Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cellular Abnormalities

Today Stephen King's Cell went on sale... unless you're a customer of any one of several Kroger's grocery store locations in this area , where the book went on sale two weeks ago. Jared Miller, one of the guys who works with me at the store, was the first to notice this street date violation; I went to another Kroger a day or two later and verified that they too had the book for sale (although they did pull it after a few days, probably because someone pointed out to them it wasn't supposed to be on sale yet). Didn't buy it then, since I already had it on order through Dr. No's, so I haven't read it yet; it sounds promising, though, and I hope to get to it Very Soon Now. I'm eager to see if King will see this book through without rushing the ending (which has been the problem with most of his recent works); when he's on his game, he's one of the best storytellers writing today, but when he's off his game... well, he's still one of the best storytellers writing today...

Things Go Poorly With Coca-Cola

Today, Coke managed to garner three strikes in a single delivery. Last Thursday, I placed an order for Dr. No's, which Coke was to deliver today. I asked that they not deliver before noon, so that I could be there. I asked them to confirm price, so that I could write the check in advance. I asked them to verify the contents of the order--and in particular, to confirm that one of their new products (Slammers, a milk-based product designed to steal Yoo-Hoo's thunder) came in 24-bottle cases and not twelve.

I got to the store this morning at 11:30 and discovered that Coke was just leaving--strike one. I discovered that the price of the order was wrong--strike two. And I discovered that not only did they not deliver two cases of Fresca that I had ordered, but the Slammers came in twelve-pack cases, not 24 as the sales person had verified three times when we were on the phone--strike three.

Since we have a diverse group of customers and game players at the store, we try to maintain a balanced mix of diet and non-diet drinks. It would seem simple enough for Coke to deliver the right products (after all, they make the stuff...), but according to Matthew, the sales manager I spoke to this afternoon, that's absolutely beyond this mega-corporation's capabilities--and he seemed surprised that I would expect such accuracy. And finally, Coke takes no responsibility for inaccurate information given by its sales people while soliciting orders.

We had been in the process of pulling out a Pepsi cooler from our store in order to to exclusive with Coke, largely because of Pepsi's ineptitude. Since Coke seems no better, however, I'm beginning to think we should attempt to keep both, simply in hopes that two inept sweetened-water-vendors might add up to one ept sweetened-water-vendor.

Late note: Got an afternoon call from a sales manager: surely I could understand, she insisted, that with all the product Coke makes, they can't be expected to be able to fill all the orders at any given time, right? *sigh*

A More Perfect Union...

Tonight, President Bush delivered his 2006 State of the Union address; I maintained my proud tradition of not watching this address, just as I have not watched every State of the Union address in my 52 years on this earth. My attitude towards State of the Union addresses is the same as my attitude towards award shows (which I also never watch): what I care about is the end result, not the process itself. I can wait until the broadcast is over and read the speech in four minutes or less; why should I spend ten times that long watching someone read it to me (even if that someone is the President)? This is no aspersion towards President Bush--if there were any Presidents whose State of the Union speeches I would watch, Bush and Reagan would top the list... but even they couldn't persuade me to change my viewing habits.

Reading through the text afterwards confirmed my suspicion that, as is the case of most State of the Union speeches, this address was short on specifics and long on generalities. I consider this speech, more than any other, to be an unnecessary formality--particularly now that the White House has a habit of releasing the significant portions of the speech ahead of time. Ultimately, the delivery of the State of the Union address has become as relatively anticlimactic as the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

Nevertheless, I was offended by the fact that Lynn Woolsey, a democratic California congressman, saw fit to attempt to disrupt and undermine the ceremonial event by inviting Cindy Sheehan to attend the State of the Union speech in an attempt to gain publicity by creating a disturbance. In doing so, Woolsey demonstrated the sort of of malicious behavior and political nose-thumbing that has created an immense partisan divide in America today. Political divergence is understandable and expected; the diminution of the dignity of the Congress and the Presidency, however, is indicative of a lack of suitable judgment and integrity to be suitable to hold a congressional seat to begin with.

stars rain sun moon

Robin Fletcher, my dear friend whom I first got to know when we taught together for many years at North Cobb High School, dropped me a quick e-mail in which she mentioned having done an online search for an ee cummings poem. I immediately had a flashback to my favorite cummings poem, "anyone lived in a pretty how town." It's a seemingly simple but amazingly profound poem, at times poignant, at times excoriating, at times pure, at times bawdy, at times uplifting, at times devastating... one can scarcely ask for a poem in which every word contributes so powerfully to a thematic effect.

The amazing thing about cummings is that he did this not once, not twice, but quite regularly. I still have a collection of his poetry that I kept in my classroom during my teaching years; I remain amazed at his skill with words, with punctuation, with fragments of meaning... he broke communication into shards and rearranged them in intricate new ways, and I can't see how anyone could fail to admire that.

If you're convinced that it ain't a poem if it doesn't have an established meter and a rigid rhyme scheme, stay away... but if you're looking for poetry that is complex thought distilled to its most potent, look no further.


After the end of the fifth hour of 24, I was worried that the show was going to get bogged down in a "prove the traitor" plotline; I should have given the show's creators more credit. By the time hour six was halfway over, the traitor was revealed--and by the time the episode wrapped up, the story had careened in a totally different direction. That unpredictability and manic energy made the fourth season of 24 a delight; this season continues the trend. I still have some bad feelings about the brother of the assassinated David Palmer; hope I'm wrong, but it's not like the writers to introduce a character and then abandon him so quickly.

