Friday, September 28, 2007

Channel D Opening Soon!

Good news--at long last, the whole Man from UNCLE issue has been resolved and Time-Life is releasing the entire series (packaged in a nifty attache case) on 41 DVDs in late November. Now, if only the whole Warner/Fox dispute over Batman could be resolved, the two biggest holes in my childhood-revisited television collection would be filled! Both David McCallum and Robert Vaughn are recording commentary tracks for some of the episodes, and there should be oodles of bonus items. Hoorah!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shifting Sands

Ever watch Friends? I enjoyed the series a great deal, because I felt like I got to know those six characters, and I found them all to be very likeable. I knew that, week after week for ten seasons, I would spend a half an hour with the same half-dozen friends, and I would enjoy the brief glimpse into their lives.

Would I have kept watching if, for a six week period, Ross had been portrayed as a dark, driven, almost psychotic man? Had it turned out that Phoebe was an an amoral killer who would turn on her own friends? If, for another four week arc, Chandler had become a foul-mouthed self-indulgent character who mocked those close to him?

Television, one of the most successful forms of episodic continuing-character entertainment, would have little room for such unexplained abandonment of character. However, it is not only tolerated in comics, but it seems that too many writers and editors think it is necessary in order to advance their storylines.

Reading the latest issue of All Star Batman and Robin, unarguably the worst comic ever produced by major talent, I realized that, if this were television, Frank Miller would have been fired over as storyline that so ignored established personalities. He's not the only offender--only the worst. Ed Brubaker, Judd Winick, Mark Millar, and others are throwing away established characters with a long-standing reader relationship in order to "reinvent" these characters in an image more to their liking. And unfortunately, editors allow this to happen, offering no guidance and setting no barriers to a writer's radical reinvention of established characters who are as significant to their readers as the characters of Friends were to their viewers.

Bad storytelling, bad writing, bad editing... the industry really needs to demand more of its talent if it wants to win readers over long-term.

In the meantime, I'm convinced DC could do much better if they'd reissue All Star Batman and Robin with blank word balloons and encourage readers to fill in their own stories. I guarantee they could do a far better job than what Frank Miller is doing...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom

September 24th would have been Mom's 74th birthday.

Mom's birthday was always the "anchor birthday" for our fall birthday extravaganza. Jessica's birthday is on September 15th, just a little more than a week before Mom's; Susan's birthday is October 1st, a week after Mom's. So we usually used Mom's birthday as the centerpiece of the celebratory period, with everyone getting together to celebrate all the birthdays at one time.

Some people are hard to find gifts for, but for some reason I never had trouble finding gifts for Mom. I guess it's possible that I had a more difficult time than I realized--perhaps I got gifts she didn't particularly care for--but if she was unhappy with the gifts, she never said anything about it. Mom always seemed thrilled with the family gathering, and she always said, "You didn't have to get me anything," but of course we always did, because we wanted to. Finding the right gift is always part of the fun of gift-giving, and I grew up surrounded by Mom's tastes, so I always felt attuned to her likes and interests.

The only gift I can offer her tonight is my undying love and appreciation, and my assurance that everything she tried to instill in us has not been forgotten. I can give her my word that our family remains as close today as it was when she was alive, and I can promise her that she and Dad are always in our hearts and minds. And I can remember all those wonderful birthdays and smile... and wish that we had many more to share.

Happy birthday, Mom!

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Need for Civil Society

Charles loaned me his copy of The End of Faith by Sam Harris, which I had read partially and then forgot; I finished it last night when I ran across it once again, and I strongly recommend the book to those who enjoy provocative writing, whether you agree with his point of view or not. One of the most insightful chapters deals with, as Harris calls it, "The Problem With Islam." Here are a few cogent passages that underscore the difficult relationship between Islam and the rest of the civilized world, while raising the unspoken question, "How does a tolerant society deal with intransigent intolerance?"

"While it would be comforting to believe that our dialogue with the Muslim world has, as one of its possible outcomes, a future of mutual tolerance, nothing guarantees this result--least of all the tenets of Islam... I think it is clear that Islam must find some way to revise itself, peacefully or otherwise. What this will mean is not at all obvious. What is obvious, however, is that the West must either win the argument or win the war. All else will be bondage." (p.131)

"It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development... not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth..." (p.143)

"Is Islam compatible with a civil society? Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and not to pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe the answer to this question is no. If a stable pleace is ever to be achieved between Islam and the West, Islam must undergo a radical transformation. This transformation, to be palatable to Muslims, must also appear to come from Muslims themselves." (p. 152-153)

It's powerful, provocative reading that underscores many of the reasons why the West has been largely unable to reason with the Muslim world, and I strongly recommend that you read the book to see how Harris comes to these conclusions. You'll also see that he perceives the current Muslim world as being comparable to Christian society at one point in the past--but you'll need to read the book to learn all about that!...

Taking a Step Back

Every now and then, one feels the need to step away from the day-to-day events of life in an effort to glimpse the bigger picture. I routinely do this on the first day of each season--I use the four transitional days as a chance to evaluate what has happened in my life since the last season began its tenure.

So much is so very different than it was three months ago that, had someone told me at that time just where my life would be on September 23rd, I'd have dismissed it as an impossibility.

Of course, Dad's death is the overshadowing event that has reshaped almost every aspect of my life. Three months ago, I was spending one day a week with Dad, handling his finances and running errrands and enjoying a leisurely lunch and reminiscing; had I only known how precious those days would be!

Cole and Christy are in the midst of a significant transition--Cole has just started a new full-time job, Christy is a full-time student, and they'll soon make the old Marchmont House their own home--and the absence of a monthly house payment will offer them new opportunities.

Jessica has solved her transportation problems, and she and Adam are engaged to be married in 2009. She's already beginning to plan for the wedding that will begin a major new phase in their lives.

