Monday, January 13, 2020

Video Game Reviews: The Last of Us and Innocence, A Plague Tale

For all of my general nerdiness, I don't actually play a lot of video games.  Above all else, I'm a bookworm.  I like reading and writing, and maybe like, three Netflix shows.  (For the curious: Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman, and The Umbrella Academy.)


Part of the problem with video games, for me, is that they require a lot of investment in the medium.  I don't like video games for the same reason so many people don't like reading: it takes me too long.  Reading is less fun if you're not a strong reader.  For me, a person whose coordination is so bad that I can't chew gum and walk at the same time, video games are a difficult story-telling medium.  It's one of the only story-telling mediums in which, if you suck at the medium, you can actually get stuck in the story.  With a book you can technically skip parts you don't understand; in video games, if you are caught on a level, that's it.  For platforming games like Super Mario or Sonic, this didn't matter much, but for story-driven games, it's maddening.

This is one reason I like sandbox games like Skyrim. You can't really get "stuck," because it's an open world and at times feels truly limitless.

Disclaimer: I spend 90% of my time selling cabbages in the marketplace in Solitude, 
not actually doing quests.

Today I'd like to discuss two story-telling games I became acquainted with in the last year: The Last of Us (2013) and Innocence: A Plague Tale (2019).  The two have a surprising number of similarities.  Both are linear story-based horror genre games; both hinge on an "escort mission;" both heavily involve themes of childhood purity.  One is set in a future with zombies, and the other in a past with rats, but their strengths are similar, and both are games I'd recommend.

SPOILER ALERT: DON'T READ PAST THIS POINT IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ ANY MAJOR PLOT POINTS FOR EITHER OF THESE TWO GAMES.

Let's start with The Last of Us.  It's a pretty popular game and you've likely heard of it; it won a ton of awards, including over 200 "Game of the Year"s.  Like many others born in the '80s, who grew up with arcade-style first-person shooter "House of the Dead," I have a soft spot for zombie games.  House of the Dead introduced us to the big fat zombies and to the chainsaw zombies, which we see in most zombie games nowadays.  Before The Last of Us, my favorite zombie game was probably Dead Rising, which features the standard slow-moving Romero zombies and cartoonish fun ways to kill them.  (It also inexplicably features a boss battle with a chainsaw-wielding clown. The clown isn't a zombie.  He's just sorta... there.)

He dual-wields chainsaws and self-awareness.

The Last of Us does a great job of putting a fresh spin on its zombies.  The zombies are victims of a fungal infection, not a virus, and their movements are fantastic.  They stagger around in a convincingly horrific manner that calls to mind the disjointed mannerisms of an opioid addict, but when they spot you, they suddenly get fast.  In the last stages of the game, we get to see "Clickers," who are people in the late stages of the fungal infection, whose faces are covered with fungal growths and who are sightless, resorting to clicking in order to navigate.  These zombies have a unique design and are also properly scary to look at.

The apocalypse itself is also properly horrible in The Last of Us.  The game is set 20 years after the outbreak, and we see plenty of military quarantine zones and compounds with people.  As the game progresses, there are less and less zombies, and more and more bad guys, including bandits, para-military organizations, cannibals, and crazed survivalists.  The game's message seems to be that the real danger is other people, not zombies, which I can get behind.

The scenery is breath-taking.

 Concept art.

The two biggest strengths of the game are, in my opinion, the story-telling and the voice acting.  There are several cut scenes that could have been cheesy but displayed some really ridiculous raw human emotion and talent.  Among them are when the main character, Joel, loses his daughter; when Joel's partner, Tess, is bitten by zombies and demands that Joel go on without her; when Henry commits suicide after his younger brother turns; and when Ellie, the girl Joel is escorting, makes her first kill.  These scenes could easily be over-acted, but in every one, you feel the full gravity of what happened to the characters, and hear it plainly as they choke up, their voices break, and they express their sorrow.

There are also moments of wonder that keep the game from being a purely nihilist experience.

The storytelling, like the voice acting, also packs a punch.  There are plenty of examples, but the one I'll give is this.  Many zombie games, such as Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead, lack children.  Generally, video games draw a heavy red line when it comes to shooting kids, even zombie kids.  It's a good line to be drawn.  Which is why it was so shockingly unsettling to me when, while exploring an abandoned home in The Last of Us, Joel suddenly stumbles into a bedroom with a crib in it.  This detail, implying the existence of a baby, was a punch to the gut, and was followed immediately by a second punch when Joel walks into the next bedroom to discover a brightly-colored child's room with twin bunk beds.  A note in the room explains that the family was evacuated safely (although their family dog was released into the wild).  Later in the game, a second home with a crib, pet carriers, and toys implies a family life, but this time, the fate of the family is left ambiguous.  Finally, while clearing out sewers, Joel finds evidence of a pacifist community that included children.  Toys and makeshift classrooms in the underground compound are all eerily unoccupied, until finally, Joel stumbles into a locked room, where a man has killed himself; beside him is a blanket thrown over several little bodies with their legs poking out.  Written on the floor beside this pile are three words: "THEY DIDN'T SUFFER."



