Friday, January 31, 2014

Speaking of nice round numbers ...

Happy New Year! Is it too late to say Happy New Year? Because I really want to acknowledge what year it is.

I know this is not a year that ends in a zero, marking either the beginning or the end of a decade (depending on how pedantic you want to get). It’s not even divisible by five. It’s also neither a presidential election year here in the States, nor a major American historical anniversary, though of course it marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War I as well as 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And there are a few pop culture events which might inspire some retrospectives: 20 years since Kurt Cobain’s suicide (though we all know how I feel about that), 30 years since the Terminator movies began, 40 years since Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, 50 years since the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and on and on. But you could pretty easily put together a list of generic milestones like that for any given year.

Still, I could drill down to some highly personal multi-decade commemorations if I were so inclined, particularly if we zoom in on a year like 1974. As an avowed Stephen King fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this spring marks 40 years since his first novel Carrie was published. It’s also 40 years since the invention of both Dungeons & Dragons and the Rubik’s Cube. I owned a Rubik’s Cube when I was a kid, although I was never very good at it, but not only was I fascinated by it, I can’t deny it as a signifier of both 80’s culture and nerd culture, both of which will always loom large for me. Dungeons & Dragons falls into all the same categories, with the exception that I was pretty good at D&D (and spent way more time playing that game than I ever did on the combination puzzle).

And of course not just artifacts and concepts are celebrating fortieths this year, but some famous people have big 4-0 birthdays in 2014, too. From Christian “Batman” Bale to Natasha “the girl from Species (and Species II)” Henstridge to Derek “Captain Clutch” Jeter. Three of the five core cast members of Saved By the Bell (Mark-Paul Gosselaer, Lark Voorhies, and Tiffani Thiessen) are all turning 40 this year, which depending on how prominently that particular Saturday morning kids’ show figured into your childhood, might make you feel old.

It has that effect on me, but then again, that might be because I, too, am turning 40 this year.

It’s still about eight months away, but I’m grappling with it already, though not in a terribly woeful “forty years in the desert and what does it all mean” kind of way. I’m happily married, reasonably at peace with the manner in which I put a roof over the heads and food on the table of my wife and kids, and fairly confident that I still have more years ahead of me than behind. Granted, to make them all good years I probably need to devote a little more attention and effort towards things like my physical upkeep and my financial planning and so forth, and so those kinds of things recur in my thought patterns. But again, they do so in a way that doesn’t freak me out so much as reinforce that I need to check off some do-able to-do’s like any other responsible grown-up.

I will be honest and admit that when I was around twelve years old, which is when I can first clearly recall daydreaming about myself and my life as an adult, I always saw myself as 35 and no older. To be fair, when I was twelve my parents were, in fact, 35 (they had me fairly young). And to a certain extent that image of adulthood was probably reinforced by stuff like comic books and action movies and so forth: 30-something is solidly mature, like Superman or Indiana Jones; 40-plus is just ancient. Or so it seemed to adolescent me (and, I imagine, continues to seem to adolescents everywhere).

Still, much as I hold on to a lot of my adolescence, consciously and subconsciously, I think I can get over this hang-up. There’s really only one proven method to avoid turning 40, and I’d much rather celebrate this birthday (and many more!) than pack it in. No contest. And as long as I’m celebrating a birthday ending in a zero, I might as well do so conspicuously, because those are the occasions on which self-indulgence is most likely to be forgiven. Of course this blog is one of the more self-indulgent activities I partake in these days as it is, so channeling things through this outlet makes a certain amount of sense as well. To that end, I have come up with a throughline for this year which I hope to return to regularly in a series of posts. Call it a thematic unification, call it a gimmick. Call it Life In A Year.

I’m still as obsessed as ever with filling in the gaps of my personal experience with various pieces of pop culture, and that remains one of my guiding principles as I continue to pick out books to read and movies to watch as I fill the time of my daily VRE commutes. And I’ve always been the first to acknowledge that there is a ton of stuff from before my time which easily qualifies as That Which I Should Really Catch Up On. But this year is not going to be the year I make a ton of progress in that area. Some progress, sure, here and there. But my main focus for the rest of 2014 is going to be the output of my own lifetime, the past 40 years. The plan is to select one or two works from each year of my life, in chronological order, and do some variation on my usual review and reaction write-up as I go along. I’ll probably do one per week or so.

Note that these are not going to be my personal favorites, because obviously by definition those would be things I’ve already consumed (probably repeatedly) over the course of my life. These are the things that I missed the past four decades, retroactive make-up work. Some of them are going to be bonafide classics, since I do have an unfortunate tendency to have major blindspots in the pop culture canon. Some of them will be utter obscurities which have somehow managed to pique my curiosity or seem right up my alley. Some of them will be recommendations I’ve solicited from friends. There will be movies from the 1001 Must-See Master List, as usual, as well as movies that don’t rank at all (and maybe rightly so). There will be novels and comic books and essay collections. There may very well be some television series (or at the very least however many episodes are on the first disc of a DVD box set of a tv series). There will hopefully be a few rock and roll albums, as well.

On the subject of music, I’m also hoping (though this is getting increasingly ambitious now) that I can finally get around to something I alluded to last year. (In fact if you go back and read that entire post, you can see I predicted it would happen right about now.) I made a playlist of songs I love, three from each year of my life, when I turned 33. I’ve toyed with the idea of reproducing that list in some expanded and annotated fashion here on the blog, and since I’m going to be methodically working my way through the years of my life anyway, it seems to fit right in. These songs are, as I say, all-time faves, as opposed to blindspots I’d be tracking down for the first time, so that should serve to balance out my overall retrospective approach.

Sound promising? Sound tedious? Well, not to sound like a broken record but it’s my blog and it’s my Big 4-0, so I’m going to give it a try. If I’m still blogging when I turn 50, I promise I’ll invite you all to the party.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Out of the woods (... maybe?)

This morning when I got up for work the temperature was 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet schools in our fair city were open, not even delaying their start times.

Perhaps I should back up and backfill the past few days of silence as well as review some earlier developments. Recall, if you will, that last Monday, ten days ago, was the federal recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and a school holiday. And the day after that, the schools were closed due to inclement weather. And the day after that, the same, and the day after that, the same. The reasoning shifted slightly as the week went along, from "actual snowfall" to "snow hasn't melted and is icy" to "really honestly dangerously cold and children shouldn't be willingly put at risk of frostbite". By last Friday, the schools finally felt comfortable opening for classes, with a two hour delay to give the sun time to rise and warm things up from "shockingly bitter" to "slightly breathtaking".

So all in all last week the little guy went to school for a grand total of a half a day. Going into this week, we knew he would be home at least Monday and Tuesday, because those had been on the calendar as teacher workshop days since September. (I heard rumors of other school systems deciding on the fly to move their customary mid-year teacher workshop days to the inclement weather days, under the logic that if the roads were clear enough to drive on, but school was closed because it was too frigid to ask the students to wait on street corners for buses or walk however many blocks, it was all right to ask adult teachers to drive themselves to school and brave the open-air parking lots. Some schools did this. Not ours.) Yesterday should have been the little guy's first day back, but once again we got a bit of snow and a lot of polar deathchill vortex air, so school was off. Today, though, as I led off with, it was business as usual. My wife dropped the little guy off at the bus and he is in the middle of his first full day of kindergarten since the 17th as I type this.

The cold snap seems to be over for the moment, for whatever that's worth. Although today started out well below freezing, it's supposed to get up above the 32oF mark today, and warmer and warmer still as the weekend progresses, with overnight lows in the seasonally appropriate upper 20's instead of single digits. It's an improvement, but this winter really can't end soon enough.

Anyway, the little guy's cabin fever is finally being treated in the most sanguine of ways, but before that was able to happen it threatened to become a full-blown household epidemic. At the very least, I believe the little guy transmitted a case to his baby brother. You would think that a ten-month-old, with all the temporal awareness of a moderately gifted goldfish, would be fairly immune to the boredom and existential claustrophobia that gives rise to cabin fever. I would think that too, but the fact is that some time over this past weekend the baby just went insane, with no discernible explanation, so if it's not a case of cabin fever contagion, I don't know what it is.

After steadily getting better and better about sleeping through the night or close to it, the baby started going from dozing peacefully to full-on standing freak-out multiple times a night. One bad night, my wife and I could handle, but two bad nights in a row where the second was worse than the first gave us cause for concern. Unfortunately these were Saturday and Sunday nights, so when Monday morning rolled around my wife asked if I would call in sick to work so that I could help deal with the kids. Partly this was us operating under the theory that two half-braindead sleep-deprived parents could approximate the competence of one normal caregiver, and partly it allowed my wife to take the baby to the pediatrician while leaving the other two home with me. (Taking all three kids to the doctor's office can be a harrowing experience, and also increases the odds that someone will come home with a germ they didn't have going in.)

In a weird and admittedly selfish way, we were hoping the doctor would say the baby had an ear infection. Not that we would ever wish such a malady on any child, but we've survived the little guy and little girl having so many ear infections they each had operations to put drainage tubes in. We know ear infections tend to upset babies the most at night when they're lying down and gunk pools against their eardrum and creates painful pressure. (Or something like that; IANAD) We also know antibiotics will make ear infections go away, and ibuprofen and acetaminophen can address the symptoms, and overall it makes it somehow more bearable to be up half the night with a squalling infant if you know, definitively, what the problem is and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

But the pediatrician said no ear infection was to blame this time. In fact, the doctor couldn't find a single thing wrong with the baby. Nor could we. No bumps in his mouth to indicate some major teething going on, no unusual lack of diaper-filling to indicate lower GI distress, no recent craziness (beyond the usual) to cause stress. Nada. Just a sudden and inexplicable hatred of the very concept of overnight sleep.