Downside to this episode: very little Chloe and Edgar. These are the "everyman/everywoman" characters that every viewer feels like he knows personally (and many viewers probably feel like they have a lot in common with them as well). I don't know that any of us would like to spend a great deal of time with Chloe, but she certainly is entertaining to watch--the ultimate "fish out of water" character.

Still my fave currently-running series (thanks in part to the fact that Everwood is still on hiatus). If you're not watching, give it a try--you're not so far out of the loop that the episode-opening summaries can't catch you up on the core facts.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sorry, Wrong Number

I'm amazed to see that there are still some--such as the New York Times and Howard Dean--who are trying to mislead the public into thinking that the President knowingly violated the law regarding phone surveillance of suspected al Qaeda-linked phone calls. There's a very good piece at PowerLine citing specific cases that clearly support the President's assertion that his actions are legal, supported by case law, and within the established powers of the executive branch. As this article points out, the New York Times' intellectual response to these clear legal precedents is simple: ignore them and hope that no one else ever hears of them.

Clearly this whole issue has nothing to do with Presidential powers; it has to do with partisan politics by the party out of power, hoping to undermine the party in power. I become more and more dismayed by the destructive nature of the political process that values party over national security. And I assure you that, if I make any phone calls to al Qaeda agents or operatives overseas or domestic, I have no objections if the government chooses to listen in on such calls.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Astonishing Reading

At long last, Marvel has published the first Masterworks collection of pre-hero tales. To be honest, I never really thought I'd ever see a collection of this material; the reason that Marvel abandoned the monster-and-weird-fantasy genre to begin with was its decline in the marketplace, and that decline was already underway by the time Tales to Astonish first saw print. Kirby was back at Atlas/Marvel, and his best giant-monster work was to appear in the 1959-61 period; Ditko was turning out some fine twist-ending fantasy tales; the backup team was coalescing; but the superhero era was already blossoming over at DC, and Marvel didn't even know yet that the era of these stories was coming to an end.

There are some fine stories here, but there are also some of the less memorable potboiler tales that serve as a link to Marvel's mid-1950's output. Nevertheless, this is a superb volume to kick off the Atlas-era Masterworks line; the only choices I'd have preferred would have been Strange Tales #s 91-100 (but I suspect they didn't want to start with a 91st issue) or Amazing Adventures #s 1-6/Amazing Adult Fantasy #s 7-14 (but that brilliant line is so dominated by Ditko that they probably wanted a book whose mix more reflected the bullpen as a whole).

Since Marvel didn't have original stats for much of this material, they made use of what they could come by, including scans from copies of the comics held in private collections. They used a variety of restoration specialists, and the result is variable interior quality. Some issues are superbly recreated; others are a bit muddy and unclear. John Buscema's work is particularly poorly reproduced here; his fine, feathered line muddies up a bit, and the sharpness of detail seems absent. But overall, the quality of the reproduction is satisfying--and in some cases, the bold colors of late 1950's/early 1960's Marvel complement the art so well that it's... well, astonishing to see it on quality paper in a handsome hardcover edition.

If you've ever enjoyed this bygone period of Marvel history, then this book deserves a place in your collection. Let's hope it's the first of many pre-hero volumes!

Milking it for all it's worth...

I've decided that I like milk in quarts.

Okay, I didn't promise any amazing revelations here, did I?

Nevertheless, I really like milk in quarts.

Last week, the mystery item at Publix was a half-gallon of milk. (In case you're not a Publix regular--which you should be if there's one near you, because they put Kroger and WalMart and SuperTarget to shame-the "mystery item" is an item that Publix sells for a penny with a $10 purchase on Sunday and Monday, and only with a coupon from the Sunday paper.) Problem was, when I got over there, they had no fat-free milk in half-gallons. I pointed that out to the guy stocking the dairy case, he mentioned it to the manager, and she told me that she would give me two quarts for the same one-cent price.

There's something about a quart bottle that just feels right. It's a solid, substantial, cylindrical hard plastic bottle of milk--none of that softer, milky plastic like they use in half-gallon and gallon containers.

It's also just the right size. I don't drink that much milk, so even with a half-gallon, I always had that last third of a container that was almost sour--not so much so that I found it undrinkable, but jsut close enough that it really didn't taste good. Couldn't bring myself to waste it, though, so I'd try to power my way through. No such problem with a quart, though. Even at my slower rate of milk consumption, I can polish off a quart of milk long before the expiration date.

Sure, I'll pay more per ounce for a quart than for a half-gallon. But every now and then, you decide that it's just not that important to make the most frugal choice. 'Sides, I don't pay three bucks a cup for that bitter brew they call Starbucks coffee, so I guess I can splurge half that on a quart of milk instead...

(Milk sidenote: is there anyone out there other than me who remembers when Oreo cookies had a filling soft enough that, if you squeezed the cookies, some of the filling would goosh out of the edges? You remember things like this when the milk is good enough...)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Time Payments

Sometimes my mind gets a'wandering... As I was driving to dinner tonight, skipping ahead on my iPod to a track more appealing to my mercurial tastes, I contemplated how my entire approach to enjoying music has changed in the past few years. For better or for worse, I rarely listen to an album (can we still call CD's albums?) all the way through; instead, I tend to transfer to file to iTunes, load it on an iPod, and then listen to it either as part of an artist mix, part of a genre mix, part of a time-period mix, or part of a conglomerate mix of everything on the iPod. CD's are no longer the medium, they are the delivery system--sort of like the post office of music, they're the means by which music is delivered to my iPod (I still prefer buying the CD to paying for a download; I like getting something tangible for my money, I guess).