Holy shit, Last of Us!  You really didn't shy away from shit here, and I commend you for it!  While a zombie child might have been tasteless, the desperation evident in the whole scene and the graceful way it's handled deliver a perfect emotional impact that not many games could pull off.

The Last of Us does a really good job of making a serious and emotionally impactful post-apocalyptic game.  It has some first-person shooter elements but manages to avoid ever having a cheesy or cartoonish style.  Any time you start to get desensitized, the game lobs a new whammy at you, ensuring that you never quite shake off the feeling of wrongness that so many other post-apocalypse zombie games fail to capture.

There are a few minor errors that can be pretty easily forgiven.  (For example, in one scene outside of Pittsburgh, you find a boat by the river with a note saying it came back from sea, which doesn't make sense, as Pittsburgh is a land-locked city whose river feeds into the Mississippi, not the ocean.)  The gameplay mechanics are smooth and the AI isn't awful; unlike most escort missions, the people you work with don't interfere with your sneaking or get in your way much, which is a downfall of so many other escort-mission games.


Innocence: A Plague Tale feels like a sister game to The Last of Us.  It's set in the past, the 1300s to be specific, instead of the future.  Playing as a young girl, you move through a village and later a town that are infested by hoards of plague rats, escorted your very young, frail brother. Like The Last of us, we have some scenes of upsetting, grotesque disease that hit an emotional note.  There's an ominous vibe from the beginning when the main character, Amicia, loses her pet dog.  Later, the game does an exquisite job of balancing disgust with tension, as Amicia and her brother, Hugo navigate through a farm where cow carcasses are stacked up high, and later, the aftermath of a battle field covered with corpses.


Like The Last of Us, the story-telling does a great job with pacing and upping the ante.  Like The Last of Us, the rats are more of a problem in the beginning, and as the game unfolds, you spend increasing amounts of time avoiding people, including English soldiers, town guards, and members of the Inquisition who are hunting you.  Like The Last of Us, there are some truly devastating moments; Rodric's death near the end hits with a surprising amount of raw emotion.


The mechanisms are similar in terms of crafting weapons and relying on ranged attacks; like The Last of Us, there's a lot of sneaking around.  There's more puzzle-like elements and little platforming, but the puzzles are not overly boring and the scenery keeps the game from ever getting frustrating.  The voice acting here, too, is incredible; the children's voices and dialogue are well-done and manage to side-step the shrillness or overly babyishness that so many children's voices have in video games.  In particular, the main character, Amicia, has a great voice actor, who is able to communicate complex feelings toward her brother: affection and concern is often mixed with annoyance and impatience.


There's definitely a degree of hyperbole in this game; the number of rats, dead cows, bones in the catacombs, and so forth are beyond a reasonable amount.  Yet the game manages to hold on to the same serious, grounded tone as The Last of Us.  Both games take slightly ridiculous concepts and use them as a backdrop to explore very real human emotions, and I think they're nuanced and elegant in the stories they choose to tell.

One curious contrast between these games comes in the animation.  The Last of Us uses a copious amount of water in its scenery and gameplay.


There's definitely a bit of flexing in the animation; there's one segment that occurs in a snow storm, with flurries of snowflakes and prints in the ground showing a high degree of attention to detail.  Everything from the blood splatter to the shadows on the walls is incredibly detailed, and the studio that developed this game deserves some recognition for that.  The studio, Naughty Dog, was established in 1984, and according to Owler, it has a staff of 316 and generates an annual revenue of $100 million.  Innocence: A Plague Tale was produced by Asobo, which was established in 2002, has a staff of 140, and generates an annual revenue of $7 million.  Innocence isn't as polished as Last of Us; the individual rats, for example, have a slick, rubbery appearance instead of furry.  A lot of the textures in this game are a little more "shiny" and inorganic, but it's still very easy to get sucked in.  The game feels like a much older game, at least animation-wise, simply because there were less development resources and talents behind it.  But this isn't a criticism; considering what it was working with, Asobo produced a remarkable game that's lovely to watch.

"What kind of person watches video game play-throughs on YouTube?"
That's right.  I'm the target audience for those videos.  It was me all along.

