Friday, February 28, 2014

Surface tension

Random Anecdote Friday!

Some time during my senior year of college, I was hanging out with a few of my friends and discussing plans for the post-graduation future (as seniors are wont to do). One of my friends mentioned hearing about a program that would pay recent graduates to relocate to Japan and teach Japanese students about American culture. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear before, I basically had no idea what I was going to do with my life after I was done with school, right up to (and pretty well beyond) the point where they handed me my B.A. At best I was narrowing things down by process of elimination: I was not going to grad school, and I was not interviewing for any of the corporate positions that recruiters passed through the campus career center looking to fill. The full extent of my plans encompassed going straight to Beach Week after graduation, then heading back home to my mom’s place in New Jersey and figuring things out from there. I had vague notions of possibly tending bar for a while, just as an amusing way to make some money. I might have also had a glimmer of aspiration to an entry-level job in publishing in NYC, but that would be getting ahead of myself (on numerous levels).

Point being, I was susceptible to the appeal of any remotely interesting opportunity the world might serendipitously make me aware of. So I remember responding enthusiastically to the novelty of the idea of the Japan gig. Not so much, “Ooh, tell me more, I want to do that!” as that would have required far more effort and commitment than I was willing to give at that juncture in my life. But at the very least I expressed something along the lines of “That would be pretty awesome” in a tone of voice that heavily implied it was something I could see myself doing.

What really sticks with me about that exchange, though, is that another friend taking part in the conversation rolled her eyes at me with profound exasperation, and pointedly smacked down whatever I might have been envisioning: “American culture, dork, not pop culture.”

Now, I know, there are numerous affronts I could have taken there, when unpacking that particular riposte. The implication that I was either ignorantly or willfully misconstruing the minimal details about the job our friend had brought up. The assumption that I might genuinely believe the only American culture is pop, and the further assumption that at the very least pop is the only thing I’m particularly knowledgeable about. The overall dismissal of pop culture as disposable trash that no one wants to hear about and obviously no one would sponsor a person to move to Tokyo to teach about. The conversation moved on pretty quickly, so we didn’t get into a prolonged debate about, and maybe that’s why it continues to stick in my craw, lo these 18 years later.

Context is everything, so it bears repeating that this was second semester senior year, and everyone was grappling to one extent or another with Big Life Concepts like growing up and being productive members of society and responsible adults and so forth. (And, to be fair, as I sketched out above, pretty much everyone else was actively engaging with these open questions more deeply than I was.) Nit-picking the difference between culture and pop culture could very well have been a coping mechanism, a way for my friend to assure herself that she was ready (or readier than I was, which, again, not that high a bar to clear) to be a sophisticated adult who would not attempt to land any kind of gainful employment by pointing out how many times she had beaten the SuperNintendo Star Wars game or seen Tank Girl on VHS. Another aspect to consider is that this was 1996, which was one of the more contentious points of the Culture War era, and if some of my friends (particularly, not to open too gnarly a can of worms, some of my conservative Christian friends, of which I had a few, present anecdote-subject included) felt particularly vested in choosing sides between traditional cultural values and edgy pop culture iconoclasm (all as defined by the political zeitgeist), then, you know, I get it/got it.

But in retrospect it’s pretty clear that that moment, that offhand comment on my part and the fleeting yet derisive response it merited, was kind of pivotal for me. On the one hand, it made me double down on my devotion to pop culture, and caused me to dedicate a lot of brainspace to finding the value in the assumedly valueless, the content in the allegedly content-free. I’ve pondered and pondered, thought about and written about, whether there really is any American culture that’s wholly separate from pop culture. Clearly this very blog is in large part just a recent outgrowth of that whole worldview and mindset. But on the other hand, as I’ve copped to in the past, for a defender of pop culture I can also be highly defensive. I’m hypersensitive to the fact that there are people out there (and they are legion) who could never be won over to my way of thinking. Not that they think pop culture is intrinsically evil (granted, those whackadoodles are out there, too, but I try not to spare them any waking thoughts) but simply that it isn’t important, that any amount of excess attention paid to pop culture is an obsession in the worst sense of the word. There are people who divide life in this world into things which matter, and things which do not, and basically heave all of my beloved interests over the line of NOT.

Maybe it shouldn’t faze me, but it does. And if you’ve ever wondered why, a big chunk of the answer is that someone once scoffed at the idea of me imparting cultural knowledge abroad. These things tend to echo.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Getting by

There's a longer, potentially more insightful post that could theoretically be composed of careful consideration of the challenges each of my children is facing (and forcing me to face) of late. A lot of it has to do with sleep patterns. The baby has gotten to the point where he goes to be fairly early and also fairly willingly; the problem is that for the past week or so he hasn't stayed asleep very well, waking up right around the time a few hours later when my wife and I are going to bed (or just a few minutes past the point where we've actually drifted off) and at other random, unpredictable intervals thereafter. It's not his fault, of course, but since he can't talk we can only guess at the cause: gas? teething? growing pains? a wintry virus? (Likely a combination of some or all of those and more.) The little girl, on the other hand, sleeps through the night reliably enough, but is becoming quite an early riser on one end, waking up shortly before our alarms would go off, or shortly thereafter. And at the other end, she has taken a staunch anti-bedtime stance on general principle, and everything we've tried to appease her and make getting ready for bed fun and engaging and somewhat on her terms and ultimately freakout-free has not worked at all. So basically the baby goes to bed without a fight and then the little girl puts up a huge fight, and then we finally get her tucked in and then the baby starts fighting sleep to varying degrees and then when those twelve rounds are over the little girl is up again and demanding breakfast before the sun comes up.

The little guy, for his part, goes to bed when we tell him to, sleeps deeply, and gets up last. And good for him, he needs his rest, mainly because kindergarten is full of its own challenges, much moreso than we would have anticipated back in August. (That's another potentially long post.) The little guy gives us the most reason to fret and the most grief and attitude during waking hours, and honestly that's the time of day when the little girl and the baby are relatively easiest to deal with. Then nighttime comes and everything flips.

So, yeah, fascinating stuff, but the fact that I've missed a few solid nights of sleep in a row myself means that I find myself at a loss for insight or even particularly inspired recounting, so please forgive this meager placeholder of a post. My wife and I are both of the opinion that there are corners to be turned in the very near term, as viruses run their course or teeth finally erupt or toddler bedtime compromises are ultimately negotiated. Then maybe I can look back critically at this particular turbulent patch. For now though, it's just taking it out of me, and about all I can muster is an acknowledgment of that fact before I square my shoulders and head once more unto the breach.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A great escalation of improbabilities (Project A Part II)

Holy Hong Kong Hi-jinks, it's time once again for the 1001 Movies Blog Club! I haven't weighed in on the weekly feature in close to two months, and clearly it is time to rectify that. And what better reason to dive back in than a peek into the impressive oeuvre of Mr. Action himself, Jackie Chan! Specifically, the Must-See film up for consideration is 1987's Project A Part II.

You might think that after such a long spell without any analysis of 1001 Movies entries, my cup of commentary would runneth over. But the truth is this is far and away the one movie from the Master List which has inspired the least reaction from me, emotionally and intellectually. It's not that I disliked it, found it painful to watch, felt my cognitive capacities were being insulted, took exception with the viewpoints the film was espousing, or any other potential criticisms. It simply struck me as utterly inessential and lacking any lasting impact. There's not a whole lot in the film that's worth discussing.

Don't get me wrong, I like plenty of martial arts movies, and I like Jackie Chan a lot, too. It's not as though I came into the viewing experience with a bunch of negative biases or an axe of some sort to grind. But if I were going to try to sell someone on the virtues of kung fu movies, or of Jackie Chan in particular, Project A Part II would not have any part in my strategy. There are better examples of the genre and the star in question, just within my own personal experience, and doubtless many more that would leap to mind for someone with a deeper or farther-reaching fandom than my own.

There seems to be a theme emerging this week, if you consider this movie alongside something like yesterday's subject. On a narrative level, Project A Part II is yet another movie where a bunch of things happen to and around our protagonist, who simply reacts and endures and perseveres and ultimately triumphs but doesn't in any way evolve. Now, to a large extent, this is actually a forgivable flaw, or at least one that fans tend to turn a blind eye to as inherent to the genre. The point of most martial arts movies is not well-developed character arcs; the whole point is the martial arts on display. That's even more true with Jackie Chan in particular, since he has such a distinct, dazzling style to his fight choreography, in the way he interacts with the environment and uses every surface and every loose object as a weapon, a shield, or a launchpad. He doesn't need to change, and frankly the plot itself doesn't need to be particularly cohesive or intricate or even make a lot of sense (which is certainly an accusation easily leveled at Project A Part II, particularly if you haven't seen Part I, for instance). A minimal, flat and functional "and then this happens" approach is perfectly acceptable because it's understood that the whole point is simply to string together a number of martial arts displays by getting the characters, such as they are, from one fight scene to the next to the next. Not to be excessively crass, but it's basically the same operating storytelling theory as porn: nobody's really watching for the plot, which only exists to bridge the action scenes one to another.

