Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Difference of Opinion

For more than two centuries, the United States has, to one degree or another, embraced the concept of religious tolerance. It is, insofar as most people are concerned, one of the core tenets of our nation: all faiths are accepted here, and our society offers a framework within which all religions may interact in friendship and tolerance.

The dichotomy of tolerance, though, is this: should intolerant views be tolerated because they are a part of one's religion?

This is a dichotomy that is always bubbling beneath the surface, but it seems to be coming ever-closer to the surface with each passing week. It seems more and more evident that the most outspoken members of Islamic faith not only reject this concept of tolerance, but they violently (in every sense of the word) oppose it. And by not speaking out against this sort of extremism, more moderate Muslims are allowing their faith to be expropriated and reshaped into a religion whose most fundamental elements create conflict between the Muslim faith and other religions... and even more problematical, the Muslim faith is so inherent in the Muslim idea of government and culture for these extremists that the conflict is both religious and cultural.

Historically, cultural groups have come to the United States to enjoy our way of life without havingv to sacrifice all elements of their prior culture. However, the militant Muslim movement not only actively rejects the core aspects of our culture, it wants to change those aspects so that they mirror Islamic fundamentalism. If Baptist or Catholic fundamentalists acted with such intolerance, they would be excoriated and vilified; for some reason, though, this same behavior is tolerated from Muslims, and those who speak out against it are considered intolerant because... well, because they won't tolerate intolerance!

We are on a path towards a cultural conflict the likes of which we have never seen, simply because we have never seen another group of people attempt to launch what is, at its heart, a cultural invasion of the United States. It's a cultural invasion because in that its core purpose is to replace the established US culture with elements of shariah law, little by little; and it succeeds at certain levels because our culture is so afraid of the hobgoblin of intolerance that we feel obligated to accept it.

We're not.

I am not a religious person. However, I recognize the contributions that various religions have made to US culture, and I am amazed at the fact that Christian and Buddhist and Jewish and Bahai and Hindu and dozens upon dozens of other faiths have historically found common ground for peaceful co-existence here. Now an increasingly strident faction of Islam is allowing the entire faith to be redefined by their extremist views, and both religious and non-religious individuals are going to have to determine what lines must be drawn in order to preserve American culture.

And on the front line must be Muslims who reject intolerance. For if they aren't, then they're tacitly accepting this sort of intolerance and allowing it to become a central aspect of their faith. For many years, Dixie and the Confederate flag and other aspects of Southern culture and heritage were accepted as a part of cultural pride in this part of the country; however, those elements were expropriated by racially bigoted extremists who turned them into symbols of intolerance and hatred. Contemporary Islam is reaching the same turning point; how the Muslim majority stands up against it will determine the faith's future in our culture, and its hopes of dealing peacefully with other religions.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Tomorrow's Just Your Future Yesterday

For the most part, late night talk shows have gone degenerated to garbage. David Letterman, who used to be absolutely brilliant, barely phones it in night after night; it's obvious that he's as bored as we are. Jay Leno has sacrificed comedy for biased political commentary and tedious skit humor. Conan O'Brien has replaced cleverness with schtick. And I know there are some other late-night mannequins on whose shows I've watched from time to time, but they're so cookie-cutter monotonous I don't even know the hosts' names.

I'd give up on late night television entirely if it weren't for Craig Ferguson. Clever, fresh, self-effacing, unpredictable, charming... he possesses many of the best qualities of Johnny Carson, delivered with a Scottish accent. His opening monologue is always good for numerous laughs, and his interviews are both interesting and informative. If you've never tried his show, you should watch it (or, if you don't feel like staying up until 12:37 a.m., when the show begins, you can Tivo it). If he doesn't hook you after two or three episodes, he's not going to hook you at all--his shows are so rock-solid and so steadily entertaining that by three nights you really feel like you know him.

If you miss late-night television's glory days, when television was actually worth staying up for, you need some Craig Ferguson in your viewing diet...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Art for Art's Sake

"Do you know much about Arthur?" Whitney asked yesterday afternoon. "A little," I replied, and we then chatted about Arthurian legends for about fifteen minutes. After a while, Whitney said, "You know a lot about Arthurian legend."

I guess I do. Amy deduced that I had taught Arthurian legend at one point, which is true--but my knowledge and interest goes far beyond what I taught. I found Arthurian legend, with its blend of possible history and impossible reality, to be absolutely enthralling; from the time I first saw The Sword in the Stone and read T.H. White in elementary school, I knew this was something deserving of further attention.

