Sunday, December 31, 2006

Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime

I never did post anything about how Christmas went, did I?

Christmas Eve and Christmas went very well indeed, thank you very much! I seem to have found a few particularly good gifts for family members, and that's always a good thing. For Kim, I prepaid for the installation and monthly service cost for a year's worth of DVR service from Comcast; she had commented on several occasions that she wished her budget allowed for the DVR upgrade, but she wanted to wait to see what 2007 would bring before adding that extra cost. Now she doesn't have to worry about it!

For Dad, there were two gifts that were quite successful: a 24" television with a built-in DVD player and VCR for his bedroom and a 7" digital picture frame loaded with a few hundred family photos to sit beside his chair in the den. I had trepidations about the former gift, but Dad had repeatedly remarked during the past year how much he wished he had a television, with a built-in DVD player and a VCR; his old bedroom TV had a built-in VCR, but with more and more DVDs in his personal library, he wanted the ability to play those as well. Furthermore, his old bedroom television was only a 13"; this is almost four times the total size. So why did I have trepidations? Because as Dad has gotten older, he has become less amenable to learning new remote controls, settings, and controls, and I was afraid that a new television would add new frustrations. Just to be safe, I had downloaded the manual for his television, which meant that I had a diagram of the television controls and of the remote, making it easy for me to trouble-shoot any problems that arose. It turns out that I haven't had to do any troubleshooting at all; he seems to have gotten the hang of it right away.

I'm surprised by how much Dad has enjoyed the digital picture frame. He told me that he spent over an hour watching it the first day I gave it to him, and he's spent a half an hour to an hour a day watching it ever since then (since it has about 300 photos on it currently and it cycles through one every fifteen seconds, he can spend about an hour and fifteen minutes watching it without seeing any duplicates). He said that part of the fun of it is seeing what comes up next, since the order of the photos is totally random; he enjoys remembering when the photos were taken, what was going on at that time, etc.

Susan seemed quite pleased with the assortment of flavored green teas that I got for her; I had tracked down flavors that she didn't even know existed! I also got her a 2007 Linda Nelson Stock Calendar; this is one of her favorite folk artist, and Susan thought she had quit doing calendars as of this coming year (what she didn't know was the artist had simply changed publishers). Otherwise, there were few surprises for her; Susan, like me, tends to acquire a lot her wants as she sees them, knowing that (due to the collectible nature of a lot of these items) they may not be there, so many of the gifts I got her were sort of predictable--a favorite candy, a 365 Cats calendar, and that sort of thing.

No real surprises for Cole, Christy, or Jessica; they come from a generation that wants gift cards rather than gifts, so I gave in and got each of them gift cards from the stores of their choice as their major gifts, with a few little personal gifts to accompany them. I don't enjoy giving gift cards rather than gifts--but I thought about it and decided that gift-giving should focus on what the recipient wants, not what the giver wants, so I did the gift-card thing even though it seems somehow impersonal to me...

Monday, December 25, 2006

Best. Toy. Ever.

No doubt about it--there was no toy that surpassed the wonderful Ideal Man from UNCLE Gun Set. I wanted this so very badly that I probably drove my parents crazy asking for it; once I saw this in its package, complete with shoulder holster, I had to have it.

The pistol is a standard cap pistol, but it was the accessory set that made is so memorable: a rifle stock, a sight, a silencer, a rifle barrel, and a tripod, along with the aforementioned shoulder holster. Heck, the UNCLE gun surpassed any James Bond accessory on the toy racks!

Once I got one of these, I remember actually wearing the shoulder holster to school, my cap gun tucked in there securely and my jacket over that (not a sports coat, of course--just a kid's jacket). Today, that's the sort of thing that would get you expelled... but if my teachers ever noticed it back then, they said nothing at all about it. Just another one of those things that kids did...

Gradually, I lost one piece after another. The tripod went first, then the silencer, then the sight; I had the rifle barrel and the pistol and the stock for a pretty good while, and can't remember exactly when they went MIA. Sure do wish I had them again! There are people who make pretty upscale replicas of the UNCLE gun now, but I guess my emotional attachment is to this cheap plastic toy, not to the upscale stuff...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Another Night Before Christmas...

Anyone who thinks that time flows at a steady, consistent pace couldn't have possibly been an eleven year old on Christmas Eve.

December 24th was a celebratory day at our house; Mom filled our table with a Christmas feast on that day, preparing so much turkey and dressing and potato salad and green beans and sweet potatoes and Waldorf salad and cranberry sauce that a family of four could gorge themselves and still have plenty left over for multiple meals of leftovers. For dessert, there was pineapple upside down cake, smooth and moist and redolent of pineapple and brown sugar; fudge, dark with cocoa and almost crystalline with sugar, that crumbled indulgently at the first bite; caramel frosted cake, a lustrous brown-frosted concoction whose color always reminded me of that distinctive shade of brown found on Fantastic Four #11 and a few other Marvel Comics of the era, a shade that no other comics publisher—and no other Mom—could duplicate; and there was always chocolate cake. Sometimes there would also be pecan pie, but that wasn't an every-year thing. We would usually eat earlier than most of my friends; dinner time was typically 4:30, sometimes pushing as late as 5:00, but hardly ever later than that.

After we could eat no more, we'd all relocate to the living room, lounging around the large console television set-home entertainment system that combined a 25" black and white television with a turntable, AM/FM radio,a and built-in speakers. Dad would claim his large, overstuffed chair; Mom would take the sofa, often stretching out to relax after her culinary labors. Kim and I always took the floor, dragging our pillows into the living room and stretching out as close to the television set as we could get before Mom or Dad made us move back.

About 7:30, Mom put Kim to bed; since Kim was only 3 1/2 years old, that was plenty late enough to leave her ready to sleep. She knew Christmas was an event--after all, the presence of a decorated tree in the living room served as a daily reminder that things were different at this time of year--but she wasn't so attuned to the event that she had trouble sleeping.

Me, I was 11--heck, I was almost a teenager! As far as I was concerned, I could stay up as late as my parents. Of course, they saw things differently; they let me stay awake later than my usual bedtime, but by 9:30 they were hinting that it was time to end the evening. I'd get ready for bed, and by 10:00 pm, I semi-willingly retired to my bedroom, closed the door, and turned out the lights.

And from that time until 5:30 the next morning--the time that I considered the earliest acceptable time to arise, since that was about the time that Dad got up to get ready for work during the week--I bore witness to the fact that time is not a constant. No, the progress of the minutes slowed perceptibly, with each minute running slightly longer than the one before, until it seemed like it the night had gone on forever. I'd finally sneak a look at the clock, and learn that it was only an hour later than the time I'd gone to bed.

In the other end of the house, I could hear my parents doing things; I know now that they were getting out the presents that Santa would bring, and I actually knew even then that Santa came in the form of Mom and Dad, but there was still a part of me that thought that they surely must have had some extra help from that magical fellow in order to get so many presents into our house in so little time. Mom and Dad tried to be quiet, but the house was small, and the distance from the living room to my bedroom was less than 20 feet, with only thin walls and hollow doors in between. I hear the creaks of the floorboards, the rustle of moving objects, the muffled conversations that the televison couldn't quite mask. Then I'd hear the sounds that told me that their activities were ending--the clink of coffee cups as Mom got the dishes ready for breakfast the next morning, the sound of running water as she measured out the right balance of coffee grounds and water so that all she had to do the next morning was plug in the percolator. That was a sound I heard every evening, and it was the sure sign that bedtime had arrived for my parents as well.

The last lights would go out, and I saw not even the slightest glint of light under my doorway. Now everyone was asleep, and that meant that I had to be particularly quiet. My parents' bedroom was directly across the narrow hallway from mine, and the restless creakings of my bed were clearly discernible in their room--I knew that from past experiences, when my parents seemed almost supernaturally attuned to my slightest movements if I got out of bed and tried to tiptoe to the other end of the house in the middle of the night.

So I lay there, awake, looking into the darkness to pick out what details I could in my shadowed room; the only light came through the curtained windows, the indirect glow of a streetlight between our house and the Greshams. And I speculated; what gifts might be under the tree? I wanted a copy of The Beatles on VeeJay Records; Phil Patterson had that album, and we had listened to it incessantly at his house, but I knew I would appreciate it even more if I had my very own copy. And I wanted a Creature of the Black Lagoon model kit; I had many other Aurora monster models, but that intensely-green reptilian horror had eluded me. And of course, there were airplane models on my list; in particular, I wanted a Messerschmidt ME-109, a sleek and deadly WWII fighter that would occupy a place of prominence in the aerial display of other WWII models that hung from my ceiling, suspended by string and thumbtacks.

Hours later... it had to be hours... I looked again. And I saw that it was only 12:45 am.

Looking for something to help while away the time, I thought of the AM radio that sat on the desk at the head of the bunkbeds on which I was sleeping. I took the bottom bunk ever since I had found a spider on the top bunk; I have always had a phobic reaction to spiders, so I viewed the top mattress as a protective barrier between me and spidery doom. The desk was built into the end of the bunk bed, and I could reach between the support beams to turn the radio around so that it faced the bed rather than facing the desk chair. I turned the volume way down, then turned the radio on. It lit up as the internal tubes warmed up; a few seconds later, I began to turn the radio up slightly.