(It just occurred to me that in the movie Office Space, one of the points of common interest that Peter and Joanna initially bond over is a love of kung fu movies. Which always struck me as a particularly quirky bit of characterization for Joanna, because kung fu movies are generally considered the near-exclusive domain of guys. It's supposed to signify that Joanna is a cool, one-of-the-guys kind of girl. But now I wonder, was this Mike Judge's way of slipping something freaky past the MPAA, and "kung fu" is code for "porn"? Granted, I may be overthinking this. I would say that is also a recurring theme for this week, except in reality it's a recurring theme for this whole blog, obviously.)

Anyway, a weak plot and undistinguished acting and rudimentary shot composition are all forgivable if the action scenes, the main draw, are spectacular. But that's not a word I would use to describe the martial arts scenes in Project A Part II. They're good, but again, I've seen better. And to a certain extent, there's plenty of entertainment value to be found in a middling kung fu flick, especially if you dig the genre. I just can't quite fathom why anyone would consider this specific film a Must-See. Aside from one extended bedroom-farce riff in the middle, there's not all that much to recommend the movie to a potential viewer. Project A Part II is like the food produced by an average-at-best pizzeria that happens to use an especially spicy kind of pepperoni. If you are a fan of pizza in general, and if you happen to like spicy pepperoni, and if you're hungry and have to eat anyway, and if you happen to be in the pizzeria's neighborhood, then sure, I wouldn't steer you away from ordering a slice, per se. But if you have other tastes or other options, you might want to consider other possibilities.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Spewing forth (Pompeii)

This past weekend my wife and I went to see Pompeii, as anticipated (see #11). It was opening weekend for the film, and it was essentially a delayed Valentine’s Day date at the earliest possible opportunity. And it’s probably a good thing that we had arranged well in advance to catch an opening weekend showing, because in all likelihood there won’t be many more chances for us or anyone else to see it in on the big screen, as it flopped pretty hard. Doubtless theater managers across the country are already moving it into the smallest auditoriums for the coming weekend, if not giving its showtimes over completely to different flicks that might actually put some butts in the seats.

Part of me, the part that thrills to the chivalry of defending the unjustly maligned, would like to be able to point out that this is horribly unfair, that Pompeii was actually a gem of a movie, maybe a little misunderstood, maybe the victim of inartful marketing. But in reality I am unable to do that, because it simply isn’t true. It turns out Pompeii is the classic example of deserving the damningly faint praise of “not bad, for what it is.” And what it is is an action movie with some cool physical setpieces and a big CGI special effects budget and a lot of period trappings (sprinkled liberally with anachronisms and inaccuracies) trying to offer a little bit of something for everyone.

There was another movie that came out about 17 years ago which was a period piece that incorporated action sequences and big-budget special effects, and in point of fact also involved a star-crossed romance and a famous historical disaster. Understandably, comparisons between Pompeii and Titanic were inevitable. I read a handful of reviews of Pompeii ahead of time (I had predicted, correctly, that the level of enjoyment my wife and I would get out of going to see Pompeii would be directly proportional to the proper setting of our expectations, so I surveyed the reviews and consequently set the bar for Pompeii to clear very, very low), and I ran into Titanic references left and right, none of them favorable to the newer film. Now that I’ve seen Pompeii for myself, I feel like I can weigh in on the point.

Of course I have seen Titanic, exactly once, on home video. I admit that I liked it, more than I expected to, but as the years have gone by I have nevertheless come to think of it as a bit overrated. There’s no denying that during the fifty-however-many weeks in the late 90’s that Titanic was in theaters, setting all-time box office records , it was a remarkable phenomenon of mass popularity; I saw that first-hand. However, not to get my snoot all full of cinephilia, there’s no direct correlation between something being staggeringly popular and something being intrinsically good. I’ve heard some people espouse the theory that Titanic made so much money not because everyone in America saw it once but because a certain subset of hardcore 12-year-old female fans kept buying tickets over and over and over again, and I think there’s a grain of truth to that. Again, I’m not saying that Titanic was bad, or that things aimed directly at 12-year-old girls are automatically worthless. I’m just pointing out that there’s no cognitive dissonance in the fact that Titanic made literally billions of dollars and yet no one in their right mind would ever say it’s one of the best movies ever made. So, in theory, if Titanic isn’t a magical artistic triumph, there’s no foregone conclusion that Pompeii couldn’t possibly have succeeded at the same formula.

Of course, you can compare individual components right off the bat and get a good sense of Pompeii’s long odds. Kit Harington is a handsome and suitably intense dude, but as an actor he’s no Leonardo DiCaprio. And Emily Browning is a perfectly serviceable ingenue, which is another way of saying she’s no Kate Winslet. (One could also argue the point that Paul W.S. Anderson is no James Cameron, but that’s not so much a case of “younger and less accomplished” so much as “cut from different cloth, with different strengths and weaknesses”, so leave that aside for now.)

Still, you can see how Pompeii does fit the mold of Titanic (and so many, many other precedents) with its star-crossed lovers, Milo and Cassia, a gladiator slave and the daughter of a noble family. It’s totally the Jack-Rose template (right down to Cassia being forced toward an arranged marriage with the villain of the piece), with the additional sqeeee! factor of Milo being the last surviving member of a Celtic horse tribe. This may just be my responding to the predilections of my lovely wife’s own inner twelve-year-old, but let me say that again: he’s hot and brooding and good with horses. Instead of standing at the rail of an ocean liner and pretending to fly, they go on a forbidden midnight horseback ride. I’m pretty sure the only way that Pompeii could have been more explicit in trying to cater to the middle-school female crowd would have been to include a Lisa Frank-colored dream sequence in which Cassia re-imagines the ride all over again, in slow motion, on a glittery lavender unicorn.

But it’s not just going for the girly-girls (or, hey, guys who are into Kit Harington and/or horses - no judging here). Milo isn’t just a gladiator in theory or as part of his backstory, there are multiple bad-ass fight scenes (including, not incidentally, the unassailable bad-assed-ness of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) which eventually give way to explosions and collapsing buildings and all sorts of chaos and carnage once the volcano erupts. Titanic climaxes with the admittedly impressive visuals of the sinking of the eponymous ship; Pompeii at one point features a tidal wave which crashes through the harbor, picks up a massive galleon which is on fire, and rams the burning ship down a major street of the city as people flee and/or fall ahead of it in terror. As cartoonish hyper-violence and mass destruction goes, that is right up there on the list of things I would pay good money to see.

More often than not, the reviews of the movie I sampled pointed out that Pompeii was “Titanic mixed with swords and sandals”, with the heavy implication that this was to be read derisively, as the swords and sandals genre is one which can never be taken seriously. I kind of, sort of get this; even though it was set almost a century earlier than the timeframe in which it was released, Titanic still has enough trappings of modernity that it can feel relatable. Whereas nobody relates to ancient Rome, and every effort to bridge the gap actually works against the suspension of disbelief. Certainly no one in the movie Pompeii is speaking Latin, or Celtish for that matter, but of course all the characters speak to one another in British accents (if you stretch the definition to include whatever bizarre vocal contortions Keifer Sutherland does as the heavy, which I advocate that we do in deference to the fact that he’s one of the most entertaining parts of the movie). Nonetheless! If you suspend disbelief not as a courtesy to the movie for the work it does in earning it, but as a conscious choice at the outset regardless of fidelity to realism, then sword and sandals is just another big, loud, dumb, fun genre. And it turns out all along that Titanic could have used a bit more big, loud, dumb fun! Pompeii is wholly dedicated to bringing the loud and the dumb and winds up moderately fun as well.

By and large I believe there’s a continuum for movies, or any other kind of narrative art, which convey straightforward and superficial messages at one end of the spectrum and deep, challenging ambiguous messages (or deliberate lack thereof) at the other. But I also believe it’s possible that the continuum is actually an unbroken circle, and that it’s possible for a piece of art to pull so hard towards the straightforward and superficial (and, debatably, plain old stupid) that it actually breaks through the lower limit and wraps around again into subversive brilliance. And for a couple of fleeting moments during Pompeii’s running time I was tempted to believe it might be verging into that territory. After all, it’s almost impossible to tell a story that contains within it an audience of some sort without commenting on the very audience that’s receiving the overall story, isn’t it? The Pompeiian crowds celebrating the Vinalia, oblivious to their imminent destruction, cheering for bloodshed in the gladiatorial arena … they’re us, aren’t they? There must be some implicit criticism of the people who paid $9.50 for a matinee ticket to watch a flick based on well-known historical record where everybody is going to die, however superior we might feel to the slave-owning, savage-eradicating (and Nazi-symbol inspiring) Roman Empire. If you look closely, if you squint hard enough, the takeaway has to be in there somewhere …

But that would be an extremely hard case for this movie to make. It perpetuates the “happy slave” archetype, which is regrettable. It mangles mythology at will, as when Milo informs his arch-nemesis Corvus that the destruction of Pompeii represents Milo’s people’s gods taking vengeance for the tribal genocide (which implies that a Celt would believe in some kind of volcano god, I guess?) It gives a character like the champion African gladiator a name like Atticus, which he owns fully as he uses to introduce himself (shouldn’t he have an African name? Or at least something with meaning beyond “man from Attica”? I suspect there’s an attempt being made to reference Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, since both characters believe in law but are ultimately disillusioned by its inconsistent practice, but then again I may be giving Pompeii way too much undeserved credit. Honestly I’m a little surprised they didn’t name Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character Crispus, just to go ahead and invoke the first black martyr of the American Revolution, although I concede that naming a character fated to die in the fiery fury of pyroclastic flow Crispus is a bit on the nose. But this is the same movie where the first slave to die in a pre-eruption temblor is named Felix, so “on the nose” is not being stringently avoided.) Where was I? Oh, right - this is a movie which uses many, many pages from the Big Screenwriter Book of Dialogue Cliches, from a character saying “relax, if I were going to kill you, I’d have done it already”; to a character answering a “How do you know?” question about an esoteric subject with a portentous “I was there”; to a character claiming that he was adept at a skill “since before I could walk”.

