joseph Heller
69 The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
70 The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
71 The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
72 Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
73 Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom
74 The Road, Cormac McCarthy
75 Watership Down, Richard Adams
76 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
77 Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
78 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
79 A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin
80 Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
81 Charlotte's Web, EB White
82 The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
83 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

84 Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
85 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
86 The Shack, William P Young
87 Watchmen, Alan Moore
88 Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
89 The Odyssey, Homer
90 The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
91 The Stranger, Albert Camus
92 Call of the Wild, Jack London
93 The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
94 Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
95 East of Eden, John Steinbeck
96 Matilda, Roald Dahl
97 The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
98 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
99 Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez
100 Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

And, of course, now some thoughts:

So I've read 16 of the top 20, and 56 of the top 100. It's nice to know that despite the many gaps and shortcomings in my own lifetime exposure to the well-enshrined canonical classics, I still do pretty well on the populist side of things.

In the same vein, my personal list had four of the top 100 books on it (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fahrenheit 451, Good Omens and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) which strikes me as about the right percentage of overlap, since I was going for the personal (if not downright idiosyncratic) and not just what I assumed everyone else would think were the right, respectable choices.

I find it interesting that the Stephen King works that got name-checked in the top 100 were The Stand and The Dark Tower. I actually know a fair number of people who cherish The Stand as their favorite book, full stop. And both that novel and the Dark Tower epic are huge sweeping adventures with not inconsiderable philosphical considerations about good and evil and man's place in the universe and whatnot, so I'm certainly not slamming anyone who listed them. If anything, I'm a little surprised that the Dark Tower made the cut, not because I disliked it at all (obviously) but because I have heard so many other folks, even King fans, who gave up on it and thought it was disappointing for one reason or another. Of course I had a Stephen King book on my personal list, too: Pet Sematary. That's not necessarily my favorite King book or the one I consider his best, but I felt it was the foremost example of the book of his that has really stayed with me, in the sense that it has haunted me since I read it over twenty years ago. It's his scariest book, in my subjective opinion, because it gets at some of the things I really and truly fear the most.

Really it just kind of warms my heart to have participated in a for-the-heck-of-it mass expression of pure bibliophilia. And it also, I gotta be honest, restores my faith in humanity a little bit that Twilight didn't make the top 100 list. There may be hope for western civilization yet.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Morale morass

Whenever I go a stretch of time without blogging much, I always feel as though an explanation is owed, but I’m not really sure from whence that feeling arises. Unless I am vastly underestimating the number of lurkers out there who read the blog unbeknownst to me, there’s a very small handful of people who visit here regularly, and they all know me IRL, so they’re already familiar with whatever occurrences distract me in any given span. And even making allowances for curious (hopefully benevolent) cyber-strangers who wonder what’s up with the silent treatment, sometimes the reasons just aren’t interesting enough to constitute the subject of a decent post. It is possible for life to be demanding in a fairly unremarkable way, and I am living proof.

I suppose part of the impulse is my ever-present desire to reassure people, up to and including anyone who might just happen to be glancing in my direction, that I’m fine and everything’s fine and it’s all under control. Has the bino been having a bit of trouble sleeping lately, after picking up bugs at his new daycare that never really progressed to the point of being aggressively treatable, inevitably resulting in out-of-sorts parents who are both sleep-deprived and forced to contend with a cranky toddler during waking hours? Yes, there’s been a bit of that, but that’s par for the course around our house, it seems. (And, knock wood, it’s gotten better the past few days.) Has a combination of random flying rocks on the highway and random ladders falling off garage walls resulted in my wife’s car needing a new windshiield (in the former case) and replacement sideview mirror (in the latter)? Yup, but by now the sideview’s already been replaced and the windshield is coming soon. Were we busy trying to get our house in order, everything from the long list of summer exterior projects that I never quite got on top of to the Lego collection that has grown exponentially as of the little guy’s birthday party earlier this month and which now requires its own storage system, so that we could host yet another get-together under our roof, which is something we simultaneously genuinely love and kinda sorta dread? Yep. We did all that, though, like we always do, and the reason we always do is because it’s always worth it, and we had a lovely visit from my wife’s cousin’s family on Saturday morning, and then in the afternoon we went up to Baltimore and embarked on an evening of grand amusement (the O’s won, we ate ballpark food and drank beer and stayed up very late and were quite pampered by our B&B accommodations for about nine hours before heading home on Sunday morning).

To be fair and honest, though, all of the above is more or less within the sphere of my home life, and in case I haven’t made it abundantly clear lately, I do tend to compose my blog posts almost exclusively in the office during business hours. So however swamped I may be with deck repairs or toy sorting or middle-of-the-night tantrums or filing car insurance claims &c. &c. &c., technically none of that could ever make me too busy to blog (unless I took a personal day off from work in order to hold a torch to a few neck stumps on the housework hydra, which is exactly what happened last Tuesday, but granted that’s only one day). And yet wherever or however the hours of my day may be allocated, my moods certainly can carry over from domicile to day job, and leave me a little too sapped to scrape together a post.