While it's the 19th and 20th century interpretations of the legend that appeal to me the most (particularly Tennyson, White, and Stewart), I enjoy Arthurian legendry from all eras. There's a certain brutal integrity to Malory, an inherent nobility in Chretien de Troyes that still has a literary allure.

I think Whitney is just beginning her exploration of Arthuriana. She has some great reading ahead of her...

Look up the Numbers

I never expected to enjoy Numbers, but the show has grown on me in the past few months. If you've missed the premise of this one, the series focuses on an FBI agent and his brother, a math genius who is a professor... and of course, a consultant to his brother. In each episode, he use mathematical principles to lead to a solution.

Just as CSI will stretch forensic science to make its dramatic point, Numbers sometimes stretches mathematics for dramatic effect. However, even the most far-fetched episodes have enough mathematical foundation to make them effective and fascinating.

The cast is quirky but effective; for the most part, they avoid the "math-nerd" stereotype, as well as the "genius-with-no-common-sense" cliche. If you're looking for an entertaining crime drama with a different angle and less gore than the new norm, Numbers is worth a look.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Lonely Days, Dreary Knights

DC's recently-released Battle for Bludhaven #1 featured the return of the Atomic Knights. Or, to be more precise, the resurrection of the name "Atomic Knights" for a lackluster group of armored characters with nuclear abilities, I presume. But for those of us who know, these are not the Atomic Knights.

The real Atomic Knights appeared in DC's sf title Strange Adventures between 1960 and late 1963 (their last issue was dated January '64, but it would have appeared in November of the previous year, 'cuz that's the way comics dating works). The characters were noble warriors in a post-apocalyptic future world; their armor protected them from the hazards of their post-nuclear-war environment. They strove to bring order and justice to a future in which the nuclear war had thrust society backwards technologically; later on in their exploits, they rode about on oversized dalmations (the dogs were, of course, mutated by the holocaust) and basically fought to make the quasi-feadal world right.

John Broome was the mastermind behind the Knights, while Murphy Anderson supplied the visuals. The story set in the then-distant future of the 1980s, was both fascinating and thought-provoking in a distinctive way. This was a grim world, a post-nuclear-war wasteland--but even here, the indomitable human spirit rose above the devastation. And the stories had a marvelous adventure edge, blending chivalrous drama and science fiction in a fresh way.

The Knights never did graduate to their own series; as the superhero era began in earnest in the mid-1960s, the Atomic Knights fell by the wayside.

And ever since then, people who have resurrected the concept have done so with the intention of throwing away everything that made the series distinctive. The post-apocalyptic angle? A dream, according to one reboot of the series. And now, we have characters who have nothing in common with the original concept.

I've yet to figure out why writers will take a memorable concept, strip away everything distinctive, and then stick the name on a weak concept with no links to the original. But that's what's happened here... and the sad thing is, it prevents us from seeing a legitimate Atomic Knights relaunch for several more years, until the bad taste of this launch is forgotten.

Monday, April 17, 2006

God Is a Concept...

It's appropriate that my thoughts should turn to religion; it is, after all, Easter.

I ran across a reference today to Rousseau and Locke and their belief that religion exists to encourage ethical behavior in the masses; it was Rousseau, I believe, who went even further and said that religion exists as a motivation for ethical behavior because without the fear of punishment in the afterlife, the average person would not see any reason to follow the rules of ethical conduct.

Marx dismissed religion as the opiate of the masses, but I have come to think see Marx as more and more off the mark in his analysis. Religion, regardless of one's beliefs, is a motivator for ethical conduct, which in turns allows society to operate in a civilized manner.

I am not a religious person, although I do hold spiritual beliefs (it's complicated, and not something I'll go into right now). However, even though I have been non-religious since I was about twelve years old, I recognize the value that religion brings to modern society, and I have a tremendous respect for most religions. As the basis for an ethos, I can accept many aspects of religion, whether I believe in the mythic and/or metaphysical aspects of the religion or not.

I think, though, that the existence of religion and religious beliefs is crucial in the formation of society. In many ways, I accept Rousseau's point; religion gives many people a powerful reason to do the right thing. And for that, even the most non-religious should be appreciative of the existence of religion...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

First Impressions

Have you ever been so content with an impression that you actually don't want to know more, lest your impression prove untrue?

