Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Life In Four Colors (Part Twenty-Nine)

My growing fascination with Marvel Comics grew even stronger through the summer of 1965. Gary Steele had rapidly become my best friend, and that summer we were virtually inseparable. Either both of us were at his house, or both of us were at my house; it helped that we lived only a brisk ten minute walk away from one another, so we could wander from Marchmont Drive to Leon Street on a whim. And we were both positively fascinated by the Marvel Universe, with its ever-expanding links that made every book an interconnected part of a larger whole.

Today, comics are so continuity based that it may seem odd to imagine a time when continuity wasn't a vital part of comics. That's exactly the situation over at DC, however, where almost every comic was set a self-contained pocket universe, a corner of the DCU where interaction was pretty much nonexistent and books could be read in almost any order because the status quo was re-established by the last page of each and every issue. The stories were well-crafted, of course, but there was no sense of a larger reality. They'd try to establish that bigger picture with the annual JLA/JSA crossovers or the occasional Atom/Hawkman or Green Lantern/Flash crossover story, but even those adventures had no impact on the big picture.

The best way to understand it is to watch a syndicated episode of Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle or I Dream of Jeannie. Watch one episode and you've got the premise. Now watch other episodes in pretty much any order, and you realize that it doesn't matter. The premise is always preserved, nothing really changes, and the stories are designed to be appealing little vignettes. That's what made syndication so successful back then; we could watch those shows over and over again, in any order, and it made for comfortable viewing because we always knew what the situation was, how everyone was going to act, and how things would wrap up.

Not so with the Marvel Universe. Their war book, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, seemed to be set in its own WWII pocket universe... but then Sgt. Fury met Captain America, and then he met Reed Richards, and later on he turned up as a government agent assisting the Fantastic Four as they confronted the Hate-Monger, and a little while after that he became an agent (and then the director) of SHIELD.

Thor might show up in a Human Torch adventure--not as a guest star, but just making a cameo appearance for a panel or two. These characters all operated in the same world, after all, so it was likely that they'd cross paths from time to time.

That concept of continuity defined Marvel from early on. The company tried to establish corporate barriers, adding captions that one character appeared with permission of such-and-such publishing, but it was obvious that it was all one comics line, and there was a relatively small group of creators telling the stories of all these characters.

We were fascinated. We'd look for little clues as to how things fit together; we'd try to figure out just what Thor was doing when the FF were battling Dr. Doom, just to establish a greater time-line.

For junior high school kids looking for something a little more sophisticated, the Marvel Universe filled the bill perfectly. So by the summer of 1965, I was a Marvel Maniac. I bought other comics, but I did so because of my appreciation of the art form; Marvel was my comics passion.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Eight)

The late spring and early summer of 1965 was probably the height of my personal golden age of comic books; I was twelve, about to turn thirteen, and was starting to eran a bit more money mowing lawns, running errands, gathering bottles for deposit, and doing other things that could generate comics money. For the first time I can remember, I had enough money to buy every comic I considered a must-read, with a few bucks left over to buy whatever else caught my eye.

Of course, the "must-reads" were every Marvel Universe book. By 1965, Gary Steele, John Ball, and I were all avid Marvel readers, and each of us hoped to collect an entire run of Marvel books. Between the three of us, we had accomplished that goal, although none of us was 100% complete as far as our personal collections were concerned.

Of course, the presence of a complete Silver Age Marvel canon (even though it was spread among three houses within a half-mile radius) meant that we spent a lot of time visiting one another, reading and re-reading those books until they had no hope of maintaining their condition. That's okay, though; 1965 predated the development of comic book supplies and the related emphasis on near perfection. If a book was intact and showed no signs of serious damage (major spine roll, tears, heavy markings, etc.), it was worth having as far as we were concerned.

Even better, the three of us pretty much memorized what the other guys needed. If we were trading books with Bobby Wear and we saw a few comics that filled holes in the other guys' collections, we'd either trade for them or call the other guys when we got home. If we were getting our monthly haircut at the Shorter Avenue Barber Shop and we saw a comic in their stack of reading material that someone was missing, we hid it until the other guy could get there and do a two-for-one swap. (That's how I got my copy of Strange Tales #135, one of the few issues of Strange Tales I never saw on the stands in Rome... but that may have been because I was still looking for a Human Torch cover and totally overlooked the UNCLE-esque SHIELD series launch.)

We were comrades in collecting, watching out for one another, sharing books, and sharing ideas. However, I had more in common with Gary than I had with John, and pretty soon I found myself spending more time with Gary and less with John. John's father was coming more ill-tempered, and both Gary and I felt awkward when we were there, so we simply quit going to John's house. Of course, John still saw us at either my house or Gary's house, but I suspect his father's increasing anger and intolerance for John's interest in comics was affecting John, too.

Gary and I also shared an interest in music and in science fiction, pulp adventure, and fantasy, none of which appealed to John. So it was no inevitable that, as childhood friendships developed and grew, John drifted away from our group beginning in the summer of 1965; by the end of the year, I saw John only occasionally and thought of him as more of a school friend than a comics buddy.

But oh, what a wonderful summer 1965 was for Marvel fans; the powerless FF joined by Daredevil to confront Dr. Doom in FF #s 39 & 40; the beginning of the Sub-Mariner's solo series in Tales to Astonish; the first Thor Annual; the Doctor Strange-Spidey crossover in Spider-Man Annual #2... These were just a few of the stories that captivated me that year, solidified my belief that Marvel was producing the best comics on the stands. And at same time, DC seemed to be in a bit of a slump, leading me to cut my DC buying to the occasional bat-book, Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, JLA, and Hawkman, with on occasional experimental purchase of Doom Patrol or Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space or Adventure Comics.

Meanwhile, I was becoming enthralled by the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and began looking for more ERB books than the few I had found at Coosa Valley Bookstore. This was the year my love of books began in earnest.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Now We're Just Talking Price

So what do you call a woman who'll sacrifice her values, sell her integrity, and do anything for money?

A democratic senator from Louisiana.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A Sick Joke

The democrat aristocracy in the House has now voted to force a government takeover of healthcare (but of course, in the true tradition of any aristocracy, they lawmakers and the President are exempt from this, having created for themselves a superlative health care system that gives them all the privileges and perks they'll deny the plebeian masses). This bill, if not stopped by the Senate, will destroy the American economy in its attempt to force Americans en masse to pay for health care for those who refuse to take responsibility for themselves.

It's a sad day for America--and I can only hope this is the catalyst to convince a lot of Americans to take America back from democrat control next November...

Friday, November 06, 2009

Confounder in Chief

Less than 24 hours after the President reminded us of the problem of putting an inexperienced, shallow, political hack in charge or the greatest nation in the world (this is the guy who can't even manage an appropriately solemn speech after 13 American soldiers are shot, choosing instead to offer an adolescent "shout out" to someone in the room who had received an award that the President can't even properly identify), he urges Americans not to "jump to conclusions" about the situation yesterday at Fort Hood.

Great advice from the man who created a furor by jumping to conclusions about a policeman doing his job when a potential break-in was reported. But of course, the Prez has balanced that by failing to reach any conclusions whatsoever regarding the request for more troops in Afghanistan, even though weeks have passed since the man he put in charge of that mission said that he needed those extra troops to do the job...

It'll be nice when we can get a real President in the office instead of this cardboard cutout...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cash Gone, Clunkers Still in Office

The government's "cash for clunkers" program has proven to be a dismal failure, according to a report at Edmunds (click here for the full story).

Turns out our government spend $24,000 per car to give away $4500.

And there are some who actually (a) want these weasels managing health care, (b) believe for a moment that they can keep any program on budget, and (c) will actually reduce costs through savings?

Changing Lanes

For the past few years, I've had to own a van for work reasons. Our shipping group has been comprised of three stores, and no vehicle smaller than a van would have handled the number of boxes we had to pick up on an average week--and since I'm the guy who drives to the FedEx hub to pick up our books, I needed that larger vehicle.

Now, I've got the best van on the market--a Nissan Quest (and I can offer a detailed comparison between that, a Toyota Sienna, and a Honda Odyssey, having owned all three)--but it's still a van. That is, it's adequately comfortable with an above average sound system and car-like performance... but it's still not my vehicle of choice.

We considered the Buick Enclave--twice, in fact--but both times, I've been put off by some of the vehicle's rather unsophisticated technology (kludgy navigation system, mushy sound on anything other than CD/DVD) and its rather awkwardly designed cargo area (lots of room, but poorly configured).