With no new strategy to guide us, we tried to make the best of things Monday night, and there may have been some slight improvement. I went back to work on Tuesday, but still felt a bit out of it, hence the lack of a post. Tuesday night went better, and last night better still, almost back to normal. I don't want to jinx things, but it feels like the worst has passed. The next few nights should either prove or disprove that, at any rate.

Oh and also, poor-neglected-middle-child little girl is still two years old, and she had a couple of epic wobblies at bedtime herself, which was NOT HELPFUL. But she has also gotten better. So it's been stormy, but the skies may well be clearing. Here's hoping.

Finally, I was working on finishing a personal project over the past couple of days, which occupied essentially all of the time and mental energy I might normally devote to the blog, so that's another reason why there wasn't even a post yesterday. My side of the project is now done, though, so here I am. As far as what the project is, again, I don't want to jinx anything at this stage. But when I am at liberty to elaborate on it I will be more than happy to do so.

OK, we are all caught up! I'm already looking forward to next week being predictable and uneventful. (Which is probably pushing my luck on the whole not-jinxing-things front. Ah, well.)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag of Infinitessimal Interest

Minor follow-up to this week's post about the deleterious effects of prolonged school closures: right about the time I was composing and posting that particular musing, the little guy was at home with the babysitter, and had gone up to his room to play unsupervised. This is to be expected (our sitter can't be in two places at once and there's a higher priority on keeping a watchful eye on the baby and the two-year-old) and normally it would be fine, but as it happened the little guy decided he would put his bedside table up on his bed, then climb onto the table, and pull down the plastic model planets suspended from the ceiling. Bad enough that this high-risk maneuver could have potentially resulted in serious traumatic injury to the little guy, but the planets were hung by nylon threads from little star-shaped thumbtacks, which were loosed from the ceiling and subsequently scattered around, some winding up on the bedroom floor immediately, others still connected to their threads for a while as the little guy carried the planets around, only to fall off on the stairs, or in the living room, &c.

Fortunately (which is a qualifier I rarely use in the context I'm about to describe here), the baby was in a very clingy mood when I got home, so I didn't let him crawl around on the floor much at all (or more accurately, he didn't let me let him). It was only after dinner, as we all went upstairs for bathtime, that I even became aware of the missing thumbtacks, which led to me juggling the baby between the bath and what I hoped were safe spaces while trying to spot sharp, pointy little choking hazards wherever they might have fallen. Nobody stepped on, swallowed, or punctured anything, thankfully. I found most of the thumbtacks before my wife got home, and once she was in the house and brought up to speed, she managed to locate the rest.

I know he's five, and I know by Thursday afternoon he was clearly going out of his mind with boredom, but dang. School had a delayed opening on Friday, but at least he got to go. Things can't get back to normal soon enough.

+++

Anyway, on to much more lightweight matters. When I was visiting my dad last weekend we got to talking about the Pick'em Pool and how we had both finished with ground floor (i.e., not quite basement) records. Dad then informed me that the organizer had extended picking season into the playoffs for a select few people. (I think I've mentioned before that my father and the Pick'em commish are old childhood friends, so I certainly don't begrudge that I didn't make the cut.) Since there are fewer games per weekend in the playoffs than in the regular season, in order to make things interesting the commish includes various prop bets; so not just picking the winner against the spread, but also picking who scores first, the over/under points total, and so on. All of this to set up Dad admitting that in the first week he had a perfect record, going 0-for-8 and getting every single pick wrong. He did ask if he could get a special prize for this. He was told no, not so much.

So, my abilities (lack thereof) in this realm may have a genetic component. More data will be collected next season!

+++

From the Vanity Plate Archive: Saw a car in the parking garage at the train station which had a vanity plate reading RN4BEER. The message, "RUN FOR BEER", is hardly difficult to discern, and not even all that random. I've known people who belong to social clubs that get together on the weekends, go for cross-country runs, and meet up at a predetermined watering hole destination when it's over. In other words, this is a thing people do, and the vanity plate was a very straightforward expression of that, unlikely to lend itself to wildly inappropriate misinterpretation (with the possible exception of "NURSE FOR BEER"? I don't even know how that would work.)

The only reason I mention this particular sighting is because the owner of the car also had installed a license plate holder which read ... "Will Run For Beer". And that is just too much, I mean, right? That's like being the guy who wears a sports jersey for a certain team and then additionally wears a ballcap for the same team in the identical color scheme. Like, we get it, guy. You're a big fan. Either one or the other of those accessories would have gotten the idea across. Both is overkill.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Party over here, party over there

So the Super Bowl is approaching, and that is an occasion I always look forward to, more and more for purely social reasons. I am completely uninterested in the Commercials Are The Only Reason To Watch/People Who Loudly Proclaim They Only Watch For The Ads Are Worse Than Hitler debate. Some years I have a vested interest in rooting for one of the teams playing for the championship (while other years I have a vested interest in rooting against a team), and some years it’s just a game the outcome of which will not really impact me emotionally. Mainly it’s a designated big cultural event on a specific date which prompts a bunch of my friends whom I don’t see very often to gather together over buffalo wings and beer. I deem this a worthy use of time.

I’m slightly biased on this subject because I’m an extrovert and I love parties. I love attending them, and I love throwing them. And I’ve thrown some doozies, if I do say so myself. I mentioned back around Halloween how me and some buddies made a grand entrance as a bunch of Smurfs at one of our house parties, and I (blurrily) remember that entire party being a good time had by all. For a while there, when I was living in that townhouse-full-of-roommates arrangement, we were making a concerted effort to throw at least one party every month. In practical terms this meant just asking people to come over to our house and hang out and drink, but more often than not we made some token effort to tie things together with some kind of theme. Sometimes that meant simply staking a claim on traditional party dates, like Halloween or New Year’s Eve, and going with that. Other times it involved a little more creative effort:

- We hosted an honest-to-Jove toga party
- We hosted two different “Screw Winter” parties, revolving around tropical drinks and (minimal) beach attire in the dead of winter. The first one was actually a bit of a bust, since a ton of snow dumped down on the day of the party and it ended up being just those of us who lived in the house and one friend who braved the roads. The follow-up was much better.
- We hosted “Drinking Star Wars” events, which were deadly (not literally, but not for lack of trying) day-long marathons of playing a drinking game along with the entire Star Wars trilogy.
- We hosted parties based around the “Purity Test” that was floating around the proto-internet back in the day. This was a yes/no questionnaire about things you’ve done in your life (mostly sex/drugs/drinking and petty crime) where the more questions you can answer “yes I’ve done that” the less pure (or prudish) you are. We gave everyone paper and pens, administered the test orally (hehhehheh) and asked everyone to tabulate their own score. Then everyone wrote their scores on nametags, which made for a hell of an icebreaker as the party progressed (as did various attempts to alter scores in the downward direction over the course of the evening)

And so on. Having roommates to defray the costs and co-shoulder the logistical burdens of hosting parties naturally led to more and more elaborate scenarios, but even after I had moved out into my own place I still threw the occasional theme-heavy bash. (Once I got an actual 300 lb. pirate bar in my basement, it would have been an absolute sin not to host a Pirate Party.) That’s just my personal predilections at work. I enjoy a good dinner party or cocktail reception, and backyard cookouts make life worth living, but what really pushes my buttons are orchestrated excuses for eating and drinking combined with costumed pageantry and/or organized competitive events.

Of course, that’s basically the provenance of the childless as well, and especially at this point in time where my kids are not all sleeping through the night (so close! but not quite!) I have neither the energy, desire nor ability to make an epic rager happen, even in the comfort of my own home. But apparently there is a dedicated segment of my brain for thinking about such things, and it continues to hum along in the background, waiting for the time when I can truly embarrass my offspring by hosting parties for all my should-be-too-old-for-this-but-refuse-to-grow-up friends. Of which I plan to have many (friends like that for sure, and possibly parties).

And in fact there remain a number of parties which I have never had the opportunity to host, and yet which I still hope to maybe get around to organizing one of these days, when all of my kids are teenagers and I have regained the ability to stay up past 11 p.m. and I have more disposable income than I know what to do with. I now present five of these potential party ideas, in increasing order of elaborate expense and general improbability:

1. Any kind of pubquiz/gameshow. This is also, coincidentally, a kind of party I have wanted to throw for a long, long time, at least as far back as the townhouse days. Back then, there was a brief-lived show on MTV called Idiot Savants which was basically just a pop culture trivia gameshow, with the added twist that contestants got to pick their own wheelhouse category for the final round in advance, and the producers would come up with questions in that category. I so very much wanted to throw an Idiot Savants party back in the day, but the prep work involved was pretty daunting. And I knew from experience with the activity-heavy parties like Star Wars and Purity that just getting people to show up at your house on time could be a challenge, let alone running an elimination tournament in rounds. So it never materialized, but since those crazy early-1997 days I’ve held onto the idea, and continued to enjoy everything from Comedy Centrals Beat the Geeks to VH1’s World Series of Pop Culture to NPR’s Ask Me Another, and bided my time.

2. Casablanca immersion. This one I’ve wanted to pull off even longer, ever since I was first introduced to Casablanca in college. I’d love to have people over to watch the movie and serve Moroccan food and all the fancy cocktails that get ordered by name at Rick’s. Maybe even rent a roulette table and croupier for the night? Evening wear optional, but inherently part of the appeal, I think.

