2,000 words or less: Sledding

On Saturday, Helen and I went sledding.

We hit the slopes a few minutes before four on a 22-degree, windy afternoon. Helen had been adeptly bundled up by her mom, looking the part of a giggly pink and purple Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. I discovered that gray Tom Asbury-era official Kansas State men’s basketball warmup pants over sweats and jeans make an acceptable substitute for actual snow pants, and that our little round, green sled was capable of propelling little Helen down the hill with more than appropriate speed.

Helen went down on her own a few times, standard-style; on her knees with the sled gripped as tightly as her mittened hands could manage. After a while, she got brave and decided to try some different things. She wanted to go down without the sled, so she sat and scooted on her well-padded butt down the hill.

Then she decided she wanted to go down on her back. So I put up her hood, grabbed a handful of her coat with one hand and the legs of her pants with the other and fired her headfirst, on her back, down the slope. This resulted in a pile of snowy child at the bottom of the hill, and she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

After about a half-dozen runs, Helen wanted the two of us to go down on the sled together. I laid down on my back, the sled under my shoulders, and held Helen, also facing upward, tight to my chest. I pulled with my heels, and we were off; a few short, shriek-filled seconds later, we were at the bottom of the hill. We hit a bump toward the end of the run, and I lost my passenger about ten feet shy of where I eventually came to rest. I was flat on my back and couldn’t see anything but up, but I could hear Helen cackling behind me so I knew everything was OK.

I laid in the snow for a few seconds and just looked at the sky; it was about 4:30 and the sun was just starting to go down. The sky was a brilliant orange in the west, a swirling eye of Jupiter hanging over Lake Irving behind us, fading gracefully away to salmons and grays lifed from one of Tim Gunn‘s suits off to the east. The only sounds I could hear were Helen, still giggling in some pile off to my right, the other kids who were sledding and the one guy who was out on the lake on his snowmobile.

As I was about to get up, right overhead flew the hour-late Northwest 3308. It was awesome – the plane literally flew right over us, just a few hundred feet over the lake on its approach to the airport a couple of miles to the east.

After another minute or so of admiring the sky and listening to the laughs in the air from the other sledders, Helen and I both got up, dusted ourselves off and climbed back up the hill. We went on two or three more runs, with every swift trip down the hill accompanied by a slower climb back to the top and the inevitable request for “one more time.”

After a couple of runs, Helen wanted for she and I to go down together again. I sat on the sled and she stood up on the sled behind me with her arms wrapped around my shoulders. It was a sledding arrangement guaranteed to send her airborne at the slightest speedbump, and that’s precisely what happened toward the end of the run. As with each of her previous wipeouts, her laughing indicated that she didn’t much care.

Helen and I finally called it quits and went home about 4:45; by the time we packed it in the temperatures were down to about 17 degrees, and although the winds had died down we were both half-frozen and tired. Even though we spent far more time trying to climb back up the hill than we did sliding down, we had a great time.

I’m pretty sure we’re going again later this week…

Movie review: “Avatar”

I’m going to check out “Avatar” in 3D in a little less than an hour; reserving this space for my review of the movie later tonight. Trying to go in with midrange expectations, and I expect the visuals to completely overpower the actual story. We’ll see how it turns out.

UPDATE: The Review. I was tempted to post something last night after I had returned from the movie and everything was still fresh in my mind, but I decided to sleep on it. I’m glad I did. My general feelings on the film haven’t changed since my immediate out-of-the-theater reaction, but as I’ve thought more about it this morning I came up with some things to add to my take on the film.

To start, visually “Avatar” is everything it’s hyped up to be. It’s an astonishing spectacle to sit back and soak up. The world of Pandora created for this movie is lush and alive, and there were times I had to remind myself I was watching computer-generated imagery. The creature design is fantastic. With a few exceptions (and one very notable exception), the human technology looks real enough to touch. There were times where the 3D imagery had me wanting to swat something away from in front of my eyes; it was used to perfection. The 3D added depth to the scenes and was used less for “hey, he’s putting that spear RIGHT IN YOUR FACE,” a temptation 3D films typically seem wholly unable to avoid.

It’s an amazing movie to watch, and I’m thrilled that I got a chance to see it in a decent theater in 3D. The pure spectacle was worth the price of admission all on its own.

Which is good, because story-wise “Avatar” is a transparent, overly-preachy, cliche-filled disaster. In the voice of South Park’s Mr. Garrison, the plot of this movie can be summed up thusly: “White people are bad, mmm’kay?” There’s one non-white human obviously in the movie, and you can guess right now what side she eventually takes. Natives live on top of something Powerful Corporation wants. Powerful Corporation makes a half-assed effort to ask them nicely to move so it can come and get it. Natives don’t move. Powerful Corporation decides to kick their asses and take it. White Guy infiltrates natives, earns their trust, comes to love them, and helps them repel Powerful Corporation. All of this takes place within the most thinly-veiled cowboys and Indians parallel you’ve ever seen, with references to pretty much anything going on in the world right now thrown into the Plot Blender.