Most of all, I've been put off by the sales people who work for Buick/GM. My problems with Carl Black Kennesaw and Heritage Buick/Cadillac were detailed a year or so ago. I tried Carl Black Alpharetta and Jim Ellis Chamblee in the past few weeks, and after what seemed like auspicious starts, things ground to a halt. Jim Ellis seemed interested, aggressive, and competitive until I looked at the vehicle... then all contact ceased. Finally, after nine days, they contacted me and said they had a vehicle that I would want... only they didn't. Somehow, he had jumbled my list of desired features. colors, etc. with someone else's, and said he'd recalculate. That was six days ago.

Carl Black Alpharetta seemed disinterested. I spoke with a salesperson who seemed eager to meet with me; then, when I showed up, he immediately handed me off to someone else who seemed unfamiliar with the Enclave. He answered what he could, but he seemed more interested in selling me the vehicle he had right then than in selling me the vehicle I wanted. (Makes me wonder why Buick offers a variety of options when no dealer wants to acquire them for the customer.)

The info I've read about the upcoming 2010 Acura MDX sounds intriguing. I enjoyed the Acura when I had it--fun to drive, bold lines, comfortable, great sound for an SUV. And now, for the first time in years, an SUV should be sufficiently large to meet my business needs at least three out of four weeks.

Don't know that I'll get one--but it's nice to know that I can make it work if the vehicle is sufficiently impressive. Guess we'll find out in December, when the 2010 MDX is slated for release.

Cool Foods

Tonight we had homemade chili for dinner--and of course, that means that we have enough left over to supplement two more meals: one tamale dinner, and one hot dog dinner.

Since the cooler temperatures got here, we've been making a lot more of my favorite "cool weather" meals, and it made me realize how much I prefer fall and winter--not only because of the temperatures, but also because of the foods that we tend to make during those season. So now, in no particular order, my favorite "cool foods."

(1) Chili
(2) Irish stew (somewhere in these pages I posted Mom's recipe for that, in fact)
(3) Homemade chicken noodle soup
(4) Susan's spaghetti and meat sauce (we have a number of different pasta recipes, but Susan's original spaghetti and meat sauce recipe--the one we've used for 38 years now--is still a cold weather favorite)
(5) Homemade vegetable soup (which we really should call vegetable beef soup, since we add a little beef to the recipe for flavor) and cornbread
(6) Turkey and dressing (I could eat it every week)
(7) Meat loaf (best served with Jamaican Hellfire Sauce, although Susan would vigorously disagree)

And the added benefit for all of these? They either add heat or humidity to the kitchen/great room area, a detriment in the summer but an asset in the fall and winter, when central eat is likely to dry out the air.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Don't Let Me Down


As anyone who knows me had probably assumed before I ever wrote this, I bought both the Beatles Mono and Stereo Box Sets back on September 10th (the one after 9/09, get it?). I haven't written about them because I wanted to take a while to listen to them and draw some conclusions before saying anything.

First off, I have to point out that this isn't a revelatory new release or anything; extreme statements by some fellow Beatles aficionados to the contrary, the 1987 CD releases weren't abhorrent in any way. They were a little flat, a little lifeless in places--even in comparison with other 1987 era mixes--but they weren't awful. Of course, the fact that the first four 1987 albums were done in a mixdown mono (not the true mono mix, not a stereo mix--sort of a variant mix in their own right) left a lot of fans (including me) dissatisfied. So I was glad to get these reissues.

Don't assume that I've waited 22 years for better versions of the Beatles albums, though. In the intervening years, I've transferred the first four stereo albums in my Mobile Fidelity boxed vinyl set to CD, so I have those songs in stereo; I've acquired the Dr. Ebbett's mixes and the Millennium mixes, enhanced versions of the original CDs tweaked by technologically advanced Beatles fans; the Purple Chick mixes, which include all sorts of bonuses, alternate takes, etc.; and the Capitol mixes of the first eight American Beatles albums, which is in many cases the way I actually prefer to hear these songs (the Dave Dexter remixes, as I've said before, were always punchier and richer in sound on those early discs than the comparable British original albums, and since that's what I heard hundreds of times in my childhood, some of those songs sound more "right" to my ears because it's the sonic signature that has been burned into my brain cells).

I listened to the stereo set first, because I prefer stereo to mono. The first two albums still sound thin; since most of the songs on those albums were recorded "instruments left, vocals right," there's little room to improve the bass resonance, for instance--all the instruments are packed together in one channel, and the dynamic range can only be tweaked so much. Voices are clearer, like a layer of gauze has been removed, but there's nothing remarkable here.

From the third album on, the sound begins to improve remarkably. Once the remastering engineers had multitracks to work with, they were able to do much more with bass response, drum crispness, vocal clarity, etc. The mid-period albums sound crisp and sharp and have a strong presence--but it's the last albums that sound the most improved. Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour show some improvement, but the albums that really stand out are The Beatles (aka the White Album), Abbey Road, and Let It Be. The sound is energetic, punchy, and realistic in a way that the original CDs weren't; it comes across as if you're truly listening to a studio monitor mix rather than a standard CD.

(A couple of fans have created their own DTS 5.1 mixes from these albums, and the sound is quite impressive. There's enough stereo separation and instrumental clarity to make the 5.1 mixes seem quite believable; I think I've listened to those albums in quasi-5.1 as often as I've listened to them in stereo.)

The box set is quite nice, but there's nothing amazing about the package itelf. The features about the making of each album are intriguing, the booklets offer some great background info and rare photos, but the best package of all is the Box of Vision, a 12" x 12" album-sized box designed to hold all the stereo CDs plus their accompanying booklets and covers, along with an album-sized hardcover reproducing the album art in the size that it originally appeared. I bought the Box of Vision before I received the stereo set, so I already had a home for the discs as soon as they arrived.

The mono set is the more impressive package in terms of design. The CD covers are true miniature reproductions of the original album covers, and each CD is packaged in a protective plastic inner sleeve to prevent scuffing and scratching (yes, even after charging over $200 for the stereo set, they didn't even put the albums in protective plastic inner sleeves... pretty chintzy, huh?). But the problem is, these are mono mixes, and they simply don't have the resonance and the rich sound field of the stereo version.

I have a theory that a speaker can only reproduce complex sounds up to a certain levels before the instrumental sounds blur together to create a single-speaker sound that is an amalgam of all the instruments than the distinct sound of each instrument. Stereo spreads the instruments and voices over twice as many channels, so each speaker only has to reproduce half as many component sounds; mono requires each speaker to reproduce them all at one time, so instruments get buried in the mix. There are many mono mixes where I can't hear guitar bits very clearly at all, or piano lines get lost in the overall sound. The same songs in stereo distinctly sound each instrument, and I hear nuances that just aren't there in the mono.

Even so, it's good to have the mono mixes. These aren't just remixes; in some cases, they are different takes or different versions of the same song, altered in post-production with differing sound effects, slightly different mix speeds, etc. In truth, they are variant editions, and the completist in me sees the necessity of having both sets. Furthermore, the mono box set is the only place where you can get the legitimate stereo versions of Help and Rubber Soul, since George Martin remixed those albums for the stereo versions in 1987, creating another variant mix.

What I'm hoping for, of course, is that Apple and EMI will choose to release a 5.1 DVD-A version of these albums at some point. That would offer the clearest, most high-fidelity version of the albums possible, spread across six speakers so that each speaker can reproduce a smaller facet of the overall sound, creating a much greater fidelity. If you want to get an idea just how good that could sound, listen to the DVD-A version of the Beatles Love and you'll realize just how breathtaking a genuine 192kHz 5.1 mix could be. It seems absurd that every album by the Doors or Genesis or the Talking Heads could be available on DVD-A or SACD, but the body of work of the most influential band in rock history is only just now getting upgraded CD versions; there should have been a 5.1 DVD-A set offered on the same day as the remastered CDs. That's the set that will be the ultimate version of the Beatles music; everything until then is just an interim improvement.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Hey, Wait a Minute...


I think I would rather have had the old price on that Macbook Air...

Friday, September 04, 2009

A Life In Four Colors (Part Twenty-Seven)

As if my childhood didn't have enough expensive hobbies and interests to fill my time and devour my meager allowance, 1965 was the year that I added yet another passion to a group that already included comics, monster magazines trading cards, model kits, and the Beatles.

This time, though, I was late to the party, so to speak.

The rest of the world had succumbed to 007-mania with the release of Goldfinger, but I didn't see that film until its re-re-release; I suspect my parents were concerned about the emphasis on a gold-painted naked lady that was a part of the marketing campaign (I can guarantee you that my mom wasn't convinced this was at all appropriate for a 10 year old, which was my age when Goldfinger was initially released).

But by the time the international press campaign for Thunderball launched in earnest in 1965, I knew this was something I wanted to experience. Action, intrigue, suspense, espionage, glamour, and amazing effects (well, they were pretty amazing for the time... the underwater scenes were far beyond anything I had ever witnessed on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, that's for sure)--yep, I wanted to know more about this James Bond...

