Monday, December 31, 2007

Archival Absence

Looking through DC's offerings for May through August, I see that there are virtually no Archive editions listed--one Seven Soldiers of Victory, one final Doom Patrol, and then nada.

It's a shame. I have a genuine affection for DC's Archives and Marvel's Masterworks line; it's an affordable way to accumulate a collection of some of comics' finest reading without going broke in the process. However, I can also see why the line might be coming to an end; DC has collected much of their finest material, and the $50 pricetag makes it difficult for casual readers to justify the expense when they can enjoy twice as much material (in black and white, alas) for a third of the price in DC's Showcase Presents line.

DC has also learned that some material is better packaged in its own sub-line rather than in the Archives series--Jack Kirby's Fourth World, for instance, is being collected in four self-contained hardcovers rather than offered as a quartet of Archives editions. The same was done with Neal Adams' Batman, Deadman, and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The packages are great, but they're not Archives--and their existence guarantees that the same material won't be offered in Archives editions. That means that some of their best Silver Age material will never be offered in the collectors' format used for the bulk of their most desirable comics.

Marvel seems to be continuing their Masterworks line full-speed-ahead, with two books per month for the foreseeable future--but even Marvel has run through its prime material and is left with some books that have a strong appeal to me but a lesser appeal to most contemporary readers. I love Marvel's pre-hero stuff like Tales to Astonish #s 1-10, but I can see that sales are far slower on these volumes than on the prime material like the first fifty issues of Fantastic Four.

Marvel has discovered something that the movie and music industries learned a long time ago, however: if you can't keep putting out more great material, then put out the same great material in enhanced packages. Their Omnibus volumes, featuring twenty-five, thirty, or more issues of a classic comic, complete with letters columns, house ads, and more in an oversized format, is actually a better deal and a more appealing package than the Masterworks. I enjoy the Masterworks, but I get more excited about the Omnibus books because they collect so much more, and add extras that I can't get in the Masterworks editions... so I re-buy the same material in an enhanced format.

DC has yet to figure out how to make that jump with their classic material, although they are doing something similar with more recent best-sellers via their Absolute line. These are upscale, high-production-value, enhanced slipcased versions of books like Sandman, Batman: Hush, or Crisis on Infinite Earths--and they have been successful in convincing readers who already have the material to re-buy it in an improved edition. The only catch is, DC is focusing on more recent material with its Absolute line, not on premiere Silver Age material.

(One other drawback to DC's line is one noticed only by those of us in the retail community: Marvel offers their Masterworks and Omnibus volumes at full discount, while DC cuts the discount to retailers by a full 10% on these books, making them more expensive initially and less profitable. DC gets their price on the books, customers get a price competitive with Marvel's Masterworks line... and retailers get pinched in the middle, forced to pay more and make less when they sell the books. And it does hurt; I know many retailer who won't carry a full line of Archives or Absolute editions for just that reason.)

Do I know for certain that the Archives line is going away? No--it's just a suspicion based on rumor and reduced output in mid-2008. If it is coming to an end, though, then I hope that DC has something better in the works... because I'm willing to re-buy and re-sell those same stories if they can find a way to make it worthwhile!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Classic Bond

I've always maintained that James Bond was a cinematic and literary classic... now it's a musical classic as well!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Name That Tunesmith

A couple of days ago, I burned a number of CDs to mp3 so that I could listen to them on the iPod--the list included the latest from Neil Young, John Fogerty, Ann Wilson, Robert Plant & Allison Kraus, the Eagles, Jane Monheit, Mannheim Steamroller, and Anuna, along with a three-disc Matt Monro package (don't worry if you don't recognize him--while he was a major act in England sometimes referred to as the British Frank Sinatra, here he's only known for singing the From Russia With Love theme song), a Bing Crosby Radio Show Christmas set, the first two Josie Cotton albums on one disc, a Celtic cover version of Led Zeppelin songs, the Twin Peaks II soundtrack disc, and an album whose name I can't remember, but it's basically emo-goth Christmas songs.

I put 'em all in one playlist, and the fun began. As Brett and I were driving to the warehouse to pick up our comics, the music began--and pretty soon, we found outself engaged in a game of "guess the artist" from a list of songs that for the most part we hadn't heard. Oh, sure, there were Josie Cotton and Bing Crosby songs we knew, and the Zep tunes were recognizeable--but having Robert Plant thrown into the mix confused things, and it got more complicated because Ann Wilson covered a Led Zeppelin song and a John Fogerty song on her recent album.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Think again, b'wana! After a while, we realized that Neil Young and John Fogerty have a lot more in common than we had ever suspected, and Ann Wilson sometimes sounded more like Robert Plant than Robert Plant did. And there are times when Anuna, Mannheim Steamroller, and emo-goth blur into one strange ethereal subgenre.

Of course, we didn't have too much trouble at all recognizing Matt Monro or Jane Monheit or Bing Crosby, so those were the easy ones. For the most part, Josie Cotton was quick 'n' easy to identify, too--but there was one Josie song that totally threw Brett, so it wasn't always 100% obvious. Since we only listened to segments of the song (unless it was something we really liked, in which case we'd stay with it a bit longer), we managed to go through 167 songs in the hour and a half that we spend in the car round-trip. The strangest mix-up: a Joe Walsh Eagles song that we both swore was John Fogerty for the first thirty seconds or so...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Here We Are, As In Olden Days...

Christmas was bittersweet this year; we all missed Dad terribly, as I knew we would, but everyone seemed to find happiness in the season. We went to Rome to spend Christmas morning with Kimberly, Cole, Christy, Oliver, Jessica, and Adam; too many presents were opened, there was laughter, and there were memories of bygone Christmases both at Kim's and at Mom & Dad's.

Susan and I spent the afternoon at home, exchanging our own gifts and having our traditional Christmas Day pizza. Something about knowing you can't buy a pizza from a restaurant makes you want it all the more; in preparation, we had bought a take-and-bake pizza at Sam's, to which we added some extras (diced jalapenos, turkey pepperoni, olives). It turned out quite well--probably all the better because it was the only pizza we could have that day!

Christmas brought me lots of DVD's, even more dark chocolate, some shirts, a nifty retro-style phone for our second line (it looks like an old-style phone, but it's cordless--I missed the heft of an old-style handset, and the convenient shape that cradled so well between ear and shoulder), and much more. I'm still finding a place for it all... I'm almost to that point where I have to get rid of at least one thing for every item I add!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

And so this is Christmas...

May every one of you find the experience the joy of childhood anew, tempered with the depth of appreciation that can only come with maturity.

And if your family is still with you, cherish them; it is in them that you will find the myriad of happinesses that keep Christmas alive for each of us.

Merry Christmas...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This Christmas season, I have bought several gifts at local stores. They're not all locally owned stores, mind you, but they're stores that exist in my general neighborhood and employ people from my area, so the money benefits my community, at least indirectly. And you know what? I've decided that I like doing that.

I've bought several things at the Sears that recently opened in the Merchants' Walk area of Cobb County. This was once a KMart, but the store was closed in September, gutted, and renovated as a contemporary community Sears. It reminds me of the local Sears in Rome when I was a child; compact, but filled with an amazing assortment of items in all product areas. I've spent more at this store in two months than I've spent in the past two years at Sears, and I intend to spend more there; I like having non-mall stores that are convenient for neighborhood shopping, and I want to reward those who build stores away from the centralized mall-hubs.

There's a Target in that area that also gets some of my business, simply because I like the big-store-in-a-suburban-area feel; it has an underground parking deck with an escalator that takes you directly into the store, but it has a smaller, more personal feel of an old department store. Good design, good employees, good atmosphere...

I've been buying more things at the local Ace Hardware, because it has a homey atmosphere that I enjoy. The people are helpful, and I'm surprised at what I can find there. Most recently, I bought a very nice pocket knife there as a gift for a friend who had lamented the fact that he didn't have a small knife. I didn't know where to begin looking for such a knife, then it occurred to me that I had seen an assortment of them at Ace one time; I stopped by during an afternoon walk, and there they were!

I picked up a couple of gifts at a local florist as well; they have some very attractive home decor items, and the quality seems much higher than what you find in the trendy mass-market home boutiques.

I'll never be able to buy everything I want locally--my tastes are too eclectic for that. But I've decided that I'm going to spend more of my dollars locally next year, even if I have to pay a little bit more for the things I want.

What Would You Give?...

... if you could afford to give to your friends any Christmas gift you wanted?

I know we all have our own ideas of what life-changing gifts we might give; here's mine.

(1) A home, all paid for: nothing gave me more of a sense of personal freedom and self-direction than paying off our home for the very first time. It's an amazing thing, knowing that the place in which you live fully belongs to you; I wish I could give that feeling to every one of my friends.

(2) A new car, all paid for. Same basic idea here. A house and a car are the two biggest expenses that most people are burdened with; I am convinced that, once someone becomes free from those, it's relatively easy to arrange one's finances so that one would never have to go into debt again.

(3) A favorite childhood toy. Every one of us has some toy from our youth that holds a special place in our heart; most of us have long since lost that toy, and have no idea how to replace it. Wouldn't it be wonderful to give that gift to your friends? The stories that such gifts would generate would be wonderful; every one of us can wax eloquent about those things that meant so much to us when we were young.