Not to mention (since it is Monday, and I might as well stick with the formula as I attempt to get this week on track) that work itself has not been a bastion of … anything, really, these past few weeks. The USG has at least finally gotten around to releasing the RFP that we will need to submit a proposal bid for, and all proposals are due October 15th, so that is in the works. I believe they’re supposed to review all proposals and make a decision within 30 days, so November 14th or so, but given how every other deadline in this process has been slippery at best, I take that as more of a suggestion for where to center a window of reasonable expectation.

The unmarked clock is ticking!

I have tried not to eavesdrop too much on my co-workers as they talk about the recompete process, but I can’t help but hear a bit of it, and none of it has been good. People are less confident or optimistic or whathaveyou about this go-round than they have been in the past. Not that that means anything, or affects the outcome in the slightest, but it’s just not the most awesome vibe to be around.

Meanwhile, our six-month bridge contract is about to start in a week or so, and last week I spent a fair amount of time getting my work-related paraphernalia sorted out: a new access card for the computer network, a new building pass badge, because as soon as the old contract is up my old tokens and totems would be invalid, and the new contract requires new ones, new ones which will only at most be good for six more months, and then they’ll have to be replaced yet again because the new, real, multi-year contract will require magic slabs of plastic specifically associated with it. And that’s the best-case scenario, of course, because it’s possible that in six months (or less) I might find myself looking for a new gig rather than looking for signatures on badge paperwork, if we don’t win the recompete.

So all of the above is a bit demoralizing, I admit, but at the same time it is what it is. I got good and grumpy about it last week but it’s time to move on. It’s just about my favorite time of the year and I’m not going to let a silly thing like my job drag me down. Time to get back into the groove.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Saturday But Not A Grab Bag

Later today my wife and I will hit the road for Charm City, in order to take in the sights and sounds and savory goodies on offer at a ballgame between the 2014 AL East Champion Orioles of Baltimore and the deservedly basement-dwelling Red Stockings of Boston. The excursion is our official celebratory event for my 40th birthday, and a half dozen or so of our friends will be joining us, which promises to be a very good time. I'm stoked, and that stokedness is part of the reason why I'm posting about baseball even after I said I wouldn't until October. At least I made it three and a half weeks before cracking.

The other reason for going back on my word is because, despite my assertions and predictions to the contrary, plenty has happened since that last post which I feel is worth a modicum of commentary. So here it comes!

First, let's not skip too hastily over the O's clinching the pennant this past week. My wife and I were able to stay up and watch the decisive game until the final out, and that was fun. Even the possibility of jinxing the playoffs by exulting in the moment was not enough to prevent my wife from doing her own mini-exult, and more power to her. At one point the week prior, when the O's were seriously whupping the Yankees three games out of four, I turned to my wife and said very seriously, "The Birds had better win the World Series." So it's nice that, so far, they are doing what they need to do to make that happen, one step at a time.

And to give her all due credit, my wife has been extremely gracious in victory. Since, as above, I've already started making noise about bandwagoning for Baltimore all the way through the Fall Classic, she in turn has been a positive exemplar of optimism for the Yankees, reminding me that the season's not over yet and NY has not technically been mathematically eliminated from the wild card. This is how marriage works, I reckon; sometimes it's fun to be competitive with one another, but it's equally rewarding and probably more important to be able to support and be happy for one another.

Anyway, to the wild card analysis: when last I was paying close attention, the Angels and A's were neck and neck to be tops of the AL West, and surely whichever one fell just short would be the home field team in the one-game wild card play-in. Seattle was sitting in the other wild card spot, with the Tigers breathing down their necks, and the Yankees a few games back (with the Indians breathing down their necks). Since then, the Angels have absolutely run away with their division, leaving the A's to scramble for their consolation prize. Oakland actually has the second-best wild card record, behind Kansas City, since the Royals managed to relinquish their Central lead to the Tigers. That puts Seattle on the outside looking in, albeit just barely, with the Indians a few games behind them, Cleveland having leapfrogged over the Yankees along the way. The Yankees are in worse position now than they were in late August, but anything is possible.

(In fact, I am composing this post on Friday, autoscheduling it to go up on Saturday morning, and by the time you read this each team could have played one or posisbly even two games, any one of which could alter some or all of what I've just written to varying extents. Gotta love the relentless 162-game season.)

Unfortunately, the Yankees don't really control their own destiny from here on out. They play the Blue Jays this weekend, and they need to win most if not every game from here on out, but those wins don't translate automatically into losses of teams ahead of them and corollary gap-closings. Nor would wins over the Orioles the series after that, or the Red Sox after that. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time the 2014 schedule was drawn up to have the final 26 games, all of September (except one stand against the Royals) match the Yankees against other AL East teams, but as it turns out the fate of the Bombers is much more intimately connected with the respective records of various teams from states that I-95 doesn't even pass through.

The good news is the Royals and Tigers are about to play each other and either they'll both ding each other or one team will sweep the other; it's impossible for the Yankees, Tigers and Royals to all win simultaneously and leave the standings unchanged. Unfortunately that still leaves the roadblocks of Cleveland and Seattle and Oakland in the Yankees' path, and those teams are next matched up against Minnesota, Houston and Philly, respectively. None of those opponent teams are in wild card contention, because none of them are very good this year, so again, the chances of what the Yankees desperately need right now - a collapse by those ahead of them combined with a winning streak of their own - are remote at best on both sides of the coin.

