Holiday Road

Townblog is off on a much-needed vacation. We'll be back sometime in the second week of August.

In the meantime, feel free to read stuff from last August, picking from the following categories of Townblog content:

Peoples of the Northeast: shutter your windows, bar your doors, for summer is icumen in.

(Oh, and if you feel like I'm avoiding The Savage Detectives, I am. This was due to an unexpected need to watch absolutely all of the first season of Mad Men in the shortest time possible, which meant little reading in the past couple weeks. Barrack Obama and Naomi Klein are going on vacation with me, but I'll return to the second half of The Savage Detectives and another Bolano book, Nazi Literature in the Americas, once home again. It's a paperbacks vs. hardcovers thing...)


Got a Time Bomb In My Mind, Mom

Things I would totally have posted pictures of if our camera weren't missing:
  1. Sam and Caleb rolling down the hill at Chill on the Hill.
  2. Sam and Caleb on the stage of the Little Theatre in Rufus King High School.
  3. Sam and Caleb holding hands in their car seats on the way to Grandma Glenda's house.
Things I would totally post video of if I we ever had the video camera on hand when something interesting happened:

  1. Caleb's evolution of dance. Sam dances by tilting his head side to side, like a metronome, letting his body follow. Caleb held off on dancing for awhile, but a couple of weeks ago he started just slightly moving his head and -- by watching his back muscles -- tensing his butt cheeks. He's just lately started to add raised legs and arm swings to his dancing, and -- by God! -- he's doing the George Jefferson!
  2. Sam chasing young girls on the playground in Lincoln Park, as the girls shouted "Get away from that baby!"

Alas, until Kodak makes a machine that prints color photos of memories, you'll have to imagine all of the above.


The Act You've Known For All These Years

Back from a three-day, three-event high school reunion. A fun weekend, but I wish that more of the Rufus King class of 1988 had made an effort to attend. We were a cohesive class, and it felt like significant portions -- the south siders, the soccer team, the valedictorians -- were entirely absent. Neither my junior nor my senior prom dates appeared, depriving them of the opportunity to validate their decisions to no longer have anything to do with me. Maybe at the 25th, gals...
Above, Sam is pictured with absolutely all of the balloons from the 1988 AlumFest. (We're missing our camera at the moment, so this was taken by cellphone.)


Molotov Cocktails and Rocks Behind Every Curtain

I don’t see many movies in the theater anymore, partly because parenthood precludes that sort of free time and partly because I typically prefer seeing movies in my own home. Even so, certain movies – for me, movies with explosions and/or super heroes -- demand the largest screen possible, with the best sound available, and with a bag of popcorn topped with butter and brewer’s yeast. So I shirked my work- and parental- duties to take in The Dark Knight, the latest Batman movie, at a matinee at the Oriental Theatre.

Despite trying to avoid reviews, I’d heard that the movie was “dark,” that Heath Ledger’s Joker was a masterful performance, and that it had made an insanely huge amount of money in its first weekend. All of these things are true, and it is certainly an edge-of-the-seat experience, and yet: I did not like it, Sam-I-Am. I did not like this new Batman.

It’s an incredibly violent movie, and not in the Biff-Bam-Pow style of classic comics. Christopher Nolan and his fellow filmmakers clearly want to create a “realistic” comic-book world, and do so by putting real bodies in the explosions, real menace in the villains, and real angst in the heroes. Things have been tilting this way since superhero movies returned into vogue with the first X-men film (if not the first modern Batman, staring Michael Keaton, back in 1988): replacing the four-color cloth and polyester costumes (which don’t translate from 2-D drawings to full-color film) with leather and black plastic, eliminating the more fantastical elements of comics for something closer to real life. In some ways, this is a losing battle, as psycho killers, billionaire playboys, and vigilantism are only slightly more “real” than, say, a super-powered man from the dead planet of Krypton. How many hired killers work the streets of your city? How many serial bank robbers or undercover spies were in your subway car this morning? It’s a bit bizarre that we somewhat unconsciously put the ingeniously-designed bomb-on-the-bus Keanu Reeves scenario in the realm of the possible and the boarding-school-for-young-wizards scenario in the realm of totally made-up (with James Bond somewhere in the middle). We’re no more likely to ride a Speed-trapped bus than we are a Nimbus 3000 Quidditch-ready broomstick.