(4) A book signed by a favorite author or artist. Ideally, it would be a book personalized to the recipient, but a signed book would suffice if the author/artist were no longer alive to personally inscribe the volume.

(5) A complete collection of family photos, films, and videotapes, digitally collected, transferred, and organized. I suspect that every one of us has plans to someday assemble all those random photos and tapes and 8mm movies and put them into some semblance of order; unfortunately, most of us never get around to it. Wouldn't it be great to be able to give each person a fully prepared collection of his own family photos and films to be enjoyed whenever one wished?

Alas, I can't afford to give these to all of my friends... maybe someday. I've been lucky enough to give a few of these gifts to people close to me, though, and I can tell you that it's a remarkable feeling...

DHL Doesn't Deliver

Yesterday I made the mistake of believing Amazon.com's "Saturday delivery guaranteed for X amount extra" hype and ordered a last-minute gift (what or for whom, I'm not saying, since they might be reading). Amazon does a great job (with UPS's cooperation) of making their two-day delivery guarantees throughout the year, so I thought they would come through with this gift as well.

Then I found out they were using DHL.

There are delivery services... and there is DHL. I believe their name is derived from their primary method of moving freight: Donkey Hauling Luggage. I have had only a few really bad home delivery experiences... and all but two of them involve DHL. What makes that odd is that DHL only delivers about 5% of the packages I receive, and yet they account for about 90% of the delivery problems I have racked up over the years.

Imagine my surprise when the package didn't show up by three this afternoon, as I was told it would. I logged in, ran the tracking info... and the package was still in Ohio as of 2:27pm.

Called DHL. "Guaranteed Saturday deliver only means it's guaranteed if we get it there," the phone jockey explained. I asked for that to be repeated, and it was.

Wrap your head around those words. "We only gurantee it if we do it; if we fail, we don't guarantee it."

Called Amazon. "Oh. Well, we'll refund your extra costs for next-day delivery." I spent a little time explaining how inadequate this was; Amazon solicited my business with this Saturday guarantee, I ordered based on that, and they screwed up by hiring a known-problem delivery company. "Let me let you speak with a supervisor," the Amazon phone jockey said... and he then put me on hold.

For two hours and seven minutes.

Now bear in mind, I wasn't just sitting there holding the phone; I clicked over to speaker phone and worked on Comic Shop News, so I was doing what I would have been doing anyway. I actually forgot at one point that the phone was still on; after a while, the tinny droning recording blended with background noise. It wasn't until the phone began to beep, indicating the battery was dying, that I consciously realized that Amazon wasn't going to talk to me about this; I'd been "phone-dumped."

Thirty minutes later, I drove to the newly-opened Merchant's Walk Sears (a standalone store that harkens back to the Central Plaza area Sears that was a highlight of Rome shopping in my childhood) and bought the same gift for the same price. And when/if the DHL shipment shows up, I will be refusing it. I called Amazon and told them that, and listened to their apologies, and accepted their gift certificate to compensate for my inconvenience... but I reminded them that this was indeed their fault, not DHL's. DHL did exactly what DHL is famous for: they failed to deliver. Amazon knew that this was their reputation, and they hired them anyway. That makes this an Amazon failure, not a DHL failure.

I have told Amazon that, from here on, I will refuse all DHL shipments from Amazon, regardless of whether they arrive on time or not. I no longer accept DHL as a viable Amazon offer; the phone jockey told me that I wasn't the first to do this, and that they actually had an option that they don't advertise that allows customers to specify that a carrier can not be used.

Maybe if enough people make the same Amazon call I did, they can make Amazon realize that they're the ones who get customer-service fleas when they lie down with delivery dogs...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Unpredictable Parcel Screwups

Okay, here's the strangest (and most aggravating) explanation thus far for UPS's failure to deliver a package from Diamond:

12/19/2007 6:21 PM - MERCHANDISE IS MISSING. UPS WILL NOTIFY THE SENDER WITH ADDITONAL DETAILS. ALL MERCHANDISE MISSING, EMPTY CARTON WAS DISCARDED. UPS WILL NOTIFY THE SENDER WITH DETAILS OF THE DAMAGE.

12/19/2007 6:18 AM - OUT FOR DELIVERY



How nice of them to load a full package onto a truck at 5:18 in the morning, only to have the merchandise go missing by the time the truck got to our store at 6:21. Even better, the driver said "I have another package for you," went out to the truck, came back in and said that there wasn't anything else and he was mistaken--and then, according to this post, he threw away the package about which he has just lied to us... a package that somehow lost its contents on his watch.

I think the lie is almost as aggravating as the loss.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Last night was the night when all the Dr. No's gang gathers to exchange gifts and celebrate--and it was such a delight-filled night that I found myself truly celebrating for a few hours. I've mentioned before how difficult this Christmas has been for me (and still is), but everyone helped me overcome the unseasonal solemnity.

Great gifts came my way--a photo-displaying Christmas ornament, a Ross MacDonald collection I didn't know about, a Beatles book, and way too much wonderful stuff to eat (including Chris and Markay's acclaimed meringue cookies, a holiday favorite; an assortment of delicious Christmas treats from Jared; a savory pumpkin cheesecake from Brett 'n' Allyson; a stunning treat-filled holiday bowl from Whitney that included an assortment of cookies, all prepared with her enviable culinary skill; and several different dark chocolate goodies from friends who know my candy-desirous tastes). The fun, of course, was in the giving; while I wasn't able to find the perfect gift for every person, there were a few I was pleased with, and the recipients seemed to like them as much as I had hoped.

As always, dinner afterwards was the highlight of the week; these people are far more than just friends, so it's always a treat to spend a few hours in conversation alternatingly light and serious, philosophical and silly. It's hard to believe we've been doing this every week for almost twenty years now!...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Tale Told by an Idiot...

Every now and then, my mail brings something particularly memorable in its stupidity. Today, just such an item came courtesy of Borland Software Corporation. The mail included a square envelope that obviously contained a CD; when I opened it, I was greeted with a CD sleeve adorned with this noncommunicative blurb:

"Borland's LIfecycle Quality Management solution encompasses a range of technologies, all aimed at supporting a process-driven approach to maximizing quality across the software delivery cycle."

So what does this do again? The phrasing is so empty that it reminds me of my many days as a teacher, when most of what passed for educational training was the same old garbage ideas dressed in then-currently-acceptable jargon. Nothing useful came out of that, either...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Change One Letter...

Another day, another armed robbery at Arbor Place Mall in Douglas County. I really don't feel that I own sufficient firepower to make it safe to make a shopping trip there; I have to wonder if I'm alone.

Perhaps they could create a better public persona if they changed one letter and renamed the mall Armor Place, adding a fortress look to the mall. At least that would give shoppers the feeling they might be safe if they can survive the mad dash from their car through the Lawless Zone to the mall itself...

As a store owner, I feel sorry for the retailers there who are paying hefty rental fees to operate in a mall that has a public perception as an unsafe place to visit and/or to shop. What makes this so odd is that this is one of the newer malls in metro Atlanta; usually crime problems are more common in older malls located in areas that have either become overcrowded or have seen a deterioration in the properties around them. Not sure what makes Douglas County the place to be if you're an armed criminal...

All I Need is a Miracle

Christmas is ten days away. I've done a lot of the Christmas prerequisites, but it's all been done by formula; I'm simply not able to get myself into a Christmas frame of mind this year. Listening to favorite songs has helped me to remember wonderful Christmases past, but I still alternate between feeling empty and feeling sad when I think of this Christmas.

I know how much the holiday meant to Mom and Dad, and I'm trying to invoke their enthusiasm in order to make the holiday season memorable, but I'm not having much success at it. The tree is up, there are a few decorations placed through the house, I've wrapped a dozen or so presents, and I'm hoping that every one of those recipients has more joy this holiday than I'm having.

I've found three presents that I had bought for Dad and had forgotten about; for the last five or six months before Dad's stroke, I had largely quit buying presents for a future holiday and had instead given Dad every gift as I found them, hoping it would add a touch of happiness to his life. However, apparently I couldn't get out of the Christmas habit entirely, because these gifts were ones that I had indeed purchased during those months. None of them were major gifts, but each of them were things that might have meant something to Dad--a family in-joke, a personal memory, that sort of thing. Seeing them now makes me feel immeasurably sad and lonely.

When the Rain Comes...

Today was a genuine rainy late fall/early winter day! It was drizzling by late morning, and it continued to rain all day long--sometimes light, sometimes heavy. Susan and I had already planned to pick up some slices of pizza for dinner; she suggested we make something at home rather than having me go out in the rain, but I was actually looking forward to driving on a drizzly, cold day. Hearing rain on the car roof... watching the back and forth sweep of the windshield wipers... seeing the lights reflecting in the puddles... I had forgotten how much I like rainy weather.

Welcome back, rain--hope you'll stay for a while!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I'm Dreaming of a Whitman Christmas...

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been celebrated with a Whitman's Sampler.

In today's candy-cornucopia world, it's hard to imagine a time when candy choices were much more limited, but the 1950s and 1960s were just such an era. There was plain candy, and there was special candy. During most of the year, all you could find was plain candy--the usual assortment of candy bars, M&M's, Necco Wafers, Bonomo's Turkish Taffy, and the like that filled the candy racks at most grocery stores. Easter had candy eggs and chocolate bunnies, Valentine's had little candy hearts with cute sayings, Halloween had candy corn... and Christmas had the holy grail of candy, the Whitman's Sampler.