That led to further rumination: what if I could travel back in time thirty or forty years with nothing more than the clothes on my back and my iPod? How could that one iPod (plus a charger, of course) alter the course of history? Not only could the retro-engineered technology reap a fortune, but the music itself could be a gold mine; all I would need to do would be to copyright songs a few years before they became hits, then sit back and wait for the song to wind its way up the charts, at which point I would cash in on my copyrights. I could do the A&R thing, repping artists who were destined to become superstars...

And from there, I thought slightly broader. What if my Honda Odyssey went through such a time warp and ended up thirty or forty years in the past? That one vehicle, backwards engineered, could change the auto industry, make American car-makers competitive ahead of the curve, and alter the development of such things as GPS systems (I'd have the system, although there'd be no satellites to feed it info), satellite radio (ditto), microprocessors, engine design... again, a fortune could be made.

From there, one step more. What if my entire home--along with the cars in the garage, the iPods, the computers, etc.--made the time jaunt? There would be the most incredible opportunity of all. Within one house, there is a culture-changing amalgam of technology that, if introduced forty years ago, would have immeasurable effects on society. Throw my home back forty years earlier, and we have advances in microwave cooking technology; convection ovens; DLP, LCD, and plasma television technology; DVD players and discs; VCRs and tapes; CDs; nearly-indestructible polycarbonate household items; medicines like Zocor and digitek; microfibers; no-line bifocals; magnetic strip encoded credit cards; advances in frozen foods; self-rising frozen pizza; nonfat snack foods made with Olestra; electronics drums and keyboards; portable entertainment devices galore; cable television decoders... the list goes on and on and on. Not only could a man's home be his castle, it could become his empire, making the owner of even the most middle-class of homes wealthy beyond imagining. And the power that would go with such wealth... the ability to influence politics, business, entertainment... it's almost beyond imagination!

There's a novel in there waiting to be written. It seems to be pushing really hard to write itself. Perhaps it will in the near future...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Type Casting

I noticed an ad in the Marietta Daily Journal for a "going out of business" sale at House of Typewriters. I guess I'm symptomatic of the reason that this venerable store is closing down; it's probably been fifteen years since I last set foot in the store, and probably twenty years since I actually bought anything there. Computers have relegated typewriters to "novelty antique" status, and that doesn't generate enough revenue to keep a store like House of Typewriters open, I guess.

House of Typewriters sold me my first IBM Selectric II typewriter, a hefty oversized brick-red model with an extra-wide carriage. I bought it back in 1973, along with four "golfballs" of fonts I needed for fanzine production. I was familiar with the Selectric, since my good friend Gary Steele had acquired one back in the late 1960s, when a top-notch Selectric cost about 25% as much as a new car (how he convinced his parents, who were quite frugal, to make such an expenditure I never understood).

Why was a Selectric the typewriter to have? Because it allowed you to change fonts and type styles "on the fly." Flip up a little plastic clasp on top of the golf ball, lift it from the metal armature, drop a new golf ball in its place, close the clasp, and voila--Times Roman became Times roman Italic or Helvetica or Prestige Elite. Pica or elite, bold or standard, standard type or specialty symbols--the Selectric offered an amazing array of options.

Unlike Gary, I never could afford a new Selectric. Instead, Susan and I drove from Cedartown to Marietta to shop the House of Typewriter's used selections. We had intended to get a standard Selectric... but there was that beauty of IBM engineering, extra-wide carriage and all, for only $75 more. Back then $375 was an enormous amount of money (I was still in college, so our budget was quite constrained), but we splurged. It was an incredible machine, and we produced hundreds--probably thousands--of pages of fanzines on that typewriter--and it never once needed any service or repair work. These were office workhorses, designed for a great deal of abuse in a multi-user office environment.

Later on, I bought an IBM micro-elite typewriter from House of Typewriters, also for fanzine production. We used it to do half-sized fanzines; micro-elite was probably the equivalent of 8 point type, and that smaller font enabled us to get almost as much type on a 5.5" x 8.5" page as we could get on a. 8.5" x 11" page with pica type. This was in the pre-photocopy days when we produced fanzines on a Gestetner mimeograph by typing onto those waxy mimeo stencils; the micro-elite was a godsend for maximizing wordage and minimizing cost.

I continued to use both typewriters until the late 1980's, when I got my first Mac. The typewriters were soon relegated to a closet, and eventually I sold them cheaply to a friend who wanted them for fanzine use. For more than a decade, I had no typewriter at all; in 2003, when my dad was cleaning out a storage room at his house, he discovered that he had several typewriters given to him during his years as a sports editor, city editor, and managing editor of the Rome News-Tribune, and he offered me one of those if I wanted it. I took him up on the offer, and I now have one of the 1960's era Royal typewriters that I used during my fledgling days as a writer; it's a boat-anchor of a manual typewriter, and it still works quite well.

I had intended to stop by House of Typewriters to pick up several backup ribbons for the Royal, but never did. Truth is, I only typed a page or two on the typewriter as an excuse to visit an old mechanical friend after many years. I don't envision ever using the typewriter for anything more than nostalgia. Nevertheless, I think I'll drop in and see if House of Typewriters still has any ribbons for this model, and use it as an excuse to revisit the era when typewriters reigned... and to say goodbye to a store that I had presumed would always be there...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Walking After Midnight

Just got in from a late-night walk through the neighborhood. It's usually quieter after midnight, but it's quite unusual for me to walk for fifteen or twenty minutes--even after midnight--and not be passed by a single car. For that matter, I didn't even hear any traffic from nearby Sandy Plains or Shallowford Roads, both of which are usually fairly busy all night long.

It's an exceptionally foggy, murky night following a day of off-and-on rain and drizzle. The last of the mist faded away at about 5 this afternoon, but it left the air so sodden that all turned to thick cloudy fog as the night drew on. I've heard the overused simile "fog like a blanket," but that's exactly what it felt like--dense, close, and enveloping. And in this fog, I heard no cars, no airplanes, no distant sirens, nothing to break the silence of the night except the sound of my own footsteps.