Batman can become more plausible, more possible, but not “real,” so it’s highly unsettling to me to have Batman placed within a movie that fairly blatantly deals with contemporary ideas about terrorism and the response to terrorism. James Bond or Keanu Reeves or the actor Christian Bale might belong in that movie, and do so very well, but Batman doesn’t fit that world. (I recognize that this new incarnation of Batman is highly influenced by the late 1980s comics of Frank Miller, which I read and enjoyed at the time, but while dark and gritty, those comics made few attempts at “realism.” The two most recent movies may be based on “The Dark Knight Returns” or “Year One,” but they avoid the villains who can’t be strictly constructed. Even this movie’s batcave has been recast as a minimalist loft apartment.)

In presenting Ledger’s Joker as the embodiment of terrorism, the filmmakers offer three distinct but interrelated possible responses to terrorism in the form of attorney Harvey Dent (Gotham’s “White Knight”), Major Crimes captain Jim Gordon, and the vigilante Batman. Dent might be said to be an analogue for the Bush Administration, in that he puts up a lot of bravura and claims to adhere to the moral high ground, while becoming increasingly immoral and compromised in his response to terrorism. Gordon takes the form of the idea that terrorism is a law enforcement problem, but at least in Gotham City, law enforcement can react to terrorism but not prevent it, as the Gotham police are just as susceptible to bombs as the people they serve and protect. So ultimately it’s Batman, the unsanctioned and privately funded one-man army who is able to curtail terrorism, once he utilizes a sonar-based device that subverts civil liberties (and destroys the liberal innocence of Morgan Freeman) as the by-product of destroying terror. An interesting article on CityStates suggests that the movie demonstrates that the only possible response to terrorism is a willed refusal to fear.

(It’s kind of interesting to think of where Batman must lie on the political spectrum. As much as I’d like for Batman to be a liberal – we need more way awesome butt-kicking liberals – I’m not sure that fits, exactly. I mean, Batman does not leave the streets of Gotham to market forces, but on the other hand his manner of protectionism is not exactly unflawed. If I’ve read my comics correctly, Gotham has a high recidivism rate and relatively few mental health services.)

Maybe because of its roots in two-dimensional comics or maybe because of the 11-year-old boy sitting with his mother in the row in front of me, but The Dark Knight struck me as way too spookily violent. Actually, it isn’t the violence that bothers me so much as the menace – there are several in-movie references to a body count, we watch hospitals and skyscrapers explode, there’s a cell-phone suicide-bomb that goes off in a crowded room, and the Joker offers a few different stories about how his face was cut into the shape of an obscenely wide smile as he threatens to do the same to other characters, tracing the intended pattern on the victim’s faces with his tiny knife. The viral internet campaign for this movie asked “Why so serious?,” a question directly tied to these scenes that – in a very “real” way – threaten mutilation and gore. The Joker here is less the Clown Prince of Crime than a twigged-out junkie sadist.

In short (he says after all that text), if this weren't a Batman movie, I would love it. The conflation of real-world concerns makes it somewhat more problematic for me. Because of the realistic approach to violence and menace, the movie should probably be rated R rather than PG-13. One also has to wonder about the action figures, outfits, toys, and so forth, all of which are clearly directed at children at or under the age of 13. The yogurt I buy for my 2-year-olds currently features Batman on its labels, and this is a yogurt that I wouldn’t imagine is palatable to anyone over 8 years old, just as The Dark Knight may not be palatable for anyone under a modern American neoconservative foreign policy.


Always Crashing in the Same Car

Monpon tagged for a meme -- a first for me. After reviewing the 6-word memoir genre, it seemed to me that many (such as Hemingway's) seemed to move towards regret, which was my first instinct too. I considered If I finished that damn novel... and Should have stuck with piano lessons, but neither really summarize my life in an accurate way. So I'm going to go with:

At long last, a peer group.

If you're linked on the right, consider yourself tagged. If you used to write a blog called the Black Cheeto, you should get back in the game...

Also fun: following tags backwards...


One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy

The last update on the BRLP (Brian Re-Literacy Project) appeared on June 23rd, or three weeks ago. For a summer reading plan in which I intended to read a book each week, this should signal bad news. It's probably important to note that June 23rd's post was somewhat hubristically titled "I Am Unstoppable." So Perspectaclus, the ancient Greek god of science fiction and eyeglasses, struck me down mid-way through American-Made.

I can't fault the book itself(*), which is just as much a page-turner as a book about 75-year-old employment policies could possibly be. In fact, there's a lot to understand from the WPA programs and their solutions to a ecomomic situation increasingly similar to our own, a situation which came about from the first and second-worst presidents we've had. The case studies included -- short chapters about people at work in the WPA-supported jobs -- are pretty compelling; someone (ahem) could make a pretty good historical novel about the librarians-on-horseback of 1930's Kentucky.

