Monday, May 30, 2005

The Razor's Edge

When I walk--particularly in the evenings--I engage in idle calculations. Nothing of any importance, mind you--usually I'm figuring out such things as how long it is until Christmas, or the amortized daily cost of opening the store, or something else that serves no particular purpose other than to give me some numbers to mentally juggle. Tonight, for some reason, I began calculating how long I have been clean-shaven as compared to how long I had a beard. Turns out that I have been clean-shaven just a almost exactly half my life; I had a beard for a total of twenty-five years and eleven months, and I've been beardless for a total of (taa-daa!) twenty-five years and eleven months. Of course, the latter figure includes the first twenty-one years of my life plus a few months, so it wasn't like I particularly had a choice for much of that time.

I first grew a beard beginning in May of 1975, just after I finished student teaching, primarily to make me look a bit older. I knew I'd be teaching juniors and seniors in high school in three scant months, and I figured that I'd best do something to camouflage the fact that I was only about four years older than the students I would be teaching. Once I grew the beard, though, it became a fixture of my appearance; students knew me as the teacher with a beard (at a time when most teachers had no facial hair), and gradually my circle of friends came to include virtually no one who had ever known me beardless.

Twice I tried shaving off my beard when I was in my fat-Elvis phase, and I really hated the way it looked; my face was round and flabby and my jawline was ill-defined. Of course, that's because I was pretty round and flabby. Once I lost almost seventy pounds, though, I decided that it might be nice to see what was hiding underneath the facial hair; so, in the spring of 2001, I shaved the beard off. And that's when I discovered that, as unappealing as my face might be, I liked it better sans beard. It took very little time for me to get used to the change; of course, I spend relatively little time looking at my face. I have no idea how long it took others to get used to the change, but most of my friends seemed to adjust to the new look pretty quickly.

Today, someone asked me if I'd ever considered growing a beard; that made me aware that there are now a number of my acquaintances who have never known me with facial hair. The answer to the question, though, is "no." Maybe it's a "been-there-done-that" sort of thing, or maybe it just reminds me of the fat days, but I don't feel like a beard kind of guy any longer. Now I'm pretty adamant about shaving before I face the world, in fact; since I've decided not to have a beard, I've also decided that I don't want to give into the too-lazy-to-shave stubble look, either. (Of course, other things have changed since the picture to the left was taken; I've cut my hair, so it's actually closer to the hair length in the bearded picture than any of the others... and alas, there's much less of it on top as well...)

Sunday, May 29, 2005


" My life is made of Patterns/That can scarcely be controlled"
--Paul Simon

There is great comfort in patterns... I think that all of us enjoy a sense of stability, and the patterns that begin to define our days become remarkably stable. For my twenty-five years of high school teaching, I arose at precisely 5:24 a.m. during the school year; I left my house by 6:55 a.m. to ensure that I arrived at school early enough to allow me to focus for the day. When I retired from teaching in April of 2000 (I actually didn't retire until December of 2000, but that was just the formal retirement... my last day in the classroom was March 31st, 2000, so that seems like as official a place as any to mark a retirement), I left that pattern behind forever.

Sort of.

As it turned out, it took me more than three years to break the habit of waking at 5:24 during the week, even though I no longer had to. Even now, I find myself frequently rolling over and gazing at the clock within a minute or two of that time--but only during the week. On weekends, I never wake up particularly early... that's a pattern that I never could break.

As time progressed, though, my freedom from patterns led to the creation of more patterns. I walk about three miles twice a day--once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I follow that with the same weight routine. I get up at 6:10 every Tuesday to exercise and eat breakfast before going to the FedEx Freight hub in South Atlanta. I to go Dr. No's for a full day's work every Wednesday, doing order adjustments for my Marvel and DC books, placing reorders, and ringing up customers. I have a wonderful dinner with my closest friends every Wednesday night at the same restaurant we've visited for the better part of two decades. I go to the store every Friday evening to assist with the YuGiOh tournament. I do the bulk of my work on Comic Shop News every Saturday.


Dad retired from the newspaper business several years ago, when we all had hopes that he and Mom would use the time to travel, to golf, to enjoy the life they had earned. Emphysema had other plans for Mom, unfortunately, and the patterns they had envisioned never came to be. A new set of patterns was established for them... patterns that were broken only by the insidious downward spiral of emphysema.