Every Christmas, Mom and Dad would bring home a Whitman's Sampler, and each of us would try to identify our favorites from the assortment of candies that filled each of the two layers. (And of course, there was the layer rule--you can't go to the bottom layer until every candy in the top layer has been consumed... even the Jordan almonds that absolutely no one liked, since the combination of hard nuts and a hard candy shell seemed like a sadist's idea of a treat.) Back then, Whitman made it tougher: they didn't include a legend identifying each candy, so each of became expert at identifying personal favorites by shape, chocolate color, and location in the box.

Mom soon implemented another rule: you can't pinch a piece of candy to find out what it was, and under no circumstances can you nibble a corner and then put the candy back if it was something ooky. That meant that I would occasionally have to eat a maple nougat or an orange cream on the quest for that delicious coconut. That was my one must-have piece of candy... and I was lucky, because no one else had laid claim to the coconut.

Each season, we would open the Whitman's sampler box, and each of us would have one piece of candy per day (although I suspect that Mom and Dad helped themselves to extras after we went to bed... never could prove that, because it didn't occur to me to actually count the candy). The sampler would usually run out at about the same time the year did... I don't think there was ever any Whitman's Sampler left by the time school started back at the beginning of the new year, making the return to school doubly sad.

When Susan and I got married, Mom and Dad gave us far more gifts each Christmas than they should have--but that's the way Mom and Dad were. They wanted to help everyone, and they wanted to give people things that they wanted and needed--even if they didn't know they wanted or needed them. They gave us sheets and towels every Christmas--and we still have those sheets and towels, more than a third of a century later, and they mean even more because they came from Mom and Dad.

And each year, they gave us a Whitman's Sampler. The tradition started in the Christmas of 1971, our first as a married couple. We would have never thought of buying a Whitman's Sampler for ourselves, because it was actually far more expensive proportionately than it is today. But from that point on, we always budgeted for one Whitman's Sampler each Christmas. Not for us... no, this one was for Mom and Dad, because I knew that they enjoyed it every bit as much as we did.

A few years later, Dad was diagnosed with diabetes, and he had to give up the Whitman's Samplers he had enjoyed so much. So of course we were elated when, years later, Whitman's began offering sugar-free Whitman's Samplers. I remember the surprise on Dad's face the first time we gave him one: he had no idea they existed until he tore through that gift wrap, at which point his face lit up just like it must have when he was a child.

I can't give Mom and Dad a Whitman's Sampler any longer, as much as I'd like to--but I can continue the family tradition with everyone else, doing just what I know Mom and Dad would do if they were here with us. And I think that, when each person opens his or her Whitman's Sampler on Christmas, Mom and Dad are smiling somewhere, because that once-special candy assortment is as important a part of Christmas as the tree and the lights and the music. It's the one gift that's absolutely not a surprise... but for me, it's the most important gift that I give, because it carries on a tradition that has helped to define the holiday for thirty-seven years now.

The only candy I don't eat now? The chocolate cherry cordials. Mom and Dad always claimed those...

Friday, December 07, 2007

You're Surrounded!

I've been enjoying the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas DVD-Audio Celebration for the past couple of days; composer/producer Chip Davis has a masterful ear for surround sound placement and separation, and the result is one of the most delightful aural experiences I've found on any DVD-Audio. The instruments are remarkably clear and meticulously balanced so that the sound is rich, full, and robust; he uses musical textures as guides for placement, so that sounds in counterpoint play from opposing speakers, while accentual sounds play from complementary speakers. The result is a very encompassing musical experience that is far removed from the all-too-common "primary instruments in the front, secondary instruments or backing strings/voices in the back" approach that many producers use for surround.

And it left me ruminating on the failure of Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A) as formats. Why did two of the most superlative sound reproduction methods fail to catch on with the public? Why, after a strong initial rollout, are both formats almost non-existent today, with previously released titles no longer available and new releases scuttled?

The answer bodes ill for the current HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats. The intransigent refusal of the manufacturers to settle on a single means of high-def music reproduction fragmented a fledgling industry to the point that both formats failed... and I suspect that the same intransigence is going to lead to the failure of both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray as the preferred format for high-def video.

There's no doubt that both formats--and DVD-A in particular--take music to a level that no CD can approach. The clarity of each instrument is so intense that it's as if a blanket has been taken off the speakers--there's a presence that just doesn't exist on even the best CD. In comparing the two (and I can do comparisons because I have a few releases, like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Tommy, on both DVD-A and SACD), I can detect a greater fidelity on DVD-A than on SACD... there's something slightly less distinct and less intense about the sound from even the best SACD. Oh, it's better than CD, to be sure, and it's better than HDCD (an enhanced CD reproduction format), but it simply can't match the verisimilitude of DVD-A.

Anyone who thinks that this is all too subtle to make any real difference has but to listen to three or four songs from Celebration to realize what they can't hear on the CD. What sounds like an amalgam of sound in the CD is identifiable, distinct instruments in the DVD-A; bells and triangles resonate for seconds as their sounds fade away, while the sonic roll-off is much more abrupt and much less vibrant on the CD. And the encompassing sensation created by a well-mixed surround-sound is something that no CD (even with Dolby Digital Sound Processing) can rival.

Good doesn't always win, though. Look at the failure of Beta over VHS in the 1980s, and the later failure of LaserDiscs in the 1990s... in both cases, the superior format failed. (Okay, let's be fair--the superior format of LaserDiscs did win out over the inferior RCA Selectavision disc-based video-reproduction format, but the battle between the two impeded mass acceptance enough that the laserdisc never overcame the public impression that it was a failed format.)

There are still a few artists producing material on DVD-A, and there are still some foreign labels producing SACD surround mixes... but now, I see more labels moving towards two-channel ("enhanced stereo") DVD-A and SACD releases, which is an absolute waste of a medium.

I've picked up what music I can find on DVD-A and SACD, and will continue to do so in order that I might enjoy music the way it should be heard... but I only wish that more of my favorites were available in either format!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Living Up to the Stereotypes

I noticed recently that the Rome News-Tribune ran an editorial critical of the Rome district attorney's possibly re-trying Gordon Lee, owner of a comic shop in Rome, for distributing offensive material to minors on a Halloween trick or treat giveaway. I'm not surprised that the RNT took the stand it did; in their reporting this July, they were so obviously biased that I took the liberty of writing them and the publisher and expressing my dismay at the deterioration of their reporting standards.

Some people have asked if I'm supportive of Gordon, and the simple answer is: no. Gordon already has one conviction for distributing pornographic material, so he should know well enough to make sure that material he gives away to kids on Halloween is age appropriate. Thing is, Gordon has written enough stereotypical "sex is good, war is pornography" knee-jerk stuff in other places that I can't say whether he distributed the material because of error, because he thought it would be clever, or because he didn't care enough to put any time into checking the age-appropriateness of the material he was handing out.

Trick or Treat on Broad Street is a promotion designed to bring families back to Rome's once-thriving shopping area, which is trying to re-establish itself as a family-friendly venue. Actions like Gordon's hurt all the retailers on Broad because they turn a positive, family-friendly event into another political cause, and it hurts the efforts of all other retailer to do the right thing.

I'm obviously a biased source here, since I own a comic shop that has done a great deal to establish itself as a clean, well-lighted, inviting, all-ages friendly business. I am always bothered by squalid comic shops that harken back to the stereotypical image associated with comic shops in the past. I am always bothered by dismal, dingy, dark stores that contribute to the continuation of that stereotype.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twelve)

The biggest change of my childhood occurred in early 1962, when my parents quit being renters and became home owners. In January of '62, they paid $10,500.00 (or more specifically, they financed that then-enormous sum) for a newly-constructed home at 3 Marchmont Drive in Rome... a home that was built to their specifications. I can remember the frequent trips beginning in November of '61 as construction began; we repeatedly stopped by the site to watch our house going up, and at the time it seemed like we were building a mansion.

Houses have gotten much larger over the subsequent decades, so the idea of a 1000 square foot home for four people seems almost claustrophobic today. But I thought we had to be rich; we were moving from an approximately-800-square foot house that we were renting (two bedrooms, a living room, one bath, a small kitchen) to a spacious 1000-square-foot home that would be ours (I didn't really understand that whole mortgage thing back then). The Marchmont house had three bedrooms (one for Mom and Dad, one for me, and one for Kim), one and a half bathrooms (a half-bath off Mom and Dad's room, and a hallway bath for everyone), a living room, a phenomenally long hallway (okay, it's only about twelve feet... but that seemed long enough for a foot-race back then!), and a kitchen large enough for a table and four chairs. We also had a carport, a concrete driveway, and 1960s-state-of-the-art aluminum siding (yellow). I began to think of myself as being in the same league as Richie Rich!...

So, in February of 1962, we moved from Garden Lakes to Marchmont Drive in the city of Rome. We were no longer county residents; we now lived in the city limits.... just barely.

And that brought some changes. For one thing, I would have to change schools. The county administration gave my parents permission to continue taking me to Garden Lakes Elementary to finish my third grade year with my favorite teacher, Mrs. Solomon--but it was no longer the same. I couldn't walk to school; it was no longer in my neighborhood, but was a ten minute drive away. I felt like an outsider for those last four months, and I didn't have the slightest idea what my new school would be.