So I struggled not so much with the book but with getting to it. It's summer, and the weird documentaries are coming fast and furious in Netflix envelopes, and it's finally nice enough for the zoo or the park, or just sort of slumming around like a teenager. (And then this week, I've been watching this clip of Feist on next season's Sesame Street over and over and over -- you'll want to watch it over and over too, I bet.) Ultimately, I had to let the library re-claim American-Made, and picked up The Savage Detectives by Roberto Belano, an author who comes highly recommended by Bayard.

The Savage Detectives looks to be a complicated and compelling book, and I don't want to say too much more about it before I finish it, but I will say the first 100-or-so pages creates a world of mid-1970's Mexico City poetry-minded bohemian-ness that you really take to and don't want to end, kind of like a textual massage. And then, just like a massage, it ends, and you have to go on to other stuff that you worry may not be as fantastic as that massage. (I've only had three massages in my life, but I thought this would be a more widely-understood simile for something one wouldn't want to end than the things I personally wish were ever-lasting, like Deadwood, Ernest Ranglin's "Minuit," or James Robinson's Starman.)

I'm sure I'll have more to report in a week. Or two.

* Note: It does sort of bother me that the full title of the book -- American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work -- has two colons in it. As I think I've said before, titles -- like people -- should only have one colon. (I do like titles with options, so I would have gladly accepted American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA Or When FDR Put the Nation to Work. Titles that offer possible alternative titles (ie, Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle) remind me fondly of the Bullwinkle cartoon.


Hot Fun in the Summertime

We had a birthday party for Kirsten. Mariellen brought brownies. Sam grabbed handfuls and hid under the kitchen table.

"Well, thank you, Harvey. I prefer you too!" -- Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), Harvey, 1950. You have to have to have to click on this picture to see, close up, the way Sam's looking at the giant rabbit.

Imagine an identical photograph of three zoo elephants staring back at us, equally perplexed.

Caleb on the zoo playground.

In the backyard with the new water table, which replaced the old sandbox that -- after June's heavy storms -- had turned to clay.

Sam visits Joshua.

Caleb barters with Clare.


This picture -- and our family -- turns two this week. The boys have grown up so much and so well, it's hard to look at this photo without getting a bit chokey. And, to borrow from Bob Dylan, I was so much older then...

One of the wonderful things about adoption is the number of red calendar days it gives you -- the July date when we and the boys first met, the August date they came home to us, their February birthday, and the May date when the adoption was finally finalized.

It's also remarkable -- and I suppose a picture can do this to any parent -- how much of their personalities are visible even in this early picture. And someday, I suspect, Caleb and Sam will look at this picture and think the same about us. The picture above is four people just meeting each other, and yet the story that followed (and continues to follow) is in there, too. A family from the start.


I Was Born On A Pirate Ship (Three Times Fast)

Some favorite words from the weekend:

"Zoo..." as said by Sam with incredible, yearning tragedy just before nap time. He'd been told, earlier that morning, that we'd be visiting the zoo, but time got in the way and we went to the park instead. Sam felt rightfully cheated.

"Juice," as said by Caleb on Saturday, having never said that word before in our presence. Until recently, Caleb hasn't shown much interest in speaking, but he's really geared up lately. (See also "Bubble," "Elmo," and -- just this morning -- "Ernie.")

"Bear." Sam woke up crying very early this morning. "Can you tell me what's wrong in words?" I asked. "No bear," he said. "You want you bear?" "Yeah," he said, in that way that says, "I'm in a fragile place right now and of all the things n the world, a stuffed bear would be just the thing that would be most helpful."

Sam's decision that "Mommy" should be pronounced "Nommy," and his mother's increasingly insistant attempts to convince him otherwise. (Sam's friend Thomas is likewise "Nomas".)


Toys, Marketing, and Materialism

Yesterday we took a family trip to Target for diapers and other toddler-necessities. The boys were in fantastically good moods, giggling and squawking and singing songs. (It turns out that Old MacDonald has branched out from traditional farm animals, and now includes dinosaurs, school buses, and babies on his farm. Someone really ought to investigate MacDonald for his impact on rising global food prices.)

Once we stumbled into the toy section, the boys took an interest -- Sam in a pirate ship, and Caleb in a toy cell phone with Elmo on it. The toys were inexpensive, and they were very polite with the cashier, handing over their boxes to be scanned and saying "Thank You" when their toys were returned.

Everything changed when we got in the car. They wanted the toys out of the boxes ("Out!"), they wanted each other's toy ("Mine!"), they cried and threw things and lost all composure and capabilities. By the time we got home, Sam in particular was beyond consolation, nearly hyperventilating from frustration. And all for a little bit of plastic (and a truly obscene amount of packaging) that in two days will be less interesting to them that a pen and a piece of paper or the salad spinner in the kitchen or the plastic cups in the bathtub.