Like any game with a very linear storyline, these games don't have a huge amount of replay value, but I still think they are well-worth a purchase.  There are plenty of games out there for people who like gaming for the interactive elements, but there are too few who really invest in their characters and plots.  The Last of Us and Innocence: A Plague Tale are two rare gems that capture the human experience and don't cheap on on the artistic elements of their games, and I would be more inclined to play video games if I felt like all of them put as much effort as these two titles into the writing, acting, and story-telling.

Until then, it's Skyrim for me.

Monday, January 6, 2020

New Year, New Project: Introducing "The Kick"

I believe I've alluded periodically to my obsession with "The Umbrella Academy."  It's a comic published by Dark Horse and was recently made into a Netflix show.  It's got just about every element I like in fiction: dysfunctional superheroes, existential angst, a flamboyantly fabulous asshole who you can't help but love.


While discussing the ten-episode show for the umpteenth time, I said, "I wish the writers would just do what I want."  To which my husband offered a childishly uncomplicated solution: "Then you should either become a writer or publish your own work."

He's right, of course.  Most of the fictional content I generate uses existing franchises, which precludes it from being published, monetized, or useful in any way whatsoever.

In case you're wondering what I want from The Umbrella Academy, it's this.  I have a theory that Reginald Hargreeves works for the Temps Commission.  I believe that he orchestrated the apocalypse from beginning to end, beginning with, of course, his own death.  After all, for the apocalypse to happen, all of the Hargreeves had to come together in the first place; Klaus had to discard the notes about Vanya where Leonard could find them; Allison and Luther had to fuck up horribly to push Vanya over the edge; Five had to fuck up the timeline further to ensure everything went to shit.  This explains a lot, including how Reginald knew the apocalypse was about to happen in the first place, and why he was such a shit father.  Because he had to guarantee the kids were poorly-adjusted adults in order to cause the end of the world.  What's more, it explains how Grace knew about the apocalypse, and why Reginald was so adamant about keeping track of how long Five had been gone... because he knew all along that Five was working for the Temps.

I hope you've seen the show or else this article so far probably seems like incoherent rambling.

I believe that Season 2 would be amazing if all the kids went back in time and had to confront Reginald as an agent of the Temps Commission.

But this post isn't about my fan theory.


Although if it were I would show you this chart in which it's clear Reginald is the source of the apocalypse.

It's about Andrew's suggestion that I stop wasting my time on existing franchises and try to build something new.

"After all," he pointed out, "you have a ton of ideas.  If you just change the names of the characters, plenty of your stories are divergent enough to be a separate franchise."


My main character be like

Andrew was right, of course.  I have a lot of unrealized ideas, many of which I never endeavored to develop fully because of an idea that they were "unmarketable."  But lately, dark and dysfunctional superheroes are in, and there are plenty of publishing houses (Dark Horse, Vertigo, and Image Comics, to name a few) who love the dark subversion of the superhero genre, especially when it includes familiar elements and tropes.
 
Umbrella Academy, for example: X-Men meets Arrested Development.

So, I ask you, dear reader, what is one of the most common tropes of the superhero genre that has inexplicably not been subverted?

Hint: I bitched about this well over a year ago.
.

The "young boy sidekick" theme is one that feels increasingly fake and unrelatable in today's culture, and incidentally, I already had an idea for a story exploring this.


Here's my general outline and characters for my newest entirely original comic book idea, "The Kick," hopefully hitting shelves within a year or two, depending on how quickly I can get a storyboard onto the right person's desk.



The Kick

Characters:
  • Tomas Castiel: a 17-yr-old "Enhanced" individual whose superpowers have just manifested with puberty.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed, our young protagonist aspires to become a popular superhero.  He lives in Los Angeles with his two sisters and patrols the city at night with the aid of a police scanner he purchased off of Craigslist.
  • Alec Slick (aka "Tesla Man"): a tech mogul and ultra-popular superhero who is notable for saving the world from an alien invasion while he was in college.  Now 38 and the head of TL-Corp, Alec is a charming, handsome, clever, and filthy rich eccentric who spends a sizable chunk of his time hanging out in his personal resort and spa on an orbiting space station.
  • Aria Platsky: a burned-out superhero publicist who juggles various case files for a company called "Heroes on Dial," which is basically a mall cop rental but for superheroes.
  • Beth: The first Kick.
  • Tristan: The second Kick.
  • The Oracle: an Enhanced with the power of shape-shifting, who has given up the superhero life since an accident left him horribly deformed and slightly mentally unstable.  He's Tomas's confidant and friend.

Volume One

Overview: Castiel is an aimless latchkey kid with recently discovered superpowers.  One night, while intervening in a drug store robbery, he comes face-to-face with Tesla Man, the world's most popular and beloved superhero.  Tesla Man expresses interest in mentoring Castiel and offers him a partnership.  To protect his identity, Castiel takes on the mantle of "The Kick."  The two proceed to go on various thrilling adventures against Tesla Man's various supervillain rivals, including The Entropy Institute, The Post-Master General, Professor Pandamonium, Nightshade, and rival corrupt businessman Gene Hamilton.