After Mom had to leave us on December 15th, 2002, Dad's life was patternless for a brief time... but before too long, he had new patterns. He gets up at the same early hour every day; he joins his friends for coffee at Hardee's almost every morning; he makes the same rounds to the local grocery stores, WalMart, and Kmart. There's comfort in those patterns.

I used to think that nothing was more liberating than breaking the patterns. I'm not so sure any longer. The patterns give us a focus, a security that serves as an anchor. I remarked recently that my life was remarkably predictable.. but you know what? I don't particularly mind that; there's something about predictability that promises a tomorrow, and a tomorrow after that.

Oddly enough, though, we don't really develop the patterns. The patterns just develop on their own, and we drift in the flow, secure that we can predict its flow and direction.

Empire Fails

I have endured HBO's two-part Empire Falls... but just barely. I had hoped for an insightful character-driven drama; what I got was a maudlin assemblage of cliches and stereotypes that plodded along incessantly. What a waste of perfectly good talent; the directors assembled an impressive array of actors and actresses, including Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, and Paul Newman--but there's a limit to what even the most talented people can do with a script that fails to rise to the level of soap opera. Wait for this one to show up on DVD, then pick something else...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Philosophical Differences

Reading a discussion with Ed Brubaker at Newsarama regarding what strikes me as his brutalization of Captain America's heritage, I've become acutely aware of a crucial difference between Marvel and DC insofar as its characters are concerned. For the most part--and I'm aware that there are exceptions here--DC sees itself as the caretakers of a legacy, protecting their most established characters and maintaining a long-running philosophy, while Marvel by and large is willing to toss out anything for the sake of a story, even if it means abandoning a character who has been built up for decades. Marvel will kill off characters like Nomad and Hawkeye in largely ineffectual ways, just as a device to advance a plot; there's no long-term ramification to the death in many cases, just a least-effort-possible means to advance a plot and establish a character's ethos. When DC kills off a character, it becomes much more of an event that reshapes the fictional universe as a whole, and the hero generally dies in a way that honors what the character has become. Sue Dibny dies a partner in her husband's crimefighting and in his life; Blue Beetle dies a hero willing to give everything he had to protect the team that was so important to him; Flash dies to save a universe.

Being an advocate of the metafictional approach--that is, these characters take on a life as a cultural icon that transcends the significance of any single story, and thus stories that sacrifice the character's iconic elements in order to advance a single plot demean the fiction as a whole--I much prefer the DC approach. Marvel has generally treated Captain America shabbily for years; the only recent arc that captured his heroic status, a "what if?" sort of story by Dave Gibbons and Lee Weeks, went out of print weeks after it was collected in trade paperback and now isn't even available for backorder, as if to say "we would sooner forget that this story ever happened." Nick Fury has been reduced from a self-sacrificing hero acting for the good of his nation to a bigoted, bitter, selfishly amoral figure deserving of contempt, not admiration. The Punisher, at best a hero of questionable stature, is no longer a hero at all; instead, he's a Grand Guignol scene in spandex, brutality incarnate, Batman without any ethical limitations. And with little editorial guidance, protagonists are inconsistent; a character comes across as nobly heroic in one book, indulgently unlikeable in others.

There's a tendency in modern culture to tear down heroes; I hate to see it happen in comics, and I applaud those who see the heritage as worthy of protection. I learned a lot of my formative ethics from the standards of the characters whose exploits I read; I'd like to think that today's comic book readers might want to do the same, but when I see the sort of ethics attributed to many of the heroes today, it's probably best if they never serve as a sort of ethical role model...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Picture Not-So-Perfect

Like probably 90% of the world's living population (and probably an equal percentage of the dead population, for that matter), I really don't like having my picture taken. In fact, I think that's probably what separates most of us from the upper social strata of celebrities; most of them have the innate ability to look just right when there's a camera pointed at them, whereas most of the rest of us feel about as comfortable as we would if everyone in the neighborhood stood in the hallway and watched through an open door while we used the bathroom.

As you might have guessed, the motivating factor for this post is that I had to have my picture taken today. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is doing an article on the store, and they sent a photographer out as "point man" to get some photos before the reporter comes out tomorrow morning. I'll give him credit--he wasn't the usual sort of "stand there and look stiff" news photographer. Instead, he was quite imaginative; I leaned on shelves, I stood casually in about six different ways (most of which weren't really casual or comfortable... but darn it, they looked casual!), and I even stretched out supine on the floor while he arranged comic books all around me and then took a half-dozen shots.

