Monthly Archives: May 2012

Of Course The World Needs an Analysis of Regular Show

Family Portrait

For the past week, my five year old daughter has only watched Regular Show. I can see why my older boys, 13 and 10, who introduced it to her, like it: it revolves around two best buds, a bluejay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, although their being animals has nothing to do with the show (the bird doesn’t even fly), even if I’m sure that’s a big part of its appeal for kids. This promo, featuring human actors decked out as Mordecai and Rigby, winds up emphasizing that point and gives a few examples of the show’s shenanigans:

Mordecai and Rigby are fluffy Bartlebys, always preferring Not To:  slacking off, playing videogames, watching TV, and eating pizza and tacos, even as they’re supposed to be working at a park managed by a talking gumball machine, Benson, along with an albino gorilla[i] groundskeeper, Skips, a macrocephalic manchild geezer named Pops who technically runs the park for his ancient moon-headed father, a pudgy green creep named Muscle Man (who I assumed was named “Musselman,” like the applesauce, but the name is a joke), and Muscle Man’s friend, the personality-less High Five Ghost, who looks just as his name suggests.

At first, the show looks like yet another example of  People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC,”  as I suggested two weeks ago of The Avengers. But the faux diversity is a façade—no one behaves any differently based on his species or whatever you want to call a talking gumball machine.  Notice the gender-specific “his” pronoun. The show is distinctly male, with the exception of occasional minor characters Margaret (a robin?) and Eileen (a mole? I consulted the expert, my daughter: “She’s half person, half beaver”) as female foils for M & R. 

While the menagerie suggests that the title “Regular Show,” like Muscle Man’s name, is meant to be ironic (Cartoon Network’s tagline: “Regular Show. It’s anything but,” in the sense of normal), it is regular in the word’s sense of “uniform procedure” or “periodic.”  Nearly every episode follows the same pattern: some prosaic game—Rock Paper Scissors, jinx, cards, stick hockey, bowling—yields some wacky supernatural non sequitur—a monster appearing in the sky to devour the game’s prize, a mirror-image Rigby monster conjured to break the jinx, a warlock who sucks the whole park into his fannypack, an underground Fight Club-like stick hockey den, a wager with Death, who, appropriately, looks and sounds like Lemmy from Motorhead, but better looking. 


Death warmed over

Yet everything always works out: Mordecai and Rigby break the Rock Paper Scissors tie just in time; they break the jinx just in time; Benson turns out to be a stick hockey samurai just in time; Skips comes through in some way, usually solemnly intoning, “I’ve seen this before.”[ii]  You could easily play Regular Show Bingo, or maybe a Regular Show drinking game.  

So on second look, it feels like another genre: the Best Bros who are Both Dumb but One is Noticeably Dumber than the Other (“BBBDONDO” for short).  These duos spend most of the show screwing up and the last minute fixing it.  It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, the movie Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, and The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.  Acceptable Variations: Three Stooges (all dumb, but Moe is slightly less dumb) and Bill and Ted or Jay and Silent Bob (you could make a case for either being dumber). 

But mostly, the real dynamic is a kind of fairy tale family—fairy tale not because of the talking animals or the show’s regular supernatural plot twists, but because of the lack of mothers.  Like Peter Pan, the characters on Regular Show are a band of lost boys; like the spiritual song, they feel like motherless children.  Yet although Mordecai and Rigby seem like teens in this parentless limbo, their size and maturity difference (Mordecai, for example, is interested in Margaret, but Rigby isn’t into Eileen, although that could be because he can’t identify her species) suggests something more like siblings. And despite Skips’s and Pops’s old age, it is Benson, the gumball machine, who turns out to be the show’s surrogate father.  Benson spends most of every episode threatening, and then exploding at, the duo—you can add “GET BACK TO WORK!,” “[anything]…OR YOU’RE FIRED!,” and “UNBELIEVABLE!” to the bingo card/drinking game.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself relating far more to hapless Benson than to punky M or R.  His behavior is typical Bad Dad, what we may think or feel but struggle against saying.  On the episode Broken Cart, Rigby finally asks, “Benson, why do you hate us so much?”  Surprised and chastened, Benson answers, “I don’t hate you guys. I just hate some of the things you do.” 