Alec Slick is everything Castiel could want in a mentor: supportive, encouraging, flattering.  The only one who seems suspicious of him is The Oracle, who believes that the closeness between Castiel and Slick is weird.  (Castiel believes Oracle is only jealous; Oracle is 27 and hardly has room to talk.)  As the two get closer and closer, Slick and Castiel eventually end up in a romantic relationship, kept secret to protect Castiel's identity from too much scrutiny.

It slowly dawns on Castiel that he has been groomed from the beginning and Slick is a clever manipulator who orchestrated the entire "mentorship."  The final straw comes when Castiel realizes that "Kick" is a short for "Sidekick," and they were never equals or partners; Slick has always seen him as lesser, and his insistence on secret identities and so forth was all designed to maintain a questionably appropriate relationship.  Full of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, Castiel resigns as "The Kick" and returns to a life of anonymity.

Volume Two

Two years later.  Castiel is now nineteen and a sophomore at a community college.  He has rebranded himself as "The Scorpion" and is trying to make a name for himself as an independent superhero.  Regrettably, he' got a lot of competition; Los Angeles is a major city for the Enhanced to try to make a name for themselves.  He goes to Heroes On Dial to try to get some help rebranding, but lacks the money to purchase their services.

He discovers that Tesla Man has a new "Kick."  Remembering his own experience and worried it's happening again, he approaches the new Kick and tries to warn them, but is dismissed as being a jealous ex.  He goes back to Heroes On Dial, desperate for help to take on Tesla Man.  No one wants to help him, except for Aria Platsky.  Operating independently of Heroes On Dial, she takes on Castiel's case, trying to dig up dirt on Tesla Man and help Castiel rehab his own image.  (For one, she tells him to ditch the moniker Scorpion, as no one like Scorpions.  He renames himself Scorp Kid, which she says is even worse.  Unfortunately, it sticks after he foils a major plot by Nightshade to poison the city's water system.)

With Aria's help, Scorp Kid tracks down the previous "Kick," and learns the tragic story of the first Kick, who died.  Tristan, the second Kick, wants nothing to do with Scorp Kid's crusade against Tesla Man.  Fortunately, Scorp Kid manages to get enough dirt on Tesla Man to take him to trial.  The nation watches the drama unfold with baited breath as their beloved protector is accused of abusing his power, arrested, and put on trial.

While on trial, aliens attack the city, and Tesla Man defeats them.  He returns in time from fighting aliens in order to make his final trial appearance.  The jury is out for less than a minute, and return with a Not Guilty verdict, clearly grateful that he saved the world again and willing to forgive and forget all misdeeds.

The judge calls this a clear, gross miscarriage of justice and calls for a mistrial.  In the meantime, he sentences Slick to 15 months of house arrest for violating the conditions of his bail by going into orbit to fight aliens.  Castiel is deeply discouraged by what happened, but Aria suggests that at least he's getting some semblance of justice, and, more importantly, has disrupted the relationship between Slick and his newest "Kick."

Volume Three

One year later.  A jury has recently acquitted Alec Slick of charges of child endangerment and sexual misconduct.  Scorp Kid, walking home at dawn after a night of superhero patrol, watches the story unfold in the window of an electronics shop in disgust.  Slick transmits a message to the people of earth from his space station, where he is still under house arrest.  He thanks the people for believing in him and states that he thinks the charges brought against him are indicative of a larger problem, which is that people don't trust Enhanced people.  He says that the problem is that the Enhanced have a very different culture and are not well understood by normal people, and that they aren't integrating well into society.  To rectify this, he says, he is starting up a "finishing school" for promising young Enhanced on his space station, where he can mentor classes of students and oversee their actions to ensure no one else ever has to go through what he has.

Castiel turns away from the storefront to walk home, hands in his pockets, a single thought bubble forming above him.  "God damn it..."

Monday, December 30, 2019

End-of-Year Wrap-Up

In a few short hours it will be the Roarin' Twenties.  As usual I'd like to discuss both my accomplishments from the previous year and my goals for the coming one, in a lazy clip show-style format that draws heavily from previous posts.

I have long been looking forward to 2020, because of the auspicious symmetry of the numerical value, as well as the release of Umbrella Academy, Season 2.  Not to mention the assumed re-emergence of zoot suits, fringed dresses, feather headbands, bob haircuts, and Gatsby-style extravagance.



But before we can delve back into the jazz era, let's take a look back at how 2019 treated us.