I was lucky enough to still have a close friendship with David Lynch. David and I would see each other at school, and we would alternate spending Friday or Saturday night at one another's house. I would begin planning for my trips to his house two days ahead of time, perusing my comics and sorting out the ones we would most likely want to re-read and talk about; if David were coming to spend the night with me, he would do the same thing. Our luggage of choice, of course, was a brown paper grocery bag--large enough that a comic could pretty much lie flat in the bottom, and other comics would be stacked atop that, with my pajamas, a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and any other personal necessities packed on top of that. (The photo at the top of this post is a 1963 shot of me and David clowning it up in the back yard of our Marchmont Drive house... I'm on the left, David is on the right.)

David's response to our new house played into my childhood beliefs that I lived in wealth. First of all, David kept talking about how lucky we were to own a house; his parents still rented their home in Garden Lakes. And our house had all sorts of amenities--we had aluminum windows that opened smoothly and didn't stick when the wood swelled like the windows of the older homes in Garden Lakes, for instance. We had shiny varnished wooden floors that had no signs of wear or previous occupants; we had folding closet doors; we had built-in appliances in our kitchen; we even had an air conditioner built into the wall of our living room, jutting out into the carport. (It was the equivalent of a window or a room AC, not central air, but it still made me feel opulent... we actually had AC in one room!) We even had a tall antenna mounted at one end of the house, and it had a motorized rotor on it so that we could watch Atlanta television stations or Chattanooga televisions stations with the turn of a dial and the careful adjusting of television fine tuning!

Best of all, the new home brought two major changes for me: first, I got my very own room and no longer had to put up with Kimberly and her crib in our shared room (a very big plus for an eight-year-old boy), and second, I got my very own closet--more than five feet wide and two feet deep with double folding doors, it had enough room for all the comics I could possibly own (oh, how little I knew back then).

David wanted to spend the night at my house every weekend, but his parents insisted that from time to time we stay over there (and I suspect my parents were glad of that, too). But the Marchmont house was the envy of my friends, and I felt privileged. I wouldn't know until years later how little money we actually had. Dad was paid relatively will for his job as sports editor at the Rome News Tribune, but a $10,000 home came with an $82 a month mortgage payment. Add to that $58 a month for a car, and Mom suddenly spent many an evening poring over the family checkbook to keep our budget balanced.

Mom kept all the check records, the bills, and the receipts in a shoebox in the cabinet over the kitchen stove; I remember seeing her and Dad getting that shoebox out, taking it to the kitchen table, and spending an hour or so going over financial figures. I was always told to go watch television; my parents came from a time when family budgets were grown-up matters, and kids were not to worry about money. Their efforts kept me thinking that we were rich; I never once remember wanting for anything, and I thought those once-a-week dinners of pork and beans and hot dogs or sausage patties were special occasions and not budget-stretchers.

Once we were settled into the new house, I had to find out where the nearest comic book suppliers were. It turned out that there were three stores within approved walking distance: Couch's Grocery, just under a half-mile away; Candler's Drugs, immediately next door to Couch's; and Hill's Grocery, a much more ramshackle store located across Shorter Avenue from Couch's. Since there was no red light anywhere near these stores and Shorter Avenue was a busy four-lane thoroughfare, Mom told me I was not to walk to Hill's... but what Mom didn't know wouldn't hurt her, right?

So here we were: our own house, and three sources for comics within walking distance. Yep, this upscale home-ownership thing had all sorts of benefits!...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pot, Meet Kettle

This evening while I was watching an episode of Journeyman from a couple of weeks ago, I stopped to watch a Mac Vs. PC commercial that I hadn't seen previously. This one features PC talking about how dissatisfied users are with Vista, but they shouldn't use this as a reason to switch to Mac's new Leopard operating system. It ends with PC confiding to Mac that he actually switched back to XP three weeks ago, and he's so much happier.

Problem is, I have had the exact same experience with Leopard. I'm not a Mac novice--I've been using Macs for more than twenty years now, and have always upgraded to the newest operating system almost upon release. I did just that with Leopard (Mac OSX 10.5, for those who aren't up on their Mac nomenclature)... and within a matter of days, I went to a great deal of trouble to downgrade to 104.10 again.

Leopard was not ready for prime time; this is an operating system that was too buggy to have ever seen release, but Mac felt obligated to get it out the door in October, regardless of the fact that it didn't work.

Never, since the inception of Mac OSX, has an incremental upgrade in operating systems rendered large numbers of programs non-functional, with little or no hope of repair... but Leopard did exactly that. Some programs wouldn't work at all, others (such as Quark 6.5, the last reliable and relatively speedy version of Quark the company produced, since Quark 7 is bloated, slow, and unreliable) lost functionality to the point they were unreliable. Some hardware ceased to function.

And it wasn't just third-party software that was affected. This past spring, Apple unveiled their new 802.11n Airport Extreme base stations, which offered a great feature called Airport Disk. This feature allowed users to plug a USB 2 drive into the Airport Extreme and have it work as a network drive accessible by any computer connected to that Airport's network. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, it is... but it doesn't work under Leopard. That's right--Apple wrote and released an operating system that broke a key feature of a piece of hardware that Apple had introduced earlier in the same year! Even worse, Apple had to roll out a patch within a week or so of Leopard's release... and it still didn't fix the broken network disk feature!

This wasn't the only Apple hardware problem. Airport cards became unreliable or didn't work at all for some users; connection speeds dropped dramatically; features like the Time Machine backup system didn't do what Apple originally said they'd do. For the first time in twenty years, I was embarrassed to be an Apple advocate; the company had released a piece of software that should have never seen the light of day in its current incarnation.

Like I said, I downgraded from Leopard to Panther in order to restore the functionality that was nonexistent in Leopard. I wasn't alone; a survey of the Mac forums reveals that a lot of others have been forced to do the same thing. And that makes Apple's latest commercial seem more than a little ironic, doesn't it?

A for Effort

Over the years, a lot of people have asked, in conjunction with discussions regarding my fascination with the work of Steve Ditko, who Ayn Rand is and what her theory of objectivism means. I've had many discussions regarding the writer and her philosophy (a philosophy that I find more on-target that many, by the way, although I tend to blend it with the Hindu concepts of dharma and karma in the structure of my own ethos), but rarely have I found anyone explain the interrelationship of Rand and Ditko more clearly than Robby Reed (is that his real name? Here's his answer to that question: Let's just say that if my name were not actually Robby Reed, it would be remarkably close, particularly the initials. I prefer to let my work on this site speak for itself. How very Ditko-ish of me!") at his Dial B for Blog site. The Ditko/Rand discussion begins here, and you can follow the links to enjoy the entire analysis.

Basically, I find Rand's emphatic Aristotelian assertion that "A is A" to be an essential that is more often than not overlooked or ignored in today's society. From discussion of illegal immigration to taxation to personal responsibility to capitalism to Katrina "victims" to art to religion, I find that Rand's idea serves as a philosophical razor that cuts away the detritus. I admire Howard Roark; I salute John Galt; I respect Prometheus. I find it interesting that authors such as Kurt Vonnegut also found Randian objectivism to be appealing (he expresses his admiration for the concept quite clearly in the short story "Harrison Bergeron"). I find Galt's observation that society has "sacrificed justice to mercy" to be a telling condemnation of the flaws of our modern world, and a political system in which egregious theft is justified because "we're doing it for the kids," or "we're helping the less fortunate," or "everyone, regardless of skill, deserves a 'living wage.'"

If you're not familiar with Rand, or if you'd like to know more about Ditko's career beyond Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, this is a must-read.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black-Hearted

I am firmly convinced that the much-touted Black Friday sales are actually bad for the retailers who run them.

Check the various consumer sites and you'll find a litany of horror stories from customers who are angry because stores didn't have the merchandise advertised, or they allowed people to buy the limited quantities hours earlier than they should have. In every case, the result is unhappy customers who are unlikely to ever view that retailer in a positive light.

Sure, there are some who view the idea of getting up early and fighting the rabble for some token discounted item as a worthy game--but for most people, it's a frustrating, undignified, and unpleasant experience.

Today, I went by Target at about noon to check on an item or two that was advertised as part of their 6 a.m. sale. Of course, they didn't have it... but as it turned out, they didn't have the 37" Olevia LCD TV for $549 at 6a.m. either. "We didn't actually get any of those," the clerk said. So that meant that customers who had actually gotten up early to buy this stuff were frustrated and angry because they had wasted their time for absolutely nothing. And since stores are allowed to put all sorts of caveats on the sales terms ("quantities are very limited, absolutely no rainchecks," etc.), there's nothing the consumer can do.

I buy relatively little from Target nowadays because I find them to be one of the most customer-unfriendly stores one might deal with. Experiences like this make me even more determined to spend most of my money somewhere else... not because I expected Target to havfe the TV at noon, but because they didn't bother to have it at all, even though they advertised it.

When I left, I stopped at Office Depot across the street. Not only did they still have their 42" LCD Olevia for $699, they also still had the discounted Micro-SD card and Pro Duo memory card that were advertised. I picked up both, and am more likely to deal with them because they showed respect for their customers by actually bringing in a decent stock of their sales items.

