Sunday, April 6, 2014

Be Careful What You Threaten

Ever heard the saying that goes, “Be careful what you wish for (because it might come true)?” I have another one, directed mainly at parents: Be careful what kind of threats you make (because your witty offspring might call your bluff).

A few days ago, my wife went on a long shopping trip with our kids—the daughters, who were looking for Easter dresses, shoes, and swimsuits, and also boy wonder Caleb, who got dragged along for lack of anyone to watch him in their absence. Apparently, it was torture for him. Several hours into the ordeal, he was acting up a lot… complaining, dragging his feet, plotting to murder everyone and burn down the mall… the usual stuff.

Momma got tired of his whining and thoughtlessly issued the following warning: “If you don’t stop acting like this, I’m not bringing you with us next time.”


His response was an immediate “Did I want to come with you?” I would have used something along the lines of “Can I get that in writing?” or just a flippant “Promises, promises…” But his rhetorical question was effective enough. There was not much momma could say at that point, or so it would seem.

Momma’s been doing this a while, though, and she’s pretty good. Make that very good. Within a few seconds, she’d come up with a perfect threat to make Caleb straighten up. All she had to say was, “Maybe we should pick out a suit for you.” That broke him, and his behavior improved right away.

As I type this, Caleb is undergoing what momma likes to call “marinating the boy.” She runs a tub of warm water, throws him into it, and makes him soak for 20 minutes to loosen up the crust of dirt and we-probably-don’t-want-to-know-what-else that builds up on him at a remarkable rate. Soon she’ll go in to scrub him down, trim his claws, wash his hair, and then let him out of the tub, at which point the crust will immediately begin forming again. I’m not sure how she gets him to stay in the bath for so long, but I imagine she issues horrible threats, like putting a necktie on him if he gets out.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Ten Guys You'll Probably Never Meet

I got an Instant Message today from someone named Dana, who works in my organization, but in a different office. I’d never met her before, or so I thought. When I got a phone call from Dana a few minutes later, I found out how wrong I was. Turns out, I’d never met him before.

This highlighted the fact that we should not jump to conclusions about a person based on his or her name. Come to think of it though, I’ve still never met Dana, so I'm just assuming he’s male based on his voice over the phone. I hope I’m not wrong again.

After this happened, a coworker and I talked about male and female names. We agreed that Dana is not the most unlikely of men’s names. We’ve both met guys named Kelly, Tracy, and Stacy. But neither of us has ever met a guy named Sarah. Since we here at Unintimidated by Convention feel lists are fun things to share, I give you Ten Names You’ll Probably Never Find on a Guy:

1. Sarah
2. Alicia
3. Brittany
4. Melissa
5. Amber
6. Tiffany
7. Rosalee
8. Margaret/Maggie
9. Catherine
10. Heather

Note that all bets are off if you’re dealing with a Frenchman. They use a whole different set of rules.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hats Off to the Old and the Stylish

Nobody wants to grow old, but there are some upsides to it. I’m looking forward to several benefits that will come when I hit 70. For example, I will be able to wear a fedora. Laws vary from state to state, but generally, the only people under 70 years old who are allowed to wear these hats are hipsters, jazz musicians, and pretty-boys in J. Crew catalogs. Nerdy kids trying to look like one of the above can also wear them, but that won’t work for me; I gotta be authentic.

I can select almost any baseball cap and own it. I wear the dickens out of those, and they seem right at home on my head. Ditto a boonie hat or a floppy cotton bucket hat for shade when I’m engaged in outdoor activities. Fedoras are different. Worn as a lifestyle accessory—i.e., for no practical necessity—these hats would seem totally phony on me, or would at least feel that way.

Dapper gentleman Tom Wolfe gives more thought
to his handkerchief than I give my entire outfit.
Part of the problem is that I don’t have the rest of the wardrobe to match. When I dress in the morning, I go to the closet and grab whatever is clean, relatively un-tattered, and more or less appropriate to the weather. I have a remarkably small wardrobe budget. This is by choice. I prefer to spend my money on stuff besides clothes. Most days I end up wearing an old pair of khaki chinos or Old Navy jeans, a cheap flannel or cotton-poly blend button-down shirt (or an even cheaper T-shirt) from the clearance rack at Kohls, and whatever shoes REI had on sale three or four years ago, when my last pair wore out to the point that Mrs. Christensen wouldn’t allow me to go out in public with them. Also some socks, usually. Suffice it to say I’m not what you’d call “well put together.”