And I heard static. Rome's stations cut their power to low levels after sunset; by 12:45, some of the stations were off the air entirely. So I began to tune up the dial, looking for someone else who, like me, was unable to sleep.

It was then that I found a distant signal--it seemed to me like it must have come half a world away--and heard a voice introducing a song. A voice speaking Spanish. I didn't know what he was saying, but it was a voice. I pulled the radio close to me, since the volume was turned down so low that it couldn't have been heard on the other side of my nine foot by eleven foot room, much less across the hallway.

Did he know that it was Christmas now? Was it Christmas now where he was? Why wasn't he playing Christmas songs? These, and many other questions, came to mind, but there was no one to answer. He spoke for a while, then he played songs--some in Spanish, some in English with a country twang. And for that time, I had found a kindred spirit who was just as unable to sleep as I was. He played and talked, I listened...

I must have fallen asleep, because I became aware that there was a sound of water running, and that meant that my parents were awake (or that someone had gotten up to go to the bathroom). I looked at the clock and it was 5:23... seven minutes earlier than my self-appointed deadline for arising from bed and starting the Christmas gift-opening festivities, but 5:23 was close enough...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Have Yourself a Balmy Little Christmas

I don't know how those of you in California do it; I just can't fully embrace the Christmas season when the temperature is hitting 70 in the afternoons. Even worse, it was 61° last night when I went for a midnight walk (okay, it was really 12:30a.m., but close enough). I recall a couple of other Christmases that were hampered by excessively warm weather, but I was young enough then that a tropical heat wave couldn't have lessened my holiday enthusiasm.

I still need to wrap a hefty stack of presents for Kim, Cole, Jessica, Dad, and Christy--but I suspect I won't actually get around to that until this evening, since I've always thought of wrapping as a night-time activity. The warm weather, combined with an incredibly busy week at Dr. No's, has left me all too little time for wrapping during the week.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Vignette

Every year affords us interesting new memory scraps with which we can assemble a wondrous mental Christmas scrapbook. This year, one event that stands out involved Tommy Sanes.

Who's Tommy? He works the loading dock at FedEx Freight, where we pick up our comic book shipments every week. He's a gregarious, good-natured bear of a man, burly and always smiling, no matter how busy things are. He's a master of the forklift, moving it around with deceptive ease. And Tommy always takes care of us; often he is waiting for us at the loading dock, our skid ready to go, because he knows what time we usually arrive.

This year, as a way of saying thanks, I got Tommy a Christmas card and a gift card for Olive Garden, because I had heard him mention that he really liked eating there. I stuck the gift card in the Christmas card, put it all in an envelope, and had it ready so that I could hand it to him.

As it turned out, this was one of those mornings when Tommy was bringing our books to the loading dock just as we were pulling up. As he brought the forklift down the ramp to put the skid down right next to the van, I handed him the envelope. He grinned and looked a little bit surprised. "I've never gotten a Christmas card from a customer in all the years I've worked here--thanks!" he said. We wished each other a merry Christmas, and he steered his forklift back up the ramp and into the football-field-sized warehouse.

About three minutes later, as we were finishing loading the boxes into the van, the forklift dashed back down the ramp, steered by a grinning Tommy. He stopped a few feet away, got off the forklift, and said, "Aww, man!..." Then he headed over, started to shake my hand, and then changed his mind and gave me an enthusiastic bear hug. "I couldn't believe it!" he said. "No one's ever done anything like that for me in all these years!" I assured him that it was just a small token of our gratitude for all he has done to make our job easier. "I just hope you have a great Christmas," I told him.

"I will now!" he said--and I believe he really meant it. For some reason, this simple gift seemed to have had an impact far greater than its value, and I was very happy for that.

Tommy was still grinning as he drove back in to the warehouse a second time... and I have a sneaking suspicion that grin stayed with him for a while. I hope so.

Merry Christmas, Tommy!

Get Your Own Title

You may simply refer to me as

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Milord Sir Lord Cliff the Pertinacious of Longer Interval
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

(And thanks to Charles for pointing this one out!)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Last night was the Twentieth Annual Get Together at Dr. No's And Exchange Gifts Extravaganza, an event that began with a much smaller group back in 1987 and has grown ever since (one might argue that it began even earlier than that, since Charles and Ward and I swapped gifts for a year or two before that, but it wasn't as semi-organized as it has been since '87, when we began doing the gift thing on the Wednesday before Christmas, followed by our big weekly dinner event, which is almost always at El Rodeo). I think this was our biggest year ever; in attendance were Charles, Chris, Brett, Allyson, Ralph, Buck, Chrissy, Jared, Jenny, Whitney, Bobby, and me. (Trish and Amy didn't make it to the store, but they joined us at the restaurant afterwards.)

Got lots of great gifts, including Beatles and Philosophy (don't know how I missed this one, but Jared's unerring gift sense led him to secure a copy for me), Everyday Life in Mesopotamia (thanks, Charles!), another exceptional cheesecake and an exceptionally bizarre Nativity-scene-reenacted-by-cats figurine display (it must be seen to be believed!) from Brett and Allyson, dark chocolate and a hot chocolate kit from Whitney, delicious homemade cookies from Chris, a wonderfully weird original Psycho Bunny ornament from Ralph (he debuted his latest creation at DragonCon--picture Berke Breathed's Bill the Cat transformed into a bunny by Ralph Steadman), a subscription to a "how-it's-done" magazine called Makers from Buck and Chrissy... all sorts of goodies!

I always wish I could find the perfect gift for everyone, but it doesn't always work out that way. This year, though, I did hit a couple that were right on target. For Charles, an avid fan of Lin Carter, I managed to track down the cover painting to Mind Wizards of Callisto, a Lin Carter book that's part of a series of which Charles is quite fond. Serendipity was with me; I managed to luck into the original, only modestly scuffed, back in September and kept it hidden away until then. I had owned one of the Callisto cover painting originals and had given it to Charles a few years ago, knowing he would appreciate it more than me. I thought I had tracked down another cover back in July, but it turned out that the owner had cut it in half because he didn't like the solid color area at the top where the logo would be overlaid. Then, by methods so esoteric that I can't even begin to explain them without rambling on for far too long, I ran across this one and knew I had found the gift for Charles. He seemed to be really pleased with it, which was great--that's what we always hope for every gift!

The other was my gift for Bobby, a Jane Monheit Christmas Dual-Disc. Bobby's a big Jane Monheit fan, and I had remembered that this disc came out and then went out of print very quickly; I ran across a second copy (already had one for myself) and gambled that Bobby didn't have it. The gamble paid off; not only did he not have it, but he didn't even know it existed until he opened the gift!

Alas, other gifts were less perfect; I hope that they were appreciated as a sign of friendship and affection, though!

(Incidentally, this was the first year that Bobby and Jenny joined us for the event; hope it's not their last!)

Another Pioneer Passes

Jack Burnley died at the age of 95. Burnley was best known as the co-creator of Starman, but he also did some work on numerous other DC books, including a few Batman covers. In addition, he did the Golden Age Superman comic strip for a while. I'll confess that Burnley is one of the Golden Age creators whose work I appreciate on an intellectual and historical level, but not on the more visceral level at which I appreciate many of the others Golden Age creators. I was never an avid fan of his work, and I never had a chance to see him at any convention; nevertheless, I recognize that he was a contributor to the creation and success of a medium that I love, and thus his passing saddens me.

There are so very few of these pioneering talents left, so the loss of each one has an increasingly greater impact on the field as a whole. Stan Lee, Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, and Joe Kubert are the last surviving major talents; let's hope that many years pass before I have to make note of their passing as well.

In the Bleak Midwinter...

I worry about my Dad all the time, but I worry most of all at Christmas.

Dad has always embraced Christmas with great enthusiasm; he virtually epitomized Christmas spirit, and that enthusiasm was so infectious that everyone who knew him was inspired. Since Mom died in December of 2002, though, his Christmas joy has been intermingled with a solemnity and sadness because of the memories of her final days.

Dad wants to like Christmas. He tries to rekindle the old fires of excitement for the holiday. He speaks of it often. He decorates early. He listens to the Christmas songs that he used to enjoy.

But as December reaches its midpoint, he misses Mom more than ever. He seems more frustrated with the season, and I'm not sure he really knows why. And I think he gets frustrated with himself that he can't find happiness at this time.

My sister mentioned that, for the first time, Dad is talking about "if I'm here for next Christmas" when he discusses his plans. It's a change that we've both noticed, and one that disturbs me.

One friend mentioned that, when her mother died, her father worked methodically to complete things that he had promised her mother that he would see to. Once they were done, once his mental list was checked off, he felt that his mission was complete. He died a few months later... not of anything any particular other than subconscious decision that it was time to move on.

I fervently hope I'm not seeing that scene play out right now with my own father...

Christmas Time Is Here

Okay, we're four days away. Have I finished shopping? Of course not.

I don't think I've ever finished shopping really. Every Christmas, I reach that point where I simply can't find any more gifts to get, so I have to settle with what I've gotten. Every January, I think of things that I wish I had gotten for gifts, but it's too late.