Kimberly has found a kind and caring person to help fill her life, and she's been able to resolve some of the worrisome problems that had made her life more stressful.

The store has seen three of the best months in its history, and continues to grow and thrive at a time when other comic shops seem to be facing problems with growth, stock, and a shifting customer base.

Jared and Jenny are preparing to move into their own apartment as their life as a couple enters a new phase that frequently leads me to reflect on my and Susan's early married life.

Chris has become comfortable with his new job, MarKay is successfully transitioning her store into something that she enjoys, and their son Ben is beginning a new job in Japan.

Charles has retired some long-standing debts and has achieved a level of financial security that he hasn't known for several years--and with that financial security seems to come a greater personal satisfaction with his accomplishments.

Allyson and Brett are steadily eliminating some of the financial stresses associated with the volatile graphic design field, and Allyson seems to enjoy her new job more than any that she's held since I've known the two of them.

I've rediscovered friends and family that I had neglected, and am much happier for it.

A time of changes indeed...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

There's been some discussion among members of the comics community regarding a teacher who recently resigned after stirring up a great deal of controversy by giving a copy of a mature-readers comic book (Eightball #22 by Dan Clowes, for those who want specifics) to a high school freshman. Since I am a strong proponent of comics as an art form and I taught English in public high schools for more than a quarter-century, several people have asked me what I thought about this issue. Here are my thoughts:

teacher passing out an issue of Eightball to public school high school students is displaying such bad judgment that he/she doesn't belong in a classroom.

I taught for over a quarter century in a progressive system, and I am aware that it is incumbent on teachers to maintain a very stringent standard of acceptability in regards to any non-approved material (that is, anything not adopted as acceptable texts or supplements by the local school board and/or board of education's sanctioning authority). Teachers in public schools do not have the freedom to randomly select supplemental material, including material that might be objectionable to some or all of the community.

No parent should feel that the school system and/or a representative thereof is undermining a family's chosen values by imposing his own material that includes words, phrases, scenes, etc., that the parent doesn't condone.

Every school system I've dealt with has a system whereby teachers can request that supplemental materials be approved. Among other things, I supplemented Morte d'Arthur, Perceval, Idylls of the King, and other Arthurian material with Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King; since it was an R-rated film, I submitted it to the school board along with an abstract explaining why I felt it was beneficial for advanced-placement World Lit students, a purchased copy of the film, and a parent permission slip I would send home with all students prior to showing. I also prepared an alternative assignment of equal educational value for any student who did not watch the film because of personal or parental concerns. I did this with all supplemental texts or readings that I distributed to students, and never once had a problem. (Had a very good experience with Aliens and Beowulf in comparative studies, all with school and community support and enthusiastic student involvement.)

Once again, we have a case of someone with very poor judgment and a lack of respect for the divergent values of others choosing to distribute what he/she wishes to an inappropriate audience. This sort of judgment is disappointing enough when it comes from a comic shop owner; it's far more disturbing when it comes from a public school teacher, since it creates a community distrust/lack of confidence in the system as a whole--and the system has enough problems to overcome without teachers creating further roadblocks.

(I keep saying "public school" because I have never taught in a private school and have no idea if their procedures are the same or wholly different.)

Simple rule: you don't get to impose your values and standards on your students. That's why school boards have approved texts, etc. In a position of authority, he distributed inappropriate material to a student, thereby determining this was appropriate. He does not to be in a classroom as an educator.

Teachers are fully protected if they simply follow the policies and get any additions to the outside reading list vetted and approved; when they venture from that protection, though, the jeopardize their career and community good will towards teachers as well.

It's also a bad choice for outside reading because... well, because there's so little reading involved. You know how much I love comics as an art form... but I would no sooner let a student substitute a graphic novel for a novel on a reading list than I'd let him watch a film rather than read a book. As an addition, yes--as a substitution, no.

I have no problem with Eightball being in the school library, where students have the freedom of choice as to whether or not to check it out. A library purchase is reviewed and approved by appropriate personnel, so it has been "vetted" through appropriate channels. Even if it's in the library, though, no teacher should give it to a student; they could add it to a list of approved readings, so long as there are appropriate and less controversial choices for parents whose values would conflict with the contents of the book, but it's essential that the teacher must offer viable choices reflect a diversity of values any time non-approved texts and readings are utilized.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thinking of George

An old friend of mine, George Inzer, lost his father to a stroke earlier this week. George's loss was made even harsher by the fact that his mother died only ten weeks before. I called George and talked to him for about a half and hour yesterday morning, catching up and sharing condolences; he seems to be dealing well with what many would see as an overwhelming situation. George has been taking care of his parents for several years now, and has thus stayed very close to them, which will offer him some solace during this time of grief, I'm sure.

I've urged George to write down his memories, his experiences, and his family stories; it's a cathartic experience for him and it'll give him a chance to preserve things that might otherwise get blurred with the passage of time.

Jerry & Polonius

Just finished reading Dean and Me, Jerry Lewis's fascinating look at his half-century relationship with Dean Martin (he subtitles it "a love story," and in spite of the years of friction and turmoil, it's obvious that insofar as Jerry is concerned, that's just what it is). As a reader with a genuine affection for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and first-person narratives, this book clicked with me on every level; even though the first half of the book is almost too factual, the insights of the second half make up for that slow start. Charles loaned it to me after mentioning that it was his favorite read of the summer; now that I've finished it, I can understand why. I suspect that there are many friendships that go through similar fractious periods, but few of them are subject to the intense public scrutiny of Dean and Jerry's relationship.

But I'm not really setting out to review the book here (although here's the short review: lightweight start, great read after the first hundred pages, movingly honest and poignant); instead, I'm using a minor point that Jerry made as a stepping-stone for this post.