This evening, while picking up a CD at Target, I saw a woman with her young daughter. She had a slightly round face--not fat, but not fashionably thin by any means--and thick, dark, wavy hair. Her daughter was energetic, enthusiastic, and determined, holding on to her mother's hand and pulling her in the direction of something... I never did see what. Some parents, in a situation like this, look impatient, or distracted, or even slightly aggravated. This mother, however--it's rare to see a face so filled with satisfaction and empathy and love and happiness combined. At that moment, her daughter's childlike vitality was her whole existence; in that youthful glee, she appeared to have found everything that she wanted in her life as well. It was an almost beatific expression, one that an artist might continually endeavor to convey. And it was authentic; I don't think she was aware that anyone saw her face at that moment.

It was a beautiful face. This was not beauty in a superficial sense; most would have dismissed her full, rather unadorned face as plain. No, this was a beauty born of the moment, a beauty was so encompassing that I didn't want to know anything more. I didn't want to see what the child wanted. I didn't want to hear the mother's voice. There was a chance that anything else I saw would have proven that transcendent moment to be illusory, and I didn't want to risk it.

An Eventful Year in Comics

The transition from isolated comic book series to "big events" began back in 2004, although I don't think any of us realized how significant the transition would be. As it turns out, this transition was the second major transition of the 21st century, following up on the shift in emphasis from artist to writer that took hold in earnest in 2000-2001.

Right now, the industry is driven by events. Not gimmicks, mind you, but legitimate comic book events that are story driven, continuity focused, and line affective. The story has to be good; if it's not a good story with a strong hook, the event is DOA. Image made an earnest effort to link their teen superheroes in The Pact, but an unfocused story made it difficult for the series to be taken seriously by fans of any of the characters involved.

Readers are also looking for continuity links; they want to know that what happens in the event story will have ramifications in other books featuring those same characters. This is why Identity Crisis succeeded where House of M didn't, for the most part. Identity Crisis shook up the entire DC Universe, and its affect led directly into the next even larger event. House of M affected no one outside of a few mutants, and the most significant mutant effects were either negated ("I just thought I lost my powers," Iceman said unconvincingly) or mitigated by later happenings (Quicksilver doesn't run fast any longer, but his new powers give him much the same net outcome). Identity Crisis will stand as a turning point; House of M will remain largely a dead end.

A "line affective" story is the measuring stick that readers use to determine the significance of an event. How much is the universe shaken up? How many characters are changed? How significant are the changes? Infinite Crisis has changed everything in the DC Universe; it is the ultimate "line affective" story. Spider-Man: The Other changed nothing except the superficial; a character got sick, he got better... he died, he was reborn. Ultimately, same old same old... except he has a new costume for now. Years ago, DC was criticized for having a stagnant universe while Marvel's universe was praised as dynamic and changing; in more recent years, though, it's DC's universe that has been truly dynamic, while Marvel's universe has struggled to present the illusion of change in big events that ultimately take us full circle back to where we began.

Will Civil War be the series that changes that? I hope so. DC has reached a crescendo with Infinite Crisis; even though I expect the interest to continue into 52's weekly storyline, it won't have the same line affective impact because we already know how it turns out. We'll be enjoying the journey, not wondering where it's going to take us. So ultimately, the comics market needs Civil War to be the Marvel event that delivers. Readers need that element of uncertainty, I think, to keep them coming back. And from what editor Tom Brevoort and writer Mark Millar have said in interviews, they're aware of that, and they seem to have taken plenty of notes over the past year as DC hit all their marks.

DC is in an interesting place. They've deconstructed and reconstructed their continuity; they've taken their line to a dark, ominous place, and then they've brought it back from that brink. Now they've shaken up everything, and they're gambling that, once we know where everything is going, we can't look away as we see how it got there. But there's also a downside to the gamble: their year-long event exists without their three "big guns," since neither Superman, Batman, nor Wonder Woman will play a role. Having seen the deftness with which they launched their One Year Later titles, I'm confident that they can make 52 a success. But most of all, I admire them for the gamble that they're taking; they're showing a boldness rarely seen in comics.

Marvel is also in an interesting place. They all but dismantled continuity in the first five years of this century; characters were so dissimilar from one title to another that it seemed difficult to believe that anyone in charge at Marvel was even reading the titles, much less guiding them. Early this year, it seemed like they were throwing anything against the wall to see what would stick; Annihilation and Planet Hulk, two event stories, launched at the same time, and neither seems to meet any of the three crucial requirements for event success. But Civil War... it's already starting to resonate with fans, even though its full impact will be spread over more than six dozen comics. In some ways, it seems almost too big... but I think the gamble may pay off. If the first month delivers enough significant story development to convince readers that this time the event really matters, then I think that Civil War will do for Marvel what the Crisis storylines have done for DC.