Benson loses his marbels

Sorry, not you, Mordechai

Of course, when the boys inevitably screw up, in this case, taking a videogame break when they’re desperate to return the cart before the warranty expires that day, Benson, as usual, totally loses it:  “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES?”  On Think Positive, he can’t lose it, under threat of being fired himself, and we get to see the helplessness, the impotence, behind his threats and anger.  Mordecai and Rigby will never, of course, learn that actions have consequences.  That would mean growing up, which would be the end of the show.  But ideally, talking gumball machines and park-eating vortexes to the contrary, this distinction is the biggest difference between Regular Show’s parental lessons and real life. 

Funnily enough, Regular Show seems to know its true audience.  That car seat safety public service announcement may have a quirky Portlandia feel to it, and the diaper rash ointment has the indie band sounding name Baby Anti-Monkey Butt.  But that doesn’t mean that these ads, like nearly all the ads on Regular Show, aren’t geared squarely toward parents.  

I thought I was watching along with my kids. It turns out that they were watching it along with me.

Time: 65 minutes.  I wasn’t really planning on writing about Regular Show, but it’s literally all my girl—and therefore, I—watched this week, so it’s burned into my brain.    Truth is, I feel a little funny going from Angels in America to Regular Show.

[i] After botching a few JFGI details of Adventure Time a few months (the creator’s name, a Jungian archetype), I figured I better look up Regular Show online first.  So: Wikipedia refers to Skips as a Yeti, but I much prefer to think of him as an albino gorilla. I didn’t bother the check what Eileen was.

[ii] Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker–does Skips’s voice.  Hamill is a brilliant voice actor, here and elsewhere. Future blog: people who are famous for the wrong thing. Suggestions welcome in Comments.

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Angles on Angels in America in 2012

You mean it’s also a play?

It’s twelve years after the millennium, and even more since anyone thought much about Perestroika or the millennium as still approaching.  But last week couldn’t have been a better time to have seen Angels in America.  Despite having taught Tony Kushner’s masterpiece twice (or at least the first part, Millennium Approaches) and although I’ve seen the HBO adaptation again and again, I never thought I’d get to see the play AS a play—until the Stray Dog Theater in St Louis undertook performances of both parts.  It’s a bold and difficult play to stage, but it couldn’t have been a better venue—Stray Dog performs in the Tower Grove Abbey, its arched ceiling, wooden pews, and stained glass windows creating a hyperreal, ethereal quality to seeing angels.  And the 8 actors who took on all 32 roles were more than up to it.  In many ways, the play is about ‘80s apocalypticism, although it wasn’t actually produced until the 1990s.  Yet I want to emphasize that it works just as well now as it may have then—maybe even better. 

Tower Grove Abbey

The play relies on the symmetry between two couples—Prior, struggling with his diagnosis of AIDS, and his lover Louis, struggling with Prior’s struggling with AIDS; the Mormon couple Harper, struggling against mental illness, and her husband Joe, struggling against his own repressed homosexuality.  Prior wrestles angels; Harper wrestles inner demons.  The live staging frequently features both couples on stage at the same time, taking turns acting their conflicts adjacently, literally in parallel.  When reading—or even watching as a movie—we’re used to page breaks or camera cuts, naturally shifting our attention.  But we can’t forget the other characters when they’re all still in front of our eyes, like watching doubles tennis.   The HBO series’ introduction is all sky, swoops, and distance, but the enclosed play forces our attention strictly on the characters.

Students reading the play always fret about what they should take as real, fantasy, imagined, or hallucination. I always told them not to worry too much about it and just go with the play’s feeling and language.  And seeing the play live confirms this sense that the supernatural elements—Prior and Harper somehow meet in their dream-slash-Valium induced delirium, respectively; the ghost of Ethyl Rosenberg shows up to haunt the other main character, Roy Cohn, based on the recently deceased (or he’d have no doubt sued) real-life Roy Cohn who, like Prior, has contracted AIDS—aren’t really meant to be puzzled over.  Like so much of what’s strange or inexplicable in real life, they’re not even that mysterious. They just are.  

