Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I'll Side With Santa

This morning, I saw an egregiously offensive TV spot that cast Santa as a Christmas grinch who ends a nasty tirade with the words, "I don't do poor countries." So who's responsible for the commercial?

UNICEF.

Guess what? I no longer do UNICEF. I'd rather side with Santa instead.

I considered posting a link, but I find the commercial to be so bilious that I chose not to do so. If you want to see it for yourself, search on Youtube. It's still there, for now at least...

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas...

Tonight I found myself truly moved by the Christmas spirit for the first time this season.

It's been a somber December; various matters have conspired to make it difficult for me to look beyond the immediacy of the moment, to experience something broader than right now. I haven't ignored Christmas, but it hasn't become a part of my life the way it used to so many years in the past.

Tonight, though, I put Comic Shop News #1282 to bed and decided this would be a good time to wrap presents for some of my friends who'll be gathering at the store tomorrow evening. And it was the wrapping paper that truly reminded me of the joys of Christmases past.

The red and green striped paper with a gold filigree pattern overlaying the green--I bought that paper at Belk's in Rome in happier times when we had the Horseleg Creek farmhouse, when Mom and Dad were still in active and healthy, when Cole and Jess were younger and filled with that mixture of sullenness and silliness that typifies childhood, when Kim's laugh filled the holiday house at Marchmont, when Dad would sing along with every Christmas song, and when the den of their home was so packed with Christmas gifts and knicknacks and decorations that maneuvering through the room was at times challenging. I wrapped DVD's for Dad in that paper; I gave Mom a replacement remote for her favorite GoVideo dual deck VHS unit, and it was wrapped in that paper.

The blue paper? Kmart paper from the now-defunct Kmart in West Rome. Kim's computer was wrapped in that paper, and I remember the startled look on her face when we gave it to her.

The heavy, extra-wide roll of NOEL paper in burgundy and gold and hunter green? That came from Costco, when Costco was relatively new to Kennesaw; it has wrapped wall clocks and sets of dishes and sheets and so many other oversized gifts over the years... and I can remember the smiles and laughter and "Oh, you shouldn't have," the sincere gratitude and pleasure that makes gift-giving so wonderful.

So many rolls of paper--a few date back more than a quarter century, fragments that go back four houses now, from our Carillon home to our Milstead home to our Horseleg home all the way to Sumit Wood Drive, the first home we ever owned. I remember wrapping gifts in that paper in the vaulted ceiling living room, with starlight visible through the skylight if I turned off the living room lights... or was it the reflection of Christmas tree lights instead? It was starlight in my memory, so starlight it is...

Gift boxes with tags written by loving hands that are ceased writing tags far too soon. Tissue paper used and re-used so many times it is almost limp, but there's still a little more holiday happiness to be drawn from its holiday pastels.

And I remembered all those Christmases, all that happiness that comes with giving a gift that truly means something to the recipient. I remember the fretful days of worrying that the gifts weren't good enough, or there weren't enough of them.

It's the love, not the gift, that we recall most of all.

And those richly colored rolls of paper overwrap more than gifts. They wrap up moments of happiness so intense that they have embedded themselves in the fibers of the paper, and every time I spread a roll of paper on the floor to trim a piece just the right size for a book or a bottle of perfume or a DVD or a framed photograph, the memories are released.

And it's Christmas again... every Christmas... and every loved one is still there. They haven't left--they're just hiding away, waiting to pleasantly surprise me in an unexpected moment.

And I am overwhelmed by the Christmas spirit, and I truly remember what Christmas joy is...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sad But True But Sad Still...


Ever since I read this installment of Crankshaft back on November 27th, it's haunted me... because what Crankshaft (or more specifically, creator Tom Batiuk) is describing here is precisely what I saw happen to Dad as his world grew smaller and smaller with each passing year. Apparently it's far more symptomatic of old age than I ever realized. Even so, it makes me sad to realize that so many of the people who were so independent throughout their lives face a diminishing world as they get older... (Strip copyright 2011 by Tom Batiuk and King Features Syndicate)

Monday, December 12, 2011

POP Doesn't Go Mac.com E-Mail

For the past two days, my mac.com / me.com POP email account has failed to work. I can't connect to check mail. I know that mail is coming in, because I can log in via iCloud or IMAP service and read the mail. I could forward the e-mail to my Gmail account, but Apple still has an archaic 200-emails-per-day limit, at which point they cut off your account, so I'm just having to let emails pile up in the box, respond to the most urgent via IMAP, and hope that Apple gets this fixed sometime soon.

The first experience was not very encouraging, however. Spend 45 minutes on the phone with 2 reps, and both of them basically said, "Hmmm..." followed by "Oh, well..." I was promised that someone at higher level tech support would investigate and find a solution right away, but that hasn't happened. He also said he was sending me a text transcript of our chat, but he didn't--and for some reason, the "email" button that appeared at the end of our chat was grayed out, so I coudn't select it.

Why is this inconvenient? Because, while I use my mac.com address as my primary public email address, I actually have a Gmail account set up to check my POP accounts and aggregate the email at one central address. I can respond to each email from the address to which the original mail was sent. I can even SEND email from my POP account, I just can't receive email.

At first the tech rep thought it was a computer problem, but I told him that it simultaneously failed to work on a total of 16 different computers using four different ISPs; it also quit working on my various IOS 5 devices and through Gmail. The rep finally checked and verified that it was NOT working to receive mail, although he had no idea why.

I know that things can go wrong--it's how a company addresses the issue that's a real measure of success. I've never known Apple to leave me hanging for days with a problem like this. I've also never known them to fail to contact me right away when they said they were going to.

Hope I can get this working sometime in the near future. I am currently anticipating a Sisyphusian ordeal whereby I have to call Apple again, wait for a while, explain the problem once again, prove that it's not a local computer issue, then listen to another rep go "Hmmm..."

Come on, Apple--prove me wrong and get this resolved!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing But...

I have been cursed with bad teeth. I wish that weren't the case, but it seems to be a family thing; both Mom and Dad had dentures because their teeth were so bad when they were younger that they were advised to have them removed and replaced.

Both my sister Kimberly and I have had to deal with frequent fillings, crowns, root canals, etc., over the years. Thursday morning, I'm having to have an extraction and implant procedure done to a tooth that already had had three crowns and a root canal; by the time it's all over, this tooth will represent more than $10,000 worth of dental work and discomfort.

Recently, I've been putting a lot of attention into dental matters, hoping to find a way to reverse this trend; I'm already having my teeth cleaned and checked every four months and still can't get the problem under control. My research has led me to a couple of items: xylitol and glycyrrhizol A. Both of them target Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria that causes dental caries and the subsequent cavities; I'm trying to take an aggressive approach to S. mutans hoping that I can prevent the cavities and save my teech.

In case you want to check any of it out, here's a distillation of the various things I"m using, along with links to some of the articles that led me to give this stuff a try.

As I said, I'm trying xylitol and Glycyrrhizol A lollipops, along with a twice a day baking soda rinse (4 ounces water, one teaspons baking soda) to reduce oral acidity, which is necessary for dental caries) and use of ACT flouride mouthwash and a remineralizing toothpaste. Time will tell if any of this works, but I'm certainly willing to invest a small amount of money and a few months of time to give it a try.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol extracted from birch bark that has anti-microbial qualities and seems to particularly work against streptococcus mutans, the bacteria that causes cavities--

Here's a good source for low-calorie xylitol mints that offer 1/2 gram of xylitol per 1.2 calorie mint. (The recommended dose is 6 to 10 grams of xylitol per day.) I'm also trying xylitol in crystallized form (use it like sugar--only about 2/3 as sweet, but one or two cups of coffee a day sweetened with xylitol gives you the recommended dose of xylitol).


In addition, I'm using Dr. John's herbal lollipops, formulated by Dr. Wen-yuan Shi. This sugar-free lollipop uses stabilized Glycyrrhizol A, a licorice root extract that has been stablized to eliminate its ancillary tendency to slightly increase blood pressure.

Here's an article extract from a paper that Dr. Shi presented to the International Journal of Oral Science on the benefit of this formulation.

Here's another interesting article by Dr. Shi on oral health and cavity prevention.

This article discusses the benefits of xylitol, offering some pretty strong documentation in support of its positive effects on dental health.

And here's an article that's particularly intriguing and shows a great deal of promise for future developments, as it discusses his work on a targeted anti-microbial peptide (which I suspect is a part of the super mouthwash he is developing).

If you want to know more about that mouthwash, here's the news story that first alerted me to research and development efforts currently underway (and yes, they involve Dr. Shi).

If you want to check out Dr. Shi's credentials, here you go--it's obvious this isn't some herbal-health guru, but a trained professional who knows his stuff.

And finally here's a link to Kiss Your Dentist Goodbye, a book that offers a lot of good info about all of this; it's available in print form or as an eBook.