It would be nice to be able to claim that Pompeii was a really smart movie playing at being nothing more than big, loud, dumb fun, and again, I’d love to be the guy standing up and staking a claim on that notion. But wanting doesn’t make it so. I think ultimately it’s just big and loud and dumb and fun as an end to itself.

Fair enough, and really, is there anything terribly challenging, or any hidden depths in Titanic to make us reconsider the way we look at the world? Not fundamentally. But if I’ve learned anything in the past few years of practicing heavy analysis of pop culture, it’s this: characters have to have arcs. They have to change, learn and grow as the story goes along. That seems obvious, and yet it’s amazing how many stories people try to tell (or more to the point, to sell) where a bunch of things happen externally and nobody really develops internally. Titanic may not be all things to all people (and may not be much more than cinematic trivia to me) but at least Jack and Rose progress as characters to some point that’s markedly different from where they are when we meet them. And that’s Pompeii’s biggest failing, way beyond the nitpicking about whether or not generals going about making business deals are entitled to bring their entire legion encampment with them on the road. Milo and Cassia don’t change in the slightest from their first frames to their last. A bunch of crazy crap happens to them, and all around them, and then [spoilers] they perish. It’s romantic on some level, the imagery is definitely well-executed, but it doesn’t have the stuff of life to animate it and empower it to get its hooks in people. Change is what it’s all about, and in that regard Pompeii does make an absolutely true statement in the end: if you never change, you die.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Results pending

Last week, a lot of the people in my office were sick. By which I mean they were obviously, volubly sick, and yet they were still in the office. Lots of coughing and lots of hoarse voices, all around me. In an almost infinitesimal way, this was kind of a relief, because I tend to cough a lot at the office and feel self-conscious about it. Between my allergies and the generally poor air quality here in the Big Gray, plus whatever bugs and blergs my brood manages to collect and pass on to me, my lungs are just constantly irritated and making said irritation known to anyone within earshot. But last week, instead of breaking the otherwise omnipresent near-silence of the cubicle farm, I was just one of many voices in the Hack-a-lung-up Chorus. The solidarity was a refreshing change of pace. But as I say, that was a minor comfort alongside the much more significant exasperation that everyone was bringing their miasmas into the office and I was at great risk of coming down with something more debilitating than my usual low-grade breathing difficulties.

I blame the system more than I blame my co-workers. I mean, I blame my co-workers somewhat, they are all grown-ass adults who should understand that exposing their colleagues to actively infectious plagues is both not cool and completely within their power to avoid, via simply taking a sick day and staying home. But the system (the hybrid corporate/government world, the capitalist society we live in, call it however you see it) plays its own outsize role in making people feel like they don’t have a choice, or at least not a very good one. We all get a limited number of days off per year (“paid days off” might be more accurate, but trying to take additional days off as unpaid leave is almost always more hassle than it’s worth) and if you use those days when you’re a little bit sick you might not have them later when you're very sick, or later when you want to go on a family trip, &c. &c. If offices just shut down for a few weeks or a month every summer so that everyone could follow their bliss, and sick leave was essentially unlimited, we’d be living in a much better world. (Or possibly France? I’m under the impression that’s approximately how it works in France.) But we’re trapped in this system instead, with few compelling alternatives.

And for now I’m trapped in this specific cell of the system, as well. My interview last week went pretty well, I guess. Or so I hope? I got there early, my contact in the HR department met me in the lobby on time, and I found out I’d be sitting down and talking with three different people. The first person was the actual manager hiring for the position who would be my boss if the job came to me. She spent most of our allotted 30 minutes explaining to me how the job worked and how she ran her team, all of which sounded more than good enough to me, but also confused me slightly. As I think I’ve mentioned, I’ve been on interviews before where the stars have aligned well enough ahead of time that the interview itself is a final formality, as the company is interested in me and therefore needs to sell me on the position so that I’ll accept the offer. Which was very much what the first installment of my interview felt like, despite the fact that in all other regards, throughout this entire months-upon-months epic process, I’ve been under the impression that I really am fighting upstream to try to get them interested in me. Still, I wasn’t about to complain about the half-hour of “this is why you want to work here” subtext. I’m pretty much in agreement on that point, thanks to my buddy who already works there and has talked up the perks and such.

So then the second segment of the interview was with a more technically-oriented member of the team. My aforementioned buddy had assured me that the chances of getting any prove-your-knowledgebase kind of technical questions in the interview were practically non-existent, so of course the very first question this interviewer led with was a technical one. It threw me for a loop for that reason alone, and then on top of that it was an incredibly abstract question. It was kind of like being asked “What are the steps you would take to solve a math problem?”, which is trickier than it sounds because on the one hand, it depends: addition problem? subtraction problem? word problem? trigonometry function? And on the other hand, it’s not all that often that I think about breaking my job down into steps. I usually know the answer and know what to do and go about doing it without delineating “first I need to do this, then I need to look at this and compare it to this, then I need to run it through this over here.” It’s the difference between summing up 599 and 2325 and 710 in my head, which I can do, or explaining it as if to a child with all the lining up the ones places and carrying tens and so on and so on. Which I can definitely also do, of course, but it brings me up short and of course in the context of an interview that whole feeling can throw you into a tailspin where you don’t want to look stupid floundering at something simple and also don’t want the person interviewing you to think you assume they’re stupid by the way you’re overexplaining, and it all gets worse from there. I think I managed to thread the needle after a slight stumble-and-recovery, but of course it’s hard to know.

And then finally the third segment of the interview was with someone who herself had only been hired about four months earlier. No surprises in that one, and in fact she had some personal interest in some of the specific highlights of my resume, and I got through that part without any missteps (or so it seemed to me, again, hard to know.)

So half an hour not doing much but listening and nodding enthusiastically with the occasional affirmative interjection, half an hour second-guessing my ability to prove that I’m not a fraud in terms of the technical expertise I claim on my resume, and half an hour chatting with a relatively new hire and asking some questions of my own which I hope made it clear that I’m very interested in the job and capable of some insightful thoughts about it from the get-go. And then that was it and I was on my way home. When I got home that afternoon, I e-mail my HR contact and thanked him for arranging everything on my behalf. A couple of days after that, I e-mailed the hiring manager and thanked her for her time and expressed again my interest in the job and willingness to answer any other questions she might have. Annnnnnd … that’s pretty much it. Haven’t heard a peep from anyone over there since my interview concluded.

That’s not necessarily cause for alarm, of course. This company did take a full week to contact me from the time I submitted my resume, and then a full month from that initial contact to get the interview scheduled. Assuming they are interviewing other people as well, and as always taking into account the paradox of hiring people because they’re overworked but not having time to make hiring decisions because of same overworkedness, it could be a while before I hear from them, if at all, either way. Misgivings about the middle third of the interview aside, I think I made the best case for myself as a candidate I possibly could have. I backed up what was on my resume and I displayed the friendliest, most collegial aspects of my personality. I didn’t show up to the interview reeking of alcohol or flaunting any visible hate-group tattoos. (On the other hand, I’m a middle-aged white dude applying for a job where I’m sure they’d be thrilled to hire more women and/or people of color - and more power to them for that - but no point dwelling on what I can’t change.) It’s really out of my hands now, and all I can do is wait and see what happens.

And maybe anonymously dump a bag of cough drops over the cubicle wall into accounting.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Five Best Animals At the Museum

A few weekends back, my wife and I took the kids into the city and met up with my wife's brother and his wife at the Natural History Museum. It was a lot of fun, and I admit to being pleasantly surprised by how well it went over with our brood. We've taken the two older kids to zoos and aquariums before, but despite the superficial similarities a natural history museum is very different because there's nothing living and moving to hold the little ones' attention. Or so I thought, but once we got there the exhibits still managed to be pretty enthralling. Not for the baby, per se (who was nonetheless perfectly content to be pushed around in a stroller for a couple hours), but for his bigger siblings, definitely. And while the little guy has long had an avid interest in science and facts and the general oh-look-isn't-this-interesting vibe that a good museum can convey, I wasn't sure if the little girl would be as into it (given the difference in both age and proclivities). And yet she was, in her own way. So, good times.

We probably covered significantly less than half the exhibits in the museum, but we still managed to take in what felt like quite a bit of biodiversity. Here I would like to present, in no particular order, five of the standout animals we spent some time admiring the lifelike simulacra of.