Nights like this are exceptional. In the solitude, I whispered a few words to Mom--I speak to her every night when I'm walking--and enjoyed the misty darkness for a moment more before the fog and I parted ways.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Temperature's Rising'...

When does a "cool" pop culture item lose its coolness? Comic books, popular literature, music, films, television shows... sooner or later, every cool show ceases being cool. So when does it "warm up," so to speak--and why? That's not a rhetorical question; I really wish I knew a formula for calculating the half-life of cool...

Remember a long, long time ago when Twin Peaks was cool and everyone talked about every episode the next day? Remember when X-Files was cool? Remember when Ally MacBeal was cool? James Bond movies? Vin Diesel? Bruce Willis? Lawrence Sanders? Britney Spears? Los Bros Hernandez? Pinky & the Brain?...

The current cool show is Lost. There's buzz after every episode airs; avid fans scan every minute of the episode looking for hidden clues, for "Easter eggs" that reveal hidden details of the show. Aficionados scatter the numbers 4-8-15-16-23-42 in their writings, in their art; it's a badge of coolness. But the "lead time" for pop culture is such that by the time some of these references appear, they're not cool any more; they're cool-wannabee, like the "hip" Bob Haney dialogue in a 1960's issue of Teen Titans. And the more the cool-wannabees push the edge of coolness with their sycophantic attitude, the quicker they raise the ambient pop-culture temperature of their current fave out of the cool range.

How long will it be before Lost allusions are as uncool as a dancing baby references? I'm guessing not very long at all, judging by the nova-like intensity this show has risen to pop-culture phenomenon status. I know that I'm getting tired of the allusions already, and I enjoy Lost...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

With Friends Like These...

The guys at TVSquad.com have revealed that NBC is working on a series of one-hour specials starring the Friends cast. All six members of the original cast are rumored to be returning, which would give us the equivalent of a third of a season of new Friends episodes.

When I began exercising twice a day after my heart surgery, I entertained myself by watching DVD seasons of Friends as I was working out with weights. It took quite a while for me to catch up on the series--I didn't start watching Friends live until the end of season 7 or the beginning of season 8--but I was very impressed with what I saw. While some of the episodes ventured into formula, the characters were among the most personable I had ever seen on television.

I came to admire Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer in particular--each is superlative at physical comedy, but the chemistry when they're together is remarkable. Of course, Jennifer Anniston had an irresistible charm on screen and Courtney Cox-Arquette was endearing in a quirky way, but it was Schwimmer and Perry who gave the show its best moments. (Never cared that much for Matt LeBlanc's shtick-laden portrayal of Joey, which is why I was surprised that this character was chosen for a spinoff... but that may have been due to LeBlanc's savvy awareness that he had no other options. And I was absolutely bored by Lisa Kudrow's painful attempts at eccentricity in her portrayal of Phoebe, and I was glad that used her as more of a supporting cast member/foil than as a central figure in most of the episodes.)

I hated to see the series end; I was so interested in these people that I wanted to see where their lives took them next. I came to see the separation of these friends as sadly symbolic of the paths that our lives take--but I think we all hope that, unlike the show, our friendships will never change. I liked these characters--and that's a rarity for contemporary television, as far as I'm concerned.

So the news that they're coming back is quite welcome. Even better, though, is the rumor that a new spinoff might come out of this--a spinoff starring Perry, Schwimmer, and LeBlanc. Now what this means for Chandler Bing's marriage, I can't say--how could he remain married without Courtney Cox-Arquette in the series?--but what it means for NBC, I can say. It means that they can retire the flat, infrequently funny Joey and give us a quality ensemble-cast series that might continue the Friends legacy. And it means that NBC has a chance at recreating a bit of that "Must-See TV" magic.

It's too early to say it's a done deal, but let's hope so... for them and for us!

This Miss Is a Hit

Robin Fletcher also alerted me to a recent story about a former student who made good. Kandice Pelletier, a wonderful young woman whom I taught in the late 90's, was a contender in this weekend's Miss America contest. She was representing New York, where her post-high-school successes have taken her in the years since her graduation; an article in the Marietta Daily Journal mentioned that she had also been the model for a Radio City Rockette statue (she has worked as a Rockette for a while) and that she had a role in the recent film version of The Producers. Anyone who knew Kandice knew that she was destined for success; I expect to hear her name many more times in the coming years.


Long before I ever even heard of Service Merchandise or Ellman's, metro Atlanta's first major warehouse-discount-catalog-type stores, there was Norwood-Griffin. I bought Susan's engagement ring there in 1970; after we were married in 1971, we bought towels, sheets, dishes, and other items from the store. It's been gone for many years now, and it took a month or so of mental percolating before I even remembered the name.

Norwood-Griffin was a catalog store with a small showroom; my memory tells me that it was no larger than 500 square feet, a cubbyhole store a block off Broad Street in Rome, just a door away from the back entrance to Wyatt's Department Store. There were numerous items on display there--mostly high-quality home items, linens, small appliances, but some clothing, jewelry, and electronics as well--but there was nothing for sale. Instead, there was a catalog from which these items and others could be ordered. Each item was accompanied by a list price and a discount price; the latter price, often reflecting a 40%-50% discount, was the Norwood-Griffin price. The merchandise was always first-quality, the service always personable, the atmosphere always casual and customer-friendly.