Seeing the production live emphasized another crucial aspect of the play that’s easy to overlook or forget on the page, one that wasn’t a part of the film adaptation: for much of Part 1, whether he is part of the scene or not, Prior lies in his bed in the middle of the stage; for most of Part II, it is Roy.  No matter what else is happening, the viewer is constantly reminded of the AIDS-stricken bodies that for most of the ‘80s seemed kept out of view, offstage.  Similarly, in Part 1 Prior strips of his clothes for his medical examination; in Part II, Joe and Harper appear nude.  In the movie, it seems standard issue celluloid skin.  Mary Louis Parker’s Harper isn’t so different from Mary Louis Parker’s Nancy Botwin on Weeds, who is semi-clad semi-weekly.  Yet when the actors strip in real time, in place, in person, it is another reminder of the way in which the roles themselves force the actors to bare all emotionally, and now physically, another way in which this play, angels to the contrary, is all about human bodies.        

 If you’re not familiar with the play, it may seem as though its emphasis on homosexuality, on the one hand, or religion, on the other, could be a turn off.   In fact, when I went to IMDB for the blog’s opening image, its sidebar offered two Related Lists: one that featured the movie Doubt, and the other labeled Gay Interest. But media talking heads to the contrary, gay and religious themes aren’t necessarily on opposing hands at all, and the play is very much about love, and death, and the problems of being human, things I imagine that anyone can relate to. 

But despite the play’s length, running over seven hours total, dialogue, which is often rapid-fire, and concomitant complexity, let’s even take its themes at face value. Even then, the last two weeks suggest that the play is not just of the 80s, or the 90s, or the millennium.  We now have the first serious Mormon contender running for President, even as Angels is preoccupied with the ways in which Mormonism is America’s only home-grown religion, and perhaps all saints are now Latter Day.  And less than two weeks ago, President Obama finally made his support for same-sex marriage clear. 

In the play, Louis rails against what he sees as “the worst kind  of liberalism, really, bourgeois tolerance, and what I think AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan, you find out just how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.” In some ways, the scene is meant to stack the deck against Louis—he himself is hypocritical, overly cerebral, and self-indulgent, spouting polemics when in his personal life he has abandoned Prior.   His conversation and sparring partner here is Belize, who replies to Louis’s page-length monologue with a dismissive “Uh huh.”

Yet I can’t help but wonder if Kushner nevertheless stands partially behind the sentiment, as perhaps now, with the millennium firmly behind us, we may as well. While it looks like once again gay marriage will be a culture war issue for the ballot box, it now seems as though endorsing it, rather than opposing  it, may be the winning side on the issue.  We can now see tolerance for what it is—not necessarily Nothing, but rather simply setting the bar too low, far too low, since to tolerate something suggests that we’ll put up with it, but nothing more. 

Angels in America in 2012 suggests that we can move past tolerance to something better:  equality.

Time: 70 minutes. This took me longer than I thought it would.

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Avengers Resemble…

Seven strangers with nothing in common, except each other

The Avengers is not really a superhero movie.

You’d be forgiven for being confused. You must have been focused on the costumes, powers, special effects, and, um, I guess the superheroes.  And OK, a plot summary makes it sound a lot like a superhero movie: a godlike megalomaniac in a ridiculous helmet obtains a magical object with an awesome name (the Tesseract! Because the hexadecachoron must have been busy), teams up with illegal aliens from another dimension, and tries to Take Over the World, or at least trash Manhattan by means of enormous metallic fantail shrimp, which I think I made the mistake of ordering once. Only The Avengers can stop him!  But will they be able to set aside their differences in time?

Do you like my hat?
No, I do not like that hat. Goodbye.

This last question is the one that occupies most of the film’s nearly two and a half hour running time, before the final act devolves into the humdrum Epic Battle for the Fate of the World that has served as the resolution to every sci fi and fantasy movie for decades.  And it’s the one that makes The Avengers less of a superhero movie than a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC.”  You know what, let’s skip the acronym on this one.     

The genre has a great literary pedigree, going at least back to Boccaccio’s Decameron (if the Tesseract weren’t available, then Loki could have stolen The Decameron!) in the 14th century, before getting its English makeover in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few decades later.  The Decameron featured ten assorted people stuck with each other after trying to escape the Black Death; Canterbury Tales involved a long pilgrimage to the shrine in Canterbury.  But Chaucer really invented the notion that circumstances could bring together a set of unlikely travel companions as characters—a knight and squire;  a merchant, miller, reeve, and cook; a prioress, friar, pardoner, and summoner; the uncategorizable Wife of Bath, and many others, including, it seems, a fictionalized version of Chaucer himself.  The brilliance comes from the schisms and frictions created when people from different social types are forced into confines and conversation with one another. 