2019 ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND HIGHLIGHTS


What a year, what a year.  In terms of personal development, I went back to school for journalism.  I am now two classes away from graduation, and currently hold straight As.  (The loosely-structured program is designed to be completed in two years; I attempted to get it done in one, since I didn't want to be in school after the baby arrived.  I was two classes shy, but two classes is no big deal.)  I also got an internship during autumn, which allowed me to beef up my writing portfolio a little.

Over-achieving feels so good.

In the meantime, I got a new job as a server / bartender, which added some much-needed social stability to my life.

Speaking of my social life, I finished off my title year as L.A. pup, competing in the International title in July and coming in 6th or 7th place out of 16.  During my title year, I raised over $900 for the ASPCA, Planned Parenthood, and the Los Angeles Gender Center.

Mid-year, I took a vacation to Ireland with Andrew, Andrew, Nate, and my mom.

In sad news, we lost Winnibelle and have been watching Carlisle sundown.  This might be his last Christmas, but we're keeping him comfortable and enjoying the time we have with him.


The silver lining to losing Winnibelle, of course, is that it freed up the rabbit room to make room for the baby we conceived back in March.  We have spent the last year getting our finances and house in order and it's never been cleaner.  This December we welcomed Calvin into our lives and he's settled in nicely. 

 "Helloooo, world!"

If you clicked the last link, you'll see one oft my current projects has also been writing a prequel to The Umbrella Academy, my latest and greatest obsession, which came just in the knick of time to replace Iron Man.
 

Now that my blog is finally updated (yay!), I plan to finish off this little personal enterprise within the next month or two.  And in related comic book-y news, I got a thoroughly satisfying end to the third phase of Marvel's cinematic universe with Avengers: Endgame, and got to enjoy another fantastic Comic Con.

So my overall impression of 2019?  It was a fucking fantastic year.


2020 RESOLUTIONS


I'm not huge on resolutions, but I do try to generally better myself.  One thing I always try to do is to realize a resolution with January 1st acting as a "due date" rather than a "start date."  This year's pre-resolution was to make a habit of flossing regularly.  I did this largely to spite my dentist, who informed me that most people's dental hygiene tanks in the year following the birth of a baby.  As a fairly rebellious person who also has a tendency to desperately require validation from authority figures (see "straight As," above), I took the dentist's passing comment as a challenge, and since October or November have been flossing daily before bed as part of my routine.  It's now an established habit and I'm confident that my gums will impress next time I'm in for a cleaning.

My goals for the coming year including finishing my journalism program (graduation is in June!), finishing my Umbrella Academy project before the second season drops, and losing the baby weight and getting in shape again.  (I don't actually have too much weight to lose and I've done the whole weight loss journey thing before so this is an imminently achievable goal.)

I haven't made as many goals as I usually would because the truth is, I feel like this year, like the last, is going to surprise us with a whirlwind of amazing things.  I'm poised in a great place, and even if 2020 isn't as exciting as 2019, I think it's going to be wonderful.  As Gatsby himself said, "My life has got to be like this.  It has to keep going up." 

Monday, December 23, 2019

First Week of Being a Parent, and Obligatory Baby Photo Dump

Today's entry is a short little photo dump and a series of quick impressions I want to commit to the written word before they vanish as memories.  I'm a little tired from the baby-having and baby-rearing, so please excuse me as I dump a bunch of baby photos into this post and then call it a day.  I don't ever expect this blog to become a "baby blog," but considering I've spent the first week concerning myself with getting plant-based, decomposable asswipes and arguing with Andrew about the merits of the book "The Digging-est Dog," I feel that I am well within my rights to write a shorter entry this week and call it a day.

 Personal stance: "The Digging-est Dog" is a literary masterpiece.

While we were expecting, we experienced a certain conversation over and over.  We'd say we felt relatively prepared, as prepared as anyone can really be for something as big as welcoming a baby into one's home for the first time.  And then others would laugh at us and say that nothing can prepare you.  Nothing.  That however hard you think it is, it's ten times harder then you could possibly realize and boy, oh boy, are you in for a trip.

I'm happy to report that those people are wrong.

Does this look hard to you?

We took Calvin home from the hospital after about 48 hours, and he has settled in like a champ.  Maybe it's still too early, but after the first week, I can say this: we were prepared, after all.  And we are having a damn good time.

 
Calvin with his grandma.

