Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank the Maker! (STAR WARS)

Happy Thanksgiving, and happy 1001 Movies Blog Club day! I suppose it was a statistical inevitability that eventually the Club would get around to Star Wars, entry number 642 on the Must-See Master List. The fact that said number coming up happens to coincide with our national feast of giving thanks strikes me as too delightful a coincidence to ignore.

Because, I mean, come on, what am I going to do, perform some kind of serious English major cinephile analysis on Star Wars? And even if I did, would I actually manage to add something to the conversation that hasn’t been said a few dozen times before? (Not if I’m writing this post at work while running out the clock on a snow-shortened day before Turkey Day, I’m not.) I am a huge Star Wars fan and a huge nerd, so I could go long on the history of the franchise, or the technical details of the making of the first movie, or the various other movies it homages or has been homaged by, or the spinoffs and tie-ins it generated both in terms of comics and novels with specific narratives and toys and such without. But as I said, I’m not particularly inclined to do that, perhaps partly because I already have many times. Here I am reflecting on a couple of movies Lucas was riffing on; here’s a mention in passing of a wonderfully odd reinterpretation I read; here’s another admission that my long interest in practical special effects hearkens back to watching and re-watching the Making of Star Wars. The list, I’m sure, goes on.

Instead, I’ll just take a seasonally appropriate moment to express my gratitude to Star Wars. I’ve had a lifelong, tumultuous relationship with all things related to the Empire and the Rebellion, up to just about verging on consigning the entire Expanded Universe to the junk drawer of Stuff I’ve Fallen Out Of Love With. But I’ve never been able to let it go, not completely, and while the extent to which I would qualify as a full Star Wars apologist waxes and wanes day-to-day, I do still consider myself a huge fan, present tense and without shame. And a lot of the ebb and flow of my ambivalence arises from stuff like the prequels, and the legacy, and the remastered re-issues, none of which really has anything to do with the singular movie Star Wars, box office champ of 1977. It’s hard sometimes, in general and for me specifically, to separate the movie which would later be referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope from the entire mass of its own gravitational continuity, but that’s the task I’m setting for myself here. Thus, a few reasons why I’m grateful for Star Wars in and of itself:

I’m grateful for the simplicity of its story. At heart it’s a fairy tale, a chivalrous romance about a good knight rescuing a princess from an evil knight. It’s set in space, with droids and hyperdrives and moon-sized battlestations, but it’s still one of the oldest stories in the book. That’s worth being thankful for because it stands as a reminder that even as modern life gets more complicated and cynical and seemingly hostile to the trappings of childhood, something assembled from the most basic building blocks can still have something to say, and speak not just a to a select few but basically to everybody.

But I’m also grateful for its unapologetic weirdness. I know, from an evolutionary biological standpoint, that banthas on a desert planet make zero sense. For that matter, the Empire either flying in their own trained dewback lizards, or the stormtroopers just snagging wild indigenous ones, somehow makes even less sense logistically. And yet those are the little details that made Star Wars so magical for me from the very first time I saw it. You can tell all the stories you want that boil down to a new twist on old archetypes and monomyth, but they’ll feel pretty thin unless you flesh them out with slightly quirky backdrops and hangers-on. And man, does Star Wars do a lot of heavy lifting in that department.

I’m grateful for the possibilities that Star Wars opened up. The movie (and, yes, the franchise extensions, for good or ill) casts a long shadow, but that’s partly because it kicked down a door filled with blazing white-hot potential. For all the talk about how the new millennium has become the era of the geek ascendant, and how all the underground dorky genre stuff has finally gone mainstream, it’s really more a matter of culmination, and it started almost forty years ago. Star Wars is a crazy mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, and purely that. It is not a story about a guy from Earth who winds up dropped in the middle of an intergalactic civil war far, far away, nor does it have any other overt connection to the real world its audience lives in. And yet it was and is insanely popular anyway. Every crazy idea for a movie that might have encountered some resistance along the lines of “nobody will understand that” objections owes a debt to Star Wars.

So, along those lines, I’m grateful for the embarrassment of riches we have today, and all of the enjoyment I derive from my pop culture consumption, because of the straight line you can draw back to Star Wars. I don’t go the movie theater that often, as I’ve mentioned now and then, and when I do it’s usually because there’s a movie coming out which I think demands to be seen on the big screen because of its scope and spectacle, whether it’s Gravity or The Avengers. Star Wars might not be the first summer blockbuster, I’m perfectly fine with assigning that distinction to Jaws, but it is the first grand scale effects-driven genre blockbuster. Basically it’s the reason why there are at least a few movies every year which do justify the whole waiting in line for tickets and popcorn experience, which I enjoy. And I don’t mean to gloss over the genre part of those earlier qualifiers, either. Lucas could have, theoretically, made an epic movie with lots of dogfights and shootouts and a rescue mission and a capital-E Evil bad guy, and made it a World War II re-telling of the fairy tale. In which case we’d no doubt have still gotten Raiders of the Lost Ark (actually that’s kind of what I just described, or pretty close) and Die Hard and Con Air and various other movies I love, but we might not have gotten Ghostbusters and Independence Day and Serenity and Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe a few but almost surely not all of them.

Last but not least, I’m grateful for the common ground that Star Wars has helpfully provided for me and my friends, year in and year out, for as long as I can remember. One of the things that brings me a lot of joy in life (above and beyond what I hope are the obvious and go-without-saying candidates: my wife, my kids, my efforts to be a good person and make the world a better place) is engaging with other people about ideas, where there’s room for interpretation and multiple perspectives. Star Wars is the first thing I can remember being at the center of conversations like that, really nothing more than elementary school playground shouting about whether or not a lightsaber or a blaster really is better in a fight, but still. All of the most important people in my life, my parents, my siblings, my wife, my buddies, the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all had long conversations with me about Star Wars at some point or another. (For my kids, so far, it’s been pretty one-sided, just me telling them about how there’s this thing called Star Wars and we’ll watch it together someday and also it is awesome.) I don’t consider being into Star Wars a litmus test for whether or not I want a person around, but I confess it’s hard for me to imagine a person who was indifferent to it, or actively disdainful of it, being my kind of people.