The humans’ final assault against the Na’vi is called a “Shock and Awe” campaign, right down to the use of two “Mother of All Bombs” bombs to blow them up real good. Plenty of references to insurgency and counterinsurgency. A statement in the introduction about being “in this economy.” It’s all just a mess.

To top it off, none of the characters are remotely interesting. The good guys are all purely good; the bad guys are all purely bad; the love interest is the chief’s daughter; the characters who change whatever position they start the movie with all do so in entirely predictable ways. You know immediately when X character meets Y character, they’re going to fall in love and save the world, so you don’t care when it actually happens. You know the minute you see X set that the humans are eventually going to blow the shit out of it, so you don’t care when it actually happens. You know that when one of the natives tells character X that something has only happened five previous times in recorded history, it’ll happen again within the next 45 minutes. You know immediately that X character is going to kill Z character at the end of the movie, so you don’t care when it actually happens.

This morning, as I’ve thought more about the movie, the more the completely ham-fisted parallel between the Na’vi and native Americans bothers me. For as much effort as James Cameron and the film’s production team put into creating this amazing visual world of the Na’vi, there was equally as little effort put into developing the society. The only halfway interesting thing in the entire movie was the acutal physical symbiotic relationship between the Na’vi and the animals of the world (which was made wholly bizarre by the fact that the connection was in their damn hair and not their tails). Otherwise, the Na’vi were just blue humans who talked funny. They were tall, skinny and athletic, upright opposable-thumb bipeds. The females had curves where they should’ve had curves and boobs where they should’ve had boobs; of course he fell in love with her, because she was hot.

Wouldn’t the movie have been a lot more interesting had the Na’vi been some sort of non-humanoid rock monsters? I would think you could better sell the concept of a human becoming so completely engrossed in an alien culture to the point that he’s willing not only to rebel against humanity to defend it, but to quite likely lay down his life in the process, if that culture isn’t so blatantly beautiful and obviously worth defending to begin with.

Another difficulty in the way “Avatar” is laid out is that you are *never* on the side of the corporation or the military, so there’s no switch; they’re just the solid-black bad guys from start to finish in the film. Set the movie on a lava planet, show how what is being harvested from the planet is something of tremendous social value to humanity – like a serum that can cure most known diseases, instead of just some preposterously-named ore that’s making some fat-ass filthy rich. Then have the planet’s population accidentally uncovered during a strip-mining operation and viciously assault the miners. Then send the Avatars in to learn more about them. If the planet’s natives are initially illustrated as evil, then the audience gets to make the switch with the main character and the movie becomes far more interesting. But when you start with, “oh, those poor innocent folks are going to get jacked by the bad guys with the big machines,” your movie loses any ability to make me care about what’s going to happen – because you’ve already laid out the brilliantly-lit yellow brick road for me to follow, and I know right away that nothing I am supposed to see or think will deviate from that path.

Talking to some friends immediately after seeing the film last night, I described “Avatar” as “an astonishingly beautiful terrible movie.” That description sticks; visually, it’s remarkable and unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a movie theater before. But the story is such an outright disaster that at the end of the day the movie has little value beyond that of a really pretty light show.

2,000 words or less: Pining for foods from the past

I was shopping in Walmart the other day for some groceries – milk, lunch meat, pickles, cheese, that sort of thing. While I was looking for some frozen egg rolls I had been instructed to purchase because we had a $1 coupon for them, I walked past the section of frozen dinners where the Boston Market goodies are kept.

I haven’t eaten one of these in many years. But for a period of about 18 months from December of 2002 until mid-2004, they were a staple of my diet. They were palateable enough; they were a suitably fillilng meal for something contained in a small red box; and they were cheap.

During this bachelorhood interlude between my marriages, the latter of these three attributes was vital. I ate an astonishing amount of breakfast sandwiches constructed of some peanut butter smashed between two Walmart-brand heat-and-serve waffles during this time, and returned to the glory of my college eating habits by consuming huge volumes of Ramen noodles. The frozen Boston Market meals, at a per-meal cost of about $2.30, fit into this scheme quite nicely. About the only single food item I spent more on during this time was the Wednesday splurge of a one-top carryout from Papa John’s, which ran me five bucks.

My assault on the Boston Market freezer wasn’t universal; a lot of these meals include potatoes, and my dislike for spuds is well-known. Why spend money on a meal when I was just going to automatically discard the side dish? So my focus was on things like Beef Steak and Noodles, Chicken Parmesean, Salisbury Steak with mac and cheese, Swedish Meatballs, and, my personal favorite, Turkey Breast with Stuffing.