In discussing the famous incident in which he and Dean were booed after a truly outstanding performance at the London Palladium, Jerry places a great deal of the blame on the WWII-era Lend-Lease Act, during which America loaned England money and goods for the war effort. As Jerry saw it, there were British hostilities because (a) people hate having to borrow from someone else, (b) they end up resenting the lender, and (c) this creates genuine animosity.

Jerry's paragraph, of course, echoes Polonius' entire "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech from Hamlet. Polonius even gave the reason for his advice: "For loan oft loses both itself and friend," he warned his son. And as I ruminated on that passage for a few minutes, I realized that my experiences have, for the most part, upheld both Jerry and Polonius's observations.

(I should point out that, according to his own account, Jerry Lewis was a stickler for repaying loans; the one time he had to borrow a large sum of money from a friend, he told him specifically what day and time he would repay the entire amount, and he did so thirty minutes early, just as he had promised.)

I am not a rich man; I have been fortunate enough to have achieved a certain measure of financial security that means that Susan and I have managed to cover our bills and accumulate some savings. (I credit much of that to the frugality that each of us learned from our childhood experiences, combined with some timely career decisions that afforded us the opportunity to invest some savings and leave them untouched for a time.)

Early in my adult life, there were two times when I had to borrow money from my father. In both cases, I paid him back just as regularly and steadily as I would have paid a bank or any lending company. (In both cases, I suspect he took all the money I repaid him and later spent it on gifts for Susan and me, because that's the way Dad was...) From his generosity, I developed a general attitude that, if a friend needed money or other tangible assets sufficiently to ask me for a loan, I should be willing to make the loan if I could afford to do so.

And in many cases, this has ironically cost me friendships. In one case, I knew even at the time I made the loan that it would do so, but was curious to see if I would be proven wrong. I wasn't.

With only a few exceptions, no one to whom I have loaned money has ever repaid it... even when he or she could afford to do so. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people to whom I have made loans who have subsequently stuck to a steady repayment schedule. One person even said to me recently when making an infrequent payment on a loan, "I don't know why I'm giving you money... you don't need it, and I do." And there was a notice of animosity in his voice that made it clear that he begrudged the payment. (See, I told ya--Jerry and Polonius were right!)

I have had some tell me that they simply couldn't possibly afford to pay me back... only to find out that they could, however, afford to spend large sums on others, to support the bad habits of family members, to make vacation trips, or to make other expenditures that I would have considered exorbitant were I in their place. All the while, they insist that their budget is such that a repayment simply can't be made...

I have sold items to people on promise of timed payments, only to have payments go unmade... and then, years later, when the item has reached the end of its functional life and the payments are still unmade, I've even had the same people proclaim that as far as they were concerned, they no longer owed me the money because the item was no longer usable. (I know that my niece Jessica would have loved to have used the same logic to persuade the loan company that she should be relieved of all car payments after a storm dropped a huge oak on her Honda, which had no comprehensive coverage at the time.)

I've had friends simply disappear from my life because it was easier to avoid me than to make payments. In one case, a friend who wanted a mimeograph and an electronic stenciller I was no longer using took them, promising that I would see him in two weeks with the $50 we had agreed he would pay. For those keeping count, that agreement was made in October of 1988; I have yet to see him since then, except as part of a passing crowd in which he made an effort to avoid me.

You'd be amazed how many people have told me that they really needed the money more than me, making it clear that they weren't happy about repaying me even as they were doing so, as if I should then say, "of course--debt negated!"

Somewhat amusingly, I've had two different people ask what I was going to do with the money when/if they repaid me, only to express their disapproval once I told them what my plans were--as if the acceptability of my financial plans should be a determinant in whether a loan should be repaid.

I should add that there are also friends who have steadily repaid loans, and who have expressed gratitude for the loan with each and every payment. It restores one's faith in humanity...

Jerry Lewis felt that a begrudging attitude regarding a loan led to a group of strangers rudely booing what he felt was the performance of his and Dean Martin's careers. Based on my much more limited experience, I can believe it could be so...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fade to Grandeur

Tonight, I could almost see autumn on the western horizon. As I walked outside near sunset, the treeline was silhouetted against a layered sky colored with the chalky richness of a pastel; as I gased, I felt a playful breeze drift 'round me as it rustled the leaves over my head. Not even eight o'clock, and a cerulean sky overhead brightened by a crisp half moon and a light swirl of cloudiness hinted at cooler nights to come.

Imaginary Geography

I was watching Discovery HD's hour-long feature on the Nubian Empire when I was struck by a major errror in the episode. Midway through, when they wanted to show readers just how expansive the Nubian Empire was, they showed a map of modern-day Northern Africa and the Middle East with several countries superimposed to show where they were in relation to the old Nubian Empire. One country they showed, on the southern edge, was Sudan... no problem there. The other country they showed, to the northeast, was Palestine.

Problem is, there is no country of Palestine. It doesn't exist in today's world. There is a country of Israel, and there are Palestinian-dominated regions, but there is no Palestine.

Dropped the Discovery channel a not about the error, but haven't heard back from 'em. Don't know that I will. There seems to be a major push among several elements to treat Palestine as if it's a country, even though it's not, so I'm left to wonder if this was a simple error or not...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Not O-K

Just watched the first episode of the Fox series K-ville.

The K is an abbreviation.

Oddly, I always spelled "crap" with a C.

The series is a cop cliche... err, drama... set in New Orleans, post-Katrina (that's what they claim the K stands for). When it's not presenting a pedestrian police story, it's hammering us over the head with the woes of New Orleans and how victimized the city is.

I'm tired of the whole "New Orleans as victim" thing, so I have little patience for heavy-handed propagandizing about the plight of New Orleans. Residents of coastal Mississippi suffered heavy losses, but they took responsibility for their own lives and made things better. Residents of Florida have suffered through multiple hurricanes, but they aren't still presenting themselves as dependent victims. Apparently New Orleans is determined to remain a victim forever, though.

But no matter where the pilot of K-ville was set, it would have been a bad hour of television.