Because Dad worked for a newspaper, he often had access to press kits for films; in the past, those press kits hadn't included the sort of films I'd like to see (no one was doing a major press promotion for The Tingler or The Screaming Skull), but the pre-release buzz for Thunderball caught my attention right away... and this was a film for which Dad could get the press kit. Well, sort of--it was cut up, with a few images missing, because local theaters would ask the newspapers to use some of these images with their newspaper ads. The black and white press kits included, in addition to stills from the film, a number of press-release-style articles and film ads in a variety of sizes for every market.

I had seen references to James Bond in at least one movie magazine that I had picked up, but it hadn't made much of an impression on me. I had also seen a DC Comics adaptation of Dr. No that appeared in Showcase a couple of years earlier, but that seemed dull and lackluster compared to the usual Showcase contents. This whole Thunderball thing, though--now this looked great. James Bond looking debonair while a jetpack carried him away from his adversaries; James Bond grappling underwater with the lead adversary as a virtual army of well-prepared black-clad scuba divers prepared for the confrontation; James Bond surrounded by beautiful women... And all the while, he always looked suave and nonplussed, in spite of the danger that awaited.

Because the marketing for this film seemed more action-oriented and less sensual in nature than that aforementioned golden girl image utilized to promote Goldfinger, Mom and Dad were willing to let me see this film at the DeSoto Theater in downtown Rome. I was entranced by the storyline, by the visuals, but most of all by the sophisticated agent 007, who always knew just the right thing to say and do. Forget Batman or Superman or Spider-Man... I wanted to grow up to be this guy! I wanted the cool cars and the gadgets and the glamour and the glory--just like millions of other people who found in the 007 image the sort of intrepid hero that we all could admire.

Bond was as much a hero as any of those comics characters I loved; oh, he didn't have a costume as such, but he had a heroic identity, he had the gadgets, he had the funding, and he had the skills necessary to confront any adversary. And unlike Batman, he had this really great accent that made everything sound impressive!

Actually, 1965 was the year when I discovered two new passions: James Bond and a television show that my parents casually mentioned as being "sort of like James Bond." I was intrigued; how could any television show capture the global intrigue and the level of excitement of James Bond?

So at my mother's suggestion, I tried an episode of this quirky NBC series called The Man from UNCLE. And right off the bat, I saw that Mom was right!

Rather than presenting a James Bond clone, The Man from UNCLE starred two heroes, each of whom represented different aspects of the Bond persona. Robert Vaughn's Napoleon Solo was the suave, handsome (well, supposedly--but I never really saw why that big-headed lug was considered attractive), and adept at the art of espionage--but it was David McCallum's Ilya Kuryakin that appealed to me more. He represented the down-to-business side of Bond's persona; his accent gave him a bit of an exotic air, his appearance echoed vaguely of the Beatles early look, but his black turtleneck and shoulder holster wardrobe made it clear that this was the man who took care of business.

I missed most of the first season of Man from UNCLE, but caught up with it in reruns. While it lacked the expansive budgets and on-location scenarios of the Bond films, it had one advantage: it came on every week, whereas we only got one Bond film a year. And like James Bond, UNCLE had it share of magazines, trading cards, toys, and other paraphernalia to eat up whatever budget an eleven-year-old might have left over after investing in all his other entertainment addictions.

Today, in an entertainment world filled with high-tech effects-laden comics-based films and television series, it might seem odd to hear of a comics fan embracing the world of Bond and UNCLE because they were about as comic-book-like as one could find in films or on television. But back then, Bond and UNCLE were eye-opening, because they showed me that (a) larger-than-life heroes could find be extremely successful and popular, and (b) the aforementioned heroes didn't have to wear a colorful costume or have amazing powers to engage in wonderful adventures.

Monday, August 31, 2009

KennedyCare?

I've seen talk of naming the healthcare takeover program after Ted Kennedy. I can see that. It's speeding full speed ahead with no regard to the lay of the land. It's going to put the American budget underwater. The opinions of the majority of Americans are being back-seated by the Democrats. Anyone who makes waves is ignored. And once they sink the American budget with this program, there's no coming up for air.

Yep, I think it would be quite appropriate indeed to name it after Teddy...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dull-plicity

Duplicity is a film about two stars, a director, and a supporting cast trying to convince viewers they've made something clever and intriguing when they're really turned out a lethargic, lifeless, dreary waste of time. Thankfully, I figured out this twist less than halfway into it and quit watching...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chalk It Up...

When Susan and I went to Athens a month or so ago to see the Embroiderers' Guild exhibit, it just so happened that there was an exhibit of pastel art on another floor of the same facility. We took the time to check it out and I was quite impressed--but the exhibit also reminded me how much I used to enjoy working in pastels when I was a teenager.

I didn't think much about it, but Susan apparently remembered. For an early birthday gift, she got me a set of pastels and some textured paper. I haven't gotten around to actually doing anything artistic per se, but I've played around it a little bit with it just to remind myself of pastel techniques and to get used to the feel of it once again. Pastels still rank right up there with watercolors as one of the media that I most enjoy and most admire.

Have no idea if I'll produce anything worthwhile, but it doesn't matter; I think I'm going to have a good time with it, at least...

Where Has the Time Gone?

Has it really been more than two weeks since I wrote anything here?

Wish I could give a tangible explanation for my absence, but there hasn't been one. I'll chalk it up to the general malaise and gloominess that has hung over me since late July. It's starting to lift a bit now, and I guess I'm ready to come out of my bunker and face the world once again...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sharing a Sorrow

My aunt Barbara called yesterday because she had seen my 7/19 post about my cousin Frank and was concerned. I realized then that I had never written anything further about Frank's condition; I think I was just avoiding the subject. Frank's struggle against numerous cancers came to an end in the late morning on Monday, July 20th, when he died in hospice care after a rapid decline. Up to the very end, Frank had told his family of his hope to "beat this bastard," as he referred to the cancer that took him from us. The fact that he held it at bay for so long, enjoying an active and happy life up until the very end, is testament to Frank's strength and tenacity.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Going Our Way

When I was a child, one of the first comic strips that totally enthralled me wasn't anything I read in the pages of the Rome News-Tribune or the Atlanta Journal. Instead, it was a strip that was published decades before I was born. I found J.R. Williams' "Out Our Way" in a collected volume on my parents' bookshelf; it was the only book they had that seemed to be entirely comic art, so I was instantly hooked. I fell in love with Williams' meticulous line work, and was intrigued by his view of the not-so-Old West... a view that stripped away the mythic Western elements and pointed out the mundanities and ironies of life in the West.

It's funny--I haven't seen this book in forty or more years, but I can still see Williams' lovely linework (an ink style that seems to have influenced Frank Frazetta's work, in fact). There are no mass-market collections of Williams' work that I know of--but there should be. He's too good to be forgotten, as this one panel so aptly illustrates.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Defaming the Joker

Well, it's appropriate--his motivations seem senseless, his methods certain to cause pain and suffering to almost everyone, and he is robbing everyone blind to support his strange schemes.

But the Joker seemed to know what he was doing, at least...

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Trouser Press

Pardon My Planet is one of the reasons why I was glad to get an online subscription to the King Features Comics website; neither of our area papers carries it, so this is the only way I can see it every week. Today's was particularly fan-oriented:


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sad for Frank

My cousin Frank is ill... very ill. He's been dealing with health issues for several years, but his incredibly optimistic spirit and his indefatigable energy made it easy to forget that he had a number of serious issues confronting him.

Tonight Frank is struggling in a battle that I don't think he can win, and I'm very sad. But Frank wouldn't want people to be sad; he spent his life making people happy, both with his charisma and his musical ability. So I'd like to give Frank a chance to make people happy once again with a nice bluesy rendition of "Jambalaya" (Frank's the singer and lead guitarist; while blues was his passion, he loved to take songs that weren't particularly bluesy and rework 'em into his style, as he does here). This is one of several clips he has on YouTube; look for "Frankie Moates" if you'd like to see more.



Saturday, July 18, 2009

And Iran So Very Far Away...

Just saw a news feature about protestors who are, for the fourth straight weekend, staging protests on a streetcorner in Atlanta against the Iranian elections.

Yeah, that does a lot of good. Watching a half-dozen to a dozen misfits trying to yell their organized cheers against Iran is amusing, but if these guys really want to make their point of view known in any significatn way, why are they wasting their time yelling here? Wouldn't some place like, y'know, Iran be a better site for their silly displays? Or maybe even some country that has diplomatic relations with Iran?

Of course, that might be costly and more than a little risky. So instead, they stage the most insignificant protest possible by getting together with their friends in a city that Iranians probably can't even find on a map so that they can yell to people who almost unanimously agree that Iran is a very sucky place.