Hope some of this does some good for anyone else out there who, like me, feels like dental health is a losing battle in spite of multiple daily brushings, flossings, mouthwash applications, etc.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Dan Biggers Passes

Dan Biggers, an educator, patron of the arts, and actor (who, among many other roles, played Dr. Frank Robb in the TV version of In the Heat of the Night), passed away on Monday. As the news has gotten out, I've heard from several people who thought that he might have been my dad. He wasn't; my father was Don Biggers (full name was Donald Clifford Biggers--and yes, I'm Donald Clifford Biggers, Jr., I'm very proud to say), formerly writer, sports editor, city editor, and managing editor of the Rome News-Tribune and a man who served as a county commissioner and who was active in supporting and promoting high school sports. (Dad passed away in 2007.)

But the confusion is understandable; in fact, Dan Biggers and I often joked about the fact that his move to Rome in the 1960s led to decades of mix-ups. Obviously, the similarities in names--Don Biggers and Dan Biggers--led to many mixups. For years, we got one another's phone calls--and even occasionally received one another's mail!

Then Dan Biggers became dean at Berry College, where he was frequently referred to as Dean Biggers. My mother's name was Dean, so she too was Dean Biggers. You can see the many mixups that might have come from that. I remember when they were introduced at one point--"Dean Biggers, I'd like to introduce Dean Biggers. And Dean Biggers, this is Dean Biggers."

I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Berry College, which I attended from 1971 to 1975; ironically, Dan Biggers became Dean of Students in 1971--the exact same time that I joined Berry as a freshman. I sometimes wondered if the fact that my last name was Biggers might have worked in my favor from time to time when it came time to get a schedule changed or to get in an otherwise full class, even though I never attempted to use the surname to my advantage (although many friends said I should have!).

Our paths crossed many times over the years. At one point, Dan Biggers was hosting a cable-channel local news-and-interview program in Rome, and he asked me to make an appearance on the show to talk about science fiction, comics, fandom, and to plug a local SF convention that Gary Steele, Larry Mason, Susan, and I were hosting in Rome. As always, Dan was personable and very amiable prior to the broadcast, spending about twenty minutes just catching up. When the show began, though, I witnessed Dan's screen personality come out; it wasn't different than his normal personality so much as it was an intensification of the Dan Biggers I knew, as if he has distilled everything that typified him and made it stronger, more concentrated. At that point, I realized that this was a man who knew how to project for the cameras, so it was no surprise that he found a career in acting as well. I was always proud to see him in a television or film role, and happy that he had found such success in something he loved to do.

I lament his passing; he was a good man who did many beneficial things for the Rome community, and I was glad I had the chance to know him.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Life Is What Happens to You When You're Busy Making Other Plans...

It's always surprising when life presents you with unanticipated circumstances that force you to re-evaluate everything you have planned. Not ready to talk about the details, but if I seem distracted or preoccupied, there is a reason...

Kindling Interest...

I loaned my pal Charles my black and white Kindle 3G for the weekend; Charles and I are both avid fans of the printed book, but as I told him, there are some times when the convenience of the Kindle is hard to surpass. A good example of a work that I enjoyed on the Kindle was the new Stephen King book; while I have a printed copy, it's a hefty, burdensome book, and it doesn't balance well on my chest when I'm lying on the floor reading (in fact, my chest actually began to hurt after a while because I kept resting the bottom edge of the spine on my surgical scar, which is sensitive to this day for some reason I can't explain). So I tried 11/22/63 on the Kindle, and found it to be a very pleasant experience. The page width is sufficiently narrow that I don't have to move my eyes from side to side at all--just straight down the page, taking in a line at a time.

Since Charles is now reading 11/22/63 as well, I figured it would be a great way for him to test out the Kindle, too. So I brought him my Kindle and the charger last weekend. He called today and, as I suspected, found the Kindle to be very handy--compact, portable, light-weight, easy to read.

Of course, neither Charles nor I are looking to replace books with Kindles--but it's a nice supplement when you want to take a variety of reading material with you, but don't want to invest in a rolling bookshelf. It's also very handy for public-domain books (thousands of titles right there for your enjoyment, no investment other than the hardware) and I find it to be very useful for non-fiction, where I'm just looking for the information, not the package itself.

I also showed him the iPad, and we discussed its advantages (larger, more detailed screen, color, a more booklike interface that has you "flipping pages" without a black screen in between page builds) and disadvantages (the glass screen is reflective, so glare can be an issue), and it's a little larger and heavier than the small black and white Kindle). If Charles wants to borrow an iPad to test it out, that's easily do-able, too; it's the best way to decide which device meets your needs, after all!

We'll see soon enough whether Charles becomes a Kindle owner...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Midnight Target

For the first time ever, I decided to venture out at midnight to see what this Black Friday shopping thing was like. Target started their sale at midnight Friday morning, and I was up anyway, so I decided to drive the one mile from my house to the nearest Target and check it out.

When I first pulled up, I thought that it wasn't that crowded; then I realized that I had come in from the less frequented west entrance of the shopping center. The crowd was lined up from the door to the east, and it was at probably 2000 people long.

Nevertheless, I decided to join the crowd and see what the excitement was about. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, so I wasn't going to be disappointed if some "door-buster" item had sold out, so I figured why not?

The crowd made it into the store in less than five minutes; crowd control was excellent, everyone was in a good mood, and there were probably fewer than a dozen line-breakers that I could see. It was very nice to see people doing what they're supposed to in a crowded situation.

Once I got inside, I realized that Target wasn't using their typical layout--that is, the electronics sales items were not in the electronics section, but lined up along the main perimeter aisle. That had confused many, who had headed straight to the electronics section when they cleared the doorway, hoping to find one of the deep-discount televisions that were on sale.

As it turned out, Target was so well stocked that even when I wandered past those electronics items fifteen minutes after closing, there was still a great selection of televisions in 32", 40", and 46" sizes, all at very low prices. No one was fighting over a television, nor was there any sort of territorial behavior going on; people were reasonable, and there were several of us who were willing to help customers load the heavier televisions onto their carts. When you see people taking the time to help someone else buy a bargain item, it restores your faith in human nature.

I ended up buying a couple of bags of Hershey's Kisses (cherry cordial flavor, which I haven't been able to find anywhere else other than Target) and a cheap Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for vacuuming the hardwood floor (we were very impressed with our previous Dirt Devil, which served us well for eight years when we had the Horseleg Creek home in Rome back in the 90s). Most of all, I had a good time watching people shop with such fervor; apparently there's still a lot of life in the economy after all!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Shouted Out "Who Killed the Kennedies?"...

While I'll have to put off a detailed review of Stephen King's 11/22/63 until I have more time, I still wanted to share a few observations now that I've finished it:

(1) While the book deals with a time-traveling English teacher's efforts to stop the assassination of John Kennedy, the book is at its strongest when it's not dealing with Kennedy.

(2) King's view of 2011 in a reality in which Kennedy lived is more of an outline than a narrative--I can't avoid the feeling that it's only here because he feels that it has to be.

(3) I suspect that Stephen King is a big fan of Mad Men.

(4) I really enjoyed the leaner, almost pulp-influenced writing style that King used for the first part of the book. As the story went on, his more complex style and sentence structure crept back in (and that's not a bad thing, either), but the lean style of the early chapters was quite refreshing, and a sort of literary nod to the era.

(5) As is the case with many Stephen King books, his ending isn't as strong as his set-up and plot development. It's not bad, but seems a bit rushed.

(6) I also suspect that Stephen King is a big fan of Fringe.

(7) I bet it would be very easy to convince a person from 1960 or 1961 that the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" was an obscure country-western song from that era.

(8) In some ways, 11/22/63 comes across as a thought-provoking counterbalance to The Dead Zone.

(9) Stephen King is at heart a fantasist, not a science fiction writer, and you'll realize why I say that once you've finished the book.

(10) Betcha Stephen King has watched It's a Wonderful Life a time or two...

All in all, a compelling read, which is why I set aside most of Sunday evening and Monday to complete this massive doorstop of a book.

At the Tone...

A sure sign that things have changed: people who once spent hours on the phone with you every week, talking about all the important (and often the unimportant) things in their lives, let your calls go to voicemail and never find the time to return the call...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Electronically Dependent

Remember the good old days of the VCR?

I was an early adopter: I bought my first VCR in late 1977, just a few months after Mom and Dad bought theirs. I still remember the incredible expense--over $1000 for a machine that could record a maximum of four hours per tape, on VHS tapes that cost $22 per tape if Dad and I ordered them twelve at a time from the Tape Warehouse in California.

But there was one good thing about the VCR: when you made a copy of a show, it was yours. It wasn't equipment-dependent; it could be taken with you from room to room, from one place to another, loaned to friends, and archived. There was no limit to storage capacity, other than the cost of more videotapes.

Sure, the quality was a mediocre 240 lines of resolution, but it seemed okay a the time--and I'm convinced that, if manufacturers had pursued digital VCRs for HD recording with the same tenacity they used to develop the original VCRs, we'd be recording high-def tapes today.

Somehow, though, the programming providers and equipment manufacturers decided that it was undesirable for consumers to have a way of archiving and saving programs on their own. In the late 90s or early 2000's, they began to push the DVR--whether it was a Tivo or a Replay TV or a DirecTV receiver or a Comcast box, it shared the same limitations: it could only save a program to its hard drive, it could not be archived or transferred, and if the equipment failed, the programming was lost.