It helps that Cal is a good baby.  He doesn't cry much and he's on a fairly regular newborn schedule of two hours.  He sleeps, he wakes, he fusses, he eats, he poops, and he goes back to sleep.  This is the envious life of a newborn.  He is not very loud and also aggressively cute, and with myself, Andrew, and my mom present to care for him, everyone is a lot more well-rested than I was led to believe we would be.  Having two partners means we're doing just fine.  We're definitely a little tired, since we're up every few hours, but these interrupts are brief, spanning only 30 minutes or so, the length of time required to feed and re-diaper the baby.  On Day 2, we had a 90ish-minute crying session at 3 a.m. that wouldn't stop, but so far, over the whole week, that has been the only "bad baby" moment.  Generally Calvin is a reasonable baby who only fusses when he needs something.

 

If anything, we're having an almost-vacation.  The house is surprisingly clean and I've gotten a fair bit of work done in terms of catching up on various projects (blog included).

 
Calvin helping!

In terms of how you feel after giving birth, physically, for the first two days there's a full-body soreness and delicacy, but a week post-partum, I actually feel great.  I'm still bleeding, which is normal.  As far as I can tell, after giving birth, you bleed for roughly the rest of your natural life and possibly into the next one.  I was told to call the doctor if I had any clots the size of an orange or bigger.  In other words, unless your uterus falls out, incessant bleeding is considered normal.

The biggest fly in the ointment has been Seamus the dog, who does not like the baby.  Seamus has been walking around the house with his head down and his tail between his legs, making soft whining noises and periodically jumping on the baby.  Is he trying to protect it?  Respond to its crying?  I have no idea.  He's mellowed out a little with CBD treats, but he's still clearly on edge and having a harder time adjusting than anyone else.  I feel bad for him.

 Meeting the baby when we brought him home.

Possibly Seamus is jumping on the baby because the baby often represents a delicious burrito.

Our plans for Christmas and New Year's are non-existent.  The world stands still a little when you have a baby and you find yourself on your own, baby-centric planet that concerns itself with cleaning out breast pump attachments and locating where pacifiers have gone after being dropped.  I was hoping to get his picture taken with Santa, but since he's so new to the world and lacking in an immune system, and mall Santas are probably Germsville USA, we decided not to in the end.  We took a picture of Calvin in a Santa hat and called it a day.

 

On Planet Baby, my biggest complaint is the way time moves.  It's all at once sluggish and also far too fast.  Every moment you're mired in is boring.  The baby sleeps a lot and everything you do is done according to the baby's schedule, so "you time" is taken in two-hour blocks of slightly sleep-deprived distraction, with the awareness that you might have to drop everything to go to the baby if necessary.  Yet despite feeling a little stagnant and cooped up with the baby, both physically and temporally, you blink and you've moved forward to the next day, the next week.


We have been relying heavily on planners and to-do lists to ensure we maintain some semblance of structure.  It's easy, on Planet Baby, to fall behind.

Speaking of falling, my first panicked parent moment came on Day 5, when Calvin's cord fell off.

We had gone to see the pediatrician on Day 4, and he told us everything was looking good and normal, but I was still wholly unprepared to suddenly see it gone, and it scared me a bit.  The pediatrician also said, and I quote, "This is an excellent baby."  So there you have it, folks.  It came from the mouth of a professional.  Also, not to brag, but our baby only lost 2 ounces following his birth.  (Most babies lose a lot more.)

Overall impression of Planet Baby?  It's a nice planet.  One that's not nearly as hard as everyone told us it would be, and worth every second of sleep deprivation.

Parenting!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Welcome to the World, Cal

[Warning: some minor medical descriptions of labor and delivery.]

When Calvin was born, his eyes were open, and he was five-and-a-half pounds.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.


This all began on Sunday morning.  I woke at 6 a.m., which is apparently a time that exists.  I was having pains not unlike cramps; I got up and made a pot of coffee.  Andrew got up shortly thereafter.  We had plans to go have brunch with one of his friends.

My original plan had been to quit work about two weeks before the baby's due date, to go up to Canada and have the baby there.  Unfortunately, Carlisle threw a wrench into our plans by getting very sick but not actually dying. 

This animal is actually still alive somehow.

I still wanted to quit work about two weeks beforehand, just because of mobility issues and general discomfort.  But I'm terrible at saying no and have a deep fear of disappointing my incredibly nice boss, and I had somehow ended up scheduled through the 15th.  I had worked Thursday, December 12th, and regretfully informed Chris that there was no way I could work my last scheduled day, December 15th, because I was having difficulty being on my feet for 6-hour stretches, and didn't think I was providing very good service.  Chris was, as usual, understanding, and said it was fine for me to take off that day.

So we had brunch plans, but as Andrew was preparing to go, I told him I was feeling pretty shitty because of what I assumed were Braxton-Hicks contractions, and to go to brunch without me.  I asked him to bring me back a burrito and a vanilla milkshake.


I actually posted this.