3. Superhero murder mystery. I have been to a couple of murder mystery parties, both as host and guest, and I think they are awesome. I know there is a counterpoint opinion that they are cheesy like a fondue-tsunami, but I have never not had fun with them. The key is to invite the right people, who all have to be (a) willing to dress up in costumes and (b) able to do in-character improv and (c) amused by the thought of trying to solve a fictional mystery and then (d) know each other well enough or at least potentially get along well enough for it to feel like an actual party. Amazingly enough, I believe myself lucky enough to know a lot of people like this, and on top of all that, those same people are by and large total geeks like me. Theoretically, they could totally get behind a murder mystery party where the milieu was superhero pastiche. The problem, though, is that I have never seen one commercially produced, which is kind of critical, since I’ve also never heard of someone inventing their own murder mystery on the fly. An out-of-the-box murder mystery of course provides the pre-printed invitations and the cheat sheets of what each character knows and/or is trying to hide, but most importantly it contains an actual mystery that hangs together in a logical way, plays by the rules of the genre, and can be figured out. That is harder than it sounds. The only approach I’ve ever thought might work would be to get a commercial murder mystery kit, strip out the period details for pirates or cowboys or gangsters or whatever, and then fill in comic book inspired details, possibly with input from the guests who would be allowed/encouraged to come up with their own vigilante personas for the evening. But again, that is an uphill logistical battle.

4. Float-in movie marathon. Now we’re getting really crazy, as this would require more than mere disposable income. It would require sufficient wealth to move to a different house with its own pool, for starters. And then I would have to order up some special equipment from SkyMall. (I fully admit that window-shopping through the pages of SkyMall is often one of the guilty pleasure highlights of commercial airline travel, for me.) Specifically, a full-size outdoor projection screen system, which is a beyond-luxury item that I have coveted for as long as I can remember, or at least as long as I’ve been aware that such things exist. If I did own a house with a pool, I like to think I’d be generous about having people over to enjoy it whenever seasonally appropriate. But to really take it to the next level, I’d set up a movie screen right next to the pool (which, again, I swear is an idea lifted straight from the catalog photo) and make sure there were plenty of pool noodles, inflatable innertubes and buoyant chaise longues to go around. I reckon for the inaugural event (because of course it would become an annual tradition) I’d be hard-pressed to resist the temptation to go with an ironic movie choice, like a double feature of Deep Blue Sea and Waterworld. But after that, I’d mix things up, take requests, and whatnot.

5. Midnight Madness! Finally something both prohibitively expensive and logistically ludicrous! This is an idea lifted wholesale from the movie of the same name, which I listed amongst my non-canon movie memories and which I acknowledge is a fairly obscure flick (despite featuring a very young Michael J. Fox and a whole bunch of “hey, it’s that guy!”s). The entire plot of the movie, such as it is, revolves around a bunch of teams playing an all-night game of solving puzzles which lead to locations where more puzzles are hidden, the solutions of which will lead onward and onward, until at the finish line there’s a giant party and whichever team gets there first wins some grand prize. I am such a huge nerd that I would find it deliriously fun to come up with these brain-teasers intended to lead people around the local sights. The biggest obstacle (above and beyond the cost of the venue for the finish-line party, and inviting the right people who could recruit teams, &c.) is getting buy-in from third parties. In the movie, some of the puzzles and clues are hidden as menu items in restaurants or victory screens of cabinet games at video arcades or special exhibits at museums, because of course the movie is a fantasy. But even securing enough cooperation to guarantee that a simple puzzle is going to stay where it needs to be for the players to find it on the night of the party could be tough. (I have seen organized events along these lines in the real world, but usually put together by a large group with its own infrastructure, not an overenthusastic individual.) Oh, but to pull it off would be glorious.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Freeze-out

There hasn't been any more snow, but the persistence of single-digit temperatures during the morning hours when kids would normally be expected to go outside and stand on a corner waiting for a bus or walk their usual footpath to school led the city we live in to close school again today. Apparently, for the older kids, midterms have been cancelled altogether. I will await another robocall/e-mail combo tonight concerning the school status for tomorrow, but so far the forecast looks about the same, so the outcome may be as well.

And then it will be the weekend, and then next Monday and Tuesday the schools were supposed to be closed for teacher workshops anyway. So it may very well end up that the little guy goes from the afternoon of the 17th to the morning of the 29th without setting foot in school. Which, clearly, is not a huge deal in terms of academic advancement. Missing a week of kindergarten is not going to put him behind the curve in any appreciable way. But it does inspire a little trepidation in me, I admit.

The thing is, the little guy does not need five days a week of academic instruction in order to keep from falling behind in grade-level-or-above knowledge and skills. He can do some arithmetic (including a fair amount in his head), he can read some (probably more than he usually admits, because he's inherited some perfectionism on both sides and tends to avoid medium-difficult words and the inherent risk of getting them wrong), and in general his brain is a little sponge for facts historical, scientific, &c. But he lacks focus, and self-control, and discipline, and while as recently as a couple of years ago I would have done some hearty scoffing over the idea of really caring whether or not a five-year-old could be described as disciplined, now that I have a child of my own in school I can see how the habits which will rule his entire future academic career are forming here in the present, and it's not the worst over-parenting in the world to take them seriously.

So the little guy got a break from the structure of kindergarten for a couple weeks around the holidays, and that struck me as a good thing, just to give him some time to rest and recover from the demands of school, such as they are (minor, but a new adjustment for him). After that, I was hoping that he would continue to build on various little victories and successful advancements carrying him into the back half of the school year. But after two weeks of rebuilding momentum, he's now back in a protracted spell of downtime mode as described above. Which strikes me as a shame.

But not, of course, a world-ending tragedy. And not something that can't be recovered from. It may in retrospect be a blip, a non-event, a weird bit of weather-themed personal trivia that the little guy barely remembers from early childhood. Or it may be a setback, steadily undoing the work that had previously been done, and we (little guy, me and my wife, and the little guy's teachers) may find ourselves starting over again from someplace we thought we'd already gotten past. I'm sure we can do so, but having kids often means just wanting so very badly to not have to do so. My wife and I both understand and accept (and commiserate about) the facts: that growing up is hard, doing well in school requires work, adversity builds character, and every other truism along those lines. But that doesn't mean we still don't wish that everything could just be super-easy and wonderful for all our children, all the time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Low Input = Low Output

I’m afraid I am still in low content mode, although I did return to the office today. Not for a normal day, of course. School was cancelled again today, and with the snow not tapering off until the wee hours of the night, the plows did not make their neighborhood rounds until well after the sun came up (whereas, incidentally, I got layered up and went out and shoveled the driveway and sidewalk shortly after the sun came up; fortunately the plow did not re-block the driveway when it passed by). My wife and I were both expected at work today, although in her case it was as-close-to-normal-schedule-as-possible, while I benefited from the federal government opening on a two-hour delay. So I waited at home for the babysitter, who also had to await the snowplows to clear her way, while my wife got on the road first, and by the time I could leave the trains were no longer running and I had to drive in. Traffic was lighter than usual at first, but got worse and worse the closer I got to the city, so we shall see how it goes in the back-home direction this afternoon.

In any case, obviously I did not watch anything or read anything on the commute today. Nor did I have any commute yesterday, thanks to the weather, or the day before that, thanks to the holiday. I did spend about six or seven hours in the car on Monday, just as I had on Saturday, making the roundtrip journey to my father’s house in Connecticut. No new entertainments for me on those legs of the trip, but I listened to the DVDs that were playing right behind my head for the kids’ benefit. (Eight episodes of Curious George, two viewings of How to Train Your Dragon, two consecutive full run-throughs of Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants, four episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, the first Toy Story, and three episodes of the old 90’s Nick Jr. puppetshow The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss.)

And of course last night Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a rerun so, all in all, source material for my usual Wednesday blogging fodder is pretty thin on the ground right now. I imagine things will return at least a bit closer to normal over the next week or so (second freakishly severe cold snap of the winter notwithstanding) but right now all I can do is acknowledge that I have had other more important things to worry about than movies, tv, books and comics. It does happen sometimes!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"I would only ever blind you with good news"

... is what I said to my wife this morning, when the baby woke up on the early side and she fetched him from his crib and sat in the glider next to our bed to nurse him, in the dark, while I rolled over and picked up my phone off the nightstand to refresh the OPM page in my web browser. I held the phone out for my wife to see, but was more than an arm's length away and thus only succeeded in overloading her eyes with the site of a white screen in a black room. I then informed her that the screen said the federal offices in D.C. were closed today due to snow. Hence, good news.

I was away all weekend, including Monday, with the two bigger kids on a visit to my dad's. Having the day off today means a bit more time to unpack and sort dirty laundry from clean and generally recuperate (not to mention reconnect with my lovely spouse). It also means I haven't blogged since last Thursday and am just throwing this up as a low content placeholder to show some signs of life around here and scare away cyber-hobos.