I have no idea when Norwood-Griffin went out of business, but my memory tells me that it must have been after 1977, when Susan and I moved from the Cedartown/Rome area to Marietta. That's when we quit doing most of our shopping in Rome, so I lost touch of a lot of the local stores after that. I think I would have remembered had the store closed down prior to that time.

Norwood-Griffin is one of many stores that were a part of my life in Rome, and one of those that I particularly miss. It harkens back to a pre-big-box era of retailing that I miss.

Time Keeps On Slipping...

A very good friend, Robin Fletcher, just dropped me an e-mail to let me know that the engagement of a former student, Brad Johnson, is mentioned in today's Marietta Daily Journal. Brad and his twin brother Beau are two of the small handful of students I remember most vividly from my many years of teaching; although different in their intellectual approaches and attitudes, they were both among the most analytical, introspective, creative, and gifted people I have ever known. I enjoyed many a conversation with both of them, both during their years as students and afterwards. I still hear from Beau every now and then, but haven't seen Brad in a while; it was good to see that his life is progressing well and he's finding the happiness he deserves. Robin commented--as have many others--that Brad and Beau seemed like they could have been my sons, we had so very much in common. I've always taken that as a compliment!

100 Years Ago...

Until my good friend Charles Rutledge reminded me, I had forgotten that today is the centennial of the birth of Robert E. Howard. My first introduction to Howard's visceral prose came via the book pictured at left: Conan the Adventurer, a Lancer paperback that featured a stunning cover by Frank Frazetta. I had become a fan of Frazetta's work thanks to the ERB Ace editions, had begun picking up and CreepyEerie because of his cover art there, and was keeping an eye open for other Frazetta art--and there it was, a stunning image of a muscular, barbaric Conan in his prime. Thanks to that cover, I picked the book up and was immediately drawn into Howard's dark, savage world. I was captivated and began searching out every other Lancer Conan book I could find; I still have all those well-worn paperbacks, although I have many other editions of REH's work that I am more likely to read.

Like many others, I stayed with Conan through the non-REH tales; I expanded my reading to encompass virtually every sword-and-sorcery pastiche I could find (and in the process discovered such works of distinction as Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, Michael Moorcock's Elric, and even the more derivative Kothar by Gardner Fox--one of my favorite comic book writers--and Thongor by Lin Carter).

From Conan, my appetite for REH's prose led me to Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and eventually to the many other types of weird and adventure fiction that Howard wrote during his all-too-short lifetime. Howard never failed to transport me into a lush, colorful world far removed from anything I had found in any other writer's works.

Happy birthday, Bob! Your life should have been much, much longer...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

"The Molar, the Merrier"

About that trip to see Doc Sturn: just to play it safe, he made not one but two molds of the tooth that needed the permanent crown. That meant two mouth-loads of that ooky purple stuff with its plastic-and-chemical taste... you know, the stuff that hardens into a quasi-superglue so strong that you begin to wonder if the dentist will ever manage to get your teeth unclenched. He was confident that the bubble that had marred the original impression was not present in the new castings, so I should have a permanent crown cemented into place in about a week and a half. That'll mean that I get the permanent crown in just about a month before I go back to Doc Sturn for my next six-month checkup, where he'll inevitably find something dentally awry...

"The Highlight of My Week..."

I've mentioned before that we do YuGiOh tournaments at the store every Friday night at 7pm. We have a pretty large group of regulars for those tournaments, ranging in age from about 9 up to about 45 (we have some parents who turn YuGiOh night into a family event). What I hadn't realized was just how big a thing YuGiOh night was to a lot of our players, both old and young.

"This was an awful week," one ten-year-old said with a sort of world-weariness you'd expect from someone five times older. "School started back, I got in trouble at home, my television quit working...." His voice trailed off with the implication that the litany could continue for quite a while. "This is the only good thing about the whole week!" he said with renewed vitality.

"I know what you mean," a young regular in line behind him said. "I start looking forward to this on Monday morning!" Hard to believe that a pre-teen's life is so demanding, but apparently it is... and apparently the chance to spend a few hours playing YuGiOh is their primary respite.

The conversation continued, and it became clear that several of the kids built their whole week around YuGiOh. A parent admitted that the tournaments were such a big thing to their kids that they used the tournament as an incentive for good behavior--if the kids didn't do what they were supposed to, they wouldn't get to go to Dr. No's on Friday night.

I knew that our players had a good time, which is why they kept showing up week after week--but I had never considered just how important the tournaments were. Thinking back on my childhood, I remember events that were probably insignificant to others but had tremendous impact to me; I now realize that these tournaments, which none of us think all that much about, are the sort of moments that many of these kids are going to remember for years and years to come. It's not the game itself, it's not the store itself--it's the magic of the moment, the excitement of being with a group of people who enjoy the same thing, the entertainment of spending three or four hours playing a game with kids like you and with adults who don't think there's anything odd about the game that you're playing.

Sometimes we do Very Good Things and don't even know it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Tooth and Nothing But...

There's no reason to say that I don't particularly enjoy going to the dentist. No one enjoys going to the dentist--including, I suspect, dentists and their families. However, I have to make a confession: I don't hate going to the dentist as much as I used to.

Have I succumbed to oral masochism? Nah--it's just that, somehow, I've come to realize that while there are parts of dental work that I really don't enjoy, overall it's nowhere nearly as bad as I had convinced myself that it was. I don't know if dental procedures have just improved since my visits to Dr. Cromartie in the early 1960s (I would walk to the dentist and reward myself after the visit by walking to the nearby bakery and buying brownies... somehow it seems self-defeating in retrospect). A couple of years ago, I picked a nearby dental office and made up my mind to go regularly; imagine my surprise when I walked in and discovered that the dentist I had chosen was (drum roll, please...) one of my comic shop regulars!