And now that I've gotten all of that out of my system, I will do my best to simply kick back in my seat the stadium this evening and enjoy my beer(s) and hot dog(s) and not watch the scoreboard in the outfield tracking other games. At least not too obsessively. Unless things get really crazy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Deliberate discomfort

So it’s been about four months since I signed up for Facebook and I am still kind of fascinated by the way the whole thing functions. I don’t post updates all that often, mostly when I get tagged on a meme or when I think I have something reasonably brief particularly compelling to sound off about. Not just compelling to me, mind you, but to at least some segment of my Friends list, which strikes me as the whole point. If I want to go on and on for hundreds or thousands of words that happens to be on my mind, with zero regard to whether anyone else wants to hear about it, clearly that’s what this blog is for. And if I’m honest, I have more of those kinds of thoughts on a regular basis than I do pithy, Like-worthy inspirations.

So I’m more of a content-consumer on Facebook than a content-producer. And by and large, the content that I’m consuming there is the same kind of info I consume across the interwebs in general: mainly pop culture stuff, specifically my geeky little wheelhouses. There are people who appear in my feed linking to stuff I never would have stumbled across on my own, and I appreciate that a lot. There are also people who take the time to compose status updates that say things like “I’ve been catching up on Popular TV Show lately. I’m enjoying it.” … which … I mean … ok? This doesn’t bug me, per se. I can skip right over say-nothing fluff posts like that without feeling like a time-wasting crime has been perpetrated upon me. But every once in a while my brain tries to wrap itself around the why’s and wherefore’s of a person taking the time to type something like that, and has yet to succeed at that.

There are a few people in my feed who I’m pretty sure, if I were to systematically track and classify their frequent posts, would prove to spend 90% of their Facebook time complaining about stuff. Mostly stupid pop culture stuff, which, again, no skin off my nose, but all the same doesn’t strike me as the best use of someone’s time and energy and connectivity.

And of course there are some people who have particular ideological axes to grind and do so relentlessly. Everybody has their hobby horses, I know, but of course the extra layer of weirdness with Facebook (at least in my experience) is when I’ve initiated or accepted a friend request with someone I knew in high school and haven’t talked to in decades, and now the only image I have of this person as an adult is that they are obsessed with a handful of positions from some particular socio-political agenda. And out of context like that, it often leaves me scratching my head. Like the guy who was in marching band with me back when we were kids, who is now some flavor of libertarian anarchist. Eerily, he was posting daily links to stories about police corruption and police misconduct for a long while (maybe for years, definitely months that I saw) before the Ferguson MO story blew up. Which might have made me think that, you know, maybe this guy was on to something, except that his second-favorite topic is men’s rights and spewing bile at the concept (or really his straw-man misconception) of feminism, which fundamentally discredits him in my eyes. So if he's trying to change hearts and minds, he's shooting himself in the foot (though I suspect that's not what he's about, as I'll get back to below).

And yet I haven’t unfollowed him, or anyone else, really. Actually I did unfollow one person within the first couple weeks I was on Facebook, because I found his ultra-conservative posts annoying. I had waited until multiple posts got under my skin, assuming a three-strikes policy was fair. But shortly after that I realized that a lot of people were probably going to have three strikes sooner or later, so I eased off the trigger. And eventually I re-followed my struck-out friend, too. Because I came to the realization, basically, that I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I do understand, and have no major issue with, people being very selective about whom they actively follow on Facebook. There’s a manner dance of politeness going on with accepting friend requests and a ton of attendant drama with unfriending people, and unfollowing is a much more benign way of handling things. If anyone wants to use Facebook to keep in touch with certain people and has no desire to stoke their own rage by having philosophies they vehemently disagree with shoved down their throat, but also wants to spare themselves confrontations galore, by all means, use the unfollow function at will. I’m not trying to outline a code of behavior that I insist everyone else should adopt, I am purely talking about myself and my personal approach here.

What seems pretty clear is that Facebook, like many other modern media outlets, is something of an echo chamber, an online tool for preaching to the choir. People post things that some people find outrageous but other people find confirming what they already believe, and they Like those things and affirm the person who posted it, and so one side of any given debate feels a warm and fuzzy sense of righteous certainty and the other side feels a galvanizing sense of righteous indignation, and everyone digs in a little deeper in their us-versus-them mentality. And that does bother me, I admit it. I learned a long time ago that nobody ever has their mind changed by something they read online, not a well-researched and well-constructed thinkpiece and certainly not a one-liner in the comments section. That’s a writer’s dream, and I was certainly susceptible to it at one point, but I didn’t log on yesterday. So I strive not to get drawn into “debates” on the web, because that way lies only madness. But what I wish, what the change is that I want to see in the world and therefore should set myself to being, is that people would let go of their bunker mentalities and do more listening and less sharpening their rebuttals and counterattacks.

I’m aware that as time is going by the battle lines are hardening. People gravitate towards others who think like they do and believe what they believe, and that influences where people live or go to school or go to work or how they spend their time in general. It’s a self-sustaining vicious cycle where meaningful change simply isn’t possible, since nothing that might come from within can get any kind of support from without, where everything’s been purposefully arranged to maintain the way things have always been. If anything, the internet has really exacerbated this condition, because if a person happens to find him/herself in circumstances where most of the people around them represent differing viewpoints, it’s all too easy to go online and find virtual niche communities where everyone agrees and nothing has to be challenged at all.