He offered to let me see the photos, but I decided it was probably best if I didn't. This way, once they appear in next week's newspaper, I only have to be embarrassed from that point on for the remainder of my life. If I saw them today, it would add another week to my embarrassment, and it still wouldn't change anything... I'd still look just as goofy. That's no slight to him; of all the news photogs I've worked with, he seemed the most conscientious and skilled at his craft. Problem is, I know the subject he had to work with...

When it actually shows up, I'll post the link here so that you can all enjoy my humiliation.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I and the Tiger

After a couple days of indecisiveness, I went ahead and loaded Mac OSX 10.4, aka Tiger, onto my Powerbook today. I got the software on Friday, the day of release, but I was in the middle of putting together Comic Shop News #935, and I didn't want to risk a system failure if things went awry. (This was all too normal in the early days of OSX; both the 10.1 and the 10.2 upgrades led to total disaster on the two different computers I was using at the time I upgraded, and that meant that I had to wipe the hard drives and start over in both cases.)

Not only did nothing go awry, but the upgrade worked like a charm. About thirty-five minutes after I began, I had Tiger up and running, and it took me no time at all to adjust to the elegant improvements that make this the most useful Mac operating system thus far. I'm very impressed with the addition of Dashboard and its many widgets; not only am I using a few of the basic widgets that were included, but I've also downloaded a few extra widgets that I think will be most useful. The image that accompanies this entry was posted using the Transmit widget, which allows me to drag and drop an image and have it automatically filed in the appropriate folder.

Spotlight, the sophisticated search application, is incredible... but of course, we do Comic Shop News in Quark 6, which doesn't work with Spotlight (heck, Quark doesn't play well with any other programs, with only two or three exceptions--I've never known a piece of software designed to be as user-unfriendly and as poorly supported as Quark, and I wish that Quebecor would switch over to InDesign so that we could abandon Quark entirely).

I also decided to give iWork, the word processing and presentation software, a test run; Apple provides a disc with a thirty-day trial version of both Pages and Keynotes, and I'm playing with Pages already. I'll keep you updated regarding its functionality, but so far it works great.

The one thing that's missing? Well, it was rumored that OSX 10.4 would include in its disc utilities a function that would allow you to recombine existing partitions without having to reformat the partition. It ain't there, folks... wish it was, since I no longer have to have partitions the way I did in the early days of OSX. Once Apple modified the software to allow it to boot from an external drive, I didn't have to keep a backup partition with duplicate software on it Just In Case; now I'd like to recombine those partitions, but I don't want to have to wipe them out and spend hours reinstalling software.

Monday, May 02, 2005

After Midnight...

Just got in from a midnight walk; it was a glorious night, the sort of midnight that we all too rarely get in May... forty-nine degrees, crisp and clear all the way to the stars. I began taking midnight walks almost a year ago, just to enjoy the nights. Hinduism recognizes night not as the absence of day, but as the presence of dark, with its own distinctive qualities... after a year of enjoying midnights, I can see why.

My midnight walks are also a time I can talk to Mom for a few minutes. She left us on December 15, 2000, after several years of the most unrelenting struggle against the rigors of emphysema; at night, though, I feel closer to her, and I enjoy taking a moment to tell her about the events of the day, to discuss memories from childhood, the share joys and sorrows. I don't imagine I'll ever quit talking to her... and I don't imagine I'd ever want to.

Midnight walks are also a great way to reacquaint yourself with the seasons while avoiding the harsh summer heat. Oh, winters are cold enough at midnight, but the winds are usually more still at that time, making the cold less piercing; summers are warm and close and sultry, but the heat seems to have settled in a bit by that time of night, and even the summer humidity seems more subdued. And as I walk past all the darkened houses, I wonder about those behind the doors and windows as they rest from the business of one day and prepare themselves for the unknown day that awaits in a few hours.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

A Shakespearean Western

In trying to describe Deadwood to Brett, I found myself using the phrase, "The Western that Shakespeare would have written, although with a lot more 'f*ck's and 'c*cks*ck*rs.'" Watching tonight's episode (which is on as I type this) only reinforces that description. David Milch and his writing staff have created an artificial, almost poetic dialogue style that seems quite unlike anything ever heard in a Western before now--and, I'm quite sure, quite unlike anything ever heard in the Old West, either. (One thing I can say for sure is that the Old West never heard the word 'f*ck' used so so freely and in so many grammatical forms. While the word itself, used to describe the sexual act, existed long before the era of Deadwood, its use as an adjective, an adverb, and pretty much any other grammatical form that Milch & Co. can shoehorn it into is a uniquely 20th Century linguistic device.)