It was nice of Fox to kick off their season a week earlier than the other networks, so I could dismiss this series at my leisure rather than tying up several hours of DVR time with multiple episodes before discovering that I was wasting hard drive space.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Another Sorrow

I heard from Aunt Jean that my cousin Jeff Brannon died yesterday--and that, in fact, he took his own life. I wasn't aware that Jeff suffered from bipolar disorder; it's the sort of thing you'd never suspect. Jeff seemed like the kind of man who had everything going for him--he was a handsome, personable, engaging young man who seemed destined for good things. Alas, fate dealt him a series of troubling misfortunes until he felt that he could bear no more.

I feel so sad that Jeff was so troubled and that no one was able to help him--and I am just as sad for my Uncle Ken and my cousins Steve and Julie, who are good, caring people burdened with more heartbreak than they should ever have to endure.

All too often, we don't know to reach out to those we care for until they have forever moved beyond our touch.

See the Changes

Went up to Rome today to pick up a few items--a small chest of drawers, a mirror, a chair, a few family photos, a rustic wooden side-stand--and to see how the den looked now that Cole and Christy have painted it. It was remarkable how much the paint and the lighter carpet opened up the room; it feels more expansive and inviting now. Cole is already making plans to have the hardwood floors in the old part of the house refinished, and then to redo the kitchen tile to brighten up that room as well. I'm glad to see the work underway; the house needed some attention and activity to invigorate it, and that's just what's happening.

In cleaning up, I found a birthday card that began "to my granddaughter" along with a receipt from June of this year. Obviously Dad had bought the card to have it on hand for Jessica's birthday, which was yesterday; unfortunately, he wasn't able to present it to her in person, but I did leave it with Cole so that he could give Jess this final card from Dad. It was an emotional discovery; I realized that, even with all the difficulties Dad was having with Alzheimer's-related complications during the past year, he still made a point of checking that birthday listing he had thumbtacked to the bulletin board (it included his own birthday, which said a lot about Dad's awareness of his own diminished memory). Knowing that Jess had a birthday coming up sometime soon--Dad was having trouble remembering dates, and we had begun turning the pages on the calendar for him so he would be certain of the month--he had picked out a card that told her how much he loved her.

Our family didn't say "I love you" very frequently. Dad and Mom were reserved about expressing emotion to others; they were private people. That's why I was so profoundly moved when Dad said "I love you" on Father's Day after he and I talked and I told him how much he had influenced me and how much I loved him. I know those words did not come easy for him--not that he didn't love me or Kim or Jess or Cole or Susan, but he felt uncomfortable expressing those words. He preferred to show his love in actions rather than in words, but cards offered a way for him to share his feelings without feeling awkward. The cards he bought in recent years were no longer the joking cards he and Mom so frequently gave us in earlier times; instead, they were honest, sincere expressions of emotion that seemed to reflect his feelings so clearly that I'm sure he spent time reading through cards to find just the right one.

I know how intensely one can be touched by an emotional gesture like this that manages to transcend the death of a loved one. Mom died on December 15th, 2002; on December 25th, 2002, Dad gave me a scrapbook/photo album of my youth, along with a note from Mom written in early December in which she explained how she had assembled all this after seeing a post on an earlier blog in which I had remarked, "my past has run away from me," in response to the fact that so many landmarks from my past had been replaced (my high school, the first school where I taught, the stores where I bought my comics, Rome's first mall where Susan and I spent so much our idle time shopping and wandering idly...). Had Mom been alive when I received the gift, it would have meant a great deal to me; the fact that it was a sort of final statement that not even death could silence made it so much more meaningful, though.

Unfortunately, Dad never wrote anything on Jess's card; I'm he intended to later on, when the family got together to celebrate her birthday. Unfortunately, that opportunity never came--but the sentiment is still there, and the card still says so much...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Marchmont: The Next Generation

Talked with Cole for a little while today; he was at the Marchmont house, Dad's old home where Kim and I grew up, doing some work as he prepares it to be the home for the next generation. He and Christy and Oliver are still hoping to move in there by the end of the month or very early next month, which is great news; that house so much needs the sound of joy and life and happiness, as I had commented a couple of weeks ago on this very site. Today Cole was replacing the carpeting in the den, doing some touchup painting, etc. It sounds like he and Christy have done a lot to brighten up the room, and I'm eager to see it.

As Cole was mentioning a couple of different rooms in the house, I had a moment of epiphany. I can make one statement about the Marchmont house that I can't make about any other place where I have lived: I truly believe that there is not a single square inch of that house that doesn't stir some specific memory and have some sort of a story to go with it. It was only a thousand square foot home when Kim and I grew up there; Mom and Dad added five hundred more square feet to it later on. I came to know every room, every nook, every corner, every closet, every counter niche... I know that home the same way one knows a favorite album that has been replayed countless times.

I'm eager for Cole and Christy to change things as they make it their own home for another generation. It was never a museum when Mom and Dad and Kim and I lived there, and it shouldn't be one now. It was a lively, dynamic, constantly changing home, and it will continue to be so for many years to come--and I guess I'll be the old uncle who's full of stories about the good old days...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Missing Him

Today was one of those days when I missed Dad so much that I couldn't even focus on things I needed to do. It was cool this morning when I went walking--about 65 degrees--and my first instinct was to call Dad and celebrate the first truly cool morning of September. I knew as soon as I thought about it that I'd never enjoy that simple pleasure again, but that got the pattern going: for the rest of the day, I found myself reminded of Dad in songs, in conversations, in the multifold interactions of a routine day. I left the store early just so I could exercise and mope at home; I haven't felt very social for the past few weeks, but there are times when I feel absolutely alienated from everything going on around me...