More soon, maybe tomorrow but with the way it's been snowing all day and is supposed to go into the night, maybe not?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Enabler

When I look back on my early childhood I remember a certain low-level yet persistent frustration which was the inevitable result of becoming obsessed with something but lacking the resources or general wherewithal to do much about it. I always marvel at stories about kids in the 1950’s who lived within walking distance of a movie theater and could and did go there every single Saturday for cartoons and cliffhanger serials and monster movie matinees. I did not have that level of access to cinema, and going to the multiplex was a rare treat. I also didn’t get an allowance until I was probably around ten years old, and my grandparents had a tendency in those halcyon days to buy U.S. savings bonds for special occasions rather than sending cash (though my parents probably would have claimed eminent domain over cash, too) so I never had a ton of pocket money for comics and toys and whatnot. You’d be forgiven for thinking, based on the way I go on and on about those pieces of pop culture ephemera of my youth, that I was up to my eyeballs in them as a kid, but I really don’t think I was. I was aware of all of it, but a lot of it was second-hand, playing with someone else’s Star Wars or GI Joe collection at their house afterschool or just seeing commercials on tv or photos in the Spiegel catalog. My parents were perfectly indulgent around Christmas and birthdays, but almost never just bought me (or my siblings) random goodies just for a decent report card or acceptably pro-social behavior or anything like that.

I’m not bemoaning any of this as remarkably sad beginnings that I had to overcome. Obviously I came out reasonably unscarred and still fully capable of getting obsessed with things, and then indulging those obsessions for my own sake. But clearly I have a choice when it comes to raising my own children: follow my parents’ example of moderation in all things including the virtue of patience (specifically being patient between Christmas and your next birthday), or be more indulgent and ever and ever more indulgent, and ha ha that was pretty cute how I pretended for half a second there as if there were actually a differing position I might consider.

Because of course when I indulge my kids, I indulge myself. Case in point, the most recent Saturday Night Movie which the little guy feasted his eyes upon was How To Train Your Dragon. I believe I have mentioned how he took an interest in knights and dragons right before Christmas (fortuitously enough) and then received knight and dragon toys aplenty and now is full-blown obsessed, which is all well and good. I was just as happy to indulge knights and dragons as I had been to indulge Cars or Toy Story, although in the latter case it did make Saturday Night Movies a bit of a trial, as apparently I get a little antsy about sitting through Toy Story 2 for the hundredth time while no such limitation afflicts my son. So not only were knights and dragons a good opening for reconsidering the movies on tap for Saturdays, but I had actually heard very good things about How To Train Your Dragon from a very technical, nuts-and-bolts screenwriting perspective, and I was eager to check it out to satisfy my own curiosity. Really it’s a win-win all around.

(And for what it’s worth, it’s utterly trivial to add a particular children’s movie to my Netflix queue in order to allow my kids to watch it in the comfort of our home, which is an entirely different paradigm from what my parents were working with back in the early 80’s, when the only options were not exactly cheap movie theaters and the inflexible scheduling whims of cable tv. I know.)

So, bottom line, the little guy enjoyed the movie, although it is pretty intense. It has an admirable message, where institutionalized cultural violence is demonstrably bad and multicultural (Vikings and dragons) understanding and cooperation is good, but there’s a lot of violence up front to be made an example of first. In fact, the movie is actually rated PG, and I’m just about positive it’s the first non-G-rated movie the little guy has under his belt. In my own defense, I didn’t really consider the possibility that it wasn’t rated G until it was playing onscreen, as I had just assumed that all animated movies marketed to kids were rated G. Learn something new every day (even five-plus years into this whole parenting thing).

Of course, technically, I wouldn’t say the little guy has seen the whole movie. As is his wont, he was excitedly running in and out of the room for almost the entire running time. But his sensibilities may also be developing, at least somewhat. Not too long ago he would leave the room during the scary part of a movie and say in no uncertain terms and with a quaver in his voice “I don’t like this! Tell me when it’s over!” With How To Train Your Dragon he made frequent departures but never lost his composure per se, and when his mother and I asked him what he was doing he said he was “reporting back to his crew” which apparently was some number of imaginary friends hanging out in the dining room or thereabouts. So, fair enough.

But the dragon obsession remains in full effect, with How To Train Your Dragon leading the way at this point. I haven’t run out and bought tons of books and licensed toys and sundries from the franchise just yet, but it’s only been a few days; I’m not saying I’m not going to, either. And it’s been a while since I took the little guy to a proper movie theater matinee, but I might have to mark my calendar for June, when How To Train Your Dragon 2 hits the screens.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Post-Perfect Storm Syndrome

(Given a title like the one atop this post, you might expect that since today is Wednesday and there was a new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on last night and one of its plot points was a mad science hail-icane that I’m going to talk about my favorite underperforming bit of multimedia synergy. Eh, maybe later. Real-life misadventures follow.)

At 9:00 a.m. this morning, my wife and I were both seated in her car, waiting at a stoplight, and she noticed the time and laughed heartily and sincerely, “We have been awake for four hours today and we have accomplished nothing!” I pointed out this was not technically accurate, since we (she) had accomplished one important task, namely getting the little guy dropped off at school on time. Other than that, though, she made a fair point.

I got up at the right time this morning, having only hit the snooze button once; my wife was out of bed just a few minutes after me and we got ourselves ready for the day in our customary orderly, overlapping manner. Some mornings things get complicated by one or more of the children waking up at the same time we do (or waking us up outright) and the need to incorporate feeding, diaper changing and general safety supervision along with the other morning to-do’s, but today the kids were all asleep. In fact the baby (and as a direct result, the parents) had slept through the night, and has been doing so more and more reliably, so my wife and I were reasonably ready to face the day and things were humming along nicely.

And in really-truly fact, things overall have been going swimmingly the past couple of weeks. We had ordered a piece of furniture for the entryway of the house, a bench with hooks above and baskets beneath, to keep winter coats and shoes (mostly the kids’) organized, and it was supposed to arrive by the end of the month but came on Monday, a welcome surprise. Little things that had been annoyingly misplaced throughout the house have turned up as if of their own accord. We were riding along on an enjoyable streak of good luck, which is about the only way to explain things which were out of our control nevertheless breaking our way.

Clearly this could not last.

The point where things started to unravel this morning really occurred yesterday. Somehow, at the end of the workday, I was off my game to the point where I shoved my computer access cards into my pants pocket instead of my work bag. When I got home, I knew better than to run the risk of leaving the cards there, then tossing the pants in the hamper at bedtime, and then having no idea where the cards were in the morning. So I put the cards on the kitchen counter with my keys and phone. But this morning, although I managed to pick up the keys and the phone again, I completely overlooked the computer access cards, and I left the house without them. Without the cards, I can’t log on to the work networks at all, and can’t do anything related to my job duties (or even pretend to look busy, really).

I might have gotten all the way to my cubicle without realizing my error, except that my wife realized it for me when she spotted and recognized the cards. She called my cell, and found out I had just sat down on the train, which had just pulled out of the station. She, being the apotheosis of awesome, suggested I hop off at the next stop and wait there for her to deliver the cards to me by car. I agreed, so at 6:30 I was standing on the sidewalk in front of a train station, awaiting my entire family.

The GPS on her phone gave my wife a bit of a hard time but she did make it to the train station, with all three kids in pajamas in their carseats but also in reasonably good moods. I thanked my wife profusely for going out of her way for me, and she graciously assured me it was well covered under the same-team ethos of our marriage. And off she drove again, to get the kids ready for kindergarten or the babysitter as the case may be.

Our quick curbside transaction had concluded a little before 7, but the next train wasn’t due at the station until 7:30. It was a dismal morning, weather-wise, fairly cold and damp and extremely foggy. I stomped around the platform trying to warm myself up. I read a little bit on my cell phone, but noticed it was almost out of battery charge, and put it away. And then I noticed that the tv monitors which display the train locations and statuses indicated the 7:30 train had been cancelled.

I’ve been riding the VRE for years now, and I’ve seen On Time statuses the vast majority of the time and occasional Delayed statuses here and there but I had never seen an outright Cancelled. The next train after the now non-existent 7:30 was an 8:00, which also happened to be the last city-bound train of the regular morning schedule. I knew if one train was cancelled there was at least a possibility that the problem would not be resolved quickly enough for later trains to stay on time. I called my wife to advise her that things were not looking good, but we agreed to hold off on making alternate plans until the train situation gained a little more clarity.

Some time between 7:30 and 8 the 8:00 train was announced as being delayed, with no timeframe. Some time after that, the delay was specified as two hours. And shortly after that, they just went ahead and cancelled that train, too, advising riders that their VRE tickets would be honored by Metro that morning. (If you are not from this area, you might not have a sense of how far away the nearest Metro station is from my neck of the woods, which one-VRE-stop-up-the-line qualifies as. The answer is, pretty freaking far.) Also right around the time the last train was cancelled, my cell phone went from low battery to none and shut itself down.

So I was pretty well stranded. No trains were coming to my location, nor was I in the same place as my car, which was still one stop back where I had started my short, ill-fated rail riding this morning. I didn’t have a cell phone to make calls with, let alone look up a taxi company’s phone number with; I didn’t even know what time it was, since my phone is my de facto timepiece and VRE stations oddly enough have no clocks whatsoever. But I knew it was right around the time that the babysitter would be arriving at my house and my wife would be heading out the door to get the little guy to the school bus stop. What the station platform lacked in clocks it made up in payphones (amazing how those things are still around when I need them) and I used a credit card to call home and explain the situation to my wife. Her first inclination was to call a cab on my behalf, to take me back to my normal train station so I could retrieve my car, but after a moment’s reflection she called her place of employment first, found out they were far from overbooked for the morning, and opted to simply go into work late after picking me up herself.

Which is how we ended up in the car together at 9:00 a.m., since it took some time to drop off the little guy (right at school, since the earlier shenanigans had caused sufficient delay and disruption for him to miss the bus) and then navigate through the local late rush hour traffic (and the persistent fog). We were showered and dressed but otherwise no closer to our intended destinations. But at that point, at least, the worst was behind us. My wife drove me to my car, I switched vehicles, and we went our separate ways, both late for work (her by a little, me by a lot) but, as we repeatedly noted, both basically fine, healthy, whole, safe and able to continue on to the point where we can look back and laugh.