Over the past decade, we've dealt with hard drive failure on more than a half-dozen DVRs from various manufacturers and providers, and in every case I found myself longing for the simpler days of VCRs, when I could have simply watched my archived programming on other equipment.

I'm aware that there are ways to record programming on a computer, and in fact I use EyeTV and a USB HD tuner to do just that using unscrambled QAM broadcasts (and one Hauppauge box hooked up a cable tuner). But I'm also aware that most consumers have no idea that a computer can record programming and save it in an archival format, and I'm also aware that the entire system is more complex, arcane, and less user-friendly than the simple VCR.

It's a shame. I still have perfectly viewable VHS tapes recorded in the late 1970s--favorite episodes, clips, highlights from talk shows, musical performances, comedy skits, etc. I think far fewer people today have such personal favorites compilations, because it's difficult-to-near-impossible for the average television viewer to save the programming.

I know that a significant percentage of all televised programming is eventually made available on DVD or through various streaming services--but there's a lot of niche programming that never makes the cut, simply because there isn't a sufficiently large audience to make it profitable.

Don't know whether to blame programmer greed, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, equipment manufacturers, the digital TV transition, or all of the above... but I think it's absurd that the technology to independently record, save, edit, and share programming is no longer available to consumers on a practical basis.

Walking Dead Stumbles

I loved the first season of Walking Dead. The second season, not so much.

Not sure what went wrong between seasons (and yes, I know that Frank Darabont left the show after the first season, but I think there has to be more than that), but this season has been positively lethargic in its pacing compared to the first season. I think the zombies are moving faster than the average episode of Walking Dead Season Two; far too little actually happens in any given week, other than excessive amounts of talking.

The zombie budget seems to be suffering from cutbacks, too; most episodes have a single significant zombie scene, with a scattering of zombie appearances added to remind us that this is, after all, a show about survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

I don't dislike the series, but I don't feel like we're really going anywhere, either. Last year, I hated to see an episode end, knowing I'd have to wait a week to see what happened next. This season, there's just no energy to the series at all.

The mid-season finale is coming up next week; let's hope that when they return after a hiatus, they manage to get the series back on track.

Down in the mouth...

I hate dental work.

And yet it seems I am destined to experience virtually every painful, invasive, and expensive dental treatment that there is.

I found out last week that tooth #13, which has already had three fillings, a root canal, and three crowns in the past couple of decades, will have to be removed by an oral surgeon in the near future. The last crown, which was done less than a year ago, already has decay beneath the gumline. That's not the reason for the removal, though: the upper dooth has fractured way up in the the gum, near the socket, and can't be repaired. So my only options were (a) removal by an oral surgeon, followed up with a titanium implant and a crown mounted on that, or (b) removal by an oral surgeon, followed up with a bridge that would require crowns on the teeth on either side of it (neither of those teeth currently has a crown).

The dentist and the oral surgeon both strongly recommend the implant rather than the bridge, feeling that the bridge might create more problems in the future. I'm accepting their judgment, so sometime the week after Thanksgiving (probably Thursday, December 1st), I'll have oral surgery done.

And to add insult to injury, x-rays revealed two more cavities that have developed in the approximately two months since my last checkup.

All this in spite of the fact that I brush and floss twice daily, use fluoride mouthwashes and antibacterial mouthwashes regularly, and have my teeth cleaned by a dentist every four month.

I'm pretty much stymied at this point. I'm trying xylitol to see if it helps, but I'm not sure if there's anything I can really do that I'm not already trying. Some people seem to be cursed with bad teeth... and I am one of those people...

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Five)

One of the problems that every comic book collector eventually has to deal with is the question of storage--that is, where do you put your comic books?

When you consider that my room was basically an 8' x 11' square with a small closet, that became a real problem as my comics collection grew. When I was aggressively trading comics with friends, my collection diversified without growing. By the mid-1960s, though, I was saving every comic I bought, and that meant that I had hundreds of comics.

Today, storage is no problem--a collector can go into any comic shop and buy a long box or a short box or a drawer box or whatever other means of storage he prefers. Those choices didn't exist in the mid-1960s, though. In fact, there were no comic bags, no comic boxes, no boards--none of the storage supplies we take for granted.

Like almost everyone from that era, I relied on discarded grocery store boxes to hold most of my collection. I preferred boxes with grips cut into the side, because they made it easy to move boxes around. Boxes with lids were even better, because they made stacking much easier in my small closet. One thing I learned the hard way, though: avoid waxed boxes that were sometimes used to pack fruit, vegetables, and meats. The wax, which stopped moisture from seeping into the cardboard, would adhere to the comics that were stacked into it, and even if the books could be peeled away from the wax, the oiliness stained the books wherever it touched them. (Even worse, if you were unlucky enough to get a wax box that had been used to ship whole fryers, you ended up with unpleasant smells in your closet and in your books... and yes, I learned that the hard way...)

One day, I came home and found a new addition to my room: a tall, dark-finished bookshelf with sliding doors at the bottom, 12" deep so that comics could fit behind those doors, and wide enough that three stacks of comics would fit behind the doors. I was thrilled; not only did it offer me a more attractive means of storing my comics, it was another verification that my parents not only accepted the fact that I bought a lot of books but were willing to help me in finding a way to store them. (I suspect that Mom had a lot to do with the bookshelf purchase--she had commented more than once that I didn't have room for all my clothes and toys in my closet because of the boxes of comics.)


The bookshelf wasn't real wood, of course--it was the laminate-finished cheap stuff that is often used for office furniture today. The sliding doors were actually plastic, and they didn't slide very well at all when books were stored on the shelf above the sliding doors, because the weight made the shelf sag slightly, and it pressed on the slides, making it tough to move the doors. But as far as I was concerned, it was the finest furniture I had ever seen, because it was all mine. It was large enough that it filled the space between the door to my room and my closet door, and it took up several square feet of precious floor space--but I didn't mind losing those square feet, because I now had a bookshelf of my very own!

A few years later, when I moved to Cedartown, I left that bookshelf with Mom and Dad because it fit the space in the room so well, and our tiny Cedartown house had no room for a bookshelf that large. Mom and Dad kept it in the room that had been my bedroom; it stayed there until a couple of months after Dad passed away in 2007, at which point it finally came to Marietta with me. There wasn't room in the house for the shelf, so I put it in the back room at Dr. No's, where we use it to store supplies. And every now and then I take a moment to really look at it again, and to remember the excitement I felt when I first got a bookshelf of my very own.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trick or Treat

Why do they keep ringing the doorbell?

I'm not stupid--I know it's Halloween. But I've done everything to keep them away. The porch lights are off. In fact, every light in the house is off. It's dark. No sign of anyone or anything here in the house.

And still, they keep ringing the doorbell.

I hear the usual Halloween sounds. The giggles of little children, their exuberance tempered by their parents' advising comments. "Watch your step!" "Ring the bell!" "When they open the door, say trick or treat, okay?"

The sounds of older children. "Open the door! Trick or treat!" they proclaim boldly, as if crudeness and confrontation might succeed where childlike glee had failed.

"This sucks, man. Who's not home on Halloween?"

"Maybe they're taking their kids out to trick or treat."

"Ain't no kids here. I used to walk past this house on my way to school; there weren't any kids here. Never saw anybody, in fact. Nah, they gotta be here.

"If you never saw anybody, maybe the house is empty..."

"No, it's not. Never has had a 'for sale' sign in the yard. Still has furniture in it. Just some old asshole who's probably sitting in there ignoring us right now. Open the door! Trick or treat! Give us some damn candy!"

After a while, he leaves.

More children. More teenagers. A few more heavy knocks on the door, even though the trick-or-treaters can hear the doorbell ringing, even through the door. But kids don't like to give up.

I remember what it was like. I was on the other side of that door once. I was dressed in my Batman costume, eager to show off in return for Snickers and Reese's and Skittles. It was my last Halloween to trick or treat, my parents had said. I was twelve, and Dad said that teenagers didn't trick or treat, so this was my last shot at getting all the free candy that I could get.

So I was doing the same things these kids are doing, determined not to take no for an answer. I kept pounding on the door, ringing the bell, rustling through the shrubs to tap on the picture window to the darkened dining room.

"I know you're in there. Open the door! It's Halloween! TRICK OR TREAT!"

I was about to give up when I saw the silhouette of a figure in the hallway. There was someone home--someone who refused to open the door. And I was determined to get what was coming to me. It was Halloween, and he was going to open that door and he was going to give me candy.

I pounded on the glass. "I see you in there! Trick or treat!" I imagine that I was as annoying as the teenager earlier this evening. I went back to the door. I rang the bell. I knocked. I had seen my Halloweeen prey in the darkness, and I wasn't leaving.

"Go away." It was a soft voice, childlike.

"It's Halloween. Open the door. You're supposed to give me candy."

"No. I can't. Go away."

"Go to the house down at the corner--they have good candy. Bit-o-Honey. They have candy apples. They're good people. Go over there." The voice still sounded so young, so childlike, but the words sounded old and tired.

