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True Grit

[In honor of Roger Ebert’s passing, I thought I’d try my hand at a movie review. For me, he and Gene Siskel were the original and only movie reviewers. I trusted his knowledge, insight, and expertise when it came to movies. I didn’t always agree, but I admired his ability to point out why he loved a cheesy popcorn flick filled with explosions, then on the next review explain how movie X was subtly referencing Greek myth. He was smart, funny, and will be missed.]

True Grit tells the story of a cold, calculating young girl named Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) out to avenge the murder of her father. The story picks up after his death, and we’re told the story through a single-scene flashback. We’re shown her determination and intelligence after she literally gets the better of a horse trade. She enlists the help of the reluctant, alcoholic, violent-even-for-the-Old-West Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Before they leave town, we’re introduced to the bounty hunting Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has been after the same man for several months.

In many movies, when the precocious-but-spirited heroine meets up with the gruff-but-lovable old timer, her strong will shown early in the film melts away, and she’s left as a cowering shadow as he does “the man’s work.” Think Marion in Robin Hood: Price of Thieves. It would have been extremely easy to do the same here, with Mattie in the company of two tough lawmen. To the movie’s credit, Mattie starts tough, stays tough, and ends tougher.

What’s unique about this movie is the way that it captures the States in a way that seems alien to us now: as a vast, unexplored, dangerous, but also strange place. We’re given the usual glorious vistas of extended plains, gorgeous sunsets, and snow-dappled groves–but there’s also a fifteen minute segment involving a hanged man that does nothing to advance the plot and serves only to illustrate that things don’t work in this Old West the way that they do in most movies. When Mattie and Rooster Cogburn stop for information at a trading post, he literally kicks two children off the building’s front porch. He does it casually, and seemingly without malice. It’s as though kicking children is simply something that’s normal and expected.

This sense that “something is a little off” is part of the charm of Coen Brothers films, and adds nuance to movies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo. However, in a period piece such as this it can be a distraction. Rather than being allowed to lose myself in the story, I was continually reminded, “Oh, right. I’m watching a Coen Brothers movie.” The dialogue and acting throughout the movie seems intentionally stilted and listless. It’s as if the actors grew up speaking a different language, learned an American accent and the words in the script, but don’t understand the meaning behind the words. The exception to this flat affect is Bridges’ Cogburn, whose voice is frequently so guttural and incomprehensible that I was forced to turn on the closed captioning thirty minutes into the film.

Those quibbles aside, this movie may be added to my list of favorites if it can stand up to a second viewing. The Coen Brothers did an amazing job creating this movie, so much so that I feel the need to share it with other people. There aren’t a lot of movies that can do that, and I look forward to their next one.

You want a blowjob?

“Hey… you want a blowjob?”

This happened about ten years ago. I was still in college, and I was going into Kmart to check my hours for the upcoming weekend. Apparently I was looking particularly in need of oral sex as I walked across the parking lot, because a rusty rattletrap of a car slowly rolled along the fire lane in front of the store and stopped directly in front of me. An unshaven man in his late forties stared at me from the driver’s seat. He looked sick, or at least in very poor health. He may have been drunk.

I couldn’t possibly have heard that sentence correctly. He had quietly mumbled the words, barely making eye contact with me.


Turns out I had heard him correctly.

“You want a blowjob?”

“No!” I yelled. “Get out of here before I call the cops!”

Without saying another word, he turned to face forward and took off at the same creeping speed. I stood and watched him go, walked into the store, checked my hours, told a few coworkers the story, got a few incredulous laughs, and headed back to my car.

My imagination, spurred by my vast knowledge of criminal behavior (gleaned from TV crime dramas), started niggling at me at this point. What if this part of an escalation of behavior? What if he starts going further with this? Could he be a rapist? What if he is already?

Damn it. I guess I should call the cops.

I called and gave them a description of the man, his car, the time, my location, and so on. The dispatcher asked would I mind giving a statement to a police officer, and I said no. I waited for twenty minutes, and finally the cop arrived.  I started to give him the same story I’d told the dispatcher. As I was midway through my description of the man’s death trap rustbucket, I saw a familiar car drive onto the lot.

“That’s him,” I said, pointing. “That’s his car.”

“Him?” The cop seemed surprised and confused. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah, that’s the guy!”

The cop told me to wait, hopped into his car, and began a no-speed pursuit. He followed the car at the same leisurely pace.  No lights or siren. I’m sure the guy knew what was going on by then, but apparently thought better of going above 15mph.