So that’s my paean to the Skywalker Saga. By this time next year we’ll all be up to our eyeballs in hype for the imminent release of Episode VII, but hopefully I’ll be able to muster up similar amounts of thankfulness, come what may.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag as the days get shorter

Ongoing Contract-Recompete Update: I mentioned that the announcements have already started circulating about the office holiday party, which is of course slated to take place on a weekday during work hours, as always, but additionally this week I got an e-mail from my government boss, addressed to everyone under her direct supervision, inviting us all (and our families) to a holiday open house at her home on an upcoming weekend afternoon. I'm undecided as of yet as to whether I'll go or not, but the bigger point is: does the invitation in and of itself constitute sufficient evidence to make of-course-you-guys-are-going-to-win-the-new-contract a safe assumption going forward? Or is it merely an indicator that I shouldn't expect the official decision to be rendered before Christmas at all, and we'll just continue collectively pretending it's a non-looming non-issue in the meantime?


Also, just fyi, I spent this entire week at work in penumbral cubicle conditions. The fluorescents directly above my workstation are out, and I expected they would be replaced in a day or two, but Monday through Friday saw no movement towards resolution. And lest you think this is a case of me keeping my head down and not rocking the boat, and maybe nobody was aware of the issue in order to get the wheels turning with building management, it's not that. I know it was reported by Tuesday at the latest. We shall see if I am still beshadowed come Monday.


I must still be a bit rusty about regular blogging unrelated to all-consuming countdowns, as I am having trouble thinking of any more grab bag tidbits that don't have anything to do with work. Either I pretty much covered everything during the week, or my brain is so addled that any potential topics have already fallen out of mind without a trace. I'd say I'll do better next week, but it's going to be all shortened and thrown off by Thanksgiving, so ... December will be here soon enough!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nature and nurture

When my wife and I were at the children's hospital last weekend, my Little Bro's mother-in-law and an aunt were also visiting. At one point Little Bro and I were going back and forth, and I think actually I was doing most of the talking (understandably, I was hyper-happy to see my niece doing well and Little Bro was on at least his third day of living in the limbo of hospital time and everything brain-fuzzing that goes with that) and when I stopped to take a breath my Little Bro's in-laws both kind of chuckled in mild amazement and commented on how much he and I sound alike.

We don't look that much alike; he got the blond hair and blue eyes and I am brown/brown all day, and he's built on the lean side whereas I look exactly like you'd imagine a forty-year-old with a desk job should. People have told me all my life they can see a strong familial resemblance between us, but it's hard sometimes for me to make it out. That probably has as much to do with subjective perceptions as anything, since we had the stereotypical love/hate relationship growing up and a huge part of developing my earliest self-image probably got wrapped up in differentiating myself from my closest blood relative.

Little Bro and I really weren't bonded that closely as kids and when I hit adolescence the gulf widened, but when our parents were getting divorced and I would come home on breaks from college and he and I would both need to get out of the house, and could drive aimlessly and talk, we finally started to connect on a more meaningful level. It's a cliche to say that men, even very young men, can only be comfortable interacting on a vulnerable emotional level when there's some kind of stilted physical arrangement offsetting it, like being side-by-side in a car both facing forward and not looking at each other, but that is just one of the many cliches that I have actually lived out in my day. And if that's what it took for Little Bro and I to be reasonably big parts of each other's lives to this day, so be it.

Still and all, whether we were rivals needling each other or polar opposites studiously ignoring each other during those growing-up years, the fact is we did grow up under the same roof, with the same parents, going to the same school in the same town and taking in the same pop culture via the one tv in the house with a cable box and a VCR. Of course we speak the same language with the same accent and inflection, how could we not? That much, at least, I do take for granted, so it's always a little odd to me when anyone else thinks it's striking enough to merit commenting on.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Happy returns

While Thursday around the old blogstead is usually the time when I focus on my own little ones, today I just wanted to say a bit about a baby who is not mine, but maybe the next closest thing: my Little Bro’s baby daughter. There’s been a bit of an elephant-in-the-room vibe of late (again, as with so many things, obscured by the whole Halloween thing) and I’ve been putting off saying much of anything, but now is a good time to finally get to it. (In other words, this story starts out sounding pretty dire but I assure you all up front it has a happy ending.)

My niece arrived back in July and had a reasonably uneventful first few months of life, going to the pediatrician every month or so for newborn well visits, as you do. The pattern repeated in October, which you might recall kicked off in my neck of the woods with my wife having a minor, alarming but fortunately non-disastrous cardiac episode and hospitalization. After my wife had been home again for a few days, my Little Bro called me to see how we were all doing and sound out whether or not we were still planning on roadtripping from Virginia up to New York to meet our niece over Columbus Day weekend. That segment of the conversation went a little something like this:

Me: “Oh, sure, we’re still coming, we’re looking forward to it and my wife feels 100% better. I mean, we think there’s some connection between her job and the stress she’s been under there and the coronary vasospasm, so she needs to look for a new gig, probably, but she’ll get to that. It’s a drag but what can you do, blah blah blah, it’s always some damn thing, blah blah petty discontent, blah.”

Little Bro: “Yeah, OK.” (pause) “So, um, we took our daughter to the doctor the other day and they think she might have spina bifida …”

Me: (dropping dead of mortification)

I immediately began to backpedal and volunteered to cancel/reschedule our visit, because at the time they didn’t know for sure if the baby had spina bifida (handy Wikipedia link if you don’t know what that is), although it seemed more likely than not, and they also didn’t know the extent or severity of it, although it seemed on the mild side given how happy and healthy and normal the baby had seemed the first few months of her life. Still, there were going to be second opinions and consultations and plans of action rolling along at a steady clip in the coming days, and if at any point someone had said “this infant needs surgery NOW” and that happened to be Friday of Columbus Day weekend, we didn’t want our brood (and all their floating daycare germ colonies!) to be underfoot.