Getting back to my point, do you see how it wouldn’t look right to add something like a nice fedora to my ensemble? When I’m an old geezer, however, I can don whatever I want: powder blue jumpsuit, stained yellow western shirt and baggy tweed slacks, or an orange and purple nylon warm up suit. It doesn’t really matter. I can wear a fedora with any of it, because our society gives seniors a pass on these matters.

My whole reason for wanting a fedora is kind of ironic, given what I just disclosed about my personal style, or lack thereof. I’m into hats. I love (almost) all kinds of men’s hats. I can tell you the differences between a trilby and a homburg. I can describe in correct terms the design, usual materials, and even a little history of the derby, pork pie, top hat, and ivy cap. I don’t own any of these because, like I said, they just wouldn’t look right on me. But I like the idea of owning and wearing them. I bet I’d make a good haberdasher. Could you use some help picking out just the right headwear to go with your tailored suit and Italian leather shoes? I’m free for about the next 30 years.

Me, in 2055?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Baby, I'll Take Care of You

If you've been following this blog for long, you know that I'm pretty much a genius about caring for children. I'm also trained in technical writing. So, as a public service for my readers, I've created a simple, universal infant care flowchart. Flowcharts are fun, right?

If you're a new parent, babysitter, uncle, grandma, or neighbor of a wee man-cub, or if you live at a monastery where people occasionally drop off their unwanted offspring in baskets on the front porch, you might find this helpful.

Just start at the top center and follow it down. It covers virtually every possibility and might even arrive at a real solution.

Legal disclaimer: Brian, the staff of Unintimidated by Convention, and accept no liability related to claims made in this article. Brian is not a child care professional, and not all of his methods have been tested on actual human infants. He is not licensed to provide child care advice, and in fact has often made babies cry and toddlers run away in fear. Readers should understand that handling infants often results in stained clothing and pulled hair. It also puts people at risk of coming in contact with saliva, urine, feces, vomit, or a combination of these. Some infants cry purely for the fun of it and can never be made to stop. Readers put their own sanity on the line when choosing to care for such a creature. Do NOT shake your baby.

Friday, February 21, 2014

More DIY Tips

If you've been following this blog since the beginning (and you have an excellent memory), you might recall that years ago I sometimes gave ideas for saving money on car repairs. I've collected some more pictures to share with you, of cars that people care about just enough to attempt repairs, without actually spending any money.


Mirror coming loose? Or maybe broken off when you parked a bit too close to that tree? Not to worry, and don't go spending tens of dollars on a replacement! This can be fixed with a little crafting glue... or better yet, a lot of it. For added security, drive a few drywall screws right through the mirror, into the car door. Voila!

Here's a sweet looking Saturn with a rear bumper that had trouble staying on. Did its do-it-yourself owner waste lots time and money on it? Of course not! He's wise enough to know all that's needed is a bungee strap.

The front bumper is also loose, but this guy knows it would be a waste of valuable duct tape to secure it before it actually falls off...

At the corners, however, you kind of have to anchor down your body panels. You know what's great about C-clamps? They work for temporarily holding pieces together--like when glue is drying in the shop, but they can also be used for permanent repairs. Fast, easy, and totally secure! As long as the tire still clears, I don't see why you'd go with any other method.


My next tip isn't about DIY repairs, but how to tell when your car might be a beater.

Here's a picture of the right front fender on my sweet Kia minivan. (I'm serious. This is actually my van.) A while back, someone decided to use a key or rock or something to scratch up the paint. Whoever did this has some artistic talent, and didn't just make a long straight scratch, but a nifty little zig-zag.