And if it does, I hope that continuity-conscious editors like Tom Brevoort have enough clout to see it through to the next level, rebuilding the almost-lost continuity that was once the company's stock in trade. I may be a DC fan first (hey, it's what I grew up with before there was a Marvel superhero line!), but I was also a Marvel completist who was there for FF #1 back in 1961, so I have a history with the company. And as a retailer, reader, journalist, and observer of comics, I see benefits for the whole industry if both of the Big Two are really on their game.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Guilty Pleasures (Music) #2

The late 60s and early 70s gave us numerous underrated albums, but none was more underrated than Badfinger's Magic Christian Music. I must have listened to this album a hundred times in the summer of 1970; it was one of my half-dozen favorite albums at the time, and has only grown more appealing with the passage of time.

Badfinger's roster included Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins, Joey Molland, and Tom Evans (Ron Griffiths had been a part of the group in their earlier days, but left prior to the release of this, their first album). Their specialty was Beatles-esque harmonies and strong guitar-centered power pop tunes; their big hit from this album, "Come and Get It," sounded particularly Beatles-esque because it was written by Paul McCartney. If you get a chance to listen to McCartney's demo of this song, you'll see that Badfinger followed McCartney's lead very closely, making minimal changes while adding their own soaring harmonies. If this were the only good song off the album, it would be as forgettable as Jackie Lomax's work on Apple Records. However, the entire album is eminently listenable.

My personal fave is "Carry On ('Til Tomorrow)," a wistful and melancholy retrospective. It's a beautiful cut built on acoustic guitar and sensitive harmonies, punctuated by a sharp guitar solo. Other gems on the album include the fast-paced "Rock of Ages," the beautiful ballad "Walk Out In the Rain," the quirky faux period-piece "Knocking Down Our Home," and the punchy "Crimson Ship." The truth, though, is that there's not a bad song on the original album.

That doesn't mean that there's not a bad song on the CD, however. They'd added a few bonus tracks of weaker material, including "Arthur," "Give It a Try," and "Storm in a Teacup," none of which match the quality of the core album's tracks. The completist in me is glad to get the extra tracks; however, their presence brings the CD to a very weak close, and it's recommended that you skip them until you're familiar with Badfinger's better work.

The star of the group was Pete Ham, a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist whose sound blended the best of Lennon and McCartney. Alas, he committed suicide in the mid-70s, despondent over legal issues that kept the group from releasing new material. It's a shame; he's a power-pop genius, and I can't help but wonder what he might have done in the 1980s and the 1990s.

However, this isn't a one-man group. Molland, Gibbins, & Evans each bring a distinctive sound to the group, taking a turn at lead vocals as well as harmonies. Again, the Beatles comparisons come through; like the Beatles, Badfinger had its two starring members—Ham and Molland—and its two lesser luminaries. Nevertheless, all four display amazing talents.

If you like power-pop, you can't do better than this album.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

In My Time of Dying....

A friend asked me a few minutes ago if I had any memories of a profound experience from those dead moments. The truth is--no, I don't. I cannot recall any specifics of a near-death experience, as much as I'd like to be able to. What I can say, though, is that the experience totally removed from me any fear of death. That doesn't mean that I'm eager to die, or that I'm not reluctant to experience a painful demise; however, the idea of being dead no longer disturbs me. My only worry, I think, is my fear of dying without having done the things I'd like to do for those whom I love; any trepidations I have about dying revolve around leaving my loved ones unprepared for their own lives to continue as comfortably as possible.

That's probably true for many of us, actually; it's how our deaths affect those who go on living that concern us as much as the art of dying.

But no stories from me about bright lights, out-of-body experiences, etc. I do recall a bright light, but that was the ceiling light in the ambulance, which was shining in my eyes quite intently when the paramedics finally brought me back (they said that my eyes had dilated quite a bit during those minutes, which is why a routine vehicle ceiling light seemed so bright). Nothing mystical or profound there... but the experience was strangely comforting, because I felt remarkably peaceful about the prospect of dying.

Friday, April 07, 2006

I Know What It's Like to Be Dead...

Six years ago, I died.