(Maybe, if they feel like they have to stage their little protest in the US, they could go to Washington and protest in front of the White House, since its occupants seem to be about the only people in the US who think that Iran's government is comprised of reasonable people...)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Virtually Boring

Sat through the first episode of Virtuality... and for me, it'll be the last. What a yawner! Not sure what audience they were going for, but I can't imagine this plodding mix of science fiction, interpersonal drama, and mystery is going to click with anyone. Of course, the fact that they're airing it in the summer is indication enough that the network has no confidence in it... and with good reason!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thieves in the Night

It looks like the Obama Administration is once again going to try to force a 1000+ page bill through in a blitzkrieg vote without representatives and senators having read it. In this case, it's the move to socialized health care, an execrable idea that will force some of the best out of medicine entirely. As one good friend and great doctor told me, "I'd rather walk away from medicine entirely than to render inadequate care based on a government bureaucracy."

As to how good the plan is--well, bear in mind that the man responsible for trying to force this on us said that he would not use this system for his own family. When asked if he would want this plan for his family, Obama pointedly refused to say yes; instead, he said, "I always want them to get the very best care." What that should tell you, of course, is that we will have a two-tier system--the substandard care for everyone else and the first-class care for the President, congressmen, senators, celebrities, and cronies.

And if ain't good enough for them, it shouldn't be good enough for any of us...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Have It Your Way

You know, as sexist and suggestive as this ad is, it could be worse...

They could have had a picture of that creepy grinning King instead of the woman...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Robbed by Richard Branson

Have I mentioned that Richard Branson stole $10,500 from me?

Well, not me in person, but me in the form of Comic Shop News, the publication that Ward and I have been doing for 22 years now.

Richard Branson--you know, the guy behind Virgin Airlines, Virgin Records, Virgin Megastores, etc.--started a comics company. Guess what he called it? You're right: Virgin Comics.

His Virgin Comics company ran advertising in Comic Shop News--$10,500.00 worth of advertising in a short enough period that, as the last ad was appearing, they were just barely outside the time when they should have paid for the first ad. Then Richard Branson and his advisors decided to discontinue Virgin Comics. They sold the properties off to another company and laid off the staff.

And guess what he refused to pay?

We contacted Virgin on five different occasions about the ads, and were even told at one time that payment was forthcoming. Then Richard Branson decided to spend that $10,500.00 on a meal or a computer or a bottle of wine or a paving stone for his private island or something--at any rate, he and his company never did pay a penny of what they owed, and now the addresses where we were told to send the bills are no longer valid.

I see a lot of people refer to him as Sir Richard Branson. Y'know, Sir isn't the word that pops into my mind whenever I see a picture of him...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What a Dial!

Just juggled some numbers and realized that the old 5781 number (the one that I always think of as the family number, since my parents had it from the time I was old enough to really know what my phone number was) is about to turn 50. My parents got the phone number in the summer of 1959, shortly before I started the first grade (I finished kindergarten in Cedartown prior to making the move). I changed my answering machine message to acknowledge the half-century anniversary.

(Back then, we only thought of our phone number as a seven-digit number. Come to think of it, I don't even think I knew what my area code was until I was about ten years old, when I went out of town to visit David Lynch for a week and had to dial all ten digits to call my parents.)

I also went ahead and finalized the switchover of my old iPhone over to the 5781 number; ATT was very helpful, finding a way to restructure my package so that I got the second iPhone activated and added the 2G data plan without spending any more than I was spending for just a standard phone. I still have an affection for my first iPhone, even with its old 2G limitations, and even though it was a year and a half old, it was still about two decades ahead of the basic Samsung phone that ATT gave me when they set up the account.

Having the same phone number in the family for a half-century... well, it strikes me as a significant anniversary, anyway!...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dear Dad...

It's hard to believe that it's been almost two years since you left us; I can honestly say that there hasn't been a single day that I haven't thought about you; while I don't hear your voice, I can hear your words in my heart.

So much has changed since you left. Cole and Christy have added another son to their family, so the Marchmont house now resonates with the sounds of a happy family of four, just as it did through the 1960s when you and Mom first brought us to the brand new house. I know you'd love what they've done to the place; while they've brightened it up and renovated, you'd instantly recognize it as your home, and you'd be proud of them. Cole has a new job that he loves, Christy is back in school and hoping to be a nurse, and life gets better for them with every passing day.

Jess and Adam are married now, and they have a son of their own on the way. Adam has a major job promotion on the horizon, and Jess is staying at home, waiting on the baby's arrival. She's just thrilled with the new and unexpected addition to their family, and she's writing almost daily on her own blog to preserve all her thoughts and memories of this time. It's wonderful, really; while Kim and I were enthralled by the many stories that you and Mom would tell us about the days before we were born and the days of our early childhood, Jess's son will be able to actually read his mother's words and know what she was feeling at the time. (I so wish I could have talked you and Mom into writing those stories down for us; while we still remember them, I would love the chance to relive those days in your own words one more time.)

Kimberly and Phil have been married for over a year now, and she's so very happy--I know that was what you always wanted for her, and you'd be thrilled to see how everything has come together in her life. I still worry for her--she works too much, too hard, and I wish that she could slow down a little bit. But she's doing great at her job with UTS, and there's so much less pressure on her than there was during her days at Randstad.

Susan and I are doing well; as I always tell Kim, my life is remarkably routine... and there's something good about that. I've come to enjoy routine, to appreciate the thousand little joys that accompany that familiarity.

I don't get to Rome very much any more; I tried to go back a few times after you left, but I always feel so sad once I leave there. I miss the things we always took for granted--visiting with you, talking politics, grabbing lunch or dinner, swapping stories, laughing at wonderful memories and reminiscing. We still go up to Kim's house for Christmas, but I haven't been back to Rome since the last holiday season. I still talk to Kim once or twice a week, and I try to stay in touch with Cole and Jess just to know what's going on, but everyone's so busy that we're not able to stay close the way we once did. I miss that closeness, and I miss them a lot sometimes, but I'm also happy that the lives they're building for themselves seem to be filled with joy and hope and promise for the future.

I'd give so much for a chance to talk with you one more time, Dad. Oh, I know that I talk to you every day, but I just wish I could hear your voice, hear your laugh again. I will always envy the fact that Kim, Cole, Christy, Jessica, and Adam got to share one joy-filled lunch with you before that stroke took you from us; I wish I could have been there. We never realize how important those little joys can be until they're taken from us.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. No one could have asked for a more loving, guiding, caring, generous, supportive father than you--

cliff

iPhone 3gYes!

At last, Apple has solved almost every one of my concerns I expressed two years ago when the initial iPhone rolled out.

I preordered an iPhone 3GS so that I could avoid that whole standing in line thing. Worked out great; FedEx delivered the iPhone Friday afternoon, I activated it through Apple before I went back to the store Friday evening, and I called ATT to get the phone itself activated on Saturday morning. (Yes, it was supposed to happen automatically, but somehow my equipment ID info and my SIM card number never got entered into the system before ATT shipped me the phone, so I had to call them with that into to finalize things.)

Is it fast? Amazingly so in comparison with a first generation iPhone that used the EDGE network; I never had a 2nd generation model on 3G so my comparison is 1st generation to the new 3rd generation phone, and I detect amazing differences. I can stream music through the 3G network while I'm walking, which always glitched on the EDGE network. Software is zippier, the camera is better, it records video...

And best of all, it recognizes voice commands. Hold the command button on the headset for two seconds and it chirps at you; at that point, tell it what to do and it generally does it. I've had no speech recognition problems so far, which is quite impressive, since I've tested it with all sorts of commands.

More as I continue to put it through its paces...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why I No Longer Woot

I used to hit the woot.com website every day--and much more if they happened to be in the middle of a wootoff. But now, not so much.

In case you aren't familiar with them, Woot is a site that offers one product at a discounted price every day. At 1 am Eastern time, the new item goes up for sale. You can have it for the listed price plus $5 for shipping. Sometimes it's a great deal, sometimes it's junk, sometimes it's a great deal for some people and it's junk for others. Sometimes it sells out right away, sometimes it doesn't sell out at all. And every now and then they have a wootoff, where they list one item after another to get rid of the things that didn't sell out.

I used to buy a lot from them; I'd get things at pretty good prices, with an occasional mega-bargain in the mix, and they stood behind their products. If it didn't work, they'd give a replacement or a refund.

Then I got a Slacker G1 portable internet radio player from them... and right out of the box, it didn't work right. Problems galore, failure to function, needed to be restored every few days. I contacted Slacker, and they were little help; send it us at your expense, they said, and we'll try to fix it but we don't really support that unit any more, so if it's not fixable, you can apply the price you paid towards a Slacker G2 and pay us the $149 difference. The thing was, I would never have bought a Slacker G2 at $79 plus $149; I bought the G1 because $79 was about right for an 8gb 40-station internet radio player that I could carry with me to listen to in the car, etc.