Not only did I not get too upset when I noticed it, but I thought it kind of adds a nice touch. I considered duplicating the pattern on the other fender, but I'm afraid I would not get it right. When you see minor vandalism in this way, it's possible that your car is a beater.


That's all for now. Remember, if a repair job's worth doing, it's worth doing using only what's in your junk drawer, in about five minutes. In the dark.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Lego Movie: On Specialness, Creativity, and Boundless Cross-Branding

This is not a movie review. I wish I could write those, but I'm not really equipped with the necessary cinematic vocabulary, and besides that, I'd probably either spoil movies by telling all the good parts (for the flicks I like) or struggle to find anything interesting to say about them (for the ones I don't).

This is just some observations that came to mind last night as I took in The Lego Movie with my boy, Caleb. We both love Legos. I've enjoyed them all my life. He has thousands in his collection, and playing with them is among our favorite things to do together. This movie was one of the best we've ever seen together. I highly recommend it, for all ages, for boys and girls, and especially for anyone who loves Legos.

Now, without further ado, I give you my thoughts...

The Lego Movie is intelligent and entertaining on several levels. It is very funny. It makes heavy use of visual and thematic gags inherent in the idea of live plastic toys, in the tradition of the Toy Story trilogy. It gives an interesting new texture to the standard framework of a regular Joe standing up against a powerful, evil force, winning a girl's heart and inspiring his friends along the way, and ultimately saving the world. What it does best, however, is use Legos to illustrate the ideal of original thought, unrestrained creativity, or (at the risk of applying a phrase that's becoming ironically clichéd) "thinking outside the box."

The beautiful thing about Legos and part of what makes them such intelligent toys is their limitless re-usability and recombinant potential. Erector sets, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs can be assembled in original ways, encouraging imaginative play, but even these are limited in the variety of configurations they'll allow. Only Legos permit and encourage a virtually infinite scope of new combinations.

In his typically excellent essay "To the Legoland Station," Michael Chabon explains a concept that many have delighted in, the Lego company wisely encourages, and The Lego Movie pushes rather overtly: the "saving power of the lawless imagination." Having enjoyed square and rectangular bricks in six basic colors--the only kind of Legos made at the time--during his own childhood, Chabon now watches his children combine intricate, more specialized, and much more detailed pieces in ways that fly in the face of convention and of the relatively simplistic play of his youth.

Here's an example he gives relative to spacecraft and minifigs (the human-ish characters of the Lego world):

"My children have used aerodynamic, streamlined bits and pieces of a dozen Star Wars kits, mixed with Lego dinosaur jaws, Lego aqualungs, Lego doubloons, Lego tibias, to devise improbably beautiful spacecraft far more commensurate than George Lucas's with the mysteries of other galaxies and alien civilizations. They have equipped the manga-inspired Lego figures with Lego ichthyosaur flippers. When he was still a toddler, Abraham liked to put a glow-in-the-dark bedsheet-style Lego ghost costume over a Lego Green Goblin minifig and seat him on a Sioux horse, armed with a light saber, then make the Goblin do battle with a minifig Darth Vader, mounted on a black horse, armed with a bow and arrow."

I've often joined Caleb in a similar hybridization of vehicles and characters, combining elements from diverse platforms. Lego offers play sets based on dozens of movies, comic books, characters and mythologies both pre-existing and of the company's own invention, real human endeavors, and historical periods, and Caleb owns a fairly eclectic variety of these. I create with him not to deliberately flex my artistic muscles or appear clever from the perspective of a brilliant essayist's toddler son. Like Caleb, I do it simply because it is fun, and Legos lend themselves to it so easily.

The Lego Movie opens with a day in the life of Emmet, one of countless citizens of a Lego city, whose lives are marked by repetition and blind obedience. They share an almost worshipful respect for corporate mentality, industrial efficiency, modern urban lifestyle, and especially for The Instructions, written documents that tell them exactly what to do minute-by-minute. Although Emmet seems happy and joins his fellow citizens in a rendition of "Everything is Awesome," we detect a dystopian undercurrent.