It’s a two-edged sword, of course, and I’m not saying that like-attracting-like is some kind of fatal flaw that needs to be eradicated. But when enjoying the company of those with common interests morphs into putting on blinders and deluding yourself that everyone (you can still see ) agrees with you so everything must be fine, that’s problematic at best, and self-destructively dangerous at worst.

And I’m not saying that I have this all figured out, to the point where I’m totally zen about the whole kaleidoscopic wonder-show that is human experience up and down every conceivable continuum. I have opinions which come down on one side of the spectrum or the other, and I like it when other people bolster those opinions with their agreement, and I bristle when people disagree and get downright rankled when people express their differing opinions in ways that imply not just a different take but the conviction that they are Right and I am Wrong. But, to me, bristling and being rankled are supposed to be part of being alive and engaged with the world. I could wall myself off from all things disruptive to my peace of mind, but I don’t want to. It’s not always easy, but I’d rather stay open to new things. Every once in a while one of those things that gets my hackles up at first might actually push me toward deeper understanding and quite possibly, miracle of miracles, change my mind about something in the long run. (It’s been known to happen.) I can’t give up on that potential. Maybe more to the point, I don’t want other people to eliminate their chances of meeting me in the middle, either. So for starters, I have to be willing to take my own advice.

So I’ve abandoned any pretense of thinking all or even most of the world agrees with me on all the important stuff. Barring the most egregiously offensive kind of hatefulness and legitimate harm, I’ll keep an eye on everything that everyone puts out there, and expand my awareness of how wide-ranging human opinions can be (and I’ll even try to remind myself that the portion of global population that is online and speaks English is not 100%) I still won’t gird myself for flame-wars or other forms of anonymous interweb proselytizing, but when I meet a kindred spirit face to face who is genuinely interested in civilized discussion and exchange of viewpoints, I’ll be as prepared as I can be, and not inhibited my atrophied mental faculties. I don’t know if any of all that will necessarily change the world, but it still strikes me as worth doing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I don't know what I was thinking last night

The upside to having a child's birthday party on a Sunday afternoon is that it gives you all day Saturday and part of Sunday to run around assembling the various food and beverage and decoration and party favor and giftwrap components, not to mention clean the house top to bottom, before showtime.

The downside is that by the time the party is over, and the guests have left, and the majority of the disposable debris has been shoveled into the garbage, and the kids who live in your house have been put to bed, you find yourself with just barely enough energy to sit on the couch in front of the tv eating cheez curls directly out of the economy-size bag, and in nine and a half hours you have to get up and get ready for work.

Fortunately there's not much going on at work lately. And the party was fun, across the board but especially for the birthday boy himself, so it was worth it. I shall endeavor to have my head more in the blogging game tomorrow.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Between Celebrations

The official birthday party for the little guy isn't until tomorrow, but I had to offer up a couple of details from the celebration, such as it was, on his actual date of birth this past Thursday. Plus a few other random tidbits. Haven't done a grab bag in a while but here we go!


I'm usually actively pleased by the speed with which Amazon ships me things via UPS. As often as not it seems like things arrive before the guaranteed-by date, and even when they only show up on time as opposed to early, the boxes are waiting for me on the front steps when I get home from work. Of course, if there were ever going to be an outlier data point that pushed things to the limit, it would have to involve a child's birthday presents, wouldn't it? To be fair, a lot of this was on me: it took a while to decide exactly how crazy we were going to go trying to tick boxes on the little guy's birthday wishlist (ultimate answer: kinda-but-not-completely crazy) and then I think I pulled the trigger on Saturday, but of course both Sunday and Monday were days when nothing moved on the order thanks to the Labor Day holiday. Still, the items were guaranteed by September 4th (no later than 8 p.m.), which was good enough. Except that this was the one time when, for whatever reason, the UPS route didn't swing through our neighborhood in the early afternoon. The goods did not, in fact, arrive until 6:45 p.m.

When I picked the little guy up from daycare on Thursday he said the very first thing he wanted to do when he got home was open his birthday present (singular), just like Mom had said he could that morning. Having not been home yet myself, I assured him that was no problem, only to be somewhat dismayed by the barren stoop visible as we pulled into the driveway. To the little guy's immense credit, he took this turn of events in stride, with minor disappointment but nothing close to a total meltdown. He was further mollified by his special pancake dinner and the bonus surprise of chocolate ice cream for dessert. (When the gifts didn't show up a day early as I had been hoping, I made a late run to 7-11 for ice cream just to make sure I had some cover - whew.)

Anyway, it was nerve-wracking stalling for time in the six o'clock hour after dinner in the hopes that the little guy could open his present and have time to play with and still get to bed at a reasonable time; the closer it got to 8 p.m. with no delivery, the less feasible all that would be. But it all worked out in the end. Still, I really must remember to factor in the holiday gaps in shipping calendars in the future.