So I contacted Woot and said "this doesn't work and the manufacturer won't replace it without a hefty upgrade fee. What can you do?" And their response? "Talk to the manufacturer; there's nothing we can do."

I still have the G1; it still doesn't work right, and it still fails about once every three or four uses and has to be reflashed with firmware to make it stumble along for a few more days. I won't renew my Slacker subscription when it expires--no reason to, really, since the hardware is only semi-functional. I didn't make a big stink of the issue with Woot, but I decided then that they were no longer a Trusted Vendor on my list. Now I hit their site once a week or so to see what sort of stuff they're listing, but you know what? I think I'd rather pay a little more to get it from somewhere else where the seller ships me functional merchandise or stands behind the product...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Another Doc Delight

In my earlier post, I mentioned the Doc Savage portfolio--but I forgot to add that I had also bought from Terry a hardcover copy of The Savage Art of Bob Larkin that included a signed tip-in page with an original Doc Savage head sketch; here's the one that I picked for my library.

(And due to the newest-post-first structure of blogs, this may make less sense if you haven't read the earlier post, which will be the next post as you read 'em. Check it out for more info about Terry Allen and Bob Larkin, then come back to this one. I'll wait for ya...)

A Day With Doc


FedEx just delivered a Doc Savage portfolio, Lost Savage, along with a Bob Larkin art book that I had ordered from Terry Allen (who can be reached at docsavagefan at yahoo dot com for those of you who might be interested), who is helping ot raise money for artist Bob Larkin and his wife.. As Terry explained in a post, "The purpose of the set is to try to help out Bob in his time of need. His wife Fran is recovering from multiple bouts of cancer and Bob is her caregiver 24/7. Everything from the sale of these sets as well as the bookplate editions of his art book go to Bob."

When Jim Bama quit doing Doc Savage cover paintings for Bantam, Bob Larkin was brought in to continue the Bama-esque imagery... and he did a great job of it. Larkin's paintings evoked the same dynamic energy and sense of drama as Bama's had, but many of his paintings were reproduced in a smaller, cropped format due to a trade dress change at Bantam as Doc Savage moved from standalone books to double-book volumes and then to four-novel omnibus editions. Lost Savage offers 11" x 17" recreation prints depicting the Doc Savage covers as they should have appeared, with the original trade dress and logo design and with full-sized cover art. I opted to go with the of the lettered sets, which also includes a full-sized original Doc Savage cover sketch by Larkin; mine depicts Doc confronting a Terminator, as is shown here.

The portfolio itself is stunning; it's not just a cardboard portfolio, but an expensive, elegant, hinged multifold textured black embossed portfolio with velcro closures. Each of the 14 covers is individually signed by Larkin, who also signed the certificate of authenticity. If you're interested, contact Terry for more info--but don't wait long, because there are only 40 of the signed and numbered sets and 26 of the lettered sets that include an original cover drawing, and I believe that almost all of the lettered sets are sold out at this point.

(Below are small images of the cover mockups included in the portfolio, for those of you who might be interested in this peek at what should have been...)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Change the Channels

Tonight's the night that television changes.

I grew up with a plethora of over-the-air channels when I was a child. Since Rome is midway between Atlanta and Chattanooga, we received channels 2, 5, 8, and 11 from Atlanta and 3, 9, and 12 from Chattanooga. I think I learned channels and networks before I even fully knew my times tables: 2 and 3 were NBC, 5 and 12 were CBS, and 9 and 11 were ABC. (And then there was 8, the educational channel that no one watched in the early 1960s...)

(Those network assignments were so ingrained in my head, in fact, that when channel 2 in Atlanta switched from NBC to ABC in the early 1980s, it took me years to re-learn the network configuration. Then, when 5 went from CBS to Fox, things got even weirder...)

Channel numbers and networks and station designations have become interchangeable over the years; channel 2 and WSB and (then) NBC were three ways of saying the same thing. Even when cable came along, with its habit of re-assigning channel positions, we'd use channel number shorthand, saying things like "2 is 3, 5 is 4, 11 is 6, and 46 is 9," and it all actually made sense.

But tomorrow, those channel numbers become pretty much meaningless.

Oh, I think that WSB intends to use the 2.1 designation for its primary signal, but they're really not broadcasting on the frequency for channel 2; they're broadcasting on a UHF frequency and remapping to 2.1. That's the way it is for all the channels; they're remapping, I suspect, so that all of those like us who have grown up with these channel designations won't feel lost.

But before long, phrases like "channel 2" are going to be as archaic as phone numbers such as "Pennsylvania 6-500" or "Klondike 3-2343."

(And as an aside on the digital transition: I still have a file from Comcast, over a year old, saying that "the digital transition will have no effect on our customers, who will not have to make any changes to enjoy television." I'm putting it in with this week's letter from Comcast, informing us that all of our TV tuners are going to be worthless for any channels other than 2-26 on their cable system, because they're forcing customers to use digital adapters when they reconfigure their channels, so that VCRS, DVD-Rs, and analog and digital tuners will be unable to watch these channels. I asked a Comcast rep if that would also affect QAM tuners, and I may as well have asked if any information could escape from the event horizon of a singularity.)

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Six)

(The photo above, in all its unfortunately blurry glory, depicts Gary Steele showing off some of the highlights of his collection in 1965.)

West Rome was, as I've indicated previously, a very close-knit community. Geographically, it was a relatively small area--perhaps three miles from the western city limits to the underpass that was the unofficial dividing line between Romes East and West, maybe three more miles from the Garden Lakes area to the southern city limits--so it's no surprise that so many of us who went to school together also lived nearby.

But it was an amazing bit of good luck that I found not one, not two, but three comic book buddies less than a ten minute walk from my house. And while my friendships with Phil Patterson and John Ball only lasted for a couple of years, my friendship with Gary Steele would continue for a decade and a half... and to this day, I have no idea why it ended.

Gary lived on Leon Street, in a small two-bedroom house that I suspect was built in the 1940s. And when I say small, it's worth remembering that I grew up in a three bedroom house that barely measured a thousand square feet. By today's standards, our house was tiny, with tiny rooms and a cramped kitchen. But Gary's house was even smaller--maybe 850 or 900 square feet, and that included a dining room, two bedrooms, one bath, a claustrophobic kitchen, and a small living room.

I don't know if Gary's parents were significantly older than my parents, but they always seemed closer to my grandparents' age. Gary's mother was a sturdy Aunt Bea type who was incredibly protective of her only child; as a result, she wanted to involve herself in almost every aspect of Gary's life, and Gary seemed to resent that.

Gary's father was a stoic, taciturn, introspective man who worked at Fox Manufacturing; when he wasn't working, he enjoyed fishing and gardening... in fact, he seemed to love both. Once he accepted the fact that his son didn't share his love for either, he also accepted the fact that he and Gary didn't share much of any interests, and weren't likely to share any interests in the future.

The Steeles were genuinely nice people, the sort of people who always seemed to the be the likeable aunt and uncle sort... but Gary had few cousins that I know of, so they didn't get to play that role. Instead, they stood slightly outside of their son's life, doting over him and supporting his interests even when they didn't understand or share them--and Gary seemed to close them off from his life.

Gary, me, Phil, John... we probably lived a quarter to a half a mile apart at most, so it was natural that we would cross paths. I first became aware of Gary's comic book interest at school, when he heard John and me talking about a Fantastic Four story (FF #16, a Doctor Doom tale), and he joined in the conversation. He had obviously read the book, and he knew the story. His enthusiasm for comics was evident, and he gradually became a regular part of our lunch table group, talking about comics and monster models and trading cards.

Within weeks, Gary had invited me to come to his house--not just for a visit, but for dinner. Gary's mom made hot dogs with chili and slaw, and I was won over immediately--not only did I love hot dogs, but she made the absolute best slaw in the work, a slaw so flavorful and creamy and rich that in my mind I still to this day measure all slaws against hers. While I always felt that John Ball's father would rather that none of his children's friends ever came to the house, Gary's parents were gracious and welcoming and seemed to enjoy their son's friends.

Gary and I hit it off right away. We both loved comics of all sorts, so each of us had huge accumulations of Marvels, DCs, Gold Keys, Charltons, Archies... if it was a comic, we'd read it. Living so close to one another, we both shopped at the same places, and we had both learned the local comic book delivery schedules. So it was only natural that the two of us would start walking to Couch's and Candler's together (I had to walk right past his house to get to those two stores if I was going the back way, which was much shadier and therefore preferable in the summertime), since his house was only four doors down the road from the back doors of both stores. Hill's and Couch's were a little further away, but once again Gary's house was a convenient stop on the way.