Doc Sturn (Dr. Ian Sturn, to be precise) is a superlative dentist--amiable, meticulous, concerned, informative, helpful... and best of all, he knows how to give me that inevitable shot of novocaine without rendering my jaw sore for the rest of the day.

By the way, this is probably a good time to mention that I have horrible dental problems, some inherited and some related to a medical side-effect that causes some calcium loss, rendering my teeth more succeptible to breakage and other damage. So I spend more time undergoing dental work that most folks. Susan, for example, has great teeth, so she hardly ever has to have anything more than a routine cleaning. Me... it's rare for a six-month checkup to pass without the discovery of at least one problem that needs further attention. *sigh*

Tomorrow, I have to see Doc Sturn again--not for any major work, but to have a new dental impression made for a permanent crown. Seems the lab somehow did something wonky with the old impression and isn't confident they can properly fit the crown now--so I get to experience that uncomfortable fifteen minutes with rubbery goop in my mouth. Not what I'd choose to kick off a Saturday morning, but it could be a lot worse...

At least I'll have a chance to ask him if he finished Infinite Crisis #4 yet--and if he did, I can find out if he was impressed with it as I was. See, you can have fun at the dentist's office!

(If you're keeping count, my cardiologist, my dentist, my accountant, and one of my bankers are regular customers at Dr. No's. Don't know how I ended up so lucky, but I like this system!...)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Crisis Contemplations

While I have nothing but kudos for DC's superlative Infinite Crisis series, I do have to point out one area where DC has fumbled the ball: tie-ins. While a number of books have carried Infinite Crisis Tie-In banners on the cover, the tie-in ID's have been handled in a haphazard manner. Some books that have carried the banners seem only marginally connected to the story, while others--such as the current JLA storyline or the final issue of The Flash--carry no tie-in banner at all, but have such an integral link to the storyline as a whole that they should be read by every Crisis fan. I know that DC is still a bit gun-shy about over-hyping tie-ins after the problems with Crisis on Infinite Earths two decades earlier (some books that were hyped as tie-ins contained only a panel or to of oblique reference to the core series), but by letting crucial books slip past the readers sans tie-in banner, they're selling themselves short and leaving some readers out of all the fun!

Earl's Well That Ends Well

It's very rare for me to actually laugh out loud at a television comedy--but My Name Is Earl makes me laugh a lot. Week in and week out, this remains the funniest show of the year, surpassing even my old fave, Scrubs. It's not that Scrubs got worse--it's just that Earl managed to punch all the right buttons for me.

Jason Lee's performance at Earl, a ne'er-do-well searching for karmic balance after coming to a moment of semi-cosmic awareness, is absolutely brilliant. Making viewers like such an inherently unlikeable character is a challenge, but Lee pulls it off remarkably well. Ethan Suplee's portrayal of Earl's slow-witted brother Randy is equally good; Suplee plays Randy as a small-town Lenny type, likeable and dim-witted and not truly bright enough to be evil. Eddie Steeples gives Darnell, aka Crab-Man, a charming goodness that seems surprising when you consider that he's the man who stole Earl's former wife. And that former wife, Joy, is played to perfection by Jaime Pressley, who chews the scenery with such comic abandon that she steals almost every scene in which she appears. She's greedy, manipulative, amoral, and absolutely self-centered--but even with such negative qualities, she still has a perversely endearing charm.

I never imagined that My Name Is Earl would hold my attention for a single episode--but I didn't allow for the superb writing that makes a quartet of should-be-repugnant characters come across as likeable souls on a winding path to betterment. There's nothing else like Earl on television--and I hope that no one tries to imitate it. It's too quirky and distinctive to serve as a model for derivation.

It's a Big World After All...

First Neal Adams was talking about the "expanding earth" theory and his firm conviction that our planet has grown in size considerably over the eons, interpreting the continental drift theory in a strange new way. That was my first exposure to this concept. Recently, Michael Netzer sent out an e-mail agreeing with the idea and providing a link to The Fourth Revolt, a site that promotes the idea that our world has expanded in size and mass, and attempting to prove it in various ways. They focus on ocean age (the deepest ocean trenches are apparently only 250 million years old, implying that the ocean itself can be no longer than that), matching trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific coastlines (contintental drift from a once-unified Pangaea, they argue, would allow the Atlantic or the Pacific coastdlines to match, but not both), biotic disjunctions (plant an animal life is similar in now-separated parts of the world that would have been united before the oceans were created by planetary expansion), dinosaur anomalies (biological engineering calculations are hard-pressed to explain how the dinosaurs could move effectively through their world, the expanding-earthists maintain, but a smaller planet with lower gravity would eliminate these contradictions), and various mathematical calculations that I vaguely follow but lack the expertise to summarize. You're invited to check out the site for itself.

There's also discussion of the ether theory, which says that space is filled with a fluid referred to as ether. The creators of the site list some of the greatest scientific minds in history, including Bacon, Newton, Planck, and Einstein as being etherists; I haven't done sufficient investigation to discover if their claims are valid, so I'm neither supporting or refuting them here. In their vision of universal physics, the ether theory and the expanding earth theory are somehow related, and I'm sure I'll sooner or later have sufficient intellectual curiosity to read all their links and see just how this is--but I'm not to that point yet.

What is intriguing, though, is that this theory, flawed as it may be, does seemingly focus on some anomalies in the continental drift theory. I find this sort of scientific refocusing to serve a positive purpose, even if it proves to be totally wrong. If nothing else, it forces science to refute the new theories in sufficiently simple terms that the layman can understand, clarifying some pretty complex scientific theories. At best, it forces conventional science to acknowledge possible flaws in the accepted theories.