I sat back down on my hood and waited. The cop slowly followed the car out of the parking lot, out of sight, and then came into view a few minutes later.  They rounded the very large commercial block of the Kmart, maintaining their weirdly sedate pace. I suppose the cop was running the car’s license plate and getting info on its occupant. They once again drove out of view. Eventually, a second cop drove onto the parking lot and walked up to me. They’d pulled the guy over on a side street close by, and would I feel comfortable IDing him? Sure.  No problem.

The second cop apologized that I couldn’t be allowed to sit in the front seat of his cruiser, and opened the back for me. I was disappointed–I wanted to see all of their cool cop toys–but got in and sat on the hard plastic bench. As he drove us less than a block, he explained that I shouldn’t say anything to the guy. Just walk up, confirm it was the same guy, and come back to the car. The second cop let me out and I walked up to the stopped car, feeling slightly nervous despite knowing I was safe.

It was past dusk by this time, and the red and blue strobes from the two squad cars made the man look even more haggard than he had in the parking lot. I remember that he didn’t look angry, or even scared. When he looked back at me, he just looked miserable, sad, and defeated. I walked back to the second cop’s car and confirmed his identity. Someone who read the local paper’s police blotter told me that he was charged with disturbing the peace, or disorderly conduct, or some other generic charge.

Was the guy creepy? Sure. Offering blowjobs to strangers in a Kmart parking lot is a weird thing to do, and I hope the experience scared him enough to not repeat it. But in the end, I just feel sorry for him. I can only assume he was gay and deeply closeted, and thought his idiotic ploy might work without anyone ever finding out. I hope he’s either come out of the closet by now, or is at least anonymously fucking strangers from Craigslist. I certainly hope he’s offered his last parking lot blowjob. Being closeted does terrible things to people.

Lessons from the Ham Doom debacle

I recently worked for a large gaming company whose name I’m not going to mention, since they have infinitely more lawyers than I do, and I would prefer not to anger them.  (I have zero lawyers, they have more than one.  The math checks out.)  If you’ve talked to me lately, you know who I was working for anyhow. I’m writing down a series of lessons mainly so I don’t forget them later.  This entire experience, start to finish, has been a ridiculous waste of time.

Lesson #1: Contracting companies are staffed exclusively by idiots.  I’ve dealt with a few contracting agencies since I moved to Seattle, and every single one of them has been bafflingly incompetent.  I’ve been assured that my experience is far from unique.  Simple questions like “When will I be paid?” or “How do I report my hours?” required multiple emails and phone calls to get an answer. The first company I worked with gave me a laptop with instructions on how to log onto Microsoft’s corporate network… whom I didn’t work for.

When I went in for my interview at Ham Doom, the HR woman had never heard of the company I’d been dealing with, and I’d never heard of the company she thought I was represented by. This was never sorted out completely, but my understanding is that there were a number of intermediate companies between me and Ham Doom, each taking a little bit off the top, and each passing messages from one to the other in a ridiculous game of telephone via email.

Get everything in writing from the start. Come up with a list of questions, and make sure they’re answered to your satisfaction before you sign or agree to anything. If you’re dealing with a contracting agency, find out what the relationship is between the agency and the hiring company.

Lesson #2: Find out what your workspace will be like. I made the mistake of assuming that since I was working for a large company, I would be getting a cube with some degree of privacy. Instead, on my first day, I was shown to an area in a pit shared with seven other desks.  Looking up from my monitor meant staring directly at the bald dome of the unfriendly tech across from me. Anyone walking by could see my monitors, with the added fun that they directly faced my manager’s office. He merely needed to turn his head to see what I was working on. While I do spend most of my time working, I like to take breaks when I’m stuck or frustrated. The problem is that anyone who looks at my monitor will only see someone fucking around, not someone trying to clear his head. Knowing that anyone could see what I was doing made me feel like I was constantly being watched, and that I wasn’t trusted.

Also, find out what sort of noise level exists. For reasons that made sense only to my former coworkers, an unattended cell phone ringing until it went to voicemail was cause for cries of “Sorry! It’s not us!” over the cube walls. However, a 45-minute-long argument with raised voices was just fine. People dropping by to talk for half an hour about TV was also fine, as was shouting over the cube walls.

I’m very sensitive to noise, and especially can’t concentrate when other people are talking. I do my best work in silence. Had I known I’d be constantly monitored and that I’d have to listen to idiots jabber all day, I never would have taken the position.

Lesson #3: Do your best to find out what team dynamics are like and if you think you would work well under your manager. I should have known from my interview that I wouldn’t like working for my manager, and that my team would have been unpleasant to work with.