Relatedly, one of the first things the little guy has acquired in first grade is a notebook pre-printed with a two-page spread for every week of the school year, including spaces for nightly homework assignments and weekly spelling lists and so on. At the front of the notebook are various reference tables and such, and there's also a page each child can personalize with their name and age and interests and whatnot. There is of course the requisite "When I grow up I want to be a ______" space, and as I was looking through the notebook I asked the little guy what he wanted to put there. In the past few years he has envisioned himself as everything from an astronaut to a race car driver, but this week his answer was "Lego store owner." Obviously.

But in what I thought was a highly amusing sign of his growing maturity and awareness of the working of the real world, he turned to his sister and elaborated to her. "If I had a Lego store, it would be the best job ... and I would take the money that I made working there, and I would use it ... to buy myself Legos!" And he laughed at himself and the circularity of it, but I was impressed that he understood that owning a store doesn't mean you get everything in it for free.


Finally, to prove that I am still aware of things that have nothing to do with children's birthdays and/or highly sophisticated interlocking brick systems, it's football season and the Pick'em Pool has begun! After I registered my picks for the week I went to the page that shows everyone else's. Of course, before the games start, it doesn't really show the picks (that would give an unfair bet-hedging advantage to people who picked closer to the deadline) but it does show whether or not someone has made them at all. I was hoping to see what the odds were of at least getting a leg up on people who had forgotten to make picks for week 1's Thursday kick off. And I was pleased to see that my dear old 89-year-old grandma had her picks already locked and loaded. She picked the Seahawks in the opener, as it turned out, so she's off to a red-hot start once again! I will post updates on her dominance as appropriate throughout the season.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Oh so very much to say about what haps have been happing in the youth demographic of my household. First and foremost, today is the little guy’s 6th birthday. I left for work before he awoke this morning, but tonight he will get a special dinner of his choosing (pancakes and bacon) as well as one birthday present. He will probably be given the present before dinner so as to maximize the amount of time he can play with it before being forced into bed (tomorrow is a school day as well) which will then put him in the difficult position of having to choose between favorite new toy and favorite food shortly thereafter. Ha, just kidding, he will not be given a choice, dinner isn’t really optional in our house, not even on your birthday.

This coming Sunday we will have a proper birthday party for the little guy, with some of his friends, and his godparents, and the local grandparents and aunt and uncle. There will be hot dogs and ice cream cake and many, many things Lego (including the remainder of his presents from his mother and me). Should be good times. I’m looking forward to it at any rate.

As mentioned on Tuesday, the little guy went back to school this week, embarking on the grand adventure of first grade. My wife took him BTS shopping over Labor Day weekend for both clothes and school supplies, which was moderately successful. The little guy was due for a new lunchbox and new backpack as well, and I was expecting him to of course gravitate towards the Lego Movie licensed merch, but the pickings were slim (whether because we were late into the fray or because the Lego people are being really selective about how much branded crap they put out there, I’m not entirely sure). So his new lunchbox is plain blue, and his new backpack is Batman-themed (though, to be fair, it’s the black-and-yellow Burton-era Batman, much like the Batman in the Lego Movie, which I have no doubt was the appeal) and he only got one new Lego t-shirt with the rest of his wardrobe upgrades all fairly simple non-graphic duds. He seemed happy overall, so all’s well.

The backpack is actually fairly hilarious because it’s just black with the Bat symbol on it, near the top. Batman of course, like any classic-patterned superhero, wears his symbol on his chest, so the backpack is something like a close-up of his torso. Something very like it, in fact, seeing as how the front pocket is actually molded to look like pecs and abs, which I admit I find hysterical. (Torso pun!) Honestly, it’s just as well that the backpack itself has extra muscles built in, because man did that kid have a lot of crap to carry to school on the first day. Apparently, school systems (or ours, anyway) are so strapped for cash now that they don’t budget for the teachers’ supplies, and instead each student contributes not only their own pencils and composition books and gluesticks but also packages of dry erase markers and boxes of tissues and sundries like that. And honestly, I’m fine with that. Given the choices of A) a classroom that lacks various necessities B) higher taxes or C) getting the parents of the kids to all chip in, the latter option seems reasonable enough. (A is just unacceptable, and B and C might seem like a wash but man, I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing my friends who don’t have kids bitching about their tax money going toward schools they don’t use, which of course misses several points about how society works as a whole in the long run, but never mind, if me springing for hand sanitizer and pocket folders shuts them up, I’m on board.) Where was I? Right, the backpack, which actually was pretty full on Tuesday and yet still didn’t contain absolutely every item we had been instructed to provide. We might have been able to jam a few more things in, but then again our little guy would probably have barely been able to move with any more weight on his shoulders, so we decided it would be just as well to send multiple shipments to school over the course of the first week.

As you may have gleaned from some of my posts over the past year, kindergarten was not as easy for the little guy as we might have hoped it would be. There’s no question he’s a smart boy, he likes reading, loves science, prides himself on knowledge and will recite facts at the drop of a hat. He even has an affinity for rule-following that could (theoretically) be beneficial for a model student. But he lacks focus and discipline, and has almost no patience for practicing things, whether it’s something new and challenging or something so old hat that it’s boring. So, for example, writing the numeral 5 over and over and over again to fill up a sheet of wide ruled paper was not his idea of time well spent, and he would in response just zone out and not do the busywork at all. Understandable and easily sympathized with, but at the end of the day both his teachers and his parents are pretty much in agreement that he has to do the same work as all the other kids whether he likes it or not. But we spent most of the last school year not sure if we should be drilling into his head more strongly the idea of buckling down and doing the work, or if we should back off and let nature take its course, since he was barely five and all. We ended up with a kind of wavering bit-of-both approach that certainly didn’t feel like it accomplished anything.