The genre then takes off in different directions as we move to America in the 20th century.  Characters telling their own stories in their own styles gets lost, but pilgrimages or enclosed spaces making strange companions flourished.  On the one hand, you’ve got John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, which finds the 1880s version of the pilgrimage in its title, throwing together a framed outlaw (John Wayne!), a prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch), an ambivalent sheriff, a drunk doctor, an uppercrust wife of an officer (with a secret!), a banker (with a secret!), a Confederate gambler (with a…  ah, you know), and a few others.  That they’re being menaced with massacre by Geronimo is less of a problem than their own internal conflicts within the coach.  On the other hand, you have The Lord of the Rings, another quest that brings together unlikely travel companions and proves that hobbits and men, and even elves and dwarves, could learn to get along.  Star Wars and the many other adventure stories pitting knights (Jedi or not), hotheads, princesses, mentors, and aliens against one another seem indebted equally to Chaucer, Ford, and Tolkien.

There’s of course Gilligan’s Island, with its assorted cast, although why the Howells are on the boat is one of the island’s many mysteries, considering that they could have bought and sold a fleet of Minnows.

And there’s that other island replete with mysteries, from Lost, where, in our modern version of the pilgrimage or the stagecoach, an airplane crash brings together the straight man, the hothead, the druggie, and the bad girl, along with novel additions: a pregnant woman, a prepubescent boy, a paraplegic (as we would discover), a couple that speaks no English (or so we thought), an older (interracial) couple, semi-incestuous step-siblings, an ex-Republican Guard Iraqi torturer, an obese bilingual schizophrenic (although supernatural explanations would supersede psychological ones), and many more. 

Yet even Lost seemed modeled on another updated version of the Canterbury Tales: reality television, with its cast-to-clash archetypes.  And even then, shows like The Real World—for me, the original reality premise from which all the others borrowed–seems less real than a copy of a movie that was supposed to be based on real life: The Breakfast Club. 

Avengers Assembly!

Here’s the poster’s tagline:

They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls. And touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.

So think of Avengers as the Canterbury Tales, with awesome weapons.  Or Stagecoach, but on that awesome SHIELD flying aircraft carrier.  Or The Breakfast Superheroes:

 They were six strangers, with nothing in common.  A billionaire genius philanthropist.  A recluse with anger management problems.  A gorgeous spy with a secret.  An exchange student who excels at the hammer throw.  An ROTC supersoldier who still knows what it’s like to be picked on. And Samuel L Jackson with an eyepatch.[i]  Before it was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls.

And saved the world.

Time: 65 minutes.

Also, for no reason, Baby Seal Avengers!

[i] Although I deeply regret that Jackson/Fury never gets to say, “Avengers assemble, motherfuckers!”

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Maurice Sendak, I’ll Eat You Up I Love You So

Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures.  And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.

It is being eaten.

And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max.  My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”

Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences.  You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion!  Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.

Maurice Sendak

And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches?  The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar.  A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats.  I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food.  That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.

But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize  the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.

Time: 35 sad minutes.

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(Ad) (Bad) (Cad) (Clad) (Gad*) (Lad) (Plaid) (Sad) Mad Men

Warning: check for elevator before stepping in.

Sometimes, TV is literature. Mad Men certainly is.

More than almost anything on the bestseller list, Mad Men lends itself perfectly to literary analysis—certainly the ol’ reliable high school English quinquepartite of Plot, Character, Symbolism, Theme, and Setting. Mad Men’s premise could have been a simple soap opera—the same boring story of a handsome man who is more than he appears, and his affairs, in every sense of the word. But instead, Mad Men has consistently, in the mantra of every fiction writing workshop ever, excelled in showing more than telling, using ambiguity, implication, narrative structure, and design to draw the viewer in, to force us to read closely. And for me what makes Mad Men great is that, like the best novels and poems, it evokes multiple, simultaneous feelings. The problems, and the pleasures, arise when these feelings seem to contradict each other, creating a frisson, a sense of ambivalence.

Jon Hamm’s acting can seem repetitive, as this Youtube montage nicely and funnily demonstrates:

But I think the clips also show the opposite: the “What?”s are distinct and surprisingly diverse, in different takes conveying interest, surprise, incredulity, annoyance, distress, anger, reluctance, dismissal, inquiry, dejection, or disbelief.