(Honorable mention: Yes, of course, the dinosaur fossils and reconstructions were a big hit, especially with the little guy, it probably goes without saying. I am digging a bit deeper than that, because otherwise I would just be talking about five different species of saurians and the little guy's ability to distinguish between a diceratops and a triceratops, &c. But I will come back to dinos at least tangentially within the list proper.)

1. Pangolin - OK, no particular order, but I'm starting off with my personal favorite, because it's my list. Seriously, have you ever seen a pangolin? These things are fascinating, mostly because they look made-up:

They are mammals but they are covered in huge scales, with claws that look like fingers, and overall they basically seem to belong somewhere mid-list on a Wandering Monsters encounter table in a Dungeons & Dragons manual. Forget toads, owls, and black cats; this is the kind of fantasy familiar that a self-respecting wizard or witch should have perched on their shoulder, I say.

The museum display for the pangolin was pretty cool for the kids, too, because it consisted of a huge replica of a termite mound, with a pangolin on one side and an aardvark on the other, and if you walked all the way around to the far side you could actually go inside the mound to check out the little insects trying to avoid becoming food. My little guy had no idea what a termite even was, which I at first thought was passing strange and possibly indicated that we didn't let him play outside enough. But then I realized I probably learned what termites were from Bugs Bunny cartoons or something, and he isn't really exposed to those. Mystery solved.

2. Sea Scorpion - Sea scorpions also look like fantasy creatures, but that has a lot to do with the fact that they are prehistoric ocean predators and a lot has changed in 300 million years. Also, whereas pangolins are kind of freaky-cool and charming, sea scorpions are terrifying. But! They are mentioned by name and depicted in a painting in one of the dinosaur books my little guy has at home (and basically knows by heart) and he was excited to see one recreated under glass. It was also accompanied by an actual fossilized shell fragment, which offered a keen teachable moment about paleontologists finding parts of prehistoric animals and extrapolating what the whole creature looked like. Bonus for that.

3. Butterflies - which were actually alive! The museum had a special butterfly habitat exhibit, which was basically a long narrow terrarium of a room kept very warm and very moist, with airlock-style doors at either end, and you had to buy separate admission tickets and wait in line to be let in. Totally worth it for the impressive number and variety of living butterflies inside. At that point we left the baby with his aunt and uncle and took the bigger kids in. My wife had the little guy and led him over to a demonstration where he got to hold a caterpillar, which tickled him in every sense. I carried the little girl, who was a bit too overwhelmed by the combination of crowd and confined space to walk on her own. But as long as I was holding her up, she enjoyed the view. I pointed out a few butterflies to her as they flitted around, and whenever she fixed her sights on one that was fluttering for more than a couple seconds, she would start wobbling her own head in a kind of sympathetic movement. This was adorable beyond words.

4. Chimpanzee - So towards one end of the hall of mammals there was a small theater with a movie playing on a loop, explaining how all mammals are related and what the first mother-of-all-mammals probably looked like and how the world transitioned from dinosaur dominance to mammalian triumph. The movie was in part "hosted" by a chimp, but the one I am specifically thinking of now was a bronze statue of a chimpanzee seated on one of the theater benches, facing the movie. Both of my older kids are a little bit obsessed with tv, so as soon as they saw a room with a big screen they wanted to stop and watch. At first they didn't even notice the chimp statue, but then eventually they started looking around, and spotted it, and immediately moved over to that bench and sat right next to it. Eventually they would have ended up in its lap or on its shoulders (perhaps one of each), except for the four adults urging them to move on to other parts of the museum when the movie was over.

Incidentally, after we left the small theater the little guy was immediately off and running with his own commentary and interpretation on the dinosaur-to-mammal transition, into which of course he inserted his not-at-all-on-the-wane obsession with dragons. A couple of fun facts (according to my son): one, dragons are both reptiles AND mammals, with several of the hallmark characteristics of each species; they have scales, but are warm-blooded (as fire-breathers must be) and they give birth to live young, although they feed them fish and snakes, not milk. And two, dragons have been around ever since the dinosaur age, but they escaped the mass extinction because when the giant asteroid was on its way toward Earth, the dragons saw it coming and flew into outer space to escape the terrible explosion and sun-blocking dust-storms and so forth, only to return later on. There's a tiny part of my brain that wonders if I should be indulging this tendency on the little guy's part to blow right past the legitimate wonders of actual science and misconstrue elements of fantasy as fact, but then I remember that he is five and, frankly, I am a lot older and I kind of still do the same thing (see: PANGOLINS). And I do find it amusing to wonder if any of the other museum patrons can hear this articulate little munchkin going on and on about dragons so matter-of-factly and pause in slight confusion to verify if there was a dragon exhibit they somehow overlooked.

5. Dung Beetle - So right at the entrance of the museum there is an elephant, which is an indisputably impressive animal, but even more impressive to me is the attention given to detail in assembling the entire free-standing diorama, including the local flora and fauna which might be found alongside the elephant. This extends so far as to include multiple dung beetles, doing their thing as it were. Which of course I had to point out to the little guy (because if you do not share opportunities for poop jokes with a five year old, you have no soul). This led ultimately to a lot more discussion about dung beetles and what they do and why they do it, and that in turn led to my wife searching YouTube for videos about dung beetles, and inevitably she found this:

Which has now entered into HEAVY rotation in our household, and rightly so, because it is hilarious.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Gaming the system

I'm not at work today, and in fact if all goes according to plan then right about the time this post goes up I will actually be in my car and off on an adventure. More specifically, on my way to an interview.

This is the long-awaited penultimate step in the attempted job-jump I've been hinting at and/or throwing my hands up over since last fall. Of course even the most recent positive developments have been a bit on the farcical side. A week ago yesterday, the 10th, I received a work e-mail announcing that one of my colleagues had accepted a new position elsewhere and there would be a going away luncheon for him on Friday the 21st. I have nothing against this particular colleague (don't work directly with him very often or know him very well, but he seems like a solid dude) and I'm happy for him, but I admit it did seem a bit like salt in the wound to know someone else was not only capable of but well and truly living out the career-upgrade scenario, while I seemed to be stuck in limbo. Fortunately, less than 24 hours later, I finally heard back from the HR guy I'd been waiting on, and he proposed an interview time of 9:00 a.m. on ... Friday the 14th.

But then, of course, came Pax. When the winter storm started churning up from the South on Wednesday, I e-mailed the HR guy to make sure that he had my cell phone number just in case roads were impassable, his office was closed, or any other set of circumstances impacted the interview and I needed to be notified. The storm was supposed to blow through overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, and the interview wasn't until Friday, but stranger things and all that. To my chagrin, the HR guy took the opportunity to ask me if it might not be better to reschedule the interview for some time other than Friday, just to be on the safe side. Thankful that the entire exchange was happening via e-mail, which filters out my teeth-grinding and face-palming, I responded that of course that would be no problem, as I was wide open from Tuesday through Friday of the following week.

I was a little worried it would take another few weeks or months to reschedule, but luckily his counter-offer came through almost immediately: Tuesday (today!) at 11:00 a.m. So again, if all goes as it should (though I note with some foreboding that an inch or so of snow is being predicted for Monday night), I'm on my way there. I have no idea how long it will be after the interview process for me to get any kind of offer or "thanks but unfortunately" to settle the matter once and for all. But be assured, when I know, you'll know.

So originally I was going to take a personal day on Friday for the interview, and then come in to work today to kind of make up for it. I had even gone so far as to inform both my government boss and my contracting boss of this arrangement (though of course I provided a non-interview reason for needing the day off) and gotten approval from both of them right before I e-mailed the HR guy about inclement weather scenarios and he quickly rescheduled the interview. It turned out to be just as well, because the snow kept coming and coming all day on Thursday, and on Friday both the federal offices and the office where my interview was supposed to be had two-hour delayed openings. In the end I went in to work on Friday, you'll recall. And I'm here today, although almost no one else is, nad certainly no one is asking me to get anything done today. But I'll claim it as a full eight hours on my timesheet, thanks very much. And then tomorrow, rather than burning eight hours of personal leave, I do believe I'll use one of my floating holidays. Normally there would be some concern and calculation involved in weighing using the time now as opposed to later in the year on Columbus Day or Veteran's Day or some other disparity between federal and corporate paid days off like that. But if all goes well, I won't even be in this job come October (come much sooner, I should certainly hope) so I might as well save my accrued leave time to cash out when I give my notice. These are the little gambles that make life interesting!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rocking in the Free World

Since this is the Year of the Big Birthday, it seems only fitting to acknowledge this Presidents' Day double shot.

George "Slim Shady" Washington would have been 282 this month. Abraham "Slash" Lincoln, the big 2-0-5.

'MERICA!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Wintry mix-ups

In an arguably more-ideal world, I would have been at work yesterday and not at work today, as yesterday would have been a Thursday of business-as-usual and today would have been a day on which an afternoon meeting between me and my wife and the little guy's teacher would have justified me burning a personal day. Then, however, came the snow late Wednesday night, which necessitated widespread closures across the area on Thursday. So yesterday my entire family was at home, and there were some late morning exertions in shoveling about a foot of snow off our driveway and walks, but mostly it was pretty mellow.