The story of Deadwood, heavily drawn from history (gee, just like Shakespeare's plays!), is constructed around the transition of a lawless region to a territory and then a state. Its characters are richly rendered from history, given personalities (some none too likeable), but its plot seems to stick close to the plotted course of the past. But it's not the story that makes this series so memorable--it's the distinctive voice that Milch has given it. No show has dialogue so convoluted, so complicated, so sometimes enigmatic. It evokes the era without ever accurately recreating the era, if that makes any sense. (If you'd like to learn more about how it does and doesn't follow real history, this is a very good site for such information--and it's fascinating reading.)

Ian McShane's performance as Al Swearengen is as irresistibly watchable as a high-speed nine-car pile-up; you don't necessarily like what you're seeing, but you just can't look away while it unfolds before your eyes. For my money, though, the best actors in the series are Timothy Olyphant, who plays Seth Bullock in an intensely understated manner; and Robin Weigert, whose take on Calamity Jane is rambunctious, unrestrained, often undignified, and yet noble in its own warped way. Neither gets to chew the scenery the way that McShane does, but they're quite successful in stopping him from stealing the show.

Can't say you'll like Deadwood if you like traditional Westerns, because it most definitely isn't one. As for what it is... well, I'll get back to you on that...

We're for the Dark

For many years--when I was about seventy pounds heavier than I am now--I was addicted to M&M's. When I determined to lower my body weight to less than average for my height, though, I gave up those tasty little morsels of candy-coated milk chocolate. Didn't even particularly miss 'em after a little while.

But now they've lured me back...

In conjunction with the upcoming third Star Wars dud... err, film... (the appropriately entitled Star Wars: ROTS) M&M's have "gone to the dark side" with the release of Dark Chocolate M&M's in both plain and peanut. The peanut I can take or leave, since I find that the taste of the peanut pretty much overwhelms the thin layer of dark chocolate that coats it. But oh, those delicious little nuggets of plain dark chocolate!...

This isn't the first time I recall M&M making dark chocolate candies. Back in the 1990's, they made mini-M&M's for use in baking, but I found that the dark chocolate mini-M&M's were pretty darn good for snacking, too; however, I haven't seen them in years (don't know if they still make them or not, but our area Kroger--home of the diminishing grocery selection--doesn't carry them if they do). The standard-sized dark chocolate M&M's are even better, though, because the dark-chocolate-to-candy-coating ratio is skewed more in favor of the dark chocolate.

Since I know that I'm not going to simply give these up--at least not for a little while, until my "instant gratification" tastebuds have been adequately satisfied--I'm cutting back on other guilty pleasures so that I don't gain weight. I figure it's better than whittling off body parts...

Don't know how long they're going to make these, so I advise dark chocolate fans to grab a bag of 'em while you have the chance. (And for those of you who, like Brett, keep wondering when they're going to do white chocolate M&M's--give it up. That's not chocolate, it's just vanilla flavored fat!...)

Farewell Meal

This evening, Susan and I had dinner at American Cafe, which is part of a chain owned by the same company that owns Ruby Tuesday's. We've eaten at American Cafe several times, because they were located in an easily accessible area that wasn't anywhere near the local mall. (I have a real aversion to any weekend excursion that takes me near Town Center Mall, since we're located in a county with an abominably designed traffic light system that bogs down mall-area traffic to the point of gridlock through much of the weekend.)

Apparently, though, there weren't enough people who considered the Johnson's Ferry Road location a viable alternative: as we approached the door, I saw a sign taped to the glass that said that tomorrow evening would be their last day of business. It turns out that American Cafe is closing two of their four metro Atlanta locations as of tomorrow night--simply not enough business to keep them open in a changing market. I guess we're a part of the problem, since we only ate there two or three times a year and that's not enough frequency to help keep a restaurant in business.

The food was great (as always) and the service was impeccable. Sometimes, when the staff knows that a restaurant is going out of business, they quit caring--not the case here, though. Hope the server who waited on us finds another job soon; I suspect she would be a superlative addition to any restaurant's staff, considering how well she performed her duties under what had to be a disappointing day for her...