I was given a list of people who would be in my interview, along with job titles and the length of time they’d worked at Ham Doom. One guy showed up who hadn’t been on my list, so I tried to ask him a few questions about himself, and what he did. He grunted back, “I work for Dan [the hiring manager].” There was no anger in his non-response. I simply wasn’t worth exerting more than four words for. He didn’t remotely care that I existed. I was just another pointless meeting in his schedule. His attitude was reflected among the rest of the team, particularly with Dan. I was going to be a faceless cog in his machine. Take in work, churn out results, and don’t fucking talk to me when you do it.

This became particularly clear on my first day, when I was shown to my desk and wondered why I didn’t recognize anyone from the interview. Despite interviewing for one team, Dan assigned me to another–and never fucking told me. I assumed at some point he would drop by my desk to say hello, or introduce me to my mysterious coworkers.  He never did. Six hours later, I sought him out in his office and asked what was going on. He told me that he’d assigned me to the other team because “I didn’t seem to know much about [the other team’s work].”

Make sure that the team you’re working with is one you’ll feel comfortable working for, and that you’ll be treated with dignity.  If not, find another position.

Lesson #4: Find out why they’re hiring. In the case of Ham Doom, I sincerely don’t know why I was hired. After my interview, I thought it had gone badly enough that I sent out several texts afterward saying “Well, that was a waste of time.” A few days later, to my complete surprise, I received a job offer. I took it to my manager and received a counteroffer of a raise and a title increase from my current company, which had been my intention all along. I hadn’t wanted the job at Ham Doom to start with, so I declined their offer. Ham Doom counter-counteroffered with more money, and finally I accepted.

So, after proving that they really wanted me to work there, what did they have me doing?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In my first week, they showed me how to push content to their web servers, a process that either of my teammates could have done easily and with time to spare. Then, they had me build out two new servers. I spent weeks tweaking, compiling, configuring, and testing. Finally, I let the rest of my team know they were complete, and that they were ready.

“Great,” my team lead said. “We’ll put them in production right after Christmas.”

I then did nothing for the entire month of January. Not because I was avoiding work, but because I had absolutely no work to do. I read two entire Sherlock Holmes novels and some Edgar Allen Poe from the Gutenberg Project at my desk. I read Ars Technica, Consumerist, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, and Hackaday all day every day. I chatted with friends. I came in late and left early. In the month of January, I probably did four hours of real, honest work. I went more than a month without speaking to one of my coworkers. I was bored out of my fucking mind.

When I left in mid-January, the new servers I’d built still weren’t being used.  The small amount of work I’d actually been assigned was never put to use.

So why would a company pay me extra to not do a job? I really don’t know. My only guess is that Dan was given head count that he needed to fill before the end of the year, and he chose me exclusively to fill out his ranks. He didn’t give a shit about my skills or what I could bring to the organization, he just wanted a warm body to fill a seat.

Next time, I’ll ask not just what they’re hiring for, but why.  Do they need more help because they’re busy?  Did someone leave?  Or do they just want someone to fill a seat because an availability opened up in their corporate bureaucracy?

Lesson #5: I will almost certainly never work for another large company.  In my first week, I found out that I needed to ask two people and fill out a change request form in order to get an IP for my virtual machine.  I also needed someone on the help desk team to unlock my workstation’s BIOS so I could get that virtual machine to run.  I never found out the names of the people who helped me, and I never saw them again.  Everywhere I tried to do any work, I was handcuffed by bureaucracy.

Did you fill out a change request ticket to have X done?
No, I didn’t know that was necessary.  You sit right across from me. Can’t you just do it?
Fill one out and I’ll start on it, ok?

Want to install something on a machine that’s not there? That’s handled by another department. While you have the knowhow to do that, you don’t have the authority. Better fill out a form and wait.

Want to know what Y looks like? Sorry, that will have to go through the security team. You don’t have access to that. I’ll also have to check with legal.

Of course you can’t do Z yourself. There’s a whole team for that. Fill out a form and wait. They’re on the east coast, though, so they’ve already left for the day. You’ll have to finish that tomorrow.

Working for a trudging corporate behemoth is unpleasant, to say the least. If I have to spend even ten percent of my time dealing with the rules set in place to manage the size and complexity of a thing, that’s too much. If I have to consult a corporate directory and then guess if the name I’ve pulled is the right one, that’s a waste of my time and theirs. I won’t work in that kind of environment.

All in all, this has been educational, but not pleasant.  I just hope I remember these lessons next time I’m looking for a job.