I should acknowledge that the same cannot be said, ultimately, for every facet of the story. The trains were cancelled for a reason, and the reason was that a person was struck by a train and everything had to be shut down for the ensuing investigation. The newspapers are reporting that the person died. It’s a horrible turn of events, and I would hope it goes without saying that I am in no way whatsoever attempting to say that the worst thing that happened to anyone this morning was that I was severely inconvenienced largely due to my own carelessness. I am not even implying that the effects on me personally and their underlying cause are in any sense comparable. I bring it up because it seems like it would be worse to ignore it completely, not because I have any intention of tying it all together somehow. It’s human nature to be tempted to find meaning in meaningless awfulness, but in cases that boil down to “a random stranger died, which makes me feel happy and lucky to be alive” that seems far too trite (like, Christmas Shoes-level trite).

All of which makes it very hard to wrap up this post, which really is bottom-line about a bunch of first-world problems I brought upon myself which are vaguely amusing solely because the odds of them all happening in the same morning, as they did, seem so low. If you also found it vaguely amusing, I’m glad I shared. If you can top it for sheer irritation and indignities, I don’t doubt that at all and I sympathize. If you think I’m kind of dumb and self-absorbed, you’re not thinking anything I haven’t thought about myself a hundred times, I promise. And if you wonder what kind of sense we are supposed to make out of the ups and downs of inexplicable life, I am right there with you.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Let me hear that tho-o-ong

I am currently reading a book called Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr. and it may just be one of the more ideal commuting books I’ve tossed in my messenger bag in a long while. It’s a few hundred pages of musings on the way words work, which is a fairly broad premise able to contain lots of different angles of approach. The book is organized into chapters, one per letter (after a throat-clearing introduction, which I of course by no means object to) and then further broken down into considerations of individual words starting with each letter. Some words are selected because they figure in anecdotes which illuminate the usage of language, some because they illustrate a characteristic of whole families of related words, some because they have inherently fascinating etymologies. Some just because Blount likes the look or the sound or the sense of them.

The reason why this is perfect for the commute is because it has little discernible cumulative effect. It’s not a novel with characters to keep track of and plot points to parse. It’s not non-fiction history, which bears at least those previous points in common with narrative, nor is it even non-fiction pop science where basic concepts introduced early in the book build a foundation for understanding the denser stuff later on. It’s just mini morsels of interestingness, and I can pick it up or put it down at will. The differences between reading one page at a go, or ten, or fifty, are negligible. I can leave it untouched for an afternoon ride home because I’d rather read an online article on my phone, or take a nap, or whatever, or set it aside for days because I just got a couple of new discs from Netflix or a back-ordered book from Amazon, and when I come back and pick up where I left off it does not matter if I remember previous Alphabet Juice developments, because there are none. Or at least none which would influence my understanding of the remainder of the book.

As somebody with a long-standing obsession with genre fictions that create intricate mythologies and run to the thousands of pages through multiple annotated volumes, it’s refreshingly low-maintenance to have a book in my hands that (although I am reading it straight through cover-to-cover, because of course I am) would be equally as enjoyable if I opened it at random.

Here’s a particularly resonant (to me) example from the early going in Alphabet Juice: Blount considers the word drawl (he’s from Georgia) and in particular a Webster’s definition of the word which includes the linguistic diagnosis “vowels greatly prolonged so that vowels monothongal in other styles of speech are often dipthongized”. Blount points out that this is a fair description, while also taking time (and rightly so) to acknowledge that “monothongal” and “dipthongized” are pretty phenomenal words, themselves. In any case, this struck a chord with me because it gets to the very core of some of the earliest interactions my wife and I ever had, way back in college, long before we were aware of any romantic potential (other than the fact that we were both young, healthy, and immersed in the campus environs where pretty much every conceivable interpersonal pairing seems to have some kind of viable potential energy to it). At that point I was a boy from up north who found southern belles alluring, and a certain Dixie-raised (or Dixie-adjacent) young lady divined not only that factoid about me but more specifically that if she spoke my first name, which where I’m from consists of exactly one long-vowel syllable, and doubled up the middle, I was usually dumbstruck. To a certain extent, the young lady kept deploying this technique because she thought it was funny how I would stop in my tracks or forget what I had been about to say, but on another level there was a touch of proto-flirting to both sides of the exchange, her exaggerated drawl and my exaggerated reaction to it. Developments since then (not least including one marriage and three kids) have borne out that there was a bit more going on there than two friendly acquaintances messing with each other.

I could get even more specific about the way that my fated-to-be-future wife would tease out the sound of my name as if she were trying to make room to snuggle up inside it, and do so without any difficulty because she still does it every once in a while to this day. Except, I can’t really get much more specific without breaking my own rules about not using real names here on the blog. Believe it or not (but given that I’ve kept this blog going for like almost five years now, my own egomania can hardly qualify as a surprise anymore) I run up against this on a fairly regular basis. All sorts of things occur to me all the time which revolve around names, surnames and given names, maiden and married names, namesakes, nicknames, pet names, names from secret languages and babytalk approximations of names. That last category especially gives me trouble, as obviously I’m enthusiastic about sharing stories of the ridiculous hijinks my own kids get up to, and sometimes that would involve what they call each other as they’re learning to talk (the little girl at this point can’t quite pronounce either of her brothers’ names exactly, and of course we just encourage her mispronunciation because it’s adorable) or any number of other nomenclature-centric adventures. Sometimes it’s absolutely impossible to tell the story without citing the names specifically, and sometimes I might be able to do it although it involves certain cumbersome abstract descriptions (as above, where I called my own name “exactly one long-vowel syllable”, or if I were talking about the little guy and little girl and explained, “both names are three syllables long, though his is seven letters and hers is nine, which matters because blah blah blah”), and sometimes I might be able to refer to generalities but the anecdote would lose too much in the redaction. So, by and large, I skip it.

And so it’s just one of those areas of thought that’s intensely meaningful for me but is disproportionately under-represented here on the blog. It’s an absence I’ve been itching to address for a long while, and the train of thought kicked off by Blount’s “drawl” entry finally gave me a semi-reasonable excuse. I do think names are important, and matter, and have a certain power in and of themselves, and if I wanted to write a book that nobody except my closest (and most indulgent) relatives would read, I could almost certainly fill one up on our family names. But, I also know we live in a world now where too much personally identifying information floating around on teh interwebs can be nightmarish, so I have to keep my predilections in check. But in case you were ever wondering where I come down on the subject of names, I will own up to being a lifelong fan.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Project cycles

I’m sure everyone has been on virtual tenterhooks wondering if I was able to roust myself from preoccupations over the alarmingly cold weather last week long enough to complete my dreaded annual self-evaluation for work. As it happened, I was so able. A factor working in my favor was that I have finally reached the point where I more or less trust my supervisor to recognize the valuable contributions I make (in the sense that I’m the only person who could make them, given the distribution of professional skillsets) to the contract, and that means that as long as I don’t make my supervisor’s life any harder, he will wave me through with another boilerplate “exceeds expectations” recommendation for salary increase and blah blah blah, every year. I would make my supervisor’s life harder if I failed to complete the self-evaluation by the deadline, or if I completed it only in the sense of filling in every required field with gguyhfuyhgfvhjlbhljgvh or somesuch. So those are the only pitfalls I needed to avoid, and avoid them I did. In fact, I submitted the online self-evaluation form two days before the deadline, so that on deadline day when some of my colleagues were stopping by my desk asking if I could run special metrics reports for them for their own self-evaluations, I was not put out at all.

But, again, I was able to get through the process ahead of schedule because I didn’t put much thought into my critical assessment and description of the year’s accomplishments. The one exception to this was that I was sure to include as an accomplishment my completion of the Big Long Terrible Project that dominated the bulk of the last twelve months. That sucker is done, and it may have been anticlimactic at the time as it was slowly rolled out in stages (all while I held my breath to see if things would function properly or fall apart) but I admit it felt pretty good to stick a definitive fork in it by consigning it to the past tense in an annual self-evaluation.

Meanwhile, I do seem to be settling into a new Work Project So Large It Will Probably Show Up On Dozens Of Weekly Status Reports, but this one has a couple of upsides, at least. One is that it is a team effort, which both eases the burden and helps keep me honest. Another is that it’s not a straightforward task, by which I mean inherent to the task is a fair amount of up front figuring out how the task is actually going to get done (as opposed to something cut and dry with nothing to it but to do it). And I honestly enjoy that kind of visualizing/strategizing and whatnot, so thus far it hasn’t been too much of a trial. Ideally I’ll stick to my new year’s resolution to find a new job and move on from here, before the project descends from idealized modeling of the optimal approach and into ugly reality.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Sneaky, sneaky

The only constant is change, and I’ve become thoroughly convinced that at no time in life is that more true than when you are raising young children. Those slippery little suckers change and change fast and do it all the time.

It was, let's see, late November when I mentioned that maybe my wife and I were thinking about starting to consider night-weaning the baby. Now it’s early January and not only is the baby night-weaned and more or less sleep-trained (by which I mean the instructional aspect of the sleep training has been concluded and all that remains is for the baby to abide by it consistently; as of right now, some nights he does, and some nights not so much), but we are counting down the weeks and days until the baby will be fully weaned, at which point … well, it’s not so much that we have some elaborate run-off-and-celebrate-unencumbered-by-kids plan totally mapped out, but it will be something of a pleasant relief for the baby (and us) to have passed that particular milestone.