Within a few months, Gary and I began spending the night at one another's house, reading comics and sharing stories and producing our own comic book stories and our own superheroes. That was one other thing that Gary and I had in common: we both enjoyed writing our own stories. Gary also drew a little bit, but he didn't enjoy drawing comics as much as I did--but oh, did we both love to write our own fantastic adventures! Our personalities and interests perfectly complemented one another; when one of us would discover a new interest (as happened, for instance, when we found the Coosa Valley Book Shop in downtown Rome and I discovered a rich collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs Ace F-edition paperbacks), the other would inevitably find the new discovery just as appealing and we'd have yet another interest in common.

So in early 1965, I was lucky enough to have not one but two good comic book buddies, John Ball and Phil Patterson... but even then, I knew that Gary and I were kindred spirits with far more in common than any other friend I had known before that time.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Legend No Longer Continues

David Carradine died today; it appears that he may have committed suicide, for reasons unknown, or there are some who theorize that it may have been something else.

Whatever the cause, I hate to hear of his passing. Carradine was 72 years old; in some lives, that's the end of a lifetime, but in Carradine's case, it appeared that he his vitality was far from running out. He was working on a new film at the time of his death, and his career (revitalized by his work in Kill Bill) continued to flourish. I had hoped that at some point a new Kung Fu project might allow him to complete the work that began with him as a young man and continued in Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (an underrated series, I think) as a middle-aged man; it would have been nice to see him in the role of older teacher, but that will never happen.

I knew him only through his work, but I had come to like him as a quirky, sometimes eccentric actor who didn't always make the best choices but who always made the best of the choices he had made, if that makes any sense.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Childhood's End

Over on Facebook, I asked this question: "Does everyone believe that his childhood must have been the best of all possible times to be a kid?"

I was a little sad to see that some said no.

Obviously, some times have to be better than others... but it sure would be great if everyone thought that there could have been no better time to be a kid than the time that he or she was young.

My childhood had its problems and turmoil, but I cherish those years (as if obvious by my "Life in Four Colors" posts--which I'll return to soon, I promise!). And as many things as today's kids have going for them (wondrous technology, more in the way of entertainment and recreation than any generation in history), I'd not want to change places with them.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rah RAH

Many years ago, I discovered that I had lost my taste for most science fiction. A huge collection amounting to thousands of books was sitting largely unread--and in fact, it was becoming a burden just to keep up with them. So I ended up selling off or giving away that collection in the early 1990s.

But as with any purging of a collection, there are always a few items that you realize you'd like to have back. So it was with the works of Robert A. Heinlein.

Few authors have influenced my worldview more than Heinlein. At his best, he surpassed all other SF writers. At his worst, he surpassed most other SF writers. He was a brilliant storyteller, a fascinating political theorist, and provocative social commentator, and an influential thinker.

For years, I let that desire to re-collect the Heinlein books fester... I'd forget about it for a while, then I'd get the urge to read Glory Road or Puppet Masters or some other work of classic Heinlein, and I'd remember that I no longer had them.

So when I heard that the Heinlein Society was assembling a limited edition leatherbound set of the complete works or Robert A. Heinlein, I was intrigued. For several months, I went back and forth. The price was a bit steep as a lump sum... but it really wasn't bad at all on a per-book basis, and it would enable me to get the complete works in a form endorsed and supported by his estate.

I finally gave in a couple of months ago and sent in my payment; I got the first set of 23 books a few weeks ago, and the remainder of the series should be published within the next year.

If, like me, you consider Heinlein one of the field's finest, you might want to check out the collection here. Tell 'em I sent you!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The House That Doc Built

I was pleasantly surprised to see Lester Dent's home recognized as a historic site by the town of La Plata, Missouri. Like Robert A. Heinlein's house, it was a technological marvel for its time--but it's amazing how quickly time can transform "state-of-the-art" to "quaint."

Even so, it's great to get a glimpse into the home life of a writer who gave me so much entertainment. I can almost imagine Lester Dent sitting in that home, pounding on the keyboard as the deadline approached, churning out page after page of prose in that distinctive style that made his Doc Savage tales so much better than anyone else's.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Societal Graffiti

See all those banners at the entrance of various neighborhoods congratulating high school graduates as if they've actually accomplished something?

I say, take 'em all down.

If you check out this article, you'll see that about 90% of all students eventually get a high school diploma. About 88% of them actually go through a graduation ceremony, and about 83% overall graduate on time.

We would better waste money on banners congratulating those who eat breakfast.

Sure, that sounds senseless--but there is actually a smaller percentage of people eating breakfast every day than the percentage of people who get a high school diploma.

We wouldn't think for a moment that it's worth wasting money on a banner congratulating people for doing something as basic as eating breakfast, but our society has decided to act like it's a big deal for students to do something that is virtually unavoidable: graduate from high school.

I taught school for more than quarter century. I can assure you that school has been reduced to a lowest common denominator; the requirement to graduate are so basic that one has to make an effort not to graduate by (1) being absent from school excessively and failing to make up work, (2) refusing to do assigned work, or (3) being a constant disciplinary problem.

Simply by attending school regularly and doing all assignments, a student is virtually guaranteed to graduate. I can honestly say that, in the 25+ years I taught, I never saw a single student who failed to graduate for reasons that didn't involve one or more of the three reasons listed above.

Parents act like the world should recognize their child's "achievement." They host big parties; they send out announcements in anticipation of gifts; they band together and print up those aforementioned neighborhood banners (on which they frequently misspell "congratulations").

But that diploma is not a measure of achievement--it's little more than a certificate of attendance.

Sure, there are some who genuinely achieve--those students who excel, those who take challenging courses, those who push themselves to learn as much as high school has to offer. Their parents have every reason to be proud, as do the students themselves--but the graduation ceremony doesn't really recognize that. It may allow the valedictorian a chance to make a speech, and it may even put a star next to the name of honor graduates, but those are minor additions to a meaningless ceremony. The superlative student, the true scholar graduates right alongside the minimal achiever, the socially promoted, and the slacker who graduates only because his parents create so many problems for the school that it's easier to graduate the student than to fight the good battle to deny the student the diploma he didn't really earn.

So am I saying that high school is worthless? Not at all. I have said more than once that high school gave me everything I truly needed to achieve whatever measure of success I have found in life. Whether I'm talking about teaching, writing, or running a business, all the skills I needed came from my high school experience. Sure, college gave me the degree necessary to teach, but none of the skills--and I took no classes in business management, in basic accounting, or in anything else that would have assisted me in the latter two. College offered me a chance to enjoy studying in a more scholarly atmosphere, and I loved the experience--but had I not gone to college at all, I could have done just as well in each of my three careers (had it been legal for me to teach without a college degree, of course).

High school's value comes not in graduating, but in realizing that the core skills and knowledge necessary for success can be gained there. Certainly, college and post-graduate studies can build on those skills--I don't deny that. But all the basics are there already, if one simply chooses to take advantage of all that high school has to offer.

How many of those graduates actually do that? Not so many--certainly not the majority. Far too many students shoot for a minimal level of achievement, and society endorses that by acting like the minimal achievement of graduating is the only goal worth achieving.. For most students, it's not--and for those who have truly accomplished something, there is no appropriate recognition... although there certainly should be.

Those banners? Societal graffiti, that's all...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Total Re-Call

Metro PCS gave me a surprise phone call this morning. They were concerned about my blog report, and wanted to try to make things right. I really hadn't expected to hear from them, so this was totally out of the blue. They offered two free months of service to evaluate and decide if I would like to continue my service with them. The rep was quite apologetic and a bit baffled; he couldn't figure out what went wrong since my credit card info for automatic billing was still in the system, just as it has been for years.

I'm taking advantage of the two free months to evaluate whether we really need a store mobile phone. I've told everyone (except Julie, who's out of town right now) that we'll pick a week in the near future and just put the phone away so that we can see how well things run without a mobile phone. Then, when July gets here, we can make an informed decision.

Either way, MetroPCS gets some respect for actually following through--and for giving me a direct-call local phone number for customer service!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Yet a few days..."

I find it significant that almost all of us who have died for a brief time, as did I, have no further fear of death.

I hope that the permanent end of my life is far, far away; I have no wish to rush its arrival. But when it does arrive, whether it is tonight, another 3317 days from now (as that is how many days have passed since I first passed on for almost seven minutes), another 17,029 days (the count of my life up until that first brief death), or a number of days far more random and less coincidental... I will not fear its arrival.

Roger Ebert recently shared his thoughts on death in his Chicago Sun-Times journal entry "Go Gentle Into That Good Night," which you should read if the topic of death doesn't make you uncomfortable. It's a rambling, far-reaching, insightful piece that echoes some of the same sentiments that I have said and felt over the years. He even quotes one of my favorite snippets from the works of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


Like Ebert and Whitman and probably you and me, my life is a series of contradictions. Each day is in itself marked by still more contradictions. I have come to accept that as my nature.