It was frustrating for all of us, to say the least, but there’s reason for optimism now: the little guy is a year older and still isn’t the perfect picture of composure and self-control, but he’s getting there. My wife and I are prepared to get on top of the matter and stay on top of it from the outset, as opposed to feeling blindsided by it when it first came to our attention. And a couple of days into first grade, the little guy is at least reporting that he’s having fun and enjoying school, not wailing that he wished it were still summer vacation or begging us to let him stay home or anything remotely so dire. I’m sure things are going to ramp up quickly in the next few weeks in terms of in-school assignments and homework and whatnot, and it’s when the rubber meets the road that we’ll really see what’s what. But so far, so encouraging.

Meanwhile, the little girl and the bino have both started daycare two days a week, and that’s going well, too. We’ve started them at a center that’s new to us, because of the after-school busing options, or lack thereof, in the area. Let me back up. Last time our kids were in any kind of center was right around the time the bino was born, so almost a year and a half ago. The little guy was finishing his second year of Montessori (which was distressingly repetitive of the first year material, so that was a case of rapidly diminishing returns) and the little girl was not quite two years old and doing her thing in the free-form older toddler/pre-pre-school room. My wife went on maternity leave and everyone was at home for the summer, and when my wife went back to work we decided to give an in-home sitter a try for a while. There were a couple of justifications for this. First, if I’m remembering correctly, the day-care center would pro-rate for four days a week as opposed to five, or three days a week, but not two. And two was all we needed with my wife’s new-at-the-time (and still current) job. Day care center rates for newborn infants are also extremely expensive (and rightly so) and even with the multiple-kid discount we were looking at a steep monthly outlay. And finally, again if I remember correctly, the day care center where we had been did not have a before/afterschool program that would bus the little guy to and from kindergarten, which was something we couldn’t do without.

Hence, the in-home sitter, who would charge a flat hourly rate for watching all three of our kids, mostly the two little ones while the big brother was at school. She would also be able to walk the little ones up to the bus stop in the afternoon and meet the little guy and walk all of them back home to await my return home from work. All in all, this worked out pretty well for a year. I didn’t have to fight traffic to, from, and at the day care center after work, and I appreciated that. The bino now holds the cross-sibling record for least number of colds (a handful) and ear infections (zero!) in the first year of life. Other benefits I’m sure I’m forgetting!

But parts of it wore thin, too. The sitter had a son in between the little guy and little girl’s ages, and would bring him along once a week. My wife and I were asked beforehand if this would be ok and we said of course. But not long after we hired the sitter, she initiated divorce proceedings with her husband. I can only imagine what her son’s homelife was like from that point on, but it can’t have been pleasant, and he acted out a lot in ways that were never scary or dangerous to my kids but still caused some friction and made my life more difficult. And due to some early misunderstandings about the terms of employment, we wound up paying the taxes on the sitter’s paychecks out of our own pockets rather than deducted from her earnings, and that was grating. Once the bino had gotten old enough to no longer require newborn daycare rates, it actually cost us more money to keep everyone in the home-centered arrangement. And we figured both the little girl and her baby brother could use more socialization, new experiences, &c. So, late August being a logical enough transition point, we made the switch.

And as I say, that’s going well. The bino of course immediately got sick with some kind of persistent super-germ, the main symptoms of which seem to be coughing and sleeplessness, so that’s been a little rough. (He’s been taken to the pediatrician and it’s nothing serious, just one of those toddler bugs.) But he seems to like the daycare and, especially after an 18-month lifetime of chasing after and being excluded by his older sibs, the other toddlers quite a lot. The little girl also really likes being with other 3 and 4 year olds and doing new things, and she seems markedly more talkative (sassy, even!) after just a couple weeks of exposure to that environment, which is highly gratifying.

So that’s the state of play as of now: a new year of school (or “school”) for all is underway and we’re settling back into the familiar rhythms. Just in time, of course, for the annual autumnal avalanche of fall birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and such. Wheeee!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Changes in the re-telling (Amazing Spider-Man 2/X-Men: Days of Future past)

SPOILER ALERT BWOOP BWOOP BWOOP: This post is about a couple of movies that came out back in May of this year. It is also about the comic book storylines that inspired said films, which ran through issues of the source titles published literally decades ago. It contains spoilers for all of those. Odds are the spoiler warning is more relevant for the recent movies than the old comics, but I’m of the opinion that all are fair game at this point: four months is just about forever in internet time, and I’ve been thinking about these movies all summer while giving everyone else a chance to catch up. Grace period over. You’ve been warned!

Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die.