When I was a kid, Christmas was a time when you had to settle with what you got. As an adult, you have to settle with what you give...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jeepers Creepers

In a recent conversation about his upcoming Captain America miniseries for Marvel, David Morrell (you know, the First Blood guy... the one who gave us Rambo) spoke briefly about his new novel Creepers. I had paid no attention to it, dismissing it as a horror novel, but it turns out that the sort of Creepers he's talking about are absolutely fascinating to me—and in fact, I've been one briefly, although I didn't know it at the time.

Creepers (also known as "infiltrators" or "urban explorers") are people who gain access to old buildings that have been closed to the public for years. In many cases, these old buildings still have the original furnishings and decor, although the state of disrepair can be pretty severe. The book deals with some creepers who enter a long-sealed hotel and discover that it still has some secrets inside its walls...

Years ago, when I was in Rome, GA, I was a creeper. Rome is a fascinating town; the current street level on Broad Street is actually one story higher than the original street level. Rome was basically built up one story to get much of the downtown area above flood level. As it turns out, though, many of the current buildings on Broad Street predate the elevation of the street level, which means that they have a basement that as once the ground floor of the building.

I had a chance to gain access to a basement that was once, from what I was told, an opera house. The furnishings were somewhat sparse now, having been pilfered and recycled over the years, but it was obvious that there were some once-elegant theatrical style seats, a lot of woodwork in what must have been the lobby, some ornate ceiling work... all deteriorated, of course. Seeing all this in its then-current condition led me to speculate about how it must have looked in its prime; I found it to be wonderfully evocative, almost a mystical experience.

One other time, when I was a senior in high school, some friends and I attended a school function at the largely-closed off Forrest Hotel on Broad Street. Here, it was the upstairs that was sealed off, not the downstairs. We weren't even aware that we were going into an area where we shouldn't be as we accessed the closed hallways and saw hotel rooms with doors standing open... doors to empty rooms in some cases, but in other cases the rooms beyond those doors had some outdated furnishings that harkened back to the 1940s or 1950s, when the hotel was still a thriving enterprise. Even then, I was fascinated by the idea that this had once been a center of life and activity, and that people lived and worked here and probably assumed it would always be such, taking for granted the surroundings that would eventually be abandoned.

When I see old, decrepit houses, I have to wonder what they were like when they were new, when someone proudly planned a life around their home, when the building was as full of promise as the lives of those who dwelled within its walls. The allure of old buildings complete with their furnishings is almost irresistible to me.

I have been a creeper unknowing--but given the opportunity, I would love to be a creeper once again, touching the resonance of lives that have left those surroundings behind. It's a wonderful, wistful, and sometimes sad experience, but one that I find positively compelling. It makes me wish that I lived in a city with many such sites waiting to be explored...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

It Was Almost 20 Years Ago Today...

Today, a friend asked me how long I had been doing Comic Shop News. That's really a pretty easy calculation; take the number of issues, divide by 52, and there you go!

Well, I'm putting together material for CSN #1019 right now; quick math revealed that we were past the 19 1/2 year mark and closing in on 20 years in late spring of 2007. That's a long time to do any one thing--and a long time to enjoy doing it.

I began doing fanzine work in 1965, at the age of 11 (shortly before my 12th birthday). More specifically, I began submitting work to fanzines at that time; none of it was published right away, so I did what any good fan does: I figured out how to do my own fanzines. Then, in 1968, a correspondent/friend named Stven Carlberg (he was still spelling it Steven back then) launched an amateur press alliance called Myriad for fans who wanted to talk about topics that didn't necessarily fit into the pages of CAPA-Alpha, the premiere comics apa of the time. Suddenly I was a part of the world of fandom, doing fanzines of all sorts on a regular basis; I did reviews, commentary, fan-fiction, artwork, poetry, comics... heck, I tried my hand at everything! I became accustomed to working on deadlines; I began to work on improving my wordsmith skills; and I had fun all the while.

Fanzines led to some pro work in the early 70s, doing some reviews and a couple of article for Jim Steranko's ComixScene (the name of which was later changed to Mediascene as Steranko expanded the focus of the publication), and a short-lived paperback anthology series called Quark. That led to some other reviews for fanzines, and eventually a short-lived SF and comics review magazine called Future Retrospective, put together by Susan and me for about four years. FR got some good press, Susan and I won a Rebel Award for our work in Southern SF fandom, and then I turned my attention to a club newsletter for the fledgling Atlanta Science Fiction Club. That newsletter, Atarantes, brought me in contact with a talented but quirky artist named Jerry Collins, and he in turn introduced me to an enthusiastic fan named Ward Batty.

Ward and I ended up working together on Atarantes for a while, and we enjoyed the partnership enough that we became partners in Dr. No's as well. We transformed the used bookstore/used record store into a full-line comic shop, and that led to our doing a newsletter for our own customers. A couple of other shops asked if we would be willing to sell our blank newsletter to them so that they could put their store name on it. From there, we came up with the idea of a comic shop newsletter that shops all over the country could offer to their customers for about a dime a copy... and thus Comic Shop News was born in 1987.

Did we make money from the start? Heck, no! In fact, we lost money for a while... and then, we hit the break-even point and hung there for a good while (it seemed quite long, but I don't believe it was much more than two years...). Quite literally, CSN was a labor of love. I had plenty of training for it; I had done fanzines for more than two decades by that time, and none of those fanzines had been moneymakers (that's the nature of fanzines, in fact; they're means of expression and communication, not commerce). Even so, I'll admit that I was more than a little pleased when CSN began generating paychecks for me and for Ward. (I suspect Ward was even more pleased; while I was still teaching at the time, Ward's sole sources of income were the store and CSN).

Every week since then, we've put together an issue of Comic Shop News--first, they were four-page black and white issues, then four pages with a color cover and centerspread, then eight pages with color cover and centerspread, finally moving to eight full-color pages. For years, CSN was printed at Star Printing in Acworth, Georgia; issues were delivered to distributors via truck line and then shipped to comic shops all over America and beyond. From there, we moved to Anderson Printing in Sylacauga, Alabama (now American Printing, I believe, although I may have the name wrong), because Marvel was printing there and thus they were already having regular pickups by distributors, so we could get into the system quickly and painlessly. (We didn't leave Star due to dissatisfaction, but due to the fact that they simply didn't have a press that could do full color; a color cover and centerspread was the best they could give us at the time.)

A lot of people don't believe that Ward and I have done pretty much every issue, but it's true. Ward has taken a couple of issues off, having Brett Brooks step in to handle layout and production; I took part of one issue off when I had a heart attack and open-heart surgery, imposing on Brett and Mike Doran to take what I'd begun and finish it out for Ward (the files were on my computer, and Susan had to help them to get the raw material I had in the works and finish it up). But that was only one issue, and then I was back at it... and even then, a significant portion of the issue was my work, since I tend to work ahead on several pieces.

Have we really done 1019 issues? No. We've actually done a little over 1100 issues, since we've done four seasonal specials each year for 18 years, plus a Christmas Special, plus a collector's guide for several years. It's well over 10 million words of work to date, and I'm still plugging away at it.

I don't have illusions that Comic Shop News will continue forever... but I have to admit that I never thought, back in 1987, that we'd be doing it a thousand issues later. I'd like to do enough issues to surpass Comics Buyer's Guide in numbering; they were weekly for many years before going monthly, so we're slowly catching up on 'em, but I figured it out once and I'd have to keep doing this until I'm 75 before we actually passed them...

I'm not ruling it out, though! I'm not planning on it, either; I'm just doing a week at a time, having fun with it, and seeing what happens next.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Masters of Humdrum

I finally got up the patience to try the premiere episode of the second season of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. The episode, "Pelts" was Dario Argento's dreary interpretation of a minor F. Paul Wilson tale.

First off, it wasn't horror... but then, none of the first season of this series communicated any sense of horror. Instead, it was all gore and shock with no sophistication at all... but considering the fact that Argento's reputation is built on nothing else, I'm not surprised. Meat Loaf tried his best as the star of the piece, but there's a limit to what an actor can do with second-rate material that both literally and figuratively treats the actor as little more than meat.

But it got me thinking about the pathetic state of horror nowadays. Hardly any works that try to pass themselves off as horror truly convey a sense of foreboding, of dread, of alienation, of true fear that is an important part of true, legitimate horror. Shows like CSI have removed much of the shock value of gore, so pseudo-horror producers feel like they have to take gore and mayhem to the next level.

Shock is cheap, it's superficial, and it's easy. Horror is challenging, unpredictable, and complex. No wonder so many of these guys want to cinematically jump in front of you and say "boo!" rather than really giving you the creeps. And so long as there's a cinematic audience willing to put down some cash for not-so-grand guignol, filmmakers are going to keep churning out this drek, and writers are going to keep trying to pass off splatterpunk as the real thing.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

This Is Not a Test

For the past few weeks, I've been scheduled for a nuclear stress test at 7:30 am on December 8th.