Thanks to the aggressive efforts of Cobb County paramedics, my death was relatively short-lived, but it was certainly a life-changing experience by any standards.

The short version: at about 11:45 pm on Friday, April 7th, 2000, I began having severe tachycardia (rapid heartbeat). I had just finished wearing a monitor for a few days to try to learn more about some heart problems I'd exhibited a week or two earlier, but nothing severe had shown up. Nevertheless, I could tell that this was much more severe than usual. I also felt anxious and stressed--physically stressed. I grabbed a blood pressure monitor and confirmed that my blood pressure was way, way up. I told Susan that something was wrong.

Within a minute, the pains began. Severe pains. The most severe pains I've ever felt. Pains that began in the hollow of my left jaw and seared their way down my neck to my chest. I told Susan to call 911. She did, as the pains increased. The paramedics arrived quickly, hooked up an EKG to me...

...and said I was having indigestion. I told them no, this was a heart attack. I knew that from an earlier heart "event" in mid-March that had been confirmed in retrospect as a minor heart attack. Nope, nothing was showing up, they said. We did a back-and-forth for another minute or so, until my heart took my side of the argument and ceased operations, just to drive my point home.

And for about 7 minutes, the paramedics worked to bring me back to life while rushing me to Kennestone Hospital. I'm quite pleased to report on their success, and the subsequent success of Dr. Mike, my cardiologist, and the heart surgeon who did a lot of repair work. And amazingly enough, I was back home on April 15th, recovering from open-heart surgery. Ast hey told me afterwards, my heart problem is the sort that rarely, if ever, shows up on an EKG; it rarely shows up, in fact, until the heart simply stops. It is, I believe, the same sort of heart problem that took a dear friend, Carol Kalish, in the 1990's; it was the fact that I live less than a mile from the paramedics station that kept me alive. (What serendipity: until late 1999, we had a farmhouse in rural Floyd County at which we stayed every weekend. Had someone not approached us and made a phenomenally generous offer for the farm in the fall of 1999, we would have been there on April 7th, and I would have stayed dead on April 8th).

Today, six years later, I'm a far healthier man than I was on April 7th, 2000. I'm about seventy pounds lighter; I exercise twice a day; I eat much more sensibly; my bad cholesterol and triglycerides are very low, while my good cholesterol is very, very high.

I'm no longer juggling three jobs; in the aftermath of the heart surgery, Dr. Mike advised me to give up something or else I'd be seeing him again soon... only I'd be on an autopsy table. Since I had enough years of teaching to draw a retirement check immediately, that's the job that went away. Now I split my time between Dr. No's, Comic Shop News, and living sensibly.

I have a great group of friends who have known me for many years; they've been supportive of my eccentricities and quirks, and have done a great deal to encourage me to stay healthy. They've gotten used to seeing me at 2/3 of my pre-2000 weight, and no longer even comment on the changes, although it still surprises some who see me for the first time in many years. They don't even make fun of the fact that, when we go out for our every-Wednesday-night Mexican dinner, I have them pile extra lettuce on my Nachos Mara and then pour a bowl of salsa over the plate, at which point I eat lots of lettuce, lots of salsa, and only a little bit of the cheese, chicken, beans, and chips beneath. I no longer get up at 5:24 a.m. I see a doctor regularly to ensure that nothing ominous is going on without my knowing it.

I won't deny having some moments of anxiety every April 7th, though. I usually do what I can to keep my mind off the whole event as the hour approaches; this year, though, I decided instead to tackle it head-on. And in doing so, I'm a lot less anxious, actually; I realize that I was lucky enough to discover some very good things as the result of a very bad event, and I am far luckier in that regard than most.

Some Light Conversation

The projector bulb on our Samsung 61" DLP television blew out on Monday night--we had finished that night's episode of 24 not five minutes before we heard the pop and saw the screen go black. (Could have been much worse--it could have gone out five minutes before we finished 24...)

Called HiFi Buys, the store where I bought the set and a five-year service agreement in May of 2003, and told them I needed a bulb replacement (the flashing indicators confirmed that's what the problem was). They told me they could ship the bulb to me and I'd have it in two days; if I wanted them to install it, it would take two weeks. I told 'em to ship it, since they assured me there would be instructions in the box and the whole thing was user-installable.