Today school was cancelled yet again, and our meeting with the teacher along with it. The back-up plan was for us to simply show up at our regular scheduled parent-teacher conference time, which is set for Monday afternoon. Unfortunately I can't make it then, because Monday is a federal holiday and I volunteered to work as part of the small force of contractors guaranteeing that there's minimal coverage in place while all the civilian government employees are out of the office. Of course I had stepped up to this task in light of the fact that I was going to be out on Friday anyway and wanted to balance things out. But now here I am at the Big gray today, and I'll be here on Monday as well.

But on the other hand, the federal government offices opened with a two-hour delay today, so I got to sleep in and only clock six hours at my desk. Although now, I suppose, I'm really only going to be clocking five, since the boss-several-rungs-up-the-ladder just announced that, because it's the beginning of a three-day federal holiday weekend, we could all knock off the customary 59 minutes early.

So yeah, I'm not altogether sure why my snow avatar up above is so miffed. I got a freebie day off yesterday and had fun hanging out with my wife and my kids, and I'm basically getting a free half-day today. And Monday will be a bit of a joke (by which I mean it will be even easier to slack off than usual, and I trust I've made my case often enough over the years that it's pretty dang easy to slack off around here). I'm bummed about missing the parent-teacher meeting, since I do genuinely care about what's going on with the little guy as he continues to try to get the hang of school, with ups and downs and all. But, on balance, things could be much worse.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Re-visitation (The Amazing Spider-Man)

When my wife and I went to the theater to see The Desolation of Smaug in December, I got to watch a full-length, big-screen trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 during the Coming Attractions. And I found myself geeking out for it pretty hard (in fact, I geeked out to the point where it was visibly noticeable to my wife sitting beside me). I phrased the previous sentence the way I did because it was a somewhat surprising reaction, as far as I was concerned; I had previously been utterly indifferent to the existence of the first film in the new Amazing franchise, and had never made time to sit down and watch it.

I may have alluded to this before, but permit me to explain my multi-layered opinions on the relatively recent (2008-onward) explosion of Hollywood adaptations of comic book superheroes. Obviously at the most basic level I have been thrilled with the results, or at a minimum with the fact that we live in a world where the less-than-stellar products of the trend at least had a chance to take their shot, however widely they missed their mark (looking mostly at you, here, Green Lantern). All of the Marvel movies that fed into The Avengers were great, and I’m a big defender of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but considering most of the public has at least heard of Captain America or Batman, those were more or less low-hanging fruit. Another gratifying development, as far as I was concerned, was the fact that more obscure (again, not necessarily to the nerd-circles I move in, but to the general public) comic books and graphic novels made it to the silver screen. Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Wanted - again, the actual artistic results may have been a mixed bag, but it was very cool that they got their moment at the multiplex. Not to mention the original creations that weren’t adapting any specific comics but clearly were inspired by them, whether it was an overstuffed mess like Hancock or a real gem like Chronicle. For someone like me, a huge fan of big-budget spectacle and superhero stories, it’s been a crazy paradise of possibilities.

And because of all that, thanks to the high bar set by modern adaptations of classic Big 2 (DC and Marvel) properties and the constant expansion into indie comics and whole-cloth new concepts, it really rubbed me the wrong way when they started going back to some of the not-all-that-terribly-old wells. First the X-Men film franchise re-invented itself by recasting almost all of its characters and going back in time to tell the genesis of the team (as opposed to How They Met Wolverine) as a period piece. Then the Spider-Man franchise pulled a full-on reboot, not looking at untold history but simply calling a do-over on the hero’s origin story, which struck me as even more egregious. In both cases, it had been a mere five years since the last film installment of the respective properties’ trilogies. X-Men The Last Stand came out in 2006, and First Class bowed in 2011; Spider-Man 3 hit theaters in 2007 and The Amazing Spider-Man premiered in 2012. And yes, sure, Last Stand and Spider-Man 3 were pretty much the death knells for each series, they were plagued with all the worst pitfalls of sequelitis and disappointed a lot of fans. And yes, as well, a year or two after those dismal diminishing returns limped off screens, the first Iron Man movie came out and the superhero cinema renaissance began, so there was a brand new model for how these things could be done right. But still, five years seemed like too little time. Give each generation their own Spider-Man films, every twenty years or so, that would be fine by me. But why the scrap-it-all-and-start-over approach for Spidey so quickly, when there were so many other characters who had never gotten the greenlight?

(I’m aware that a lot of the answer has to do with different studios having different legal rights to limited subsets of characters, and those studios wanting to make money with those characters, and the perception of sufficient value in the Spider-Man characters and story possibilities to justify another attempt at a series of flicks to cash in on that. I do get it, commercially. My objections are purely, and admittedly unrealistically, about overarching philosophical aesthetics.)

I gave in and watched X-Men: First Class eventually, after a couple of my buddies (whose opinions about comic books and related entertainments I respect) assured me that it was really quite good and not at all the creatively bankrupt desperate grab for audience share I had assumed it to be. And they were right! But on Spider-Man, I held out quite a bit longer. Partly that was because of what I expressed above: a retro getting-the-band-together approach was a lot more forgivable than a re-hashing of the birth-of-the-hero story that was only ten years in the past. And partly it’s because, subjectively, I liked the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man film a great deal. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot seemed inherently disrespectful to a work that I was very sentimentally attached to. And in final part, it was because I have a certain attachment to Spider-Man as a character, as I’ve expounded on at length. I had a hard time accepting that a new cast, new screenwriter, new director, and new sensibilities could do the story justice; the modern superhero flick renaissance has excesses of its own, and it was a distinct possibility (in my mind, at least) that the Amazing reboot could have learned all the wrong lessons from the boom. For all that I talk a good game about how no interpretation, no matter how high-profile and aggressively marketed, can really reach backwards and ruin its source material just by association, there’s still a non-rational, fan-emotional risk to be factored into decisions about checking something out or not. With Amazing Spider-Man, I opted for “not”.

At least, for a while. But as buzz started to build for Amazing Spider-Man 2, my own curiosity started to outweigh the risk aversion. And then there was the trailer in the theater, and then at the Super Bowl party there was another trailer commercial for the sequel. I turned to one of my buddies and we simultaneously confessed to never having seen the first installment while also thinking the follow-up looked pretty compelling. And inevitably, once again, our other mutual friends who had seen the first film impressed upon us that it was really good; one even offered to loan it to me, since he owned it on dvd. I didn’t take him up on it, but I did bump up Amazing Spider-Man in my Netflix queue (where of course it had been lurking for months) and I watched it this week.

And oh man, it was so good.

Here’s the thing: I had been clinging to a fundamental belief that the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie had done so many things right that the reboot could only ever distinguish itself by its missteps. Raimi’s version was a bold, bright love-letter to the original comics, and either Amazing (which I suppose I could start referring to as Marc Webb’s, although “the Webb version” seems borderline absurd in its self-referentiality) would cover the same ground and be redundant, or go super-dark and angst-y and be something which was both not my cup of tea and not altogether true to the character. Certainly based on what little I did osmotically absorb from the popcult-sphere about Amazing Spider-Man seemed to feed into the second possibility, from the redesign of Spider-Man’s costume to the fact that the bulk of the movie seemed to take place underground or at night (or both).

What I had failed to consider was that Raimi’s film was far from perfect, and a lot of my sentimental attachment to it came from the fact that in 2002 I was starving for a halfway decent superhero blockbuster to redeem the genre after the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies had squandered themselves out. Spider-Man is halfway decent, but it has its own share of shortcomings, and it turns out it is possible to correct those without over-correcting, as Amazing Spider-Man capably demonstrates.

I’m not souring on Raimi’s work completely, and I think parts of it still hold up. JK Simmons is ridiculously perfect as J. Jonah Jameson, just as Rosemary Harris looks like she stepped right out of a Ditko panel of Aunt May. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst and James Franco aren’t quite as physically on-model as Peter and MJ and Harry, but they’re all very game in their performances. And the same goes for Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, but that’s where, if we’re being honest (and why wouldn’t we be), it starts to get a little wobbly. Dafoe chews his fair share of scenery as the arch-villain of the piece, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that; presumably that is why one hires the man. But it’s all a bit one-note, and that’s a criticism that could be leveled at just about everything in the movie. It’s a live-action comic book,but unfortunately that’s true in the more pejorative sense of the word: flat, four-color, streamlined and simplified. A fun ride, no question, but lacking a certain depth.

Amazing Spider-Man has plenty of depth. Peter and Aunt May and Uncle Ben in this new version all feel more like real people, given room to breathe and come to life as human beings with full complements of both virtues and failings. The rest of the iconic characters from the earlier film - the Osborns, Jameson, Mary Jane Watson - are all absent (and with good reason, see below), but there are other characters drawn from the old comics that fill similar narrative roles, and across the board they too are improvements. Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors makes a more understated antagonist than Dafoe’s Osborn. Denis Leary portrays George Stacy, a police captain who stands in for Jameson as the authoritarian establishment figure who distrusts Spider-Man but has real motivation for doing so aside from “cartoonish blowhard”. And Emma Stone brings Gwen Stacy to life in a way that (if you know the ins and outs of Spider-Man stories) is all but heartbreaking.