As it turned out, surgery was the recommended course of action but it was put off until mid-November. So there was a month there, as I alluded to, where it was just kind of out there and often impossible not to think about, but there was nothing to be done about it except wait it out. Then the day of the surgery came and went, and with great gladness we learned that it went well and the baby pulled through like a champ. A couple of days later my whole household was roadtripping, not to New York but to Delaware, where we have extended family, very conveniently because the surgery was performed at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And my wife and I got to visit Little Bro and Sister-in-Law and finally meet our niece, who looked amazing. All in all it was kind of like letting out a big breath I had been holding since early October.

The word from the surgeon was that he was very glad they had agreed to the operation, because things were even more complicated once they opened everything up than had been suspected. But, not so complicated that it couldn’t all be addressed, and the prognosis for my niece is now pretty good. Her recovery has been remarkably speedy, and while they had warned my Little Bro the hospital stay could be as long as 10 days, they ended up discharging the baby 72 hours after the conclusion of the surgical procedure. My brother sent out word today that the trip home had not been as bad as they’d feared, either, and they are all three now home sweet home. Good times.

I try (no guarantee about success, just the trying) to leaven most of my complaining on the blog with frequent acknowledgements of how, at the end of the day, I know I lead a pretty charmed life. Just like I may grumble about the absurdities of my job on one hand while being sincerely grateful to have a reliable means of bill-paying on the other, I get pretty cranky about losing sleep when a toddler has a mystery bug that wakes them up inconsolably at 1:30 a.m. (hey, it literally happened just last night!) BUT I do feel immensely fortunate to have never had to deal with any health crisis involving any of my children that was more serious than jaundice or an ear infection. It’s humbling to have even second-hand contact with a series of events like what my Little Bro, his wife and their daughter have been through of late.

Little Bro referred to the ultimately good outcome of the whole process as a “miracle of science” and I think that’s an incredibly apt turn of phrase. I’m thankful for all the health professionals who noticed something was up with my niece, got the diagnosis right, and did something about it to put things right. There really is no other proper response to a miracle other than gratitude, unless it’s a little extra thanks for not needing those extraordinary interventions more than we do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

QHMOAT Double-Feature! (Exam/Only Lovers Left Alive)

When October was drawing to a close, I rearranged my Netflix queue a bit so that the movies coming to the top were dual-purpose, ones which could be slotted into the last gasps of the Halloween Countdown if needed or wanted, but weren’t so blatantly seasonally apt that they would feel a day late if I didn’t get to them until November. And of course I did not get to them until this week, for all the usual petty little reasons (a sick day here, a forgot-to-charge-the-portable-DVD-player-overnight there, &c.) but that turns out to have been just as well. Quasi-Halloween Movies On A Train they may be, but only with a very generous definition of “quasi”.

First up, Exam, a little indie suspense movie from 2009. I forget if a friend of mine recommended it or if I just read a review somewhere, but it sounded like a premise that was up my alley: eight strangers locked in a room to take a final exam as part of a mysterious job interview process, and things get … intense. It’s a meta puzzlebox of a story, with the characters themselves trying to figure out what the solution the exam really is and the audience also trying to do so ahead of the characters. And bottom line, as meta puzzleboxes go, it was … OK. It’s set in a near future just far enough ahead of ours that there can be some unreal science fiction thrown in, some of which is used merely to justify the premise and some of which factors into the solution, but it’s the film equivalent of a bottle episode, so mostly people just talk about these bits of worldbuilding outside the examination room, and a lot of it ends up feeling like little cheats to get out of tight narrative squeezes.

I looked back through the blog archives here to see if I ever explained why I disdained the Ghost Rider movie from 2007 so much, and I can’t find anything, so here it is in a nutshell: there is a scene early on in that movie where a young Johnny Blaze hears his father talking about performing a hypothetical stunt in which he would jump his motorcycle over helicopters. His father dies before he can ever make that a reality. A little later, the adult Johnny Blaze is planning the helicopter stunt for himself. Someone asks him “Why helicopters?” and Blaze answers “My dad would have thought it was cool.” That exchange should work just fine on its own, and yet the director felt it necessary to include a sepia-toned flashback in between the question and the answer, replaying the exact same footage we just saw fifteen minutes ago (but with an Instagram filter) in case anyone forgot. I don’t mind dumb movies, but I do mind dumb movies that aggressively insult my intelligence.

Is Exam as bad as Ghost Rider? No, although it’s not as smart as it thinks it is, either. But it does commit the same sin. Early in the movie the Invigilator makes a speech laying out the rules of the exam. Then, throughout the run time as the characters are trying to figure out how to pass the test, they’ll remind each other of the parameters and technicalities and the movie will flash back to the Invigilator’s speech. Not only does that seem like overkill, but also highly ironic because at one point in the very serious introductory speech the Invigilator says “Listen carefully, there will be NO REPETITION.” And then his dialogue proceeds to get repeated and repeated and repeated within the movie. Still, by the end this makes a little more sense as a conscious stylistic choice, if only because the ultimate answer to the exam requires such a convoluted logic pretzel that it takes an extended aural montage of the exam instructions to set up the climactic reveal.

I went in expecting something like a hyper-rational haunted house story, with characters actually dying if they failed the exam and ultimately turning on and killing each other in a Lord of the Flies style bloodbath, but the film is really nothing like that. It has its tense moments but it also makes use of a lot of sci-fi mumbo jumbo to really cop out on some of the violent shocks that unfold along the way. Not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but not really all that satisfying by the time it ends, either.