I'd love to see every customer refuse to go to these one-day Black Friday sales. I'd love to see merchants discontinue the entire demeaning experience. So long as there are people willing to be treated like witless cattle, though, the policies will continue... but at the cost of the retailers' reputations.

A Life in Four Colors (Part Eleven)

Comics in bags... what a deal!

In today's condition-conscious storage-oriented comics market, the idea of comics in bags evokes a totally different image than the one that I was introduced to by my friend David Lynch (check out part six of this irregular series for more about David). When David told me that the Han-Dee Market on Shorter Avenue was selling three comics in bags for a quarter, I wasn't sure what he meant... but I knew that I had to buy some of them to see what was in those bags!

The Han-Dee Market wasn't one of my usual comics stops, but it was close enough that I was able to convince Dad to stop by there on the way home from one of those evening trips to the Rome News-Tribune. I loved to accompany him on those trips--in part because I loved going to the old offices on Tribune Street, and in part because he would frequently stop at a store on the way home. Since we drove right past the Han-Dee Market and it was a right-turn-in right-turn-out stop, he didn't mind letting me check it out a couple of days after David first told me about the bagged comics.

The Han-Dee Market was one of those "once a month" stores that could never be counted on to have new releases--but they would sometimes have older books, since it seemed that the rack jobber who stocked their racks filled the slots with leftover returns from other accounts. I'm not sure if he was doing affadavit returns and then selling the books or if he was just trying to give the books a second chance to sell before returning them.

(In these pre-direct-market comic shop days, all comics were racked on a returnable basis; the distributor took back what the store couldn't sell and billed them for what was sold. The distributor, in turn, would either strip the title off the cover of each book and return it to the publisher for credit--or, in some cases, he would submit an affadavit of destruction indicating that he had received and destroyed X number of copies. Unfortunately, it appears that virtually every distributor was deceptive regarding returns--either he resold the stripped books for half-price rather than destroying them as he was legally obligated to do, or he sold the old books at full price whenever he could, after submitting his returns affadavit. I often wonder what real sales figures for comics would look like had the distributors told the truth...)

I scanned the spinner rack and found a few comics I hadn't seen, but no bagged books. I was dismayed; could they have sold out since David told me about them? Then, on my way out of the store, I scanned the toy rack, which was usually occupied by off-brand or out-of-date toys; there, mixed in with rejected plastic playthings, were polybags of three comics with a 25¢ price printed on the bag. I could only see two of the books, so I was not only judging a book by its cover, but I was judging three books by two of their covers.

What was in those bags? IW reprints. Israel Waldman was the IW in the company name; he made money by buying the rights to old comics--including the printing plates or photostats--and then reprinting those books with new covers that seemed more in the style of contemporary comics. The stories might date back to the 1940s or the early 1950s, and they might have very little to do with the book's contents--but they were at least indicative of the types of stories you'd find in those pages. There were some superheroes--a Plastic Man book caught my eye--but there were mostly war comics, Westerns, horror/suspense books, and crime comics.

My purchases were truly "mixed bags." One contained two horror/suspense and one Western; the other, a war comic, a crime comic, and a Plastic Man, who appeared to be the same sort of hero as Mr. Fantastic or Elongated Man. And while I didn't recognize the characters or the publisher, I did recognize the style of the cover art on some of the books.

The art that I recognized, as it turned out, was done by Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, a team whose work I had enjoyed at DC, where they illustrated Wonder Woman as well as some of the War That Time Forgot stories in Star-Spangled War Stories (dinosaurs and tanks... what a combination!). I didn't know their names, but I knew their style; while it wasn't as dynamic as Kirby's work at Marvel or Infantino's art at DC, it was solid, bold, dramatic art, and I found it appealing. If these guys were working for this IW company, it couldn't be all bad, could it?

Well, as it turned out, the only Andru & Esposito art to be found in my two bags was on the cover of three of the six comics that I bought. Israel Waldman realized that these guys had a sellable style, so he got them to do new covers. Their art looked like DC, but the look of the books seemed more influenced by Marvel; the covers had bold, angular logos, the color schemes were more Marvel than DC, and the horror-suspense books looked far closer to Strange Tales than to My Greatest Adventure.

The books were good, but not great; I could tell even then that these books didn't have a modern sensibility to them. They seemed outdated and in some cases sub-par--but they were cheap, and they were entertaining, and they made good trade fodder once I had read them several times.

They were also frustrating to the newly-born collector in me. I had grown accustomed to looking for other issues of books that I liked; IW books seemed to be published in no numberical order whatsoever, and finding runs of the better titles proved almost impossible. Even worse, the bags were packed semi-randomly, which meant that once I had bought several of the bags, I began to get some duplications--I'd buy a three-book bag that had two books I hadn't read and one that I already had. That made the quarter price far less appealing, believe me.

However, IW offered me a bargain-priced glimpse into a comics era I had never experienced before, and I found that somewhat appealing. It also led me to assume that old comics were worth less than new comics--but I'd find out a few years later that was most definitely not the case...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thankful

Kimberly did an incredible job of making this Thanksgiving joyous and positive for everyone, even though we all felt Dad's absence tremendously. For the past few years, Kim has prepared Thanksgiving dinner at her house--an enormous task that has become even more grand in scope in recent years, as the list of those she welcomes into her house has expanded. Today there were more than a dozen people there, including a few I didn't know well--friends of Cole's and Jess's who enjoyed great food and the company of their friends.

Kimberly and her fiance, Phil, have done a wonderful job of improving an already impressive home. Phil has masterminded the remodeling of Kim's primary bathroom--a task that is so far beyond my knowledge and ability that I can only marvel at its completion. Since Phil had a home of his own, he and Kim have deftly incorporated two households into one, blending furniture and decor to create a home that represents the both of them.

Cole and Christy had the second-toughest job of the day (second only to Kim's herculean efforts in preparing a feast for all): they had to drive from their house to Christy's Mom's house in Smyrna, back to Rome to Kim's house, and then to Cole's dad's house... that's three Thanksgiving dinners and about four and a half hours of driving with an eight-month-old Oliver. Ollie's a fine, well-behaved lad, but travelling with an eight-month-old is demanding no matter how well-behaved the child is.

We got to talk to Phil for a while, which was one of the day's highlights; Phil's years living in Australia, plus his job-related forays around the world, make for dozens of interesting stories. I look forward to hearing many more over the years to come...

Kim's efforts to make enough food for everyone led to one minor smoke alert: the sweet potato casserole overflowed in the oven, and the sugary excess burning off created a bit of a smoky haze in the kitchen. This, too, has become a tradition: it appears that Kim's recipe creates exactly as much as the pan will hold plus about three tablespoons more--and those three tablespoons become a libation to the god of fire. It's our annual burnt sacrifice, I guess. I know that Dad would have laughed had he been there.

My biggest regret was that I had less time to talk to Cole and Christy and Jess and Adam than I would have liked; Cole and Christy have made Mom and Dad's house their own, while Jess and Adam have moved into Phil's house, so everyone has played musical houses in the past month, and I'm still curious to hear more about how that experience has gone. I also am curious to know what they've been up to; now that they live on their own as adults, I know less about their day-to-day activities than I did when they were living with Kimberly, and I'm eager to know how they're doing. I miss hearing from them, but they have their own lives to live now.

One of Kim's hallway photos is a snapshot of her and Dad, taken at a time when he was healthier and less burdened by the sorrows and worries that haunted the shadows of his last year or so. It's a happy photo, and I gazed at it several times, just to remind myself of how Dad might have looked had he been with us.

I still miss Dad terribly, but I am so very thankful to Kim for creating an afternoon so pleasant that it could offset my melancholy.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lonely Days

A few months ago, Tom Kater wrote something that has stayed with me ever since I read it. Before the sorrow of a loss can begin to fade, one must go through a full year of sadness as each season carries a reminder of prior seasons before the loss.

Right now, I'm feeling Dad's loss more strongly than I have since the week he left.

Thanksgiving is four days away, but I can't stir up any festive feelings. Christmas is five weeks away, and I'm almost dreading the season that used to bring me so much joy... Christmas was Dad's season, and he cherished it.

Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me... I see other people who suffer similar losses, and they seem to get past it. I wish that I could...

A Life in Four Colors (Part Ten)

I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1960s, when teachers were responsible for teaching and students were responsible for learning. There was no talk about malarky like "learning styles" and "attention deficit disorder" and the like; teachers had a lot to teach us, they taught it, and we read and did homework and practice drills and listened and took tests and learned.

One of my fondest memories of elementary school was SRA. I cannot tell you with certainty what it stood for, but we always said that it stood for "Speed Reading Associates." The goal of the SRA program was to encourage students to read quickly and effectively, emphasizing both speed and comprehension. And it worked remarkably well... for me, at least!

The SRA program consisted of color-coded stories and articles. The basic colors were rather simple and straightforward selections with a more restrained vocabulary; they were informative and entertaining, but there was nothing memorable about them. However, before one could advance to the better selections, one had to work through the basic colors, which I did in relatively short time. (I was always a fast reader, even before SRA--but there's no doubt that SRA made me much, much faster.)

The selections got more challenging--and more rewarding--when one moved into the blended colors. Instead of reds and blues and greens and yellows, we got turquoises and caramels and mauves and creams... and these selections actually had interesting storylines, fascinating information, and more advanced vocabulary. These were stories worth reading, and once I got into these colors, I was hooked.