Those above-mentioned character swaps aren’t entirely arbitrary, either. In every case, they actually make more sense for re-starting the Spider-Man franchise from square one. For example, Curt Connors becomes the Lizard in a manner that is reminiscent of Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin. (Everything in the Spider-Man movies tends to revolve around Oscorp, and Connors is a scientist in their employ.) But the Lizard’s powerset as a man-animal hybrid makes a lot more sense, plot-wise and thematically, as a reflection of Spider-Man’s powers, than the Green Goblin as a superstrong lunatic with shiny weaponized technologies ever did. By the same token, making Captain Stacy and the police a thorn in Peter Parker’s side, as opposed to the press via Jameson and the Daily Bugle, gives the climax of the movie much higher stakes, as the general warrant for Spider-Man’s arrest complicates his ability to track and stop the Lizard.

In fact, all of the changes made in re-telling the origin story make Webb’s movie objectively better. Raimi made sure to include the sequence from Spider-Man’s first comic book appearance where newly empowered Peter puts on a cheap mask and enters a wrestling contest with a cash prize. It’s a faithful rendering, but it’s also a flashy, somewhat silly scene (with a gratuitous Bruce Campbell cameo), which is more or less a microcosm of Raimi’s trilogy as a whole. Webb omits that incongruous story beat entirely, with his Peter Parker testing his new powers not by trying to break into show business but by picking fights with muggers and lowlifes, looking for the man who killed his uncle. (But Webb does make oblique reference to the imagery by having Peter fall through the roof of a seedy building which used to be a gym and land in a wrestling ring; the fading posters of luchadores on the walls inspire the design of the Spider-Man mask.)

I could go on and on (and on, as I am currently proving) about the numerous choices Amazing Spider-Man makes to deviate from both 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 comic and 2002’s Spider-Man film, but this may be the most crucial difference between the two franchise-launching movies: in Raimi’s, Peter graduates from high school some time around the end of Act One and gets an apartment in the city with Harry, basically becoming a young adult who needs a job to pay the rent and so on. In Webb’s take, Peter Parker remains a high school student throughout. He’s just a kid, which really gets at something pivotal about the whole Spider-Man concept. And Andrew Garfield, who I haven’t really mentioned all that much yet, really brings out that fascinating combination of teenage vulnerability and exultant wish-fulfillment in Peter.

Is Amazing Spider-Man darker than its decade-old predecessor? It is, without argument. But, again, that’s a change for the better. It’s not excessively dark, and it had a lot of room to go a bit darker because, if anything, Raimi’s version may have been a bit too well-lit. And it’s an appropriate kind of darkness, because that’s who Spider-man is; for all the wisecracking and derring-do, for all the subplots about everyman problems, Spider-Man is a character born from grief and defined by failure. Or, spun more positively, an embodiment of the principle that heroism is all about how a man (or a boy) picks himself up and keeps trying after every fall, even if (especially if) it’s not just one failure that gradually recedes into the past, but a complicated human lifetime full of small stumbles and giant catastrophes.

So now I’m caught up on the “new” Spider-Man, and I’m entirely psyched for May 2nd and the sequel. And then three months after that, the Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out, which certainly satisfies my geek-purist desire for new movies featuring comic book characters we haven’t seen in multiple iterations already. Sounds like a win-win summer to me.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Weirding out again

I grumped out pretty hard yesterday (somebodygotacaseofthemondays) so let's shift gears altogether today and talk about some genuinely good news of positive developments for me. I recently made some purposefully vague comments about personal projects which I was not yet comfortable elaborating upon in detail, but I am happy to report that as of today I can lift the veil of semi-secrecy: the big project is the third (and, sadly, probably final) volume of How the West Was Weird, and my personal involvement consists of a short story which I submitted for inclusion in the anthology. I found out over this past weekend that my story was accepted and will see print sometime this spring. Which makes me pretty happy!


Thrilled.

For those of you who may be new to the proceedings around here, some background: when volume two of How the West Was Weird came out, back in 2011, I was a contributor to the anthology, which kind of happened in a strangely roundabout way. Basically I was approached out of the blue by the editor of the anthology, because he was looking for additional pieces to fill out the second volume and we had a mutual friend who mentioned I might want to write something, and it so happened that I had written a little vignette years earlier which was definitely weird and approximately western-set, plus had been sitting on my hard drive with no particular purpose. So everything serendipitously came together to everyone's benefit.

Some time after I announced here on the blog that I had a story appearing in How the West Was Weird v.2 (and after I had shamelessly promoted the book with links to purchase it on Amazon) the anthology actually hit the streets and I got my contributor copy and I read the whole thing cover-to-cover. (I don't know if it goes without saying or not that I would do just that, but in case it needs saying, I suppose I am the kind of person who would always be curious about what all of my co-contributors came up with.) The reading experience was positive overall from a pure entertainment perspective, but somewhat frustrating on another level. The vast majority of the other stories in the book were straightforward pulp adventures, and I am not saying that in any kind of disparaging way. I love pulp adventures. I love big, loud, fun, plot-heavy stories; I love other kinds of stories, too, there's a time and a place for everything, but stories with larger-than-life heroes and ever-escalating stakes are a particularly enduring pleasure of mine. And yet, the story I had written that happened to put me in the right place at the right time to effortlessly slide into the How the West Was Weird series was not exactly that kind of story. It was written in an intentionally off-kilter style and its pulpier elements were at least somewhat subverted. Overall I'm sure it struck the editor as a good fit because it added a different note of flavor to the overall anthology, but I found myself jealous of the contributors who had contributed the meat and potatoes that I was theoretically spicing up. And thus I vowed that when (and if) there was a volume three, I would set myself to the task of writing a story that was undeniably straight from the heart of the weird western genre, a lot more in keeping with the ostensible theme and thus more of a main course entertainment.

Since then I've re-read all of Stephen King's Dark Tower books about Roland Deschain the Last Gunslinger, and I've sat down to watch a lot more classic westerns like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, all of which certainly helped. And I've also started raising a little girl (my wife was pregnant with our daughter when the editor initially approached me about participating, and the little girl was a newborn when volume two was published), and that ended up influencing me more than anything else. Somewhere along the line I decided that even better than indulging in my love for pulpy pulse-pounding fantasy and all of its tropes (and cliches) would be carving out a little more new space in the playground for all the little girls out there. So I actually wrote the tale of a young, brave, resourceful cowgirl hunting down bad guys and taking on whatever the world throws at her. I really can't abide the thought of sharing my enthusiasm for adventure stories with all my kids as they grow up, and my sons having no shortage of heroic protagonists to look up to and emulate and identify with, and my daughter having the very limited choice between Wonder Woman and Princess Leia and ... that's about it. Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but not by all that much. And I'm not so full of myself as to think I can level the playing field singlehandedly, but it's always better to do something positive than do nothing. So, my something, coming soon!

I will continue to make use of the How the West Was Weird tag around here as the publication date for volume 3 draws nigh, including when the full table of contents is released and when the final cover art for the book is unveiled, and so on. (That image up above? Nothing really connected to the How the West Was Weird series, just a cool piece of comic book art in the appropriate vein.) My inclusion in the anthology this time around feels much less like a happy accident and much more like something I worked hard at and am commensurately proud of, so, you know, be forewarned that I will probably talk it up a lot.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Parked

Yesterday was the first Sunday after the Super Bowl, so my wife and I took advantage of the complete and utter lack of anything worth tuning in to on live tv (sorry, Olympics!) to get back to watching Downton Abbey last night. By which of course I mean we fired up our Blu-ray copy of Season 3, starting with the first episode, because we are way behind. That’s nothing new, of course, and I think I may have mentioned that we are such laggards that we’ve already had monumental plot developments (read: character deaths) spoiled for us in unlikely ways, because we’re not just an episode or two off-schedule but well outside the window wherein polite society tries to keep the leakage to a minimum. If I’m misremembering and haven’t mentioned that, it’s probably because it’s honestly not that big a deal; the best pleasures derived from following the soap opera of Lord Grantham’s family and servants are mostly in the little moments of restrained so-very-British facial reactions and passive-aggressive one-liners (the vast majority of both of which are delivered by Maggie Smith, of course).

At any rate, Season 3’s premiere is a fairly Branson-heavy episode, with much made of his and Sybil’s visit to Downton for Mary’s wedding and the continuing cultural and political clash. I’ve always liked Branson, while recognizing that he’s very much that guy, deeply invested in a controversial cause and a bit too adamant about shoving it down other people’s throats. But above and beyond all that I often found myself relating to Branson when he was still the family chauffeur, because he so perfectly encapsulated how my own job feels on a regular basis. I’ve looked and looked online (unsuccessfully, obviously) for a screencap of Branson leaning against the roadster in the garage and reading the newspaper, because that specific image is in fact exactly how my job feels. Branson hangs out off by himself with nothing much to do and reads. Clearly when someone needs to be driven somewhere, he drives them, but long stretches of time go by where no one needs a driver, and so he waits idle and collects his paycheck. That’s totally me: when a server issue needs troubleshooting or a custom report needs generating &c., I swing into action. But those kinds of things don’t happen every day (or even every week). The rest of the time, I’m surfing the web. It seems crazy, because my employer is not an English earl concerned with some combination of noblesse oblige and keeping up appearances while being caught between the worlds of yesterday and tomorrow, but rather a government contractor with profit margins to protect and shareholders to answer to every quarter. And yet, here we are.