Emmet becomes unwittingly entangled in a struggle between Octan, the mega-corporation in control of his city, and an intrepid group who oppose it by searching for a small plastic object cleverly named the Piece of Resistance. This item is predicted by ancient prophecy to fall into the hands of the Special and has power to stop the Kragle, a terrible weapon possessed by Octan's evil leader, President Business.

Not unpredictably, Emmet winds up holding the Piece of Resistance, is dubbed the Special, and therefore must find a way to penetrate Octan's fortress. Despite the expectation others have for him to be the most extraordinary person in the universe, Emmet's mind is almost totally devoid of innovation. Here is a pretty well done iteration of a common literary theme: the likable Everyman who feels unfit for the world-saving burden thrust upon him, à la Moses, Frodo Baggins, and others.

There follows an epic adventure through some of the various worlds that Emmet learns comprise the Lego universe: his own city, the American Old West, Cloud Cuckoo Land, and even the high seas aboard a submarine and a pirate ship. (Because what epic adventure would be complete without this?)

We soon learn the exact nature of the Kragle, and this is key to the movie's central message. It does not kill people or destroy property in the usual manner, but glues Lego pieces together so they cannot ever be re-purposed. It ends creativity and true progress as it sentences all within its reach to an everlasting static condition, powerless to change.

Also important to my discussion is the hugeness of the movie's cast of characters. Besides the several new players introduced in it, there are dozens of comic book superheroes, historical figures, Star Wars humans, aliens, and droids, and stock characters. Some of these come from Lego's proprietary collection (such as the 1980s Astronaut), but most are practically universal in human storytelling (e.g., ghosts, mummies, pirates, etc.). There are no fewer than three wizards: Tolkien's Gandalf, Rowling's Dumbledore, and Vitruvius, who debuts here. Even vehicles from other stories take on minor roles: the Batmobile, Wonder Woman's invisible jet, and Han Solo's Millennium Falcon are characters of a sort.

Numerous though the characters are, their real effectiveness results not from their number, but from the breadth of their origins. I can't think of another movie that co-opts so many pre-existing characters, from so many other stories. This feature, which is part of what makes the movie so fun, is the same thing that has helped catapult Lego to tremendous popularity and success in recent years. The company has made immense cross-branding efforts. Their toys, characters, and themes include and are included in many non-Lego platforms, genres, media, and products.

A few years ago, I wrote in a blog post, "While at the game store, I took a few minutes to browse the used discs and spotted a cheap copy of Lego Star Wars. We picked it up for our boy, Caleb, and it's a huge hit! This is a video game based on a toy that's based on a movie... I want a T-shirt with this game on it!" It turns out that they make these T-shirts, and Caleb now owns a few of them.

Though we've watched several lesser Lego movies, produced for DVD and also released on Netflix, none of these matched the grandeur of The Lego Movie. It is Lego's first really ambitious, feature-length, big-budget film production. Having enjoyed Lego toys, books, video games, T-shirts, and DVDs, we were excited to see what a big movie studio could do with our favorite toys. We had high hopes for the movie's quality, and we were not disappointed. 

Unlike the hybrids assembled by Chabon's children, characters in the movie are generally put together "correctly," i.e., people have matching legs, torso, arms, head, and hair, and vehicles tend to have a similar consistency. The movie itself, however, is a hodge-podge, a mix-and-matched assortment of remarkable diversity. In other words, the cast of characters and vehicles mirrors the diversity of the Lego company's offerings. There are some exceptions to the general consistency: the pirate Metalbeard consists of a typical minifig head atop an enormous body made from spare parts of many different types. Another exception comes at the climax of the struggle against President Business, when members of the resistance convince everyone to reject The Instructions and assemble pieces in new and unconventional ways.

This revolt is the movie's most obvious expression of the message I identified early in my essay. The filmmakers made The Instructions very closely resemble the printed instructions included with every real Lego set, which help consumers build a model into its intended form. In showing the movie characters' Instructions as a tool of the oppressive mega-corporation and a crutch for the mindless masses, Lego satirizes its own product. By the end of the movie, we can hardly avoid an inclination to shirk compliance with published standards and forge our own paths.