Only Lovers Left Alive would have made a slightly better quasi-Halloween flick, if only because it purports to be about vampires - fanged creatures of the night who drink blood and live forever and all that - and is in fact about vampires, unambiguously. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as undead husband and wife, Adam and Eve, who have lived for centuries, and they are both amazing, managing the slightly inhuman looks and mannerisms of immortal monsters trying to pass as humans.

But it’s not a horror film, nor even trying to be particularly scary. It’s a moody, dreamy meditation on choosing to live life as it comes or giving up on the world altogether. Jim Jarmusch, who wrote and directed, very wisely sidesteps the issue of vampire morality (almost) entirely, by positing that his main characters only drink type O negative blood they obtain from medical facilities, not because they are squeamish about hurting live human beings but because they fear the effects on themselves if they feed on someone who has tainted blood, whether that means disease or the poison of drugs or anything else; hospital blood, presumably, screens all that out. Thus the vampires don’t see men and women as cattle, or playthings, or natural enemies in the predator/prey sense. They refer to people as “zombies” because, compared to the eternal (and prone to brooding) vampires, they might as well be mindlessly devoid of self-awareness altogether, and the vampires minimize their contact with them as a result.

There’s also a motif running through the film about art and artists and creative immortality, which is arguably the weakest part of the story. It provides some amusing material: one of the secondary characters is a vampire named Kit Marlowe (John Hurt, also awesome), who is presented as the Kit Marlowe and also the true playwright of all the works of Shakespeare, with the fraud of Avon having stolen and taken credit for the good stuff. I like a good bit of sly literary conspiracy theory humor as much as the next nerd, believe me. But much Adam is a musician who agonizes about what to do with his own songs. He lives as a recluse, and if he were to try to get his creative output into the world, it might draw unwanted attention to his agelessness and other peculiarities. So he composes alone, for himself, for nobody. I’m always skeptical of the whole train of thought running along the lines of “woe is me, I am a True Artist and it is so hard to be me, so hard to be misunderstood, so hard to think that if I showed anyone my true brilliance I would become unbearably famous, which just isn’t fair, blah blah blah.” I am of course susceptible to this exact line of thinking about myself, at times, but that is precisely why I mistrust it so much.

At any rate, the self-indulgent navel-gazing about the artist’s burden isn’t enough to drag down the film altogether. It’s worth seeing to watch Hiddleston and Swinton navigating through Jarmusch’s world, as defined by his fixations on elements like urban decay (Detroit, in this case) and old obscure blues records and so forth. Again, not terribly Halloween-ish, but I suppose it can’t be Halloween all year round.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A ship in the night

Hey, remember this? You may well not, it was four and a half years ago. I had expressed my strong belief that money was there to be made if DC Comics would print and market posters of the artwork depicting a time-traveling Batman as a pirate. I, for one, would spend money on it because my basement is the domain of pirates and comics in my house, and decor that covers all the bases is always appreciated. (These days it is also the domain of the little guy's ever-expanding Lego collection, but Lego goes with everything.)

Sadly, DC never did heed my advice, and so far as I know there are no commercially available, frameworthy enlargements of that Bat-swashbuckling cover art. It's a shame, but as of now it is also a moot point, again if we are going from the perspective of my basement's wallhanging needs, which of course we are. The mooting came courtesy of my Very Little Bro, who created a fantastic birthday present for me which I just received this past weekend.

As it was related to me, my brother sat before a search engine and asked himself what kinds of things I was into, and typed in what first came to mind: Green Lantern and pirates. Lo and behold, the vast interwebs repository of information yielded up the following image:

Which I admit I had never seen before in my life. You might notice in the upper left hand corner the caption box reads "Superman is missing" and that leads me to believe this is from a storyline that took place in one of Superman's own titles; strong as my opinions on the meaning and value of the character as an icon may be, I've never been a regular follower of his series. I'm also assuming Very Little Bro had never seen this before either, but once he stumbled upon it he decided to copy it, in enlarged hand-pained canvas form, and bestow the results upon me for my birthday. It would be impractical for me to try to scan the final painting, but trust me when I say it is an admirably faithful rendition, and one which is improved immeasurably by the fact that Very Little Bro used glow-in-the-dark paint to recreate the energy construct pirate ship itself. Needless to say, it beats the heck out of some comic shop poster.

While I love the gift in and of itself, it also reminds me that I'm very lucky to have a great family. It's big and complicated and certainly imperfect at times but bottom line we all care about each other and want each other to be happy and genuinely enjoy seizing the opportunity to make each other happy when we can. I really took that for granted growing up, and just assumed that was how all families were, except maybe for the fanciful ones with evil step-mothers in fairy tales. Of course as I've gotten older (a lot) and matured (a little) I've come to realize that being indifferent towards or outright estranged from ones own kin is sadly common in this world of ours. I'm more and more grateful all the time that I lucked into the blood relations that I did, and that I can devote so much mental energy to dissecting the petty indignities of my boring job because the base fundamentals of my life are solid.

Very Little Bro is getting married next fall, so now I have about eleven months to figure out a wedding gift for him and my future sister-in-law that comes remotely close to my birthday present in sheer raditude. Any and all suggestions welcome!

Monday, November 17, 2014

From blah to eternity

It occurred to me the other day that it's been over a year since I started what would ultimately be a slow, stop-and-start process of trying to change jobs, which would ultimately culminate in a "no thanks, nice try" return to the status quo, that last word on the subject coming at least six months ago. (I think this all popped into my head because the e-flyers for our office winter holiday party just went around, and I'm starting to think about working the Christmas ties into my sartorial rotation for another season, which brought to mind how last Christmas I was hopeful that by the following year's end I would be in a full-time business casual environment with no need for neckties anymore. Ah, well.)