Around noon I went to the bathroom and, lo and behold, my mucus plug had come out.  For those not in the know, the mucus plug is what keeps the baby and the amniotic fluid sterile during pregnancy; it jams up the cervix and separates the uterus from the vagina.  I called Andrew to let him know, and then checked online, discovering that you can lose it anytime from 36 weeks onward, and it may not necessarily be a big deal.

At this point I still suspected I was "only" having Braxton-Hicks contractions.  My reasoning was as follows:
  1. Everyone told me that you'll know the difference between Braxton-Hicks contractions and real labor.  Also, I was told that Braxton-Hicks contractions start in the front and real contractions originate from the back.
  2. The due date was December 21st, a full six days away, and I still had shit to do before the baby's arrival.  Also, current statistics suggest that first-time babies tend to reach term and be more likely to arrive late than early.
  3. My mother's babies all came late, and the best prediction for a baby's delivery is how the delivery of the generation before was.
  4. My water hadn't broken.
I called my mom, who advised me to go to the hospital.  I ignored this.  Andrew brought home a burrito, which was terrible, and a horchata, which was the closest thing to a vanilla milkshake the restaurant served.  I laid around waiting for the pain to stop.  It didn't.

My mom called around four to see if we were at the hospital yet.  We weren't, but by that point, we were considering it strongly.  Andrew had downloaded a labor tracking app and by his estimation, my contractions were spaced evenly apart. We decided we should at least pack a bag.

Around six p.m., we threw in the towel and drove to the hospital.  My contractions were five minutes apart and, although they still felt to me like they were coming from the front, they were undeniably severe.  We parked and I had two on the walk in to the hospital; during the second, I felt a warm stream down my leg.

About the water breaking: it's not actually clear when it does.  I had Googled it before we left for the hospital and discovered two troubling facts.  First of all, it may or may not break during labor.  The water breaking does not signify the beginning of labor, as you might think; in fact, the water can break at any time during the labor and in some cases never breaks at all.  (My mother's water apparently never broke and had to be manually "popped.")  Second, when it breaks, it may not be obvious.  In movies, when the water breaks, it's always shown as follows: a woman screams, doubles over, and proceeds to spill about 15 gallons of water all over the floor.  In real life, sometimes, the water breaking looks more like a trickle, and people think they've peed themselves.

Alarmed that I was most definitely in labor, we waddled into the hospital, took the elevator up to the maternity ward (stopping to buy a diet Dr. Pepper), and informed them that I was having a baby.

Andrew took this picture in the elevator for posterity.

They gave me forms.

I scribbled out some shaky information on the forms between contractions and was taken to an admitting room, when they gowned me up and did a cervical check.  For those who don't know what this is, it basically involves shoving a few fingers up your yoo-hoo and feeling for how dilated you are.  And I'll say this right now: it was literally the most painful part of the whole ordeal for me, hands-down.

The nurse informed me I was "only" two centimeters dilated.  I said that could not be correct.  She said that patients are only admitted under three conditions:
  1. They are more than four centimeters dilated.
  2. They would like to be administered an epidural for pain management.
  3. Their water had broken.
I was still unclear on whether or not my water had, in fact, broken.  I mean, I was pretty sure, but couldn't tell.  Maybe?  Or maybe I'd actually peed myself.  I was feeling fairly unsure of things, considering I'd already spent 12 hours having "Braxton-Hicks contractions" that turned out to be real labor.  Also, by this time, my contractions were two to five minutes apart, and it was hard to focus on what was happening because they were distractingly painful.  I knew I didn't want an epidural, and I was certain I was more than four centimeters dilated, but the only way to tell was with a cervical check, and I was adamantly against that.  They wanted to get a speculum (which is basically a salad tong-looking thing they shove into you to open you up) and do a swab to see if my water was broken, and/or to check the cervix again, and I was basically stalling because I didn't want that but also saw no recourse.  I certainly had no intention of walking off without being admitted, because it was clear, by that time, that I was absolutely going to have a baby.


Thirty minutes of hemming and hawing, with the nurses asking me what I wanted to do, paid off, when my water finally broke for real.

Remember how I said in movies, it's always a very dramatic gush with a ton of fluid, and how real life isn't like that?  Well, mine was movie-style, with a very distinctive "pop" feeling and the cinematic 15 gallons of fluid all over me, the gurney, the floor, and the nurse's shoes.

With barely concealed annoyance, she stripped off her gloves and said, "Okay, you're admitted."

Huzzah!

There was mild concern because the "water" (actually amniotic fluid) contained meconium, which is newborn baby poo.  My apparently very advanced child had pooped before he was even born; there is a small risk of complication because babies can end up aspirating the meconium during birth, which is bad.  I was wheeled into a birthing suite (the biggest hospital room you ever saw!) and strapped with a baby monitor on my stomach, which did not want to stay on, because I was thrashing and screeching like I was at Ozzfest.  The monitor could tell when contractions were; they came in "waves" but at that point I couldn't very well distinguish them from one another.  I was informed the doctor might not make it in time for the birth and that I should just do what my body felt like doing.