The best selections of all were found in the metallic ink colors: gold, silver, copper, bronze. Once you hit these colors, you couldn't wait to finish up the selection and pass the comprehension quiz so that you could read the next selection. My goal was to read every single SRA selection, and I did just that... more than once, in fact! (Sometimes I would convince my teacher to let me re-read a favorite...)

SRA wasn't something that took up a great deal of class time. While there would occasionally be a half an hour of organized SRA time, it was generally something that we did at our own pace once we finished up with other class activities. Once I finished writing a paper or doing a math worksheet or drawing a map, I could work on SRA while others were finishing up their assignments. The system was entirely self-motivated and self-focused; the rewards were enjoyment, improvement, and pride in accomplishment. And believe it or not, that was plenty; I wasn't the only one who looked forward to moving up the color scale. We even talked about it in recess, believe it or not--it was that addictive!

I actually learned a lot from SRA; not only did it improve my reading and comprehension, but the selections featured a mix of stories and informative articles on all sorts of subjects. Even as early as elementary school, I had a memory like a sponge, soaking up all sorts of facts for potential future use.

I also came to appreciate blended colors, oddly enough. To this day, my favorite early FF covers are those that feature the FF in teal costumes rather than basic blue costumes--and I absolutely love the distinctive caramel backgrounds that appeared on some Marvel titles in the early 1960s. I'm not sure why Marvel had a more sophisticated color palette, but to this day, when I see those unique comic colors, I have SRA flashbacks.

Did SRA help me in school? Of course; by the time I had finished those selections, I was reading much faster and comprehending what I read. I had learned to take in multiple words--even entire lines--at the same time, greatly enhancing the speed with which I could finish a comic book. And of course, that meant I could read even more comic books in the same amount of time. Heck, I could even read a comic or two while standing at the racks in Conn's Grocery, enabling me to buy my normal comics and get a couple of bonus books as lagniappe.

And of course, it strengthened my passion for reading as entertainment... a passion that would stay with me for the rest of my life...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sad Season

Went to Rome today to take care of some legal matters that will, I hope, expedite the transfer of the deed on Mom and Dad's house into Cole and Christy's name. It was a relatively short trip--I don't think I was in Rome more than two hours total--but it was one that had to be made.

As I had prepared for the trip, I realized that this was about the time of year when Dad would put up his Christmas tree (when Mom was with us, they would usually wait until Thanksgiving day... but not always!). While I couldn't put up a tree for them, I could at least replace the flowers at the gravesite with some more holiday-themed colors. I took the new flowers out to the cemetery to replace the fall-themed flowers that were there; seeing the grave, still looking raw and fresh because the drought has slowed the growth of covering grasses, was a solemn and sorrowful experience.

Not a day goes by that I don't miss them... but there is something particularly stark about a gravesite and a marker. I tried to find joy in the fall colors--Lavender Mountain looked particularly striking in its golds and reds and rusts--and in knowing how much Mom and Dad would love a day like today, but there was little solace to be found.

I spent the rest of the day in bleakness. I am glad to have taken the flowers out there, but there was no comfort to be found in doing so... just a reminder of the extent of the solitude that I so often feel nowadays.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cleaning Up

I've been in a cleaning mood recently; for some reason, I'm more bothered than usual by the clutter that is a constant part of my life. I've been getting rid of some acccumulated detritus of life--a large George Foreman grill to Whitney, a stereo system to Jared, some speakers to Buck, a VCR/DVD unit to Charles, some unwanted AV equipment to Goodwill, a lot of clothes to various charities, several loads of miscellany to the trashcan--but I'm impatient to make more of it go away.

I'm resisting the urge to make a lot of clutter disappear quickly, because I know that what we dispose of in haste we may later realize was less disposable than it seemed. But the dichotomy can be confusing: I enjoy having the elements of my life at hand should I want them, but I resent the space that they take up.

As I've noted here previously,I'm more and more attuned to the idea that it's not the things themselves that bring me joy, but the memories that go with them... and I can enjoy those memories even if the things are not there. TAke my comics, for example: I haven't gone into the storage room to pull out any of my accumulated collection a single time since we moved into this house in 1996, but I still have the same fond memories of those books, as my "Life in Four Colors" series indicates. So what is the benefit of having them?

The same for records, and videodiscs, and VHS tapes that I'll never watch again. I keep them because at one point or another I bought them thinking that they were important to me, and I'm reluctant to admit that they're no longer so. Now I realize, though, that what's important is ephemeral; the fact that they were important once isn't negated by the fact that they're no longer important now, and the fact that I spent money on them once doesn't obligate me to keep them forever.

Ebay makes us think that everything should be measured by return on investment; I'm more awere now of return on enjoyment. If I enjoyed something once, don't enjoy it any longer, but know someone who might enjoy it more now, then why not make that joy occur? That doesn't make it a bad investment on my part, or an expenditure to be regretted; each item has an accrued joy that sometimes can only be recognized by others. My joy came in having it at the time I wanted it; that joy will always be there in my memories.

A Life in Four Colors (Part Nine)

It's inevitable that every comic book reader, sooner or later, becomes a comic book collector. The books accumulate quickly; before one realizes it, the stack is tall enough that it demands its own special storage place.

By 1962, I had enough comics that I needed a place to keep them. My first abortive storage system involved a shoe box given to me by Mom, who understood that this was perhaps the only thing I owned that I seemed intent on keeping semi-organized. Unfortunately, none of the shoe boxes that we had were sufficiently wide to store comic books--a 7 1/4" wide comic doesn't fit well in a 6" wide shoebox, it seems. Oh, it would work for a few books, but I had far more than that... and I didn't want them bent! While my comics were far from mint condition, I had already decided that I didn't want them to deteriorate any further.

So, at the age of eight and a half, I got my first comics box. It was actually a fruit box from the grocery store, and it had die-cut handles on either side and a heavyweight lid that fit over the top of the box, and it was large enough that it would hold two stacks of comics and deep enough that I was sure I'd never fill it up.

Today, collectors have a phenomenal selection of storage options--short comics boxes, long comics boxes, drawer boxes, single wall boxes, double wall boxes, acid-free boxes, along with a variety of plastic bags, backing boards, etc. Back then, we had none of those things; a fruit box held two stacks of comics placed flat into the box, which inevitably contributed to some spine roll at the bottom of the stack... but I was eight and had no idea what spine roll was. (Besides, many of my books had more than enough spine roll already, thank you; while I didn't fold my comics backward around themselves as I read them, many of the people with whom I traded did just that, so I had a lot of books that had developed a healthy contour of the spine. I figured they'd do best at the bottom of the stack, where I hoped they'd flatten out.

To make room for the comic book box in my closet, I had to get rid of something... and the something I got rid of was my baseball glove, ball, and bat. I had no idea how symbolic this would be; I had abandoned a path of athletics in favor of a path of four-color comics. For me, the choice was easy; I was bad at baseball, thanks in large part to the bad vision that I mentioned in a previous chapter. I still didn't know that I had poor vision--that's something I wouldn't discover for another year--but I knew that, for some reason, I didn't catch or hit the ball as well as other kids did. I did, however, read very quickly... and I was getting faster all the time. The quicker I read, the more I could read--and there was so much that I wanted to read, that I needed to get as fast as possible!

That's where SRA came in...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

World Full of Tales

"So what makes your life so important?"

That question popped up in an e-mail recently, in response to my ongoing series of autobiographical vignettes.

The answer is simple: absolutely nothing.

I hold no illusions that my life is somehow profound, influential, or significant to the world at large. I write down these memories, filled with inconsequential happenings and trivial asides, because Mom and Dad didn't. Because Grandmother and Granddad didn't. Because my other grandmother didn't, and my other grandfather died too young. Because Karen was taken too soon, too abruptly to even contemplate doing so. Because Carol never found the time.

Family... friends... acquaintances... there are so many people whose lives I would like to have known more fully. Even more, I would love to have preserved their stories of their lives in their own words, so that I would be able to hear those memories in my head, in their own voices, knowing that these were the words they would have used were they talking to me.

Every life is significant to someone, and insignificant to many. I tell these stories so that those who might at some time wonder who I was. My life, my memories... they're no more important than yours or anyone else's--the only difference is in the details. The broad strokes of life are the same for most of us; it's the finishing details that differentiate, that make us who we are... or who we were.

When I read the stories of other lives, I I find the commonality and the distinctions equally fascinating. I want to know how people are like me, as well as how they differ.

And I want to preserve these details now, while I can still see and hear and taste and smell and feel the past. I have two generations of Alzheimer's behind me, and I can't be confident that I'll always remember these details. The act of writing them down--it makes them permanent, it makes them tangible.

This is my life. It may not be much, but it's the only one I've got. I hold no illusions that it's important... except in the sense that every life, every set of accumulated experiences is important to someone.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Part Eight)

Sometimes you get to say "I was there" when lightning strikes.

That's the way I feel about Fantastic Four #1. Thanks to odd timing, a cold, and dumb luck, I was there when one of the most important books in comics history was released. And by happenstance, I bought a copy of it, new, off the magazine rack. And it changed my life.