Meanwhile, speaking of crazy, I have a decent lead on a potential new job, which I applied for and got a response asking if I would be willing to come in for an interview. I expressed not only willingness but the utmost flexibility in scheduling said interview, and was told that they would be back in touch with me once they determined what date and time worked best for them. That was weeks ago (it will be four weeks tomorrow) and I still have not gotten that interview scheduled.

I have touched base with the company more than once in the interim, assuring them that I was still interested in the position and eager to meet with them in person, but haven’t gotten much in response beyond some appreciation for my patience and assurance that they’re doing what they can to move the process along on their end. I have a bit of inside info on the job because a buddy of mine already works there, and he has confirmed that they are always like this and suffer from an institutional problem with filling open positions quickly. Partly it’s because their model is to schedule multiple consecutive one-on-one interviews between a candidate and various employees all on the same day, and it’s the difficulties of cross-coordination that slow things down. I understand all that, and from what my buddy has conveyed to me it sounds like a great place to work once you clear those entry hurdles. But it’s frustrating to be halfway on the hook with no ability to wiggle things in the right direction myself. For a while there I was avoiding talking about it here on the blog because I didn’t want to jinx things, but enough of that already. I will keep you all posted when and if things develop.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Train-of-Thought Whiplash

My office building is one of multiple connected towers, and when the weather is unpleasant, I often enter at the ground floor of the northmost building and walk through the concourse to get to my elevator lobby. This involves traversing a fairly large food court, which has four televisions mounted on the walls connected to satellite feeds. For as long as I've been cutting through that food court, the tv's have always been tuned to the same channels: two of them to ESPN, and two of them to CNN. Which makes a certain amount of sense. This week, though, the two tv's formerly broadcasting CNN had been changed to Animal Planet. Of all things. Yeah, I don't even know where to go with that one.

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But then by Thursday or so the tv's were back to CNN. Just in time for me to see the following banner across the bottom of the screen: SINGING FISH THRWARTS BURGLARY. The story was apparently about a home invader setting off the motion detector of a Big Mouth Billy Bass and getting spooked by the sound and bailing on the attempted skullduggery. I know what you're thinking (Who still has a Big Mouth Billy Bass hanging on the wall with working batteries no less???) but what I was thinking was more along the lines of ... "THRWARTS"? Seriously, CNN? "THRWARTS"?! I know "thwarts" is an uncommon (and sadly underused) word, but you're telling me the text editor you use for composing on-screen graphics doesn't have a spellchecker?

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Of course I was saying that word in my head as "Thor-warts" which could bring to mind one of the awesomer comic book storylines in my lifetime, but also suggests some kind of YA series where Norse mythology is crossed with Harry Potter and little Asgardians go off to boarding school to learn how to be big Asgardians, or something. If something along those lines isn't actually in development right now, I'll eat my spangenhelm.

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And speaking of unexpected fantasy mash-ups: Ice-T Records Dungeons & Dragons Audiobook. (Hilariously NSFW language in the article, just fyi.) In the years since I waxed contrarian about certain entertainment-delivery technologies I have softened my stance considerably on e-books, but audiobooks remain a medium in which I have little to no interest. But oh man, if ever there was a perfect peanut-butter-cup combo of voice and subject matter that would cause my resolve to crack and lure me into downloading something, ICE-T and DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is pretty much it.

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Finally, just a random little "kids say the darnedest" which is perhaps tangentially connected to the idea of adventurers fighting monsters in subterranean recesses: yesterday I drove to work instead of taking the train (my illness on Thursday netted me a ride home in my wife's car, since she very conveniently was at a conference nearby that day, and thus my car stayed at the train station overnight as I recuperated, and the following morning we tag-teamed getting the kids ready and putting the little guy on the school bus, and then she drove me across town to get my car, which was after the trains had stopped running for the morning. Hence.) and before I left the house, the little guy had a few questions for me about how I was able to drive to work. He asked if there was a parking lot at my office, and I assured him that indeed there was. And in fact, not only that, but it was underground, directly beneath the great big building containing my office. The little guy rolled that concept of an underground parking garage around in his mind a bit and then asked, with a mixture of fascination and terror, "Is it ... full of bugs?" I can only assume because he knows ants and beetles and various other creepy-crawlers live underground, and he was just picturing a great big hollowed-out cavern or somesuch.

Of course I had to laugh, and informed him that it wasn't just a hole in the dirt but actually made of concrete and virtually bug-free.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Wild little beasts

(Programming note: this post was originally supposed to go up yesterday, but in the middle of composing it I suddenly took ill and the rest of the day was pretty much a total loss. Better late than never!)

The little guy continues to be enamored with How To Train Your Dragon, although I did finally send the Netflix disc back. No matter; he basically has the entire film memorized at this point and can recite entire scenes of dialog verbatim. Unbeknownst to him, I ordered a couple of dvd’s of the Cartoon Network spin-off series and they are hidden in my closet, to be dangled as particularly juicy rewards when needed. (Which will probably be soon: report cards came home this week and the little guy has some areas which need improvement, and as soon as my wife and I can schedule a meeting with his teacher and develop a home strategy to complement the classroom strategy, doubtless the prospect of new How To Train Your Dragon stories appearing on the tv will become a primary motivator.)

Anyway, absent the possibility of re-watching the movie he goes back and forth between trying to stump me with probing questions about the nature of that fictional world, and play-acting as a denizen thereof. As is the established standard in cases like this, his little sister usually gets dragged into this as well, and willingly enough. What’s interesting to me is the different ways that the two of them approach the subject matter.

(For what it’s worth, the baby sometimes get caught up in all this as well, generally being assigned the role of one of the smaller and less-intelligent species of dragon as he crawls around at top speed and tries to grab things to put in his mouth. Not that the baby realizes it, but that is a fair embodiment of how those mini-dragons behave in the movie, so good on him, I guess.)

The little guy mainly identifies with the dragons themselves. If magic wishes were real he would certainly request the ability to metamorphose into a Night Fury, possibly even as a permanent arrangement. He has already decided that’s what he wants to be for Halloween, in eight and a half months. He has confessed to me that he thinks it would be great to be a dragon both because he could fly and because he would be strong and fierce and able to breathe fire. I asked him who or what he would want to breathe fire at and he very gravely informed me: “Bad creatures.” So, fair enough. I sense that he’s beginning to comprehend that we live in a world where sometimes bigger and meaner takes advantage of smaller and weaker, and so he’s very interested in at least not being small and weak.

The little girl, on the other hand, is therefore left with the other half of the binary set-up: in a story about a Viking boy and his dragon, since the part of the dragon is already claimed by her older brother, the little girl gets to be the Viking boy. But it never strikes me as entirely by default, either. In much the same way that charging around on all fours and growling and hissing like a monster equipped with flame breath is really only a slight exaggeration of the little guy’s natural personality, having to react to all of that with bravery and empathy is totally in keeping with who my daughter fundamentally is (as much as said assertion can bear any weight when the child in question is not yet three years old). On the one hand, I marvel at the two of them playing together as the little guy pretends to be an untamed creature and the little girl pretends to do the taming, and she basically gets everything right: he’s snarling and pawing at the floor, and she’s bending her knees and her waist to get closer to his level, and holding out one hand in a gently placating gesture, and using a very calm soft voice to say “easy, boy, easy, fella, it’s ok, it’s ok” over and over. Clearly what I mean here is not that she gets it right in the sense of emulating the source material perfectly (although that’s in play, she’s pretty dang close) but more something deeper, that she’s internalized the root idea and is drawing on that. But on the other hand it’s not that surprising, because she’s always been nurturing and caregiving and compassionate (when she’s not having a full-on fist-swinging temper tantrum, of course) so it all just kind of clicks.

As always, the parenting gig is a bit of a mixed bag. It can get a little mentally exhausting sometimes to deal with every single conversation eventually (if not immediately) coming back around to the ecology of Gronkles and Zipplebacks. But having survived similar Cars and Toy Story phases, I know we’ll get through this one as well. At the same time, seeing the kids so taken with a story about trust and cooperation (and questioning authority and lots of other legitimately cool stuff) is fairly gratifying in and of itself.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My old nemesis

There was another casting announcement in the last week or so about the inevitable Man of Steel sequel (which I KNOW, I promised to stop talking about that franchise, but in the geeky spheres I move in it’s kind of unavoidable and I’m a little thin on other Wednesday-oriented things to focus on right now), this time revealing that Jesse Eisenberg would portray Lex Luthor. The announcement did not set off the same firestorm of nerd rage as the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, which I think has more to do with Affleck than Eisenberg, irrespective of either one’s suitability for the respective iconic roles. Ben Affleck has simply been around longer and done more things to earn various levels of opprobrium (some rightfully so, others less), not least starring in a Daredevil movie that was more or less a misfire. Jesse Eisenberg’s highest-profile role to date was as The Social Network’s semi-fictional version of Mark Zuckerberg, which means the knee-jerk reaction has been less “he’s going to ruin everything” and more “let’s come up with Zucker-zingers comparing the founder of Facebook to Lex Luthor”.