Today, two days later, no bulb. Called back... it seems that HiFi Buys doesn't keep any extra bulbs for these sets in their parts warehouse. None... nada... zip. Yes, you and I know that it would make perfectly good sense to keep in stock a number of replacements for a part that is with 100% certainty going to fail every 3 or 4 years, but apparently HiFi Buys is the company that wants to take the "service" out of "service agreement." They assure me that I will get the bulb within two days of the time they get it, which might be by the end of next week. Grrrr... I didn't get into the explanation that this is one of several reasons why I quit buying anything from HiFi Buys in mid-2005. They used to be my first stop for anything in electronics entertainment; now they're not even on my list. But that's a long story...

In the meantime, I've had to move a replacement LCD HDTV from downstairs into the family room, and we're having to adjust to watching television on a 32" HD set. Now bear in mind that a 32" HD set is actually only about 25% the screen landscape of a 61" set, and you can see how I'm having to suffer. I've compensated by moving the set a bit closer to me, but it's still a very big difference. Alas, no one seems to be moved by my tale of woe...

Old Home Week

Ward Batty--longtime friend, former Dr. No's co-owner, and my partner in Comic Shop News-- came by the store on Tuesday; he wanted to bring his son Bill to do some shopping. Bill is in an Aliens & Predator frame of mind right now, and we had a variety of things that caught his attention; it's particularly good for Bill, though, that he is one of the few eleven-year-old boys on earth whose dad doesn't say stuff like, "why are you wasting your money on that junk?"

As I'd mentioned, Brett is also back this week, so he was there, as was Tom Kater, who was helping us process books; a few minutes after Ward arrived, good guy and all-around great artist Mark Bagley, a friend for a quarter century now, also stopped by. It felt sort of like a Cheers moment, with everyone in the store a regular who'd been coming in for at least a decade. Mark signed a few books for Bill, who just happened to be adding a half-dozen or so issues of Mark's Ultimate Spider-Man to his stack when Mark pulled up in front of the store. It was a pleasant break in a hectic Tuesday afternoon for me, and I hope it's one of those days that sticks out in Bill's mind for years to come--he had just started asking about a comic he liked, and the artist drove up, walked in the door, was introduced, and personalized some comics for him. I know if that had happened to me when I was eleven, I'd have still been telling everyone about it when I was fifteen...

Takin' Care of Business

Brett's back at the store as of this week, and things are going quite well, I think. Brett said he felt a little out of touch with the POS software, but he reacquainted himself with it pretty quickly. Most importantly, he seems to be enjoying what he's doing, and he's already tackling some of the jobs at the store that had slipped through the cracks when it was up to Buck and me--things like making more signs, working more directly with the staff organizing the backstock books, etc.

Customer reaction has been very positive, as I knew it would be. One customer set us up so well it could have been a spit-take moment if he had only had a beverage in hand: he was remarking about something-or-another have sold out and left a hole on the back wall, and said "Too bad Brett isn't here; he'd take care of it." Then, at that moment, Brett walked out of the back room (he hadn't heard the customer, so he had no idea he had been set up so well), saw the hole, and moved a book into place. The customer was absolutely dumbstruck.

We have big plans for the next few months, but it'll take us a little while to get there. I think it's going to be fun, though--and with Buck handling the manager duties, Brett is free to focus on the bigger picture, which is good for all.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Dynamic Duo

Two of the most impressive and memorable people I have ever known are Steve & Binker Hughes. Steve & Binker divorced many years ago, remaining amiable afterwards; nevertheless, those of us who knew them in the 1970s and the early 1980s will always think of them as a couple because, during that time, they were indeed a couple in the truest sense of the word. Their intellects and personalities were perfectly suited to one another; they were as perfect in their balance as Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel.

Steve was a genuine self-made man; he was the last of a breed of computer hardware and software pioneers who learned programming on his own, then set out to convince those recalcitrant computers to do things that he wanted them to do. Steve wrote and marketed one of the first successful credit-card-verification software systems, and made a great deal of money from it. But this was one of many, many skills he had; Steve was an expert in mimeography, in silkscreening, in stereopticons, in recording technology... heck, there wasn't much of anything that Steve wasn't an expert in!

Binker was equally adept at many things, but her real expertise was as a writer. She had a gift with words, and she was generous in sharing her talents. She and Steve also had a passion for the antique, the esoteric, and the arcane. And Sunbeam Tigers. I didn't even know that the Sunbeam company made cars until I met Steve & Binker and spent time with them; they were always working to restore one or more Sunbeam Tigers into driveability.