The baby is in fact passing milestones all the time, e.g. recently progressing from belly-crawling to hands-and-knees-crawling, which provides him an added dimension of speed such that he can literally disappear while your head is momentarily turned. We have baby gates all over the place now, which I have been not at all surprised to learn the little guy can open and close on his own, but have been somewhat surprised to learn the little girl can operate as well. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, because we don’t have to run around letting the bigger kids come and go, but they are both (age-appropriately) spotty at best as far as remembering to close the gates behind them again so as not to defeat the whole purpose of corralling the infant.

The little guy and little girl are thick as thieves so they are usually defeating the purpose of gates in tandem, which makes it all the more curious how in certain ways they are vastly different. The little guy has reached the point where he recognizes right and wrong and has internalized most of our household rules, but still has no self-control and almost always underestimates the observational powers of his parents. He will do things he knows he’s not supposed to do, and utilize what he believes are surreptitious approaches, and then he’ll get busted, and he’ll be flabbergasted that we foiled his genius scheme. Every. Time. Recently his sister was confined to her room for part of the afternoon and he kept sneaking in to play with her, and I kept hearing him because the baby monitor was turned on in the kitchen. The little guy’s brilliant stratagem was to creep into the kitchen and turn off the baby monitor, thus killing the hum of the fan in the little girl’s room coming through the speaker, and then bolt upstairs. The perfect crime! I felt bad intercepting him with the crushing news that I knew what he was up to. Almost.

You might notice in the above anecdote that the little girl was in no way aiding and abetting her brother. Although she is every inch a two-year-old, armed with a volatile temper and hair-trigger tantrum-escalation capabilities, that side of her tends to come out when she doesn’t get what she wants. And for a lot of our house rules, she’s fine, because they don’t directly contradict her desires. Apparently at one point (this is how parenting multiple very small children works, I’ve found, in that things happen and you don’t remember them happening even though you were one making them happen, because your brain is perpetually exhausted, but somehow you make do and keep going) we told the kids that they need to check in and at least let us know when they’re going out of earshot and beyond sightlines. I deduce we must have laid down this law because the little girl is now very taken with the reporting-in idea. And she doesn’t just inform us, she super-sweetly asks permission: Can we go play upstairs? Can we go to the basement? The other day it was even, Can I do a dance for the baby? I’m not sure if she’s a born people-pleaser (her mother and I are, so that would fit) or if she’s the true evil genius of the Frick-and-Frack combo and she’s playing a very long con with us in order to go into master manipulator mode down the road. I guess we’ll find out, probably sooner than later.

Because change is always upon us! While the little girl is learning how far honey can get her, and the baby is learning how to stand up in the crib when he’s decided he’s done napping (uh-oh), the little guy is already about halfway done with kindergarten. Soon it will be time to figure out what exactly we’re going to do with him over the summer, especially on days when both parents are at work, and just this morning my wife pointed out to me that by that time the baby will be old enough for the second-tier pricing of daycare centers rather than the newborn first-tier. We skipped that tier for him altogether, opting for in-home care this time around, but we may very well be headed back in that direction. Or some completely new option, who knows, how are we supposed to predict any outcomes when none of the inputs are constant?

So it goes and so it goes. At least there's never a dull moment, or if there is, it's bound to change before too long.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Driving avarice (Le Salaire de la peur)

Once again I’ve had the opportunity to select the spotlight film of the week for the 1001 Movies Blog Club, and this time I chose La Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), an epic thriller directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Although the Club selections are more or less anonymous by design, I always try to own up to mine just in case my fellow bloggers are wondering who to blame for being subjected to a certain cinematic experience. But it’s hard to imagine anyone taking issue with a magnificent, meticulously rendered piece of art such as this.

Well, just for fun, let’s try to imagine some issues one could take with the film. For background, even if you’ve never seen the film you may have at least heard of it: it’s the one where there’s a shipment of nitroglycerine that needs to be hauled across some bad roads, and there’s some desperate men willing to risk their lives for the astronomical hazard pay, and it gets pretty intense. That’s the core of the film that most people would be familiar with. However, those concepts don’t all come together until deep into the movie, which runs well over two hours long. So, imaginary complaint number one might be pacing, but I would knock down that straw man as being incredibly misguided. Not every movie needs to be a taut 89 minutes, with a protagonist introduced as efficiently as possible right before he is thrown into the crazy inciting incident of the plot. By taking a much slower and more deliberate approach, Clouzot is able to give all of the characters room to breathe and reveal their natures and relationships. Even the setting itself has time to establish itself as a real place, and as the audience sees examples of certain intangibles, from the oppressive heat to the isolation and inescapability, over and over again, the feeling of desperation which preys upon the characters insinuates itself into the audience as well. When the trucking job presents itself, and the stakes are made perfectly clear, it’s no leap of logic to understand why there are so many volunteers that they must all try out and be cut down to four; it’s an inevitability.

Imaginary complaint number two might be that none of the characters are particularly likable. Mario is arrogant and selfish. Jo is a bully. Bimba is aloof. Luigi is too nice for his own good, bordering on pathetic. Again, though, this is an unsupportable objection for any number of reasons. All four men have fallen on desperate times for various reasons, some stated and some implied, to the point where they will take their lives in their own hands. The beauty of the film is that the characters are portrayed honestly throughout, with certain aspects of their temperaments at the forefront in town and others coming through under the extreme circumstances of transporting explosives on a suicide run, but all of them consistent. They may not be someone the viewer would be pleased to spend time with, but they are real human beings and on a gut level we feel for them as such, particularly given the harrowing task they set themselves at. It’s not the same emotional investment we might experience in a feel-good hangout movie, but it is powerful.

Finally (getting into spoiler territory), imaginary complaint number three might be the bleak outlook of the film, including if not exemplified by its downbeat ending. If any given straw man doesn’t consider movies that make with the sad to be his cup of tea, there’s not much I can do to argue around the point. It’s hard to put a positive spin on the notion that when it comes to this world, nobody gets out alive. It’s also not impossible, but La Salaire de la peur doesn’t particularly try, as the deaths of each of the truckers stack up with each one seemingly more meaningless than the last. Still, art can be meaningful even without bold and inspirational declarations of life’s inherent value. It takes many voices and many visions up and down the spectrum.

(Post-finally, there’s always the possibility that a person might not care for a 1953 French-Italian picture because they “don’t like black and white” or they “don’t like subtitles”. Heck, I might have raised those objections myself in my much younger days. For what it’s worth, I didn’t find the subtitles in La Salaire de la peur to be too onerous, as some of the key sequences of maximum tension are basically dialogue-free. And other parts are in English! And as far as color, there were scenes which I can’t imagine working half as well in technicolor, like when Jo and Mario attempt to cross the lake of oil from a burst pipe:

All of that monochrome crude subsuming Jo would lose a lot of its stark power if it weren’t in black and white.)

So it’s a simple but gripping story, with compelling acting and camera direction which is so well attuned to the material it practically becomes invisible. On top of all that, I have to praise some of the technical accomplishments of the film. I continue to find myself more and more impressed by the lengths filmmakers went to in the days before computer-assisted special effects, when showing an oil well fire meant obtaining actual footage of raging flames, and depicting a truck crashing down a mountain entailed pushing a real physical truck off a road and letting gravity do the rest. La Salaire de la peur has these shots and several others, all of which give the film an incredible verisimilitude.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film, however, is in its sound engineering. The most nail-biting, gut-churning sequences in the film are not artificially heightened by an overlay of theatrical music specifically composed to be tense and discordant. On the contrary, the only music after the title credits is that which comes out of a radio in a cantina. On the road, there is nothing but ambient noise. But the emotional weight carried by the revving of a truck engine, or the creaking of the rotten boards of a support platform, or the monotonous droning of insects, or the heavy breathing of a man trying to transfer nitroglycerine to a blast cavity in a boulder, is simply immense. Clouzot uses these sounds masterfully to ratchet up the anxiety, with their steady insistence contrasting quick visual perspective cuts from one man to another, from shaking hands to sweat-beaded lips, and so on. It’s pretty phenomenal, though again something accomplished in a way that could pass without being consciously noticed, even as it all but overwhelms the senses.

La Salaire de la peur may not be a perfect film, but it comes exceedingly close. It sets out to do many different things, and almost always succeeds wildly. Its philosophical inquiry is valid, albeit not necessarily attuned to every viewer’s sensibilities, which may be the only thing holding it back from being more famously well-regarded by more people. But without question it’s worth taking the time to engage with on its own terms.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

TUESDAY BONUS: The last shall be first (Best Worst Movie)

I’m clearing out some unfinished business from last year, before introducing the big obsessive projects and ridiculous running motifs I have planned for this year, and that blog-housekeeping includes the belated final installment of DOXEMBER (remember that?), with a look at the documentary Best Worst Movie.

For various reasons, I’m skipping over yet another movie I watched for the theme month, Lost in La Mancha, which captures the collapse of Terry Gilliam’s doomed production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2000. It was a moderately interesting collection of behind-the-scenes footage and some talking head material by Gilliam himself, but beyond that I didn’t have much to say about it. Although there’s some cheap irony inherent in holding up Gilliam’s efforts to realize his vision for the movie as a quixotic quest (including oh-so-many visual references to tilting at windmills*) the fact is that movies get abandoned all the time. They run out of money (as Gilliam did), or an actor has to drop out (as Gilliam’s did), or any number of prosaic pitfalls open up under the crew’s feet, and studios cut their losses and move on. Arguably it’s a greater shame in the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, because it probably would have been an outstanding film, but it’s also just one of those things.