Growing Up with the Tube

When I was a child, I was absolutely enthralled by television. I still remember our first teevee, a black and white set that Dad bought at a fundraising auction of some sort; I was just shy of five, but I was excited about the idea that we were going to have a television set. And I was heartbroken when Dad tried to set it up and discovered that it didn't work properly. I remember how aggravated he was that night; the next day, we had a set that did work. (It still amazes me to realize that, until that time, we were teeveeless... how did we get by?)

For me, the golden age of television covers the shows that I watched from the time I was about ten until the time I was about sixteen. Andy Griffith... Dick Van Dyke... Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea... Lost in Space... The Man from UNCLE... Leave It to Beaver.. Honey West... Burke's Law... THE Cat... The Avengers... Secret Agent... Captain Nice... Batman... I'm Dickens He's Fenster... The Ghost & Ms. Muir... Bewitched... I Spy... so many great shows that I can still visualize, can still hear as they resonate through my mind. These were shows that were often designed with a younger audience in mind, but produced with sufficient appeal that parents enjoyed them as well.

And we learned a lot from them... we learned about loyalty and compassion and considerationa nd doing the right thing. Every element of popular culture teaches values, whether they're positive ones or negative ones. I was lucky enough to grow up in a time when most televison taught only positive values. Even Dennis the Menace failed to really live up to his name; inevitably, he did the right thing and made the correct choices in the end.. and even Eddie Haskell usually got his come-uppance.

It wasn't only the personal favorites that I watched on a regular basis. Even the second-tier, less appealing shows were sometimes memorable, even thought I knew at the time that they weren't particularly good. Petticoat Junction... It's About Time... Hazel... Family Affair... The Doris Day Show... they weren't great, and were sometimes positiviely hokey, but I still enjoyed them.

And then there were the shows that everyone liked... everyone but me, apparently. I never cared for Lucille Ball's television programs in any of their incarnations. I watched them, simply because they were on, but I didn't enjoy them. McHale's Navy--it never worked for me, other than the Tim Conway bits. Combat--I wanted to like it, but it was simply too real and too complex to hold my interest. Twelve O'Clock High--even with all those great planes, the stories didn't work for me. My Three Sons--unfortunately, none of those sons were guys I'd want to hang around with.

What made this time different, I think, was that most of us who grew up then watched the shows that we didn't like along with the shows that we did. Three networks, no cable... the choices were so limited that even if we missed 'em the first time around, we were bound to watch 'em on reruns (there were generally no summer season replacements). And of course, daytime television was dominated by syndicated reruns; after a few summers, I began to think that Leave It To Beaver and I Dream of Jeannie and Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke were made to be shown during daylight hours. If I was determined to hang around the house and read comics during the summer, of course I was going to turn on the television set; afer a while, I was virtually memorizing these shows, along with the ubiquitous Three Stooges reruns. The incredible variety that today's preteens didn't exist, nor did any means of recording or playing back video on demand. We watched television shows because we enjoyed the medium as much as we enjoyed the programs.

I was the same with comics. I would enjoy a Hot Stuff or a Little Lulu or a hot rod comic or evena romance book just as much as I would enjoy a horror comic or an issue of Flash; I was a comics fan, not a fan of certain characters or certain types of stories.

Today, children learn to discern too quickly what they want to watch and what they don't, and there's enough variety available to them that they can avoid the things they don't immediately enjoy. As a result, there's no reason for them to learn to appreciate things they don't necessarily enjoy. Kids are cultural sponges, soaking up everything to which they're exposed; for me, the advantage to limited choices was that I was exposed to good, sophisticated content along with the simpler fare that I sought out.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Life Goes On With Ennui and Without You...

I have continued to feel unmotivated in almost everything I do today. I am sleeping fitfully, frequently not dozing off until about four in the morning and then waking up a few hours later, looking at the clock, and forcing myself to stay in bed for another hour or two, hoping I'll doze off again.

For a little while, when I was putting together the news section of the latest Comic Shop News, I actually found myself enjoying what I was doing. For the rest of the day, though, I've gone through the motions--in exercising, in my store duties, in everything.

For the most part, I'm just tired. On top of that, there are times when I'm restless and dissatisfied.

I'm sure things will get back to normal soon; I've reached a sort of personal nadir, and I'm just waiting for the cycle to begin to reverse itself. Until then, I'm poor company indeed...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ups and Downs

This was a busy weekend--not because I did anything eventful or memorable, but because I filled it up with tiny chores designed to keep my brain largely in the neutral. My mood was turning sullen and introspective, and I could tell from my restless sleep that the events of the past month were weighing heavy on me once again, so I turned my attention to filing papers, doing bookkeeping work for the store, working on Comic Shop News, moving a couple of pieces of electronic equipment that weren't being used any longer... the sort of thing you do when you want to focus your attention on what's in front of you rather than those things that are behind you now.

It worked for the most part: I got a lot of stuff done, and I only drifted into the melancholy when I was walking and had only my thoughts for company. I suspect that Kimberly is tired of hearing from me by now; I have called her so frequently during my walks that I'm sure she's rolling her eyes when the phone rings, but I rely on her to fill the void so that I don't think about the fact that I'm not talking to Dad. We have so many memories to share, so many things to discuss, that I can fill the walking time.

It's the midnight walk that's the loneliest, though, and that's odd. I never called Dad at midnight; in fact, I usually talked to Mom when I was out walking in the darkness. Now I talk to Mom and Dad both, but it's still a mournful talk of loss and sorrow. I drag up random lines from "In Memoriam A.H.H." and find both recognition and reconciliation in some of them... but I also drag up lines from Bryant and Dickinson and Wordsworth and Burns and still find poignant sorrow in them.

I remember too much poetry sometimes...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Why You... I Oughtta...

Ever wonder what Moe Howard of the Three Stooges might look like had he been cast as Captain America? Apparently Marvel did, since that's apparently who's depicted on the variant cover of Captain America: The Chosen #1.