I had the turkey and stuffing at least twice a week, the salisbury steak at least as often. I rounded out the week with whatever else happened to be in stock and potato-free, which was usually the beef steak and noodles.

The turkey was the standby because I liked it, the stuffing was suitably pasty, and I could always sop up the leftover gravy with a buttery piece of bread. The salisbury steak was this shiny brown color, and the included mac and cheese side actually wasn’t too bad. As with the turkey, I liked that I could scoop up the leftover gravy with a piece of bread or, if I were particularly adventurous, just dump the meat and gravy onto a piece of bread right from the outset. The meat in the beef steak and noodles always had this shimmery quality, like a fish scale, that I just had to ignore and decide I was eating the food anyway. It was pretty good once you cooked and ate it, but that initial oily flash of color on the meat was always a touch disconcerting. The chicken parmesean was OK; I didn’t eat it very often. Nor did I get the meatballs very often; the noodles and sauce were OK, but the edges of the meatballs always got that microwave-induced chewy crust layer that you often encounter when nuking cheap mostly-filler meat.

Five-plus years into marriage #2 to a very good cook has eliminated the need to eat this kind of stuff any more, but there are times like this weekend that I walk past this stuff in the aisles and want to buy it and eat it. Despite the circumstances that placed me into bachelorhood, seeing that shitty food in the freezer still gives me some fond memories of that year-plus period of my life.

It’s a law

…If there is one person in front of you in line at Walmart, they will be buying 13 million gift cards, each containing only $10, and each requiring individual activation and careful selection of gift envelope depending on its intended recipient. This process takes nine hours.

…you will spend one unnecessary minute in line for each piercing your Walmart cashier has in his face. Knowing this law, I will avoid the line of 14 Piercings Guy in the future; I was not so fortunate today.

2,000 words or less: I’m an expert at nothing

I’m an expert at nothing.

I write things like this and this and this, which I suppose are mildly interesting, but is it good writing? Nah. I liked this story that I wrote on our nursing program, but it’s hardly great writing. You can read this blog and know that I’m no great writer; hell, you’ll figure that out by the time you finish this post and make some effort to untangle the four or five completely divergent topics that are sure to emerge from what started as a simple enough premise. I’m clearly no great writer.

I draw things like this and this, but it’s pretty middling work.

In the past I’ve taken toys apart, reassembled and repainted them to make something different and unique; back in the late 1990s I even had a couple of minutes of very specific Internet fame for coming up with a recipe for a particular Star Wars figure that was copied in earnest by other people who are into that sort of thing.

I play video games, and over the last several years have poured an absolutely embarrassing amount of time into this. I’ve played a bunch of console games, and have bothered to complete only a select few. In fact, I could probably list every game that I’ve actually completed here if I put a few minutes into it.

I see work like this, and it just blows me away. Nothing I’ll ever build out of toy parts will look half as great as this.

I’ve tried new things. This completely wild-assed idea I had to build a piece of furniture was going about as well as I could’ve expected for a first attempt, until I ran out of materials and pretty much tapped out my abilities to complete it without help. I’ve tried making a point to draw more. I’ve tried to make a point to write more.

I’ve tried a lot of things, but I don’t know what to do to be great at any of them. I see a lot of things in my head; I’ve always been able to visualize outcomes. For whatever reason, I’ve just been unable to turn those visualizations into tangible results.

There are plenty of things I think I do well enough.

I think I’m a pretty damn good dad to my two girls, and I take a lot of pride in that. I’m not great; there are plenty of things as a dad that I know for a fact I could do better. But on the whole, I think I’m pretty good. I can read stories in silly voices with the best of them; I can make shadow puppets on the wall while I’m laying in bed with my four-year-old daughter right before she falls asleep. I can laugh while she draws vampire teeth with the drawing program on her Leapster. And I can get on the webcam and help my oldest daughter with her algebra homework, even though it’s been three months since I’ve been able to give her a hug.

I love my girls to death; I love them both terribly. I hug the little one daily; I miss the oldest one just as often; and I am anticipating the arrival of their new partner in crime in March with an almost stupid amount of joy.

Likewise, I think I’m a pretty good husband. My wife may or may not agree, depending on the day or the time of day or whether I have or have not completed some assigned task in an appropriate fashion in the assigned amount of time. I feel confident saying that I think she mostly agrees. As with fatherhood I can, of course, be better. I’ve said and done things I shouldn’t have. I’ve not said and done things that I should have. The realities of dadhood and husbandhood are such that there’s always room for improvement and, fortunately, some relatively significant margin for error while you’re working on it. But in a big-picture kind of way, I think that I’m a pretty good husband.