Today, at about 4 pm (just over 12 hours before I was scheduled to begin the test), I got a call from Dr. Mike's office telling me that Kaiser had refused to authorize the test, saying that there was no indication of a problem justifying such a test. The would authorize a basic echo-cardiogram, but nothing more.

Now I'm in the best shape of my life, no doubt--but at the same time, (a) I did have major heart surgery in April of 2000, (b) I still have a reduced ejection fraction, and (c) I have a mitral valve prolapse that seems to be increasing in severity. However, as Dr. Mike's assistant put it, Kaiser's new policy is basically "deny all testing but the most basic, deny all care but the most critical."

I called Kaiser to yell about it, but there's little satisfaction in yelling at a mid-level employee whose only job is to stop you from talking to the person who really made the decision to deny care. I also called the Georgia Insurance Commissioner's office to file a complaint, but since he just won re-election for four more years, I suspect I won't hear back from anyone any time soon (the only time you get prompt call-backs are in the month before an election, unfortunately).

Of course, I can try to adjust the budget to pay $3000+ out of my own pocket to cover the costs of the test. I may very well do that; I figure I'll take a week or two to decide, since the test has already been cancelled and it'll take a while to reschedule.

Meanwhile, I can no longer recommend Kaiser as a responsible insurer. For years, they've seemed to be a health-oriented insurance provider; now they operate more like the insurance companies in a John Grisham novel...

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Tooth, The Whole Tooth...

I have bad teeth.

I inherited this from my parents, unfortunately--and like my Dad's hairline, it's one of the few things I inherited that I'd gladly give back.

Even worse, one of my medications tends to leach calcium from my system, so that even with calcium substitutes, my teeth are even more prone to breakage.

And that's just what happened... again.

Last night, I broke a tooth on a chocolate chip cookie (well, if you gotta break a tooth, at least break it on something you like!). No nuts, nothing hard in there--just a cookie. I called Doc Sturn, my friend and my dentist, and he told me to come on by this morning. His schedule was packed, but he somehow squeezed me in and I now have a temporary crown. The permanent crown should be in by the middle of the month.

At this rate, I won't have many real teeth left to break! I think I'm up to six crowns now, which is nothing to be proud of, believe me...

And this in spite of the fact that I brush twice a day (I only eat two meals a day), I use prescription flouride, I use a hydrogen peroxide rinse followed by mouthwash, I floss... Sometimes heredity trumps everything, it seems.

And this is just the start of the Week of Medical Procedures I Don't Like. On Friday morning, I have a nuclear stress test scheduled. I don't mind the stress test part, but I really hate the intravenous needle in the back of my hand for three hours or so...

The good news? A week from today it'll all be over...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jack of Too Many Trades

Know what I dislike about the various CSI shows? Their tendency to compress an entire chain of command in order to expedite the plot. The forensic investigator becomes the interrogator, the arresting officer, and in tonight's case the sniper who takes out a terrorist bomb-laden truck. It's not enough that they compress time, having investigator's complete DNA tests in minutes or hours rather than days or weeks; now they're turning these forensics specialists into one-man SWAT teams. Sure, real police work may not be as exciting--but it'd be nice to see something approaching reality in the depiction of a forensics investigator's duties...

I Can Remember It For You

Yesterday's UPS delivery brought a copy of the DVD-A of David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, one of the half-dozen best albums of all time. Stephen Barncard has been working on the surround-sound mix of this disc for quite a while, and I had pretty much given up hope that it would ever see release. Thankfully, Atlantic Records proved me wrong and put this classic album out in a two-fer package--one disc, a remixed version of the CD, the other a surround-sound mix on DVD-A.

Once it arrived, I decided it was time to run some errands so that I could listen to the disc in the Acura RL. When the first bars of "Music Is Love" began, I was concerned; the sound was front-channel heavy, with virtually nothing but ambient reverb in the rear channel. My worries were assuaged, though, as the song developed and Barncard began to open up the rear sound field a bit, bringing in guitars and vocals.

From there on, the disc opened up. "Cowboy Movie" is full-bodied with a wide-open field, using each speaker the way they should be used. "Tamalpais High" and "Laughing" are wonderful mixes, enveloping the listener in sound.

The real gems, though, are the final three pieces: "Song With No Words," "Orleans," and "I'd Swear There Was Somebody There." Two of the three are wordless, using David Crosby's rich voice as an instrument; the middle song is an old musical mnemonic device that is actually nothing more than a list of cathedrals. Crosby turns it into a harmonic litany that is an aural delight.

The Beatles and David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name in surround sound on the same week--what more could I ask for musically?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Deaths Come in Threes

I wrote about this before, and lo and behold if it didn't work out just that way.

Earlier this week, Jerry Bails died. Were it not for Jerry and his work that led to the creation of comics fandom and comics fanzines, I doubt that I'd own a comic shop or be doing Comic Shop News today.

Today came the news that Dave Cockrum died. Dave hasn't been active in comics for a while, but there was a time when he was a major force in the industry, before his health woes forced him to move to the sidelines. I saw Cockrum at Heroes Con and he seemed to be struggling; I knew that life had dealt him a bad hand, but I hadn't realized his problems had escalated in severity to this extent.

Talking about "death coming in threes" seems to, in some way, diminish the significance of these deaths, and that's not my intent. Of course, I sincerely hope the truism doesn't hold true...

Making a List, Checking It Twice...

Every year, Dad and Kim ask me to give them a Christmas list so that they'll know what to get that I don't already have. For some reason, there's a misconception among my family and friends that I instantly buy everything could possibly want, leaving nothing for gifts. That's wrong, of course; I'm actually quite easy to shop for and I'm sure that there are things don't have that I'd like to receive as gifts.

To give in to my family's quirks, I'm actually listing some things that I would certainly enjoy seeing under the Christmas tree--although I'm always open to surprises!

Those of you who aren't a part of my family, feel free to skip the rest of the post--move along now, nothing to see here...
•Meat Loaf's new album - Bat Out of Hell 3 (CD)
•Dark Chocolate - I like rich dark chocolates, although when the cocoa content goes about 70%, it begins to border on excessively bitter even for me
•All-cotton knit shirts - pullover long-sleeve size M in dark earth tones (browns, golds, rusts, dark greens, tans); round neck or v neck - as the folks who work with me know, I rarely wear button-up shirts and never have enough pull-over shirts
Sting - Songs from the Labyrinth CD
•Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season DVD Set (scheduled for release on DVD 12/5/2006)
24 - Season Five (scheduled for release on DVD 12/5/2006)
•Lindsey Buckingham - Under the Skin (CD)
Seinfeld Season 7 DVD Set
•Mixed nuts--I prefer 'em without peanuts, and am particularly partial to pecans, cashews, and almonds, but have little appreciation for Brazil nuts
Boston Legal Season 2 DVD Set
•Lighter-weight leather gloves - medium (I have some heavy, thick leather gloves wth a lot of insulation, but I could use some a little thinner when it's not super-cold, and leather is better for driving because it doesn't slide across a leather steering wheel the way knit gloves do)
•A rechargable cordless screwdriver (because Brett mocked my little bitty cordless screwdriver... and alas, it has so little power it's defeated by too many screws already)
How I Met Your Mother Season 1 DVD Set
•A 2007 Acura MDX with sport+technology package, grey exterior, black interior, with running boards and musiclink connector (just seeing if you were still reading)

And then there are those things I'd like to have, but they're almost impossible to find and I don't know where to begin looking--things that are on that list we all have of "dream items" that will remain dreams only, such as
•The first six issues of Witzend, which I had once but lost years ago when I loaned them to someone who never returned them, alas
•A Man from UNCLE gun set - pistol, rifle extension sight, shoulder stock, shoulder holster, etc. - I had one when I was a child, but it disappeared at some point in my teenage years
•Aurora Monster Models - why did they ever stop making these things?
•A copy of the Joe Sinnott illustrated biography of the Beatles published back in the mid-1960s; my copy is literally worn out from hundreds of childhood readings

And people say I'm tough to shop for!...

Where There's Smoke...

On Thanksgiving Day, we went to Kim's house to enjoy the holiday with our family. Kim's Thanksgiving Day feasts have grown with each passing year, and this year was the largest yet: too much food for the kitchen and the dining room table, and too many people to be seated in one room. The guests included someof the family of my niece's boyfriend and some of the family of my nephew's wife.

I noticed that several of the folks would go out onto the patio to smoke. I was glad they were outside; I would have been more glad were they not smoking at all. I am perhaps the most adamant, militant anti-smoker you'll ever find. Not only do I personally object to its offensive smell and its addictive nature, but I also remember what it did to Mom, who died from emphysema caused by decades of smoking before evidence made it clear how damaging the habit could be.

Then I noticed that one of the smokers was my niece, Jess.

I was sad and confused and disturbed. Jess was with us at Mom's bedside when she gasped her last breath before leaving a life that had become horribly painful as her body failed her. She knows what caused that death, and she knows that almost every one of Mom's sisters and brothers has succumbed to emphysema--a sure sign that our family carries a genetic predisposition for this horrible disease. And here's Jess, a member of our family, engaging in a foul and self-destructive habit that could some day put her in the same place where Mom was.

Jess is an adult now, and she gets to make her choices... but this is a choice I wish she'd reconsider.