Inside, the book is less Stooge-esque; writer David Morrell does a capable job of laying the groundwork for a story that explores the role of a patriotic icon in a non-traditional war half a world away. The story places a strong focus on the cultural differences between American and fundamentalist Muslim culture, reminding us that this is a war against an enemy who rejects virtually every cultural attribute that America embraces. Into this war comes Captain America... or does he?

I suspect that response to this comic is going to be polarized to a large degree based on political viewpoint. Those who most vehemently oppose the war against radical terrorists and fundamental fascism will criticize the comic due to the fact that it is sympathetic and supportive of American troops in the Middle East; those who support that war effort will find much to appreciate in this comic.

Both sides, though, might criticize the fact that too little happens in the first issue. This installment's finale should have occurred about two-thirds of the way through the book; readers need to see more of Captain America to get a sense of Morrell's direction with this story. For almost four bucks an issue, readers have a reasonable expectation of more plot for their dollar. I think the miniseries as a whole is going to be very strong, but Morrell hasn't quite caught on to the demands of serialized fiction's pacing.

Even so, I was quite taken with the first issue. Morrell gets Captain America much more than most anyone else working with the character currently...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Still Stewing

Now that I've posted Mom's recipe, I got to thinking about the many patterns that we establish in regards to various foods.

Me, I've always eaten crackers with soup--but I've always eaten bread with Irish stew. When I was a kid, it was white bread (because that was the only bread that we ever had at the house... no one ever thought about whole wheat bread back then, and none of the groceries where we shopped had bread bakeries for more esoteric breads).

It was probably the early 1980s before Susan and I converted entirely from white to wheat breads, and about that time I began eating wheat bread with my stew. The problem with wheat bread, though, is that a lot of it is very airy--and since I'm a bread-dunker, I needed a hearty bread to hold up in the hot stew rather that disintegrating into a soggy mess. So I'd pick up a dense whole wheat bread, which worked quite well.

It was about 2002 when Susan and I discovered Publix bakery's sourdough bread; it's a hearty, heavy, almost tough bread ideally suited for stew. We'd get a round of bread, have it sliced, and I'd claim the pieces closer to the two ends, while Susan would take the middle slices. Susan doesn't dunk bread in her stew, so she preferred the softer part of the sourdough bread; me, I wanted the crusty outer layers, which somehow seemed magically suited for Irish stew.

And of couse, I have to add a liberal helping of black pepper and several dashes of Tabasco sauce (always Tabasco... never Pete's or any other brand of hot sauce. They don't live up to the name; only the McIlhenny family gets it right...) to my stew; it needs to be piquant but not excessively spicy.

Oh, yeah--have to have a soup spoon. Not a standard spoon, a bigger soup spoon. A small spoon just doesn't deliver enough stew in each bite... and this is too good to settle for smaller bites, believe me!

Mom's Irish Stew

I'm going to offer this recipe in two forms, just as Mom gave it to us--the slow version and the fast version. The only difference is canned vegetables versus fresh vegetables. Here goes:

Mom's Irish Stew (slow version)

1 to 1.25 pounds stew beef
1 large onion
1.25 to 1.5 ounces of Worcestershire sauce
1 pound of carrots, sliced
1 to 1.5 pounds of potatoes, cut into medium wedges
1 can Campbell's tomato soup
3 to 4 ounces of catsup
2 to 3 cups of water (depending on how thick you like your stew base)
salt and pepper to taste

Cover stew beef with water, add Worcestershire sauce and boil for thirty minutes; then add diced onions, carrots, and potatoes, and boil for an additional thirty minutes. Add soup, catsup, water, salt, and pepper, then cook on low head for another 30 minutes or an hour. If you prefer it spicier, you may add a dash of tabasco sauce.

Mom's Irish Stew (faster preparation version)

1 to 1.25 pounds stew beef
1 large onion
1.25 to 1.5 ounces of Worcestershire sauce
2 cans of sliced or wedge potatoes (do not drain)
2 cans of sliced carrots (do not drain)
1 can Campbell's tomato soup
3 to 4 ounces of catsup
salt and pepper to taste

Cover stew beef with water, add Worcestershire sauce and boil for thirty minutes; then add diced onions and boil for an additional thirty minutes. Add canned potatoes and carrots (do not drain!--add the water from the can as well) soup, catsup, salt, and pepper, then cook on low head for another 30 minutes or so. If you prefer it spicier, you may add a dash of tabasco sauce.

Crockpot modification: We have modified the short version from time to time to work with a crock pot; the only change we make is that we cook the meat, onion, and Worcestershire sauce for about for hours on high, at which point we remove the meat with a slotted spoon, tear/shred it with forks to give it a stringy texture, then add it back to the crockpot along with the canned vegetables, soup, catsup, salt, and pepper to simmer on low for a couple of hours.

Stew Just a Little Longer

Okay, I know I said I'd transcribe Mom's Irish Stew recipe today... but between a busy day at the store (we had to cram Tuesday and Wednesday's workload into a single day, which offers little down-time), a relaxing meal with my best friends at El Rodeo, and some Comic Shop News work at the computer, the evening was gone before I knew it. So the recipe is forthcoming tomorrow...

I will add that Mom's Irish stew holds a particularly dear place in my heart; the last full day I spent with Mom and Dad when Mom was healthy enough to enjoy a day at the house was on December 5th, 2002. On that day, I spent most of the morning transferring Mom and Dad's scrapbook of photos to digital files to prepare the slide show that I intended to be one of Mom's Christmas gifts (thankfully, I finished it in time to show it to her on December 12th, just three days before she left us). For lunch, we had Mom's amazing Irish stew... but it was Dad, not Mom, who prepared it. Mom had meticulously coached Dad over a period of months until he knew how to prepare several of her recipes; that day's Irish stew was entirely Dad's doing, under Mom's tutelage and supervision, and it tasted just like the stew Mom had made for us so many times before. I could tell how pleased she was that Dad had perfected her recipe; tomorrow, I'll share that same recipe so that those of you who fondly remember her stew (and those of you who've heard me talk about it but have never been lucky enough to sample it) can make it for yourself.