Even more complexly, look at Don’s facial expressions during the opening episode of Season 5, as his second wife Meghan dances Zou Bisou Bisou in front of him and his colleagues, during a birthday party that everyone except Meghan understood that he didn’t want.

In this scene alone, which went viral immediately after the show aired, we see, and ourselves feel, Don’s ambivalence: the complexity that protocol demands a happy and flattered husband—going by Roger Sterling’s and Youtube viewers’ comments, the obvious response—while at the same time, he is trying and almost but not quite succeeding in not looking mortified. Don wants people to see him as the active seducer, and he is visibly uncomfortable being made into the passive spectator—that is, in some ways, feminine object of seduction. Yet at the same time, as returning viewers know, behind closed doors, he likes pain and humiliation, being made the object. (Warning: link is steamy.) So: Don likes but is embarrassed by the dance because Meghan has confused Don’s ironclad distinction between public and private. And I wonder if viewers feel something like that also: the dance is funny but genuine, goofy and embarrassing but sexy, a gift from a woman who seems not to know her new husband at all but may in fact know him better than he knows himself. She  doesn’t care what other people think—and doesn’t want Don to, either. But he still does. Whew.

And to get all this, viewers need to remember and piece together dialogue and images from previous episodes, often previous seasons, in order to understand what we’re seeing now. If anything, this season has, like the best novels, married the form of the story with the content, so that, in one of the more overt examples, a recent episode centering upon Roger Sterling’s LSD trip is narrated out of chronological order, making the viewer feel the slight sense of something askew from the very beginning before realizing that the chronology itself is trippy.

Yet I think Mad Men’s setting has been its initial attraction. And the era—in Season 1, about 1960; by now, in Season 5, 1966, the year the Beatles’ Revolver was released—like everything else in the show, evokes mixed reactions from the viewer. On the one hand, it’s easy for us in our enlightened presentism to respond badly to the raging yet casual sexism, lazy knee-jerk racism, and stifling cultural ignorance. One of the best gags this season was the simple display of rampant smoking at the benefit for the American Cancer Society. On the other hand, it sure looks glorious, and I did not find myself disgusted by the constant drinking as much as nostalgic for it, despite that I never got to experience it (although I’ve found myself drinking more cocktails since I became a fan). Why else launch a whole Banana Republic Mad Men line?

Not pictured: cigarette, drink, mistress, real identity.

Or entice viewers with a Mad Men Yourself feature? The opening page asks you to choose “Suit” or “Skirt,” another example where the line between reality and synecdoche is blurred.

This is me on Mad Men. Vest and coffee are accurate. Face and hair less so.

And this cultural moment, 1960-1965, remains under-recognized. For Gen Xers and after, the 1960s has been synonymous with one year: 1969. Yet on Mad Men, we get to see that the supposedly radical moment, when the stodgy grey flannel suit ‘50s tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, didn’t happen overnight, or over a year. The way most of the characters on Mad Men understand their tumultuous time is the same way that we still do today—through the media, through the same images that the ad men traffic in themselves. For most of the characters, the seemingly transformational impact of riots, mass murders, or wars overseas comes to them through television, newspapers, and radio, background chatter, subtext that seeps its way into the text itself, not the times a changin’ as much as a perceived anomaly. As Roger asks, in typical Mad Men dramatic irony, “When are things going to go back to normal?”

In the end, the show has managed to balance social realism with literary symbolism, which is usually the big turnoff for the average reader. (From many of my students’ course evaluations: “Does EVERYTHING have to mean something?” I wonder what they mean by that?) “Don Draper” is a seemingly innocuous, believable name, yet it is also the perfect symbolic, literary name for a character who has assumed the name and identity—even, self-referentially, this exact name—of another man. “Don,” as a noun, means a man of great importance; as a verb, to put on or dress in. A “draper” is a merchant who sells cloth; “drape” means cover, hand, arrange, or adorn. As viewers come to understand, “Don” dons Don and sells yarns, as he assumes and covers his original name and identity, Dick Whitman. And like his literary namesake Walt, Draper Whitman very well contradicts himself. He contains multitudes. And through Mad Men, we get to hear America singing.

* Gad: to move restlessly or aimlessly from one place to another: to gad about.

Time: OK, eighty minutes. Next time I SWEAR to keep it to an hour.

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