"Nobody gives out apples," I said. "Unless they put razor blades in them. And my mom wouldn't let me eat them anyway. She always said don't take anything that isn't already wrapped and sealed. And 'sides, there isn't anyone across the street. That's the old Litesey house, and they died year before last."

"Dead? I didn't know that." He almost sounded surprised... and sad.

"Just open the door and give me some candy. It's Halloween. I'm not leaving until you give me something!"

There was a long silence. I rang the doorbell six times in a row; I pounded on the door harshly, over and over again. I accepted the challenge, determined to get the candy that was owed me.

I waited a few moments. I repeated the pattern again. A third time. A fourth. I wasn't going anywhere. I no longer argued; no reason to say anything else. I just kept ringing and pounding. I don't know why I didn't just leave; I could have gotten a lot more candy if I'd just kept on walking through the neighborhood.

But I wasn't leaving, even though it was almost midnight. This was a matter of childlike pride, which isn't that much different than stubbornness,

And then I heard the click of a latch. The doorknob turned slowly. The door opened slightly.

"Go away, I said." I couldn't see the face clearly, but I recognized the outline of a cowboy hat, gray against the darkness of the hallway. The person wearing it was no taller than me.

"You're just a kid!" I guess that explained why the voice sounded so young.

"Go somewhere else," he said again.

"I'm not going anywhere. You're keeping all the candy for yourself, aren't you? That ain't right--it's Halloween, and you're supposed to give me some candy." And with that, I shouldered into the doorway, knocking it open a bit.

"NO!" He tried to push the door shut again, but I was bigger and heavier than he was, and I forced my way in.

And I was in.

"You shouldn't have done that," he said.

"Why? Am I going to get in trouble? Are you going to tell on me?" Then I saw, in the gloom of the hallway, a tattered trick or treat bag. "Just what I thought," I said. "You are keeping all the candy for yourself."

I reached for the bag, and he did nothing to stop me. I grabbed the first piece of candy, unwrapped it, and bit into it.

Old. Stale. It tasted musty. I spat it back into my hand.

"This is crap!" I said angrily. "Why do you have this old candy? Where's the good stuff?"

"That's all there is," he said. "It's all I got before I came here."

I dug a little bit more, hoping the better candy was at the bottom of the bag. Next thing I knew, the handle of the bag tore away, and the candy scattered across the floor. I bent over, feeling along the hardwood.

And at that moment, the boy in the cowboy hat stepped out through the partially opened door, pulling it shut behind him.

"Hey!" I said. "Come back here!" I tugged at the doorknob. Nothing. I turned, but the latch didn't let do; the door was stuck. "Open the door!"

"I can't," he said from the porch. "It's after midnight now. Door's shut. It'll stay shut 'til next year."

"Let me out of here or I'm calling the cops," I said.

"Can't. There ain't a phone in there. I tried that."

"Then I'm breaking the window and coming out there and beating your ass."

"Can't do that, either. I tried that, too. I tried every door. I tried every window. I tried yelling. No one ever hears you. Except on Halloween."

My face was getting sweaty under my Batman mask, so I pulled it off. I was mad and scared and about two seconds away from crying. "Let me out of here!"

"I told you to go away. Just like he told me to go away. I was just like you, though. Look what it got me.

"Don't worry, though. The house takes care of you good. You won't get hungry. You won't get thirsty. You won't get old. You'll just sit there and wait, just like I did. Next year, there'll be some kids trick or treating, and you can decide what to do. The first few months, I told myself I'd open the door right away. I'd run out the door and run home.

"But the house told me that it was home now. This was where I belonged, it said. And I started to believe it. So when the kids came around the next year, I didn't open the door. I let 'em knock and yell and ring the doorbell, and I sat here, just like I always do. After a while, they went away. Then it got quiet. Quiet for a whole year. Then they came back. But they always gave up and left. Well, all of them but you..."

"This isn't funny any more!" I knew I was crying, but I didn't care. "Let me out! I want to go home!"

"You got the candy. You got what you wanted. It's all yours. I did my time. I tried to get you to leave, but you wouldn't do it. You should have listened to me, but you wouldn't do it, would you?"

His voice was a little bit softer now, a little more distant.

"Hey, wait! You ain't leaving, are you?!"

"Guess so," he said. "Don't know where I'm going, but I'm leaving. Can't go home any more. You said Mom and Dad were dead now."

"The Liteseys? They were your parents? But they were old people--they didn't have any kids!"

"They did... once. I was their son. They were so worried when I didn't come home. I saw 'em through the window, looking for me. Mom was crying. Dad looked mad and confused and worried all at the same time. I heard them yelling, but they never heard me. They'd walk past here every day. The police would, too, looking for me--I guess that's what they were doing, anyway. And then, after a while, they quit."

His voice retreated a little more, and I ran to the dining room window so that I could see him on the sidewalk. He saw me, too, and he waved. I could see now that he had on a cowboy costume, not just a hat. In the streetlight, the top of his silver gun shone in the holster, and I could see the glint of spurs on his boots.

"You got a year to make up your mind what to do," he said. "You can stay there, or you can trade. Let someone else in, you can go out. Don't know what you'll do, but I can tell you that it's not so bad in there, really. After a while, you get used to it. That's why I stayed for so long."

"What do you mean, so long?" I asked, my voice trembling.

"What year is it, anyway?" he asked.

"What do you mean? It's 2010!" I said, almost frantic.

"2010? I got 47 Halloweens to make up for," he said. And with that, he walked out of the glow of the streetlight and faded into the darkness.

***

I cried. I yelled. I knew that my parents would find me. I saw them looking for me, just like he said his parents did. But no one ever saw me at the window, no one heard me. It was like I wasn't there. No one ever came to let me out.

And just like he said, after a while, my parents seemed to quit looking. I didn't see them any more. I was alone, just me and the house. And it took care of me. I began to think of this as home. The house became my world; the unyielding door didn't matter after a while. And I had my own trick or treat bag, and it had candy in it. Lots of candy. And it never seemed to go empty, no matter how much I ate.

Then one night the doorbell rang. "Trick or treat!" A year goes by faster than you'd think. I ignored them.

I began to understand why the cowboy stayed. This was home now. And I had my candy, and I wasn't going to share it with anybody, no matter how hard they knocked or how many times they rang the doorbell...

Oh Wow.

I said that I said all I would say about Steve Jobs.

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course--and I have.

Here is a moving tribute to Steve Jobs from his sister, who knew him far better than almost anyone else. What a remarkable tribute it is...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Allusions of Grandeur

One final thing that reading the Steve Jobs biography has made me realize (and I promise this is the last thing I'll say about that book, although this isn't really about the book itself):

We often don't realize the greatness of those around us as we witness their greatness unfold.

I had only one direct dealing with Steve Jobs, and that related to the problematic Powerbook 5300C computer; I bought one of the units, and it was a dud, filled with hardware issues. I wrote Steve Jobs, whose email address has always been public knowledge, and explained my problems.

Steve Jobs wrote back with a brief email, and he indicated someone would contact me to straighten the problem out. The next day, someone did. Two days later, I had a brand new computer.

I wrote Steve Jobs a half dozen other times about various things, and heard back from him on two other occasions; again, they were brief emails, but I was impressed that he took the time to write at all.

At the time, I knew that Steve Jobs was a visionary; I didn't realize how much I would come to admire him as a genius later on, and I now am pleased to have had even the briefest of contacts with the man.

I have had the opportunity to be around other great people from time to time, although I didn't realize their greatness until long afterwards. Thomas Burnett Swann, the brilliant fantasist and observer of human nature; Jeffrey Jones, the inspired painter and illustrator; Jack Kirby, the visionary who energized an artform; Stephen King, who shared an hour in a poolside talk one morning at a small Nashville convention, before most of the world had ever heard of Stephen King; Will Eisner, the man I credit with creating the modern graphic novel with his Signal From Space.

These are just a small number of the great people I have been lucky enough to have met and to have known to one degree or another. Life has been pretty darn good to me, when I think back on it...

Sic Transit...

One more thing regarding Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs...

I knew this was a book I would have to read as soon as I received it; the day the book was available for order, I had placed my Amazon Prime order for the book, since they said I would have it on release day. Amazon Prime is remarkably reliable; in all the years I've used the service, I've only had two items arrive late, and both of those were carrier-related issues during peak holiday delivery dates.

So I worked diligently on Comic Shop News, wrapping up the issue days early because I wanted to be free to devote myself to the biography when it arrived on Tuesday, October 25th. The issue was done, store orders were finished, personal tasks completed in order that I could read all night without any nagging feeling that I should be doing something else.

Of course, you can guess what happened: for only the third time in my personal history with Amazon Prime, I didn't get the item on the day Amazon said I should. Instead, I received it on Wednesday--my busiest day of the week, and the day I have virtually no free reading time.

I very nearly purchased the book from Apple to read on my iPad, but I'm still a physical book guy. So I patiently waited, and didn't get to begin the book until almost 11pm on Wednesday night. I read a couple of hundred pages on Wednesday night, then read another 275 or so on Thursday night between Comic Shop News revisions and last-minute corrections, and finally finished it up this evening as soon as I got home from the store.