But for now, I bid you good night...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lego My Escher!

You got Escher in my Legos! You got Legos in my Escher! And Andrew Lipson has combined both into a unique art form; check 'em out here.

Food for Thought

Yesterday, I talked about some of the common foods that have earned a favored place in the diet of my life. Now I'll mention a few favorite foods that I'd love to experience once again, but haven't had in a long while--sometimes because the recipe has been lost, and other times because I've had to give it up for health reasons.

(1) Mom's bread pudding with chocolate sauce. This isn't a typical bread pudding the way others think of it; it's a dense, heavy, meringue-topped pudding served with a creamy rich chocolate sauce that must be liberally poured over all (although the baked bread pudding itself is too dense for the chocolate sauce to actually sink in). Only once did I manage to convince Mom that I'd rather have bread pudding for my birthday than any cake... but it was true!

(2) Chocolate fudge oatmeal drop cookies. I don't know how to describe these no-bake cookies, except to say that they seem to be a fudge with oatmeal stirred in before it sets up; the cookies are then spooned out on wax paper and allowed to cool. Thick, rich, and fudgy with a bit of "tooth" to them because of the sturdiness of the oatmeal, these were my favorite cookies when I was a child. Susan has found a recipe that is very, very close to Mom's, but it's still just a little bit different...

(3) Fried liver and onions. I know how to make this one, but my efforts to keep my cholesterol under control have led me to remove liver from my diet, since it's just loaded with the stuff. (I could have added fried chicken livers as a separate item, but figured I'd just mention 'em here as a tag-on to the fried beef liver; the same cholesterol concerns have led me to drop both.)

(4) Grandmother's German chocolate cake. Mom's mother had some recipes that didn't quite click for me, but her German chocolate cake was one recipe that I absolutely loved! Rich and thick with a heavy caramelesque coconut-laden icing, it was the epitome of what a German chocolate cake should be.

(5) Saucy burgers. This was a recipe that Susan either found or made up soon after we got married, and I loved it; it was a thick seasoned hamburger patty (almost a meatloaf patty) with a rich tomato-and-olive sauce. Don't know why we quit having 'em, but I loved those things!

(6) Waldorf salad. This is another of Mom's recipes, made with apples and walnuts and raisins and mayonnaise, among other things, in a mixture that I can't quite recreate. It's a simple dish, but it's one I've never made... I always counted on Mom to make it for us!

(7) Snow ice cream. Yes, I've seen Paula Dean's recipe on how to make it with shaved ice, but there's nothing that rivals true snow ice cream, made with a huge bowl of Georgia winter snow. The last time I made this myself was back in 1972 or 1973, during a winter that was so cold that I would swear that the flames on a candle froze solid...

(8) Cavatini. Back in the 1970's, Pizza Hut had a dish by this name, but when we tried it, we were disappointed. Determined to prove that cavatini could live up to its potential, Susan made a recipe that used Italian sausage, peppers, onions, pepperoni, a chunky sauce, and three different kinds of pasta (I remember that penne pasta and rotini were in there, but I forget what the third one was). It was distinctively different in flavor and texture from spaghetti, and I always looked forward to it.

(9) Divinity. Another of Mom's recipes; I've had other people's divinity, but none of 'em had the intense sugary richness of Mom's.

(10) Chocolate meringue cookies. MarKay and Chris Appel make the absolute bestest chocolate meringue cookies ever, and I have no idea how they do it... but I sure can eat 'em!

(11) Grandmother's coconut cake. Hey, Mom's mother gets two recipes on my all-time favorite list! I thought this was one of Mom's recipes for the longest time, but I learned later on that she got it from grandmother (I presumed she just gave grandmother her recipe, because all kids presume that everything originates with their Mom...). It wasn't a typical cake--it was very dense, very heavy, and stacked in at least three towering layers so that it seemed to be a confectioner's tower of babel, iced with a sweet white icing so packed with coconut that it would seem there could be no more left in any grocery stores in town.

(12) Chicken and dumplings. Kimberly knows how to make these just like Mom did, but I haven't the recipe or the skills, I don't think.

Anyone who wants to plan my ultimate dream dinner can use this as a starting point...

Monday, September 03, 2007

Common Tastes

Tonight, we continued our Labor Day tradition by grilling some hot dogs (low-fat turkey dogs and Hebrew National reduced fat dogs--great taste with less of the strange mystery meat filler found in most hot dogs). I've always been a hot dog fan, ever since I was a kid; of course, back then we ate the juiciest, most full-fat dogs money could buy, and we didn't care that each hot dog got about 115% of its calories from fat.

Two hot dogs, some baked beans seasoned with chopped onions and cubanelle peppers, some cole slaw made with a fat-free mayo dressing... it was as good a meal as any I've had, although there are many who would turn up their noses at my plebeian tastes.

Truth is, I've always had very plain tastes. I grew up in a home where out menu included, on a regular basis, fried baloney (it wasn't good enough back then to be known as bologna) and eggs and biscuits; hot dogs and sauerkraut; salmon patties; sausage patties and baked beans; pan-fried vienna sausages; banana sandwiches with mayonnaise... They may sound like plain food, but they're part of my childhood, and I have fond memories of each. I also remember macaroni and cheese with crushed pineapple (the only way I would even consider eating a bite of macaroni and cheese), canned pears with a dollop of mayonnaise, and the occasional bowl of cereal for dinner. Never once did I think of these as any less than the other wonderful meals that Mom made us; they were part of the adventure of childhood, and I still have fond memories of every one of them.