In fairness, Wired Magazine actually took Adams seriously enough that they did an article on the artist/writer and his fascination with the subject, pitting him against traditional scientists who challenged his conclusions. You can see the article here; it makes for some thought-provoking reading, although Adams doesn't emerge victorious (just in case you were wondering)...

I'm not taking sides here, but I do recommend paying a visit to the sites. If nothing else, they offer some theories that could be great fodder for a well-crafted fantasy/sf or sword-and-planet novel...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Happy Time

...And ironically, just as I was writing the final words of the last post, Robert Goulet's "The Happy Time" came up on iTunes. It's a song from a rarely-heard musical; I wouldn't have known it were it not for Sandra Jackson, one of the most skilled teachers with whom I ever worked. Sandra taught at East Rome High School (don't look for it any more... it's a Kmart parking lot now), and was in her eighteenth year of teaching when I began there in 1975. She taught English, like me, but she was also the head of the drama department; The Happy Time was one of many musicals she produced during my five years at East Rome--one of many musicals to which she introduced me, for which I am forever grateful. Not only did Sandra educate her students, she also educated me, instilling an appreciation of musical performance that had until that time eluded me. I'm a much better teacher because of the skills she shared with me, and those students who were lucky enough to experience her talents in the classroom never forgot them. I called Sandra a few years ago just to say thanks, and she was just as vibrant and enthusiastic then as she had been in 1975.

Thanks, Sandra... I'll always remember the happy time....

Missing Class

Hard to believe, but as of March 31st of this year, it will be six years since I last taught a class. It was the last day before spring break of 2000, and like most pre-spring break days, it was a relatively casual day. The yearbook class had already made its deadlines and was working on planning the 2001 book; the World Lit classes were finishing a paper; the Brit Lit class worked on vocabulary. I know that we were doing other things that day, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was; I had no idea it would be so important to me, really.

Heart attack, surgery, retirement... long story, boring details. Thing is, I still miss teaching... but I don't think I miss being in the classroom any longer. I see a former student teacher of mine--now a teacher at a nearby high school--on a semi-regular basis, and he doesn't seem to enjoy what he's doing. Too much paperwork, too many useless tests, too little time to actually teach. It grates on him--and I know it would grate on me even more. I always had a low tolerance for foolish bureaucracy, and I think the emphasis on form over function in contemporary education would push me beyond curmudgeonly into full malcontent mode.

But there are times when I run across a reference to a work I used to teach, or find an excerpt from an author or a work I enjoyed, or see a student who really came into his or her own in the classroom... There are times when I wish I could return to the classroom again to teach. Not to handle discipline, not to do restroom duty or hall monitor work or paperwork that by all rights should be done by guidance counselors, but to actually teach. There's nothing like the feeling you get when you manage to break down something complex, reducing it to mentally digestible nuggets that actually feed a student's mind. I did it for more than a quarter of a century, and I remember those times when everything clicked.

Almost six years, and I still have dreams about the classroom. Good dreams.

I wish that common sense would return to education, and the state would actually respect the teacher's ability to teach, rather than forcing them to administer tests that are irrelevant and useless. I'd like to see more teachers enjoying the classroom experience as much as I did. But the current system saps that enjoyment, crushing enthusiasm and chasing away too many people who might turn into good teachers if the system worked with them rather than working against them.

Crisis in Finite Comic Shops

Had an opportunity to read Infinite Crisis #4 today.

Suddenly it's like I'm nine again and the first part of the first-ever JLA-JSA crossover has just come out and I've finished it and I don't know how I can possibly wait a whole month for the next part of the story.

I was a bit surprised by some of the brutality in the story--there are some very ugly scenes that force readers to totally rethink one of the core characters--and am still concerned that some beloved characters might not come out of this unscathed... or alive, for that matter. But that's part of the excitement of this series. The fact that Geoff Johns could make a forty-seven-years-of-comic-book-reading veteran like me care this much about what's happening in this story is a tribute to his skill as a storyteller.

I hear from folks every now and then who are certain that, as a comic shop owner and the Comic Shop News guy, I must know exactly what's going to happen as a result of this story. I try to assure them that I have no more inside info than they do--and I don't think I'd have it any other way. The thrill associated with a well-told cliffhanger-laden story is something I'm happily rediscovering...

But did they really?.... Nah, I 'm not going to finish that thought. Read it for yourself and you'll be asking a lot of the same questions.

Guilty Pleasures (Teevee)

HDNet routinely runs older series in high definition--but I was surprised to see Hogan's Heroes on their programming list. Apparently the original series was shot on film, and some industrious soul has gone to the trouble of converting episodes to high-def. Okay, it's not perfect--the image is more like 14:9 instead of 16:9--but it's still remarkably clean and sharp for a series from the 1960s.

Of course, the high-def is lagniappe for me. I watched the show pretty regularly from its 1965 premiere until its cancellation after (I believe) seven seasons. Sure, it's a silly premise, and it trivialized prisoner of war camps, blah blah blah... but I nevertheless enjoyed the broad humor of the series, the ensemble cast, and the charm of Bob Crane. Now, of course, we're told that the charm was only superficial, but so what? On the screen, Colonel Hogan was a noble rogue, an amiable enemy of the Germans and an affable leader of his ragtag troops.

I've watched about a half-dozen episodes in high-def so far; none of them is particularly memorable, but they are remarkably consistent in quality--if you like one of them, you'll probably like them all, and if you dislike it, don't even try another episode...