Anyone who ever spent time with Steve & Binker was inevitably impressed with their hospitality, their sincerity, and their friendliness. Whenever I think back to my time in Southern fandom, I'll always think of the two of them. Steve is now retired in North Georgia; not sure what Binker is doing now, but I hope she's having the time of her life!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Dark Side of the SMOF

From 1970 until 1982, I was heavily involved in SF fandom. Susan and I attended our first con together in 1970--Atlanta's DeepSouthCon, although we didn't know many people at the con at that time--and we became regular Con attendees as of 1971. We didn't miss a DeepSouthCon through the 1970s and the early 1980s, we attended the early Halfacons, we threw a few cons ourselves in conjunction with friends like mike weber, Richard Howell, Angela Howell, Gary Steele, and Ward Batty (including Halfacons, ASFiCons, and a DeepSouthCon), and we were part of the original Atlanta WorldCon in '86 bid that was stolen from us by Penny Frierson & Charlotte Proctor, with manipulative help from a few others (yeah, I suspect there are still some sour grapes there... it was an ugly experience, and it did more than any other to convince me that SF fandom was no longer a place where I wanted to be).

Looking back on it now, a third of a century after my initial involvement, I realize that as much fun as I had, there were some dark sides to those conventions. They were a place where excessive drinking was not only normal and tolerated, but was actually encouraged through con suites stocked with unending supplies of beer, combined with parties overflowing with liquor. I was talking with Charles about a writer whose work both of us admire--a writer who died years ago, far too young--and I realized that, while he attended a great many conventions that I also attended, I have hardly any memories of him sober. Oh, he arrived at the conventions sober, I'm sure... but by the time I'd see him in the con suite, he had a beer in hand, or some Jack Daniels, and he consumed alcohol incessantly for the duration of the convention weekend.

And it wasn't just alcohol. There were a lot of drugs that floated around at those conventions, and by the time I was moving out of fandom in the early 1980s, drug use was becoming more and more common. The same parties that would have been alcohol-based a few years earlier were, in the 1980's, "lubricated" with a variety of drugs. It was another reason for my discomfort with fandom; I found that people I wanted to see, wanted to talk with, were frequently unavailable or uncommunicative because they were drunk or stoned. Some of the people who regularly attended those cons were hardcore alcoholics, but the con was one place where they could go to be cheered on to drink even more.

Back to that author... No doubt about it, he was an alcoholic, whether he admitted it or not. He didn't drink socially--he drank heavily, until he was impaired, and he kept on drinking. And I have to wonder now if some of the fans of that time, people who developed serious alcohol or drug problems--or who died far too young--lost some of their years, or squandered their potential, thanks to the drugs and the alcohol.

I'm lucky in that I have no taste for alcohol. I'm an obsessive person, and it's easy for obsessive people to become addictive people, but I never drank, and I never used drugs (I have an almost fanatical disdain for anything that is smoked, and I never felt obligated to experiment with any other form of drugs because I didn't like the effects they were having on my friends who sued them). So maybe it's easy for me to be judgmental about those who were hooked on one or both. But the truth is, I'm not condemning them so much as I'm wondering if those who encouraged them--and I don't think I'm one of those numbers, since I spoke against it in my amateur press alliance fanzines and was roundly excoriated by some of the heaviest users because of that--might have contributed to our loss of some great talents and some good friends.

Another friend of the time was a brilliant and talented young man who was everything I had hoped I could be. We were almost the same age, but he was the only person I've been close to who struck me as truly brilliant. He was a musician, a pianist with a remarkable skill. He sang beautifully. He wrote poetry so powerful it could make me cry. He had a charismatic personality. And he became a heavy drug user who not only squandered most of his gifts over the next decade or so, but he drew several of my other friends into drug use along with him. I still like him a great deal, but I don't think we're friends; I don't think, in fact, that he would return a phone call from me if I attempted to contact him, even though we've never had a real falling out.

He wasn't a pusher, mind you; he was just a charismatic personality who used drugs so regularly and seemed to deal with it well enough that those around him thought it must be a good thing to do, and they got drawn in to his lifestyle. What they didn't know was just how brilliant he had once been, how he had the whole world to draw from before he spiraled into a life of adequacy. He was lucky enough that, having started from a point so much above the rest of us, he could spiral into descent and still end up on par with everyone else. But those who emulated his lifestyle found it wasn't so easy for them...

I'm not writing this to condemn any of these people. I'm simply realizing that the golden synergy that we had during that era of fandom had its dark side, and it may have in some ways cost us more than I ever realized before now.