So tonight it was hot dogs and baked beans and cole slaw. Tomorrow will be grilled salmon and baked potato and salad; I tried on several occasions over the past six years to convince Dad to try some grilled fresh salmon, but he just wouldn't do it. "I like salmon patties okay," he alway said, "but I've had 'em enough." I tried to convince him that there was a major difference between salmon patties and grilled salmon, but he wasn't interested; in his mind, salmon and tuna were always intended to come from a can, not from a seafood case.

And showing how tastes are set early: I still prefer a can of Campbell's tomato soup or chicken noodle soup to almost any fresh soup, and I still consider a can of brunswick stew to be a taste treat...


Today I went to Rome. I had been at Mom and Dad's house (soon to be Cole & Christy's house) for only a few minutes when Kim got there, so I had little time to think of it as a lonely house; within ten minutes, Cole and Christy and Oliver and Jessica and Adam were all there, and the house was full of conversation and laughter and love once again... and that's the way it should be.

It's hard for me to believe that this house is almost 45 years old (we moved in on April 4th, 1963). I can so vividly recall my first night at the house; the many hours I spent in my room painting monster models and airplane models; late Friday nights watching Bestoink Dooley's Big Movie Shocker and staying up way after midnight just because I could; replacing my bed with bunk beds and then with a sofa bed as I grew older and needed more space for other things; afternoons and evenings in the living room, watching television with the whole family; sprawling out on the couch to read Doc Savage and James Bond and Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many other favorites; Christmases and birthdays galore; cookouts with hot dogs and hamburgers; listening to music on the living room stereo/TV console before I got a stereo of my own...

This house was meant to be filled with joy, not with sadness and regrets. As soon as everyone gathered there, the house seemed alive again--so vividly so that I expected Mom or Dad to come around the corner from the living room into the kitchen at any moment.

We spent some time figuring out who wanted what pieces of furniture. We're to the point now that we need to get the house cleaned out so that Cole and Christy can get to work making it their home; there's no reason for this house to sit in a twilight zone for another few weeks. Everyone was given a pad of post-it notes of a different color and told to tag the things they wanted with a post-it tag; if two people were interested in the same thing, they should both tag it so that we could figure out an allocation afterwards. By the time we finished, there was nothing tagged twice as far as I can recall; there were several things that weren't tagged at all, which is what we needed to determine. The furniture and household goods that no one wants need to be catalogued and donated to do someone else some good; the other furniture needs to be moved out so that there's room for Cole and Christy to move in.

I hope that they're living in the house by the end of September. Hearing laughter and love and family in the house again was so revitalizing that I realize just how much I had missed it all. There was even talk of Christmas Eve at the house--Cole expressed a desire to have everyone come over there for Christmas Eve, and I was so happy to hear it. That home has been a Christmas centerpiece for decades; I cherish the thought that it might be a part for decades to come.

And Oliver... he has a remarkable life ahead of him. He's going to grow up in a home that has been filled with the love of three generations before him; that's something that few children can experience!

I know that Mom and Dad had to be smiling with us this afternoon...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Hardest Working Spider in Bug Business

Pictured to the left is, as the title says, the hardest working spider in the bug biz. For the past five nights, beginning not too long after sunset, this spider (which I believe is an orb weaver, although I'm no spider expert) has laboriously constructed a web running from the gutters over the door to the deck to the deck railing to the far door-frame--a span of about thirty square feet. Then, sometimes between 1:30 or 2 am, when I go to bed, and 7:30 or 8 am when I get up, he takes the entire web down so as not to intrude on our bird-feeding or other deck activities.

(I'm aware that the photo is somewhat blurry, but when you're shooting at an odd angle sans flash at night through a glass door, any recognizeable photo is an accomplishment!)

No, the web is not being torn down by us or by birds, squirrels, or other critters. If that were the case, there'd be a few strands of the web left (as there are with other webs left by other spiders on the back deck). But this guy leaves absolutely nothing behind... and you have to appreciate that level of spider consideration!

Which Direction?

Some days I feel like I'm taking two steps forward and one step backwards in coming to terms with Dad's death... and other days, I feel like it's one step forward and three steps backward. I wish I had the slightest idea why some days hit me so hard. A friend warned me that sometimes the most unexpected things could evoke unexpected feelings of loss and loneliness; his warning has proven very appropriate.

A recent trip to Olive Garden was quite pleasant... until I remembered that during the past few months, when the Olive Garden in Rome was under construction, Dad had said repeatedly that he wanted us to have lunch there once it opened. Sadly, Dad's stroke came two weeks before Olive Garden opened, so Dad never got to have the lunch that he had so frequently anticipated.

I guess I can expect a lot more of these experiences in months to come... doesn't make it any less disturbing when they happen, though.

A Dignified Girl

Cats can convey their personality very effectively in the most routine things... even the way they nap. Here's a photo of our graceful and dignified Anna, dozing in her usual position on back of the living room recliner. That red object on which she's resting? That's her afternoon catnip mouse, covered in corduroy, that picks up and carries with her to her napping spot; if it falls off, she climbs down to get it, then resumes her sleeping post. Unlike Mischa, who sprawls out to ensure that everyone notices her and feels obligated to scratch her belly, Anna takes up her post out of the path of daily activities--but in a place where she can still watch us as we pass through the kitchen. Every now and then, we'll hear a faint kittenish sound to remind us that she would be glad to get a head-scratch or two--quite unlike Mischa, who will reach out and grab you if you dare to pass her by without the appropriate attention and deference.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mischa!

Today Mischa is three years old. It seems hard to believe that she's been a part of our family for two and a half years, but it's true! To commemorate the event, we had her favorite breakfast--bacon and eggs--and I gave her two pieces of bacon rather than her usual one. Add to that the grilled chicken breast for dinner (in addition to her usual canned and dry cat food), and I'd say she had an appropriately festive birthday celebration!

Here's a birthday photo of Mischa in her usual afternoon sleeping spot on the sunroom sofa; can you tell that she's pretty happy with her life here?