I remain convinced, however, that the likelihood of delayed delivery increases in direct proportion to one's desire for the product being delivered...

"...And say to all the world, This was a man!"

I finished Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs earlier this evening, and I wanted to take a few hours to ruminate on it before writing about it. There's so much in here, so many facets of Jobs' personality, that upon completing its almost 600 pages of text, I needed to take a little time to get my thoughts together.

First off, I have to say that it's a truly superlative biography, perhaps one of the most informed and informative I have ever read. Isaacson was given unparalleled access to Jobs for several years, almost to his final days; the result is a picture of a man in multiple phases of his life. We see Jobs as a confident, driven, proud genius; we see Jobs as a private, introspective self-analyst; and we ultimately see Jobs as a man aware that his accomplishments and his life are soon to come to an end. But we never see Jobs as a self-pitying, remorseful man--even in moments of unsureness, he is still proud of his life, and rightly so.

Isaacson began talking with Jobs long before his health took its precipitous decline. He also talked to many dozens of Jobs' friends, associates, colleagues, and rivals, and the result is a well-rounded picture of the life of a man who did more to reshape technology than any other person in the past three decades.

It's not wholly flattering; Jobs had many personal flaws, and Isaacson presents them starkly and without apology. But he never loses sight of the fact that Jobs was a genius, and even his personal failings become a part of the complexity of that genius.

The final segment of the book has one of the most moving and haunting statements from Jobs, regarding both Apple and human existence.

I remember sitting in his back yard in his garden one day, and he started talking about God. He said, "Sometimes I don't. It's 50-50. But ever since I've had cancer I've been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe that's because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die it doesn't just all disappear. The wisdom you've accumulated, somehow it just lives on." But then he paused for a second and he said, "Yeah but sometimes I think it's like an on-off switch. Click, and you're gone," he said. Paused again and said, "And that's why I don't put on-off switches on Apple devices."

I've had similar thoughts in the past, and have written about them here. But only Steve Jobs managed to let those ruminations become a formative part of the whole Apple experience.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I have been a longtime fan of Apple's blend of technology and aesthetics; as I heard more about how driven Steve Jobs was to blend the two in perfect synergy, I realized now why I have always been drawn to the Apple experience. I have always maintained that the best technology is that which you use without conscious thought; Jobs was a man for whom that level of technology was the ultimate goal. I can't help but wonder how different the world would have been had Jobs' vision expanded into television (he claimed that, shortly before his cancer cut his life short, he "cracked" television technology--let's hope that we someday see what his new take on television would have been), or automobiles, or home appliances.

The book isn't perfect, mind you; I think that more attention could have been given to controversial decisions like the move from OS9 to OSX, with a totally different software architecture. There also could have been more said about the move from the rounded, tranformative, ebullient iMac and iBook of the late 90s to the precise, minimal, sleek visual designs that dominate the Mac line today. I would like to have known more about where Jobs wanted to take the company if had been given another five or ten years.

But the only criticisms I can make are minor criticism of omission; what is here is fascinating reading, and I found myself emotionally moved at several moments in the book. I think I appreciate some of those moments even more because I remember following Jobs' career--his highs and his lows--as those moments occurred, and even then I realized that important things were happening.

You don't have to be a fan of Jobs or Apple to appreciate this book, however; in fact, those who are unaware of Jobs' accomplishments or aloof to Apple's allure will probably find the book just as fascinating, because it will lead them to evaluate his life in new terms.

(And yes, this was composed on a Mac, as is everything I write...)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yes, Virginia...

Just a couple of weeks ago, I got the penultimate shipment of Virginia Edition volumes of the complete Robert A. Heinlein library. These volumes feature the definitive, carefully restored text of Heinlein's volumes, supplemented with collections of letters, nonfiction, and more. As of now, 41 volumes have shipped, and plans call for the final five volumes to be in the hands of subscribers by the end of the year.

I subscribed to this collection almost two years ago, when not even half the library was in print. The $1500 cost seemed high as a lump sum--but when you consider it's between $30 and $35 a book for deluxe matched leatherbound editions, it's actually remarkably cheap.

It's been a delight to discover the power of Heinlein's fiction again. I haven't re-read every book, but I've revisited a few--Farnham's Freehold, Glory Road, The Puppet Masters, Stranger in a Strange Land--and have found them every bit as powerful as they were the first time I read them. I'm just now savoring the first two volumes of letters, which offer me great insights into Heinlein as a thinker as well as a writer (I've always enjoyed collections of letters; I sometimes feel that they offer the most undiluted vision into an author's psyche).

If you haven't subscribed yet, it's not too late. Drop by www.virginiaedition.com and check out the library while it can still be purchased. Once these books sell out in their subscription offerings, the prices for these are going to be much, much higher...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Horrible Vs Horrifying

I watched the first episode of American Horror Story this evening... and I suspect it'll be the last episode I'll watch. Ryan Murphy, the man responsible for that pedestrian series of stereotypes and cliches known as Glee, decided to bring his "everything but the kitchen sink... and maybe that, too" approach to horror, and thus American Horror Story is born. The problem is, the show is horrible, not horrifying...

The first episode is overly full of horror tropes--a potentially haunted house, ghosts, apparent resurrections, a savant, dead twins, sexual possession, and the quasi-sophistication of foul-mouthed teens, masturbation, bondage, nihilism... the problem is, none of it really comes together as an entertaining story. It's horror by numbers, set to a metronome--and every timing click requires another "shocking" image, none of which are truly shocking at all.

A troubled family moves into a haunted house, looking for a fresh start after a miscarriage has strained their marriage. As the story progresses, we learn that there are other strains on the marriage, including a snotty, pseudo-mature teenage daughter who comes across as a prime candidate for miscarriage. Throw in a Bette-Davis-has-nothing-on-me southern actress with a developmentally disabled daughter, an enigmatic maid, an obsessed former resident of the house, and some very expensive head-to-toe bondage suits left by a previous resident (does no one ever clean out a house before putting it up for sale?), and you have a recipe for... well, it's not a recipe for horror, that's for sure.

I have learned from prior experience with Nip/Tuck and Popular that Murphy suffers from David Kelley syndrome (you know--take a concept that seems to work initially, then overdo it to such an absurd extreme that it became absolutely annoying). This time out, though, he threw in the absurdity from the very beginning. I guess I should be appreciative; it saves me the time of having to watch a few more episodes.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Memoriam...

I owe Steve Jobs a debt of gratitude for changing my life for the better. In 1987, my partner and I were able to start a comics industry newsletter, Comic Shop News, because of the capability of the Mac SE, the only computer to offer affordable, user-firendly, comprehensive desktop publishing that made it possible for us to produce a weekly newsletter. Thanks to the success of that newsletter, I was able to expand my career as an educator to include a career as a publisher and journalist.

Years later, as my comic shop grew, a key staff member was able to develop a complex Mac-based Point of Sale system for our store--a system that kept the store profitable during a period of industry turbulence. That system was written in Filemaker--a program that wouldn't have existed were it not for Steve Jobs and Apple. It runs on a network of Macs in our store--a network that has never failed us for more than eleven years, growing to meet our needs.

As an educator, I oversaw a writing lab for several years--a writing lab consisting of 35 Macs. While Windows-based labs required constant maintenance, our Mac lab operated nearly flawlessly day in and day out. I also produced the school yearbook using iMacs, Pagemaker, and a staff of students eager to push the Mac's creative possibilities in new directions. At a time when computers in the classroom were unheard of, I was able to use my classroom Mac to prepare full-screen images that could be displayed on a large classroom monitor; while it sounds mundane today, it was unheard of in 1997. It worked, though, thanks to the reliability and innovation of the Mac.

iPods, iPhones, AppleTVs, iPads... all of them have enhanced my life, improved my productivity, expanded my entertainment horizons, and have made inaccessibility a thing of the past. And throughout the years, I could always count on Apple to push the boundaries to make their system more sophisticated, more elegant, and more reliable. Steve Jobs innovated; other imitated.

The only time I had a problem with a Mac (an ill-fated Powerbook 5300), Steve Jobs personally contacted me about the problem, then had an assistant work with me to replace that computer. I will never forget the fact that the CEO of Apple took time from his schedule to ensure that my problem was solved. That's the kind of person that Steve Jobs was--a visionary who looked at the big picture, and a detail man who never forgot his customers.

In the future, Steve will be seen as a technological genius to stand alongside Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and others greats who changed American life forever. I only wish he could have been with us far longer, to see how his brilliance and drive have continued to reshape our world.

I felt the same intense sense of loss when hearing of Steve Jobs' death that I felt in 1980 when I learned that John Lennon had passed. A world without each man seems emptier. I did may not have known either personally, but I feel as if I did--their influence on my life has been that great.

Rest in peace and satisfaction, Steve, knowing that you left this world a far better place than it ever would have been without you.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Season Viewing

I've tried a few of the season premieres, and I've already begun to weed out shows that (a) failed to click right away, or (b) no longer hold any appeal. Here's a synopsis of my viewing thus far:

(1) Playboy Club - an absolute disaster. This could have been a great ensemble cast show set against the backdrop of the changing mores of society in the 1960s, using the music and the cultural influence of Playboy as a pivotal plot element. Instead, the producers and writers tossed all of that out the window to turn this into a tawdry crime drama that seems like a sub-par version of Crime Story set in the 1960s.