That doesn't mean I'm always happy with it. I would like nothing more than to be a source of happiness for others, but I know that my mercurial nature (shaded with what my friend Bob Wayne once described as an intense empathy that makes my own moods all too often reflective of the moods of those around me) sometimes produces results that do not inspire such. Being aware that this is my nature helps, but it doesn't allow me to overcome.

Ebert is 66. I am 55. The statistical odds are that I have lived more than half my life already--a great deal more than half. I may wish that I had done more with the portion I have lived, and I may dream of doing more with the portion yet to come, but I am also aware that I will not change the world, nor will it really notice the day of my passing.

Today, Susan bought a sampler stitched in 1839 by one Sarah Redhouse; this is not a replica or a recreation, but the very piece of cloth upon which those young hands labored for dozens of hours to meticulously stitch an intricate floral pattern that surrounded a bit of verse from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written on a Country Churchyard," one of my favorite poems.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Most of us live as flowers born to blush unseen, wasting our sweetness on the desert air. All of us, I suspect, at one time had a heart once pregnant with celestial fire... where did it go?

It's a provocative essay that Mr. Ebert has written, and a moving one. I hope that death takes its time in revisiting both Mr. Ebert and me, but I say this now so that everyone can recall it at the moment when it seems meaningful: I have no fear of death. It is calming and soothing and encompassing and relieving and far removed from anything that life can offer.

I am not religious in an organized or explainable way. I can offer fragmentary glimpses into my own metaphysical beliefs, but I cannot define them any more than they can define me.

I believe that there is something in us that exists beyond this body. I do not believe that the complexity of personality and psyche and intellect can be defined entirely in physical, measurable aspects.

I do not believe that death is merely the absence of life. I believe that it is something else in its own right.

I do not believe in a divine force of judgment that punishes us for our actions in life, any more than I believe a parent would punish a newborn baby for its actions in the womb.

I believe that whatever it is that defines us, whatever exists beyond the physical, continues to exist in some form or manner after the body has died. I do not, however, claim to know what that form is, or whether it remains fully conscious of the experiences that we call life.

I believe that our noblest purpose is to bring happiness to others.

I believe that memes not only exist, but that memes can be linked to aspects of our world in ways that we cannot understand. Memes tie themselves to places, to songs, to objects so that those things taken on special meanings to us. Those meanings are real, connected by memetic bonds we can't discern or measure.

And I believe many more things, which I will talk about as time allows and situations dictate.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Metro PCS = Pretty Crappy Service

Today MetroPCS turned off the store PCS phone service we have had through them for eight years.

This struck me as odd, since (a) they have a credit card number on file, (b) the credit card company said no attempt was made to bill our account on May 2nd, the normal day of the month for our Metro PCS charge to go through, and (c) we heard nothing about this from Metro PCS.

I tried to contact them and after 45 minutes began to understand why they are the worst-rated mobile provider in the metro Atlanta area. When they work, they work--but when things go wrong, they make no effort to remedy the problem.

Turned out that Metro PCS switched internal systems, and in doing so managed to delete the credit card info for a few thousand customers. Rather than contacting those customers, they chose to deactivate their service, figuring the customers would contact them when their phones quit working.

I insisted on speaking to a supervisor--but knowing that they'd probably manage to "accidentally" disconnect me, I made the rep take my home phone number and said, "If you disconnect me and I don't get a call back from a supervisor, I will leave this account cancelled. We don't have to have your phone service, so you're going to have to prove you're worth it."

Just as I suspected, the rep disconnected me when he said he was transferring me. The supervisor never called back. And I no longer will be giving MetroPCS almost $50 a month.

The funny thing? There's no way to contact executive customer support for Metro PCS. There's no email address. No phone number other than the one that took 45 minutes and 11 attempts to connect me.

This is a company that wants its customers to go away.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Happy Star Wars Day

May the fourth be with you!

(*dodges thrown objects*)

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Team Effort

Apparently, Mischa views everything I do as a team effort; she follows me around the house, settling in right next to me. And sometimes, she even settles in right on top of the things I'm working on. Such as my work-paper basket on the downstairs desk...

(By the way, the sheet in the background is draped over a chair because Mischa wants a fort from which she can launch attacks on my feet when I walk by. I do a lot of decoration based on what my cats like, it seems...)

Dreaming

For the past several nights, I've had vivid dreams of Mom and Dad... and the dreams have had their own sort of continuity. Each dream has built on the events of the night before--not in a narrative way, but in a "continuing what we were talking about" sort of way. If I wake up in the night, I find myself almost eager to drift back to sleep so that I can revisit them once again, picking up more or less where I left off.

What struck me about last night's dream was the analytical nature of it. I had noticed that, while I was seeing Mom in her late 30s (when she was still healthy, before emphysema began to impact her life), I was seeing Dad in his mid 40s (when he had overcome the disruptions in his life that his diabetes had caused, and before changes at the Rome News-Tribune left him less satisfied with his job). I asked why, since Mom and Dad were only a year apart. "You see us when you think we were happiest," Mom explained. "That's the way it works. People see the ones they loved at their happiest. It may even change from time to time, as people remember other happy times. But we can see all the different times, all the different appearances, at one time. We see you as a child, as an adult--we see every day at the same time."

It was a wonderful dream moment--vivid, and one of those little narratives that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Great Forward Strides

I'm quite happy to report that Anna has wholly recovered from whatever ailment struck her last weekend. For several days, as I reported earlier, she was unable to eat or drink, nor could she control her bowel movements. For a fastidious cat like Anna, that was a sure sign of serious problems.

Dr. Lane, an old friend and a wonderful vet who owns the Cat Clinic of Cobb, gave her subcutaneous fluids and several medications on Monday, the 13th. It didn't appear that we were seeing any significant improvements through the morning of the 14th, and I was becoming more concerned that something was seriously wrong with Anna. I made arrangements to take her back in for more fluids on Wednesday morning.

However, Tuesday night was a turning point: she began to drink on her own and to eat sparingly but steadily. By Wednesday morning, she was eating and drinking regularly, and she was wandering the house just as she always did prior to her illness. I postponed the second round of fluids, taking the vet's office up on their offer to see her almost immediately if the situation deteriorated.

Thankfully, we never had to make that second trip to the Cat Clinic. Anna has improved every day, and now she's absolutely back to her old self. I still have no idea what was wrong, since the tests revealed no toxins or infections--but Dr. Lane's treatment of the symptoms was remrkably efficacious, for which I'm eternally thankful.

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Five)

My childhood was graced with no shortage of lovely girls, it seems. Some of them were quite willing to accept my company, and it was quite a while before I realized that society's rules for boys and girls differed from society's rules for same-gender friendships.

I can't recall the first girl to whom I was attracted, but I know she lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and that she was a neighbor during the months we lived there while Dad was in the Air Force. I only know of her because of a photo my parents have--a blurry black and white photo that shows an almost-two-year-old me bestowing a kiss on the cheek of the anonymous lovely young lady.

I am told that soon after that, when my parents moved back to Cedartown, I made a fast friendship with a young girl named Kay Sanders, who lived near our home. It's odd that I recall the name and remember the house on Olive Street quite well, but have only the vaguest memories of Kay's face and doubt I would recognize her today. I hope I can be forgiven for such sins of omission, though, since I wasn't quite four years old at the time.

The first girl whose company I particularly enjoyed was my cousin Julie. I recall announcing shortly after my fifth birthday that Julie and I were going to get married. The family seemed to hide their shock quite well. (The relationship wasn't as semi-illicit as it sounds, since Julie was an adoptive cousin with no direct blood relation to me, so the law would not have frowned on the marriage.) Alas, as Julie and I grew older, we also grew apart, although I still value her as one of my favorite cousins--and I've been blessed with many, many cousins.

Next came Allison Rohner, a young girl who lived nearby and whose mother was a close friend of my mother. Allison and I were friends for several years, although she never shared my interest in comics, thereby creating an irreconcileable bond. (Hey, I was six at the time, and didn't know any better.)

The first girl who shared my interest in comics was a young girl from our neighborhood that I met soon after we moved to Marchmont. She lived off Pressley Drive, an older dirt road not far from my house, and we became friends because of that proximity. We played together a great deal, she read my comics, and occasionally she would make the rounds to local stores on my comic book quest. But Rhonda (whose last name has eluded me for some thirty years now) had many other interests, and her group of friends included people with whom she went to school. While we lived less than a quarter of a mile apart, she lived in the county and we lived in the city, so we attended different schools in different systems. I recall my parents' reaction the first time I asked if Rhonda could spend the night; when I was nine years old, it didn't occur to me that there might be some problem with that, since other friends had spent the night at my house on numerous occasions. I do recall that Rhonda was the first girl with whom I shared an exploratory kiss; I don't think we were interested in one another, but more interested in finding out what kissing was like.