Still, there was something of a throughline with my choices for DOXEMBER, in the following progression: Hearts of Darkness was about a movie (Apocalypse Now) which should never have managed to get finished, yet miraculously was, and went on to become an all-time classic. Burden of Dreams was about a movie (Fitzcarraldo) which also should never have managed to get finished, yet also miraculously was, but went on to become a mostly forgotten obscurity. Lost in La Mancha was about a movie (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) which should never have managed to get finished, because of very similar trials as beset the first two (including insane amounts of rain) and unsurprisingly was never finished, and remains an intriguing might-have-been. Finally, Best Worst Movie is about a movie (Troll 2) which probably never should have been begun and yet semi-miraculously was finished and became first a bomb and later a beloved cult classic.

(Also note the 1001 Must-See Movies progression (or regression) at play here: Both Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are on the Master List. Fitzcarraldo is on the list, though Burden of Dreams is not. Lost in La Mancha is not, but Terry Gilliam has a few directorial efforts to his credit on the List, including Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Best Worst Movie is not on the list, Troll 2 certainly isn’t, and in fact none of Claudio Fragasso’s filmography are anywhere within shouting distance.)

Of all the documentaries about movies I’ve watched, Best Worst Movie is the one that made me smile the most. In part it’s a making-of, but it’s also about fandom, and it’s easy in certain moments to get caught up in the sheer exuberance of a midnight screening of Troll 2 with special appearances by the cast members. The documentary was actually put together by the actor Michael Stephenson who played the ostensible hero of Troll 2, Joshua Waits, as a young child. Twenty years later, he tracked down various castmates, the director, the screenwriter, the composer, and seemingly every fan the movie has gained in its second life as a so-bad-its-good masterpiece, fueled by the dubious distinction of a 0% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well as the #1 spot on IMDB’s Worst Movies of All Time list.

There’s a segment in Best Worst Movie where a couple of members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe extol the virtues of the movie and insist that if a person has never seen Troll 2 they should drop whatever they are doing and find it and watch it that very instant. I, for one, have never seen Troll 2, and even after watching Best Worst Movie I’m not sure if I ever will, much as I appreciate the unrestrained recommendation. I do know that if I end up watching it, I will surely do so in some kind of communal experience, because that’s what the documentary makes look the most appealing.

For an independent documentary with a super-simple premise (“I was in a terrible movie as a kid and now two decades later I want to reflect on it”), Best Worst Movie is surprisingly complex. It gives a fair amount of screentime to most of the major players from the cast, some of whom went on to put together humble but successful acting careers, some of whom went on to have more normal but just as successful careers in other fields, and some of whom did not necessarily turn out so well. It gives director Claudio Fargasso enough rope to hang himself (and he does not disappoint). It gives an opportunity to numerous fans to express their love for the movie, and a chance for some of the cast to react to that love, and that may be the most fascinating aspect of all. Clearly, most of the cultish fans of Troll 2 are, to use the time-saving shorthand of a stereotype label, hipster d-bags. They love the movie with irony, which sometimes seems to be the only way certain people can love things. And yes, there’s some tension between the former cast, non-professionals who lived in and continue to live in small towns, and the phenomenon of Troll 2’s popularity amongst big city hipster d-bag kids, with the question remaining open as to whether or not the cast really understands what a standing ovation at the end of Troll 2 signifies. Best Worst Movie isn’t explicitly cruel to its subjects and doesn’t hold them up for mockery, but it does shine a light on the whole notion of pop culture being deemed so-bad-its-good and how people in different social strata process that. And that includes showing some of the cast going from the highest highs of a raucously successful Music Box screening in Chicago where they get to sign autographs for starstruck fans, to showing the same cast members at a horror-con in Texas where they get ignored alongside the actors who played Freddy victims in Nightmare on Elm Street (parts IV and V), to showing a charity screening of Troll 2 in cast member George Hardy’s hometown in Alabama, where his fellow citizens clearly don’t get what the big fuss is all about. Hardy tries, earnestly, to explain that the movie is funny, and does so by quoting some of his own dialogue which always gets big laughs at the hipster d-bag screenings, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the dialogue isn’t inherently funny until he gets blank stares in response.

But at the same time, somehow, it’s not all about hipster d-bags taking something worthless and pretending to love it in order to be archly amusing to themselves. There is something sincere in more of the fans than not (at least among those captured on camera by Best Worst Movie) in the affection they feel toward the movie. Many of them cite the utter guilelessness of the film, which perhaps triggers an equally unguarded response in them. Others genuinely seem to enjoy the pleasures that can be had in considering something which shouldn’t conceivably exist, and yet does in spite of itself and the hard, uncaring world it came into. Anything that can bring people together, even if it unites them in shaking their heads in disbelief, becomes a positive thing which people can appreciate, one of life’s little unexpected bright spots.

Ultimately that’s the message of Best Worst Movie: Troll 2 was awful, having gone wrong in almost every way a movie can from day one, and it emerged from the dustbin of history as pure unintentional camp, which is not necessarily something to be proud of. And yet, a lot of the people associated with the movie are proud of their involvement. And rightly so, because the movie makes people happy. Whether that happiness is partly a put-on, partly mean-spirited, or wholly unadulterated joy at unmitigated weirdness, is basically beside the point.

Again, I can see myself maybe watching Troll 2 some time, with several of my friends, because we are all geekily hardwired to experience that appreciation for so-bad-its-good. And I know not everyone is so wired, and consequently I wouldn’t urge everyone to run out and see Troll 2. But, I would urge everyone who’s ever been a fan of a film, any film, to see Best Worst Movie, not because it’s about Troll 2 but because it’s about movies, dreams, and all kinds of love.

(* Did you know that tilting at windmills is literally the first thing Don Quixote does in the novel once he fully embraces his delusion of being a knight? I do, because I am a d-bag bibliophilic snob who has read the entire 900 page translation of Don Quixote. Cervantes describes his hero doing lots of other crazy and amusing things over the course of the book, but the windmill scene is the one that has become shorthand for the character. I suspect this is because that’s as far into the proto-novel as most people get, before deciding “AND IT GOES ON LIKE THAT” is all they really need to know about the latter 90%.)

Update: Everything is cool

So in the end, they cancelled school for today, and thus my wife was not forced to figure out how to get the little guy to and from the bus stop without complications from hypothermia (for him, herself, or the two other little ones). On the other hand, work was open for business on the regular schedule. The e-mail from the schools came at about 3 p.m. on Monday, whereas I stayed up as late as I could refreshing the Office of Personnel Management page looking for some sign of news, but ultimately fell asleep and then checked this morning when I woke up and discovered there was no news after all. I layered and bundled up, drove to the train station, waited in my car right up until the VRE was pulling up to the platform, hurried onboard, and once the train arrived in my work neighborhood I hurried off and across the street to the underground. I survived.

The house survived, too, despite some heavy wind last night rattling the rafters. I didn't mention it in yesterday's post but one of the facets of my distraction was a paranoid certainty that somehow the cold would cause some kind of property damage. I drained/winterized the outdoor water fixtures a month ago or more, but I've failed to do so in years past and paid the icy burst-pipe price for it, so it will probably haunt me forevermore. And on an even more insane level I was convinced that the panes of glass in my house's windows would just spontaneously crack if not shatter overnight, like so many hot coffee pots tossed into sinkfuls of cold dishwater. None of those dread premonitions came to pass, though, nor even so much as a power outage due to downed limbs.

So, quite possibly a whole lot of fuss over nothing, and certainly over nothing long-lasting, since I see now that by the weekend it could very well be up in the 50's or 60's around here. As you were, then.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The work at hand

Right then, the holidays are over, the vacations built around the holidays are over, it's Monday and I'm back to work along with everyone else. Things should be feeling as if the workaday rut has resisted any and all erosion and is in fact quite easy to settle back into.

(And, I mean, you guys, things got a little bit weird towards the end of last year, seriously. There was that whole ultimately fruitless attempt on my part to jump jobs, only to find that all the groundwork a buddy of mine had laid kept leading to people who just didn't have any open positions right now, sorry. And that in turn made me resolve to find a new job this year one way or the other, with or without my buddy, but I was purposefully putting it off until this year because I figured no one would be hiring right around the holidays. Meanwhile I was letting little things slip, like getting my hair cut, because clearly the optimal time to get a haircut would be right before a face-to-face job interview, right? I ended up getting a haircut the Saturday after Christmas. And I've started grooming my vandyke again, at that.)

In point of fact, I should be working on my annual review self-evaluation. Improbable as it seems, that time of year has rolled around yet again, and it's due by the end of the week. And I should be laying out a kind of roadmap for myself as far as how I'm going to keep busy going forward day to day and week to week and month to month (until either I do land that mythical new job, or I'm forced to make yet another yearly justification for my continued employment). Really I should be working on any number of things, both the work-related as mentioned hitherto and non-work-related-but-much-easier-in-my-cubicle-than-almost-anywhere-else, like for instance the ol' blog.