I'm pretty sure I covered before how everything worked out for the best. For those of you coming in late, I was interested in one and only one specific job at a specific organization, for a variety of reasons with top-of-the-list likely being some particular employee benefits that would address my life needs. And as it turns out, not long after I was informed that it wasn't going to work out, I learned from my inside connection that massive sea changes within the organization were making it a much less desirable place to work than I had originally been led to believe, so I kind of dodged a bullet. Yes, on the other side of the push and pull, there was the fact that my gig for the past five years has become rather repetitive and stultifying, and a change of any kind would have been welcome, so in that sense not being able to jump ship was a bummer. But even I acknowledge that change just for change's sake, especially going from "kind of a boring dead-end that nonetheless pays the bills and doesn't stress me out too much" to "black pit of despair filled with dumpster fires", is not always worth getting.

The other thing that's amazing about looking back over the past year or so, which again only kind of crystallized in my mind relatively recently, is how little fallout there was from the entire failed experiment in career re-orientation. At the outset, given that I had an inside connection and a newly spiffed-up resume and a general sense that I interview reasonably well, I was fairly convinced that as long as I went through the motions and didn't shoot myself in the foot, I didn't just have a good shot at the new job, I was all but guaranteed to get it. And I carried that attitude into my present job every day for months. New projects would start to take shape and I would console myself that I'd be long gone before they ever got off the ground. Old recurring glitches would get worse and worse, and I would shrug and look forward to the not-too-distant day when they would become someone else's problems. Half of the difficulty in getting the door slammed in my face after a couple of interviews at the potential new gig was the realization that I had better get cracking on tightening things up, since I had been even more slack than usual under the mistaken impression I was making progress toward somewhere else. Instead I was going to be hanging around for who knows how long, and if for no other reason than my own sanity I needed to act like it again.

But I couldn't tell you the last time I kicked myself for having to clean up a mess of my own making. Despite how utterly checked-out I was in the early part of 2014, nothing wound up permanently hosed. No bridges were really burned, nothing haunts me now. More than anything I think that's a testament to the whole government institutional culture, where things move very slowly indeed, and numerous things can be neglected for a long time with minimal ripple effects because the wheels turn so slowly. Catching up after the fact is kind of trivial. Lucky for me!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Beastly things

Yet another thing that I didn't get into as it was happening last month because the blog was in full-on Halloween Countdown mode was that I got a visit from my old buddy Scud. It's true! Back in July I was ruminating with deliberate ambiguity about trying to re-establish contact with high school friends, but here's the conclusive rundown, in brief: I sent a friend request to Scud, he accepted, we exchanged e-mail addresses, started writing back and forth, and before too long had come up with a plan for him to swing by my pad on a weekend when he was going to be passing through Virginia anyway. Our buddy Kingsley, as far as we were able to determine, was not on Facebook, but by putting our heads together and utilizing other online resources Scud and I were able, during his visit, to track Kingsley down anyway and reach out to him, and although the communication has been a bit slower it's still crossed the vast gulf between "haven't spoken in 22 years" and "in touch at present". Boomer finally did accept my friend request, after a long and unexplained lag, just before I was going to start messaging his wife and asking her if her husband had some grudge that made him not want to talk to me after all this time (though I figured it wasn't that, more just that she's the social butterfly with a daily presence on Facebook and he's an intermittent feed-checker at best). So, all in all, a pretty positive outcome around the horn.

So, Scud's visit: probably just as well that the blog was otherwise occupied during the last couple weeks before his arrival, because of course I was in a minor (read: major-rager) tizzy over it in typical irrational fashion. You know how it goes, without a lot of shared history (or in this case, recent shared history) to draw on you really don't know how the extended period of time in another person's constant presence is going to go. It's like agreeing to go on a three-day getaway with someone for your second or third date, a leap into the unknown which seems like a fun idea and is probably going to be all right because things have been going well so far, but ... you never know. What if we ran out of things to talk about? Or what if one of us said something that really rubbed the other the wrong way, and we didn't have the time and space to calm down and shake it off before writing a response e-mail because we were trapped in close proximity under the same roof? What if he didn't like my wife, or she didn't like him?

All of which turned out to be pointless worrying, unsurprisingly enough. As cliche as it might be to invoke the ideal friendship where distance and circumstances can intervene and years can go by and yet later the thread can be picked up and relations resumed as if no time at all had passed, I guess that is more or less what Scud and I have going for us. Forty-eight hours together did not reveal any new (or best-forgotten) incompatibilities. Everybody got along, and the reciprocal sentiment come Sunday afternoon was not "glad that's over" but "we should do this again some time".

Anyway, one of the standout moments of the weekend for me came at one point when we were all hanging out in the yard and the little guy noticed one of Scud's tattoos and asked him what it was. Scud, understandably, began at the explanatory beginning and said "it's a tattoo" which got him an eye-roll from our little smarty-pants and a follow up "I know that, what's it supposed to be?" And Scud rolled with that and proceeded to explain that it was a design made up of overlapping zodiac symbols, one for each of Scud's children (he has four). That's all prelude, though, because once the little guy had absorbed that information, Scud rolled up his sleeve to show off another tattoo, which was also a symbol of his children's birth signs, but instead of black glyphs of the western zodiac, it was a colorful chimera incorporating different animal parts drawn from the Chinese zodiac years that corresponded to his children. And Scud explained how that all worked, while the little guy was mesmerized. We've actually talked to him about Chinese zodiac animals before (we even have Christmas ornaments for each animal represented in our family, although we still need to get a snake for the bino) so he got a handle on the concept pretty quickly, and suddenly he HAD to make a drawing of what a chimera for our unit would look like. And sure enough he did.

It was a funny, strange and wonderful moment of feeling like things had come full circle. Scud and I used to pretty reliably inspire each other all the time, when we were young adolescents with nothing but free time to fill with artistic pursuits, drawing and making up stories and writing songs &c. &c. One of us would come up with half of a crazy idea and the other would take it and run with it, and it just went back and forth like that. I always knew, on some level, that some day we'd grow up and have families of our own, but I never really envisioned how that whole collaborative vibe might play out through an extended intergenerational superset. As it turns out, it plays out pretty cool.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Crying out for attention

Seems like an overlong time since I really devoted a lot of blog space to my children (especially as individual entities and not just a collective wonderful excuse for me to get all jazzed about Halloween) so let’s dig right in, shall we?