That’s the thought that kept occurring to me when I walked out of the theater after the final credits had rolled on Amazing Spider-Man 2. I liked the movie, on balance. It maintained a lot of the elements I thought really worked about the first installment of the franchise reboot, and progressed things along through the master plan for the trilogy-slash-expanded-cinematic-universe that we’re really only going to be able to judge on its merits when its completed (or at least substantially further developed) years from now. But for all the right buttons it pushed and notes it hit, the part of the movie that stood out in my mind was the sad fate of Peter Parker’s true love.

Really, it shouldn’t have been surprising at all. In the comics, sure enough, Gwen Stacy died. And much like in the second movie, it happened in the comics as collateral damage in a fight between Spider-Man and his nemesis the Green Goblin. It is probably one of the most pivotal moments in modern comics history, using a fairly broad definition of modern since it happened in 1973. But given that superhero comics started with Superman in 1938, there were thirty-some years of history before that and there have been forty-some since, so it’s as decent a boundary marker between “old” and “new” comics as any other. Better than most, many comics fans would argue, since the general characteristics of comics in the old days, the Golden and Silver Ages, were optimism and happy endings and the inevitable triumph of good over evil and all sorts of other things which are considered (rightly or wrongly is a debate which could take up another few thousand words some other time) kiddie stuff; whereas newer comics tend to be hyper-focused on appealing to mature tastes (again, all extremely subjective and debatable) with tropes like ambiguous morality, Pyrrhic victories, failure as commonplace as success, and so on. When Spider-Man’s arch-enemy caused the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, a tragedy which Spider-Man tried mightily to prevent and yet still failed to avoid, it was arguably the end of innocence for all of comics. It certainly was for Spider-Man, and for a long time it was a sacrosanct part of the character’s mythology, crucial to understanding his outlook. You couldn’t contemplate the real Spider-Man actually saving Gwen’s life any more than you could imagine Spider-Man still having a living, breathing Uncle Ben. Gwen dies, Peter tries but fails to save her, it’s ultimately the Green Goblin’s fault: these are all pieces of the canon.

Except … they didn’t have to be. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t just thinking that Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die in the third act of Amazing Spider-Man 2. Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die in the final pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #121, either. If you dig into the history a bit you’ll learn that Stan Lee, the living embodiment of Marvel Comics particularly in the early days through the 60’s, wrote almost ten years’ worth of Spider-Man comics from Peter Parker’s first appearance onward before finally stepping away as he became more focused on running the business aspects of his company rather than the purely creative output. In all that time, yes, Spider-Man was defined by his “with great power comes great responsibility” ethos, inspired by the guilt and sadness at having failed to act once and contributed to the chain of events that led to his beloved uncle’s murder. You won’t hear me arguing that Spider-Man still works without Uncle Ben’s death, which is about as intrinsic to the concept as the explosion of Krypton is to Superman and the fatal mugging of the Waynes is to Batman. For eleven years, Spider-Man had a perfectly good personal tragedy in his past and zero dead girlfriends, and he was a strong enough character to become the flagship icon of Marvel Comics.

Which in turn meant that when Gerry Conway took over as regular writer after Stan Lee (and Steve Ditko) gave birth to Spider-Man and steered him through his meteoric ascent, he was stepping into some incredibly big shoes and he felt tremendous pressure to maintain the quality of storytelling in the Spider-Man title while also making his own mark on the book. And Conway literally thought to himself, “What’s the most shocking thing I can do, to shake things up and signal that I’m more than just a steward of Stan Lee’s previous work?” Which is how he hit upon the idea of killing off a major character to raise the stakes of Spidey’s feud with the Green Goblin, and ultimately Gwen Stacy became the sacrificial cast member.

It was a choice, and I’m not saying Conway didn’t have every right to make it. It was consistent with the Green Goblin’s character to have him strike at Spider-Man through his personal life. It was thematically in keeping with the established motif of Spider-Man having the worst luck of any superhero. It was narratively viable, but it wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t what the Spider-Man story had been steadily building toward. It was a choice rooted in its essentially arbitrary nature. The end goal was to shock the regular readers, by steering into the unexpected, and in that it completely succeeded. But to say that Spider-Man isn’t Spider-Man without the death of Gwen Stacy is just demonstrably false. She didn’t have to die, she just did.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate it when the makers of comics-derived movies refer to certain touchstones of the source material, especially when those reference points are good. And don’t get my contrariness wrong, either; whether or not killing off Gwen was a necessity, the storyline itself isn’t just a classic for the what-happened factor, it’s genuinely good storytelling full of operatic emotion rendered in fantastic Gil Kane/John Romita Sr. art. But, at the same time, I’m perfectly all right with the movies deviating from the source material as well. In fact, when it better serves the needs of cinema (as opposed to serialized monthly installments of graphics and prose) I prefer the movies to take liberties, condensing or expanding or remixing at will. And certainly the makers of all the Spider-Man movies have felt at liberty to do just that all along. Back when Sam Raimi made his Spider-Man movie, he wove in the whole Spider-Man and Green Goblin and Spider-Man love interest battle, but he used Mary Jane Watson rather than Gwen Stacy (presumably since, at the time, in the comics Peter and MJ were married and she had over the course of almost two decades replaced Gwen as the one true love interest) and, for that matter, he had MJ nearly fall to her death but allowed Spider-Man to successfully rescue her at the last moment. Marc Webb, on the other hand, was working with the Peter and Gwen love story but skipped over Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin to jump straight into his son (and one of Peter’s best friends) Harry in the glider-riding, bomb-chucking villain. None of those alterations stood out to me as egregious violations of the spirit of the source material.