(2) Terra Nova - I was more impressed than I expected. Spielberg has never been strong on subplots, so I figured this would be a straight-ahead story of colonists in a prehistoric environment; what I'm getting shows the influence of Lost and other complex science fantasy dramas, and in a good way. Characterization is a bit flat, but there's still time to remedy that.

(3) 2 Broke Girls - Attitudinal comedy with a heavy dollop of sarcasm throughout, this bawdy comedy appeals to me. The show's best asset? Cat Dennings, who plays Max; she's a pleasure to watch with enough credibility to carry off the mixture of raw and risque that defines this show.

(4) The New Girl - Adequate, although I find Zooey Deschanel best in very small doses. She always has struck me as both overly needy and aloof in every part she plays; she frequently fails to to convey either convincingly.

(5) Gray's Anatomy - It's done, whether the cast and producers know it or not. The characters have moved from quaint to unconventional to aggravating; the series has begun to sound like a continual whine, and I find their self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing approach to be so irritating that I'm just waiting for one of the show's crappus ex machina plot devices to wipe them all out.

(6) Two and a Half Men - I've said before that I'm a sucker for sitcoms, and this one has won me over. I enjoyed Ashton Kutcher on That Seventies Show, and I had decided even before Charlie Sheen's career suicide last spring that the show needed something to get it out of a rut. In the early seasons, Charlie Harper was roguishly appealing; in the later seasons, he was Michael Jackson-level pathetic, comedically dead. The show has been funnier in two episodes than it was all of last year. Biggest regret? Jennifer Bini Taylor, who played Chelsea in the last couple of seasons, is no longer in the cast; she brought a refreshing dose of maturity, sophistication, and elegance to every episode in which she appeared.

(7) Ringer - It's got Sara Michelle Gellar, so I'm going to watch it for a few episodes. I enjoyed it well enough, but the story seems more than a little contrived in places, and it amazes me that the same actress can play two roles, but she does such an unconvincing job portraying one character trying to play the part of the other.

(8) Unforgettable - It's not. The "I can play back my memories like a DVR, looking for details I didn't see at the time" approach is daffy, and it takes a way from the believability of the concept.

(9) The Middle - Still the best (and most underrated) family sitcom on television.

(10) The Big Bang Theory - A comedic highlight, and one of the few shows that I would actually watch live, commercials in all.

(11) Secret Circle - It should have remained a closely guarded secret...





Friday, September 23, 2011

Trilegiant Scam

So today I got a call from American Express wanting to verify some recent activity on my AmEx card. Charge from Games Workshop--check. Charge from Baker & Taylor--check. Charge from Amazon--check. Charge from Trilegiant--wait minute, who?

So while I'm telling AmEx I had not authorized a $1 charge from a company called Trilegiant, I'm also googling "Trilegiant" and "fraud." Google returns "about 34,500 results."

No, I didn't authorize the charge. But now I have to go to the trouble of changing my credit card number and notifying all my automatic charges that there's a new card. And I'm told that Trilegiant is working in conjunction with Wells Fargo to try to force customers with a WF bank account to pay for some fraud protection.

Oh goodie--fraudulent charges for unwanted fraud protection. (Bet it doesn't protect against themselves...)

Tomorrow I'm cancelling my Wells Fargo account; I only kept it for nostalgia purposes, since our very first account when we moved to Marietta was with First National Bank of Atlanta, which became First Atlanta, which became Wachovia, which became Wells Fargo. Now they've become Disreputable, so I'm dumping them and consolidating the funds in one of the two banks I do like--Ironstone and Community Bank of the South.

But you have to wonder why companies like Trilegiant are allowed to continue to operate...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

DC=Disappearing Comics!

Another week dominated by DC sales; customers who were worried about missing out on the DC's started to use our preorder system to pay for next week's books a week in advance, so in the past seven days so many copies of this week's releases were sold that we actually sold through a huge shipment of many DC titles in as little as three hours. Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Catwoman, Captain Atom, Nightwing--all sold through before the end of the day. It's really phenomenal when you realize that we ordered a minimum of 5 times the title's prior sales (if it was a relaunch of an existing title, or of a title so similar we could use it for comparison).

Readers seem to be loving what they see in the DC books. I'm thrilled, both as a retailer and as a long-time DC fan who is glad to see others sharing my enthusiasm for the company's books.

We do have reorders on almost all of these titles coming in next Tuesday, so readers will still have a shot at first printings.

Next week is the first week that we were fully able to adjust our DC orders upwards on the entire weekly release list to ensure that our readers find what they want on our shelves. I'm thrilled; I've prided myself for years on the fact that at Dr. No's you can find the books on the shelves on Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or Saturday... and the success of these DC's has made that impossible. But it will be back to normal next Wednesday, and customers will be able to find that week's DCs on our shelves for an entire week and beyond.

Thanks for bearing with us during a really dynamic sales period--I really appreciate it!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be...

"Never loan anything you hope to get back."

Those words of advice, given to me by my father and echoed by several friends during the past decades, have turned out to be remarkably true.

I was looking over the list of people who have borrowed significant sums of money (triple digits or above, in fact) or significantly valuable items from me during my life, and I came to the surprising realization that in the past thirty years, only four people have thus far fully returned what was loaned.

Most have made only the most token of efforts to repay anything at all; two have even told me, "Well, you make more than me, so you can afford to do without the money more than I can," as if my willingness to help them at a moment of financial need was a duty on my part and not an attempt to assist.

Bearing Dad's advice in mind, I can't say I'm wholly surprised by this realization--but it's still surprising when I realize how many people who still owe me have no trouble coming with funds for other non-necessity expenses, but can't be bothered to make payments on their debts.

In some ways, I view it as a test of integrity; if I borrow from anything from a friend, I make a point of getting it back to them. If I borrow a book, I return it; if I damage it, I buy them a better copy. If I borrow money, I repay it without asking.

I'm still a little surprised by how few people operate the same way.

This Problem Bugs Me...

Last week we discovered evidence of termites in the basement storage room.

You can imagine how unthrilled I was by that news.

Now we have the Sentricon termite control system through Arrow Pest Control; I have never cared for Sentricon as much as the old system of pumping enough chemicals to kill off every insect within a quarter-mile radius, but it seems to be the system we're stuck with now that the EPA has set limits on the sort of mass termite extermination that pest control services used to consider standard.

(The old system pretty much put a barrier of death around every inch of the house wherever it came into contact with the ground; Sentricon uses a number of bait stations that are supposed to attract the termites, who'll eat the bait and then die. How good is it? Well, we never had termites at any of our houses under the old system. We've had Sentricon for three years, and we have termites. Go figure...)

Arrow sent someone out who took a look and said, "The bad news? You had termites. The good news? You had termites. Past tense. There's no sign of life there now." The termite specialist theorized that they had eaten some of the Sentricon bait (all of the Sentricon stations around our house are filled with bait rather, so any one of 'em is death on termites, apparently); however, before it did in the colony, they found their way into our house where they did some damage to about six feet of a framing 2x4 and some drywall. Their trail seems to stop there, and no poking or prodding on his part could reveal any evidence of active termites.

Nevertheless, Arrow drilled five holes into the basement floor and injected many gallons of termite-killing chemicals into the ground beneath the floor, then they resealed the holes with quick-drying concrete. That should take care of any termite colonies beneath the concrete floor, they said--and they assured me that there would be no problems with moisture seepage in the drill holes.

They also sent someone out to examine the damage; he made a list of what needs to be repaired, and he said that they would give it eight weeks to ensure that there's no sign of further activity, then they'd fix everything back just like it was.

So while I'm pretty unhappy to have had termites, I guess that this is the best outcome, all things considered. Now I'm just hoping I never find evidence of termites again!...

In the meantime, I'm all in favor of the legalization of chlordane...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

DC Domination

We're now five days into DC's first full-week New 52 launch, and the sales results have been overwhelming. I don't have national numbers, but I know that I'm hearing from dozens of my retailer friends who are scrambling to try to find copies of the books, which are selling out everywhere.

At Dr. No's we've sold out of 7 of the first 14 titles (Justice League shipped on 8/31, while the other 13 shipped on 9/7), in spite of the fact that our orders were 350%-600% what the same titles were selling pre-New 52 (when there were prior titles to compare). We ordered the lowest-selling book in quantities greater than what our best-selling pre-New 52 titles were selling, and yet many of those were gone by the weekend.

As early as September 1st, I could see that this was going to be bigger than I had anticipated, so I turned in advance orders for many of those books (although a couple were already sold out by that time) and I began upping my orders for 9/13, 9/20, and 9/27. The vagaries of comic book distribution (you don't want to get me started on that subject!) mean that we won't get most of those reorders until 9/20, however (unless Diamond manages to include reorders in our 9/13 reorder even though we won't be billed until 9/20).

No doubt about it--DC owns September 2011. And, having read all 14 books so far, I think the quality is strong enough that many of those readers will be coming back for the second issues.