It’s been about three months, or a hair less, since we started the younger two in daycare, and it has had the predictable effects on the bino. Meaning he has low-grade systemic unwellness more or less constantly these days. I’m sure his immune system will figure out what’s happening and rise to the occasion any day now (and I keep reassuring my wife to that effect) but for now he rides up and down the crests and troughs, from a nose runny with clear stuff and few-to-zero other symptoms, to a nose runny with murky stuff plus a persistent chest wheeze and plus unpredictable GI irregularities plus coughing that gets worse when he’s horizontal, leading to bouts of backsliding into the ranks of the sleep-challenged.

The good news is that the bino is sufficiently sleep trained that he can, barring major external disruptions, wake up in the middle of the night and settle himself back down to sleep without the need of any parental intervention whatsoever. That is an unalloyed Positive Thing. We somehow survived all three kids going through that treacherous, nebulous phase where it was no sure thing that they could re-settle themselves, and that led to great pillow-headed debates about whether it would do more harm than good to go in and try to help the baby settle down, or if it would do more harm than good to let them keep trying themselves, possibly winding themselves up more and more. And as often as not one trip into the nursery would lead to another a half hour later and yet another an hour after that, and so on into lamentable ugliness. Being clear of all that is great.

The bad news is that the bino will sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in minor distress, which will pass in a moment, but before that moment has elapsed the bino (and this is unique among the siblings) will let out a wail expressing the depth and fury of his displeasure at his sudden wakefulness. And that in turn wakes us up with a quickness. As I said, the moment then passes, the angry yelling stops almost as fast as it began, and the bino drifts off again. But that leaves one or both parents (usually my wife) struggling to re-enter the sleep cycle, heart hammering at having been shouted awake. So while the bino can, in theory, sleep through the night, at least no longer requiring that anyone responsible for him get up out of bed way ahead of schedule, he’s still not what we would call a good sleeper. So that’s the milestone we’re looking forward to most.

Meanwhile, during daylight hours, he’s talking more and more, which still only amounts to a smattering of recognizable words, but the floodgates seem poised to open soon. And he’s listening like a champ, which is actually a much bigger challenge. We’ve grown accustomed to being able to talk openly about things only his big brother and sister can do right in front of him, as long as all we’re doing is talking, formulating plans to get the bino upstairs and in bed so that the older kids can have special privileges and whatnot. It’s not like he understands, as long as he doesn’t see the big kids heading into the den together without him or something, right? Except we seem to have passed that point already, such that last night I was talking to the big kids about how I was going to take their brother upstairs, and I would leave him in his room for a minute to run back down and get them dessert, which I didn’t want the bino to see because then he would want some and we didn’t have any toddler-friendly options. And sure enough, the big kids agreed to the plan but the bino ran away when I tried to pick him up, and pitched a fit because clearly he wanted dessert as well and he knew what was up. If we’re going to continue trying to snow the bino into thinking he’s not missing out on stuff (stuff he is indeed totally missing out on) then we are going to have to get a lot sneakier about it.

As far as my middle child … she happens to be a little bit under the weather today but by and large she has not had the system shock from breathing in daycare air that her baby brother has. Her greatest acclimation challenge has been social rather than physical, since she is by nature somewhat shy and skeptical of new things and strange people. Still, the ‘somewhat’ is still operative, and her daycare teachers have been letting us know that she has been coming out of her shell little by little. Good for her, and I’m more than happy to let her continue to do so at her own pace.

It’s a different story under our roof, of course, as it should be. Her comfort level is greatest within the natural familial boundaries, and she has no trouble standing up for herself and making her opinions known when things do not go her way at home. She’s three and a half, the perfect age for all-consuming obdurate willfulness, but what’s remarkable about her (to my wife and me, at least) is how blank that wall of will can be. With the little guy, there would be an idea and he would fixate on it and we could pivot off that, a little or a lot depending on how indulgent we were feeling and how outlandish the desire was. If he was upset about a broken toy, and it was cheap, we could offer to buy him a new one the next day, or if it was expensive, we could go into teachable moment mode and impart the importance of taking care of prized possessions and give him an avenue for earning a new toy. If he wanted to wear shorts in January, we could explain weather-appropriate clothing and remind him he didn’t really want to get sick, and give him two or three choices of warmer attire. We could work with him and meet in the middle, and most of the time he barely realized that the middle covered a lot of ground (and the parts of the middle closest to what Mommy and Daddy wanted all along were the places we were most likely to land).

Not so much with the little girl. She’ll get upset at the drop of a hat and we really won’t be sure why. So we’ll ask her directly what it is that she wants and the answer comes back: “NOTHING!” It can be a situation that seems straightforwardly binary: cooperate for your bath, and get videos, or fight us on bathing, and lose videos, which do you want? And she somehow denies the Law of the Excluded Middle and takes a third option of NOTHING. My wife and I joke that she’s a budding nihilist, but it’s really a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry kind of thing.

It’s very difficult to compromise with the idea of NOTHING. You can’t make the kid feel like they’re getting a little bit of what they want while you get a bit of what you want when they don’t want anything at all. Seriously, it may be the sleep deprivation talking, but it makes me question my grip on reality sometimes. It seems obvious that either the kid is fine with wearing the jacket I want them to wear, or they want to wear a different jacket, or they don’t want to wear a jacket at all, but they have to want one of those three things. The little guy would always eventually let himself be pinned down on some preference, which could be a starting point for negotiation. The little girl short circuits all that by claiming that she doesn’t want to wear any jacket but she also doesn’t want to not wear a jacket, she just wants NOTHING, which gets my brain all in a tizzy. Is it even possible not want something and also not not want it? Is she negating reality around us like Neo at the end of the Matrix?