In the fall of 1961, we still lived in Garden Lakes and I still attended Garden Lakes Elementary School. Like all third graders, I came down with a sore throat and/or a cold every other month or so, it seemed. The colder months of the fall were the worst; as the weather transitioned from summer heat to winter cold, the up-and-down temperature shifts always seemed to trigger the usual cold symptoms. (I now suspect that a lot of my supposed colds were actually childhood sinus conditions and/or sinus infections, since they plagued me through most of my teaching years... but when you're eight years old, you don't think in terms of sinus conditions. The diagnosis of "cold" was adequate to encompass all respiratory problems.)

It was early evening, and Dad and I were on our way back home. I had gone with Dad to the old Rome News-Tribune offices on Tribune Street; I always enjoyed rummaging through the old office, scrutinizing the original comic strip artwork on the office walls, reading through old file copies of papers from the war years, and peering through the windowed door into the press room down below, where enormous machines produced massive quantities of printed newspaper at seemingly impossible speeds.

It also gave me a chance to get away from the newest member of our family, my sister Kimberly. In spite of years of joking about Kim being my older sister, I must confess that I was seven and a half years old when this noisy, demanding, schedule-disrespecting baby entered my life... and my room! My sanctum sanctorum was now shared with a very loud, sometimes cranky, frequently stinky baby. I would spend many evenings reading comic books in my parents' room to get away from the noise and the smells... or I would go with Dad to the Rome News-Tribune offices, where the roar of the machines was more peaceful! (Thankfully, Kimberly grew up, and got out the noisy/stinky phase by the time I graduated high school...)

So it's not surprising that I chose to ride with Dad to the newspaper office rather than staying at home, where (horror of horrors!) I might get stuck babysitting for a few minutes. That meant that Dad had to listen to my coughs and sniffles during the four-mile ride to the office and the four-mile ride back... so it was not surprising that he chose to stop at Enloe's Rexall Drugs in Westdale Shopping Center on Shorter Avenue on the way home. Dad wanted to buy some children's cough syrup and a bag of Brach's chocolate covered peanuts--the former for me and the latter for everyone, because this was before Dad was diagnosed with diabetes.

(I thought that Enloes Rexall was the name of the owner; the sign didn't have an apostrophe on it, so I assumed his first name was Enloes and his last name was Rexall. Years later, I discovered that Rexall was a sort of franchised drugstore operation and that Enloe was the last name of the family that owned the Rome area franchises. For years, though, I thought they were a large family, and the various Rexall brothers and sisters had simply opened stores in different non-competing areas.)

While Dad shopped for that amazing product that soothed --and some cough syrup, too!--I stopped to look at the comic book rack. I had flipped through three or four books when I saw FF #1 on the stands.

I didn't know it was a superhero book at first. The cover looked a lot like all the monster books I had bought from the same company--books with names like Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish. I was intrigued because it appeared that some of the freakish monsters were fighting another really big monster on a city street that looked much like Broad Street in Rome. So I picked it up and flipped through it to see what the other stories were, because all comics from this publisher (whose name I didn't know at the time) had multiple stories.

But this one didn't. Instead, it had one story, told in chapters. And it appeared from a quick perusal that the smaller monsters were actually heroes, trying to stop the big monster... and they were also trying to stop some small troll-like fellow who resembled The Mole from Dick Tracy. I knew I wouldn't have time to read this whole comic at the store, since Dad was just picking up over-the-counter cough syrup--so I launched my best "oh please it's only one comic book" plea and Dad gave in quickly.

(Dad gave in quickly a lot when it came to comics. I think he was glad to see me reading so enthusiastically at such a young age, but he and Mom were perhaps the most supportive parents any comic book fan could hope for. Dad would act tough for a few seconds, like he might say no, but I can't think of any time when he'd turn me down without at least one comic, even when I had gone through my entire allowance already. I might have to agree to extra chores or to go to bed on time without being asked repeatedly, but Dad found some reason to let me have that comic. Thanks, Dad!)

I hadn't even noticed when I bought the comic that it had a number one on the cover. In 1961, it seemed that the first issues of comics were relative rarities; usually, I was buying a book with issue numbers in the triple digits! Today, publishers constantly relaunch series with new first issues; back then, though, longevity was the key... even if it was fake longevity. Flash #105 was actually the first issue of the new series, for instance; rather than starting with a new first issue, the book simply picked up with the numbering of the old series that had ended before I was born. This created much confusion for a six-year-old who wanted to read as many old issues as possible!

So here I was, with a first issue of a new series that was unlike any superhero book I had ever read. One of the heroes looked like a hideous, lumpy monster reminiscent of a photo I had recently seen in Famous Monsters of Filmland. One of the heroes was ablaze, which seemed like it would be pretty uncomfortable. None of the heroes wore costumes. And the world didn't seem to look at them with awe or admiration. This was no Justice League... but I really liked the qualities that made it so different!

I read that book several times during the course of that night and the next few evenings. There was something about the Fantastic Four and their misfit villain that left me wanting more. So I began looking for more issues immediately. I didn't realize at the time that FF #1 must have been very new; it would be two long months before I would come across the second issue of this series.

During my search, though, I continued to buy other comics from this same company, and I realized that the same artist who drew FF #1 drew a lot of stories in these books. His name was Kirby, and I knew that I wanted to spend more time in his world...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Feline Groovy

Today, we drove over to the Gwinnett Convention Center for the annual Cat Show. Oodles of kitties to be seen, of course, along with some cat-related products from a variety of vendors. We crossed paths with the woman who owned the only Siberians in the show today; they were stunning, of course. One of them looked just like our little Mischa, but it was the blue-coated Nikita (pictured here just as he began to look for a way to break free) who was the real attention-hog of the bunch.

This year's show was dominated by Maine Coon cats (so many cats of such diversity that I begin to wonder if this is a true breed after all), but there were a fair number of Havana Browns (including some striking mahogany-colored cats), a lot of Devon Rex, a variety of Scottish Folds, a lot of Persians, and a few Sphynx (sorry, but I'm not much of a fan of hairless cats). We were disappointed that there were no Bengals there at all; maybe next year (hey, Bobby and Trish--here's your chance to show off your kitties!).

The most amusing display was the "cat agility run," which was as funny as it sounds. The only real agility was demonstrated by the person who was trying in vain to convince these cats to run an obstacle course; the cats were not interested or amused.

We did see one lovely blue-cream Persian who looked so much like our dear, departed Tisha that I felt misty-eyed just looking at her. (I still expect to see Tish lying in the corner whenever I go down into the basement, and I look for her every morning when I let Anna and Mischa come upstairs from the basement; there's still an empty place in my heart because of her passing.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Heinleinian Hero... for Real!

When I read this story of a man who managed to cure his own cancer using only his knowledge of radio waves, I was amazed. Then I realizedt hat this is the sort of hero I grew up reading about in the pages of Robert A. Heinlein's fiction... an indefatigable man who finds a way to change the world with his own focused knowledge and acumen. It's not only an inspirational tale, it could very well be a world-changing tale in two different ways. Read it and see what I mean...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Part Seven)

Comics have an addictive quality. After a couple of years of reading comics, I had fallen in love with the art form--and that meant that not only did I search out fellow comics readers for my friends, but I also found ways to work the quest for comic books into almost every aspect of my life.

Mom and Dad were both born in Cedartown, which is about eighteen miles south-by-southwest of Rome. While my parents moved to Rome in the late 1950s, there was still a lot of family in Cedartown--and that meant frequent Sunday trips to visit relatives, as well as occasional weeks spent with my grandmother or with Aunt 'Dessa and Uncle Edward (they lived in Cedartown--my grandmother in the more developed part of Cedartown and my aunt and uncle in the rural parts of Cedartown, off East Avenue).

Part of the fun of visiting a town where your parents grew up is hearing the stories about your parents' childhood. Once they were around family, Mom and Dad were pretty loquacious about their childhoods--and the relatives always loved to reminisce.

The other part of the fun of an out-of-town visit, of course, was finding places where comic books could be had. Cedartown was a small town, and there weren't too many places that carried comic books. There was a drug store or two, a grocery story... and there was Croker's.

Located on East Avenue, Croker's was an old country store in every sense of the word. It had sawdust floors. The merchandise mix was unique--everything from groceries to fishing supplies to toys to handmade wooden decorative items to knives to guns to horse tack to... oh, you know what comes next, don't you?

Croker's was a comic book mecca in the country, replete with hundreds... maybe even thousands... of used comic books. Not new comic books... used comic books. Comic books from recent months and from the past, all tossed randomly in boxes and priced at a nickel each, or you could trade two for one.

Since Croker's was the nearest store to Aunt 'Dessa's house, we stopped there to pick up something on the way to see her and Uncle Edward. I went in with my parents, figuring I'd look around to pass the time. Within minutes of walking into the store, though, I glimpsed those comic books in the back corner of the store, and I didn't want to leave. I wanted to burrow thorugh those boxes of comics and take in all the books that I had never seen before.

"You only have fifty cents," Dad told me. He was right... I had spent the rest of my money on comics earlier in the week, and had accumulated only four bits since then.

"Can I have two more cents?" I asked. That would give me enough to buy ten comic books, since Georgia was a 3% tax state back then, so there were only two cents tax on fifty cents. Dad agreed, and I went to work winnowing an enormous stack of books to ten comics.

And that's when I saw it... a Flash comic I'd never seen before, featuring one of the most outrageously-clad villains I'd ever encountered. And I knew that, whatever else I bought, that Flash had to go home with me.