And so it was that I found myself during the climax of Amazing Spider-Man 2 nursing a tiny yet insistent hope that maybe, because she didn’t have to die, that Gwen Stacy actually wouldn’t die. Slavish devotion to canon was not absolute, obviously. And real-life couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield had great on-screen chemistry. Honestly, I always preferred Mary Jane to Gwen in the comics, partly because Gwen died before I was born and I grew up reading MJ stories, and partly because even when I went back and read the old Gwen stories she seemed kind of boring and bland and unappealing compared to MJ. Emma Stone’s portrayal, and the fresh spins on the character inherent in the scripts, made me really like Gwen Stacy as a character for the first time. Why would they bail on a good thing? Why not explore new territory completely uncharted in the comics? Let the movies invent their own reality!

But I should have known better. For goodness sake, they basically put Emma Stone in the exact same outfit as it was drawn and colored in Amazing #121. And then they condensed Peter’s mourning over her into a late-reel montage, and included a brief epilogue of Peter finally getting over the guilt and grief enough to put the reds-and-blues back on and go out and stop the Rhino from rampaging through downtown. As if it were vitally important to get Peter into that position of having lost his parents, lost his uncle, lost his best friend and lost his first love but still dedicated to being Spider-Man by the end of Part 2 to set the stage for Part 3 (or for Sinister Six or whatever Sony manages to release next). Again, nobody owed me anything other than what I got when I paid for my ticket, they made their decisions on writing Gwen out of the saga (or maybe they had no decision to make because Stone wouldn’t sign on for a third installment, I don’t know), and so it goes. But, it’s disappointing nevertheless.

It’s a little bit apples-and-oranges, but I’m going to go ahead and segue into the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie at this point because it provides some pretty solid evidence for my basic thesis here, which is that the movies and can and probably should not just make superficial changes to the source material but really feel free to take things in new directions. The comics storyline which inspired the film was mostly about the Kitty Pryde character, since she was the one whose consciousness traveled back in time to prevent a mutant-human species war-fomenting assassination, and featured some memorable scenes of future-Wolverine, including his demise at the hands of the Sentinels, literally:

Whereas the movie is mostly about Wolverine doing the consciousness-time-travel trick, and Kitty gets relegated to a minor supporting role. It’s a potentially irksome change, depending on how attached you are to the original comics, but I get it in terms of Hugh Jackman selling a lot more tickets than Ellen Page. Still, because it was a purely mercenary edit, it’s not terribly compelling or interesting.

Much more intriguing, to me, was the way that Singer really changed the whole thrust and point of the storyline. The general framework of unintended consequences of political terrorism is in place in both versions of the narrative, comics and film, but in the comics it’s a relatively simple matter of the X-Men stopping the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by Mystique, from accomplishing their goal in the usual superhero manner: lots of punching is involved.

In the movie, the climax is really all about the parallel battles for Magneto’s and Mystique’s souls, and whether or not either of them still has room for redemption. Magneto’s not even in the comics storyline, and Mystique is a fairly one-dimensional plot-point-oriented villain. Those comics were released in 1980 and since then Mystique has become a more and more popular character, with more backstory and personality sketched in and even eventually getting her own self-titled series where she got in adventures as a kind of mutant superspy with questionable loyalties. And (stay with me here) those solo comics came after Mystique’s profile was enormously raised by being played by Rebecca Romijn in the first wave of X-Men movies. So by the time the reboot wave of movies came along, Mystique had a fanbase and it was only logical (and, yeah, again, somewhat mercenary) to invent a previously non-existent role for the character in the origins of the pre-X-Men and make her a sympathetic sister figure to Professor X who only turns to the dark side reactively.

But the payoff for Mystique’s arc in First Class really comes in Days of Future Past, when rather than being thwarted by fisticuffs Mystique turns away from the assassination by choice; Xavier talks her down rather than beating her down. And then again, she doesn’t walk into Xavier’s outstretched arms, and back to the side of the angels, she simply walks away. It’s wonderfully ambiguous (Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of the unresolvable inner turmoil of her character) and it has me dying with curiosity to see Age of Apocalypse and what they’re going to do with Mystique there. But most importantly, it’s completely different from anything the comics ever did with Mystique (to my knowledge). It doesn’t refer back to any previous source material, and that’s totally irrelevant because it makes for good, gripping storytelling.

I don’t know, maybe Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a lot more interesting than comic book Gwen Stacy, but still not all that interesting as a character overall. And maybe she had nowhere else to go in the planned Spider-Man cinematic universe, or any Spider-Man story. Maybe there will be some retroactively self-justifying payoff for her death in a future film in the franchise. Maybe Mystique is simply a more complex, more dynamic character with greater potential, and that’s why they were confident enough to take a leap into untried narrative territory with her. I don’t know. Maybe in another Spider-reboot or three, when the comic book death of Gwen Stacy is fifty or sixty or more years in the past, someone will reinterpret her character without the too-good-for-this-world dying young angle. I can only hope.