I said something to her briefly, but she didn't respond; I'm not even sure that she heard the comment, to be honest, since someone else said something at the same time. And now I'm trying to find a way to reintroduce the subject to her.

I'd really like for Jess to live a long time--and should she have a husband and children, I hope that they never have to feel as horrible as Dad and we did as we watched a beloved woman die as a result of an incurable and untreatable illness. And I feel like not saying anything would be condoning the wrong choice...

Write On

"Do you think that professional writers don't just write things for fun?"

Whitney's question arose from a conversation we were having at the store. She had remarked that her mom didn't understand writers; I asked for details, and she told me that her mother seemed confused by the posting of a new short story at the Tanith Lee website (Whitney's a big Lee fan). Whitney's mom couldn't figure out why an author would post a story without a means of making money from it; Whitney interpreted that as an inability to understand the writer's desire to write and have fun at it.

Then I suspect I rained on her parade with my point of view. "I don't think professional writers ever write just for fun. Once they're professionals, they're always aware of the fact that this is what they do for a living. Tanith Lee posted her story on line, but I'll bet you she has plans to sell that story or include it in a collection that she will sell at some point. "

Whitney looked disappointed. We're at different points in a lifetime of writing--Whitney still enjoys doing the "write a novel in a month" events and hasn't sold words for money thus far (I'm pretty sure she will someday), while I rarely write fiction any more and spend most of my time at a keyboard writing to earn a living. Even when I'm doing "no pay" activities like--well, like this blog!--I still think of them on a professional level. I'm not doing it just for fun; there are other benefits for me as a writer that I hope will extend into my professional work.

I certainly imagine that Lee enjoyed the process of writing the story. I have strong doubts that she wrote it just because she was having fun, though. There's a difference.

And that's what separates the professional from the amateur.

Exit, Stage Wrong...

A tenant in our shopping center is in the process of skipping out on her rent, and I find the whole process both inconsiderate and distasteful.

The tenant in question is the owner of a hair salon called "Whatever It Takes," which may win the award for the absolute worst name for a hair salon I've ever heard--it's saying, more or less, "We'll Do Something No Matter How Butt-Ugly You Are." We knew she was in trouble because we could see that she sometime went for entire days without a single customer (or a married one, either!). It's difficult to make money without customers, I know, but that's a problem with her business plan, not with the landlord...

Friday afternoon, she backed a truck up to the salon and began emptying the place. Thing is, she didn't just take furnishings--she had some guys with her, and they actually took the sinks off the wall. Of course, her lease specifies that once something like a sink is affixed to the store, it becomes property of the landlord, so in doing that she violated her lease.

What made it worse, though, was that the guys who took the sinks out didn't really know what they were doing, so they didn't manage to totally turn off the water through the pipes that were once attached to the sinks. This meant that water continued to drip slowly, gradually creating pools in the floor. Those pools of water are spreading out from one side of the store to the other, and they're seeping under the wall boards separating her space from the businesses on either side of her.

Of course, she doesn't care. She's too busy trying to figure out how to avoid her lease responsibilities to actually think about the tenants around her. It's likely that someone who ignores legal obligations is bound to ignore ethical ones as well.

Apparently, "Whatever It Takes" describes her method of conducting her business as well...

Spoiled for Sound

Drove around in the Acura for a while to listen to The Beatles: Love DVD-Audio in its entirity; it was an almost mystical experience musically, a reintroduction to songs I thought I knew backwards and forwards. Then I came home and decided to listen to the same songs in the house.

First I tired the Sony system, a DVD/SACD system that only plays the standard compressed DVD-Video soundtrack. It seemed a bit lifeless and flat, so I went downstairs and used the Pioneer DVD-A/SACD system. Better, but still less than the Acura. It's sad but true: to hear music the way it was meant to be heard, I have to sit in my car.

Elliot L. Scheiner, the designer of Acura's sound system, has spoiled me for anything else. *sigh*

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Love Those Beatles Songs!

Picked up the deluxe CD+DVD-A package of The Beatles: Love, the remixed-and-mastered soundtrack to the Cirque de Soleil show currently running in Las Vegas. I couldn't care less about the show itself (for some reason, Cirque de Soleil has always appealed to me about as much as Topo Gigio on Ed Sullivan), but the music is astounding. Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles Martin have done all the remixing and mastering, adding one new bit of music--a string accompaniment to the acoustic version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Otherwise, everything you hear on this disc is comprised of tracks taken from the original recordings--but you've never heard them like this before.

Martin & Martin have taken snippets of music and reassembled them in musical layers, building something new out of something old. It's a sort of music sampler, with motifs taken from multiple songs. Bits of "The End" lead into "Get Back"; "Tomorrow Never Knows" motifs work their way into "Within You Without You." It's a fascinating blending of musical snippets, and something that I suspect John Lennon would have loved were he alive to hear it.

What's most compelling, though, is the vitality and presence of the music. I've heard "Within You Without You" hundreds of times--but never until now have I heard the subtleties of George Harrison's voice, the subtle harmonics and undertones that have gone unreproduced until now. "Strawberry Fields Forever" builds from demo to a finished mass of swirling musical fantasy without ever losing the in-front-of-you quality of John Lennon's vocals.

The absolute best place to hear this music is in an Acura with an Elliot Scheiner-designed sound system (the best sound system in any automobile, and one of the few places where your placement among the speakers is virtually contolled by the equipment--unless you're in a habit of wandering from seat to seat in your car, that is) but you'll enjoy it on any DVD-A capable system.

I'm hoping that this (and the just released Doors: Perception boxed set of CDs plus DVD-A mixes of their entire catalog) will herald a renaissance of DVD-A releases. With Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus adding DVD-A players to their vehicles, it's a shame that so little music is being released in this superior format.

Oh, what I'd give for a boxed set of all the Beatles recordings on DVD-A!...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sprinting Off Track

Spent way too much time on the phone with Sprint, my wireless provider, yesterday. Dad's phone was stolen a few months ago, so I had Sprint cancel the phone. Imagine my surprise when I downloaded my bill and found more than $100 in new charges on that phone. Turns out the thief had called Sprint, complained that his phone didn't work, and even though he didn't have the account password, they turned the phone back on "because he had the serial number" (surprise! It's on the phone!) and "because he said he needed it."

The first person with whom I talked, a useless fellow named Anthony, said that we'd have to pay $150 to have it turned off again. The second person with whom I talked was very apologetic, spent twenty minutes on the phone with me, claimed all was taken care of and said she was e-mailing me confirmation. When that confirmation never arrived, I called back and found out that the second person had done absolutely none of the things she had said she would do, the phone was still active, and the charges were still on my bill. One FCC complaint form later, I had a call from someone at Sprint who handled the matter with all the professionalism absent from the first two attempts, got it resolved, and received a confirming e-mail about the credit and the cancellation.

Oh, and shortly after that, I got a call from someone at Sprint saying that the thief was calling in again to have to phone reactivated, complaining it had been turned off without his permission. I urged them to locate the caller and have him arrested, but told them that the phone was to remain dead to me.

As of this morning, it's not on my account any longer, which I'll take as a good sign.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What a Drag It Is Getting Colds..

My friend Charles, who has launched his very own blog, commented this morning about his current bout with a head cold. That got me thinking about the infrequency of my own illnesses in my post-retirement-from-teaching life.

During the two-and-a-half decades-plus that I taught, I seemed destined to have a minimum of two severe sinus infections each year: one in the fall, the week after the first prolonged run of cold temperatures, and one int he spring, the week after the first round of warm temperatures. Now I know that sinus infections aren't supposed to be infectious or contagious per se, but it happened so regularly that I became convinced that my illnesses had to be linked to (a) my exposure to pretty much every disease known to mankind through sick kids who came to school because their parents wanted the school system to watch over them so the parents didn't have to, or (b) the wretched and abominable condition of the heating, air conditioning, and ventilation in every public school. Whichever contributed to it, the end result was the same: I was destined to experience seven to ten days of fever, sinus drainage, sleeplessness, sore throats, hoarse raspiness, and general discomfort.

Since March of 2000, the last year I was in the classroom, I have had only two respiratory infections of any sort. One of them, which began as a severe cold and turned into walking pneumonia, was quite unlike anything I had before; the other was a simple three-day run of sinus congestion, sore throat, and cough that went away of its own accord.

Since I own a comic shop, I still cross paths with a large number of people, both adults and children, but I just don't get sick the way I did when I taught. I have no amazing revelations as to why, just an observation that I happens.

Meanwhile, I commiserate with Charles insofar as his head cold is concerned, and I want him to get well before I see him on Wednesday!...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Crossing Paths

Sometimes you run across people that you never anticipated seeing again. That happened to me yesterday.

Susan and I decided on the spur of the moment to drive up to Blue Ridge, about an hour or so north of here, to pick up some apple bread and a distinctive blend of coffee--appropriately enough, it's called Blue Ridge Blend--from a small shop that we've frequented over the years. The shop also has a selection of antiques, folk art, and decorative items, so we always browse while we're there.