Meet Dr. Doom

Think that world-destroying mad scientists are only found in comics?

Then check out this article about "Doctor Doom," aka Dr. Eric R. Pianka. Here is a scientist whose motivations and purposes should truly frighten you; this is a man who hopes for a pandemic (preferably of airborne ebola, his disease of choice because it's so fast and has such a high mortality rate) that will kill 90% of the human population. He makes no secret of his hopes for human devastation; in fact, he espouses it in the classes he teaches and he proselytizes for it in various public forums.

And when he presented his proposals at the Texas Academy of Science last month, he received a standing ovation. In his article, reporter Forrest Mims wrote:
"Must now we worry that a Pianka-worshipping former student might someday become a professional biologist or physician with access to the most deadly strains of viruses and bacteria? I believe that airborne Ebola is unlikely to threaten the world outside of Central Africa. But scientists have regenerated the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed 50 million people. There is concern that small pox might someday return. And what other terrible plagues are waiting out there in the natural world to cross the species barrier and to which scientists will one day have access?"
It's a disturbing piece made even more disturbing by the number of people wo seem to be swayed by this man's charismatic manner. And terrorism in the name of ecological conservation is every bit as horrifying as terrorism in the name of religious extremism--and perhaps moreso, because here is a man more likely to have access to the means of carrying out his dreams of destruction.

Truly, Madly, Deeply Impressive

I find Juliet Stevenson to be absolutely fascinating.

The first time I saw her was in a television production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, where she played Nora. She controlled every scene in which she appeared--not through physical appearance (although she is an attractive woman), but through a personal intensity that she manages to communicate in every scene of that film. By the time that Nora walked down those stairs and into an uncertain but vaguely hopeful future, Stevenson absolutely owned that role. I've seen the character portrayed by other actresses since then, but none so convincingly.

I have subsequently seen her in a variety of supporting roles, but never again in a starring role until last weekend when, by accident, I tuned into the 1991 film Truly, Madly, Deeply. Stevenson plays a woman trying to find balance in her life after the death of her lover--a balance she finds only when his ghost comes back to visit her in the dreary flat that is her home. Before long, though, she learns that there are downsides to having a lover who can never share life with her... Once again, Stevenson is remarkably real and believable in the role, and she makes the character far more likeable than she might have been in the hands of a lesser actress.

Don't know if she's starred in anything else, or if her career has been one of supporting roles, guest-starring roles, and voice-overs... but if I see her name attached to a film, I'll go out of my way to watch it--she's that good!

In the Summertime

Caught an error in yesterday's post. I did not have a free summer in 1979; I was in class at Georgia State University that summer, taking a course for certification. It isn't anything big, but it's one fewer lazy summer than I thought I had enjoyed...

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Keeping an Eye on the World Going By...

I'm not generally a lazy person, but there are times where I fondly dream of a time when I had absolutely nothing to do for a prolonged period of time. There are some who argue that I'm pretty close to that already, since I no longer have to get up early, go to school, and teach a full class load--but my schedule stays relatively full. I have Comic Shop News to do on a weekly basis, and it takes time to put together 10,000 to 12,000 words a week. I put in time doing Dr. No's stuff each week--about 30 hours or so, if you combine the hours I actually spend at the store and the time I spend at home doing accounting work and related store duties.

I've never actually had a long period of time with nothing to do. The closest I came to it, I guess, was the summers of 1976, 1977, 1979, 1981, and 1982. Those were years when I taught full time and didn't do anything else, and I wasn't taking a summertime course for certificate renewal (something teachers are required to do on a regular basis). During those six summers, I basically had nothing I had to do for about two months at a time. I wish I knew what I did to fill up my schedule for those two months; I know I spent a lot of 1976 building bookshelves at our Cedartown house and in Rome, where I built bookshelf units for Mom and Dad. In 1982 I devoted a lot of time to Randy Satterfield's store, A World of Words--that was the comics/sf shop he had before he, Ward, and I bought Dr. No's. I have no real idea what I did during the other years...

Now I can't imagine what it would be like to have two months or so with nothing that had to be done. I'd love to have time to draw again, to paint, to record music (I'm not good at it, but the technology of it amuses me), to watch movies or television whenever I felt like it... It sounds almost idyllic. I know, though, that I'd probably spend way too much of the time noodling about on-line, and I suspect I'd end up posting about eleven blog entries per day.

So what would you do with two months of absolutely no duties and responsibilities?