Tricia Mullinax was the first girl with whom I shared a serious kiss; that happened shortly after my tenth birthday. Tricia, too, was the daughter of a family friend, and we became friends out of familiarity, I guess. Tricia was cute and flirtatious, and I found her appealing in a way that I had found no girls appealing prior to that time. She explained to me at one point what a french kiss was, and we experimented at it in our juvenile way; I don't think either of us ever figured out what made it so salacious, but we both seemed to enjoy the attempts well enough. Alas, Tricia and her mother moved away months later, and that friendship-with-minor-privileges went away with it. Just as well, I suppose--Tricia never liked comics, though monster movies were goofy, and couldn't understand why I liked plastic model kits.

The first classmate towards whom I ever felt attracted was a slender, doe-eyed girl named Jeanelle Phillips; she was in the fifth grade with me at West Rome, and I was taken with her lovely eyes and her shy, endearing smile. Alas, Jeanelle was the first girl in whom I was interested who had little to no interest in me; my juvenile flirting rarely evoked more than the faintest of smiles, and I soon came to realize that Jeanelle did not share an interest in me.  In retrospect, I could have probably saved some moments of awkwardness had I realized it sooner; it wasn't until I went by her house one morning hoping to walk to school with her that her brother made it clear to me that wasn't going to happen. Thankfully, the fifth-grader's heart heals quickly...

After that time, the closest girl friend I had (to be differentiated from a girlfriend... she was a friend who was a girl as opposed to someone with whom I was romantically involved) was Pam Astin, another child of a family friend who also happened to be a classmate. Her father worked for a chemical/petroleum company, I believe (I seem to recall it was Gulf or Shell, but I must confess that my attention was more focused on Pam than on her father); I do recall that he struck me as knowledgeable in a very technical way, and I enjoyed hearing him speak of his work. Her mother was outspoken, gregarious, and jocular, and I always enjoyed her many visits to our house. Pam and I spent time together at school, and we sometimes spoke on the phone; I considered her a friend, but for reasons I could never explain other than sheer thick-headedness on my part, I never attempted to date her as I grew older.

Aside from Rhonda, though, I never found a girl who was willing to share my enthusiasm for comic books. I remember thinking more than once what a remarkable thing it would be, to find a girl who actually enjoyed comics the way I did. I had seen letters in various comics from an Irene Vartanoff, so I knew that there were girls who shared my insatiable appetite for comics... but I never imagined that I would ever actually meet one of them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Smashing Toys

I won't even attempt to summarize, since there are so many points made by Steve Ditko in this essay about the editorial urge to tamper, alter, and modify. Read it for yourself and get a further glimpse into Ditko's very strong feelings regarding heroism, values, and creativity.

Holding Her Own

Things aren't great with Anna, but she seems relatively stable right now. Dr. Lane had to give her subcutaneous fluids; afterwards, we took her home. Unfortunately, soon after we got home she lost control of her bowels, and the stool was disturbingly red, indicating blood. Dr. Lane had me bring her a stool sample immediately; she checked and felt that it was less worrisome than it appeared, since the blood seemed to come from the rectal area (probably caused by the irritation of the diarrhea) and not from the intestinal tract. The remainder of the stool was mucus that was probably loosened by the introduction of a lot of fluid into her system.

(Hope you're not reading this just before a meal or anything; I know it sounds almost as unappealing as a Papa John's pizza...)

No more problems since then, although Anna still isn't eating or acting normal. I guess "no decline" is about all we can hope for right now...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trying Time

Friday evening, everything was fine with Anna, our older (by six months) cat; she was happy, playful, and wonderfully normal. Saturday morning very early, she began throwing up, and she refused to eat. By Saturday evening, she had developed diarrhea, was lethargic, and quit drinking any water at all. Today was no better; I tried using an oral syringe to give her water, but each time I did, she would throw up soon afterwards.

Anna's a delicate girl; she's very slender for her size, and doesn't really seem to enjoy food very much even when she's healthy. She's light, small-boned, and very wiry, with thin skin and fine fur, and always seems docile and subdued. She's quite different from her sister Mischa, who is robust, hearty, thick-skinned, heavily-furred, with sturdy bones; Mischa loves food enough for two cats, and she's a gregarious, playful cat.

So when Anna quits eating, it's a concern; she doesn't have a lot of extra body weight to hold her over through a few days of fasting. And when Anna, who loves human contact more than anything, doesn't purr when her head is scratched or her back is stroked, then she's feeling very bad indeed.

Thinking back on it, this is the second pair of cats we've had with one strong a robust, the other delicate and subdued. Asia had much in common with Mischa in that regard, while Tisha was a lot like Anna (I still remember when we first brought Anna home to give Tisha some companionshipl; it was amazing how similar the two of them were, although they looked nothing alike).

When your cat is ill, it's hard to think of anything else. So tomorrow morning I'm going to be at Dr. Lane's office at opening to try to find out what's affecting Anna. I'm hoping we have good news by the end of the day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Four)

I'm not really sure why Phil Patterson and I quit spending so much time together. Phil had been my comic book buddy for a couple of years, as well as my Beatles buddy, but as time passed, we somehow ended up moving in different directions. I suspect that's a normal part of growing up, and it seems to happen so gradually that there is no moment of transition.

Phil and I still spent some time playing together and talking comics--and in particular, we spent time hanging out at the city water tower that was constructed just a hundred yards or so from his house. It was a great place for playing--surrounded by piles of sand and gravel (part of the construction, I suspect--and was close enough to walk to, but far enough to be out of sight from Phil's mother. We spent a lot of time there, climbing the sandpiles, sitting in the shade of the tower, sometimes playing on the adjacent railroad tracks.

But as my friendship with Phil began to wane, I found myself spending time with John Ball, a schoolmate whose interest in comics was underscored by his proximity to the stores where I bought my books.

A brief Rome geography lesson: the main thoroughfare in West Rome is Shorter Avenue, and most neighborhood streets branch off that. John's family lived in the first house on Shorter Avenue, directly behind the Dairy Queen and only two hundred feet from Hill's Grocery, Couch's Grocery, and Candler's Drugs--the three places I've already mentioned as prime stops on my weekly comic book treks. I lived on Marchmont, which was about a quarter mile further down Paris Drive, so John was not only geographically closer to me than Phil, but he lived on my "comics route." I'd often see John and his brother Jimmy out in their yard when I was walking to the various stores to see what comics had come in; they'd see me when I was coming back with books, and I'd stop to show them what I had found. Gradually, it became a habit to stop at John's house on my way to the store and see if he wanted to go with me; eventually, he and I began spending time at one another's house.

John lived in a much older rental house. By today's standards, it would be considered almost run-down, but we never thought anything about it. To a ten year old, a house was a house was a house... it didn't matter that it didn't look new or well maintained. I remember there were things about it that were particularly fun: next to the Dairy Queen was a small putt-putt golf course, and we could walk over there and play miniature golf in the spring and summer evenings for a very small admission charge. We were supposed to play one round of eighteen holes, but we'd often replay the first seventeen holes 2 or 3 times before letting our ball drop into the collection box at the eighteenth hole.

John and I liked the same comics, including an growing interest in Marvel Comics, which had become the number one publisher in the field as far as I was concerned. While I didn't have every Marvel superhero comic, I had at least read every Marvel superhero comic; I actually knew every nuance of Marvel history, and had memorized all those details. John was similarly obsessed with Marvel, so we would spend hours discussing favorite stories, best and worst villains, artists we like and artists we didn't like... all the things that kids love to discuss.

John and I also had one more thing in common: we both had younger sisters who were almost exactly the same age. My sister, Kimberly, and his sister, Cathy, were always trying to get into our rooms and go through our comics and records, so we shared a lot of sister complaints with one another... the sort of thing that ten-year-old boys love to do when they feel put upon by the burden of dealing with a three-year-old sister. (Ironically, Kim and Cathy would become friends later on, shortly after John's family saved up enough to buy a house on Beverly Drive, one block further down Paris than Marchmont.)

The one interest that John didn't seem to share with me, however, was a desire to create comics. I loved to attempt to draw my own comics; John would make occasional attempts at it, but his interest was marginal at best. He preferred to read other people's stories to making up his own, while I was convinced that I had a whole world of superheroes in my head that, once put on paper, would surpass anything that Marvel or DC had to offer. I created character after character of imitative design and dubious originality, and John would show a polite interest in what I was doing, but I could tell that he didn't feel the creative urge like I did.

I think that was why our comic book friendship was relatively short-lived. We had common interests, but not common passions, and that was destined to take each of us in different directions in just over a year.