Well no, not that last bit; she just weeps a lot at the unfairness of life when I make decisions for her and she fails to achieve the perfection of NOTHING. It’s a drag, but hopefully just a temporary phase. In fairness, we have very recently gotten through to her on the virtues of the sticker chart, which worked so well on her older brother. (We’re still not above bribing children to get into good habits!) The charts are working to unjam some of the loggerheads we had been stuck at; not perfectly, not yet, but progress is progress.

I do still have three kids, but the little guy, in addition to the passing references above, has always gotten a disproportionate amount of attention just by virtue of being oldest, so I will save some updates on him until tomorrow, and just let things here stand as they are.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

All alone in tenth place

I haven't mentioned it in a while, but the NFL pick'em pool is still going and with the conclusion of this week's MNF blowout in Philadelphia, I finally managed to win a week. I'd like to say that my carefully devised system of analysis finally paid off, but the fact that I got 11 out 13 scores (against the spread) right probably comes down to luck as much as or more than anything. Still, a win is a win and I will take it! I can't remember how long it's been (read: I don't feel like sifting through old blog posts to see if I mentioned it) since the last time I won a week in the pool, but it's probably been a couple years at least. Definitely the first time this season (my memory is bad but not that bad) and I'm pretty sure I had a consistently lackluster performance last season, week in and week out.

It's good to get one victorious week of my own, because my New York Football Giants are having a dire sub-.500 slog through the fall so far. But also, it's good to have a moment now because it is looking unlikely that I will win the overall season prize for total correctly called games. At the moment I am ranked a solid 10th in a field of thirty-six (or thirty if, as I do, you only count the people who actually submit picks every week, and set aside those who've taken one or more mulligans and can't possibly win the big prize).

Rainbow swarms of shooting stars aside, that's not fantastic, but it's still a significant improvement over the last couple years; I finished the season tied for 25th out of 30 last year, and tied for 19th out of 32 the year before that. My high-water mark was clawing my way into a six-way tie for 3rd out of 36 back in 2011. I still harbor dreams of cracking the code, maxing out my luck, and winning the whole pool one of these days, but it isn't looking likely that this will be my year, either.

Of course, there's winning, and then there's at least doing better than your rival(s), which in my case means my extended family, including my grandmother, my dad, Very Little Bro, two of my uncles, and three of my cousins (although one coz is among the doesn't-always-bother-making-picks jetset). I'm actually ahead of all of them at the moment. One of my cousins won two separate weeks, but none of my other relatives have managed to top a week. And somehow, I'm now ahead of all of them for the season, the nearest one being good ol' grandma just a couple points and one position back from me.

Ah, but I seem to have neglected to mention my beautiful, charming and very sports-savvy wife, whom I cajoled back into the casual gambling fold this season and who is currently in fifth place overall for the season in the pool, handily outpacing me. She came close to winning one of the weeks my cousin took, a week where she got an impressive 12 games correct but he managed 13. But her performance has been steady and she's not showing any signs of slowing down. (Although it occurs to me now that she usually sets her picks on Tuesday nights, but forgot to last night because the whole Veteran's Day holiday threw our household schedule for a major loop. Not that we're not grateful for the service of our men and women in uniform. Go troops.)

Anyway, six weeks of (non-playoff) football left, and it's anyone's guess where the season will end up!

Monday, November 10, 2014


I got into the office today with an e-mail from the boss-of-bosses waiting for me. On Friday afternoon, right before I left for the weekend, I had completed a task she had assigned directly to me; the e-mail greeting me this morning was simply her saying "thanks, nice job" in response. Always nice to get a little recognition, especially from that high up the food chain.

So clearly in this diagram the deputy secretary is the eagle and I guess I'm the worm?

I'm going to take a brief sidetour for a moment here into the early days of my professional career, but I'll loop back around to where I started, I promise. I'm not exactly sure why, but I was thinking last week about my first real job that I applied to and interviewed for (as opposed to showing up on assignment from a temp agency and then being poached), which was as a marketing assistant at a tech company. I had no formal training in marketing at the time, but various people had told me it might be a good fit for me career-wise, and before too long I thought I had grasped the reason why. If there's a creative side to marketing, beyond calculating how many brochures to order or balancing the ad-buying budget, it comes into play in discovering a narrative to build the messaging around. Most people who know me know that I was an English major, that I like to write, that I'm halfway decent at telling a story, &c. All of which are applicable to that narrative-discovery element.

Which is different, I hasten to add, from narrative-invention, and that of course is my writerly passion. I love creating stories from whole cloth, something out of nothing, and controlling their form and flow wire-to-wire. This did not come up terribly often within the professional context of fulfilling my duties as an admin in the events department for a non-profit association; much more common were circumstances such as the staffer in charge of the association newsletter being unable to attend a new kind of event, and me being tasked with composing some kind of summary article that hit all the journalistic 5 W's. And I was happy to take on that assignment, which was certainly more appealing than the same amount of time doing data entry on future event rsvp's. But it's a very different kind of writing, where the creativity part of the creative process is minimized. One is expected to pick and choose and synthesize and place in the most logical order a set of facts based on what actually happened, and I myself find those to be entirely reasonable parameters.

But marketing lies somewhere in that murky gray area between straight reportage and pure fiction. I realize this is not exactly a news flash, but what has stuck with me lo these many years is a memory of watching my boss, the head of the marketing team (which was truthfully all of about four people) trying to convince the executive VP's of various other departments that she had a great new idea for a marketing campaign. It basically boiled down to the idea of personal connections. The tech company was a consulting company implementing new approaches for companies during the dot-com boom, and the marketing director was of the opinion that lots of companies out there could throw armies of code-monkeys at problems and come up with new security architectures or new web-enabled storefronts or whatnot, but what differentiated our company was the relationships we formed with our clients. This is of course one of the hoariest chestnuts in the marketing bag (I know now), the idea that a given company isn't just selling you what they happen to already make, but rather will get to know you and then offer you exactly what you need. Anyway, the marketing director wanted to literally photograph some of our employees and some of our clients interacting to capture the visuals for the campaign: the head of sales going shopping with one client, the head of enterprise solutions going golfing with another. (Yes, the head of sales was a woman and the head of enterprise solutions was a man; condemn the easily-digestible late 90's sexism as you will.)