I’m really not planning on seeing the movie no matter who gets cast as whom, since at this point any sequel in that series strikes me as throwing gasoline on the dumpster fire that was Man of Steel. But I still feel entitled to my opinions about Goyer and Snyder’s (mis)handling of the Superman mythos all the same, and in this case I think it’s another solid piece of evidence that they just don’t really get what Supes is supposed to be all about.

It comes down to Eisenberg’s youthfulness, not just his chronological age but the fact that he has a certain physical presence that lends itself to playing younger characters. He’s 30 years old right now; he’s about six months older than Mark Zuckerberg, in fact, and he was able to convincingly portray Zuckerberg as a college student. The year before The Social Network, Eisenberg played a high school student in Zombieland (a movie of which I’m certainly a fan). He may be starting to grow out of his boyishness, possibly, but it seems unlikely.

And I’m not disparaging Eisenberg’s acting ability, or his ability to convey gravitas enough to bring to life one of the Greatest Of All Time supervillains in the history of comics. In a vacuum, at any rate. But that’s not how movies work, and it’s not as if the movie is going to be a self-contained secret origin of Lex Luthor (which could be pretty cool). It’s a Superman movie, and Lex Luthor is always going to be defined in opposition to Superman, in certain specific ways.

Guess who else is 30 years old? Henry Cavill. And as I’ve recently alluded to, 30 is a perfectly acceptable age for Superman to be, in fact it’s within a few years of ideal. 30 is much less optimal an age for Lex Luthor to be in any given story, although under the right circumstances it could work. But those circumstances come down to how old Luthor is compared to Superman.

Assume for a moment that the Richard Donner Superman movie from 1978 is the gold standard for stories about Supes (outside the comics medium he was created for, obviously). Christopher Reeve was 26 when that movie came out; Gene Hackman was 48. That is a good Superman/Luthor age gap.

Or go to a very different take on the mythos and look at Smallville. Tom Welling was about 24 when he started portraying young Clark Kent who was technically supposed to be a (farm-fed and robustly healthy) 14 or 15 years old. Michael Rosenbaum was/is five years Welling’s senior, and his Lex in season one was written as approximately 23 or 24 years old. Considering the necessary age compressions for a teenage soap opera, that is also a pretty good Clark/Lex age gap.

But even more important than the age gap, although it arises from that, is the implied difference in Superman and Lex Luthor’s social positions. Superman is younger and Lex Luthor is older because Superman is the striver, the idealist, the one who is going to change the world and make it a better place. Luthor, on the other hand, is entrenched in the system, embittered by the fact that the world has not come crawling to his door. He’s the pragmatist putting the ends above the means. Superman is the liberal progressive and Luthor is the arch-conservative, which is not a coincidence! That’s the way most people tend to live their lives; they’re as left-leaning as their gonna get when they’re young and optimistic and don’t have anything to lose by shaking up the status quo, and they become more and more right-leaning as they age into responsibilities and possessions as status symbols &c. So Superman is the future, while Luthor is the past.

Spoiler: the future always wins out over the past. Some people feel there’s no dramatic tension in superhero comic books because they’re just amped-up morality plays where the Good Guys always defeat the Bad Guys in the end. Setting aside whether it’s dramatic tension or simple wish fulfillment that’s the whole point of the comics, there’s something meaningful in depicting a set of characters who want to move the world backwards into might making right, and a set of characters who want to usher humanity ever-forwards towards justice and equality and freedom, and all the things we’ve been pursuing since the dawn of time, and having the forward-thinkers win out every time.

Anyway. In Smallville both Clark and Lex are young men, but Clark is a mild-mannered high school student while Lex is occupying an executive suite (and angling for the very top job) in a multinational corporation. Lex was born into the oligarchy, and Clark was not, but a lot of the other things they both might have had to struggle with as part of growing up are essentially behind Lex even as Clark is in the middle of them. Rosenbaum left the show when it suited him to do so, but it’s telling that his departure coincided with the timing in the overall narrative when Clark was becoming an independent young professional himself, and the age gap was losing its significance. The gulf between 15 and 23 is a big deal; between 22 and 30, less so. Presumably they were running out of good Luthor stories to tell on Smallville, but the changing dynamic may have forced their hand as well.

Even in the comics, there’s a reason why Clark Kent is a reporter and Perry White is the editor-in-chief. Well, OK, there are many good reasons, primarily that reporters get to go out on assignments putting themselves into danger zones where Clark can change into Superman and save people, while editors have more deskbound jobs. But another reason is that it simply makes sense for Clark to be closer to the entry level of his industry than the managing level. He’s a Superman of the people. He’s not the boss. He’s not The Man. Lex Luthor, even in his maddest mad-scientist incarnations, is very much supposed to be The Man. Superheroes are inherently subversive, even one as seemingly corny and dull as the one who started it all.

And, again, I know it is theoretically possible I’m unfairly mischaracterizing Man of Steel 2 sight unseen. Maybe Eisenberg will wear enough makeup along with shaving his head, plus act up a storm, to make himself appear 40 or 50 years old. It’s also (borderline) conceivable to have Man of Steel 2 present Superman and Lex Luthor as exactly the same age yet with such starkly different life stories up to that point that Superman is a still-idealistic 30 and Lex Luthor is a coldly cynical 30. (Man of Steel already did the sequel the favor of showing that Clark wandered the Earth for years on end with no idea what to do with himself, so sure, you could posit that during the same amount of time a hyper-genius like Luthor was graduating early with multiple degrees and climbing the various ladders of success in the business world.) But going less on pie-in-the-sky possibilities, and more on the only scraps of evidence we have at hand, the fact remains that they’ve cast someone as Lex Luthor who is a matter of months younger than the actor playing Superman, and who projects a persona years younger than that. And everything about the first movie was back-asswards and stupid.

So, not encouraging.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why be normal?

For Christmas, my wife booked a hotel room in New York City for the two of us, and secured the services of my dad and stepmom as babysitters, so that the two of us could go see Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. You guys, I am ridiculously excited about this.

I haven’t mentioned it before now because every time I try to approach it I feel like I have to tie myself in knots in order to address what reflexively strikes me as an identity-paradox: I love musicals, I really do. In almost every other conceivable stereotypical way I am so heteronormative you could calibrate a Kinsey scale to me (he humblebragged?). But I have been to at least half a dozen* different modern Broadway shows (and who knows how many community productions of The Music Man alone) by choice and with no regrets.

And yet I am incredibly defensive about this. It makes no sense, when I spell it out like this, I’m well aware. Old habits die hard, I suppose. I know I’ve spoken before about my father’s rigid enforcement of gender rules when me and my Little Bro were growing up. And certainly I grew up doing band and music and theater stuff rather than playing sports, which automatically made my sexual identity suspect within the nasty, brutish and mercifully short state of nature that existed in middle school and high school. I survived all of that, and (more or less) got over all of it, too. And yet.

Of course I would never cast judgment on someone else for having an interest in, even a passion for, something that has traditionally been the provenance of the opposite gender and/or sexual orientation. But on the other hand, half the reason I strive for open-mindedness is precisely because the world is so hung-up and judgy as it is, and I’m doing everything I can to chip away at that a little. So I encourage and support the whole world to fly their freak flag and follow their bliss and all that, but I don’t realistically expect the whole world to respond in kind.

Part of me is genuinely (maybe morbidly) curious how we even got to this point, where Broadway musicals are something everyone is aware of and yet so very not mainstream. In the hall of mirrors in my mind, I assume that anyone who heard my wife and I were going to a show would assume that my wife wanted to go and was dragging me along, when in reality she’s plenty enthusiastic about it but it’s her gift to me, because an actor we both really like is headlining in a production of my all-time favorite movie that originated as a stage show. And sure, part of it is that I love New York, and there are old friends from school we can catch up with while we’re there, and it will admittedly be a treat to have a grown-up night all temporarily child-free and such. But it could have been a matinee to see a touring production of Hedwig coming through town and I still would have been pretty stoked.

If your response to all of the above is “Don’t be ashamed to love what you love!” let me state for the record that I’m not ashamed, not really. I’m not conflicted about how I feel, I just have this overlay of social expectations where I’m anticipating other people reacting to my excitement with “What a weird thing for you to be excited about.” And if you’re response to that is “Who cares what other people think?” trust me, I am way ahead of you, that has been my personal credo since I was at least 14 or so. I don’t care in the sense of holding myself back in order to conform to anyone else’s sense of how things should be. I’m just hyper-aware of all these tiny ripple effects when things don’t slot perfectly into normalized templates of behavior and whatnot. Not that I necessarily know what to do with that awareness, what it all means or to what miniscule extent it matters. That’s what I do here, sometimes: just babble about these unresolvable things that bobble around in my brain.

But for reals, I’m super-psyched to see NPH as Hedwig. The show is in early May, and you know I will report back on it afterwards just as soon as I can.

(* = Cats, A Chorus Line, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Tommy, Jekyll & Hyde.)

(I am realizing now that in the post I linked to above, I already admitted to "being fond of musicals" in general. Which is simultaneously a much softer sell of what I'm owning up to here, and also something I had somehow purged from my memory because I get so weirdly freaked out about talking about in the first place. I am a mess.)