  Responding to this news.

This was counter to what I'd read online, which said you'll feel the urge to push but should wait a bit because premature pushing can lead to tearing.  But apparently, the nurses said, I was "more dilated than we initially thought."


Dr. Quimby arrived around 10 p.m.  At this point I had been in labor for about 16 hours, four of them "active" labor, which is the part where you're panting and contracting really hard and no longer confused about what a Braxton-Hicks contraction feels like.  She wasted absolutely zero time; she sat on a stool between my legs, braced my feet against my shoulders, and informed me it was time to push.

 I won't show pictures of this part but just imagine it being really loud and bloody.

I was in too much pain to communicate my total terror.  For as long as I can remember, giving birth has been my single greatest fear.  This had not abated during pregnancy, because they had given me lots of informational pamphlets that gave horrifyingly calm descriptions of "routine" procedures like episiotomies.  I did not want an episiotomy, which has largely gone out of vogue.  Dr. Quimby had reassured me that they don't usually do those anymore.  But all bets are off in the birthing suite; I had already disproven the "don't-worry-you'll-know-labor-when-it's-time" myth, as well as the "most-water-breakages-aren't-dramatic-gushes" one.

When the next contraction hit, I pushed.  Nothing happened.  I was told to wait as the contraction passed; when the second one came, I was told to push again, like I was pooping.  (Note: I was hyper-aware of the burrito I had had earlier and did not want to poop on the baby, something that happens semi-regularly, apparently.)  Again, nothing happened.  The third contraction came and I strained; nothing happened.  I was informed that they could see the baby's head, which was past the cervix and in the vaginal canal, but from my perspective, that wasn't really progress.  Dr. Quimby had been doing some aggressive rubbing down there that hurt, but everything hurt, and I was convinced they were seconds away from cutting me open.  (Somewhere in the background, Andrew was informing me that the baby was crowning and I was super, super close, but there was roughly a stadium's worth of people there at this point, so his voice was lost in the general hub-bub.)

Dr. Quimby turned to a nurse.  "Get me my--" she began.

Oh God.  This is it.  She's getting the scalpel, I thought.

"--mineral oil," she finished.

They dumped mineral oil on, in, and around me, and told me to push.  I did; the baby slithered out.  If I had to describe this indescribable feeling, I would say it is most similar to taking a five-pound shit.  There is an immense sense of relief.  What's more, it was not the most painful thing I've ever experienced; it was in the top three, certainly, but it was so weird and foreign and alien that a lot of the actual "pain" was lost to the general bizarreness of it all.

I first realized he was out because he cried.  He was born with his eyes and mouth open, shouting and squirming with a shocking amount of strength.  They put him on my chest, still crying and still tethered to me; he settled down and we stared at each other with equal expressions of utter shock.

 Calvin at five minutes old and then at about two hours old.

A moment later they pulled out the placenta, which was as large as the baby was and looked like a deflated cow heart.  They held it up for me to see.  (I requested this because I was curious.)

Dr. Quimby said I had torn just a little and needed one stitch; everything from my navel to my knees felt so strange that I barely felt it.  After the baby was checked over (Apgar score: 8 at one minute, 9 at five minutes), we two were wheeled into a post-delivery recovery room together, which is where we are currently.


Calvin was five-and-a-half pounds, seventeen inches, and was born with his eyes open.  He came at 10:37 p.m. and he was perfect.  Small, but fierce, not unlike his parents.  I didn't sleep all night, watching him in his bassinet beside my bed; every hour, it seemed, someone came in to peek at him.  The consensus was the same: he is an objectively cute infant.  Most newborns look like turnips; mine came out baby-like, his head a perfectly round melon, his skin unblemished, his mouth a perfect Cupid's bow that figured out how to latch onto a nipple within hours.

I hadn't given much thought to what it would be like after he was born and I've been pleasantly surprised by the aftermath.  My body is sore, similar to what it felt like the day after running a marathon, but I can walk fairly well, and I'm bleeding, but not nearly as much as I expected.  Calvin is bright-eyed and alert, and not at all fussy.  My mom, who had planned to come in before the delivery on Wednesday, flew in early to meet him.

It was, overall, a very standard and surprisingly easy birth.  It was also perfectly cinematic; the water breaking was comedically timed and dramatic, and the baby's appearance was actually baby-like.  After nine months of shitty pregnancy, the payoff is this: I have a son, and he's perfect; his eyes were open and he was five-and-a-half pounds.

Above and below: Calvin at 24 hours.