As I was browsing, I saw a nearly pristine oak school desk. Unlike most of the desks of my childhood, which were metal frame desks with pressed wood seats and desk surfaces, this desk was solid oad, with a hefty 2" x 2" support attached to an oaken top. Beneath, it had oak slats to hold books, and was open on the sides. It was a larger sized school desk, intended for high school or college students, and had no markings, carvings, or other surface marrings that are so common on school desks.

Alas, it also had a "SOLD" sign taped to it.

I asked a woman who worked there if there might be another, and she suggested I check upstairs, as she thought she had seen one not too long before. I checked, and found only two desks: a small one, elementary-school sized, with metal frame, and one of the same type as the one I wanted... but the top had evidently been damaged somewhere down the line, so someone had simply sawed through the 2" b 2" vertical support beam, transforming the desk into a wide oaken chair instead.

Disappointed but still optimistic that another desk might show up, I decided to leave my name with the woman at the register. I had scarcely said three words to her, though, before she said, "Are you Cliff?" Now, Blue Ridge is about seventy miles north of where I live, and it's about ninety miles away from Rome, where I grew up, so I was taken by surprise that anyone would know my name.

"I'm Lynn," she said--and then I actually looked at her face and realized that it was Lynn Amspoker, a girl I had known since we were in class together in junior high school, who was standing before me. Lynn was always a remarkable person--beautiful, with a hint of a Mediterranean complexion that gave her a distant, sort of exotic appeal. Her smile was broad and engaging, and she smiled with her whole face, not just with her eyes. Lynn was a cheerleader, energetic and vital. She was also extremely intelligent; we were in dozens of honors classes together through junior high and high school, and because her last name began with an A and mine with a B, we often sat near enough to one another that we would speak. I can't say that we were close friends; I wasn't athletic, and my group of friends rarely interacted with her group of friends outside of class. That's not to say that she was snobbish at all; I never got that impression, although I'm sure that I rarely made any impression at all on her.

Lynn dated Randy Hatch when we were in high school, and they continued to date after graduation, eventually getting married. They had children, and though an odd coincidence, I crossed paths with Lynn again almost a quarter-century after our high school graduation when her daughter, Katie Hatch, came to North Cobb High School as a freshman. It seemed uncannily odd that the daughter of someone I knew in high school would end up attending the school where I taught--a school located fifty miles away from West Rome High School, where Lynn and I graduated.

And now, almost ten years after that, my path and Lynn's had once again crossed.

She was still the same Lynn I had known before: friendly, engaging, with that same smile. She told me that they had moved to Blue Ridge after her daughters graduated (I knew that Katie had a sister, but I didn't know her). Katie is in her third year of veterinary school now. Lynn's selling some antiques--she mentioned that she had a couple of booths upstairs--and obviously was working at the sales counter of the store as well. Taken by surprise, I didn't take the time to ask the many questions that have come to mind since then; I hope that I cross paths with her and we get to speak again.

I was surprised that Lynn even recognized me, to be honest. Thanks to heredity, I have far less hair than I did when we were in high school; thanks to exercise and a more careful diet, there's about seventy fewer pounds of me than there was when I met her while I was teaching at North Cobb. I also had a beard and much longer hair when I taught at North Cobb; now I'm clean-shaven and my hair is shorter (ironically, almost exactly the same length that it was when I was in high school!). We often deal with people without truly looking at them; at my store, I must ring up a hundred people a week without really studying their faces to see who they are and what they look like. Oh, I recognize many of them, but I rarely scrutinize them; thus, I don't know if I would recognize someone with whom I had attended high school thirty-five years ago.

There are all too few people from high school that I've heard from over the years. I am in e-mail contact with Sven Ahlstrom, one of my best friends from school; I crossed paths with Greg Carter once, several years ago, but have heard from him only once since then; my contact with Gary Steele went from occasional to non-existent when Gary moved and gave no forwarding address or phone number. I saw a photo and article about Judi Harwell in the Rome News Tribune last year; I heard from Debby Ezelle a couple of times more than a decade ago; I exchanged a series of e-mails with Lon Rollinson a decade ago as well. I speak to Mrs. Astin from time to time and ask about her daughter, Pam, who I knew very well in high school; I haven't actually seen Pam in about fifteen years, though.

Seeing Lynn inspired me to pull out my West Rome High School yearbooks (alas, I no longer have my senior yearbook; I kept it in my classroom at North Cobb, and when I was forced to retire after my heart attack and heart surgery, it was one of those things that fell through the cracks and didn't make it home with me); there were many familiar faces and names, and I wonder where they are now and what they're doing. People moved around much less back then, so the majority of the people who were in my seventh grade class at West Rome Junior High were in my senior class at West Rome High School. I see them in the pages of the Watanyah and I can still remember their voices, their expressions, even where they sat in some of the classes that we shared. I'd like to know what paths their lives have taken; chances are, though, that I never will.

I can only hope that life has been as kind to them as it has to me, and I hope that they held on to their grace and charm and vitality in the same way that Lynn has. One can ask for little more than that...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Happy Birthday, Mom

Today is Mom's birthday. Had she not succumbed to emphysema, she would have been celebrating her 73rd birthday later today, going out to lunch with Dad and her twin sister and my uncle Red and Kim and Susan and me, talking and laughing and enjoying the day in the way that we always did.

When Robert E. Howard's mother died, he took his life shortly thereafter, denying the world all the wonderful tales he might have written in the remainder of his life had he not cut it so short. I can understand how he spiraled into such an inconsolable darkness that he felt it could not end; while I have not plummeted to such an abyss of spirit, I think I have been buffeted by the ebbs and flows of depression ever since Mom died. Losing her left a void that none of us have been able to fill.

As I watch videotapes of bygone happy times, I regret the fact that Mom was almost always the photographer and rarely the photographee. She loved to work the video camera, and Dad never seemed that interested, so Mom is the unseen voice in most family videotapes. On days like this, I watch those tapes, knowing I won't see her, but also knowing that I will at least hear her voice once again.

I miss that voice so much. I spoke to Mom almost every day of the last ten years of her life, and spoke to her several times a week in the many years before that. I knew her phrases, her responses, her words, and I fear that I took them for granted. I guess I never really considered that they would be silenced so soon.

As bittersweet as Mom's birthday is for me--and as sad as I still am about her death--I know that it must be immeasurably worse for Dad. A lot of people are happily married, but Dad was more than that--he had found the woman who balanced him, whose strengths complemented his, and around whom he had built his life. He is surrounded by memories of those happy times, and I can understand why also slides into emotional shadows as her birthday nears.

Happy birthday, Mom. I miss you.

Friday, September 15, 2006

In the Queue

Sometimes people surprise you.

I was at the post office today to send a few packages registered mail, which meant I had to stand in line rather than doing everything at the USPS website. There were about six people in line when I got there, and for every person who completed his/her transaction, another person joined the queue, so the line remained about six people long. There were only two windows open, since it was lunch time, and that meant that the progress was a bit slow.

I worked my way to the front of the line just as an elderly woman with obvious health problems came in. She moved laboriously with a cane, and she had a nasal cannula and an oxygen tank that led me to believe that she must have emphysema as well. Almost immediately after I saw her, the clerk called for the next customer. I walked back to her and said, "Ma'am, would you like to exchange places with me?" She looked surprised and grateful as she made her way towards te window.

"Hey, I've been waiting in line, too!" One apparently fit mid-20's man said.

"No problem--I'm not moving her up in line, I'm exchanging places with her. Your place in line is exactly the same as it was," I said as I moved to the last place in line. The guy still looked irritated, but he couldn't argue with the fact that he was still fourth in line.

And then, less than a minute later, the woman who was next in line stepped out of line and walked behind me, taking a place in line immediately after me, just as she had been before I exchanged places with the elderly woman.

A few seconds later, the second person in line did the same thing. Then the third. Now the man who had complained was first in line. Then the man behind him did the same thing. Now, rather than being the sixth person in line, I was the second, immediately after the man who had complained.

No one said a word about it. But everyone seemed to have a little bit more of a smile than they had prior to the arrival of the elderly woman. Everyone except for one man, that is...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Time After Time

Since my last entry, my nephew Cole and his wife Christy have closed on their house; they've found that the due date for their baby is April 14th, which is one day later than Dad's birthday; and Cole and Christy are halfway moved into their home. They've paid rent on their duplex through September 20th, so they're not facing an urgent deadline to move; as a result, they've been able to move gradually and much less stressfully than mine and Susan's typical move (every move we've made except one was on a 24 to 72 hour deadline, which means that you start out with the intent of moving methodically and deliberately, and you end up tossing things in boxes at random just to get 'em out of the old house while you still have a moving fan available).

It's hard to believe that Cole, at the age of 21, has a 1600 square foot house with central heat and air; a computer; digital cable and a PVR; cable modem access; an HDTV; a dolby digital surround sound stereo system... the list goes on. I'm not talking about Cole in particular, really; I'm talking about the ever-rising standard of living that makes it possible for a couple married less than a year to have all of these things as part of a normal middle class existence.