While we were in the adoption process, I read Susan Linn's Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising. It was a worthwhile book, even if I don't follow all of it's recommendations -- like the American Pediatrics Association, Linn advises against television (or any "screen time") for children under the age of two, but twins (as well as long winters and multiple ear infections) made this difficult advice to follow. I do -- as a Dad -- try to limit the boys' exposure to advertisements and to programs or products that might attempt to capture or replace their own curiousities and creativity, at least to an extent that I can.

Advertising is kind of a straw man in the arguement, though. With the commercial-free kid-focused cable channels we watch, ads are easy enough to avoid. What's more difficult to avoid -- and perhaps more sinister an invasion -- are the other ways that marketers use to sneak products and product-awareness into the minds of children. I noticed at Target that all of the kids DVDs were on the lowest shelves, exactly where they'd be seen by small folks, and the packaging in the toy section seemed to stick only to bold blues, summery greens, and bubble-gum pinks. And even without the ability to read, one can instantly discern the "adult" breakfast cereals from those meant to be attractive to kids.

I'm also kind of bitingly aware that the toys that Sam and Caleb picked out -- and then fought over -- were based on two of the handful of TV programs they watch, namely Sesame Street and The Backyardigans. I'm generally on-board with the educational mission of both of those shows, but one has to wonder at what point the shows become ersatz advertisements for the toys.

I don't totally know where my aversion to markeing comes from, but in an act of atonement for the trip into the toy aisles that turned a really great afternoon into a really difficult evening, I've been looking at the website for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a non-profit organization directed by Linn. In one of their fact sheets, "Materialism and Family Stress," I came across these sentences and realized why it is I care about this:

One of the central premises of marketing is that buying things will make us happy. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that the opposite is true: that the pressure to spend and consume actually makes people less happy.

I want to raise happy kids.


Yankee Doodle-Doo!

Sam at the Marina, July 3rd

Annika Johnson and Caleb.

Sam has this amazing nack for getting photographed in situations that would alarm Social Services.  Still, he really seems to know what he's doing here -- as Mick pointed out, he's even tilting the cup!

A fun thing about twins is watching them improvise games, such as this one, which involved running from one side of the cooler tent to the other while giggling.

Isabel Anderson watches as Caleb mixes her first Cosmo.

Milwaukee's July 3rd fireworks as seen from the front porch of Granny and Poppa's rustic 26th floor cabin.

Sam in Lake Park, July 4th

Caleb in Lake Park, July 4th

"Why the long face?"

Soon-to-be newlyweds Tim and Kathleen enjoying the mad chaos of their nephews.


Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

This picture was taken 20 years ago by Mike Schnarsky on the rocks north of the marina. You'll note the trenchcoat and the pork pie hat.

Bye Bye Binky

Last weekend, at the Door County wedding of Aunt Mary and Uncle Dick, the twins had a small ceremony of their own in which they conferred unto their cousin Andrew all of their pacificiers.

For some time leading up to the wedding, we explained that nooks are for babies, not big boys, and that the boys would need to give their nooks to baby Andrew at the end of that weekend. Caleb seemed not to care either way, but Sam -- our resident nook-addict -- seemed surpisingly behind the idea. "Nook for Bebe," he agreed.

So at the end of a pancake breakfast late Sunday morning, we offered up the nooks and the twins gave their benedictions, and we all piled in the car for the trip back to Milwaukee.

After about an hour, it finally hit Sam what he'd done, and he complained vociferously. His rant was mostly in toddler-speak, but it was clear he was cussing out his parents, his brother, his baby cousin, and the plastics and silicone industries. And I'm pretty certain I made out the word "bamboozled."

Now that we've arrived at day four, we've moved out of nookie detox and into long-term residential care. I was all set to take the kids to Nookie Anonymous, but it turned out not to be what I thought it was.


For your Independence Day edification, I recommend Barrack Obama's speech on patriotrism, delivered in Independence, MO, on June 30.

Anyone interested in the Superman-inspired shirt above is encouraged to visit the Graphitti Designs website, although it does not seem to be officially sanctioned Obama-wear, so you might do better to see what's available the official store. (Oh, and the Townblog staff wears size XXL).

I also recommend One Bright Shining Moment, a documentary about George McGovern's 1972 nomination as both a profile in courage and a cautionary tale. Certainly I hope the McGovern campaign is under study by the Obama campaign for both corrallaries to the current era and some hard-learned lessons about what to avoid (like under-vetted veep candidates and a 2:30am convention speech).

Happy 4th, you sparkler you.