(Just think--up until 8/30, we were selling all 52 first issues for a discount. Now, less than two weeks later, people--including fellow retailers--are offering significantly over over price if we can just find a copy of some of these books for them!)

A Life In Four Colors (Part Thirty-Four)

While my interest in comics had begun with an emphasis on DC, Marvel moved into greater prominence throughout the early 1960s. As I've mentioned before, the fact that I could actually accumulate a collection of every Marvel Silver Age superhero comic made a big difference; the collecting bug has always had an irresistible allure, and I have a strong completist attitude. By 1965, I had accumulated a complete collection of Marvel superhero books, from Fantastic Four #1 to the present, and that meant that I had to make a point of buying every Marvel from then on. After all, what good is a complete collection if one doesn't maintain it?

In 1965, my Marvel completist mentality led me to send in $1 to join the Merry Marvel Marching Society. For all intents and purposes, this was a Marvel fan club, although the benefits to its members (beyond the initial membership kit) were pretty minimal. Even so, I felt like I had to sign up, just to get that kit. It may not have been a comic book, but it was an official Marvel publication, after all.

When the envelope came in the mail, I tore into it right away and was thrilled with its contents. In an orange illustrated folder, I found an oversized MMMS button; a membership card; a certificate; a scratch pad with border trim depicting Marvel's characters... and best of all, a flexidisc featuring the actual voices of Marvel's creators!

As I mentioned a in Part Thirty-Three, I was becoming more aware of the people behind the comics; I had learned to recognize art styles, and could even tell the differences in some writers' storytellng styles. But this flexidisc added another dimension to the creators: a voice. Suddenly I could hear Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Don Heck and others as people, not merely names on a comic book page. I was enthralled; I must have played that record a hundred times in the first couple of months that I had it.

(What's a flexidisc, you ask? Oh, you CD-and-DVD-era music fans, you have no idea what you missed out on. A flexidisc is a vinyl record pressed in to a thin layer of flexibile, floppy plastic. The grooves are quite shallow, so the sound quality is quite mediocre--but flexidiscs were a boon for advertising and marketing, since they allowed low-cost recordings to be included as part of a marketing plan. Flexidiscs were included in magazines, in cereal boxes.... and in Merry Marvel Marching Society membership kits.)

Here's that recording, courtesy of YouTube:



The only Marvel Bullpen mainstay who doesn't speak on the recording is Steve Ditko; I thought it was just a bit of clever tomfoolery that they referenced his leaping out the window to avoid the microphone, not realizing that even then Ditko was relatively private and reclusive, preferring to let his work speak for him.

(As for my MMMS kit--I actually used very little of the scratch pad stationery; I just couldn't bring myself to waste a single sheet of it. As a result, my MMMS kit is almost complete to this day.)

A bit later, Marvel sent its MMMS members another flexidisc, this one featuring the Marvel Super Heroes theme song and a Merry Marvel Marching Society musical march. Both are hokey beyond belief, but I loved the kitschy, in-groupish feel of these records--I really did belong to the Merry Marvel Marching Society! Here's a YouTube link to that recording, accompanied by a few clips from the lowest-quality animation ever produced for television (but I watched every episode, even as I wondered how a Jack Kirby Hulk could leap into the air, while a Steve Ditko Hulk would land a moment later).



The MMMS was sheer genius on Marvel's part; the company had turned its size into an asset. Whereas DC seemed like a vast company producing a huge line of books, utilizing an army of talent and production staff, Marvel came across as your friends, a group of people who loved comics just as much as we did. There was a feeling of unity that DC never managed to cultivate (although they did have their own club, the Supermen of America, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and I did actually join that group as well). And I suspect that every MMMS member became a Marvel completist.

Even better, Marvel found yet another way to encourage readers to join: they began printing lists of MMMS members in their comics! Send in your buck, get a membership kit, and at some point you'd see your name listed in a Marvel book.

I remain amazed at Stan Lee's promotional genius; long before the phrase "guerrilla marketing" was coined, Stan was doing that very thing, making Marvel the company you wanted not only to read, but to be a part of.

Maybe It's Not a Mall World After All...

Last Thursday, I had to go to Town Center Mall to pick up something for Susan. It was a Thursday evening, between 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM. I parked at my usual place--the east side, near the Macy's doors at the end of the mall.

There were seven cars parked in that section. I had never seen the mall so empty. The first three register stations I passed had employees there, but no customers. There were some people wandering the mall, but far less than normal... or at least, far less than what used to pass for normal.

Of course, my mall habits have changed over the years, so it's not surprising that others' habits have changed as well. During the 1980s and the 1990s, I don't think a week passed that Susan and I didn't go to one mall or the other, whether it was Town Center or Perimeter or Mount Berry Square in Rome. I realized that my trip to Town Center this past week was only the second time this year I have been to Town Center, and only the fourth time this year I have been to any mall. As the malls have ceased being the place where a shopper can find everything (look for a bookstore in most malls and you'll be sadly disappointed... the same holds true for electronics, or music, or the many unusual items that could once be found in the less travelled areas of most shopping malls), I have become more disinterested in what the malls still offer.

Of course, the changes in my own life make me less of a mall customer. I no longer teach, so I no longer have to invest in "work clothes." My wardrobe now comes from the nearby Target, or from an occasional trip to Kohl's. We're not furniture shoppers; our house is overfilled with more furniture than we need, because I can't bring myself to get rid of perfectly good chairs or sofas or tables. I am surrounded by a lifetime of conspicuous consumption.

Apparently, though, there is not another generation of consumers ready to follow in my footsteps at the local mall. I don't know if it's the byproduct of a struggling economy, or an indicator of changing habits that will mark the end of the high-density multi-store shopping mall as a mecca of capitalism. But Thursday night made it clear that the mall is no longer the hub of economic activity that it once was...

Maybe I Think Too Much...

The title comes from a Paul Simon song that has always struck a chord with me; while I've always seen the benefit of analysis, rumination, contemplation, and examination, I also think that there are times when one can indeed think too much. And I think that the growth of free information makes it all too difficult to fall into that trap.

I saw a photo recently of Bill Mumy and Jack Kirby; in the background of that photo was a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I recognized those volumes because they were the same ones found in my high school library. I would have liked to have owned a set of my own, but that was out of the question for us--Brittanica cost far more than my parents could afford to invest in a set of reference books. Instead, we had a 26 volume set of encyclopedia purchased one book per week at a local grocery store as a promotion. They were wonderful books, and I read them and re-read them many times in my childhood; while they lacked the depth and sophistication of the Brittanica volumes, they still offered me a source of information at my fingertips.

Do people even by encyclopedia today? I would have to wonder why. The proliferation of free information on the internet has made paid information a tough sell; why spend hundreds of dollars on books when the same information can be found online at no cost whatsoever (and you don't need a large bookcase to hold the data, either)?

But free information comes with a cost; sometimes we become too accustomed to using it. Even mundane activities change. When I was younger, Susan and I would routinely watch a few minutes of a show to see if we had viewed it previously; now, I merely look up the episode online, scan the summary, and ascertain if it needs viewing or deleting. The spontaneity, the impulsiveness of life is diluted by the constant flow of information. I find myself checking my iPhone when I walk, hitting my RSS feed to see if the world has changed in any significant way in the fifteen minutes I've been walking. News used to be accessible in the morning and evening on television; in five minute intervals every hour on radio; once a day in the newspaper; and once a week in newsmagazines. Now news comes to us in a continual bombardment.

There is all too little blissful ignorance any more. We research everything, because the tools are always there. We investigate a restaurant before trying a meal there; we analyze others' reactions to a book or a film before reading it or viewing it; we sort through dozens of reviews and reactions before buying an appliance, trying a medication, sampling a beverage.

I think there are times when we enjoyed life more when information was more dear, and came in a more controlled flow at a higher price. The problem is, I've always been driven by curiosity, by a desire to know; as much as I see the down side of today's information excess, I'm not particularly willing to go back...

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Overwhelming Success

DC made comic book history at Dr. No's today. This was the first week that we received a full assortment of New 52 titles (13 books, including Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective, Green Arrow, Hawk & Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, OMAC, Static Shock, Stormwatch, and Swamp Thing). That's a mix of standard superhero books, former Vertigo books with an occult angle, former WildStorm books with an edgier tone, and more real-world themed titles (in this case, a contemporary war book with only the slightest superhero angle).

Here's the part that made history: by the end of the day, the least-selling of the DC books (Men of War, the contemporary war series) had sold better than the best-selling non-DC, including any of this week's major Marvel titles (X-Men, Wolverine, Punisher, New Avengers Annual, X-23, Moon Knight, and X-Factor). The best-selling Marvel at Dr. No's today could only take 14th place!

Those of you who know comics well understand why I say this is historic; for years, Marvel has dominated the sales charts. DC's best books would take key positions in the top ten, but the average books were relegated to positions lower on the sales charts. Today, a non-franchise-character DC war book beat Marvel's biggest franchises, X-Men and Avengers.

Congratulations to DC! This is the sort of moment that makes you realize we're in the middle of a real transition in the marketplace, and DC's gamble is paying off right now. And after having had a chance to read all 13, I think readers are going to like what they see and will be back for the second issues of most of these books as well.