Chabon notes his children's instinctive mastery of this inclination: "Kids write their own manuals in a new language made up of the things we give them and the things that derive from the peculiar wiring of their heads. The power of Lego is revealed only after the models have been broken up or tossed, half finished, into the drawer."

So maybe that was a weak attempt at a review, after all. I hope I didn't spoil too much of the movie for those who have yet to watch it. I'm sure my family will see it many more times in the coming months and years. I'll be happy if it continues to stimulate and inspire me the way it did on my first viewing. I especially hope it causes Caleb to repeatedly laugh as freely as he did last night.

Monday, January 13, 2014


I think about dreams a lot. I love dreaming, and I often dream in vivid detail or with intense emotion. 

Often, I experience the fantastical, incongruous, or incomprehensible situations that are among the hallmarks of dreams. I've seen and done things while sleeping that make Finnegan's Wake seem almost coherent. I've never tried psychedelic drugs, and I don't have to, because my mind naturally takes itself to bizarre, otherworldly places. Put the painting below into a blender along with some M.C. Escher drawings and David Lynch films. Mix them up, then turn the result inside out, and accompany the whole thing with a mix of Grateful Dead and Danny Elfman songs. This is an approximation of where my mind goes many nights. 

Dreamscape, by Romanian artist Liviu Mihai. Hosted at CoolVibe:

In dreams, I have ridden my motorcycle along the edge of a vast, spectacular canyon to a hotel room where my children greeted me. I have bought jewelry for my wife in a Mexican village. I've wandered into a nightclub where beautiful people were dancing with large casts on their arms and legs. I've flown high above the Earth, ridden on the backs of strange beasts, and held conversations with newborn infants and with my dog. I've often participated in scenes from movies I like.

Many of my dreams reflect unfulfilled lifelong wishes. For example, I've never been a good swimmer. In fact, I could not swim at all until I was a teenager, and this often troubled me. But in dreams, I am a graceful, fearless swimmer. There are other examples that I will not share here.

I've had some horrible nightmares. Occasionally, these involve a tangible threat, like a monster chasing me. The most frightening ones, however, which came when I was very young and recurred many times, were quite different. They consisted of vague but powerful emotions, with no characters or plot, and no specific visual or auditory details. There was merely an overwhelming sensation that I was completely alone and being overcome by a tremendous, evil force. This was usually accompanied by a scene which I can best describe as follows: I hold between my fingers a tiny crumb of matter, like Play-doh, perhaps. In an instant, it grows to the size of a building, or a mountain, or even the entire Earth, and I am trapped beneath it, being crushed and suffocated, unable to move, and unable to shout for help. It is a very real and utterly desperate sensation. I would wake up screaming, confused, and bawling for comfort from my mother.

To this day, if I concentrate, I can intentionally recall the emotional state of those nightmares. I will not take myself deep into it, especially not at night, but I occasionally experiment with it in my mind--sort of like sampling something bitter just to remember what it tastes like. Even as I formulate this description right now, if I think too much about it I can bring myself to tears. (That could be a useful tool if I were acting in a dramatic movie, eh?)

Putting the intense nightmares aside, I hold with those theorists who believe dreaming is the mind's way of sorting the clutter of what we experience in real life; it's part of a mental tidying-up process. Several nights ago I had a very long, detailed dream that was confusing to me when I first awoke and recalled it. As I pondered it throughout the day, it became clear to me that various elements of the dream reflected things I had seen and done recently, or that I'd heard about from friends. If I told you what I did in my dream, you'd be shocked and frightened. I plead innocence by virtue of the fact that I don't control my dreams; they come spontaneously, and I would sooner surrender my life than commit the atrocities that took place in this one. As our world is a place where ugly, senseless things often happen, it is no wonder my brain has much to sort out.

Hamlet thought the dreams that may come when we have "shrugged off this mortal coil" must give us pause. I don't have to wait until death for this to happen. The dreams I have now often give me pause. Now and then they frighten me. Sometimes, they open new worlds to me, reveal things about my self, or delight and entertain me. Usually, they leave me guessing, wondering, thinking. I love to dream.