A year after Susan and I were married, we couldn't have possibly bought a home; we had one small window air conditioner that semi-cooled one room in our house; we had an electric typewriter; we had a cheapo Singer stereo system (yes, the same Singer that makes sewing machines used to sell stereo systems); we had a 15" black and white television (didn't get our first color television of our own until we had been married for three years). And we considered ourselves solidly middle class; we had more than many of our friends who were our age.

Those who talk about the middle class pinch and family budget woes ignore the fact that our standard of living as a culture has risen exponentially with each decade. What is considered basic middle class now would have been upper-middle ten years ago and lower-upper-class ten years before that. Our economy makes it possible for people to have a tremendous quality of life for a much smaller investment than ever before.

I'm sure that, if Dad ever got on the internet and read this, he would point out that what Susan and I had after a year of marriage was phenomenal compared to what he and Mom had after their first year of marriage. And if my grandmother were still alive, she's undoubtedly point out how much better Dad and Mom had it than she and my grandfather did when they had been married a year.

Pretty amazing, when you think about it. And I have to wonder what will be considered a "middle class necessity" for Cole and Christy's child when he or she turns 21...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Stupid TV Night on Fox

I'm about ready to give up on Prison Break and Vanished, Fox's Monday-night dramas.

Tonight on Prison Break, a character whose hand was chopped off with an axe at the end of the first season had his hand reattached by a veterinarian... and as soon as it was sewn on, he was able to move it, to grip things, and to kill the poor vet who thought he was doing a good thing. Now bear in mind that only a day or so (at most) is supposed to have passed since the end of the previous season. This character has been lugging his severed hand around in a cooler. Apparently a vet can accomplish in an hour or so what takes a team of surgeons, neurosurgeons, and immunologists months: attach a limb and make it totally usable with full strength and dexterity. It doesn't really matter what happens from here on: at this point, the story has ventured so far into the stupid that it can't come back.

Then, on Vanished, we have more Atlanta stupidity. Last week, we had someone refer to the city of "Shomblay." They were probably talking about "Chamblee," which is pronounced "sham-blee." It would have taken all of thirty seconds for someone to check this, but they didn't bother. Then we had Southern style plantation homes in Atlanta, which are about as rare here as they are in Los Angeles. Tonight, we had someone refer to the city of Dunwoody (Dunwoody isn't a city, it's an area with no clearly determined borders); then later on, we had a shot of an underground city below the streets of Atlanta. My guess is some moron heard discussion of "Underground Atlanta" and pictures this city with multi-story building located deep beneath the modern city of Atlanta. 'Tain't so, McGirk. Underground Atlanta is a seamy little blend of second-rate shops, bars, and a few restaurants a few steps below current street level; a more appropriate name would be "sunken living room Atlanta." The old city of Atlanta was burned by Sherman, remember--that whole Civil War "March to the Sea" thing? Again, five minutes of research wold have told them this was sheer idiocy.

And how did they discover this "lost city of Atlanta," as I call it? Well, they were looking for a car that went into a long tunnel and never came out the other side. Try to find such a tunnel anywhere in Atlanta; the longest "tunnel" we have is a couple of hundred yards, max, and it's really an underpasss more than anything else.

This is about as dopey as someone having someone travel from Disneyworld to the San Juan Capistrano via subway in five minutes, or having someone drive to Catalina Island over the Catalina Bridge, or having some jog from Brooklyn to Schenectady. It's bad research, bad writing, and it's pretty much unforgiveable as far as I'm concerned. So as of tonight, both shows are off the viewing list. And I hope that Fox considers hiring writers for their shows next year...

Amazon Dot Scam?

Further research reveals that I have been victimized at least once before by the "higher prices for established customers who buy numerous products in the same category" system at although I dismissed my other mistake as a routine discrepancy.

Forgetting that I had ordered Veronica Mars Season 2 from home already, I placed an order for the DVD set from the store. That meant that I ended up getting two copies from Amazon--one that I ordered at home (where the computer automatically logs me in under my Amazon account, so the computer recognizes me by name) and once at the store (where I "shop blind"—that is, the computer doesn't know who I am until after I've placed the item in my shopping cart, at which point the price is already set).

I reviewed the two invoices, and the price I paid for Veronica Mars Season 2 from Amazon when I ordered under my name was $41.80. the price I paid when I bought the same DVD set "ordering blind" was $37.99. That means that I paid 10% more, apparently because Amazon's sales-tracking software noted that I tended to buy numerous DVD sets of television programs. The system seems skewed to increase prices for frequent customers who make numerous purchases in the same product areas.

So those of you who tend to shop at, be careful... you could be paying far more than you might have to!

(And I checked using the "known shopper" versus "blind shopper" system, and the same Samsung 46" LCD television that was $2699 when I shopped as a known shopper was only $2549 when I shopped blind.)

I have real trouble believing that any of this is accidental...

Amazon Antics

Had a very frustrating experience with today--and that's surprising, because I had come to think of Amazon as the most reputable of all internet retailers.

I noticed Saturday that Amazon had a pretty good price on the Sony Bravia 46" LCD television, so I had done some homework on that model; I thought it would be a good fit for our living room, which is still outfitted with a 10-year-old ProScan 36" tube television. Amazong had it for $2299 plus $49 shipping; before I sprung for that kind of money, I decided to check pricing elsewhere.

Yesterday and today, I checked BrandsMart, Circuit City, Best Buy, H.H. Gregg's, CompUSA, CostCo, and Sam's; no one had the television at that price. So I came home, logged into, clicked on the set, started to place my order...

And saw that when the set went into my cart, it came up at $2399. A hundred dollar increase. I went back to the page, and the same page that had ten seconds earlier said $2299 now said $2399... but down below it, all the related info still referred to the $2299 price (including a link that said I could buy the set plus a wall mount for $2399, and another that said that 57% of the people who inquired about that set ended up buying the Sony Bravia for $2299). At that point, I did a quick PDF save of the screen as proof that I was being flimflammed, and called Amazon. I was told that the price just so happened to have gone up at the precise moment I was placing my order, and there was nothing they could do.

However, at the very same time I was being given that explanation, I went to another computer in the house that was on a different ISP (thus a different IP address),went to, then checked on the price of the same television without logging in under my name. It came up at $2299. I went back to the other computer, refreshed the screen, and it was still $2399. There was the proof right in front of me: had increased the price on a product for a long-standing customer who had spent thousands with them, while quoting a lower price to a nameless shopper. Without logging in, I placed the item in my shopping cart, then took a screen capture with a time display from another site in the background to prove just when I was doing this. I clicked Check Out Now, and then I logged in. At that point, the set was now available to me at the $2299 price, so I made the purchase. I then tried it again, on that same computer; I logged in first, checked on the television, and it came up a hundred bucks higher.

Do you smell sleaze?

The person I had on the phone at the time quit trying to scam me once I told him what evidence I had and what screen captures I had made; within a moment, he just hung up.

I'm going to check into filing an FTC complaint tomorrow. I'm also going to try to talk to someone at about this practice. In the meantime, if you do business with these guys, you might want to check prices before you log in to your account; you'd be surprised what you might save!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

You Say It's Your Birthday...

Well, actually it's my birthday—as of about 29 minutes ago...

This is one of those birthdays that seems numerically significant, although there's no reasonable explanation as to why it should. I was born in 1953; as of today, I am 53 years old. Having shortened my birth year to 53 for most of the 20th Century (when we never thought that much about the fact that the year 2000 might require a four-digit year to clarify which century we're talking about) it seems metaphysically significant that I am 53 this year; there's some cosmic balance that has been achieved, although one that will have little impact on me or anyone else. And what a simple achievement it was—all I had to do was stay alive for 53 years!

Since my birthday is on a Saturday, some of my friends commemorated the occasion a day early, realizing that they might not see me on the day of my naissance. Brett gave me a copy of Scott Beatty's training guide for would-be Batmen... it's lots of fun, and I joked about using it on my nightly "patrols." He also gave me a bag of Lindt extra-dark chocolate truffles, which are remarkably rich and at the same time mellow without the bitterness of some extra-dark chocolates; I've written about them previously here, in fact.

Whitney, also catering to my affection for rich dark chocolate flavor, prepared an exceptional chocolate soufflé that undoubtedly contained inordinate amounts of cocoa; it had great tongue appeal as well as a full-bodied but not overpowering chocolate flavor. I had never had a chocolate soufflé before, but I couldn't have asked for a better introduction!

My bestest friend Bob Wayne called this evening, and we actually had almost a half an hour to talk, catch up on things, and even joke around a litle bit. Bob is a true kindred soul, someone with whom I share so many things in common it's uncanny. It always brightens my day to have a chance to talk with him; I look forward to a time when we can talk even more frequently.

Later today (I had to strike the initial word I typed, since it was "tomorrow" and it's now 46 minutes into the 26th as I continue my nattering), Susan and I will drive to Rome and spend a few hours with Dad and Kim. Don't know if Cole and Christy and Jess and Adam will make it or not. Cole and Christy are closing on a house on Monday, and are probably hip-deep in packing and preparing for the move, since they have four days to vacate the duplex they were renting; Jess has two jobs plus college on her mind, and seems to have less spare time than ever before. It still amazes me sometimes to realize that they're busy pursuing their own lives as adults; I'll always remember them as those energetic, enthusiastic children of years past, when all of us were young and healthy and blissfully carefree.