Monday, September 05, 2011

When the Rain Comes...

Today it rained for the first time in twenty days. And it actually rained a lot--about 2" at my house, according to the rain gauge. I had a chance to walk in a gentle drizzle this morning, and I walked in a steady rain this afternoon; it reminded me how much I enjoy walking in rain. There's something pleasantly isolating about the rainfall; most people stay indoors, so I'm pretty much alone for the entire walk, shielded by an umbrella. Since I don't want to risk getting rain on my iPhone, I keep it tucked away, so my attention is totally focused on the walk, the rain, and whatever introspective ruminations cross my mind.

I also loved it that the weather responded almost as if it could read calendars: today was Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, so the weather immediately went into an early Georgia autumn mode--highs in the mid-70s, no blazing sun, lows in the 60s. (This is one of the many reasons why I think that starting school later rather than earlier is the right thing to do; I didn't realize until recently that Cobb County still has no air conditioned buses for the kids who rely on county transportation. Can you imagine spending a half an hour to an hour in a big metal and glass box with no A/C and inadequate ventilation? But that's just what Cobb County Schools students do through most of the month of August...)

If all goes according to forecast, I have an entire week of highs in the 70s to look forward to; the rain may be over by tomorrow morning, but the hint of early Georgia autumn continues! Maybe it's time to keep my iPhone holstered for a week and just enjoy the outdoors again!...

Friday, September 02, 2011

Truth About Justice and the Comic Book Way

Well, DC brought an end to one era on Wednesday with Flashpoint #5--and they began another with Justice League #1.

And gauging from the reader response at Dr. No's lots of people are interested in seeing what's happening with this new DC.

There's no doubt that Justice League #1 was the book of the day--we sold almost twice as many copies of that title on Wednesday as we did of Flashpoint #1, the second-best-selling title of the day. Nothing else came close--every other book was flotsam in the wake of the Justice League and Flashpoint. And those two were pretty much all that readers were talking about.

It was interesting to see so much buzz about a brand-new comic book; suddenly it felt like we were back in the early 1990s, when customers rushed to come in on Wednesday and buy their comics because they just couldn't wait until the weekend. Our transaction totals were up significantly because of the increased traffic, and that's great news--it means that we sold a lot of copies to a lot of different customers, which is the best news of all. Sure, you make the same money selling ten copies to one customer as you do selling ten copies to ten customers, but the latter can potentially create ten readers, which is what I'd prefer.

Best of all, several people who went home and read the book subsequently contacted us to say, "could you pull the first issues of all those new DC series for me? I think I want to try them all and see how they are."

It's a great week for DC, and a great week for comics.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Earth-Two's Company

Great news came from the convention circuit this week: DC has confirmed that the Justice Society of America will be returning to the DC lineup in the near future, courtesy of writer James Robinson--and they've confirmed that it will be set in Earth-Two.

Now for those of you who don't read comics (what's wrong with you?...) or don't read DC comics (what's wrong with you?...), Earth 2 was a concept introduced into the DC comics line in 1961, when the Barry Allen Flash of the DC Universe crossed over into the world that was home to Jay Garrick, the Flash whose comic book exploits Barry Allen had read about prior to his gaining his super-speed powers. This Flash existed in a different vibratory plane, an alternate universe that DC referred to as Earth-2 (although I agree with my pal Ed Thomas that it really should have been called Earth-1, since it was the first DC Earth).

I presume that this means that there will be a world in which the Golden Age heroes exist, even though in the new DC relaunch, there were no Golden Age heroes in the DCU. Superman made his first super-powered appearance five or six years ago, according to the revamped DC continuity, so that means that there wasn't even a Superman at any point in the 20th Century!

As far as I'm concerned, the return of the JSA and of Earth-2 is perhaps the best news to come out of this relaunch. When the two Earths became conflated in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Golden Age heroes lost the distinctive qualities that defined them. These heroes worked best when they existed in a world based on the Golden Age values, drawn from the Golden Age stories. This universe should have its own Batman, its own Superman, its own Wonder Woman--and these characters should reflect the Golden Age values and ideals that defined them when they originally appeared. Trying to fold them into the current DCU removed the most striking elements of that continuity.

What I'd love to see them do is to take the Earth-2 concept one step further: in the world of Earth-2, contemporary time should be the 1940s, the era of WWII and the Hitlerian menace. There's no reason it has to be 2011 in both Earth-1 and Earth-2; if they exist in different realities, their timelines can be skewed slightly, too, so that it is 2011 in Earth-1 at the same time it's 1943 in Earth-2. Don't present the JSA and the Golden Age heroes as old men and women who did heroic things seventy years ago; likewise, don't present their WW2 exploits as the past adventures of much older heroes. Instead, make it clear that the war era is the here-and-now for these heroes. Their Golden Age adventures now become the norm, not the antiquated framework upon which a series of new adventures can be built.

Furthermore, make it clear that the events of our reality are not necesarily mirrored in Earth-2. That is, just because the good guys won WWII in Earth-1's history, there's no reason to assume their victory is guaranteed in Earth-2's history; these are different worlds, and the flow of history can follow different paths.

I have no idea what DC has planned for Earth-2, but I'd love to see them take this approach. Make the Golden Age real; likewise, make the Silver Age real as a part of another multiverse. Let each version of these heroes exist in its own reality; that way, none of the past has been negated by the events of Flashpoint. Instead, we've just seen one modified multiverse rise to a new fictional ascendancy, while the other versions still exist.

(And as a side-note, the project I think most ill-served by this relaunch is the just-completed DC Universe: Legacies, a ten-part series that set out to define DC history from the early days of the Golden Age to the present. Even before the collected volume could make it onto bookshelves, the whole series had been rendered irrelevant.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Time hurries on..."

Fifty-eight years ago yesterday, I wasn't. Fifty-eight years ago today, I was.

Pretty good, when you think about it. All the millions of events that, had any one of them occurred differently, could have precluded my existence. And yet somehow, here I am.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The End of an Era

That phrase is used a lot, I know... but I feel it is absolutely true in this case. Steve Jobs, the man whose vision took Apple from a niche-market player to one of the world's most successful companies--and whose concepts changed the way people listen to music, interact with their smart phones, utlilize the internet, and intertwine entertainment and computing in their everyday lives--has resigned as CEO of Apple.

Jobs wrote:

I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple's CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.

I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.

I infer from his opening sentences that his continued health issues make it impossible for him to continue as CEO; I can't think of any other reason he'd leave the CEO position of the company he loved so much. That's somber news, if it's the reason for his departure. Steve Jobs has changed the world of technology as intensely as did Thomas Edison before him; like Edison, he had his admirers and his detractors (as does every man of great vision and influence). I fall into the former category, of course; over the years, I have benefited tremendously because of his foresight, his vision, his innovation, and his determination. Comic Shop News has been done on a Mac since we launched in 1987; were there no Macs, it is doubtful we would have been able to do the publication in the early days. I utilize iPods, iPads, iPhones, iMacs, Macbooks (both Pro and Air), and AppleTVs on a regular basis.

On two or three occasions, I have reached out to Steve Jobs for personal assistance with an Apple-related issue that seemed unsolveable; in every case,he has responded personally, has subsequently had someone contact me on his behalf, and has found solutions to the problems. Steve Jobs took the time to involve himself directly with an individual, and he followed through. That's something that few CEO's have ever done.

I hope that his health isn't as bad as the resignation letter seems to indicate; even if he's not CEO, I'd love to know that he has many years ahead of him, and I think the world can still benefit from his brilliance and insight.

For now, though, I want to say, "Thank you, Mr. Jobs." And I truly do believe I'm witnessing the end of an era, perhaps the last moment in modern techonological history where one man's drive and vision has reinvented and redirected both a company and an industry.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

One Step Beyond

Had a chance to read Superman Beyond #0 tonight (it goes on sale tomorrow), and I was thoroughly taken with the oneshot. Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz, and Sal Buscema (the team who produced all those great Spider-Girl near-future tales over at Marvel) have done a wonderful job of exploring the future DCU as seen in the pages of Batman Beyond. This story explores Superman's role in this universe--a retired Superman who comes back out of retirement to confront a menace in a manner that is pure Superman. DeFalco may not be a DC writer per se, but he gets Superman--he understands who the character is, how he functions, and what he believes in, and DeFalco manages to convey that in this well-structured oneshot tale. We also get a look into the relationship of Superman and the original Batman in the last pages of this issue, and it's a nice wrap-up to a very satisfying story.

Frenz and Buscema may lack the flash and fine linework of any of a dozen fan-favorites, but these guys know how to tell a story. They convey action in a clear and distinct manner, they communicate emotion, and at no point is the reader visually confused by poor visual design. And their characters actually look the same from one panel to the next; you'd think this would be a requirement for comic book artists, but pick up the average comic today and notice how few artists can actually maintain a uniformity of appearance throughout the entire issue!

If you're looking for a solid, well-constructed Superman story, you could do a lot worse than Superman Beyond... in fact, a lot of writers working on mainstream DCU Superman tales today could take some notes from the pages of this oneshot.