The marketing director never made much headway with this idea. But I remember her railing on and on about it for a while, and the entire time she was insistent that these photo ops - the shopping excursions, the rounds of golf - were already happening anyway and we might as well leverage them. And, from my distant third-hand perspective, I gradually got the idea that they kind of weren't, at least not as organically as the marketing director claimed. Maybe the sales lead wound up driving a client to the mall once as a favor, maybe our execs and client execs bumped into each other on the golf course now and then. But basically what my boss was attempting to do was to discover the narrative about our client relationships, and she found little scraps here and there and invented a bunch of connective tissue to fill in the gaps for the story she wanted to tell. Every professional marketer will tell you that their job is fairly simple: to tell the world the true things about their company which, if everyone knew them, would make everyone love their company, and to present those tellings in the way that reaches and impacts the maximum number of people possible. All of which is fair enough and accurate in a way, but it's that little "true things" part that gets slippery.

And long story short way too late, that's why I don't work in marketing anymore, because I didn't want to exaggerate or flat-out fabricate under the false veneer and (naive?) expectation of honest representation. In my mind, at least, there's a significant difference between telling lies that start with "once upon a time" and those that end with "buy our stuff".

Anyway, it's just an occupational hazard that it is prudent to be aware of: when you spend a lot of time looking for narrative threads, you might develop a tendency to spot a strong throughline where there's really only the barest trace. And that gets compounded by your own personal feelings about any given pathway to making sense of things. Right now, my major concern with work is whether or not it's going to continue beyond March of next year or so. I would very much like to believe that the attaboy I received from on high feeds into that contract re-bid narrative, and that it's a good sign that people with decision-making power approve of the job I'm doing and would, it seems reasonable to conclude, like to see me continue doing the same job. But just because I want the story to go that way doesn't mean it actually will. I have to continue conducting my business as if I can affect the outcome, but things are rarely that simple.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cozy under this rock

Yesterday it was heartwarming to see a steady stream of people in my Facebook feed affirming that they had exercised their right to vote, but today … I’m pretty much under a self-imposed media blackout. I’m really just not in the mood for winners crowing and gloating, losers deploying damage control, and the assorted speculations from the unhappily governed about possibly moving to Canada. I know all of that will last for more than a day, and I’ll have to wade through it all at some point, but today I’m taking a mulligan.

Back tomorrow with maybe a little more of substance on the personal front, and hopefully by next week we’ll be back to our regular daily programming.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Standard Time

I jokingly said that nothing ever changes at work, but that’s a joke that has countless grains of truth within it. Right now it seems especially true because, while the Halloween Countdown was going on, the 15th of October quietly came and went in the background, unremarked upon by me, and my employer submitted their official proposal for re-competing on the contract to do the work that we do. This was the new deadline after all the old deadlines slipped, and amazingly enough this one seems to have stuck, which means the Army now has 30 days to review all the bids and select who will be awarded the contract. The deadline, of course, may once again be blown (it does in fact seem far more likely that the deadlines where the ball is in the DoD’s court and they have to do something would be kicked down the road, as opposed to the ones where the DoD simply has to deem themselves ready to receive the ball incoming from someone else’s court, to torture a sports analogy) but whether it is or not, for the next couple weeks until at least the 15th of November, there’s naught all to do but wait and see what happens.

I did bump into my boss (government, not contracting) this morning in the elevator, and she conversationally groused to me about how for the next few days she would be up to her eyeballs in her portion of the contract bid review process. Which … seems a little bit inappropriate? To discuss with me, I mean, a lowly contractor very much affected by the outcome. There’s a part of me that wonders if maybe it doesn’t strike my boss as too cavalier to speak offhandedly about reviewing bids because she and I both know my employer is going to win in the end, or at least she knows and assumes I should also know. I’d like for that to be true, I really would, because I’d rather have my job be stable and my future of sticking with said job to be a choice of my own free will.

But maybe it’s a simple matter of the ever-present double standard between civilian government employees and contractors, where they take their job security for granted and we are supposed to suck up the easy-come-easy-go-and-what-have-you-done-for-me-lately nature of our gigs as the price of doing business. In that case, it doesn’t matter if I think it’s weird to talk about the thread my steady paycheck is hanging by in the context of it being one more annoying to-do task for my boss, because I’m just an interchangeable expense category in the bottom line. Who knows.

Anyway, these are the fun thoughts that float through my head as another workweek begins at the start of a new month. You’re welcome.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag At Rest

You guys, I just blogged 31 days in a row (sometimes more than one post per day!) which is clearly a personal record. I am definitely taking the weekend off.

Well, except for this announcement.

Oh, and I suppose I'll provide the answers for the banner contest while I'm here, below this reproduction of the Halloween banner:

1. Merv Pumpkinhead from Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics
2. The Gmork from The Never-Ending Story
3. Kodos and Kang from The Simpsons
4. Alison Brie as Annie Edison from Community as Samara from The Ring
5. Cover art from Stephen King's IT
6. The Gentlemen from the "Hush" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
7. Carolanne and the TV from Poltergeist
8. Dread Cthulhu from the "Coon and Friends" episode of South Park
9. Christopher Lee as Dracula from The Horror of Dracula
10. Hell Lord from The Cabin in the Woods
11. Boris Karloff as The Creature from Frankenstein
12. Johnny Blaze/Zarathos from Marvel's Ghost Rider comics
13. Cover art from the original Nightbane roleplaying game
14. Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street

And I'm out. See you all on Monday, when I'll fill you in on a month's worth of workplace developments that went unexplored due to the Halloween Countdown. (Just kidding! Nothing ever develops or changes at work.)