I'd always liked the Flash because he was just a guy who could run fast. Okay, he could run impossibly fast... but when you're seven years old, you presume that if you practice long enough, you might be able to run pretty fast, too! And I could run pretty fast, so I had something in common with Barry Allen's costumed alter-ego.

The Trickster? never heard of him... but I knew I wanted that book! I picked out nine other comics that are long since forgotten... but I'll always remember the excitement of that cover, featuring a garishly costumed villain running through the air. Who was he? What was his power? How could he hope to get away from the Flash? I could hardly wait to pay for the books and get into the car to find out!

Of course, my parents told me that I needed to be polite and visit with my relatives first, so I didn't get to finish that comic until later that afternoon, when we began the forty minute drive back home (two-lane highways aren't known for speed, unfortunately).

That was the longest afternoon of my life... but as far as I was concerned, the drive back could last forever! I had turned two quarters into ten comic books... and suddenly the prospect of weekend visits to Cedartown seemed incredibly appealing!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Silencing the Thunder

Hank Reinhardt died today. Hank was a legend in Southern science fiction fandom, an expert in the field of edged weapons, and a founder of Museum Replicas. And Hank was my friend.

Hank had a reputation as an elder figure in fandom... the thing is, he was always an elder figure. When I first met Hank, there were jokes about his age. He knew so much about edged weapons, some would quip, because he'd been there when they were first developed. He joined the Society for Creative Anachronism when it was known as the Current Event Club. The first science fiction novel he read involved a man sailing around the Earth. You can supply your own "old man" jokes. Hank even threw in a few himself. Of course, he acted as if he was greatly bothered by these jokes... but he smiled all the while, and he seemed flattered by the attention. It was an act he perfected over the years, and he played it to the hilt.

Hank's first wife, Janet, died more than thirty years ago, and Hank was devastated. Some wondered if he'd be able to go on. Not only did he go on, he fought his way through the sorrow to start anew and raise his daughters in a loving--albeit quite unusual--home. Hank refused to let almost crippling back problems hold him back; he overcame them and continued an athletic, active life.

Hank was an active part of the original Atlanta Science Fiction Organization; two decades later, he was a friend and supporter of the Atlanta Science Fiction Club when I played an active role in its active years. He was involved in fandom as a writer, a columnist, and a raconteur. He was an editor and a professional writer. His knowledge of Robert E. Howard was voluminous.

Hank loved to play hearts. I have wonderful memories of evening spent with Hank, Ward Batty, Stven Carlberg, Sam Gastfriend, and others, playing cut-throat cards while guzzling iced tea with copious slices of lime. Hank took his cards seriously; he could tolerate jokes at any other time, but once the cards began to fall, Hank wanted the silliness to end. And he was good... better than anyone would tell him, usually.

More recently, Hank married Toni Weiskopf and made a very happy life for himself in the rural outskirts of Atlanta, cutting back on his workload and enjoying his life.

I lost contact with Hank about ten years ago; I kept planning to get together with him, but it never seemed to happen. And today, he left us as the result of complications from a heart surgery that was almost exactly the same as my surgery... except that mine went right, and Hank's somehow went horribly wrong, and he had to undergo a second surgery, and he never could recover. It happens sometimes... but it's not supposed to happen to healthy, active, vital men like Hank Reinhardt.

It makes me more aware of an awareness that's been coalescing for a while now. Death doesn't just deprive us of the presence of the person who passed on; it also denies us further involvement with the accumulated experiences that filled that life. Each of us has thousands of memories, awarenesses, observations, and events that define us, that make us unique; each of us has shared a small fraction of those memories, awarenesses, observations, and events with our friends and acquaintances, but we dole them out in small fragments--a few to these friends, a few other to family, a few to work acquaintances. Those fragments that overlap--those that we share over and over with a number of people whose lives intersect ours--help to define us to those who know us... they become the details by which people identify us.


But there are so very many pieces that have only been shared with one or two others--and there are some details that have never been shared with anyone. Some are secret... others just never came up, or are only remembered in glimpses and dreams. There are eventful meetings, poignant losses, personal victories, moments of joy and sorrow; there are childhood dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, there are promises made that are kept and unkept. And when one dies, all of that dies as well. Our world is made smaller by the loss of the cumulative experiences of each and every death, and we can never recover that loss.

Hank's life, so full and varied and storied, is a life of a thousand thousand tales and memories and joys and sorrows. I only wish there were some way to hear them recounted, in Hank's bold, resonant voice, punctuated by the gravelly laugh that I will always remember when I see Hank in my mind.

(The picture above, taken from Hank's website, depicts Hank in more recent years, along with his loving wife Toni. I lament her loss.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Sidebar)

Ten valuable childhood lessons learned the hard way:

(1) When your comic books get dirty, you can't wash them.
Don't ask me why this seemed like a good idea, but it did... for a brief time. I had a copy of an issue of the Flash that had something dripped on it (probably ice cream, but I don't remember for sure what it was). Anyway, I decided that, if water was good enough for washing dirt off me, then it was good enough to wash dirt off a comic book. I got the book wet, and I actually did succeed in getting the spot off the comic (more or less)--but I then ended up with a soaking wet comic. I put it in the sun to dry, which it did--but I then had a wavy comic book that was about five times as thick as it had been prior to the whole book-washing experience.

(2) Before cutting a coupon from a comic book, check the other side.
I really wanted to join the Supermen of America Club, so I cut the coupon out to mail it in. Problem was, the coupon was on the back side of a story page, and I lost a key panel to the comic. I had three other books with Superman of America Club coupons that had nothing but ads on the back page... but I discovered that a tad too late.

(3) Never believe anyone to whom you trade a comic book on the promise that they will trade it back.
If they didn't want it, they wouldn't have traded to start with. Bobby Ware, I'm talking about you!...

(4) Basing your allowance on the price of comic books is valid only when the price of comic books remains stable.
When I first began talking with Dad about an allowance, I carefully negotiated for a dime a day. That meant one comic book a day. After a while, I noticed that the publishers seemed to be aware of my allowance, because they began running "still only 10¢" blurbs on their covers. Little did I know that "still only" translates to "not much longer only." Suddenly comics went up to 12¢ and I was only able to buy one two comics every three days, with a little left over. Thankfully, Dad was open for renegotiation, and I upped my allowance to 15¢ a day--that was enough for one comic (a total of 13¢ with the one penny tax that kicked in over a dime) and a couple of pennies left over that added up to a nickel ice cream cone every third day.

(5) Scotch tape isn't the all-purpose solution for damaged comics.
Yes, I occasionally tore a comic book cover or interior page. Yes,I tried taping 'em with Scotch tape (and this was in the day before invisible tape when all we had was that glossy stuff). And yes, I discovered that the tape would turn yellowish brown and sometimes would even get gummy after a while. Even worse, removing the tape didn't restore the book to its pre-taped condition...

(6) Comic book publishers don't keep an entire line of back issues on hand for customers like me who missed (or misplaced) an issue.
I figured that, if I was missing a bunch of Batman and Superman books, I'd just buy them from DC. Well, it turned out that DC did have some back issues... but the selection was very spotty, and they actually wanted me to pay postage! Didn't they know that I was a kid who couldn't afford postage?

Marvel was actually more helpful. When some of my early issues of Fantastic Four mysteriously disappeared (only to appear in the collection of a friend), I wrote to Marvel's offices with my sad tale of loss. Not only did Stan Lee personally send me a selection of back issues (they had no FF #1, but they had a perfect copy of FF #2 and some pretty fine copies of almost every other of the first fourteen issues), but he also wrote me a personalized note and didn't even charge me for the comics! He also sent me a list of other books of which they had a few office copies lying around, and he let me order some of them. But even then, they didn't have every issue.

Charlton? They never answered my letter.

(7) Words aren't always pronounced the way you'd expect.
I kept reading about Wonder Woman's unique invisible plane. Of course, I read "unique" as "you-knee-cue." I thought I was quite bright for knowing the word... and of course, I found a way to use it at school soon after. Alas, my teacher was much less impressed with my mispronunciation, and corrected me before the entire class. *sigh* And even worse, she didn't appreciate my childhood attempt at humor when I told her that my pronunciation was a "you-knee-cue" one. (I believe that was my first attempt at semantical humor, and it was a flop.)

(8) Not all comics are created equal.
Even as a child, I could tell that the ACG weird fantasy books were somehow second-rate compared to Marvel and DC. Same for Charlton, even though they did have a few good stories by the same guy who did stuff for Marvel (some Ditko guy).

(9) Don't store your comic books outside.
For some reason that eludes me now, I decided to store several of my comics in a large pine-straw fort I had built in the back yard. I diligently buried 'em in the pine straw... but the next day, they were damp and dewy and even had a bug or two in them. Forget the outdoors--comics are an indoor hobby!

(10) A towel tied around one's neck does not bestow the ability to fly.
How I managed to avoid breaking an arm, a leg, or my neck, I'll never know. I tied that cape on and confidently leapt right off the limb of a large willow tree in my grandmother's back yard, only to plummet to the muddy ground. (That was the only warning that the tree gave me, unfortunately; a couple of years later, I tried to climb that tree sans cape, slipped, and fell to the ground once again... and that time, I broke my arm so badly that the bone projected through the skin just below my right wrist.)