I'm not so much a big birthday person, to be honest. I don't like to mention my birthday to others, because I think it seems like I'm trolling for gifts or cards or greetings. My birthday is significant to me in some ways, but not in the usual "I'm getting older" ritual; I feel only a few minutes older than I was when I was still 52, some 52 minutes ago (aha—yet another bit of numerical synchronicity!). I enjoy and feel appreciative that there are some who feel my presence is sufficiently meaningful that they wish to acknowledge it with a kind word or a gift or a moment of recognition, but I never think enough of my birthday to expect or desire others to go out of their way to celebrate it. We all have too much of our own lives to celebrate, to experience, and (sometimes) to endure; to expect someone to put all that aside seems irrationally egocentric. Of course, I can be as egocentric as anyone (and often moreso!)...

There are times when I can get wistful to the point of melancholia considering birthdays—not that I regret having them, mind you, but I do sometimes regret how they remind me of so many days that have passed by sans celebration, sans recognition. Sometimes we're so busy living the days that we don't take the time to really appreciate the thousands of significant moments that comprise each and every one of them. Birthdays, in reminding us of the eventfulness of one day, can sometimes underscore our tendency to overlook the eventfulness of all the others.

Sometimes I wish I had the tenacity to contact friends on my birthday and just say thanks—thanks for all the days brightened, all the memories evoked, all the happy moments enhanced, all the sorrowful burdens lessened by shared sadness. Perhaps we should spend a little bit of our birthdays letting others know that they have made the years worthwhile... but to do so might seem in itself to be another way of saying "it's my birthday," which would defeat the whole purpose, wouldn't it?

It's my birthday... has been for an hour and three minutes now. Thanks for caring!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Twisting by the Pool

Not me, mind you... but there were some people who were engaging in dancing even though they obviously shouldn't attempt it in public.

Tonight there was a poolside party/concert at the neighborhood clubhouse; all tolled, about a hundred and a half folks showed up at sometime during the four hour event, which for our neighborhood is quite impressive indeed. We have 423 homes in Northampton, with a total "population" of about 1850, but it seems like everyone is so busy that it's tough to get many of them to show up for any single event. Somehow, though, this one clicked--and that's good! Now I hope that someone can figure out exactly what made it work so that we duplicate it.

Have I mentioned, by the way, that I am the president of the homeowners' association here? My motivation for doing so was pretty egocentric; I didn't like the facxt that the prior board had raised out dues 15% for what struck me as insufficient reasons, so I figured the best protection against further dues increases was to step up and become a part of the group that determines dues and other neighborhood policies. I'm pleased to say that there have been no dues increases while I've been on the board, problems have been kept to a minimum, and our financial status has actually improved due to some prudent investments of neighborhood reserve funds.

But that's dull stuff. The good news is that the neighborhood actually came together for an event and had a great time. I'm going to hope that it's the beginning of a trend.

Only bad thing... the band that performed at the poolside party didn't play a single Beatles or Crosby, Stills, and Nash song. Bummer...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ever wonder how you got here?

There are times when I feel like life isn't so much a carefully constructed plan as it is a series of bumps, bouncebacks, ricochets, and random events that get us to where we are. I've had people ask me about "the secret to my success," and I guess that they're serious about it—but I have no great words of wisdom to bestow. Oh, I can share a few of my philosophies and observations, but I can't delineate a Benjamin-Franklin-like plan for success, because that's not what happened.

If things had gone as I planned when I was fifteen, I would have pursued a career as a comic book artist. If things had gone as I had envisioned when I was eighteen, I would have followed Dad's footsteps as a journalist. If things had gone as Susan and I planned when I was twenty-one, we would have bought a house in Rome, where I would have continued to teach until retirement. The list goes on and on...

But we never plan for the unexpected twists, the lucky (and not so lucky) events. I never imagined, back when Susan and I did fanzines in the 1970s, that the same skills would carry over to Comic Shop News, which is basically a fanzine with much better pay. It never occurred to me, when MSA offered Susan an entry-level programming job back in 1977, that a move to Marietta would lead to so many changes. I never dreamed, when I agreed to help Artie Decker order new comics as an experiment in his store, that I would become a co-owner of that store five years later. I never planned on a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a farmhouse in Rome in 1992 would become, in 1999, one of the best financial investments I ever made. And of course, I would have never believed that a near-fatal heart attack would ultimately result in my being in the best health of my life.

I wish I could describe a meticulously planned roadmap for my life, but I'd be lying if I did. John Lennon got it right... life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

No Show, All Ads

If you grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you'll probably enjoy the collection of advertising available at this link. It's worth it for me just for another chance to see the Alka Seltzer "Whatever Shape Your Stomach's In" commercial, which I remember quite well from its countless airings. It is interesting to see how very long television ads were in the 1960s...

All Summer in a Day

Yesterday, one of the metro counties--Rockdale, I believe, although I'm not sure--started school. Today, Cherokee County, which is just up the road from Dr. No's, begins classes. And as a student for 17 years and a teacher for 25+, I find myself thinking that there's something wrong there...

My birthday is in late August--late enough, in fact, that I remember being in school on my birthday more than once. However, in the egocentrism that comes with youth, I always based my worldview around me--and my birthday was a sort of marker. During my years as a student, school never started any earlier than the week of my birthday; if August 26th was a Tuesday or a Wednesday, we might start school on that Monday, but never any earlier.

Teachers, of course, usually start a week earlier than students, so I generally viewed mid-August as the appropriate starting time for teachers. Beginning more than a decade ago, though, school systems began pushing for a mid-August start for students--and now, some are going for an early August start.

They tout the benefits of a "balanced school year," which means a very short summer break with more time off scheduled during the year. I've yet to see any convincing evidence of an advantage to that, however. It's primarily a convenience thing--they want to be able to reshape the calendar to wrap up the first semester before Christmas holidays, and an early August start facilitates that. While this is convenient, I never saw any sign in my years of teaching that it did anything to improve student final exam performance or to enhance the educational process; most teachers had very skillfully designed their curriculum to allow for the holiday break. Besides, if a holiday break is so devastating to student performance, then why are more of them scattered throughout the year somehow preferable? (And I don't for a moment accept the argument that students forget the material in two weeks; long-term memory doesn't work that way.)

Our society continues to embrace the idea of a summer vacation at the same time that school systems attempt to shun it. It's an odd dichotomy, but not really surprising--for the quarter of a century that I taught, it seemed that school systems were administratively operating at odds with the society they supposedly served.

And I can tell you, having worked as a cog in the educational machine that is dedicated to the premise of minimum spending in schools and maximum spending elsewhere (oh, the stories I could tell you...), that school system air conditioning routinely fails to operate properly for the first couple of weeks of school. Don't know why that is; stop by the school during the summer and you'll find the A/C working just fine, but once school starts back, there must be a bizarro maintenance team that removes vital parts from the A/C system. I've made way too many futile attempts to teach students in an 85°-90° clasroom filled with miserable, surly students while the county office acted like it was an imposition to expect them to actually do something about it. So now we're going to start school even earlier, so that students are in the building during the hottest part of the year.... great planning. (And of course, there's no A/C on a school bus around here, so imagine how pleasant the ride home will be!...)

Thankfully, Cobb County (my home county, where I taught from 1980 until March 31st, 2000) has backed off from the move towards a "balanced calendar," but I'm not wholly convinced that's due to any particular wisdom; instead, our most recent board has made so many foolish decisions in the past year that something as humble as a calendar was below the radar for them. Even so, they had a few squabbles with parents whenever the "balanced calendar" system came up for discussion—but they were too busy trying to throw away $100+ million on a laptop-computer-for-every-student program to put up much of a fight.

It's very possible that sooner or later the "balanced calendar" proponents will succeed in pushing through the idea, but I hope not. We've hindered the education of way too many students over the decades by embracing short-sighted "change for the sake of change--or even worse, for the sake of administrative offices" decisions, and I'm convinced this will be another one of them.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Can You Take Me Back?...

I write about music a lot... but as you probably surmised, music is an important part of my life. And yes, I'm about to mention music again.

There are songs that are my parents' songs--songs that they enjoyed during my childhood, songs that they listened to and sang and hummed so frequently that they are interwoven into my life. These songs weren't my songs when I was a child, but they have become my songs by way of an inheritance--a gift of memories that my parents gave me that take me back to those years.

Ferrante & Teischer... Ray Conniff... Frank Sinatra... Perry Como... Dean Martin... Floyd Kramer.... Mantovani... these are some of the musicians whose songs were a part of the background music of my life. These are artists whose songs I still remember well, and now embrace because of the many memories their songs bring forth.

Ultimately, we are the sum of our memories--and music is often the catalyst that initiates a flood of memories. Perhaps that's why I so love Christmas songs; the thousands of cherished memories that a Christmas song can unleash are so remarkable that the music is perhaps the most joyful I can imagine.

Like many of you perhaps, I would gently mock my parents' taste in music when I was younger. Little did I know that they were sharing with me a heritage that I wouldn't fully appreciate until decades later. Did their parents do the same with them?...