I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I was 12 years old when the show premiered; at the age of 12, when your family has just added its first color television, prime-time network fare is almost irresistible--and we never forget those shows that fascinated us as kids.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Guilty Pleasures (Edibles)

Lindt 60% Extra-Dark Chocolate Truffles. I love dark chocolate and appreciate the differing tastes and textures of various brands, but I have never found a more palatable blend than these truffles. Lighter chocolate outer layer, extra-rich dark chocolate center that's almost cool to the tongue (still don't know how they do that)... I suspect that even those who don't like dark chocolate would enjoy these little jewels.

Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For...

You'd think that if I wanted a particular piece of electronics, someone would go to the trouble of making it...

I'd been considering replacing the kitchen television, an old 13" tube television, with an LCD flat-screen, 20" or so. What I was looking for was a television with a built-in hard drive or pcmcia memory card slot that would allow some basic recording or time-delay features. I don't really want to save programs on the kitchen tv, mind you--but I would like the ability to back up the broadcast for a minute or two if I miss something. Let's face it: the kitchen is one of the most likely places for a viewer to be busy doing something else that has him/her looking away from the screen. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a reference to something on television that I'd like to have seen, but I was working at the cooktop, or getting something out of the oven, or putting cat food in a bowl, and by the time I looked up, the image was long since gone.

Sounds like a reasonable request to me... but I may as well have asked for a matter transporter. It seems that no one is putting hard drives in an LCD screen that's less than 42" in size. From what I can tell, Sharp once offered a 20" set that used a 5gb PCMCIA card for such storage, but it seems to have been discontinued and is now unavailable anywhere.

If anyone with an electronics "in" can point me in the right direction, or give me some information regarding any units that might do what I need, it would be much appreciated!

(And yes, I'm aware that I could get a standalone Tivo and it would do the same thing, but the idea here is to reduce countertop clutter in the kitchen--and replacing one television with two pieces of electronics doesn't seem to move me towards that goal.)

Radio, Radio

I've been a comics fan ever since I was a child. And by "comics fan," I mean that I am an enthusiast of the medium, not just one aspect of it. I read superhero comics, war comics, humor comics; I read DC, Marvel, Archie, Tower, Charlton, ACG, Dell/Gold Key; I read old comics (when I could find them) and new comics; I read multi-part stories out of order without worrying about acquiring all the parts first (I read the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories in StrangeTales for quite a while before I ever found #135, 137, & 138, which apparently never got distribution in Rome, Georgia).

I am reminded of my omnivorous comics reading habits as I enjoy WHCH: Hold Tight, the latest release from Jane Smith Fisher and Wilson Place Comics. The first story page of this trade paperback, with its "previously seen in WJHC..." summary, might lead some readers to believe that they should forego this volume until they've read the previous book--but that's not the case at all. Between her prefatory introduction to the cast and her brief "up-to-speed" summary, Fisher has given new readers all they need to know to dive right into this engaging and entertaining story of the teenage staff of a high school radio station.

I've always thought that the high school environment was ideal for comic book stories; it's the perfect microcosm for pre-teen and teen readers, since they're familiar with it--and younger children look forward to those high school years, so they're more inclined to read books set in that milieu. Fisher manages to capture the vitality of high-school life in a light-hearted, sometimes zany adventure series reminiscent of an updated, more hip Archie comic.

Joe Staton illustrates the book with such skill that he makes it seem deceptively easy; Staton's always been a fluid storyteller, and his skill is particularly evident in this book. Colorist John Green uses a bold, intense palette to accentuate the art, making the finished art pop off the page.

WJHC: Hold Tight! is a great all-ages comic; I hope that Fisher won't keep us waiting as long for the next volume.

Guilty Pleasures (Music)

I own thousands of CD's, and still have a couple of thousand albums on vinyl that I suspect will never see CD release. Still, there are some albums that captivate me just as much now as they did the first time I heard them. One of those albums is Iron Butterfly's Ball. Yeah, I know--most people don't even realize that Iron Butterfly did anything other than In-a-Gadda-da-Vida. But for me, Ball is the pinnacle of their musical career. The album is bold, experimental, and semi-psychedelic, with some tonal experiments interspersed. At the time, the album was considered pretty heavy in its sound--but unlike today's pretentious angry heavy-metal sound, the lyrics were for the most part introspective and sensitive. "This Boy" remains a personal favorite, along with "It Must Be Love." The most haunting songs on the album, though, are "In the Times of Our Lives" and the manic, almost nightmarish "Filled With Fear." Every time I hear this album, it makes me wish that this Iron Butterfly line-up had stayed together far longer; alas, the only two albums they did were this one and the aforementioned In-a-Gadda-da-Vida. There are other Iron Butterfly albums, to be sure, but the roster is different on those. Heavy comes close to the sound at times, but the absence of Erik Braunn really hurts. Metamorphosis never quite clicks; the organ is different, the guitar is more traditional, and the ethereal quality of the soaring sound is gone. But oh, what a treat this one album is!...

The Bauer Power Double Hour

24 kicked off with a double episode tonight, and I was hooked in less than ten minutes. Unlike many series that are afraid to tamper with the status quo, 24 shook everything up right out of the gate. Oh, I can tell that there are going to be things that irritate me here and there--the son of the woman who had befriended Jack is going to become this season's major albatross, I fear--but I'm along for the ride on this one!

It's funny... I really enjoyed the 24-hour structure of the show, but I thought the first season was hampered by too much repetition and needless wheel-spinning. Season 2 should have been tailor-made for me--the plot was actually similar to one I had roughed out for a never-written novel--but it failed to deliver. Season 3 was so weak that I lost interest and virtually wrote the series off. I watched the first episode of season 4, though, and was hooked--and in spite of a weaker-than-hoped-for finale, that season was still outstanding. So I'm going into this with high hopes... and a real optimism that they're going to deliver!