But as it happens I am entirely too distracted by the fact that temperatures are going to plummet overnight into the single digits (Fahrenheit!) and will still be in that range when I am supposed to leave the house and head to work tomorrow morning. Will the federal government allow for liberal leave, if not delay the opening of offices? Will the city schools cancel kindergarten on the little guy, who just went back to class today after two solid weeks of winter break vacation? Or will it turn out that while a light dusting of snow is considered threatening enough to public safety that all manner of emergency measures are implemented, an ambient air temperature (not even counting wind chill) cold enough to give you frostbite in 30 minutes or less is no cause for alarm and means business as usual? I do not know, and I can only wait and see, but while I do just that I am finding it hard to concentrate on much else.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Still Kickin'

So somewhere in the tumult of year-ending holidays and vacations and whatnot, the regular 2013 NFL season came to a close. Count me among the fans who enjoys the intra-division rivalries getting their last match-ups in during week 17, in what often turn out to be games with playoff implications. There were of course no playoffs at stake for my beloved Giants, but they did manage to beat the atrocious local Washington franchise, both in the Sunday contest in question and the Battle To Stay Out of the NFC East Basement, so there was that.

There's no shortage of adverbs I could use to describe the way December 29th unfolded for my wife's team, as the improbable interlinked scenarios for the Steelers to grab the last AFC wildcard slot all came to pass in favorable ways and then - sadly, maddeningly, unjustly-upon-further-review, &c. - after Pittsburgh had won their game and needed the Chiefs to beat the Chargers, that late game went into overtime after a missed KC game-winner field goal attempt where SD committed an unflagged procedural penalty, and then SD took the eventual W and the playoff spot. It's more or less what you have to expect when your team doesn't control their own destiny and needs immense amounts of help, but still pretty crushing.

So now it remains to be seen if my wife and I will spend the weekends of January following the playoffs so that we have informed opinions for a Super Bowl where we will have virtually no emotional investment, or instead get an early start on, say, catching up on Downton Abbey Season 3. Either should be good times.

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Also, for what it's worth, I had a bad run there at the end of the Pick'em Pool, with a TOTAL of 11 right across both weeks 14 and 15 combined, but then a bit of a bounceback in the last couple weeks, 9 correct followed by 11 on that final, fateful Sunday. But 13 correct was the winning mark in the last week, so I was never really in it. Overall, I finished the season tied for 25th place out of 30 entrants, and those bottom four who actually did worse than I did all season long were all people who, at one point or another, had simply not submitted any picks in a given week and thus got a goose egg somewhere along the way. I got a mere 3 right one week, but never a 0. My plucky 88-year-old grandma failed to make her picks for week 17, probably because she was traveling to see her children for Christmas. If she had gotten 9 or 10 right (not hard in a week where even I could get 11) instead of zero, she would have beaten me for the year. My Very Little Bro, my cousin, and my two uncles did beat me for the year, all pretty handily.

And the person I was tied with for 25th overall? That would be my dad. We were actually pretty neck-and-neck all season. So, to whatever extent fathers and sons use sports as a proxy for resolving interpersonal stuff, kind of amusing (to me, anyway) that we wound up in exactly the same position of "well, thanks for playing, there's always next year!"

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Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention that Community is back(!) and of course my wife and I were glued to the tv on Thursday evening. It's too early to say anything too sweeping about the second Harmon administration, but after the double-shot of episodes this week it does feel as though at least some of the old crackle is back. I was geeked about the new season going into Thursday, and I remain pretty much the same level of geeked.

It was not easy getting our butts on the couch by 8 p.m., though. Thursday is one of the days both my wife and I work, and since I got home first I very quickly started dinner for the kids, got them fed, and then proceeded to the pre-bedtime baths. I did get an early jump on the whole routine/rigamarole, but it quickly went pear-shaped with the little girl refusing to go to bed until her mother got home (and sang her songs, &c., &c.) and the baby not feeling particularly sleepy as of 7:45. Basically the two older kids were tucked in just before 8, and I was rocking the baby in the master bedroom with the lights off and the tv on, while my wife very sweetly got our dinner in the oven and missed the first few minutes. By about the second commercial break, the baby was sleeping soundly enough that he could be laid down and my wife and I could relocate to the den. Fortunately, there was a two-fer of new episodes for premiere might, so at least my wife got to watch the entirety of the second one.

Also one miniscule "duly noted": don't suppose for a second that I didn't notice during the closing scene of "Re-Pilot" when Britta was ignoring her friends as they tried to talk her out of pursuing a masters in psychology, despite her friends' reasonable suggestions to go for some easier degree, and Shirley put forth "How 'bout English?" Almost twenty years out of college and I still identify as an English major, so that stung a little. But I gotta acknowledge a good burn, and that was a good one.

Friday, January 3, 2014

All kinds of dissonance

Sure enough, my wife and I did watch a little bit more Game of Thrones over Christmas vacation. Specifically, we fired up one episode on an evening in between when this post was written and when it was actually scheduled to go up on the blog. Technically the post was still accurate in the broad strokes, because our trek through Season 2 is still incomplete as of today, although we now have only one episode left instead of two.

If you are a GoT superfan you might recall that the episode my wife and I watched most recently was “Blackwater”. The penultimate S2 episode was all about the siege of the Red Keep by Stannis’s fleet, and it deviated from the usual GoT formula by sticking with that storyline in King’s Landing for the entire running time (focusing mainly on Tyrion and Bronn, and Cersei and Sansa) instead of checking in periodically with Jon Snow or Robb Stark or Daenerys Targaryen or whathaveyou. It was also pretty spectacular, in both the visual and the storytelling sense of the word. Not a bad episode at all to let the show get its hooks back into us and urge us to power through the season finale sooner rather than later.


Spoilers, I guess?

What’s funny, though, is that we watched it in such close proximity to our little guy developing an intense attachment to several of his Christmas presents which are now his new favorite playthings: a handful of Imaginext knights and their castle playset and the matching red dragon. The little guy loves playing knights and dragon so much that it is literally the first thing he does every day now: he gets up out of bed and puts on his glasses (usually) and comes downstairs and heads straight for the castle on the living room floor. Eventually, he remembers to eat breakfast. (It’s going to be tough getting him back into the habit of getting ready for/actually going to school this coming Monday, but that’s not what I’m dwelling on at the moment.)

So, essentially, the little guy’s new favorite game is Siege, which of course evokes comparisons in my mind to “Blackwater”. Or contrasts, really, because although kindergarten and the attendant socializing with other little kids who may not be as inherently sensitive or parentally sheltered has meant that the little guy has picked up on pretend violence of the “GRRAAHH, I killed you, you’re dead!” variety and taken to it (as dudes do), still it’s pretty bloodless stuff. Cute little toys suitable for ages 3 and up don’t really lend themselves to out-and-out gore. As opposed to Game of Thrones, where for fifty-some minutes we were treated to much screaming and dying and blood-splattering, as men were burned and maimed and trampled and at least one person was cleaved in twain while another had his head exploded by the impact of a rock thrown from the parapets above.

But it’s the same story either way! Castle attacked, castle defended, and there’s ways to construct and experience that story where it’s brutal and stomach-turning and there’s ways to do it where it’s plasticized and bowdlerized. I got a lot of both last week.

My wife and I have also been talking a lot about Hobbit 2 since we went and saw it right before Christmas, and yet again there’s an example of a kind of disconnect between instances of the same idea. The little guy is so into knights and dragons that it seemed natural to explain to him, when he asked us, that in fact we were talking about a dragon who was in a movie that mommy and daddy went to see recently. We quickly followed that up with a couple of addenda: the reason we didn’t take the little guy with us is because we’re pretty sure that the dragon in the movie would be too scary for him right now, BUT we’re also fairly sure that in a few years he’s going to love the movie. (At the very least, my wife will have primed that well by reading The Hobbit novel to the little guy over the course of a slew of bedtimes, once he’s old enough.)

The little guy took all of this in pretty well. He did not, for example, try to argue that he had a toy dragon and wasn’t scared of that, so why should he be scared of a movie dragon? I’m not sure how I would have answered that, honestly, without further traumatizing the little guy by reminding him of how sometimes he runs out of the room when animated movies get too intense, and the movie we saw looked very real. But instead, the little guy was curious as to whether or not in the movie we saw there were any knights to defeat the dragon. We admitted to him there were not, which confused him, until I explained that it was part of a trilogy (he was bound to get this lesson from me sooner or later) wherein the first movie was about getting to the dragon, the second movie was about seeing the dragon, and the last movie would be about defeating the dragon. A few days later I actually heard him playing with his sister and explaining to her “No, this is the middle of the trilogy!” so apparently the formula made enough sense to him to be adopted into his own flights of fancy.

(Incidentally, vis-a-vis the little girl, we are still dealing with some of the fallout from that movie theater trip to see Hobbit 2. Originally we were going to put the little girl down for a nap, leave when the babysitter came over, and let the little girl wake up to the sitter and her brothers, but when we tried to explain this to our daughter she FREAKED OUT so we amended the plan and let her skip her nap so that she was awake when the sitter came and we left, which went down much easier. But she remains a little scared that at some point we are going to casually abandon her while she’s sleeping, despite our continuous reassurances to the contrary. She also is convinced that, because we left almost as soon as the babysitter arrived, that my wife and I do not like the sitter, and the little girl often tells us, “You should like her, she’s nice!” The two-year-old kid-logic of it still amuses me.)

The upshot, I suppose, is that there’s always a hazy distinction between tales of heroism, be they consumed or play-acted, and tales of harrowing terror, all dependent on where you allow your point of identification to rest. And there are fantasies for little kids and fantasies for grown-ups, but those distinctions can get somewhat hazy as well. I’m sure this will be far from the last time I’ll find myself wondering over these things as the little guy (or any and all of my children, really) continues to absorb more and more.