I had a career that I thought I was pretty great at; when people asked me in job interviews why they should pick me, I told them, “Because you might find somebody who can do this one thing or that one thing or some other thing better than I can; but you’re not going to find anyone who’s better than me across the board. I don’t know who your other candidates are, but I’m better at this than they are.” And not only did I say that, I was pretty sure it was true. I would’ve put myself up against anybody else in the country; I wouldn’t have come out on top every time, but I’m pretty confident I’d have come out ahead far more often than not.

I don’t have that career any more, and I miss it on a near-daily basis. Not that the job didn’t have its share of frustrations; the frustrations played no small role in my departure from that job. What I miss about it was being really good at something, knowing I was really good, and showing up every day with the knowledge that I’d have some opportunity to prove it. I also loved that as a part of that job, I had regular opportunities to teach somebody something that they didn’t already know, or to share the tricks I used to accomplish some particular thing or complete a particular project.

I also have a pretty good imagination. It’s certainly vivid and creative; whether or not you wish to classify it as “good” depends greatly on the day and on your own individual perspective. I suppose in the hands of others, my imagination might be quantified as quite disturbing. When some people ask their friend to draw them a pony, most people probably get a pony in return. My friend got a pony named Deathblossom with giant cannons grafted onto its back. I like looking at things from any number of off-center angles, and when I’m passionate or excited about something I can look at things and see what could be, not merely what’s laid out in front of me.

But as I’ve already mentioned, I always seem to fail at making that vision become anything tangible.

I think part of my problem is that I’ve always wanted to be really good at a lot of things. Andy Bartlett, guitar playing woodworking artistic designer who can also whip up a computer program. The problem is, I think I suck at basically all of those things. I haven’t a clue how to play guitar, have failed to put enough effort into my few efforts to be a computer programmer to see even the remotest progress; I don’t practice enough to be really good at drawing. I don’t write enough to be a really good writer. I don’t make the time to do a lot of things.

So, I’m an expert at nothing. The only thing I think I do exceptionally well is get distracted by something new that I ultimately won’t be very good at. I’m not particularly happy about this, but at the same time I’m unsure of what exactly to do to cure it.  In all likelihood, I’ll probably just keep goofing around with any number of broadly-varying things, and hope that whatever I pick up to occupy myself is at least temporarily amusing — even if the end result isn’t very good.

2,000 words or less: Fail.

Yep, fail. It’s pretty much the only word I need right now.

Food journal? Haven’t updated it since Dec. 5. Fail.

Write something each week for “2,000 words or less?” Missed last week. Don’t have an idea for what I’ll do this week. Fail.

Avoid playing WoW on Mondays so I can do other things. Fail.

I’m perpetually tired now. I won’t go into the details as to why; doing so would violate several of the off-limits topics for this blog. The holiday break is coming at a good time, that’s all I’m saying. Having a few days away is going to be great, and I’m super-excited about getting home to Kansas for a few days.

In other news, our second round of home renovations is off to a great start. So much so, in fact, that today we’re going to expand the scope of the project. We made a decision at the very end of November to insulate our completely unfinished basement; we were in for adding framing, insulation and drywall to the basement’s exterior walls, but were going to leave the basement open. However, work is progressing very quickly and very affordably, so today we decided to go ahead and frame in and finish a bathroom, a guest room with a closet and a second room that’ll be ALL MINE (TM) and serve as the laboratory for all my evil schemes. We’re also probably going to do a drop ceiling, but we want to research materials a little more first (and I kinda want to do something different with what will be my room; will just have to see if I can find the right materials and get the OK to do it…)

Lunchtime.

“HLEP”

For the last couple of months, my youngest daughter has freaked out over any notion that she’d be left alone. She’s thrown tantrums about being left in the car with me while her mom runs into a store to grab something; she’s had similar fits if I go in and she stays in the car with her mom.

Last night, she threw another one of these fits. I picked her up from school, and we stopped to get gas on the way home. It was about five below zero at the time, so there was no way she needed to get out of the car. I told her “Hey, kiddo, I’m going to get out of the car and get some gas. But I’m going to be standing right beside the car; you can just look out your window and see me.”

This was fine, until about halfway through the fill. I could tell she was hiding her eyes, and after I finished the fill I looked into the car to play peek-a-boo with her and I could tell she was crying. So I got back into the car, and I asked her what was wrong.

All she said was “help.”

I said, “Kiddo, I’m right here – I was never more than two feet away from you. It was too cold for you to be outside, and you could see me the whole time! Please stop crying.”

She just responded in her little meek “pay attention to me while I’m pretending to be shy” voice, repeatedly “help… help… help…”

I looked at her in the rearview mirror and said “Kiddo, I’m right here – you do not need help.”

She caught my eye, pointed at the window, and said again “help.”

I turned around, and with her little four-year-old fingers, she’d inscribed “help,” spelled “HLEP,” into the fog on her window.

This is now officially the funniest thing she’s ever done.